El Alamein veteran brings history to life

Issue: Volume 93, Number 11

Posted: 30 June 2014
Reference #: 1H9ct6

94-year old veteran Maurice Abrahams recently visited Tapawera Area School to speak to students about his involvement in the World War 2 battle of El Alamein, Egypt.

Maurice shared his thoughts and recollections with students on why New Zealand entered World War 2; the differences in warfare technique between World War 1 and World War 2; the theatres of war that Maurice was posted to; the jobs he undertook while in the army; and why he returned to that part of the world a couple of years ago.

Maurice and his wife Suzanne spoke to the school’s Year 9 and 10 social science classes to tie in with their study of ANZAC involvement in the Battles of Gallipoli (1915) and Passchendaele (1917) – two watershed chapters of World War 1. As there are no longer any World War 1 veterans still with us, hearing about the experiences of a soldier who fought in an equally devastating conflict – that in many ways flowed directly from the aftermath of World War 1 – really helped to bring history to life for Maurice’s rapt audience and helped them to understand that our elderly veterans are part of New Zealand’s precious taonga.

Maurice had the opportunity recently to return to El Alamein and relive some of his memories of conflict and camaraderie, thanks to an all-expenses paid trip funded by the New Zealand Armed Forces to attend the 70th anniversary of that momentous conflict.

The opportunity for our young people to meet someone like Maurice in the flesh, to ask him questions about his life and of the world as it was when he was young, become fewer all the time. The voices of our World War 1 veterans are now silent forever, so it becomes a matter of urgency that we take time to listen to those old soldiers that are still with us.

History tells us that the Battle at El Alamein was a critical juncture of World War 2. In the summer of 1942, the Allies were in trouble throughout Europe. The German invasion of Russia (Operation Barbarossa) had pushed our allies back, U-boats were wreaking havoc in the Atlantic, and western Europe seemed about to fall under the total control of Nazi Germany.

The war in the desert of North Africa was pivotal to the outcome of the entire war. If the Afrika Korps (as German forces in the region were known) made it to the Suez Canal, the ability of the Allies to supply themselves would have been severely crippled. The only alternate supply route was via South Africa – not just a longer trip, but also a lot more dangerous due to the vagaries of the weather. The psychological blow of losing the Suez Canal would have been incalculable, especially as this would have given Germany near-free access to Middle Eastern oil.

The Battle of El Alamein was the turning point for the Allies in North Africa. By 2 November 1942, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (leader of the Afrika Korps) knew that he was beaten. Hitler ordered Rommel’s troops to fight to the last man, but he refused to carry out the order. Allied victory at El Alamein led to the retreat of the Afrika Korps and German surrender in North Africa in May 1943.

Maurice spoke about joining the Territorial Army when he was 13 years old, dodging the age restriction because he was cornet player in the 12th Nelson Marlborough West Coast Mounted Rifles Regimental Band. “How old are you lad?” asked a senior officer, to which Maurice replied, “The right age sir: 16!”

When war was declared in 1939, Maurice was 20 years old and volunteered to join the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF), which was to be based in Egypt. From there, he went on to fight in Greece, withdrawing with the rest of the NZEF when the force was overwhelmed by the Germans, to Crete, and then back to Egypt to make a stand against the enemy.

With his personal anecdotes and tales of life in a combat zone, Maurice gifted his audience an appreciation of World War 2 at a personal level. He told the story of the retreat from Greece, and of how he’d been forced to leave his beloved saxophone behind: in their haste, Allied troops were forced to leave even their weapons.

Yet, in a testament to the sense of brotherhood that inevitably develops when young men are placed in circumstances of such hardship and horror, with only each other to depend on, Maurice was miraculously reunited with his saxophone in Egypt: a senior officer had retrieved it and ensured its safe return. Who knows how many hours of boredom and apprehension were made a little bit easier for Maurice’s fellow Kiwis as they listened to his playing?

Maurice demonstrated to the school students that he retains a wide repertoire from the war era. It was very poignant to have the significance of The Last Post and Reveille explained to the students, and why both songs are so important to the armed forces. Students thought that he still has exceptional talent in being able to turn his hand to old and familiar tunes that the students requested. While Maurice played, his wife Suzanne surprised the students by serving up hot milo with traditional ANZAC biscuits.

Roy Turner in Year 9 commented that “you [Maurice] had a very interesting war story. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.”

It was Roy who picked up on the fact that Maurice was to turn 95 the next month, and it was decided that the class should all sing Happy Birthday to him – which they did, accompanied by Maurice on the saxophone, with a round of three cheers to top it all off.

More information

The Battle of El Alamein(external link)

With the First World War Centenary commemorations starting this year, there are many rich and interesting learning opportunities for teachers and students. Comprehensive information about the Centenary can be found through the WW100 website(external link) while extensive online resources are available through Digital New Zealand(external link) and the Services to Schools First World War resource guide(external link). The Ministry is developing resources so teachers can easily incorporate these opportunities into their teaching programmes during the commemorations.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 11:32 pm, 30 June 2014

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts