A different look at the war in the desert

Tobruk 1941 - 1942: The ruins of Tobruk fire station.

The noted fashion photographer Cecil Beaton abandoned his usual line of work for the ladies glossy magazines and spent most of the war working for the Ministry of Information. He produced a great volume of war related photography, much of it related to fairly conventional subjects.

Cecil Beaton portrait of a British tank driver peering out of his Grant tank in North Africa, 1942.

When the opportunity arose he looked for more interesting images. He had a particular interest in the indigenous people of different regions and sought to record how they were affected by the war. In early March 1942 he noted in his diary his impressions of the North African war:

The Bedouins, in the wadis near the shore, watching the battle wage backwards and forwards along the tableland, consider the protagonists mad. They see first one army then another retiring in haste, leaving behind a wonderful amount of loot. The Bedouins steal forward and sell their spoils to the conquering army.

A few months later the victors are vanquished; again the Arabs find great booty. They are the only people, so far, to win on this hazardous chess-board, where invariably the winner loses with his long lines of communication.

Only the Arabs understand how to live here in the desert. They have learnt little else. After the battle, in which tanks are set on fire, and their occupants fried alive, the fluid field of battle moves on, and the Arabs arrive to pick up, among the useless relics and impediments of destruction, the gold rings, wrist-watches, cameras and souvenirs from the stiffened bodies lying in the sun.

They will sell the silver strap of a wrist-watch that is worth fifteen guineas for a few pounds of sugar. Occasionally they are punished with the loss of an eye, hand or arm; for the Germans sometimes leave behind them fountain-pens and Thermoses which, when opened, ignite the secret fuse – then bang!

See CECIL BEATON’S DIARIES 1939 – 44 The Years Between

The Western Desert 1942: Abandoned Italian respirators lying in the sand.

Remains of German tanks form circular patterns in the sand at Sidi Rezegh in Libya.

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