The Western Desert

 Letter from Libya

  As Cliff Saber saw it

...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.

 

Bibliography

Andrew Geer. Mercy in Hell. An American Ambulance Driver with the Eighth Army. MaGraw Hill, New York 1943.

"My concern in this book is not my doings, experiences, or states of mind. Those few times I figured in violent episodes of war, my emotions and sensations reached such a pitch as to choke the mind. Accurate recollection is impossible, and therefore my writing about them would be distorted. I will post a double sentry against the intrusion of fiction. My concern is with the parade of men with whom I worked---Americans, New Zealanders, Australians, British, and Indians---their reactions and emotions under the hard physical conditions of war in the desert.

"The desert was the problem. Only those who have lived in the desert can realize the daily riddle of obtaining water, rations, gasoline, and spare parts. There were times when we had to go over forty miles for water, twenty-five for rations and gasoline, over a hundred miles for spare parts. There were times when none of the above were available. There were few in the American Field Service who did not know the mental torture of driving sorely wounded men over shockingly bad desert tracks. Of the one hundred who sailed for Egypt that gray, cold November day, four are dead, three were wounded, and five are prisoners of war."

W.G.F. Jackson. The Battle for North Africa, 1940-1943. Mason/Charter: New York 1975.

"Military academies, staff colleges and students of war on both sides of the Atlantic will always be interested in Eisenhower's 'Overlord' invasion of Europe, but the North African Campaign, which made 'Overlord' possible, will receive less attention than it deserves because the connection between the two is not immediately obvious. The Allied sword, which Eisenhower wielded so successfully in June 1944, was forged and tempered in the long three year struggle in the deserts, mountains and jungles of Africa north and east of the Sahara. In these operations, British and American servicemen gained battle experience; staffs learnt their business; equipment was proved; and battle-winning tactics were evolved. The final phases of the North African fighting also provided the essential dress-rehearsal for 'Overlord' without which the American Chiefs of Staff, particularly General George Marshall, would not have appreciated how outclassed the American forces and their British colleagues would have been if they had tried to land in Northern France in late 1942 or early 1943 as Marshall advocated. And there is another and deeper reason for connecting the North African Campaign with 'Overlord'. Western-type democracies can rarely be ready for war. In the 1930s Britain and America were no exceptions and were forced to buy time in which to rebuild their neglected military establishments in the face of Nazi, Fascist and Japanese aggression. The narrowness of the English Channel compelled Britain to fight for time; the broad sweep of the Atlantic allowed America to buy time initially by diplomatic means. The 'Battle of Britain' fought in the air, the 'Battle of the Atlantic' fought at sea, and the 'Battle of North Africa' fought at sea, on land and in the air, were Britain's contribution to the Western World's strategic delaying action. It is just as important to study the failures---and there were more failures than successes---of British and American servicemen in Northern Africa, when they were fighting against odds, as it is to concentrate upon the halcyon days of 'Overlord' when experience and resources had been accumulated and victory was assured."