...it is of vital interest to describe this unique battleground, the Western Desert. Those who wish to understand the human side of battles should remember always the conditions in which the men fought and lived. And those conditions, with the peculiar setting and spirit, were uncommon enough and not to be forgotten by soldiers who spent any time there.
The landscape of the Desert was painted in the colours of brown and yellow and grey. And the fighting men learned to hide themselves in this Desert, which at first sight had no natural cover, by skilful use of these same colours in the paints and camouflage nets that adorned their vehicles. It was a land of fawn or black rocks, of beige sand: a scene without interest, being drab in its slight undulations, its occasional low ridges, its steep escarpments. The endless stretches of monotonous Desert were broken by greyish clumps of scrub, by stones and grit, by ridges of stone, by rocky outcrops and by rare hillocks. The Desert provided no obstacle to motor transport, beyond here and there the cliff, the softer patch of sand, and to the south of El Alamein the Qattara Depression. This gave you an unusual sense of freedom. If you wanted to go to a certain point on the map, you could go there on a straight course, provided that your navigation was sound. Sometimes the ground was firm and rocky, defiant of the shovel and pickaxe; sometimes it was powdered dust that swirled up when a vehicle's wheels rolled through it. There were not the usual restrictions of route imposed by river, bridge or mountain. Movement was slower than along a road, the wear and tear on the lorries greater.
There was the coast road and the railway as far as Capuzzo otherwise nothing better than tracks. No camel, no wall. no tree, no river, not even a stream, no grass, no civilian. It was the green trees that the men up in the Desert missed most. Those who passed the fig plantations at Burg el Arab on their on their way up were not impressed. But on the way out some months later these same trees would seem beautiful and were admired, as they grew in their groves against the white sand of the coast.
The Desert has been described, acidly but with no little justice, as "miles and miles and bloody miles of absolutely damn all." There was a seeming eternity of barren, inhospitable nothingness. And this lack of physical features and recognizable landmarks by which to find your way made navigation a problem to all, and was particularly baffling to the newcomer to the Desert. You learned to move by map, compass and speedometer. You were never really certain that you were actually at the point from which you thought you were starting, and you had to take your map reference on trust: there was no guarantee. It was hard to tell how far away the horizon was. Your sense of direction became befuddled, you were haunted by the constant risk of losing the way. After a time you developed a sense of direction in daylight; but at night, though to proceed in a general direction was tolerably simple, it was no light matter to pin-point a unit or a rendezvous. You might search for a group of tanks reported to be leaguered at a certain map reference, and you might spend hours driving round the sand, when all the time the tanks were only a mile distant. Unless it was extremely urgent that they be found, it was wiser to camp down for the night and wait until daybreak. Usually the tanks were then visible towards the horizon.
You had to step out of your truck or jeep, lorry or staff car whenever you needed to take a new compass bearing. You kept a watchful eye on the speedometer. And you found your way back by observation of tiny details: a pile of stones or jerry cans that someone had dropped, or a strip of red flag on a hillside, or a tin of bully beef lying in the sand. All vehicles looked alike, and to search for your unit was sometimes like looking at a sea of transport as though in a nightmare. You gazed upon acres of flat desert studded with scores of trucks, and these were poor landmarks---they might move at any time.
And you had to learn to drive without sticking in soft sand, when there was no other jeep or four-wheel-drive truck to tow you out. Then there was the problem of finding the gap in our minefields, which were often only protected, and marked, by a strand or two of barbed wire. Many were the vehicles travelling at some speed which blew up on the first few mines of the field. After dark a driver might find the gap, and still drive off its narrow path and blow up. Perhaps it was best to be blown up in a jeep, for the resistance was slight, and you might be thrown clear.
Antony Brett-James. Chapter 13. Ball of Fire. The Fifth Indian Division in the Second World War. Aldershot: Gale & Polden, 1951.
W.G.F. Jackson. The Battle for North Africa, 1940-1943. Mason/Charter: New York 1975.