Poignant message on a bottle
John Day and 93-year-old WWII veteran Peter Kennedy share a tipple. Picture: Steve Ferrier/The West Australian

In 1942, as the Allies prepared to battle the fascist war machine in northern Africa, a WA digger stowed a bottle of John Haig scotch in his kit.

On the label of that whisky bottle, Major John Day scrawled a hand-written message, "This bottle has seen service in WD (Western Desert) and was at the final battle of El Alamein. To be kept till after the war".

Shipped back to WA, cast adrift on a sea of years, the message on the bottle yesterday found the shores of memory in one WWII veteran's mind.

Peter Kennedy, 93, who shared the battlefield with Major Day in 1942, smiled as he shared a glass of the battlefield scotch with the son of his old mate.

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Second Battle of El Alamein, where the Allies wrested victory from the jaws of defeat in Egypt and turned the tide of WWII, WA Planning Minister John Day Jr raised a glass of his late father's whisky when Mr Kennedy proposed a toast.

"To the memory of the 2/7 Field Regiment, and all those who served with it," Mr Kennedy said.

Major Day died in 1973 aged 72. But the remarkable bottle, and the memories it contains, have survived the test of time.

On October 23, 1942, Sgt Kennedy, then 20, and Major Day, then 41, were both serving in the Artillery arm of the Australian 9th Division.

A few months earlier, in July, the British 8th Army had done the seemingly impossible and halted the German and Italian advance towards Cairo and the Suez Canal.

The Australian 9th Division had been in the thick of the fighting near a once insignificant railway station called El Alamein.

On the eve of the second battle, 70 years ago tomorrow, the British Commander of the Allied 8th Army, Lt-Gen. Bernard Montgomery, sent a message to the troops that the time had come to "destroy" the army led by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

The men of the WA 2/7 Field Regiment, including Major Day and Sgt Kennedy, were among those who fired the opening salvo. The roar of their 26 pound guns thundering out across the desert, the smell of cordite in the air and the whistle of the shells raining death from above, signalled that battle was joined.

"The greatest order a gunner can receive is . . . continuous bombardment until ordered to stop," Mr Kennedy said.

"That meant we rammed the rounds and we went berserk. Every second we could put a round on the ground. The guns were red hot, the gun pit was filled with empty cartridges and we were crazy for the moment of firing non-stop."

When the guns fell silent on November 4, the Allies were victorious and Rommel's once invincible army retreated in tatters. The price of success was high. Australian casualties after the months of fighting at El Alamein had reached close to 6000.

Major Day, who Mr Kennedy remembered as a good bloke and a "great disciplinarian", mailed his bottle of gold label scotch back to his parents in WA for safe keeping.

Mr Day remembered his dad pouring a tipple from it on Anzac Day or the anniversary of El Alamein each year. He topped up the bottle after each use.

Tomorrow, at a lunch in Wembley to commemorate the second battle of El Alamein, Mr Day will donate his dad's bottle and the remaining scotch to the WA Museum.

"I'll be thinking of my father and all those who made the supreme sacrifice," Mr Day said.

Seven decades on, like the gratitude of the free world, the bottle from El Alamein has not run dry.

The West Australian

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