3. North Africa: The Desert War

"More common than heavy rain were the fierce sandstorms, sometimes so intense that visibility dropped to three yards, the hot wind felt like a furnace and the fine sand and dust found its way into everything. Eyes smarted, lips became cracked, lungs congested and men became irritable."

Graphic 41-42 Africa
British soldiers attacking at El Alamein, 1942
Photo: Public domain (Crown copyright expired)
Image: Michael Otterson
Image: Michael Otterson


The War in the Middle East

Robert Otterson spent the first nine months of 1941 on army duties in England, moving from base to base in training exercises for home defense. Although German bombing of England continued for several months in 1941, the threat of invasion gradually receded.

The letters to his wife during this period lack the urgency of those in 1940 at the height of the Blitz. He turns his attention often to domestic issues, and the war becomes a backdrop rather than a focus.

But by October he was on his way by ship to Egypt as part of the British 8th Army that was at that time successfully engaging Germany’s General Erwin Rommel in North Africa. Several letters were written at sea, some from desert camps in North Africa or from Cairo when on leave, but for most of the time the restrictions on what he could write led him to address all kinds of non-military subjects, including native animals. Anything else has to be deduced from what history records was happening across the wider battle front, and from his later letters, diary entries and photographs.

The first half of the following year, 1942, saw the Axis powers on the advance everywhere as Rommel launched his second offensive on January 21. Despite America’s entry into the war at the end of 1941, the Allied picture at this time was bleak. Singapore had fallen to a new enemy - the Japanese. Even Australia looked exposed.

Despite the impressions created by war films and books, war for the ordinary soldier is not usually one long series of heavy battles at the front line. War for the bulk of fighting forces means the constant movement, positioning and supply of vast numbers of men, moving like pieces on a chess board, and never-ending drills, training and war games. In the early months of 1942, Robert Otterson seems to have been away from the front lines, seemingly with very small groups of men on some assignment or other, although he sometimes hints at more than he was probably willing to tell his wife in a letter. On one occasion, he says things are expected to become quite “lively” and often mentions being “busy.” Yet for the most part, one senses that even in a war, much time was spent training, preparing - and waiting.

After the fall of Tobruk on June 24, 1942, Field Marshal Rommel pushed the advance of his Afrika Korps eastward through the northern deserts with the British 8th Army in retreat. With the possible exception of the days before the Battle of Britain in May 1940, this was the darkest hour of the war for the Allies.

General Bernard L. Montgomery watches his tanks move up in North Africa campaign, November 1942.
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration
General Rommel directs the Afrika Korps, 1941.
Courtesy German Federal Archive via WikiCommons.
British tanks advance in N. Africa, 1942
Believed to be in public domain
15th panzer division tanks advance on Mersah Matruh, 1942
Believed to be in public domain by virtue of date.

Top: General Bernard Law Montgomery, commander of British forces in North Africa, and below him, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, German commander of the Afrika Korps, known as the "Desert Fox."

Above, British tank column in North African desert, and elements of the 15th Panzer Division advancing on Mersah Matruh, June 1942.

Robert Otterson with Bren gun, a popular weapon with British troops.
Photo: Robert Otterson journal

Eleven days out from England, the 29-year-old soldier stood on the deck of the troop ship - a converted Cunard White Star liner - and watched a spectacular sunrise turn into dark storm clouds. Soon, rain was falling in torrents and the wind whipped the crests from the waves and sent them cascading over the deck. He stayed a while at the height of the storm to watch a petrel follow the troughs of the waves a few inches above the water, then Robert Otterson went back inside the ship to pen a brief letter to his wife.

In fact, it would be a long voyage from England around the southern tip of Africa to Port Tewfik, the Egyptian harbor at the southern end of the Suez Canal. Since he had no interest in the incessant card games played by most of the men, there would be plenty of time for quiet reflection. Robert Otterson found it by gazing over the ship’s side at night, watching the reflections of stars in the black water which then became churned up by the ship’s screws, or in the drifting, phosphorescent ghosts of jelly fish. At other times he would spot a dolphin or watch flying fish skim over the waves.

The temperature continued to climb as the ship moved south, following the coast of Spain towards the African coast. Avoidance of the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean would mean a much longer voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and up the coast of East Africa.

On October 22 the ship crossed the equator at Longitude 10W, and by the end of the month Robert Otterson had organized a Bible class among soldiers and airmen who shared his Christian views. Together with signaling classes, physical training and two ports of call, time seemed to drag less.

