Brit-Yank freelance journalist roving around the Middle East.
Currently writing about regional geopolitics for National Geographic and others.
CAIRO—World War II was terribly unkind to Egypt. Never keen to partake in hostilities to begin with, the country nevertheless found itself thrust into the conflict as the European powers battled one another across vast swathes of its arid sands.
When most of the foreign troops packed up their tanks and left, the war remained behind in the form of up to 15 million land mines, many of which continue to litter the Sahara to this day.
Eliminating them has been the work of Egyptian ordnance disposal experts, the kind of soldiers and technicians who work on the edge of explosive eternity every day, but often have to guess what is where and then how best to deal with it. And few of them spend much time in libraries.
But the Italian military has particular interest in this explosive history—its soldiers took part in the fighting alongside Germany’s, and thousands died. Its troops also laid many of the mines. So, a handful of Italian officers have spent years scouring dusty old military archives to try to find the mines—and also the remains of the Italian war dead.
About a decade ago, an Italian Air Force officer discovered dozens of wartime charts and aerial photographs in a back room in Rome that are now being put to use identifying the largest clusters of explosives in Egypt.
In recent years, with the help of these maps, and drawing on the personal journals and sketchbooks of soldiers from all sides, researchers say they’ve built up the best picture yet of the mine-riddled battlefields.
Importantly, the old charts have the same reference points and use the same language as the extant writings from the time, says Aldino Bondesan, a professor at the University of Padua and president of the Italian Society for Military Geology and Geography (SIGGMI), which assiduously documents the remains of Italy’s campaign in Egypt. “We took some veterans with us on one of our trips and identified some of the exact foxholes they occupied.”
When you look at the sleepy expanses of northwest Egypt now, it can be difficult to imagine this was not so long ago one of the most hotly contested killing fields of the 20th century.
Where once enormous German Panzer and British MK tank divisions smashed headlong into one another, all within sight of the Mediterranean’s almost impossibly blue waters, now gated compounds patronized by Cairo’s urban elite in the summer months extend almost unbroken for over 70 miles along the coast.
Just off the main east-west highway at Dabaa, which was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting on the approach road to Cairo, Egyptian authorities recently green-lit the construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant, to be funded by Russia.
But in 1941 at the height of World War II, when the Italians and Germans led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, broke through the British line in Libya, and then surged forward intent on taking the Suez Canal and cutting off London’s access to the all-important oil fields of Persia, this area morphed into an 18-month-long melee of blood, bombs, and steel.
Mounting a fierce last stand just to the west of Alexandria, the British 7th Armored Division, known as the Desert Rats, and their allies laid down massive defensive fortifications. Around El Alamein, the narrowest point between the sea and the mostly impassable sands of the Qattara Depression, the rival armies faced off—and collectively laid more mines than the world had ever previously seen.
“In 1942, it sometimes seems as if they did nothing but shell each other and plant mines,” said James Moran, head of the European Union’s delegation in Cairo, which has contributed several million euros to the clean-up process.
For several decades at least after the war ended, the desert remained much as it had when the Allied armies—reinforced by emergency deliveries of U.S. arms—finally drove the defeated Axis powers from Egypt in November 1942. Such was the volume of abandoned unexploded ordnance, or UXO, that not even four massive military arms depots around the modern town of El Alamein have been enough to contain all that’s been dug up so far.
The Egyptian steel industry was able to sustain itself for decades by feeding of the thousands of tons of twisted military hardware abandoned among the sands, Aldino Bondesan says.
But come the early 1980s, when substantial oil reserves were discovered in the afflicted areas, the situation changed. All of a sudden Egypt had serious money riding on developing the Sahara. And with the implementation of the Egyptian-Israel peace accords, one of the region’s most intractable disputes, the Egyptian military, which operates a monopoly on mine clearance, finally felt itself able to pull some manpower away from the borders.
“After the 1979 treaty, the army was able to look inwards at the mines,” said Fathy El-Shazly, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia who until his death last summer served as head of Egypt’s land mine clearance unit. “It was only then that we realized how big a problem we faced.”
Fortunately for the Egyptian authorities, Aldino Bondesan and his SIGGMI colleagues have been hard at work for several decades now. Drawing heavily on the research of Major Paolo Caccia Dominioni, a sapper commander who returned to the battlefield throughout the 1950s and 60s to recover up to 7,000 dead bodies, they’ve identified every single Italian and German emplacement right down to company level—and some to platoon level.
By matching satellite imagery with markings on Afrika Korps maps, which are more intact than the Italian records because the mostly mechanized German divisions were able to retreat in a more orderly fashion than their un-mounted counterparts, they’ve pinpointed up to 30,000 defensive positions. The British Embassy in Cairo also says it handed over a series of WWII maps to the Egyptian government in 2000.
In most minefield environments such research might be interesting for academics, but of limited practical use. But in a battlefield as big as northwest Egypt, in which forces were often arrayed against one another along a 100-mile front, mines played a central role in funneling the enemy towards the strongest fortifications. Find the battlefield positions, and you find most of the mines.
“This is why we had to piece together all the maps, showing where the Germans, British and Italians were,” Shazly said in an interview in his downtown Cairo offices in late 2015. The walls of his operations room were dotted with photocopies of Nazi-era battle plans.
For the Allied forces, victory at El Alamein was an enormous boost to their fortunes, and a turning point in a war that had previously seen Adolf Hitler’s armies sweep all before them. “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat,” Winston Churchill said.
Given the immense task that still awaits them in decontaminating the Sahara, the Egyptians hope these battlefield maps will provide a similar breakthrough for their forces.