Battlefield Sites

Egypt

El Alamein Railway Stop

In any conflict, the provision of supplies to combatants is always a factor foremost in the mind of military leaders. Numerous military leaders throughout history, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Frederick the Great of Prussia, are credited with the saying that ‘an army marches on its stomach’. In other words, an army will only be able to move about a theatre of war if it can be supplied with, among other material, food for soldiers, fuel for vehicles, and ammunition for weapons. The same simple rule applied in the Western Desert Campaign during the Second World War. Long supply lines stretched from the key Mediterranean ports along the coast and through to the armies at the front. It is understandable then that the bulk of the fighting throughout this campaign took place at points along those major supply lines. Before the Second World War even began, the British army had identified the area around El Alamein as an important site to defend. Both the main railway and the main coastal road passed through the narrow land corridor between the Mediterranean Sea, and the Qattara Depression (a natural depression of land which is largely prohibitive of vehicular movement). As such, the British constructed a series of ‘boxes’ (defensive points) throughout the area, and after being pushed back by the Axis forces in mid-1942 they retreated to this valuable defensive area. The railway stop, seen in this image, was situated behind the Allied front lines and was subject to Axis aerial and artillery attack. The current building still shows signs of this damage.

 

Image: The El Alamein Railway Stop, El Alamein.
Creator: Christopher Karkyides

Railway Line

In recent years the area around Alamein has become popular as a tourist destination for wealthy Cairo residents, and much of the area along the coast is now heavily built up with tourist resorts. However, a short drive south into the desert reveals the type of terrain that the Axis and Allied forces fought over in 1942. The railway line, seen here, runs alongside El Alamein from east to west. Visitors wishing to travel off the main road and into this battlefield area should plan their trip well in advance. Local approval is required to access much of this area, and this is best gained through communication with a local tour guide (note that many Cairo and Alexandria-based companies will not be familiar with this area). Some of the land is also located in an area controlled by the Egyptian military, and a permit will be required to access certain areas. Unexploded ordnance (such as land mines or buried artillery shells) also remain throughout much of the inland area, and visitors should not wander about without an escort. A sturdy four-wheel drive is required to access most areas of the main road, and a local guide should direct vehicular travel due to the risk posed by this unexploded ordnance.

 

Image: The railway line through the Western Desert, Egypt.
Creator: Christopher Karkyides

The Blockhouse

This Egyptian railway workers’ building, known to Australian soldiers during the Western Desert Campaign as the ‘Blockhouse’, was the site of fierce fighting during the critical Second Battle of El Alamein in late October and early November, 1942. As one of few standing structures in the broader area, it served as a key landmark and thus the centre for much of the fighting in the local area. The area around the Blockhouse, in particular, between the Blockhouse and the main road to the north, also became known to the Australians fighting here as ‘The Saucer’, because to the Australians based here it felt like they were being looked in upon on all sides by the Axis forces. In particular, Axis troops occupied the heights to the north-west, and German observers on those heights could see directly into the Australian positions. Throughout the fighting in this area, the Blockhouse also served as an ad hoc medical station, housing both Allied and captured-Axis medical staff.

Today, the Blockhouse itself has heavily deteriorated and the desert sands have begun to swallow up the external walls. As with most sites in this area, access to the area around the Blockhouse will need to be organised in advance, and a local guide and translator is essential for managing this. With these secure the Blockhouse is located a short drive off the main Alexandria-Marsa Matrouh Rd, about twenty five kilometres west of El Alamein. Unexploded ordnance also remains in much of the surrounding area, and visitors should not wander about without an escort.

 

Image: The Blockhouse, north-west of El Alamein.
Creator: Christopher Karkyides

2/3rd Australian Pioneer Battalion

This image, taken on 31 October, 1942, shows men of the 2/3rd Australian Pioneer Battalion in position close to the railway embankment near the Blockhouse. The unit, raised in May, 1940, was mostly made up of men from Sydney, New South Wales. After training in Australia throughout 1940 and 1941, the unit was eventually shipped to Egypt in late 1941. After undertaking garrison duties for several months, the unit moved into the area around El Alamein in August, 1942. The unit helped build up the local defences before playing a key role in the heavy fighting in the area around the Saucer and the Blockhouse in October and November, 1942, during which this photo was taken. The unit was withdrawn to Australia in early 1943, and saw service during several campaigns in the South-West Pacific Area, including areas of New Guinea and Borneo.

 

Image: The 2/3rd Australian Pioneer Battalion in position close to the railway embankment near the Blockhouse, El Alamein.
Source: Australian War Memorial P02743.001

 

Sources:

Mark Johnston, ‘The Blockhouse, El Alamein’, Wartime, 8, Summer, 1999.

Jon Latimer, Alamein, Harvard University Press, 2002

Australian War Memorial, http://www.awm.gov.au

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