On December 21, his baby daughter’s first birthday, Robert Otterson spent most of the day driving across the desert in a fierce sandstorm, the first he had experienced and unlike anything he had known. “Visibility was only two or three yards and the fine sand and dust filled one’s mouth, nose and eyes,” he wrote. “At times the truck bounced over boulder-strewn ground, giving a bone-shaking ride.”

Everyone found the desert disorienting. Finally back at camp, he left at dark to look for the water truck some miles away, but then had trouble finding his way back. After some hours he met the Commanding officer and his batman in the same predicament. Eventually, they found their way to camp, but too late for the evening meal. Instead, the Commanding Officer obliged by cooking up some of his own scrambled eggs and heating some tomato soup.

Desert camouflage
Photo: Robert Otterson, 1941
Photo taken by Sgt. Robert Otterson in N. African desert, 1942, entitled "Camels"
Photo: Robert Otterson, 1941
Three soldiers in tent, N. African desert, Christmas 1941.
Photo: Robert Otterson, 1941

Top: Robert Otterson's desert tent is just discernible. In his journal, he captioned this photograph simply, "Camouflage."

Center: "Camels."

Above: Christmas Day, 1941, with two unnamed companions from his company.

Christmas, 1941, came and went, and it was easy to lose track of the days and weeks as each was indistinguishable from those before and after. In several of his letters in the first weeks of 1942, Robert Otterson wrote the date mistakenly as 1941, as if his mind was on other things.

And it may well have been. Rommel launched his second offensive on January 21 and it brought a string of German victories in Libya - the capture of Agedabia on January 23, followed by Benghazi on the 29th. The front line then settled between Gazala and Bir Hacheim. On the last day of January, Robert Otterson wrote to his wife for the first time in three weeks, as if reporting a day at the office, “because we have been so busy.” A week earlier he had received the first letter from his wife to reach the Middle East, and the following day five more came. “They arrived after a particularly hectic day, at a time when I least expected them, and you have no idea how they cheered me. Our chief joys in life are receiving mail, drawing rations, brewing tea, and going to bed.”

Meal times varied widely - three meals a day in theory, but the time for any of them could vary by as much as six hours. Cooking in the open was difficult, and sometimes accomplished by scraping a hole in the sand, pouring petrol into it and setting it alight. This worked to make food warm for a few moments, as long as there was no wind to spread sand over the meal. Better results were obtained when they could use dried camel dung as fuel.

British soldier's desert home made of sandbags, N. Africa 1941
Photo: Robert Otterson
British soldiers cook a meal in N. African desert, 1941
Photo: Robert Otterson, 1941
British soldier receives haircut in N. African desert, 1941
Photo: Robert Otterson, 1941
Grave of soldier J.R. Fell in N. Africa, about 1941.
Photo: Robert Otterson

Grave of J.R. Fell near the place in the desert where he died. He is memorialized at the Knightsbridge War Cemetery, Acroma, 25 miles east of Tobruk, Libya. Photograph from Robert Otterson's journal.

Tobruk, January 1942
Public domain

Above: Tobruk in January of 1942. The fall of Tobruk in June of that year was a heavy blow to Great Britain and the Allies.

Below: Street scene in Cairo, Egypt, in 1942. The National Bank Building is sandbagged against air raids. Egypt was of vital strategic importance to Great Britain.

Street scene in Cairo, 1942
Credit: Life magazine

Above: When they were in one place long enough, a decent refuge could be built for protection against sun and frequent sandstorms. The sandbags seem to be stacked up against the open back of a camouflaged truck. Robert Otterson captioned this picture, “My home.” The shadow is his.

Left: "Personal maintenance inside and out," he wrote next to these pictures. He has his back to the picture where men are preparing a meal, and is seated in the other for a haircut.

In mid-February Robert Otterson was part of the British forces on the forward lines, though he could not be specific in his letters. On the first night of his deployment, he and his Commanding Officer were given orders to get to a base HQ with a message. It was dark when they set off to cover a distance of four miles,  but the darkness and the desert had such a disorienting tendency that they decided to follow a telephone cable lying along the ground. After more than four miles, they found the cable had led them to another HQ. So, they turned around, the sergeant walking, allowing the cable to run through his fingers, while the OC drove the truck slowly alongside. Eventually, after a mile and a half, the cable was joined at right angles by another one. The decision to follow it proved a correct one, and after just over a mile they reached their destination at 2 a.m.. Sgt. Otterson had walked seven miles through the desert in total darkness, stumbling over scrub and sinking up to the ankles in sand. The following morning he was pleased to be able to move back from the forward troops with the OC’s truck and find a moment to despatch another letter.

