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Searching for the desert’s dead


This is an account of how John, Edward (aged 17) and Jack (aged 15) went to search for “The Right Spot” – the grave of John’s Uncle Bob, killed at El Alamein on June 28th 1942. In our possession we had two letters written just after his death, one from his commanding officer and another from a close friend and fellow officer. One of these described the location as being “3 miles south of the 25km post on the road east of Mersa Matruh”.

Sunday April 3rd. This was an exciting first day in Cairo and the surrounding area. We started early and with our guide, Amr, visited the Museum of Egyptian Art. Here, we saw ancient artefacts dating back 5,500 years and learned a great deal about Eyptian culture. Their belief system centred around Ra, the God of the sun. A day’s span represented a man’s life, rising at birth in the east and setting across the Nile in the west.

For this reason, they had a Ra boat which carried the deceased kings across the Nile from the populated east bank to the west bank where the pyramids, all 33 of them, are built on rising ground. The design of these immense structures is complex but again centred around Ra. The shape represents the suns rays as it shines down from the heavens

The body, once mummified, was placed in the centre of the pyramid and, after judgement from the Goddesses, was mythically transported up to paradise.

We saw the incredible treasures from Tutankhamen’s tomb – really very spectacular. All the gold was such a contrast after looking at so many grey, old stone carvings.

Leaving the museum, we saw the pyramids, papyrus being made, much poverty, and took the obligatory camel ride.

Our first real adventure occurred when we returned to Cairo. Ed, being a keen rower, had spotted the Cairo Police Officers Rowing Club so we decided to try and bluff our way in.

At the pyramids

We managed to blag our way past security and into the club where we were introduced to and greeted by a very imposing man – built by the same firm that did Stonehenge – who turned out to be a Major in the police force, head rowing coach of the club and a coach for the national rowing team. After shooting the breeze about Henley, Redgrave, ergos, etc – all over a mint tea, naturally – he asked if we’d like to visit the boat house. We accepted enthusiastically thinking it was below the club house.

As luck would have it, we needed his private launch and a police escort to get there. So off we went to meet some of the crews, drink yet more mint tea and have a little cruise on the Nile. Magical.

The good major gave me his business card, which I kept in a very safe place just in case it would come in handy in the desert, and promised to get a couple of t-shirts for our return (which he duly did).

That evening, we had dinner on a cruise ship on the Nile and Ed was persuaded, without much encouragement at all, to join the belly dancer on stage.

On returning to the hotel, there was a wedding about to start. The traditional bands and singing and dancing rounded off what had been an exceptional start to the holiday. We collapsed into bed tired, happy and highly optimistic about setting off for the desert the following day.

Monday April 4th. Another early start and a last chance to have a civilised shower and breakfast – an opportunity not missed by any of us.

Heading out to the desert

After packing, we met our guide for the next week, Mohamed, and our driver, a sullen, taciturn Arab called Nageeb. The Toyota Land Cruiser we had been promised was indeed a Toyota Land Cruiser – Series I. We had not been misled. It did as promised have air conditioning. It just didn’t work. We had been promised traditional camping. Judging by the motley collection of rugs on the roof rack, this was going to be very traditional – and not very cosy.

So, we piled in and threaded our way through the bustling and incredibly noisy traffic for El Alamein and a quest for uncle Bob’s grave near Mersa Matruh.

Spending a week with 2 complete strangers, one of whom doesn’t appear to speak any English, in potentially difficult circumstances could have been disastrous so we set about charming the locals as best as possible. Lots of chewing gum, cigarettes and as much cheerful banter as was practical.

Nageeb had been up since 3.00am preparing the vehicle so we stopped for breakfast at about 10.30 at a “coffee shop”. It was here that I got out the letters from 1942 to explain what we were trying to do – and here that the whole holiday started to become something rather special.

Mohamed, it turned out, was a history teacher, so immediately became very animated when he learned the story and overwhelmed when he saw the significance of the two letters. Nageeb started to loosen up a bit and began puzzling over where the spot was we were looking for. He was convinced we were looking for a tomb or grave.

So, we set off again for El Alamein, about another 3 hours drive away, and it was during this time that Nageeb went through something of a transformation. Having taken the morning to size us up, he now decided that this was going to be great fun. His English improved remarkably and he decided that he wished all safaris were like this rather than the four old, fat women he’d driven the previous week!

