War in the Desert
Notes for a Lecture given by The Very Rev. A.C. Bridge for SWAN HELLENIC CRUISES
Ladies and Gentlemen. Just to make things clear, by ‘War in the Desert’ I mean the war in the Egyptian desert in 1940 to 1943, about which a number of romantic films have been made. In them actors like Dirk Bogarde, John Mills and David Niven, have tended to say things like ‘jolly good show’ and ‘wizard prang’ to show how British they are, while others have clicked their heels a lot and said ’ Ya, ya, mine hair’ (sic) to show how German they are, though all have provided surprisingly fluent in English for the rest of the film.
Well, obviously, it wasn’t like that. I was there for just over two years - not as anything to do with the church but as an ordinary soldier - and perhaps I may begin by saying something about what it was like. For instance, why were the British fighting in Egypt at all? The answer is that we owned the Suez Canal, which was a life-line connecting us with our far eastern Empire - India, Malaya, Burma, Singapore, Shanghai and so on - and we were determined to defend it.
The Egyptians didn’t like this very much, but had little choice but to put up with us, for we kept a number of troops there to see that they did so. We also kept a number of troops in Iraq, Iran, and Palestine, having liberated them from centuries of Turkish rule after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the first world war, and instead of returning them to the Arabs, who lived there, pinching them for ourselves. Thus between the two world wars we virtually owned the Middle East. I know that that is an over-simplified picture, but the point I’m trying to make is that it is also a measure of just how different the world was sixty years ago - and that is easily forgotten. England still regarded herself as a great power - the Royal Navy still ruled the waves, rather as the American fleet does today - and our Empire was so enormous that one could go round the world without ever treading on any part of it which was not coloured red on the map to show that it was British, or so our schoolmasters told us.
But all this started to look very different in 1939. After the collapse of France and our own escape from Dunkirk, in June 1940 Mussolini hitched a lift on Germany’s triumphant band-wagon and Italy declared war on what looked like an already defeated Britain. Up to this time, the war hadn’t made much difference to the lives of the British in Egypt - ambassadors, diplomats, soldiers and others - who were far enough away from the war in Europe to feel more like on-lookers than participants. But the declaration of war by Italy changed all that, and the British in Egypt began to feel profoundly uneasy; for at that time Tunisia and Libya, just across the western border of Egypt, were Italian colonies, and a large Italian army of a quarter of a million men and women, or more were known to be stationed there. Mussolini in one of his more bombastic moods announced to enthusiastic crowds below the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia in Rome that he had ordered this army of his to invade Egypt and drive the British out of the country. Indeed, so sure was he of the victory to come, that he had a medal struck to commemorate his triumphant entry into Cairo, before his troops had even crossed the border into Egypt. Needless to say, this made British stiff upper lips with their organic free-range moustaches bristle with anger and contempt; but nevertheless their owners had to take the Italian threat seriously, for their future looked far from rosy.
I wasn’t in Egypt at the time, I was being trained as a private soldier at Parkhurst in the Isle of Wight - not, I hasten to add, in the gaol, but in a large barracks with the same name - but when I got to Egypt in May, 1941, I met people who had been there from the beginning, and they all agreed that, the reality of the situation in June 1940 began to become known - namely that Mussolini’s boast might not be an empty one. Many people sent their wives and children south to take sanctuary in one or other of the British colonial countries in Africa - Kenya, Rhodesia or wherever - while those you couldn’t leave battened down the hatches and prepared for the worst.
But the worst didn’t happen, and the credit for that welcome fact was due, first to the General commanding the greatly outnumbered British forces in the desert - General Sir Archibald Wavell, later to become Field Marshal Lord Wavell - and secondly to the desert itself. As the Italians spilled over the border into Egypt, Wavell drew them on into the waterless enormity of the desert by retreating before them, in the confident expectation that one day they would stop to rest and take stock, their supply lines over-extended, their rear under-defended, and give him a chance to attack them when and where they were least expecting him to do so. In this, like all good generals, he allowed the terrain - that is to say, the desert - to dictate to him his tactics, using its enormity, its openness, its absence of roads, and the fact that to the north all movement was blocked by the sea, while to the south the desert stretched endlessly down into Africa without limit or obstruction, to his own advantage and to the undoing of his enemy.
