Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Battle of El Alamein

We should not forget.

We are a generation that, thankfully, has not seen war. But the baser instincts of man are never very far from the surface. Even in our lifetimes we have seen horrors - Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Congo. But thankfully, nothing on the scale of World War II. Mankind should never forget the horrors of war.

This week is the 70th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein, one of the turning points of World War II. El Alamein was a dot in the Egyptian desert. Today it is a beach resort, then, it was in the middle of nowhere. But on the unforgiving desert sands was fought one of the most important wars of World War II. The Afrika Corps of Field Marshal Rommel was winning everything in its path. All through Europe, and elsewhere, the Germans and Italians were winning everything and the Allied Forces couldn't seem to do a thing about it. But at El Alamein, the tide was turned. Montgomery's forces defeated Rommel and the Germans were pushed back, and from then on it was only retreat. There were more important and strategic battles, like Stalingrad, or brutal, like Kursk, or impacting the whole population like the Battle of Britain, or remote and miserable like Guadalcanal but the two battles of El Alamein will remain one of the most important of the World War. It prompted Churchill to say those famous words - " This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." Church bells were ordered to ring all over England. And Churchill said, " Before Alamein we never had a victory, after Alamein we never had a defeat." It was one of those rare battles that was made into a movie, The Battle of El Alamein,  showing the Italian side of the battle, rather than the British or German side.

The current generation of Indians may not remember that World War II touched India as well. Of course, many Indians fought with the British and Allied Forces all over the world. But the Japanese invasion came to India's shores. In the battle of Kohima, the Japanese were halted and turned back. Even today, the exact spot where the Japanese were stopped - the tennis courts of the Commissioner's bungalow and an old tree that was shot out are still preserved as memorials of the War. You can see them if you go to Nagaland. Commonwealth war cemeteries dot the region - in Kohima, in Imphal and a few other places. They are immaculately preserved and the epitaphs on the tombstones will bring a tear to the eye. They were all 19 or 21 years old, they were from far away - Scotland or Australia and they fell defending India. On many of their tombs are inscribed the poignant lines - "Go back home and tell them, for your tomorrow, we gave our today "

There are about 60 or 70 veterans of El Alamein who are there today to commemorate the 70th anniversary and to remember their fallen comrades. It is unlikely that there would be another event of this nature - for the veterans are all in their mid nineties.

Which is why it is all the more important that we read about the War. To be told of the horrors.

We should never forget. For, if we do, we will repeat it.


sriram khe said...

Hey, thanks for reminding me about this piece of Nagaland history. Particularly when most of the rest of India (and the world) knows very little about the entire northeast. Some day I hope to go there and, if I do, will certainly check out the memorial.
(A colleague, a British-American, who recently retired, spent her early childhood years in Meghalaya and Nagaland as the daughter of English missionary parents. Even now, she is fluent in Khasi!)

Here, on Memorial Day, I engage students about the wartime sacrifices, and always play for them this moving YouTube clip, in which three Canadian WW veterans recite that touching and emotional poem, whose message is not that different from "Go back home and tell them, for your tomorrow, we gave our today"

Sandhya Sriram said...

Oh Ramesh, how come you remember so many things. You are a super computer or what? how do you manage to cover so many things and of course, add your amazing "Ramesh Twist" to it. Wow!!!

it is a real coincidence. i was taking Samarth somewhere and on the way, there was a "War Tank". Samarth was telling me, "do you know, tanks existed 30 years back to fight wars with enemies.they used to run on the roads. now we have no space for tanks because cars have taken all the space"

maybe he heard it in some TV serial or something, but i was awe struck. isnt it so true, the big difference that exists now to then, is that we are so busy with our own material lives, that anything beyond doesnt matter. very different to what it was at that time when freedom, battle, giving up for the honor of teh country was such a strong sentiment.

I Of course do pray, there should never be another war again, to test or bring out those feelings back again. But i do wish, that we atleast remember those moments and thanks for refreshing some of them for us.

Asha said...

El Alamein.... interesting name. hearing it for the first time. infact it's another fact that most of the stories on BM is new to me.

My uncle too served between 86-90 in Kohima (IPS). HE is now serving here. Will ask him about this stories. HE might share more anecdotes. The last few lines about war.... so right and that epitaph gives goosebumps. So much to learn from wars and to this i would add even history.

WAr and history are two great teachers of humanity.

A royal salute to you Sir, for this post. Bring on more.....

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

Congrats Ramesh!

