The Ivory Desert

An Irish playwright who scored his initial success with the Abbey Theatre and whose unforgettable play, The Moon in the Yellow River, was a hit in London and Dublin, DENIS JOH NSTON served during the war as a BBC correspondent in the field. He reached the front at the time Rommel had the British Army on the run; he worked in the desert, then in Italy, finally with the Americans in Germany, ami out of his experiences has come a unujue, powerfully written book, Nine Rivers from Jordan. One cannot classify it, for it is autolnography, adventure, parody, mysticism, and farce. It will be published this month under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint; and from it we have drawn the arresting episode which follows.


I AM a radio war reporter sent out by the British Broadcasting Corporation to take the place of Edward Ward, one of their correspondents in the desert, taken prisoner earlier in the year. It is my first job of this kind, and I have not been in the Middle East long enough to get over my initial surprise. In fact, I have not yet fully unpacked, because everybody in Cairo is busily doing the opposite.

I had imagined that I was going to be entrusted with some pretty serious work out here. Knowing what was wanted under our system of free and objective reporting, I was not going to concern myself with propaganda. I was going to describe soberly and sensibly exactly what I saw, and give the people at home the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, whether happy or unfavorable.

It appears, however, that the greater part of our tank force has recently been scuppered in the neighborhood of an empty barrel in the desert dignified by the name of Knightsbridge, and that our Cairo office is arranging to remove itself to Jerusalem, and from thence — should occasion arise—into the interior of Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, I am told it is imperative that I do no broadcasting at all. The situation is much too difficult for a newcomer, and all hough I am welcome to the entire coverage of the

desert field force if I choose to take it, I needn’t think that I can make use of anybody vise’s transport.

Our office itself would arouse some surprise in Portland Place, London. Its location, the Sharia Ganich Sharkas, is not much of a thoroughfare. Its neat white mosque is the best ihing about it. The rest is given up to small Arab shops and restaurants, in front of which the native public sits, dressed in tarbooshes, striped nightshirts, and boots. The local radio program is wafted loudly on the sultry air at most hours of the day, crooning its rhythms on three or four notes and quarter tones. A shaggy and extremely cynical-looking goat is usually tethered to a tree outside the block of flats in which our premises are housed.

The entrance hall has broken camp beds and mattresses in every corner, on which the descendants of the Pharaohs lie asleep all day, as though awaiting the kiss of some eccentric fairy prince. They are of various sizes and ages, but of approximately equal dirt. Most of them have scabs that arc attractive to Hies, and all of them seem supremely contented.

There is a lift that remains permanently fixed between the first and second floors, so that you have to go up by the unlit staircase, falling over the sacks and bundles that have been left there temporarily by the sleepers. Then, passing a cave of Ali Baba on the first floor, you reach a mysterious medical man’s apartment on the second. The story is current that he is the city agent for an expensive lunatic asylum, and those seen going in and out lend color to this theory.

Copyright 1955. by The Atlantic Monthly Company. Boston 10, Mass. All rights reserved.

On the third floor comes the BBC, and above this we never penetrate. All I can say is that as you sit at your desk pondering over the problems of war reporting, American visitors look in from time to time and present you with a visiting card that reads: —

Mademoiselle Fiji
Hostess and Social Activities

On receipt of this card you say nothing, but silently point upward. And the callers nod and steal away and are never seen again.

I have spent very little time in this office during the few days that I have been in Cairo, as there are bugs in the arms of the wicker chairs that, bite one’s bare elbows, and the only secretary — a very pretty girl called Lallah — goes off every day about noon and is usually not seen again until a quarter to four. This period is what is known as the “hour of the siesta,” and it includes the time of the radio link to London when our dispatches come red hot from the typewriters. So it was easier for me to do my own typing in the pressroom, and to leave our office entirely to the crates of engineering spare parts that encumber the floor space.

This Cairo siesta is an unshakable institution, and it is not in any way affected by the fact that two Panzer divisions are now trundling straight for the Nile. Even the offices of Middle East General Headquarters are wrapped in slumber during the hotter hours of the day, and no urgency in the military situation has altered this rule.

