Alamein, Tobruk and Alex

I wouldn’t have remembered that this week marks another WWII battle anniversary – that of El Alamein which ran for nearly two weeks in October and November 1942 – but for seeing a story or two in the Daily Mail about it. (A reflection upon the death spiral of the mainstream news is that I have a relatively low-brow popular British newspaper among my internet tool-bar favorites, rather than my own local metropolitan publication … alas, that is how low those local newspapers have fallen. Seriously, stuff shows up on the Daily Mail page days before it does in strictly American-oriented media. Sorry about that, San Antonio Express News.)
That second battle at El Alamein which broke the back of the Axis, revived Allied morale, and saw the beginning of the end of any attempt by the Germans to get control of the Suez Canal was a significant turn in that campaign in the deserts of North Africa. The fighting mostly involved British and Commonwealth and a scattering of Free Polish troops against the Germans and Italians; back and forth in Egypt and Libya almost as if it were a sea battle – fought not in water, but in sand. It’s a matter almost out of historical memory, especially for Americans who really only got involved at the tail end. Our memories of the desert war are mostly retained in movies like Casablanca, or a television series like The Rat Patrol.

Anyway – the desert; it has peculiar charms. My dad loved the desert, probably through spending so much time out in the Southwest American version: sky and sand, and the stars; there is immediacy to the sky, out and away from city lights. The stars are huge, the sky a velvet blue-black, the sunrises and sunsets spectacular. North Africa was another desert, a good bit more desolate than the Mojave that Dad knew and loved, and for your average English soldier, come from the soggy green meadows of the rural British Isles or the equally wet and eternally soot-stained urban regions, it must have seemed as alien as the moon … and three times deadlier.

One of the British soldiers who survived the North African campaign was Christopher Guy Landon, who had studied medicine before the war, and served as an officer in the Royal Army Service Corps during it. After the war and before his death in 1961 he was a writer of novels and screenplays. None of his output seem to be very well known today save for one, Ice Cold in Alex, which memorably distilled his experiences in North Africa during the war – and that only because a well-received movie was made from it in 1958 and filmed on location in Libya. Even the movie isn’t very well recollected on this side of the pond, since it does not seem to be available in the US on VHS or DVD. The book itself is out of print, but sparingly available.

It’s a rather short novel, barely 240 pages in the edition that I have – and it reads like something that Nevil Shute might have written; workmanlike in the story-telling, with characters interesting for their very ordinariness, and faced with a challenge that might very well break the weakest of them. There are four; Captain George Anson, a medical transport officer whose last nerve is rasped to tissue-paper thinness, his able and somewhat protective Sargent-Major, Tom Pugh – driver and expert mechanic – and Sister Diana Murdoch. Captain Anson is a man with a problem; actually several problems, the first of which is that he is barely holding on under the stress of two years in the desert and self-medicating with alcohol. The other is getting Sister Murdoch and another nurse out of Tobruk, which is about to be besieged by the Germans one more time. At the last moment, Anson and Pugh are ordered to take the two women – who have been accidentally separated from their hospital unit – safely to Alexandria. On their way out of Tobruk in an ambulance nicknamed Katy by her regular driver, they meet up with Captain Zimmerman, a white Afrikaner – who claims to be a radio-telephone officer attached with the South African division in Tobruk.

Of course, Zimmerman is not what he seems, but it does not matter very much to anyone but Tom Pugh, in the situation they find themselves in; headed through the open desert in a battered ambulance, buoyed up by Anson’s determination to buy them all an ice-cold beer in his favorite drinking spot in Alexandria at the end of their journey. Zimmerman has a strong back – and he speaks German. It’s a short book, as noted, and the plot is 1940s-fashion predictable, but the best part is in the small details.

“It was one of those things that happened so often: someone like the C.O. – whom you had eaten with, argued with, slept beside, and seen frightened – would get into his truck and say, “I’m going to swan over and see old Joe,” or “—look at that well,” or – get some beer from the N.A.A.F.I.” There would be a grin and a wave, the truck would be swallowed up in the night, to the fading beat of the motor, or dwindle to a speck on the rim of the desert.
And that was that: they didn’t come back.
Sometimes you found them afterwards. A riddled, burnt-out, twisted wreck, with an untidy bundle slumped in the seat, or lying on the sand beside. And the face, always, caught in that last moment of all, was never the face of your friend. Something had gone from it.
But you did what you could: marked the position on your map and sent the identity-disc back to the Graves people, there was the trench to be dug, as deep as the rock would let you go, with the stones piled on top to keep the dogs out.”

