In Retrospect - a Vignette

by John Rimington

'TOTAL WAR'. I often wonder whether we who served in the Western Desert between l939 and 1943 ever really understood the true meaning of that phrase. Oh, yes, there were those men, tens of thousands of them, who lost their lives: for these the ultimate victims, the desert war was indeed a total one. Death is, after all, as fatal in one field of battle as in another. And there were those other tens of thousands of poor devils who went home alive, but crippled and maimed for whatever length of life the surgeons had managed to save for them: I don't suppose that many of them felt especially privileged because they received their injuries in North Africa rather than in other theatres of war.

Nevertheless, amongst the hundreds of men who served and survived through he Middle Eastern campaign I know many who, like myself, still think themselves lucky that it was to that part of the world we were drafted, and not elsewhere.

We sometimes used to discuss it, leaning against our vehicle in the stillness of the desert nights. To think, right now, we might be hacking our way through some steaming jungle in the Far East, our legs alive with greedy leeches. We might be clinging for dear life, our hands frozen to a metal stanchion in the agonizing cold of the Barents Sea on our way to Murmansk. We might be fighting hand-to-hand through the rubble-strewn back alleys of a shattered town on the mainland of Europe, with terrified children clinging to the skirts of our khaki greatcoats ...

No, even in our worst moments of homesickness and depression we recognised that, by contrast, our war was somehow more civilized than the others; cleaner and yes, more sporting.

The word 'arena' derives from the Latin for 'sand': and the million or more square miles of sand between the Nile Delta and Tunisia provided a clear, natural arena for the ebb and flow of mobile conflict. There were no crowds of helpless, hapless, homeless refugees to be caught in the crossfire, no towns or villages shells to be shattered by shells and bombs, no green acres of farmland to be ground into muddy ruts by the tracks of heavy tanks. Tough and relentless though it might be, the game was one in which only the players risked getting hurt.

Perhaps it was this that conditioned the attitudes of the combatants. Perhaps it was this that prompted Erwin Rommel, a hard and realistic general of the Prussian School, to take time out in the heat of battle and stop to gossip with wounded British soldiers and to see that they were given medical supplies before he moved on to catch up with the battle.

Perhaps it was this that prompted me, after my unarmed 'soft' vehicle had been rounded up on the Trigh el Abd by a support unit of the 21st Panzer Division, and I had been held prisoner for forty-eight hours, later to report to a New Zealand battery commander that my captors had been "A bloody good bunch of blokes".

In what other theatres of war, I ask you, would it have been thought necessary (as General Montgomery found it) for an Army commander to send a printed circular letter to all troops under his command, pointing out that the opposing commander was not a romantic hero, but a ruthless enemy.

Perhaps, though, the best illustration of the special atmosphere of the desert campaign came from a German Officer whom I met, some thirty years after it was all over, at a business seminar in Switzerland. Finding that we had served on opposite sides during the campaign of 1939 to 1943, we compared notes over a drink.

"So you finally won in Africa" he admitted. "But I always thought the whole thing was rather unfair. We should have changed ends at half time."