The desert is a virtually uninhabited region about the size and shape of India. It stretches from the River Nile to Tunisia about 1,200 miles away to the west, and 1,000 miles south to the place where there is enough light rain to produce scrubland. The western part of Libya was called Tripolitania. Here stands Libya's largest city, Tripoli, through which most Axis supplies passed. In eastern Libya, which was called Cyrenaica, the port of Tobruk was equally vital for the supply services. The British held Tobruk for most of the war.
Bordering the Mediterranean there is a flat coastal strip from Alexandria in Egypt to Cyrenaica. The seashore, made of limestone sand, is of a memorable whiteness, especially in the summer when the sea is blue. Few and far between, there are towns and villages with miserable palms, bushes and patches of cultivated ground. Many of the names on the map in this region El Daba, Fuka and Buq were no more than names: no houses, no people, no drinking water. Here in summer it becomes too hot to fight. In winter there can be a heavy rainfall which turns the dust-like sand into sticky mud. Most of the fighting took place in this northern strip of the desert, which is about 40 miles wide. But the strip was not manned; this was not a war of fixed fronts, rather a war of forts secured by barbed wire and vast minefields and moving columns. There were no civilians to get in the way, just rodents and reptiles and dense clouds of flies.
"The Desert," said General Rommel, 'is a tactician's paradise and a quartermaster's hell."
The coastal region is higher than the desert behind it. Sooner or later anyone travelling southwards encounters the Great Sand Sea. In some places there is an escarpment which drops away steeply, forming an obstacle that makes movement south difficult for wheeled and even tracked vehicles. This is why the El Alamein region became so vital for the defence of Egypt; for here the Qattara Depression and the sea produce a narrow strip where an army can stand and fight without fear of being outflanked.
At El Agheila the Great Sand Sea comes near enough to the coast to provide another place where an army can rest its flank. Except at these two spots, an army can find long-term security only by means of a fortified perimeter around a water supply, and a port through which supplies can come. So it was that the entire North African campaign was fought for possession of three places: El Alamein in Egypt, El Agheila in Cyrenaica, and the port of Tobruk about halfway between them.
Along the Libyan coast there was a good road; the via Balbia. The section of the road the British built in Egypt was a simple layer of asphalt which could not withstand the continuous weight of heavy vehicles. Alongside their road the British built a very useful railway, but by the end of 1940 it didn't go beyond Mersa Matruh (almost 150 miles short of the Libyan frontier).
Other roads in the desert were just tracks leading over broken stone and pebbles or various sorts of sand. Most of the sand is powdered clay that produces clouds of white dust, making even half a dozen walking men visible for miles. It gets in your eyes and your hair and your clothes and your drinking water. It gets through even the finest dust-filters, and nothing you see or eat is without a coating
Despite the discomfort, most of the soldiers soon got used to the desert. They revelled in the informality that prevailed in this inhospitable place, and it became normal in most units for officers and men to dress as they wished. Sun helmets were soon discarded, along with all the myths about the noonday sun that the Empire's Englishmen had enshrined in dress regulations for a hundred years. It became fashionable for officers to be seen brandishing fly-swatters and dressed in corduroy trousers, coloured scarfs, suede boots or even sandals. In the hot weather many other ranks wore nothing but khaki shorts and boots and, despite the endless tinned food, remained healthy.
Most of the desert could be traversed by motor vehicles, and hard sand made good 'going', although there were always horrifying rumours of parked tanks disappearing into quicksand after a shower of rain. But along the western frontier of Egypt and sprawling westward, unmapped and ever-changing, there stretched the "Great Sand Sea'. About 600 miles long and 150 miles wide, it is probably the greatest continuous mass of sand dunes in the world, and some of the dunes are 400 feet high. Thus, for all practical purposes, the Libya-Egypt frontier is only about 200 miles long. However the 'sand sea' is not impassable for dedicated travellers.
"To get a heavy truck up 200 or 300 feet of loose sand at a slope of 1 in 3 you have to charge it very fast .. . But it takes a lot of confidence to charge at full speed into what looks like a vertical wall of dazzling yellow," said Brigadier Bagnold while lecturing at the Royal Geographical Society. To an expert the colour, curvature and ripple marks in sand reveal good going. Soon after war began, a group of soldiers many of them given ranks overnight started modifying and equipping Chevrolet trucks for the purpose of exploring and outflanking the Italians in Libya.
This small band of New Zealanders, led by men who had known the open desert for many years, was named the "Long Range Desert Group' and their strange and dangerous war became something of a legend. They came out of the southern desert at first to observe, and later to attack. By studying the vehicle tracks, they could read the movements of enemy traffic as a Bedouin can estimate the age, breed and condition of every camel that has left a print. In the desert the LRDG found tracks that had been left by Fords of the Light Car Patrols of 1916. And still today the marks of Second World War armies can be seen right across the southern desert."
Their journeys in the south took men far from medical aid or supplies, and required a special sort--of nerve. The climate was more extreme than anything known in the coastal strip. There were winds so hot that they could cause collapse. One matter-of-fact report described dead or dying birds in the shade of every rock.
Distances were vast. One patrol went south far enough to make contact with French outposts in Equatorial Africa and found there Frenchmen who wanted to fight Germans. A wounded soldier was taken 700 miles in a truck for treatment at a French post in Tibesti. After that he went 3,000 miles by air to Cairo. Water and fuel were treasured; a truck was towed more than 1,000 miles to get it repaired. By the same measure, patrols would destroy all Italian transport at an outpost and sever it from the world. Sometimes things went wrong. Sharing only two gallons of water and one tin of jam, two Guardsmen and a New Zealander walked across the desert for 10 days, covering 210 miles.