“They went on steadily with the engine monotonous in its even beat. The sun had fallen away behind them now and the square shadow of the ambulance was creeping farther and farther away ahead on the sand. The mirage had quite gone, there was a luminous purple tinge staining the sand, and on their right the cliff was close and clear, with the dark jagged cuts of the wadis showing like valleys on a coastline. Nothing else but their tiny moving speck on all that broad horizon.”

“The night was so still, so beautiful. The strip of sky that showed between the banks of the wadi was like a glittering river with the stars so bright and close that it seemed you had only to reach up your hand to pull them down…”

Ice Cold in Alex is a ripping good read, and a war story not quite like any other – and better for having been written by a veteran of the time and place. I suspect that Landon put a good bit of himself into the character of Captain Anson. Barely three years after the movie was released, Landon himself died from a fatal but supposedly accidental combination of alcohol and barbiturates, according to the brief entry in Wikipedia.

(cross-posted at my book blog, and at

16 thoughts on “Alamein, Tobruk and Alex”

  1. Sgt I have a feeling you like historical novels too (;-) ) – a great one on the North African Campaign is Stephen Pressfield’s Killing Rommel – one of the things that stayed withe me was his description of these desert battles – comparing them more to ocean battles than land – for – the fronts would roll back and forth 100s of miles – there was no place to stop and “regroup”.

    And a central part of the book is the Long Range Desert Group – from which the 60s series Rat patrol was based (rather loosely I might add) – but the actual one – staffed mainly by New Zealanders , relied on Chevy pickups bought in Cairo and modified for desert use.

    Interesting time – that period in North Africa – where the SAS started too. Read
    the history of Paddy Mayne –

    One wonders “what if” and Hitler was starving Rommel of supplies with the demands of the Eastern Front.

    Guess it is fortunate that he was starved – but from that book I acquired an interest in Erwin Rommel – the only treason he was implicated in the 1944 assassination plot – he was one of the few Nazi Generals who had the respect and admiration of the allies, and had the plot been successful agreed to be their liaison.

    The admiration, incidentally, accrued in North Africa for his humanitarian side.

  2. I just bought Easter Day 1941 on Amazon. A fictional story about some lost soldiers behind enemy lines in a captured Italian M13/41. I read it 25 years ago and just found it on Amazon after linking to some WW2 sites on books.

  3. “Killing Rommel” is a great novel, almost the equal of Gates of Fire. My review is here.

    The most common criticism of Montgomery was that he could plan set piece battles, like El Alamein, but could not handle mobile maneuver battles. That is where Patton excelled. He is still idolized in Britain, at least as best one can judge from the Imperial War Museum.

  4. (A reflection upon the death spiral of the mainstream news is that I have a relatively low-brow popular British newspaper among my internet tool-bar favorites, rather than my own local metropolitan publication … alas, that is how low those local newspapers have fallen. Seriously, stuff shows up on the Daily Mail page days before it does in strictly American-oriented media. Sorry about that, San Antonio Express News.)

    The Daily Mail has a lot of coverage of US events, to the degree that it is often cited as a source for US news here in the US. It isn’t just WW2 nostalgia. Which explains why it showed up on your Internet toolbar.

  5. It’s a sad commentary that when it comes to political reporting one gets a better report from the British newspapers than our own.

    Thanks God for the Internet…

    Michael – I’ll have to read Gates of Fire – after I finish the Adelsverein

  6. Great to read more about Alamein – thanks. I’ve recently been in touch with an old soldier who was at Alamein, Wilf Shaw of Oldham, UK.
    See below to read of Wilf’s memoir, describing what it was like to be at El Alamein with Monty’s 8th Army:

    “My feelings, bearing in mind what had happened previously at Gazala and in the most appropriate phrase I can think of, were “fatalistic resignation”. I just couldn’t see how I was going to get through it without serious injury or worse, which I didn’t, but, thank God, I didn’t lose a limb. I am not ashamed to say I was scared as hell, I was part of a section of 8 or 9 who advanced towards dug-in Italians with Bredas, no more than 40 or 50 yards away. They opened up as we advanced and hit most of us, I hit the deck and jammed the rim of my steel helmet into the ground, it was an action that surely saved my life because a bullet smashed straight into it, it broke through the steel and dropped on the inside of the camouflage net which covered my helmet. I was on the right extremity of the advancing section, the lad on my left had been hit around his mouth and neck and was in a bit of a state. I can still remember his name, it was either Diggle or Dibble, I found out later that he didn’t die from his injuries.

