24th May 2012
24.05.2012 - 25.05.2012
Alexandria had a lot more to offer, but we had little time to take in and that morning we ate a last breakfast in our hotel before filling Redvers’ tank and setting off for El Alamein. North Africa was a crucial battle ground during the Second World War. l once said of Alamein, “Before it we never had a victory, after it we never had a defeat.” Whoever controlled North Africa held an awful lot of Mediterranean coastline, but also, and more importantly, they held the Suez Canal. That canal was essential to the supply lines of the declining British Empire. The canal lay in Egypt, a British Protectorate; to the west lay Libya, held by the Italians since they pinched it from the Ottomans in 1911. Beyond was French Morocco and Algeria, ceded to the Germans once they’d taken France.
Erwin Rommel and his tanks had been outnumbered by my grandad and a succession of British Commanders from Wavell through Auchinleck to Montgomery. The Italians began the attack when they crossed the Libyan-Egyptian border in 1940 in an attempt to march on Alexandria and the Suez Canal. A series of back and forth attacks across northern Africa ended in the allies chasing Rommel back to Tripoli. With the Americans having landed in Morocco and Algeria the Germans retreat stopped in Tunis where 140,000 men surrendered in April 1943.
In amongst the chasing back and forth, there had been hard fought battles with the inevitable casualties that result from war. Tens of thousands lay dead by the war’s end. With the end of the war those who had fallen were collected by the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission and reburied at various sites across Northern Africa. At the war graveyard in El Alamein, 7600 soldiers lie in their final resting place, a tranquil setting in a walled and deliberately architected enclosure that is meticulously maintained and irrigated. To be stood amongst so many head stones was a saddening moment. British, Irish, Polish, Kiwi, Australian, Greek and African names revealed the extent from which the British drew their manpower and also just how world encompassing the war really was. It was difficult to feel anything but saddened, even amongst the beautifully manicured setting. The birds twittered as the wind blew across the sand. A peaceful and relaxing resting place for seven thousand twenty-something year old men.
During the war a total of over seventeen million mines had been laid by both the Allies and the Axis powers. The existence of those land mines seventy years later meant that visiting the battle fields was an idea that bordered on stupidity and therefore one we did not need a second thought to consider. Our trip would be of graves and museums. The German war grave a few kilometres away, was also a solemn place constructed more like a temple than a graveyard and the view from the roof gave a quite spectacular panorama of desert and Mediterranean. We had a lot further to travel to be near to the Libyan border and so we declined the groundskeeper’s offer of a place to camp and continued on our advance west.
Shortly before dusk, we found a mound of excavated earth and we pulled off the road and partially concealed ourselves behind it; thirty minutes after we’d stopped a tractor trundled up to us with a farmer and his three sons who asked about our lives and wondered if we needed anything. We politely declined and sank back into our chairs; this was the calm before the storm. Tomorrow we would enter Libya and continue our drive west.