Occasionally, especially when arriving at wells, the soldiers encountered small groups of Bedouin tribesmen, which provided an opportunity to trade such things as chocolate for eggs. Driving a short distance to where he had heard of one such camp, the sergeant arrived just as the Bedouins were making ready to move, and trade proved impossible. Filth and camel dung was strewn across the ground, and flies infested the place. In the midst of the dirt were children with expressionless faces, but the soldier noted that “their stolidity vanished like magic when I shared a bar of chocolate with them, and gave them a few biscuits.”

On February 22, a young lance corporal in the unit, John Robert Fell, was killed in an accident, and another was hurt. The soldiers of the Royal Signals buried Lance Corporal Fell in the desert a few yards from where he died, and erected a memorial of stones over his grave. “He was a pleasant young man,” Robert Otterson wrote home, “and one who had been with me for some time in England.” (John Robert Fell is now one of three and a half thousand soldiers whose deaths are memorialized at the Knightsbridge War Cemetery, Acroma, about 25 miles east of Tobruk, Libya). This sad incident positively locates Robert Otterson near Tobruk in February of 1942.

Three months before the Axis powers began their advance on Tobruk, one of the great battle sites of the war, Robert Otterson mentioned visiting it in one of his letters, but he did not give a date for the visit itself. “It was interesting to go there after hearing so much about it on the wireless,” he wrote. “In peacetime it must have been a very pretty place with its white buildings overlooking the little bay ... In fact, there isn’t one building left undamaged.”

On the same day he wrote of Tobruk, rain poured in torrents for several hours, turning the sand to thick mud but providing some drinking water that was a welcome change from what could usually be retrieved from the bottom of wells. During this time, when it was dry, this particular soldier was “living like a rabbit” in a deep hole he had dug in the sand just large enough for his bed, and which afforded a cooler refuge during the heat of the day. It was a good place to sleep until reveille - usually a burst of fire on a Bren gun - woke him. 

For this particular soldier, March came and went with the same relatively peaceful but nomadic existence of the previous few weeks. As the weather grew warmer, parts of the desert really did blossom as a rose, and the desert creatures became more common - scorpions and snakes, lizards and tortoises, ants, beetles, mosquitoes and the ubiquitous flies. Robert Otterson wondered what they all found to eat in the desert, but then noted with dry humor, “They have been fed a bit better since we arrived in the country, though.”

Two weeks into April, Robert Otterson’s life became much busier, and by the end of the month he was finding it difficult to get even a few minutes to write. A surprise parcel with a birthday cake (more than four months late) prompted him to write anyway, noting that the cake was in good condition except for “a little mildew” on the bottom. “What a luxury!” he wrote.  “Cake - the first for over six months.” It arrived on the 10th anniversary of his joining the army.

April passed and the pace continued to quicken. Individual cooking gave way to “mess” meals - communal eating - which suggests he was no longer on communications assignments, out in the desert with small units. Limited water was one of the continued frustrations - two pints per man per day for all needs, including washing and drinking. Occasionally, different kinds of wildlife were seen and offered slight variety in the diet. An officer shot a gazelle, and Robert Otterson ”bagged” a wild pigeon which he stewed with bully beef.

At the end of the first week in May, he was close enough to the North African coast to be able to take a truck to a “beautiful little bay sheltered by cliffs on either side,” and take a swim. The price the men had to pay was the journey each way over rough, bone-shaking ground. When they returned, a raging sandstorm made it difficult to make their beds in the open. Heavy rain followed soon after.

Calm before the storm

Then, suddenly and ironically, there was a break from the war - a week or more of longed-for leave in which Robert Otterson made it to Cairo by hitch-hiking 200 miles across the desert and then taking a train the rest of the way. The irony lay in the fact that two weeks later, Rommel would begin his big push against Tobruk and the string of towns to the east of it, and there would be no more leave.

Sgt. Robert Otterson as tourist, Cairo 1942.
Photo: Otterson family album

Above: Sergeant Robert Otterson as tourist in Egypt, 1942.

Sgt. Otterson began his letter of May 14 to his wife, written from Cairo: “Could you but see me now, you might get a false impression. Instead of roughing it in the desert, I am at present lying in bed surrounded with a mosquito net in a neat little cabin on board the S.S. Arabia - the Signals house boat on the Nile.”