We reached El Alamein (“two flags” in Arabic), a name etched on most Englishmen’s hearts, at about 12.30. It was, as expected, a scruffy building site with little to commend it other than the fact that it was on the coast. By contrast, the military museum and the memorial were cool, orderly, graceful places.

We visited the museum first. Having done a modicum of research before going, I knew that Bob had been in charge of four 25 pounders at the time he was killed. The allies were in retreat at the time during Rommel’s fast push east after taking Tobruk. Rommel aimed to (and succeeded) cut the road between Mersa Matruh and El Alamein.

Amongst other military hardware we found a 25 pounder in the static displays and, in the museum itself, the German battle plan for the very action where I knew Bob had been a casualty.

From there, to the memorial. A simple but very graceful monument overlooking the Western Desert where so many casualties had been sustained. I found Bob’s inscription without too much difficulty and managed to snatch a few minutes of peace on my own with my thoughts.

The El Alamein Memorial

I also found the inscription for the B Leftwich killed the day after Bob and took a photo of that too, for completeness.

The boys were quite boisterous for some reason, contrasting quite strongly with my more sombre mood.

After competing with half the Egyptian Army for a seat in a coffee shop to have lunch we set off for Mersa Matruh – and the legendary 25km post on the road to the east.

I had been warned that it could be impossible to reach the spot. There are still many live munitions lying around in the desert and in places it can be quite dangerous. Indeed, we drove for miles and miles past a walled off area that was an old minefield.

The km posts drifted by – 110 km, 95 km, 80 km. The nearer we got, the more tense I became and the quieter the atmosphere in the Toyota.

All of a sudden, when I knew we were getting nearer, the next signpost appeared. 20 kms. We’d missed it and so had to retrace our steps. As it turned out, the 25km sign was in Arabic so I (and Nageeb) had missed it.

We found a track off the road which was heading pretty much due south so followed that and tracked our progress on the milometer. Just short of 3 miles, Nageeb stopped and asked a farmer something in Arabic, presumably if he knew of a tomb or grave nearby. Not surprisingly, the answer was no.

I sat in the passenger seat and looked at the terrain. It was bleak, scrubby desert. A mixture of sand and black pebbles. Flat with only gentle low hills to the south. But I knew we were close. We were almost exactly 3 miles south of kilometre post 25 east of Mersa Matruh.

As I looked, I saw a grove of small trees about 400 yards away to our right, about the only distinguishing feature in the whole landscape. So we drove across the scrub to get there.

I felt it was the right spot or at least near enough to make no difference. The small grove of trees was in a slight gully and fed by an ancient well. The shade from the trees would be a cool final resting place. Not only that, but the gully would have created a good defensive position for Bob’s guns facing south towards the advancing German armour.

With my mind made up, we dug a small hole, put the cross of poppies at the head and then buried the commemorative booklet, undelivered letters from Gran and a photo of the war memorial in the sand.

I said hello to Bob and told him why we there. It was a struggle but I think I managed to blurt out something reasonably coherent. Then Jack said a few words and Edward read the first 5 verses of “For the fallen”.

They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We shall remember them.

I was taken aback when our Egyptian guide, Mohamed, asked if he could say something. He was very gracious and thanked Bob for giving his life to help expel the Nazis from his country.

It was all very dignified and quite lovely, although you couldn’t help but think “Why here?”

We climbed out of the gully and began to make our way back to the vehicle.

I am sure that someone of a religious, spiritual or superstitious disposition would choose to describe what happened next differently. I am none of those things so will tell it in my own way.

As we started walking, I suddenly realized that I was never going to visit this place, so famous in family folklore, again so I would just take one last look. The time was about 5.00pm, and approaching dusk. In other words, about the time that Bob was killed and the time of day when he was buried in his “gunner’s grave” with three spent cartridge cases and his cap.

Nageeb, the driver

There was a mound of sand about 4 feet tall which I climbed to get the best vantage point. As I got to the top, I called to the boys to come and join me quickly.

The sun was starting to come out from behind the clouds. As it did so, it cast four distinct rays of light to the desert forming a perfect pyramid. Most remarkable of all, the sun was in a direct line above the cross which we had so recently placed in the desert.

The parallels with everything we’d learned the day before about the sun god, Ra, were unmistakable and very powerful.

I said “That’s an unbelievable coincidence”, and we left, slightly sombre, but happy in the knowledge that we had indeed found the right spot.

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