During the Second World War, there were no natural features in the desert wastes that fringe the north coast of Egypt to provide cover for the belligerent armies. Troops had to protect themselves by digging slit trenches and planting minefields. When the troops moved on, the minefields remained, bringing death by stealth to generations of Bedouin who returned to their homes after the war.
For 70 years now, the lethal legacy has remained and prevented development along the North Coast. Cities could have been built to release the congestion choking the Nile Valley. Tourist resorts could have profited from the soft white sands of the Mediterranean. Irrigation channels and winter rains could have turned the area west of Mersa Matrouh into the bread basket of Egypt as in ancient times. Vast mineral resources could have been retrieved from under the desert sands: 13.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 4.8 million barrels of petroleum and 1 billion cubic metres of ground water.
Hostilities had been intitiated in 1940 when the Italian 10th army invaded Egypt from Libya and advanced 105 km to Sidi Barrani where it established a defensive position with fortified camps and extensive minefields. In December, the British located a gap in the minefields and broke through, drove the Italians out of Egypt and pursued them half way across Libya. Germany, however, came to the immediate support of its ally with two armoured divisions under the command of Rommel who struck back with such ferocity that the British were forced to retreat back into Egypt.
Rommel would have crossed the border if it hadn’t been for the Libyan port of Tobruk, garrisoned by Australians, which held out against every assault and threatened the German supply lines. This gave time for the British to plant a defensive belt of minefields around the Libyan border and Salloum.
After a period of intensive rearmament, the British launched a counter-attack in November, 1941, and in very heavy fighting relieved Tobruk and forced Rommel into a tactical retreat back into Tripolitania. But it was not for long, within a month Rommel counter-attacked and pushed the British back to a defensive position just west of Tobruk where the two sides faced off for four months until Rommel struck again in May 1942, took Tobruk and pursued the British into Egypt. This time the British took up a defensive position around Mersa Matrouh, heavily protected by mines. But Rommel outflanked them and lunged for the Nile, forcing the British to break out and take up a last ditch position along a line from Alamein to the Qattara Depression.
The battle along the Alamein-Qattara line commenced in July and lurched back and forth with both sides planting mines round strategic positions until Rommel was forced onto the defensive in September and established a minefield five miles thick, known as the “Devil’s Garden”, stretching from the coast to the Qattara Depression.
Mines, however, are not the only lethal legacy of the war. Rommel had first been stopped at El Alamein in July by the relentless bombing campaigns of the Desert Air Force and the devastating fire power of the South African artillery. On the opening night of Montgomery’s massive offensive in October, over 883 artillery guns each fired over 600 shells along the whole length of the line, the largest artillery barrage since the First World War. When the British eventually forced Rommel to retreat in November, 335 guns carpet-shelled the entire enemy sector under attack.
A fraction of those bombs and shells never exploded and became buried in the desert sands along with unexploded tanks shells, mortars and grenades. In international conventions, these are defined as unexploded ordnance (UXO) to distinguish them from landmines, which come under different protocols. They now constitute 75% of the hazardous load of the battlefields of North Africa.
Figures of 16-20 million mines are often given for the legacy of the war, but these figures are inflated by including unexploded ordnance (UXO). If we accept the Egyptian government’s own statistics that 25% of explosive material found are mines, there must be about 4-5 million mines remaining. The British and German governments, however, believe the real figure to be nearer 1.0 – 1.5 million based upon records from the war.
Whatever the true figures, the impact on lives remains tragic. In the period from the end of the war to 1996, 8313 casualties were recorded of which 696 were killed and most of the others seriously handicapped. In 2011, there were 21 casualties of which 7 were killed. But these figures are for the total number of mine victims in Egypt and don’t distinguish between casualties from the North Coast and those from the Sinai Peninsula and the Eastern Desert where over 5 million mines were planted during the Egyptian-Israeli wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973. Some figures from the 1990’s reveal that over 50% of all casualties come from the Sinai Peninsula and the Eastern Desert.
Throughout the 1990’s, growing international outrage at the ravages caused by landmines led to the Mine Ban Treaty of 1997 (the Ottawa Convention) which pledged state signatories to abandon the use of anti-personnel mines, destroy stock-piles, clear mine fields in their territories and assist victims.
Egypt, however, did not sign up (nor did the USA, Russia, China or Israel) remarking that the treaty should have includes provisions for making the state parties that laid mines responsible for their removal. Egypt also insists on its right to use mines in defence of its own borders.
Still angry at the perceived refusal of Britain, Germany and Italy to clear up their lethal legacy, Egypt has been soliciting other international assistance and in 2006 entered into collaboration with the UNDP to coordinate a campaign of mine clearance with a massive programme of development for the North Coast.
The preparatory phase was completed in 2009 in which the battlefields were surveyed, the network of minefields identified (totalling an area of 248 km2 ) and a pilot scheme launched for the clearance of mines in which 2.9 million mines/UXO’s were cleared from 35 km2.
All demining however is the sole responsibility of the army engineering corps and no civil oversight of the process was allowed, not even by Egypt’s civil programme directorate or the UNDP assessment team. This secrecy on the part of the army meant that any independent quality assessment was impossible, a lack of transparency which compromises future cooperation with international donors.
The follow up phase, slated for 2011 has now stalled. Both development and mine clearance are on hold as we await political developments and new economic management.
Meanwhile, the local Bedouin have established safe routes and tracks through the Alamein desert, allowing a view over a spectral landscape unchanged in time where 4500 British and Commonwealth troops died in a titanic struggle against one of history’s most brutal regimes.
We counsel strongly against independent tours of the battlefield. Our own tours are based upon 20 years of experience in military patrols and 20 more years organizing tours. We have made use of both Bedouin and military experience and have reconnoitred all our routes.
Most data is taken from the UNMAS reports for the mine clearing programmes 2000-2009