Alamein from below

David Tresilian , Tuesday 8 Aug 2023

The Battle of Alamein produced a remarkable British memoir of World War Two’s Desert War, writes David Tresilian in an occasional series on books by visitors to Egypt

The Battle of Alamein
The Battle of Alamein

The Battle of Alamein, named after the city on Egypt’s North Coast, took place in October-November 1942 and has traditionally been seen as marking a turning point in British campaigns in the Second World War.

The far more significant German defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943 was yet to come, and the US had not yet made its presence felt in the War, having stayed out until the Japanese attack on the US military base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii some ten months before.

There was stalemate in Western Europe, while in the East the German forces were doing everything they could, finally unsuccessfully, to achieve a breakthrough in their campaign against the former Soviet Union. The Mediterranean theatre, and particularly North Africa, was one of the few where British forces could still make an impact in the War.

Among the British soldiers sent to Egypt was British officer Keith Douglas, barely 22 years old and just out of training. After a period in Palestine, where Britain had bases under the terms of the League of Nations Mandate, Douglas was sent to Alamein to take part in the struggle against the Axis forces that had pushed into Egypt from neighbouring Libya.

His subsequent memoir, From Alamein to Zem Zem, is a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Alamein as seen from below. While there are multiple accounts of the Desert War focusing on strategy and the overall conduct of the campaigns, Douglas’s account, told from the perspective of a tank commander who saw only what was around him as one day gave way to the next, is one of the few telling how the Battle of Alamein looked on the ground.

Grand strategy gave way to local improvisation as equipment failed, tanks and equipment had to be hurriedly scribbled in on maps where they had not been supposed to appear, and rapid decisions had to be made to deal with eventualities not included in the orders reaching tank commanders on what by later standards were almost hopelessly primitive radio sets.

While there was perhaps no fog of war, there was certainly a lot of sand and dust, and as the tanks and trucks churned up the Western Desert, turning it into a sticky mess, visibility could be down to just a few yards.

Dust and sand coated machinery, men, and weapons, making soldiers look like ghosts with their eyes picked out by googles worn against the dust that invaded lungs and jammed guns, all made worse by hot days and freezing nights. Swarms of flies attended every move. There was a constant fight to get enough to eat.

Douglas records all this and more in the notebooks he kept as the Battle raged around him, with these later being published together with his scribbled drawings in a book that has scarcely been out of print since its first appearance in 1946.

Under the terms of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, Britain had withdrawn its forces in Egypt to the Suez Canal Zone where a force of 10,000 men was supposed to be protecting the Canal. However, the Treaty also allowed Britain to reoccupy the country in the event of war, and so thousands of British and Commonwealth forces – Indian, Australian, South African, and New Zealanders – began arriving in Egypt, among them Douglas, from 1940 onwards.

Douglas had read English at university before signing up for officer training, and his memoir is full of striking turns of phrase. As the British novelist Lawrence Durrell observed in his introduction, the fact that Douglas was killed less than two years later during the Allied invasion of France aged just 24 was a personal tragedy and a major blow to literature.

When he arrived in Egypt in 1941, the Axis forces had been halted at Alamein, today also the site of New Alamein City whose construction began in 2018. In the 1940s, Alamein was little more than a stop on the railway line that led from Alexandria to Libya. It is some 100 km west of Alexandria, something like an hour and a half by car, and its occupation by Axis forces led by German general Erwin Rommel, the so-called “Desert Fox,” caused a “flap” to break out among the British communities in Alexandria and Cairo.

However, Rommel was at a disadvantage since most German troops and equipment had been deployed for the more important fight against the Soviet Union, and the German supply lines from Libya were long, vulnerable to attack, and dependent on Italian shipping. The Axis forces were outnumbered, chronically short of petrol and other supplies, and seen as a sideshow in Berlin where strategists were more invested elsewhere.

But this was not necessarily how it looked at the time, since British and Commonwealth forces in Egypt were also hardly up to strength and the forces that there were had not necessarily been trained in desert warfare.

There had also been many setbacks. The Axis forces had dug in at Marsa Matruh a few hundred km from the Libyan border, where a museum built around Rommel’s military HQ can still be visited today. The approach to Alamein was also heavily mined, making it dangerous to manoeuvre across the strip of land between the coastal road and the Qattara Depression on which the Battle would be fought.

 

Alamein to Zem Zem: Visitors to Alamein and New Alamein today find very different cities greeting them to the one that existed in 1942.