After all, the situation isn’t really anybody’s fault, and there is very little that can be done about it. After all, what could the chaps be expected to do with those little two-pounder antitank guns that fire a silly shell that simply bounces off a Mark IV at five hundred yards’ range? I mean, it’s simply murder, old man. As for those ex-cavalry officers whose only idea of armored warfare is “Whip up the brutes and charge” — why the Hun simply laughs at us. Laughs at us! I mean it’s nothing short of suicide, old boy, to expect tanks to go forward until the sappers have cleaned up those bloody mine fields. Just see what happened at Knightsbridge, where we lost the whole damn lot in one afternoon. On the other hand, how can the infantry be expected to do anything without proper support from the armor? And the blasted tanks simply refuse to move! After all, look what has happened at Tobruk. I mean it’s just exactly what I prophesied, old man, only nobody would listen.

In brief the trouble seems to be due to three clearly defined causes: 1) slackness and lack of understanding on the part of the people at home, 2) panic and lack of initiative on the part of the high command, and 3) too many “optimistic amateurs” among the rank and file. On the door of the Press Censors’ Office in the Immobilia Building hangs a notice: —


So probably it is actually my fault.

But the most memorable moment of all came at that press conference when it was finally decided to admit frankly that everything is not quite as it should be at the front — in fact that the Army is in full retreat, and that nobody knows where it will stop! Picture the packed room in the Immobilia the trestle tables laden with typewriters and old communiqués — the map-covered wall behind the dais from which the military spokesman releases the morning’s news. It is Colonel Phillpotts, Assistant Director of Public Relations, and he stands there facing the correspondents—their pencils poised above their pads, their runners waiting at their elbows to hasten the news to the censors.

Developments in the battle have resulted in certain areas losing their former tactical importance. Accordingly, the garrison of Knightsbridge has assumed a mobile role.

This sally was received with such a hearty roar of laughter that the colonel thought again, and finally deleted it from the communique. There is a limit, even to official understatement!


IT WAS from this welter of bored indifference, confusion, and buck-passing that I set forth on what looks to be my first and only visit to Rommel’s desert. There were four other correspondents in the party. Close behind us, as we took the desert road for the Wadi el Natrun, came an elderly American general and his personal driver in a jeep. He, too, was going to see the sights — the vanguard of Columbia’s might, hastening to our aid.

My breast was filled with the delightful apprehension that I used to experience when, as a small boy of five or six, I was taken in a horse tram to see my earliest pantomimes. There were monsters and demons ahead of us in the depths of this stony, sandy waste, toward which an endless line of telegraph poles was leading us.

How can one describe the retreat of a modern army?—the roaring, rattling caterpillar of battered trucks and dirty men; the great transporters shouldering broken-down tanks, the RAF recovery lorries towing wrecked aircraft, the field kitchens and the ambulances, the mobile junk shops and the mass of indeterminate machinery churning the dust and spewing out petrol fumes, entangled in traffic blocks and then grinding onward once again.

Tractors and bulldozers; wrecks and runners; staff ears and clattering machine-gun carriers; armored control vehicles and map lorries; trucks breaking off from the column and bumping violently across the margins of sand and scrub, followed by long trails of brown dust; trucks lining up in the staging areas or queuing for petrol; trucks in their tens and in their hundreds and in their thousands clanging and roaring their way eastward with a ceaseless hammering of steel on steel, or dispersed in open flocks among the sand hills and across the desert to the south as far as the eye could reach.

The dlist rose behind our own machine in a billowing fog that was sucked into the rear, and covered every piece of kit and gear with a layer of sand. Our eyes smarted beneath our rubber goggles, and with each mile our faces got browner and browner.

Military Police notices appeared at intervals — some serious, some semi-facetious: -


“It’s all right, old boy,” one of the veterans said. “You won’t really have to report it. To begin with, there won’t be any means of getting the copy back. Everything will have gone to hell. And even if you could get it back, whatever you tried to say would be killed by the censors. So why worry?”

