I wouldn’t have remembered that this week marks another WWII battle anniversary – that of El Alamein which ran for nearly two weeks in October and November 1942 – but for seeing a story or two in the Daily Mail about it. (A reflection upon the death spiral of the mainstream news is that I have a relatively low-brow popular British newspaper among my internet tool-bar favorites, rather than my own local metropolitan publication … alas, that is how low those local newspapers have fallen. Seriously, stuff shows up on the Daily Mail page days before it does in strictly American-oriented media. Sorry about that, San Antonio Express News.)
That second battle at El Alamein which broke the back of the Axis, revived Allied morale, and saw the beginning of the end of any attempt by the Germans to get control of the Suez Canal was a significant turn in that campaign in the deserts of North Africa. The fighting mostly involved British and Commonwealth and a scattering of Free Polish troops against the Germans and Italians; back and forth in Egypt and Libya almost as if it were a sea battle – fought not in water, but in sand. It’s a matter almost out of historical memory, especially for Americans who really only got involved at the tail end. Our memories of the desert war are mostly retained in movies like Casablanca, or a television series like The Rat Patrol.
Anyway – the desert; it has peculiar charms. My dad loved the desert, probably through spending so much time out in the Southwest American version: sky and sand, and the stars; there is immediacy to the sky, out and away from city lights. The stars are huge, the sky a velvet blue-black, the sunrises and sunsets spectacular. North Africa was another desert, a good bit more desolate than the Mojave that Dad knew and loved, and for your average English soldier, come from the soggy green meadows of the rural British Isles or the equally wet and eternally soot-stained urban regions, it must have seemed as alien as the moon … and three times deadlier.
One of the British soldiers who survived the North African campaign was Christopher Guy Landon, who had studied medicine before the war, and served as an officer in the Royal Army Service Corps during it. After the war and before his death in 1961 he was a writer of novels and screenplays. None of his output seem to be very well known today save for one, Ice Cold in Alex, which memorably distilled his experiences in North Africa during the war – and that only because a well-received movie was made from it in 1958 and filmed on location in Libya. Even the movie isn’t very well recollected on this side of the pond, since it does not seem to be available in the US on VHS or DVD. The book itself is out of print, but sparingly available.
It’s a rather short novel, barely 240 pages in the edition that I have – and it reads like something that Nevil Shute might have written; workmanlike in the story-telling, with characters interesting for their very ordinariness, and faced with a challenge that might very well break the weakest of them. There are four; Captain George Anson, a medical transport officer whose last nerve is rasped to tissue-paper thinness, his able and somewhat protective Sargent-Major, Tom Pugh – driver and expert mechanic – and Sister Diana Murdoch. Captain Anson is a man with a problem; actually several problems, the first of which is that he is barely holding on under the stress of two years in the desert and self-medicating himself with alcohol. The other is getting Sister Murdoch and another nurse out of Tobruk, which is about to be besieged by the Germans one more time. At the last moment, Anson and Pugh are ordered to take the two women – who have been accidentally separated from their hospital unit – safely to Alexandria. On their way out of Tobruk in an ambulance nicknamed Katy by her regular driver, they meet up with Captain Zimmerman, a white Afrikaner – who claims to be a radio-telephone officer attached with the South African division in Tobruk.
Of course, Zimmerman is not what he seems, but it does not matter very much to anyone but Tom Pugh, in the situation they find themselves in; headed through the open desert in a battered ambulance, buoyed up by Anson’s determination to buy them all an ice-cold beer in his favorite drinking spot in Alexandria at the end of their journey. Zimmerman has a strong back – and he speaks German. It’s a short book, as noted, and the plot is 1940s-fashion predictable, but the best part is in the small details.
“It was one of those things that happened so often: someone like the C.O. – whom you had eaten with, argued with, slept beside, and seen frightened – would get into his truck and say, “I’m going to swan over and see old Joe,” or “—look at that well,” or – get some beer from the N.A.A.F.I.” There would be a grin and a wave, the truck would be swallowed up in the night, to the fading beat of the motor, or dwindle to a speck on the rim of the desert.
And that was that: they didn’t come back.
Sometimes you found them afterwards. A riddled, burnt-out, twisted wreck, with an untidy bundle slumped in the seat, or lying on the sand beside. And the face, always, caught in that last moment of all, was never the face of your friend. Something had gone from it.
But you did what you could: marked the position on your map and sent the identity-disc back to the Graves people, there was the trench to be dug, as deep as the rock would let you go, with the stones piled on top to keep the dogs out.”
“They went on steadily with the engine monotonous in its even beat. The sun had fallen away behind them now and the square shadow of the ambulance was creeping farther and farther away ahead on the sand. The mirage had quite gone, there was a luminous purple tinge staining the sand, and on their right the cliff was close and clear, with the dark jagged cuts of the wadis showing like valleys on a coastline. Nothing else but their tiny moving speck on all that broad horizon.”
“The night was so still, so beautiful. The strip of sky that showed between the banks of the wadi was like a glittering river with the stars so bright and close that it seemed you had only to reach up your hand to pull them down…”
Ice Cold in Alex is a ripping good read, and a war story not quite like any other – and better for having been written by a veteran of the time and place. I suspect that Landon put a good bit of himself into the character of Captain Anson. Barely three years after the movie was released, Landon himself died from a fatal but supposedly accidenta combination of alcohol and barbiturates, according to the brief entry in Wikipedia.