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Posted on Jan 10, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Desert Knights – An Overview of the War in North Africa

By Wild Bill Wilder

Many people have never seen a real desert, one that extends for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Almost all have a concept in their mind of what it might be like. But just what is the desert?  A description of the desert is like a description of any other type of terrain. It varies a great deal with the location. It is not the standard open spaces full of shifting sand.

Those who have fought in the deserts of North Africa have described the environment in some detail . They note the daytime heat (up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit) and the nighttime cold, with swarming flies and gritty blowing sand. It has beauty, such as the spectacular sunsets, and star-filled nights. But the desert is no paradise. It could be portrayed with the three "D’s." They are Desolation, Discomfort, and Dehydration.


In some areas, it might seem mountainous, with escarpments (large hills with precipitous sides) rising suddenly out of the ground to amazing heights. Then there are vast stretches of hard sand and stony ground. The earth is at times so brittle and packed that troops cannot dig entrenchments. It is often marked with bony ridges, ribbed hills, and deep depressions.

There are flat pans that hold water after the rains. Wadi-fed flats spring overnight into flowery glory in the spring. And of course there are the endless undulating sand and gravel dunes whose crests look like waves on the sea. Men do not just drive, following signs or landmarks. They navigate, getting where they want to be by using speedometer and compass.

The deserts of North Africa are much as described above. From the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the Western Desert climbs upward in a series of steps, or escarpments. Often they are too steep for trucks, and even for armor. The few natural gaps in them became important military objectives. With a limestone base nearer the coast, tracked vehicles could go almost anywhere. Once well inland does the desert of drifting sand dunes begin.

Narrow stony ravines, called wadis, look like jagged cracks. Here and there, large dishlike depressions known as deirs. Inland, rain only falls two or three times a year.  Then there are the treacherous salt marshes, well below sea level, filled with quicksand, totally impassable. It was called "a tactician’s paradise, and a quartermaster’s hell." This long narrow battlefield stretched over 1,400 miles from Tripoli on the West to Alexandria in the East. Why were so many battles fought here and why did so many men die? Simply because neither side could afford to let the other control it. The desert was a buffer to protect the vital Suez Canal, and the rich oil fields, so necessary to the military.

Erwin Rommel, renowned German general of the Second World War envisioned the desert as a great ocean. His tanks like ships on that open sea. He saw his tanks as battleships controlling that sea, and they were the important thing in his mind. The ground was his waves, and the occupation of hundreds of square miles was not of major importance to him. What did it matter who occupied a wave? Victory could be assured by destroying the enemy’s fleet, while preserving his own.

Crusader Mark III (57mm gun armed) negotiates anti-tank
ditch outside Mersa Matruh.

War in the Desert

In 1940, Germany was in a position of dominance in Europe. Before her, countries had crumbled. Poland was smashed in a month. Denmark only lasted a few hours. Norway, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg had fallen easily to the powerful iron fist of the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe. The British Expeditionary Force, sent to check Hitler’s armies and to teach the "heinie" a lesson, was rudely ejected from the European mainland with monstrous losses. France, considered the stalwart defender against fascism, collapsed, was soon overrun, and soundly defeated.

Europe convulsed in agony as the Swastika planted itself in one place after another. It seemed that nothing could stop the Panzers. Only the English Channel kept hope alive in England, and plans were then being formulated by the German general staff for its invasion. Things seemed to be as about as grim as they could possibly get.

Italy, at first a hesitant ally of Germany, was now eager to stand with her. Even Benito Mussolini, clearly neither a political nor military genius, saw that riding on Germany’s glory could enhance and enrich his country. With a growing confidence that Britain would fall to Germany, Mussolini determined to seize all her African possessions. Obsessed with the dream of restoring the old Roman Empire, he had already contemplated a series of swift conquests that would make him absolute dictator from Libya to the Indian Ocean, including the vital Suez Canal.

His campaign to conquer North Africa had begun in 1933. The rape of Ethiopia in 1935 was only the beginning of his fantasy. In early 1940, Against his army of 300,000 men, the British could only muster some 50,000 Commonwealth troops. The British Desert Air Force was in about as bad a condition as the land forces.

Il Duce declared war on France and England on June 10, 1940. This was the final catalyst he needed to fulfill his vision. His forces moved swiftly and took Somaliland and other British possessions. Both sides felt unprepared for war in North Africa, and were hesitant to initiate hostilities. Just as in Europe during the phony war, minor skirmishes did occur. Nevertheless, no major battles had taken place until September 13th. On that day, 80,000 Italian soldiers rolled into Egypt. The sheer weight of numbers, without even taking into consideration the capabilities of the Italians was enough for the British to retreat.

Under General Wavell, the Allied forces skillfully withdrew. At Sidi Barrani, the Italians stopped their advance, and their leader, Marshal "Butcher" Graziani, waited for enough reinforcements to assure him absolute victory. An Italian defensive line, with massive fortified positions, was drawn from Sidi Barrani southward. During that lull, the British had a chance to reinforce, and built up a striking force of 30,000 men and a brigade of tanks.

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