Why worry? But. this was terrific stuff. I watched the men of the retreating army as they drove past in the opposite direction. Most of them were dirty and tired, and yet the impression that I had first got at Cairo still held good. They were not looking particularly distressed — only bored.

In the gateway of a nearby ordnance depot, the captain in charge chewed a sprig of coarse grass as he surveyed the busy scene. Through one entrance, a steady flow of damaged transport was coming into the repair shops, while at the other end reconditioned vehicles were going back on the road again. His face assumed a philosophic cast. “You know, he said, “sometimes I’m quite sorry for old Gerry. He tries so hard. He really deserves to win, doesn t he?”

Somebody was inquiring at a small lent marked Information, “ Have you any idea where the forward press camp is?”

“Haven’t the foggiest, old boy. Everything’s on the move. We call it the Gazala Stakes.”

“Do you know if there is a forward press camp?”

“We don’t know anything, old chap. But if you see a sign like a flying arsehole, it’ll probably be somewhere around there.”

“Thanks very much.”

A few miles on, we drew up beside a furious little major in a red forage cap. He was pulling up a board from the side of the road that bore the picture of an eye and the initials PR. A fly whisk was attached to his wrist, and by his side stood an earnest orderly with powerful spectacles, holding in his hand a mug of deep brown tea.

“Excuse me, is that a flying arsehole on that board?”

The major turned and surveyed us with unconcealed distaste. “Ah, some correspondents! Well, there’s no use bothering me for information. All the lines are out and somebody’s been jamming the wireless. I don’t even know where Main Army is.

“Any other correspondents around?”

“There’s a couple of parties still forward. But we haven’t seen them for some days. Well, since you’re here, you’d better have a cup of tea. Private Bailey, give them some tea.”

The orderly extended the deep brown beverage, and in it a deep brown thumb.

“Have you seen the BBC recording truck anywhere? I’m supposed to join it.”

“George Ely is around with that engineer fellow, but you’ll never find them today. Better follow me back to Maryut. They’ll probably turn up there eventually, and we can try and find where Main Army is in the morning.”

There are some wireless masts beside a railway line behind Burg el Arab, and it was here that we dossed down for our first night in the desert, very tired, very dry, and caked with dust. George Henry Wellington Loft us, Marquess of Ely, the BBC’s conducting officer, and Skipper Arnell, the recording engineer, came out of the darkness with two small trucks, and lent me a bedroll and a piece of soap, for I was quite innocent of any camping equipment.

At about one in the morning there was a little rifle shooting in the neighborhood, and a certain amount of running around and getting into slit trenches. It might have been the Wogs trying to raid for arms, but as always with night shooting, nobody knew what it was. More easy to define were the bombers that kept passing over all through the night. I lay awake under my blanket staring up at the stars and wondering, as each throbthrob-throb approached, whether it was going to pass directly overhead, and if so, whether it could see me there.

To begin with, one imagines that one is much more important than one really is. It takes a night or two to realize that even if they could see you, the Heinkels are after bigger game than a few trucks dispersed among the scrub, and a few men lying around in bedrolls. The desert is wide, and there is a deep security in its vastness.


I SET forth this morning with Ely, Skipper, and their two trucks, switchbacking crazily along the coast road, while the Gazala Stakes continued in the opposite direction. Sometimes we got an ironic cheer from a passing vehicle, and after puzzling over this, I realized that it was caused by the letters BBC painted on the side of the recording truck. For some reason, our encouraging presence did not seem to be taken very seriously by the troops.

Beyond El Imayid the road continues to undulate along its escarpment for a matter of ten miles or more. Then a couple of small salt-water lakes appear between the road and the sea, and the highway mounts into a group of hummocks covered with scrub and surrounded by a tangle of barbed wire. Ahead of us lay a small level plain bounded by another group of snow-white dunes farther west. The thinning east bound traffic had now vanished altogether, and we were alone on the road, gazing across at the gun Hashes that seemed to come from nowhere. Close beside us, a grim-looking pillbox was half buried in the sand, and the edge of a mine field was marked by a few fluttering patches of white cloth strung on a strand of wire.

