27/10/2012 12:26 BST | Updated 27/10/2012 12:50 BST

El Alamein Veterans Gather For 70th Anniversary Of Historic North African Battle (PICTURES)

Veterans of the Battle of El Alamein gathered on Saturday for a special service to mark its 70th anniversary.

The evensong at Westminster Abbey in London marked seven decades since the battle in North Africa, which was widely hailed as the turning point in the Second World War.

Around 40 British and Australian veterans, many of whom are now in their 90s, were part of a 500-strong congregation to honour those who fought in the 14-day battle.

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The historic battle in 1942 turned the tide of the African front

More than 4,000 Allied servicemen lost their lives and almost 9,000 were wounded in the combat that saw General Sir Bernard Montgomery's troops defeat German general Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps.

Addressing the congregation, Chief of the Defence Staff Sir David Richards said: "The Battle of El Alamein was a turning point in the Allied fortunes in the Second World War, a victory that Churchill referred to as a bright gleam that caught the helmets of the soldiers, and cheered all our hearts.

"Men from all three services played their part, not least those from my own regiment, the Royal Artillery.

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Close to 40 veterans gather to remember the 4,000 killed in the 1942 battle

"I am very proud to be here today, paying tribute to them, and their example of courage and professionalism which today's armed forces constantly strive to live up to."

Veteran Robert Lay, 91, from Northumberland, described the service as a "timely opportunity" to remember those who fought in the battle.

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Allied forces defeated the 'Desert Fox', Erwin Rommel

Lay, who served with the 5th Armoured Tank Regiment at El Alamein, said: "The 70th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein is for me a timely opportunity for remembrance of all my close friends and associates, particularly my first tank crew - closer than brothers - who I travelled with almost all the way to Tunis.

"All of them, I believe, were killed by the time we crossed the Seine in 1944."

Speaking at the service, Defence Minister Mark Francois said: "I am honoured to be here today with so many veterans and their families on the 70th anniversary of this momentous battle.

"El Alamein was the first major Allied victory of the Second World War, and it is important that we never forget all those who fought so valiantly, including more than 4,000 men who lost their lives."

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The then General Montgomery, who became the 1st Viscount of Alamein in late life

Under the command of General Montgomery, nearly 200,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, South African, British Indian, Free French and Greek forces defeated the Axis powers.

Recalling the importance of the Allied victory at the Battle of El Alamein, Sir Winston Churchill said: "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat."

The British offensive of El Alamein will be also be marked in Afghanistan by the 4th Mechanised Brigade (The Black Rats), who are currently deployed as the lead formation of Task Force Helmand.

It was at the time of the Battle of El Alamein that the brigade's soldiers adopted the Jerboa or "Black Rat" emblem that they continue to wear as their insignia in Helmand Province today.