You may know that the Fourth Indian Division also fought in El Alamein. The battle you refer to is properly the Second Battle of El Alamein. The 4th was a mixed division of British troops mustered in India, Central India Horse, Madras Sappers, Punjabis, Balochis and Rajputana Rifles.

We should be proud we played a role.

Ramesh said...

@sriram - Yes the North East tends to get ignored, but that is a fascinating part of the country. And yes, the tradition of Memorial Day in the US is an important one, but if only the powers interpreted it as not going to war again ....

@Sandhya -Yes, big difference for us Indians, but not much difference for, say, the Iraqis. War is a horrible evil thing and hopefully tanks are only for kids to play with !

@Asha - Would love to hear stories from your uncle. Even Madras had air raid sirens during World War II, but was spared any hostilities. The battles of Kohima and Imphal were brutal - the Japanese forces endured even more terrible hardhip. The futility of war .....

@Ravi - Yes indeed, the second Battle of El Alamein. I went to Alexandria two times, but hadn't realised El Alamein was so close. Missed an opportunity to go there. There may not be any memorial now, but the ghosts of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who dies must surely haunt the place.

Indians played a big role in World War II - something few Indians know about. And played it not defending India but in far flung corners of the world. There isn't a single memorial for them in India anymore - alas they are forgotten.

sriram khe said...

Really? No WW-II memorial in India for Indian soldiers?
Last winter, for the first time ever in my life I went to Delhi. I recall being impressed with the India Gate and the military personnel standing guard in regalia, and thinking about WW-I and how strange it might have been for Indians, under an occupying force themselves, fighting for the liberation of some other peoples and powers ...
War is hell!

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@sriram: Most Indians serving John Company did not consider it an occupying force. The British regimental system was based on values that Indian men related to. British officers had to learn the language of their men. The officer spent a lot of time with the troops. Recruitment was always regional or caste based - for example the Sikh Regiments recruited from the Jat caste and traditionally the Sikh Light Infantry recruited Mazhabi Sikhs. The regiment emphasized community values and after 1857, they never offended religious sentiments of the troops. The troops were paid well and treated fairly. Loyalty to your fellow man and to the "namak" was prized and valued. And remember that the British did not come to be recognized as occupiers until they were well and truly part of the Indian landscape. It was an honorable profession to serve in the army.

All the British engagements in India starting from the seven years war against the French, Plassey, and so forth were fought by the Indian sepoy. The 1857 Mutiny was broken by Punjabi and Pathan troops in the service of the Company. They were part of the Indian system, and people did not see this as objectionable.

The first time the Indian soldier broke his oath to serve the Union Jack was in the Indian National Army created by Bose from Indian POWs interned by the Japanese. History records that when the INA elements reached Imphal and Kohima, they were fought with great ferocity by their brother Indian troops fighting for the British. Often no prisoners were taken. British officers were surprised at how little quarter was given, perhaps because the troops on the British side saw their INA opponents as soldiers who had broken the oath.

Luckily, British rule ended soon after. No other opportunity arose to test the loyalty of the Indian fighting man. Indeed, the treatment given to INA POWs was strongly influnced by the loyalty factor - how can you reward the "disloyalty" of a few?

The Indian Army today still lives by these values. There is some concern that the officer class has been tainted. Corruption is rife. And there are disturbing instances of jawans attacking and killing their officers. Luckily again, very few instances. The Army stands apart from the rotten-ness of Indian civil society but you cannot stop osmosis.

All of this is controversial and I am sure I will invite riposte!

My own grandfather served in Basra in 1917. My maternal grand-uncle won the Military Cross fighting the Japanese in Burma under British command. He had a battlefield MC awarded even though he was the medic for 4/5 Gurkhas.

You should read Philip Mason's "A Matter of Honour" for a fascinating history of the Indian Army. I would also recommend "Forgotten Armies - Britain's Asian Empire and the War with Japan" by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper for insights on the INA and the Battle for Kohima.

Deepa said...

:) :) LOVED the post and the comments. Have heard the stories of the WWII from my grand father when I was so young that to us they were bedtime stories. BTW we have a Japanese sword that my grandfather received when his regiment was fighting the Japs and they surrendered. He was in Bombay Sappers.

Venkat said...

I can only thank for the period i am living with. sacrifice of generations built my happiness. ravi sir, your passionate knowledge on army history facinates me.

TMM said...