However, despite the changes, Alamein still evokes images of the Desert War between Axis and Allied forces in the Second World War, reinforced by the Commonwealth War Cemeteries in Alamein that attract thousands of visitors each year along with the Axis installations in Marsa Matruh.

Douglas is buried in a war cemetery in northern France rather than at Alamein, but Alamein to Zem Zem has linked his name inextricably with the city. While his memoir of the Battle is inevitably partial, like all such war memoirs only reporting on a tiny piece of the larger conflict, it shares many of the standard features of war writing while also giving the sense of a generous personality.

Among such features is the fact that it can be hard to square Douglas’s account, written in numbered sections of varying length and all undated, with the larger course of the campaign. “I am not writing about these battles as a soldier, nor trying to discuss them as military operations,” he explains. “What remains in my mind [is] a flurry of violent impressions… against a backdrop of indeterminate landscapes.”

The Battle began with a British attack on German and Italian forces entrenched behind lines of mines on the evening of 23 October 1942. A thousand heavy guns rained down shells on the Axis forces until, a few hours later, infantry divisions moved through the minefields to continue the attack supported by the thousand or so tanks lined up ahead and behind them.

“Six days after I had heard rumbling on the western skyline, the famous barrage that began [the Battle], I moved up from the rear to the front of the British attack,” Douglas writes. “I drove up the sign-posted tracks until, when I had reached my own place in all this activity, I had seen the whole arrangement of the army, almost too large to appreciate, as a body would look to a germ riding in its bloodstream.”

“On the main tracks… lorries appeared like ships, plunging their bows into drifts of dust and rearing up suddenly over crests like waves. Their wheels were continually hidden in dust clouds: the ordinary sand being pulverised by so much traffic into a substance almost liquid, sticky to the touch, into which the feet of men walking sank almost to the knee.”

The first wave of the attack was halted by minefields, as sappers struggled to clear routes through for the infantry and tanks. Ordered to move forward at 5 am, before halting again in the early evening, the view of all this on “a moving tank [was] like that in a camera obscura or a silent film – in that since the engine drowns out all other noises except explosions, the whole world moves silently past.”

Digging in for the night surrounded by the charred remains of German tanks, presumably destroyed in the opening barrage, and gazing curiously at captured Axis soldiers being marched in batches behind the lines, Douglas and his crew settle down to an evening of reading magazines as another barrage opens up behind them.

Such sudden flurries of activity punctuated by long periods of lassitude, even boredom, are one of the features of his memoirs. Another is the contrast between life on the military front lines where death can strike at any moment and civilian life in Alexandria just an hour away that continues as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening.

Sent behind the lines to Alexandria, “we pass the police post at Borg el Arab and forked left into the outskirts of Alex as I had done so many times before,” Douglas writes. “The men and women on the sidewalks, mostly the Greeks who form a great part of the city’s population, smiled and cried out to us, seeing our faces, clothes, and vehicles covered with dust.”

“We drove along the Corniche, past bathers and sunbathers, a blaze of coloured costumes as bright as a garden; at Stanley Bay troops on leave and the huge indolent population hid the sand and dotted the blue half circle of the sea.”

Douglas’s memories of the Battle often contain striking images, reminding the reader that he was a promising poet. German soldiers, their tank destroyed, “climb out of a pit, grinning sheepishly as if they had been caught out in a game of hide and seek.” Three of his own tanks are hit, and “out of their turrets tumbled their crews, pursued by volcanic tongues of flame and billows of black smoke.” They “huddle together, supporting each other like revelers going home.”

“Hundreds of Axis soldiers came walking eastwards in dejected little groups, not looking at the mass of vehicles bucketing along towards the west,” as the first phase of the Battle turns into a rout. “The bodies of some Italian infantrymen still lay in their weapon pits, surrounded by pitiable rubbish, chocolate wrappings, and hundreds of cheap cardboard cigarette packets… more suggestive of holiday-makers than soldiers.”

There are moments of unconscious comedy that add to the impression of levity mixed with the utmost seriousness. A senior officer talks “exactly as if he were still at a garden party, where presumably he learned this kind of repartee.” The regimental commander, accustomed to county point-to-points, gives a pep talk that acknowledges the “efforts of individuals somewhat like an author acknowledging indebtedness in a preface” to a book.

Some of Douglas’s poems on the Desert War were first published in the English-language magazines Citadel and Personal Landscape issued in Cairo during the Second World War. Like his longer prose account, they are well worth looking up.

 


* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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