El Alamein battle site turned into historical park

Heritage project to preserve scene of WWII Italian heroics

El Alamein battle site turned into historical park

Rome, October 30 - The WWII El Alamein battle site has been turned into a historical park to show visitors key points in the showdown in the Egyptian desert where Italian heroics have been recently recognised and celebrated. The 1942 battle turned the tide in the Allies' favour despite what is now recognised as uncommon resistance by the Italian soldiers who won praise from Winston Churchill by fighting as fiercely as the Germans against high odds and their own limitations in equipment and weapons. Padua University has worked with 266 volunteers on the three-year project, wholly funded by private donations, which also aims to protect the site from oil exploration and coastal building development. "The El Alamein Project aims to study, document and preserve the battle front," said project chief Aldino Bondesan of the northern Italian university. "It is threatened by an increase in oil-extraction activities and uncontrolled urban development along the coast". On October 23 Italian dignitaries marked the 70th anniversary of El Alamein, about 100km west of Alexandria, after an upsurge of interest in the battle in recent years and a greater awareness in Italy and abroad of the courage shown by the Italian soldiers who fought there. A major exhibition on the battle was staged in Milan in 2008, when documentaries were shown on national TV and the movie 'El Alamein' came out. The conviction that Italian troops fought heroically at El Alamein had been championed most visibly by the now-defunct rightwing National Alliance party, which evolved from Italy's post-war Italian Social Movement (MSI) neo-fascist party. But politicians on the centre left have also said that, despite having been on the "wrong side," Italian soldiers at El Alamein saved the honour of the army. Non-Italian war historians also revised a traditionally negative view of the nation's military, typified by jokes about Italian tanks having nine reverse gears and only one to go forward. A 2007 on El Alamein by two British historians, John Bierman and Colin Smith, had several good things to say about Italian soldiers in the North African campaign. ''The Italian tank regiment, despite the prattle about the abundance of reverse gears, fought with great audacity, just as the 'Ariete' artillery regiment did,'' Bierman told Italian TV in an interview. According to American historian John W.Gordon, whose book Behind Rommel's Lines was recently translated into Italian, the British special forces were so impressed by the methods and tactics of the Italian desert corps that they actually copied them. Italy's crack paratrooper regiment, the 'Folgore,' sent some 5,000 of its men to El Alamein. Only 304 returned. ''The paratroopers threw themselves against oncoming tanks with Molotov cocktails and live mines,'' said Francesco Marini Dettina, a survivor of the battle who was awarded a silver medal for valour. Interviewed for a documentary, Dettina said: ''They urged us to surrender but the only answer they got came from the artillery with our last remaining shells. The British were surprised by the Italians' behaviour.'' Churchill said in a speech to the House of Commons a month after El Alamein: ''We must honour the men that were the Lions of the Folgore''. This year's international ceremony commemorating the start of the battle on October 23 was organised by Britain. Italy was represented by House speaker Gianfranco Fini, army chief Biagio Abrate and numerous members of parliament. Commonwealth nations, Austria, France, Germany and Greece were also present with delegations. The ceremony was attended by veterans of the 13-day battle that pitted Allied soldiers under the command of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery against Italian and German troops led by Erwin Rommel from October 23 to November 4, 1942. The Allies' victory turned the tide in the North African Campaign, ending Axis hopes of occupying Egypt and capturing the Suez Canal. There was also a separate ceremony at the Italian war cemetery.

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