“Uh-huh,” said the marquess laconically. “It looks as if something’s up.”

He got out his field glasses and started to scan the desert to our left. It was dotted with wrecked vehicles.

“Those arc just hulks,” I said.

“You never can be certain,” he replied with a slight smile.

About half a mile away I could see the line of the railway with a string of flatcars standing forlornly near what appeared to be some station buildings. Skipper was watching the sky intently.

“Around sunset is their favorite time for coming over,” he explained.

“Where are we now?” I asked.

“In the Box,” came the cryptic answer.

“Let’s take a run down to the station and find out the form,” said George, putting away his glasses with an air of finality.

We got back into our trucks and turned off to the left at a crossroads. Presently we drew up by the empty sidings. There was a sort of goods yard, and a compound surrounded by barbed wire on a line of crazy poles. Behind the station buildings stood a row of battered shacks with their doors hanging open. The whole place was littered with empty barrels and broken crates, and everywhere the brickwork was chipped and pockmarked by machine-gun bullets. The entire neighborhood seemed to be completely deserted, and as I mounted the platform, I read on the front of the building the name of the place: Alamein.

A small railway station set in the midst of some hundreds of miles of nothing whatsoever — that is all there is at Alamein. What it is there for and who uses it in peacetime, nobody can say. There was nothing to be seen there, and nothing to be done, so we got back into our trucks and headed for the white sand hills down by the sea on the farther side of the road. They shone with a dazzling brightness in the setting sun, and I now knew why they had camouflaged my helmet a cream color before I had set out from Cairo.

In the soft sand beyond the salt lakes, the two trucks stuck fast. And then began the usual boring and burrowing, the usual digging and hauling that is the daily lot in the desert, of anybody who strays from the beaten track (and sometimes of those who stay on it).

As soon as one truck was clear, George Ely and I left the other and walked across to a line of dugouts in which we were told we would find the South African Divisional Headquarters. It seemed possible that here we might get an idea of what was going on.

We did. Inside one of the dugouts, the divisional commander, a certain Dan Pienaar, was on the phone to the Air Force. It was my first interview with a senior officer in the field, and the circumstances seemed to me to be dramatic in the extreme.

“You ought to be able to do better than that, he was saying in a heavy Afrikaans accent. “If you’ve got to bomb my trucks, you might at least hit them. But you missed every bloody one.”

There was evidently some trouble, and an agitated staff officer hurried forward to expel us from the dugout. But the general, with a flap of his hand, waved us to a couple of chairs.

“Who’s talking about the Tenth Hussars?” Dan went on. “I hear you bombed them four nights ago for four hours. I suppose you’ll say they never gave you the recognition signal?”

“But they didn’t give the recognition signal, sir,” the stall’ officer whispered in the general’s car. “Nobody knew what it was.”

Then, turning to us with the face of a martyr, he added, “ He’s not being fair to the Air Force.”

“Okay,” said Dan magnanimously. “Forget the Tenth Hussars. That still doesn’t explain why we were shelled from the rear yesterday.”

We could hear an indignant voice yapping in reply.

“See here,” he continued. “My father fought the British in the Transvaal, and all I want to know is what side I’m supposed to be on now. Because if I’m on Rommel’s, say so, and I’ll turn round and have him in Alexandria within twelve hours. Just work it out, and let me know as soon as you’ve decided.”

lie replaced the receiver and turned to us.

“This is a new correspondent, sir,” said the marquess.

For a moment the general’s face was distorted with fury, and then he recomposed himself. “Ah, so you’re a war correspondent! Well, I haven’t much time to read the newspapers, but so far as I can judge, some people are very misinformed about this war.”

“I’m not really a newspaperman, General,” I said. “I work for the BBC.”

This was a mistake that I shall never make again.

“Oh! Then you’re just the fellow I want to see. What the hell did you mean by saying that we had air cover back at Gazala?”

“Well, sir, I really don’t know . . .”

“I heard it myself on the radio. The sky was full of planes, I agree, but not one of them was ours. Is that what you mean by ‘air cover’?”