I’ll come to what actually happened in a moment; but I must just say here that I can’t emphasise too strongly how important a role the desert itself played in the war. It dictated to the generals on both sides what they could and could not do. Many people think of deserts as consisting of huge areas of sand dunes, waterless and virtually impassable, like the Sahara or the Empty Quarter in Arabia; but the Egyptian desert is not like that. Apart from a few sand dunes along the coast - and I’ll come to the coastal strip in a moment - it is a vast, flat dusty plain covered with occasional hummocks of salt-bush, camel-scrub, and loose stones, its eternal flatness relieved from time to time by a ridge or a small depression. In summer it becomes so hot that you can fry an egg on the bonnet of your car - if you’ve got an egg: I never saw an egg in my whole time in the desert - while in the winter it can be cold enough for water to freeze.
It rains occasionally, turning the desert surface into a sea of mud in which both men and vehicles slither around in a helpless mess. But usually the weather is glorious - what one longs for on holiday in the south of France - and especially in the early morning as the sun rises, the air is as fresh and intoxicating as champagne. I lived in the desert for about eighteen months, and in a way I fell in love with the place. Mind you, the army made sure that I had the basic essentials of life - water (not always much of it, but enough), food, and a sleeping bag; and maybe the fact that there was a war on and each day might conceivably have been my last - even though much of the time I wasn’t in anything like as much danger as many others - sharpened the joy of simply being alive, as nothing else could. It was life without any of the clutter and frills with which we surround ourselves and bolster our sense of security - houses, beds, dressing gowns, newspapers, shops cars, and when I flew back to Cairo on one occasion for a couple of days and had to sleep in a small hotel bedroom I felt trapped - like an animal in a cage. But, of course, the desert could also be hell on earth when it felt like it. When the south westerly wind known as the khamseen blew and you were swallowed by dust storms hundreds of feet high and as thick as soup with visibility down to two yards, life was hell. It got into your eyes, your ears, between your teeth, up your nose, into your hair, your lungs, your food, your everything. And of course, even when there wasn’t a dust storm, and we were without what I have described as most of the things which make life worth living - wives, families, children let alone such civilised delights as theatres, libraries and ice in your whisky or gin and tonic.
But if this was the desert in which so much of the war in Egypt was fought, and which haunts the memories of old men like me, who lived in it for months on end, the only bit of it which really mattered from a military point of view was the narrow coastal strip; for along that strip ran the one and only metalled road to challenge the desert’s howling wilderness; and beside it, for some of the way there was also a railway.
Apart from destruction of the enemy forces, control of this coastal strip of land with its road and railway from Alexandria up towards the frontier with Libya was the aim of both sides. Both the road and the railway were originally built to serve the few widely separated little seaside towns like Mersa Matruh, where, it is rather improbably alleged that Antony once took Cleopatra for a summer holiday and a frolic or two in its blue water, and where some two thousand years later Egyptian Pashas and European diplomats followed his example and took their wives and families for a week or two of sea and sunshine. A hotel, a railway station, a number of little white houses, a fabulous beach and a small port - it must have been a mini-paradise in its day - and may be again now, for all I know, Islamic terrorists permitting - but by the time I got there, like all the other little towns along the coast - Berdia, Tobruk, Darna - it had been bombed and shelled and most of its houses were in ruins.
But enough, I must get back to the Italian invasion in 1940, when something like two hundred thousand of Mussolini’s men, commanded by a certain General Graziani, poured over the Egyptian border and down the escarpment six hundred feet high and a few miles inland from the sea, which separated the coastal strip from the vastness of the desert to the south of it. They advanced a hundred miles along the coast road to Sidi Barrani - another little town of white-washed houses and fabulous beaches - where, to be on the safe side, Graziani decided to pause and dig in, constructing a number of defensive positions in a great arc down from the coast into the desert to protect his supply lines before moving on. Wavell was well aware of this activity, for aerial reconnaissance reported Italian progress daily, and army patrols brought in a few prisoners from time to time, who were happy enough to talk about it. Wavell also sent out some other small patrols, travelling by night and swinging south, miles behind the enemy lines. During the day, they hid their jeeps under camouflage nets and lay motionless on the desert floor, watching and noting all they saw. They were seldom spotted, and over the weeks they gathered an astonishing amount of information about the enemy’s movements. This they passed on to Intelligence at Corps headquarters in the desert where a Colonel noticed that the reports from one particular patrol, which kept a regular watch on a certain area behind the line of Italian fortified positions, always drew a blank - nothing was ever seen there. The Colonel decided to go out and see for himself what was happening, and each time he did so, pressing a little nearer to the enemy lines and then lying flat in the desert all day, he too saw and heard nothing.