    An officer leading us gave the order to charge forward. I did and threw hand grenades and we overran the enemy positions. I ended up in an enemy trench on top of a dead Italian. There was only the officer and myself who managed to get that far. I think if I was hearing this from anyone else I would find it hard to believe.

    It was the following day when I got hit when doing the same thing in broad daylight and this time it was shellfire and, of all the places to get a shell splinter, it was beneath my left armpit. It penetrated almost, but not quite through to the front, no bones hit or no blood vessels, which I think is remarkable considering all the blood vessels there are there.
    I was taken away by a modified 3-tonner with others who were casualties. The three tonner made its way out through a minefield. I passed through 2 or 3 casualty clearing stations over the next few hours, finally ending up at 106 South African field hospital late at night on 24 October. We were attended to and finally got to bed. The tented ward had 2 radio speakers and the song being sung when I finally got my head down was, ” When you come to the end of a perfect day” !

    That’s some tale isn’t it? And I wouldn’t blame anyone if they found it hard to believe.
    The one thing that must be so memorable and must stand out starkly in the minds of all those who took part, and that was the artillery barrage of the 25 pounders which were in close support behind us, the only record I have seen of that barrage was in the film ” Desert Victory”. It really did feel that the tide was about to turn and, indeed, after stiff initial resistance by German and Italian forces, that was exactly what happened and just over 6 months later after further successful assaults at Mareth and Wadi Akarit, the Axis forces were driven out of North Africa for good, just as Winston Churchill said of the battle, ‘Before El Alamein, we never had a victory, after El Alamein, we never had a defeat’.”
    Yours truthfully and sincerely
    Wilfred Shaw

    You can also read more about my own Dad, Bill Cheall’s, war at my fightingthrough web site. My Dad’s memoirs were published last year and this site is a companion to the book, with extracts from Dunkirk and other actions, together with loads of photographs not available in the book. Take an especial look at the News section – – for pognant updates from comrades’ families, more about Wilf, and the discovery of my Dad’s 1936 Morris Ten still alive and revving today!

    Paul Cheall
    Son of Bill Cheall and editor of my Dad’s memoirs

  7. From the Wilfred Shaw remembrance:

    he had been hit around his mouth and neck and was in a bit of a state.

    …”in a bit of a state.” Lord, how I love British understatement.

  8. No offense to the brave men who fought at Al Alamein, but the most decisive fighting of Oct./Nov. 1942 was at Guadalcanal and Stalingrad, the latter where the daily casulty counts for the Germans exceeded nearly those of the entire month in North Africa.

    And I sincerely hope the British government will rescind its decision not to allow the last few survivors of the Arctic convoys to be recognized by the Russian government for providing a vital lifeline to a nation fighting for its survival.

  9. I suppose you could argue it in hindsite that Stalingrad and Guadalcanal were at least equally decisive – but the victories there weren’t actually seen as such until well into early 1943 – and one was on the Russian front and the other halfway around the world and an American show. Alamein was right there in Oct-November, it was a British Commonwealth victory and it seemed clear to just about everyone so.

    I hope they will rescind that decision, too. The Russians so shorted the Allied ressuply convoy, that now they are ready to recognize the survivors is a pretty generous step. It seems rather churlish ofthe British government to forbid it.

  10. Sgt – a bit off topic – but I read something the other day that really shocked me. Monte Casino is pretty much in the back pages – but it was a long, bloody battle.

    What surprised me was reading of a German veteran of the Eastern Front -and then moved to Italy – saying Monte Casino was worse than Stalingrad.

  11. I had a friend, who was lead hand at this factory I worked at when I was young. He was an SS Sargent at Stalingrad and when he was captured he and 1300 others went into Russian POW camps. Only 400 of them had survived when he was released in the mid fifties. He said the big confident guys went first.

  12. When I was stationed in Germany in the early 70s, I was friends with a German civilian who ran the photo lab we were allowed to use.

    He was an interesting fellow – drafted, talked of the heady days when he was marching into Paris – then sent to Norway.

    Then sent to the Eastern Front – never said where but I suspect Stalingrad – captured of course and he said the only way he stayed alive was that he was a diesel mechanic and the Russians needed diesel mechanics.

    I think – like those 1 in 10 Germans who came back – he was one of those released in 1955 from the Gulags.

    Pengun: if your friend was in the SS and captured by the Russians they usually just shot them.

    Another friend whose father was drafted by the SS in the closing months of the war – captured by the Russians and released – only thing that saved him was not having the tell take SS ID tatooed on his arm – they didn’t have the time to do this in the closing months.

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