In fact, leaving the train, he had completed a few formalities and then had been shown the way to the “Hyde Park” hotel to find a welcome bath - “to relieve my body of a large quantity of desert sand,” as he put it - followed by a hearty meal of eggs, chips, tomatoes, salad and tea. The fact that he reflects happily on eggs and chips as a main meal probably reveals two things - deliverance from the endless routine of army biscuits and bully beef, and his working class background where such a meal was staple fare.

Rested, he then took to the streets to see the ancient city as a tourist, although still in army uniform. The usual crowd of hawkers and shoe-shine boys predominated. If it was not cries of “baksheesh” every few yards, it was the offer of fly swats or dark glasses.

“Every shop window one looks in," he wrote, "he becomes a prospective customer, is invited to look over the wares, meanwhile partaking of a cup of Turkish coffee and a cigarette ... Everyone seems determined to get as much money as possible from the soldier while the harvest is ripe, and they try to charge exorbitant prices for articles.” Nevertheless, he bought a silk dressing gown, silk stockings and a bottle of jasmine perfume for his wife, a dressing gown for little Ruth, a silk frock for baby Ann and a gift for his mother.

The city itself, with its blend of east and west, enthralled him as he stood on one of the modern bridges spanning the Nile, watching new cars sweep past heavily laden camels, and a tall Arab on a donkey, the man’s feet almost trailing on the ground. Men wearing red fez headgear, turbans and European hats jostled against each other, and against women’s veils and the khaki caps of soldiers. Tramcars and buses rattled past horse-drawn cabs. Modern buildings dwarfed small native shops, thronged with people speaking Arabic, English, French and Greek. Like all tourists he visited the pyramids, the Sphinx and tombs, and the Blue Mosque, and had his photograph taken. On the Royal Signals recreational house boat, Robert Otterson met a soldier friend he had not seen for ten years, and the two of them made a tour of the milk bars and cafes, eating ice cream and fruit salads “just like two schoolboys.”

He was also invited to a party by some well-do-do Egyptian Christians, and commented at length on their hospitality and grace. He seems to have been very comfortable in their company, listening to classical music and talking to their well-educated children. The following night, it was dinner at the home of an English couple, followed by an Edgar Wallace play. Writing at the end of his leave to his wife - his fourth letter in five days, he told her he was ready to get back and “do some work.” Then  he added: “I love you very much and would give up my leave in Cairo or any city in the world just to be with you a few minutes.” The next day, it was several hundred miles by train and a series of hitched rides to get back to camp.

He had arrived back just in time to engage in the resistance to Rommel’s offensive. It was three weeks before he had time to dash off another letter. ”If you listen to the news on the wireless you will probably know the reason why,” he wrote on June 7. “Maybe I can tell you about it in a later letter without making a breach of security.”

That letter would never be written. Over the past year, the initiative had see-sawed between the British Commonwealth forces and the Germans, but now it was clearly with the Germans. On May 26, 1942, Rommel had renewed the attack, but was countered by strong Allied resistance on the Gazala Line.  Turning on Bir Hacheim, he broke defenses there, and then took Tobruk on June 17, with its thousands of defenders and supply base. Winston Churchill would describe the fall of Tobruk as one of the low points of the war.

The British then fell back on their line of defense at Mersa Matruh (see video), which Robert Otterson had passed through on his way back from leave in Cairo.  When the line fell at the end of June 1942, 7,000 British soldiers became prisoners, a wounded Robert Otterson among them. It could have been worse. He did not know it at the time, but his wife’s brother, Arthur Dix, serving in the Green Howards Regiment and whom he had hoped to see, had been killed at Bir Hacheim 26 days before his own capture.

Not until August would Rommel’s advance be halted and turned back at El Alamein.

German military map shows battle lines at Mersah Matruh, 1942
German military map: Public domain

Above:  German map showing the position of German and British forces up to the point of capture of the Allied troops at Mersa Matruk (German spelling). The orange writing at top right indicates the position of the British Mediterranean Fleet, and the orange lines the shipping lanes to supply the key ports of Alexandria and Port Said. German air attacks on British shipping are shown in blue.

The blue and orange arrows show the respective troop movements. After the fall of Mersah Matruk, the decisive battle would be fought soon after, just a few miles to the east at El Alamein before Rommel was finally stopped. From that point, the tide turned in the Allies favor, but those few weeks cost Sgt. Robert Otterson and thousands of others three years in prison camps.