El Alamein - fortunes of war
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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Rommel's Afrika Corps invaded North Africa from the occupied territories of south western Europe early on in WW2, with the hope of sweeping across the desert wastes all the way to Egypt. The Suez Canal, of prime strategic importance to both sides (but Britain in particular as a link to its Commonwealth territories), was the objective. Italian forces invaded in 1940 and when the Germans joined them their combined force caused considerable consternation at Allied High Command.
British, Indian, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Canadian, French, Greek, Polish and eventually American troops participated in the see-sawing struggle of stretched supply lines across Libya and Egypt for almost three years. It wasn't until November of 1943 that the Axis capitulated after being forced back to Tunisia. More than 250,000 prisoners of war were taken. El Alamein is widely considered to be the turning point of fortunes in this theatre of conflict, and along with Stalingrad, the war in general.
You have to walk from the coast road a bit to get to the museum (not handy with backpack) but it was well worth it. Inaugurated in 1956 and upgraded by President Mubarak in the mid 1990s, the scope and quality of this tasteful museum was completely unexpected (it wasn't even mentioned in the guidebook). Inside contains a number of dedicated army rooms - German, Italian and British - as well as an overview room where a large theatre map illustrates the machinations of the various forces over the conflict's duration.
The rooms dedicated to the major armies are very absorbing, displaying an array of uniforms, weapons and ammunition, field maps, equipment and images from battle and daily life of the average soldier. There are also busts and detailed biographical accounts of various High Commanders over time (including Wavell, Auchinleck, Montgomery and Rommel). Some of the description cards are bordering unintelligible but overall the displays are first rate. The only thing I'd question is the wisdom of keeping decomposing live rounds in one case just before the exit. Maybe they want you to leave quickly...
Less obvious angles are also explored, such as the role of the navies and air forces, the Special Services operating behind enemy lines and neighbouring strategic assets like Malta. Also the 'clinical' war in the desert aspect was intriguing - no civilians were involved in a conflict situated in such a sterile environment, allowing commanders and combatants to practice the 'theory and art' of warfare in a highly strategic and chivalrous manner. There was no hate between the armies, quiet the opposite, it was almost considered a game with just the intense desire to defeat the opposing side using every form of 'proper' warfare available.
Aussie contributions featured prominently in the British room, particularly exploits in the siege of Tobruk where our troops captured this strategic Libyan port and repelled continued counterattacks for over five months in early 1941, creating a perpetual thorn in Rommel's side. There seems to be come contradictions on the cards but they might have held out for the duration or they may have by exiled Polish, Greek and French troops after five months, before the siege was broken by Christmas that year.
Their other critical contribution was in the Battle of El Alamein itself (see artist's conception above - 23 October to 2 November), in particular at Tel el Eisal when they, along with British tank forces elsewhere, made significant breakthroughs in the Axis line leading to its eventual collapse. However Australian and New Zealand troops were stationed and fought throughout the conflict from its earliest stages.
Surrounding the museum is a collection of field pieces and mobile weaponry such as tanks and aircraft. No doubt taken directly from the battlefield they are in various states of disrepair, but the artillery pieces in particular are interesting as they are dug in and sandbagged, thus displayed in the manner that they would have been deployed.
So all in all a great little museum out in the middle of nowhere. I hope they keep up the good work and enough visitors work out how to get here to make it worthwhile.
A few hundred metres down the road is the Australian War Memorial which is adjacent to the Commonwealth War Cemetery, all overlooking the plain below which apparently was the scene of one of the main battles (the front stretched over 10km so not sure if what the locals told me is correct). I was thinking of going down to have a look but much of the Western Desert in coastal areas is still littered with unexploded ordinance and mines which makes that little stroll pretty foolhardy. (Later note: British forward minefields are actually signposted about 15 km west of El Alamein).
So I stuck to the cemetery. More than 7,300 soldiers are buried here, including 4,074 Brits, 1,234 Australians, 1,108 Kiwis and 500 South Africans. There are also 12,600 names of soldiers and airmen who have no known grave or were cremated. Brits and Indians comprise the bulk of these. As with most Commonwealth War Cemeteries it's well maintained and a pleasant place to linger in the memory of those unfortunate enough to rest there.
Well done lads, you turned the tide of the war and may you always be remembered.
Next entry -> back in the desert Siwa style
Word from the Wise #43
"It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward, only to stumble backward."
Axis and Allied generals could have learnt a bit from Sun Tsu eh?