Speech: Coleman - El Alamein Commemorative Service
Hon Dr Jonathan Coleman
Minister of State Services
20 October 2012 Speech
El Alamein Commemorative Service,
El Alamein, Egypt
Speech by the Honourable Dr Jonathan Coleman,
Minister of Defence
Distinguished guests, veterans, serving New Zealand Defence Force Personnel, ladies and gentlemen, it is my privilege to address you on this significant occasion.
We are gathered here to commemorate New Zealand's part in the Second Battle of El Alamein, and more generally, the North African campaign of the Second World War.
As New Zealand's Minister of Defence, I would particularly like to acknowledge our contingent of veterans. All New Zealanders owe you and your comrades a great debt of gratitude for what you suffered and achieved, on this and other battlefields across North Africa.
I know I speak on behalf of all New Zealanders here in saying that it is truly humbling to be in your presence at El Alamein.
I would like to also extend a special welcome to the veterans of other nations who fought on these same battlefields, and I would especially like to note the presence of our Australian ANZAC brothers and sisters with us here today. It is great to see you here.
Attention in New Zealand has often focused on the involvement of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary force in the campaign, particularly the Second New Zealand Division. However there is no question that New Zealand airmen and sailors also played a highly significant role. It is fitting that veterans of all three services have been able to make this journey from New Zealand to El Alamein.
Before El Alamein, the New Zealand Division experienced both victory and defeat. The decisive victory gained here marked the end of Axis ambitions to seize Egypt, and New Zealand played a crucial part in that victory. It was without doubt a major turning point of the Second World War.
In the words of Winston Churchill, “before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”
There have always been those who have struggled to understand why New Zealanders would come so far from their homeland to fight here. In September 1942, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel asked a newly captured New Zealander: "Why are you New Zealanders fighting? This is a European war, not yours! Are you here for the sport?"
Of course war is not sport, and the terrible price it exacts means that it is a course of action that a nation such as ours has never embarked on lightly.
What brought our people to El Alamein and the other battlefields of the Middle East, during both World Wars, was New Zealand’s commitment to doing the right thing internationally, and to defend the right of people to live in freedom and peace. It is a commitment that lives on to the present day, and is reflected in the on-going service of New Zealanders in peacekeeping missions in the region.
New Zealand paid a high price for its commitment to these principles during the 20th century.
In Egypt, nearly 500 New Zealand soldiers from the First World War are buried or commemorated, as are just over 2,500 New Zealand service personnel from the Second World War. An additional 1,000 New Zealanders are buried or commemorated in Libya and Tunisia.
It is most appropriate that we should hold our commemorative service here, surrounded as we are by the graves of New Zealanders who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. No New Zealander can be unaffected by the sight of so many Kiwi headstones, so many young lives cut short with so much life yet to live.
I thank the government and people of Egypt for the great respect they have shown towards the graves and memorials of New Zealand soldiers who found their last resting place in your soil.
Many veterans of the First World War saw their sons go off to fight in the Second World War. One of them was Major-General Sir Andrew Russell. His son, Lieutenant-Colonel John Russell, was killed in action in September 1942. After his son's death General Russell wrote: "I feel as if part of myself has gone . . . I feel empty. . . oh for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still."
Such terrible grief was echoed in homes the length and breadth of our small country. The impact of New Zealand’s sacrifices reverberated through communities for decades and lives were irreversibly altered.
To the New Zealand veterans who are with us today I know this is a very poignant return to El Alamein. You have all lived a whole lifetime in the seven decades since your service here in the flower of your youth. I know that the experiences of the North African campaign will have shaped those years in ways that only your fellow comrades could truly appreciate.
Subsequent generations of New Zealanders are forever indebted, to you and those who rest here in North Africa. We look at you in awe, because you left ordinary everyday life in the streets, in the workplaces and on the farms of New Zealand, and farewelled your loved ones to serve. You made sacrifices which have meant that we who have followed have been able to live in prosperity and peace. You and your mates were ordinary Kiwis who became the greatest of Kiwis. Your country is very, very proud of you.
We will always remember and honour those New Zealanders who fought and died here, and we will continue to defend the values they upheld with such valour.