All this was reported to General O’Connor at Army Headquarters, who told Wavell back in Cairo where the question was raised, could there be a gap - unprotected, unpatrolled, unwatched - in General Graziani’s line of fortified positions? Had the British patrol stumbled on an area behind the Italian lines which had been left without mines or barbed wire or other protection so that their forts could be more surely and easily supplied from the rear with all that they needed? And if such was the case, could the British rush this gap, wheel north and attack the whole line of heavily defended forts on their unprotected rear?
Wavell consulted Admiral Cunningham, who promised the support of the navy, whose heavy guns would attack the ports - Sidi Barrani, Tobruk, Benghazi - and the coast road along which Graziani’s supplies had to travel, and Air Marshall Longmore promised the cooperation of the Air Force, if the army decided to move. When consulted, Churchill was enthusiastic. Meanwhile, huge security precautions were taken to ensure that not a whisper of the possible attack should be heard, for surprise was essential. The result was that on the night of December 7th, when winter had already arrived and the desert air was already icy, two British divisions - the seventh armoured and the fourth Indian division - made a forced march of seventy miles through the darkness up to points a few miles back from the Italian lines, where they could still not be observed from ground level, and throughout the next day thousands of men in full kit lay dispersed and motionless on the flat desert.
An Italian reconnaissance plane flew over, but apparently neither saw nor suspected anything; and no Italian patrol came out far enough to discover what was about to happen. Meanwhile, the air was full of British planes flying back and forth attacking Italian airfields; by evening they had either shot down or destroyed on the ground more than fifty enemy planes. Through the night of the 8th, while the army still waited, the Royal navy stole up into position ready to bombard the Italian coastal positions at first light, and at the same moment - miles away south in the desert - the army rose up in the grey light of dawn and began to stream forward into the attack.
The surprise was complete. I wasn’t there, but I’m told that the poor wretched Italians did not know what had hit them. Most of them had been asleep, when they were woken by an inferno of noise - shells exploding, machine-gun fire, men screaming in pain, others shouting orders - as half-dressed and utterly bewildered in the dim light of dawn they tried to pull on their clothes and grab their weapons. It was all over in half an hour. A few of the Italians were killed, but the majority simply put up their hands and surrendered, while the British, leaving a few men behind to guard and disarm the prisoners, wheeled north and began to attack the remaining desert forts one after another with the same devastating effect of shock, bewilderment and surrender.
There followed some of the most remarkable weeks of the whole war. Rumours spread like wildfire through the ranks of the Italian army that, far from being stronger than the British, they were hopelessly out-numbered and out-gunned; their shells bounded off the British tanks like peas from a pea-shooter; the Royal Navy was shelling the coast road and killing everything and everyone that moved on it; resistance was useless, retreat impossible; the only thing to do was to surrender, and this they did in their thousands, whole divisions throwing down their arms and surrendering to a mere battalion before marching dejectedly in enormous endless processions eastwards along the coast road into captivity, where they would be fed and watered and be at peace again. And as they did so, coastal town after coastal town - Bardia, Tobruk, Derna and even Benghazi - fell to Wavell’s slightly astonished men, who could hardly believe the measure of their own success.
I’ve spent far too long on this first battle of the desert war, but I have done so deliberately, for it set the pattern for all the rest - a pattern of attack by sweeping round the enemy’s flank by way of the open desert to the south, confusion and retreat by the other side until the attacker ran out of steam and the desert played the last trick up its sleeve; namely, that the further the victor progressed the weaker he inevitably became and the stronger the vanquished; for as the victor’s lines of supply and communication lengthened, and those of the vanquished were reduced to vanishing point, so their respective positions of advantage were reversed; and this happened in a kind of regular half-yearly ding-dong pattern of attack and retreat and attack again, until eventually the battle of Alamein broke the pattern once and for all.
So far I have described the war as it might be seen by a historian after the event with full and detailed knowledge of exactly what went on. But that was not the war, which I - or anyone else involved in it - knew at the time. Often - especially during the confusion and noise of a full-scale battle - we had no more idea of how the overall battle was going than we had of how the battle for Stalingrad might be going in Russia. All we knew was what was happening in the immediate patch of desert, in which we found ourselves. If we wanted to know how the war was going - how the battle - our battle was going, we listened to the BBC news, and heard someone in London tell us how we were doing in the desert thousands of miles away. So, although I’m a bit reluctant to do so, I think it may be worth saying something about my personal experience of the war there - not because it was gallant or anything like that - it wasn’t - but because, on the contrary, it was much the same as that of many others.
