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A sullen atmosphere pervades the battlefield of El Alamein, its empty wastes evoking little of the monstrous struggle that took place here 70 years ago. And though the sun still beats down and the nights chill you to the bone, the odd fly gives little idea of the pestilential swarms that once multiplied on the food and faeces, mocking the dead and tormenting the living, while the occasional dust devils that flit across the gravel plains are a feeble reminder of the huge and debilitating storms that once pelted the troops with fine sand, pulverised by exploding shells and the movement of thousands of trucks, tanks and ordinance.

A regiment of the 51st Highland Division

The troops were young men who would never have been here if it hadn’t been for the war. Uprooted from their homes and thrown into a world of implacable killing machines and oriental strangeness, their confusion must have been total. A strong camaraderie and wild escapades in Cairo bound them together, but nothing could remove the sense of vulnerability and isolation. To sustain their sense of belonging, Major-General Douglas Wimberley, commander of the 51st Highland Division, did his best to keep his division exclusively Scottish, and preferably Highland, though a few lowland Scots from Glasgow had infiltrated the Highland regiments, and various English county regiments had been attached to bring the division up to strength.

El Alamein battlefield

The front line stretched 40 miles from the coast to the edge of the Qattara Depression where an escarpment and soft sands prevented flanking movements from the enemy. To the north of the Highlanders were the Australians, seasoned troops who had fought in Libya and had resisted five months of siege as the Rats of Tobruk. To the south of the Highlanders were New Zealanders, South Africans and Indians. Towards the Qattara Depression was a Greek brigade, more British Divisions, and at the end of the line, a battalion of Free French who had proved their mettle earlier in the year at the siege of Bir Hakeim. The armoured divisions were predominantly British and were corralled behind the infantry until passages could be cleared through the minefields.

To achieve a maximum of surprise, the infantry was moved up to the front line during the night of 22nd October, 1942, and told to dig slit trenches and lie in them throughout the following hours of daylight until the evening, when the attack was scheduled. A long and lonely vigil for the men, it was 7.00 pm and dark when they finally emerged to stretch their legs and receive hot meals from trucks that had advanced stealthily during the day. They filled their water bottles, checked their rifles and ammunition, stuffed a couple of grenades into their pockets and readied themselves for the assault. This was preceded by the largest artillery barrage of the war in which 750 guns were synchronized to fire their opening salvos at precisely the same moment. Like sheet lightning before thunder, the effect at the front line was an apocalyptic flash that lit up the heavens followed by a tremendous bang and shock waves that pounded through the ground into the very hearts of the men.

To break through the Axis defences, the infantry had to tread through four miles of mine-fields dotted with outposts of machine-guns and anti-tank-guns. Most of the mines were designed to knock out tanks and would not be triggered by a man’s weight, but scattered amongst them were anti-personnel mines which sprang up to waist height and delivered a lethal blast of ball bearings.

The plan was for the infantry to move ahead and knock out the gun posts while the sappers followed to clear two corridors for the armoured divisions to break through.

Black Watch pipe-major

The Highland Division advanced along a line a mile and a half wide, the men spaced five metres apart to make it more difficult for the enemy machine gunners to locate them, a separation that could make a man feel all alone in the smoke, dust and cacophony of the battlefield. To stiffen their resolve, Wimberly sent them off with the exhortation, “Scotland for ever and second to none”, and to each company, he attached a kilted piper, the skirl of the bagpipes piercing the noise of the bombardment and providing an emotional tie between the men and their homeland.

Amongst the regiments of the Highland Division was a battalion of the Black Watch, a proud regiment, raised shortly after the Jacobite rebellion to “watch” the Highlands, “black” because of their dark green tartan. As one of their companies approached a machine gun post, the merciless fire hit their piper, Duncan MacIntyre, but he carried on playing and broke into the regimental march, “Highland Laddie”. As the assault continued, Duncan was hit again, this time fatally, but he carried on playing until his breath gave out. The following morning he was found with his pipes still under his arm, his fingers on the chanter. He was 28 years old.

The grave of a highlander

Duncan had been born on the island of Islay in the Hebrides to a family of pipers. His family, later, uprooted and moved to Glasgow where his father and cousin found work playing in the Glasgow police band and Duncan in the city transport band. In June 1942, Duncan embarked from Clydeside with his regiment to sail round the Cape of Good Hope and up the East Coast of Africa to Suez, avoiding the Mediterranean which was deemed too dangerous. He disembarked in August, 1942, and was killed two months later. He is buried in the El Alamein Commonwealth cemetery along with two other pipers from the 51st Division.

Bruised in the past by the nightmare of battle, scarred by the present with concrete resorts spreading along the coast like a desert sore, the battlefield is now being eyed up by the government eager to exploit its reserves of gas and oil. But in a wry diabolical rebuttal, the old battlefield resists intrusion by holding onto its legacy of unexploded mines, no longer primed to explode on the passage of a tank but sensitive to the tread of a child.

This article was first published in the September 2011 edition of the Oasis Magazine, Community Services Association, Maadi, Cairo, Egypt