50 Years after a Chivalrous Desert War


November 10, 1992|By EDGAR L. JONES

The British marked the 50th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein with a ceremony in Westminster Abbey that, according to the Associated Press, paid homage to the 72,500 dead on both sides of the 12-day battle in the Egyptian desert. The sons of the two opposing generals, Rommel and Montgomery, read Biblical passages that stressed brotherhood and peace. The ceremony was held well ahead of the actual battle date to accommodate Queen Elizabeth's schedule.

A second commemorative gathering, larger and more cosmopolitan, occurred two days after the battle date. It was held in the desert itself and included the wail of bagpipes. While El Alamein has little meaning for most Americans, for Britons the desert battle was their first victory over panzer divisions, and in halting Rommel's drive into the Middle East it became the turning point in their war against Hitler's aggression. Few Americans were in battle zone at that pivotal time, but among those present were units of the American Field Service, a volunteer ambulance corps attached to Montgomery's Eighth Army. In this unarmed, civilian capacity I had my first exposure to land warfare, a memorable experience.

To have the sons of Rommel and Montgomery together for the 50th anniversary epitomizes for me an unusual aspect of a war that, after El Alamein, lasted many more months as British Commonwealth soldiers pushed Rommel's forces back across the Libyan desert and into Tunisia. Civility was the general rule on both sides. The fighting often was deadly, yet no reports of barbaric behavior or atrocities come to mind.

Dead bodies were plentiful enough, but no evidence that prisoners had been lined up and mowed down. Soldiers on both sides held their fire while stretcher-bearers rescued the wounded. Our ambulances transported German casualties along with the British, and as far as I could see, the medical stations treated both alike. Red crosses were respected by bombers and gunners, and the only time I was subjected to artillery fire was when another driver and I were huddled in a cluster of British tanks. Shells burst so close that I got a painful ear injury, but I hardly could blame the opposing gunner.

One must wonder why the Eighth Army and the Afrika Korps adhered for the most part to an old-fashioned code of chivalrous behavior. Presumably one answer is that their desert war seldom involved defenseless civilian populations. The attitudes of men in combat might well change if they come upon scores of dead and dying women and children in the enemy's wake.

Then, too, the vast stretches of desert were like a sea of nothingness, so much so that sometimes in the absence of landmarks our destinations were only compass points. The rutted tracks we followed were marked by piles of rocks, much like marine buoys. The battles themselves resembled mid-ocean naval engagements in that the objective was to knock out war-making equipment. The desert itself was not worth fighting about, which gave soldiers some degree of professional detachment.

The most likely reason for the chivalrous behavior, however, is that men on both sides had a common enemy, the inhospitable landscape. They had to endure a scarcity of water, limited and monotonous rations, scorpions, million of flies, intestinal disorders and the stench of dead bodies and human waste too long in the broiling sun. And driving at night without lights made every trip a blindfolded duel with oncoming traffic.

Worst of all were the sandstorms, which reduced vision to near-zero, obscured road markers, stalled engines and turned food to gritty mouthfuls of indigestion. Friends and foes became comrades in misery, if not in arms, and in mutual empathy became more disposed to abide by the old-time rules of gentlemanly warfare. Or so I have since concluded.

A sandstorm, more like a sand squall, was my own undoing when the decisive battle began. According to the briefing plan, our ambulances were to be bivouacked to the rear, out of the traffic flow, because for the first 36 hours vehicle movements were to be westward only while British troops, notably Australians, cleared usable paths through the extensive German mine fields. By 9 p.m. on that October 23 I was asleep in my hole, only to be startled into semi-consciousness about an hour later by a loud bang (just a nearby bomb explosion, I was told afterward).

When I sat up, still groggy, and looked around, no neighboring ambulances could be seen or any other vehicles. Bright lights appeared to be headed in my direction, and rumbling sounds got louder and louder and seemingly closer. Seized with a panicky feeling that battle plans had turned sour and everyone else had retreated from the path of oncoming German tanks, I hastily dressed, threw my bedding into the back of the ambulance, and was in the driver's seat, ready to flee, when the sandstorm suddenly abated.

With the return of visibility I could see that other ambulances were still in their places, the bright lights were flares and star shells over the front lines, and no evidence at all of oncoming tanks. The rumbling sounds were the onset of the British artillery barrage.

A sheepish feeling still returns whenever I recall my frightened behavior, letting myself be spooked by an ordinary sandstorm. But perhaps in the retelling there is personal confirmation that the desert was the common enemy of both Montogomery's and Rommel's troops, making a 50th anniversary an occasion to be mutually shared.

Edgar L. Jones is a retired editorial writer for The Sun.

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