I arrived in Egypt just after Wavell had been forced to retreat almost to his starting point by the arrival of the Germans under General Rommel, who had come to the rescue of the defeated Italians in Cyrenaica. I was supposed to be in transit to Malta - its not worth explaining why, though I’ll tell anyone who may be interested in the bar later - but the Germans had just captured the island of Crete, and travel to Malta was no longer feasible except for VIPs. So I was labelled ‘For Disposal’ and dumped in a desert camp near Suez with a number of other useless objects, where one day I got a bit tight before lunch with a young officer in the Seaforth Highlanders. We had been given forms to fill in, on which we both listed our few useful selling points. Rather rashly, I said on mine that I knew a bit about photography. Three days later I was summoned to Cairo for an interview with a certain Major Philips whom I saluted as smartly as I could - a bit like Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army and awaited events. He was, he said, head of a small and very new specialised unit dealing with the interpretation of air photographs, and since I knew about photography and he needed more interpreters, would I like to become one. Not liking to say that all I knew about photography was that if you pointed a camera at something and pushed a button it took a photograph, I said ‘Yes, Sir, I’d like to very much’. And that was that. I was taught how to use a stereoscope, and about ten days later I was sent up the desert to join two others actually doing the job near Army HQ at Mersah Matruh.
It was a fascinating job, and the art of interpretation was a very new one to the army, while the desert was the most ideal place in which to practice it. For almost nothing on the desert floor could be hidden from an aerial camera - even minefields showed up as patterns of dots, where the surface had been disturbed and was darker than undisturbed ground; the passages through minefields too were plainly visible, where a mass of lorry tracks converged upon them and then spread out again.
Barbed wire fences, tank tracks with their distinctive angular turns, gun positions, trenches, let alone such things as telegraph poles, roads, air fields, and even occasionally a Bedouin camp could be clearly seen, plotted, measured and watched for changes over the weeks and months even though the scale of the photographs was tiny to begin with - it got bigger as longer and longer focal length lenses were used and the aircraft flew lower.
The photographs would usually arrive in the late afternoon or evening and we would sit up all night if necessary plotting everything on them and passing the result to Intelligence. As news spread of just how much information could be gathered from these aerial photographs, and more people trained as interpreters joined the the three of us, quite often we would be asked to go and brief the Commander of a tank battalion or an infantry brigade or whatever, about the enemy positions in front of them, and this sometimes involved quite a long drive across the desert, where unexpected encounters occurred from time to time.
On one occasion in the middle of nowhere I came across a platoon of Indian soldiers digging two neat rows of shallow graves in the desert. ‘They’re bound to be needed soon.’ said the officer in charge cheerfully; while on another occasion - I was with one of our new arrivals named Peter Willett - we ran into a bunch of about eight dead tanks, British tanks - which had been knocked out sometime previously. We had a quick look round, Peter doing half of them, and I shall always remember dropping down into one of them and finding the dead driver, still sitting on his chair looking at me, one side of him covered in a fine coating of yellow dust, which had drifted in on the desert wind.
On arrival at our various destinations, again and again, we were greeted with something very like disbelief when we told whoever we were visiting how much the photographs revealed. I assured a Colonel in command of a regiment of tanks that, while a position he was about to attack was defended by barbed wire, there was no organised minefield in front of it. I don’t think he believed me, but months later I met him in a restaurant in Cairo, and he all but embraced me, telling me that I had been right - there had been no minefield there, and I remember him asking why a photo interpreter couldn’t be permanently attached to units like his.
Of course, the answer was that we had to live close to the place where the photographs arrived each day at a landing ground. On the one occasion when I found myself attached by chance to a front line unit at the height of a battle - miles away from the nearest photographs - It was useless. It was in November, 1941 when Wavell’s successor, General Auchinleck, attacked.
Peter Willett and I were told to take an advance party up to a desert aerodrome at a place called El Adem - from which the RAF would start taking aerial photographs as soon as the Germans had been driven off it. We duly set off, but arrived to find the aerodrome under fire with wrecked tanks and burning lorries about the place and not a sign of the RAF. A New Zealand Colonel asked us what we were doing, and said that we’d better string along with him for a bit until the situation became less confused - and confused was the right word - no one had the slightest idea of what was happening. In fact, Rommel’s tanks had swept round behind the head of the British attack and were creating havoc in the rear. Since there was nothing we could do about it, with a number of other people lost in the general confusion, we joined the New Zealanders.
For a time, we sat astride the coastal road near Bardia, being shelled and attacked by German tanks from the west, and strafed by planes from the air. From time to time, prisoners were brought in, and I remember talking to one young German officer and asking him if he was glad that his war at least was over; but he laughed and said, “Maybe it isn’t! Our panzers may rescue me, and your war may be ended.”