The commemoration(?)of the battles at Galipoli (WW1) and El Alamein (WW2)are really big things for the ANZAC troops. A sadly forgotten fact is that nearly half a million Indians died fighting the cause of bickering Europeans in these theaters of war. Not a memorial service, not an eternal flame for these unknown soldiers. Reminds me of Bob Marley's buffalo soldiers - stolen from Africa and brought to America. In this case stolen from India and brought to Africa!
PS: Had an uncle (now dead) who was a quartermaster in the Indian Army, ran away from home at 19 to join the army, served in Mesopotamia (Iraq of today?), North Africa and later in the pacific theater. Managed to survive

gils said...

i dunno why..but i always get this feeling that the wars fought 60 years back get a much more "favourable treatment" the sense..that the people who fought them are glorified..their sacrfices are made into blockbuster movies..their life stories are made into lessons for study in schools..while they conviniently skip over the reasons for those wars..for what purpose they were fought for. For land, power, money and prestige. Both the world wars are nothing but mega size bar fight with bigger weapons fought between greedy thugs who couldnt just have enough of the imperialist pie. It pains so much to think, standing in the shoes of those faceless men and women who struggled through their lives not knowing whom they are fighting and what for, a totally unjust cause. The same wars when fought in a third world country is genocide and crime against humanity (rightly labelled)..while a rich man's greed is a regal battle of its own. RUBBISH. I feel as much as we feel sad for those who lost their lives, we should get equally or more angry over those who started them.

Ramesh said...

@All - I am humbled to see how many of the grandfathers of the readers of this blog served in the forces. How noble our forefathers were.

@Deepa - Knowing your background, I knew this would be after your heart. Treasure those stories, for they should never be forgotten

@Venkat - So true. And Ravi and all of you are so learned in various spheres that it is a complete privilege to read comments and points of views.

@Kiwi - Yes, those two battles had some many ANZAC heroes. And yes, the colonies paid a heavy price for the follies of Europeans. A salute to your uncle.

@Gils - Bravo Gils for a brilliant brilliant comment. Totally agree. We glorify something that is utterly despicable. Completely agree that we should get extremely angry over those who cause such tragedies.

Having said that, I keep repeating - we should not forget.

One of your best ever comments Gils. Thanks very much.

Venkat said...

Gills my friend taking you for granted i direct all your anger towards offense side army. defense side army men deserve all our salute.

Appu said...

@Gils What else can i add, when the master himself has called it brilliant. I do agree with him :)

@Ravi Insightful insightful. Was never aware of disloyalty factor!

@Ramesh Saar, Again thank a ton. Awesome comments. The lines go back home really gave goose bumps.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@gils: very insightful and thank you for keeping us honest. I appreciate it.

Men fight and kill each other. We are the only animal that kills wantonly without reason. So why glorify the killing?

One could stop there, and therein lies the road to pacifism that was embraced by Mahatma Gandhi and other great men.

The fact is, since men make war on each other, the least we could do is to remember why they died. And try not to repeat those mistakes. Of course we still dont learn - look at what America did in Iraq. But the lessons need to be refreshed as Ramesh has so ably done.

The glorification that happens 60 years on is only because with the passage of time, we realise how seminal these events were and how key they were to the future shape of history. The individual deaths are altogether pointless if they were not vested with some kind of remembrance.

And that, really, is all we can do. Remember, and never forget. As Cassius says to Brutus in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" -

"The Fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings".

Meaning, we are men after all, and full of flaws.

So somewhere today someone will make a plan to make war, kill innocents, send young men and women in uniform to die and clothe it in the name of national or patriotic interest.

All we can do, really, is to remember.

J said...

In the early 90s when S went to Egypt, he visited El Alamein and was moved to see so many Indian names on the memorial there - these are truly unsung heroes. However I am quite conflicted on the issue of war because on one hand I feel that was is an uncivilized and barbaric act but on the other hand I am proud that my dad served in the territorial army in 71. I guess the issue is that unconditionally, we all despise war but conditional on a country being at war, we have to respect those who put their lives on the line for others. Maybe this view implies a sense of helplessness at being able to influence the decision to go to war and such an attitude underestimates the influence of our collective voice as citizens.

Ramesh said...

@Venkat - As brilliant an insight as Gils' original one. Bravo

@Filipino - Yes - when I stood at the cemetery and read the tombstones I felt goosebumps all over

@J - Salute to your dad. Amazing again, how many people in this forum have a connection to the defence forces. You summed up the mixed feelings perfectly.

gils said...


wow...semma writeup..really liked the way u had put forth ur points.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@gils - we both have an inspiring host in thie blog who never fails to bring the best out of us. Thank you!

Vishal said...

Great words Ravi:

\\we realise how seminal these events were and how key they were to the future shape of history\\

Ramesh - what a message with such great narration and beautiful comments to boot... feel like adding nothing, simple superb!

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