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Return to Egypt revives memories of desert battle for British veterans

EL ALAMEIN, Egypt (Reuters) - For Bill Blackburn, the memories that returned were the flies, the thirst, and the power of the artillery barrage that opened the battle of El Alamein.

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Blackburn was one of six British World War Two veterans to visit the desert battlefield on the 76th anniversary of the decisive Allied victory that marked an important step toward the eventual defeat of German and Italian forces in Africa in May 1943.

Those who fought are now in their late 90s, and may not return again.

The battle began on the night of Oct. 23 1942 when Commonwealth forces from General Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army began driving back Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika, which had threatened to sweep across Egypt and into the Middle East.

“It sounded like hell on earth, the night sky was lit up with gun flashes and bangs, and we got a few shells thrown back at us but nothing compared to what we threw at the Germans,” said Blackburn, 98, from West Yorkshire, England.

“After the barrage ceased we were dug in and we were there for several days before the breakthrough, and then we moved forward,” he added.

The veterans returned to the battle site because the British government paid for the trip for the first time, using the proceeds of fines levied on banks over the manipulation of the Libor interbank interest rate.

Joe Peel, also 98, was a gunner at El Alamein who had his hearing badly damaged by German bombing and said he had never expected to return.

“It’s marvelous to be back here just to see what we did here. But it’s changed quite a lot,” he said, speaking on Saturday at a ceremony at the Commonwealth war cemetery, where the nearby desert and Mediterranean coast is rapidly being developed amid a construction boom.

Across the coastal road is a German war memorial commemorating more than 4,300 German and Austrian dead, where a joint ceremony was held on Saturday for the first time.

Casualty rates on both sides were especially high at El Alamein. The battle was “terrible”, Peel said.

“You couldn’t see nothing hardly, because the dust and the sand were blowing up with the shells and goodness knows what.”

El Alamein was seen as key for boosting Allied morale, despite more than 13,500 dead, wounded or missing over about 10 days of fighting as Commonwealth forces broke through poorly supplied German lines.

Blackburn’s Royal Artillery regiment eventually advanced through Tunisia before crossing to Italy.

“It was pretty tough really, whenever you had a meal you were eating flies and couldn’t get rid of them. It was pretty rough but we got through it,” Peel said.

Editing by Helen Popper