I remember too talking to a very young English gunner officer whose crew had been killed by a German shell leaving him miraculously unscathed. He was in a desperate state, laughing and trembling as he told me that he had never been under fire before; this battle was his baptism. Eventually, Rommel’s attempt to disrupt the British attack failed, and a measure of order began to emerge from the confusion. The New Zealanders went forward, leaving Peter and me to find El Adem again, which we did, only to discover that we had been absent so long that we had been posted ‘Missing,believed captured or killed.’ Fortunately, our boss in Cairo, Major by now Colonel Philips, muttering affectionately something about bad pennies always turning up in the end, refused to pass on the news to our families until it was confirmed. I could say much more about this time - about the poor bloke we found in the middle of nowhere leaning against the back of his lorry with his head in his hands as liquid diarrhoea poured down his legs into the desert sand, not caring whether he lived or died. We took him to a field hospital - and so I could go on; But before I stop I want to say something, however, brief, about El Alamein, which was one of the crucial battles of the war.
In May, 1942, Rommel attacked the over-extended British. I’m not going to describe the battle - I haven’t the time. The Germans were fiercely resisted, but in the desert under Rommel they were one of the finest fighting forces of the whole war, and initially the desert was on their side, for they were near their bases. Since the loss of hundreds of miles of desert dust didn’t matter to the British High Command, as long as their forces were preserved to make a final stand somewhere, they retreated. In the past they had stood at Tobruk, at the Egyptian frontier, at Sidi Barrani, at Mersah Matruh, but not this time. So inexorable was the German advance that it became obvious that if they were to be stopped at all it would have to be at our last line of defence - namely, at Alamein. The unique thing about the defensive position of Alamein was that it could not be turned - out-flanked - for to the north lay the sea, and to the south law the Quattara Depression - a huge sunken area of salt marsh and quicksand through which virtually nothing could pass. The danger in May, 1942 was that, however fiercely resisted the Germans might be, it was possible that they might reach Alamein before the retreating British troops, exhausted as they were, had had time properly to man the line there. And indeed this is what actually happened. But the desert was impartial in its favours; and if the British were exhausted, so were the Germans. They had been fighting without a break for three weeks, they had travelled almost a thousand miles, had had little if any sleep, and had reached the limit of human endurance. On reaching Alamein, they fell out of their tanks and trucks and slept in the desert, and no one could wake them. They didn’t know that the line was hopelessly under-manned, and as day after day passed, and fresh Australian troops arrived from Palestine to reinforce the desperately tired men in the line as they recovered from their exhaustion, the Germans lost their chance.
You all know the rest, General Montgomery was given command, men and munitions, guns and tanks and planes poured into Egypt in a profusion, which we had never seen before, and during the next four months both sides dug trenches, laid thousands of mines and miles of barbed wire. Rommel attacked on several occasions, but each time was thrown back after suffering heavy casualties. Meanwhile, Montgomery bided his time. Four months later, at 9.40 on the night of 23rd October, 1942, 800 guns broke the silence of the moonlit night with a deafening roar which could be heard as far away as Alexandria, and 200,000 men - Englishmen, Scotsmen, men from the Welsh valleys and Northern Ireland, Indians, New Zealanders, Australians, South Africans, Poles whose homeland had been raped and murdered, and Frenchmen keeping the soul of France alive - went into the attack. Less than three months later they had advance fifteen hundred miles over some of the most inhospitable country in the world, captured 30,000 prisoners including a dozen important generals, killed and wounded about 40,000 men, and destroyed about 500 enemy tanks, 1000 aircraft, 1,5000 vehicles and stores worth millions of pounds.
I must stop - but may I just say this before I do so. On a number of occasions, I have heard people say that, in comparison with the war in Europe, the war in the desert was a side-show - after all, what did it achieve? I’ll tell them what it achieved. If Mussolini’s boast that he would enter Cairo in glory on a white charger had not proved to be mere wind, if Rommel’s formidable Germans had not been stopped in their tracks every time they attacked us, and above all if they had destroyed the British forces ability to resist and broken through at Alamein, nothing could have stopped them from taking over the oil fields of the Middle East and joining up with the German armies in the Caucasus and southern Russia. If that had happened, I can’t help thinking that both the war in Russia and that in Europe might have taken a very different course. The men who fought and died in the desert were not actors in a side show. They were the first allied soldiers, not only to defeat but eventually to destroy, a Germany army in the field after one of the most crushing and historic victories of the entire war. Let us salute them for that.