- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003

THE LOST OASIS: THE DESERT WAR AND THE HUNT FOR ZERZURA

By Saul Kelly

Westview, $26, 302 pages, illus., maps

Autumn 1940 and the British were up against the Italians in North Africa, the Germans not yet having arrived in that theater of war. In his “The Lost Oasis,” Saul Kelly writes of one unit that: “The men of the LRDG patrols were quite a sight on their return to Cairo from a month’s trip in Libya. Unwashed (for the water ration did not allow it), bearded, burnt brown by the sun and clad in ragged shirt, shorts and sandals, they had the air about them of a bunch of wild-eyed Biblical hermits.

“The success of the first fully-fledged LRDG operation, which covered 4,000 miles, showed the capability of small armed units to travel anywhere in the interior of Libya.” The expedition’s leader was Maj. (soon to be Lt.Col.) Reginald Bagnold, who had put the Long Range Desert Group together in a lightning five weeks, once his submission of the idea had the approval of Gen. Sir Archibald Wavell, British Commander-in-Chief Middle East.

In an age of desert explorers, Bagnold was the greatest of them. In 1935 he was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Founder’s Medal for leading the 1929-1930 expedition to search for the “lost oasis” of Zerzura in the southern Libyan Desert. He also was awarded the RGS’ Gold Medal, the “ultimate accolade for an explorer.”

Bagnold combined personal drive, toughness and stamina with engineering curiosity to an extraordinary degree. He modified Henry Ford’s new Model T Ford to equip it for long distance driving across harsh desert terrain and crossing the high sand dunes that seemed to go on forever. He devised his own sun compass and other navigation equipment. He saw places never seen before. But he did not find Zerzura, the searchers for which founded the Zerzura Club in 1930 in a Greek bar in Wadi Halfa.

When World War II came, Bagnold, given carte blanche by Wavell, was able to bring numerous Zerzura Club members into the LRDG. They were a brilliant, desert-hardened collection, but of such an advanced age (mid-40s for Bagnold) as to dismay the troops rounded up by Bagnold for his command.

Reckoning that he needed maturer, more independent-minded men than usual, he was able to borrow cavalry and machine-gun personnel from the New Zealand force on hand. Finding that the cars were unable to bear the weight of guns needing to be carried, Bagnold settled for 30-cwt 4 by 2 commercial trucks. Needed equipment was scrounged from Cairo shops and other sources familiar from his peacetime deserts expeditions.

Wavell soon gave the LRDG an expanded role, which was to harass the Italians by destroying convoys, attacking airfields and other “piracy” in so many widespread locations that the enemy commanders didn’t know where the British were. When the Germans arrived after their assault on the Balkans in April 1941, the same treatment was waiting for them. Over the next 18 months, LRDG successes were many and their casualties light, though their were great trials to be born, such as 200-walks across the desert to safety. After the battle of El Alamein, LRDG units, now with the addition of Special Air Service forces, made their contribution to pushing Gen. Irwin Rommel out of Africa.

One member of the Zerzura Club conspicuously absent from membership ranks during the war was the Hungarian Count Ladislaus Almasy. Introducing Almasy, Mr. Kelly gives him the accolade “Knight of the Desert,” and he does cut the most romantic figure in the book, if not always the most trustworthy. Descended from old Hungarian nobility with castles, even occult Templarism, in his background, Almasy grew up hunting and as a young man fell in love with the new art of flying.

In the desert together before the war, one abrasive exchange occurred between Almasy and Bagnold, who disparaged the usefulness of planes as compared to cars. Almasy nevertheless flew and flew, discovering from the air wadis that had not yet been seen from the land. He also became superb at desert driving, though with a growing reputation for risk-taking.

A passionate Italophile, Almasy was like his British colleagues prewar a player in the political minuet danced between them and the Italians and French, who had invaded Chad in 1918. But not always on the same side. The political climate, as in the British-Italian struggle over the border between Libya, created in the runup to war a climate hospitable to double-dealing. Like his fellow explorers, Almasy drew maps, and some of these found their way into the hands of the Italians and even a desert handbook used by the Afrika Corps.

Almasy began WWII in the Hungarian Intelligence Service, then adopted the uniform of a captain in the Luftwaffe. His desert war was one of mixed fortunes. A mission to pluck Gen. Aziz ali el Masri, former chief of staff to the Egyption army, and deliver him to Berlin for talks with leaders there failed. Almasy led two Heinkel III aircraft deep into Egyptian territory, only to find that Masri already was dead from a plane crash the previous month.

An attempt to spirit two agents into Cairo failed when the German plane carrying them crashed, breaking the arm of Almasy’s superior, Maj. Nikolaus Ritter. Almasy’s Operation Salam which followed was a dramatic achievement. He drove two more agents Johann Eppler and Heinrich Sandstette 1,400 miles to the edge of Cairo and got back to base safely, all under the eyes of the LRDG and other British who knew he was out there.

Almasy was by this time making the enemy nervous. But his agents turned out to be night club habitues, their controllers had given them British currency which was illegal in Egypt at the time, and they had trouble with their radio equipment and so were unable to report back to their base. The rest of Almasy’s desert operations, mimicking the LRDG’s, never amounted to much. (Reports of Almasy himself slipping into and out of Cairo during the war are apocrypha.)

One of Bagnold’s fellow Zerzura Club members, Bill Kennedy Shaw, felt that Almasy had been given opportunities in the war but made little of them. Mr. Kelly suggests that he was unlucky, and I would add that Bagnold had many of his trusted comrades either in the LRDG or influential Middle East posts, whereas Almasy was relatively on his own. Moreover, the British held Cairo, enjoying far superior intelligence communications than those available to Almasy. George Murray, another Zerzura Club member, generously said of him, “a Nazi but a sportsman.”

All the founding members of the Zerzura Club survived the war, and in 1950 there was a reunion in Cairo to show off the Desert Institute, of which Almasy had been made director. He died the next year. Bagnold lived until age 94, his later work on the physics of blown sand and movement of dunes valuable to the U.S. National Air and Space Agency in their Mars probe.

Mr. Kelly lectures at King’s College, London, where he specializes in the history of the Great Powers in North Africa. His book is carefully researched on the activities of all sides in the desert war, with a rich compilation of references. He additionally relied on interviews with survivors in the conflict.

Here is the true history of the hunt for the lost oasis of Zerzura, romanticized in Michael Ondaatje’s novel “The English Patient” and Anthony Mingella’s Oscar-winning film of the same name. Many of the characters from which Mr. Ondaatje worked for his desert scenes are here from Cambyses’ army of 50,000 lost in the desert without trace around 525 B.C. to Herodotus, commenting on the harsh desert conditions, to Sir Robert Clayton-East-Clayton’s wife Lady Dorothy (“Peter”), who unlike the actress Kristin Scott Thomas in the movie does not fall in love with Almasy but, rather, finds him distasteful on account of his homosexuality.

Episodes from novel and film will come to mind. While Zerzura was never found by Bagnold or Almasy, the Wadi Sura with its Cave of Swimmers and rock paintings seems almost close enough. In life Almasy sketched the rock paintings, not Peter. Nor did she die there, but did perish in an air crash at Brooklands, England. Mr. Kelly’s book will be of keen pleasure to readers interested in the war in North Africa, and compliment the past reading and viewing of those who enjoyed “The English Patient.”

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