MANY months ago the ill-fated General von Ravenstein, just captured while leading the German Twenty-first Armored Division, remarked to the young Scottish major acting as his escort: "The Western desert may be the tactician's paradise, but it is the quartermaster's hell!"
The first reaction of new arrivals in the Western desert always was: "What a wonderful place to have a war!" No houses to destroy, no mud, except for a couple of months in the winter, only one natural feature of any importance -- the rock escarpment running parallel to the coast a few miles from the Mediterranean all the way from the now famous Qattara Depression to Sollum and, after a short gap, continuing once again to Tobruk and Derna. It was, at any rate, a wonderful place for the British, and then the Americans, to learn the lesson of supply. In Africa we went to school for Europe.
About two thousand years ago the coastal area of the Western desert was a grape-growing district with settlements of cultivators. It is now a brown expanse of inhospitable rock and sand, inhabited only by a few verminous Bedouin tribes, a rare gazelle and the usual collection of candidates for the Reptile House. There is no water, except that provided by the ingenuity of man.
When the war began a good metalled road ran below the rock escarpment from Alexandria to Sollum, the Egyptian frontier port. Close by it, the Egyptian State Railway stretched in peacetime as far as the Western desert's only port (apart from tiny Sollum) -- Mersa Matruh. British and New Zealand military engineers, helped by labor companies from Mauritius, India and other parts of the British Commonwealth, extended the railway line first to the Italian frontier post of Fort Capuzzo, then to Belhamed and finally as far as the Cirenaican port of Tobruk. Similarly, the road was linked with the Italian "Littoriana" coastal road and eventually provided uninterrupted communication from Alexandria to Tunis and beyond, via Mersa Matruh,
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