A decisive battle at Alamein took place 70 years ago this week - Business Day, 29th October 2012.

In his fortnightly column in Business Day, the Institute's CEO, John Kane-Berman, commemorates the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein.

Barely noticeable in the fine print in South Africa’s budget is an item on war veterans’ pensions (currently R1,220 a month). Ten years ago, 6,165 veterans of the First and Second World Wars were receiving them. Their number is expected to dwindle to 551 by 2015.

Some of the few still alive fought at the Battle of Alamein launched by Lt-Gen Bernard Montgomery 70 years ago on October 23 1942.

"It is now mathematically certain I will destroy (Gen Erwin) Rommel," declared Montgomery as he sprang his attack on the Afrika Korps led by the legendary rival whose photograph he kept pinned up in his caravan.

Montgomery had reason to be confident. His fuel and other supply lines (back to Alexandria and Cairo) were shorter than Rommel’s (all the way back to Tripoli).

He had control of the air (including 13 South African squadrons).

And he had an overwhelming superiority in troops and tanks.

Many of these had been shipped around the Cape of Good Hope — despite the menace of U-boats in those waters — because the Mediterranean was too risky for Allied shipping.

Montgomery also knew some of the Germans’ secrets.

This was because the British had broken the codes used by Germany’s Enigma machine and could feed information — known as Ultra — from the listening and analysis post at Bletchley Park in the English countryside to their commanders in the field.

Montgomery’s head of intelligence was Maj ET (Bill) Williams — he was later known to Rhodes Scholars the world over as their distinguished mentor at Rhodes House in Oxford — and said to be one of the intelligence officers best able to make use of the German secrets.

Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army only about two-and-a-half months before the battle.

It had already suffered about 80,000 casualties so, apart from building up its supplies of equipment, he had to restore its morale.

As so often happened to British generals in the field, Montgomery was under pressure from an importunate prime minister in London, Winston Churchill, to press home the attack.

But he would not budge, promising Churchill there would be a victory if he waited until the right moment but defeat if he was bullied into action before he was ready.

The South African prime minister, Gen Jan Christiaan Smuts — whom Churchill much admired — weighed in on Montgomery’s side and persuaded the great British warlord to trust his charismatic commander on the spot.

By November 3, the Afrika Korps and its Italian allies were in hasty retreat and were heading across Libya towards Tunisia.

Adolf Hitler rescinded his "crazy" — Rommel’s word — "stand or die" order the following day.

By decision of the British war cabinet, the bells in the UK’s churches had been silent since the outbreak of war — to be rung only to warn of a German invasion.

Now those that had not been destroyed by German bombing rung out to celebrate the great victory in the western desert.

Churchill later wrote: "Before Alamein we never had a victory, after Alamein we never had a defeat."

The victory ended the German dream of capturing Egypt, the Suez Canal and the vast oil fields of the Middle East.

It was also critical for Churchill’s leadership, which had been questioned, and for Allied morale.

But, as Andrew Roberts points out in The Storm of War: "It was not a British victory so much as a British Empire one."

Apart from Highlanders and other British troops, most of the 230,000 men under Montgomery were from the Commonwealth: notably South Africans (under Maj-Gen Dan Pienaar), Australians, Indians and New Zealanders. From outside the Commonwealth there were Free Greek and Free French brigades.

About 20,000 Germans and Italians were killed or wounded. The Allies suffered 13,560 such losses before the battle ended on November 4.

The dead of all nations now lie not far from one another near the battlefield where they fell, parts of it still strewn with landmines.