“This is not the correspondent who was at Gazala, sir,” George interposed hastily.

But the general paid little attention. “I’m not blaming anybody in particular. All I’m saying is that when the men hear that sort of thing it makes them very annoyed with the BBC. And judging by what they tell me Churchill has been saying in America, he must be very misinformed too.”

“In what way, General?” J asked, in some doubt as to the wisdom of my question.

“He says he doesn’t know why Tobruk was lost. Everybody here knows perfectly well it was lost because certain people couldn’t make up their minds whether it was to be held or not. So Rommel made them up for them. You can’t blame the men for doing nothing when they know they’re being buggered about. Can you?”

“I suppose not,” I replied, my pencil still poised over my virgin pad. “However,” I continued, “Mr. Churchill did go on to say that he was quite certain that Rommel could be kept out of Egypt.”

“Yes, I heard that too; but I don’t know what he supposes we’re going to keep him out with. I’ve got no artillery and no armor. For weeks I’ve been asking to have my transport repaired, but now they tell me I shall have to indent for it through the proper channels. They say they have no more vehicles to give me, and yet I can’t move on the blasted road for traffic piled up with all sorts of rubbish.”

I coughed rather nervously. One’s first interview with a commander in the field is an event of considerable importance in the life of a war reporter, particularly when the commander is engaged in consolidating the last ditch. Yet I could hardly see myself getting away with any of this in a press message,


“Well, General,” I said after a pause for reflection, “maybe you could say something about the men ? ”

This is always a good opening for a general. They usually begin, “The men are splendid.”

“What men?” he asked.

“The men holding the line.”

“Oh, those! They’re doing their best . . . what there are of them. There are my South Africans, of course. Then there are the Indians, poor fellows, God help them. And the New Zealanders ... if they get back this far. Oh — and there’s supposed to be some Free French, only I haven’t seen them yet. Where everybody else is, I don’t know. I often wonder. Probably getting ready for the second front.”

I had hoped to get some trite, quotable tribute to an English regiment suitable for use in the Home Service. I must never forget that my first duty is to Home News. This was all right for Overseas, but Home News would regard it as a dead loss. Dan went on: “I’m sure I don’t know what good the second front will be if we can’t hold this one. Once they get to the Nile, where do we go then? Syria — Iran — the Caucasus as reinforcements for the Russians, I suppose.”

“But, er, General . , . this line. That must be fairly strong. I understand that it was prepared some time ago, for the final defense of Egypt.”

“I’ve just been looking over the line,” he continued. “There are some very good stores and underground shelters, but as far as I can see t here aren’t any surface defenses. They were to come later on, probably. And there’s a gap seven miles wide just south of here that I’m wondering what to do about. In any event the whole thing ought to be farther forward to the west. Once they break through here they’re in the clear right away.”

“Then you think it will break, sir?”

“Unless something more is sent up to me damn quick, it certainly will. I can’t hold the line with what I’ve got now.”

“Then that means the retreat goes on?”

“No, sir. Not so far as I’m concerned. I’ve retreated far enough, and here I stop whether we hold the damn thing or not.”


I SHALL remember this night all the days of my life. As the sun went down over Alamcin, the full moon came up behind us with neat precision, as if in the opposite scale of a balance.

The evening was full of sound . . . and then somebody turned on the wireless in one of the trucks.

The Voice of Experience from Cairo was on the air in calm and reassuring tones. However fluid the situation might be, there was no cause lor alarm. Severe fighting was taking place about filteen miles west of Mersa Matruh and there was no reason to believe that Rommel had penetrated any closer to the Nile. In official circles a quiet note of confidence prevailed, although it would be foolish not to be prepared for all eventualities.

A snort of sardonic laughter caused me to look around. The radio seems to attract listeners in the desert, like birds around a lighthouse. They come looming up out of nowhere and sit down in ;i silent, semicircle, their pipes glowing in the dusk, their eyes fixed on the little window of light that is the dial of the receiver. 1 found myself looking into the face of a young Signals officer.

“We were chased out of Mat ruh the day before yesterday,” he commented with a grin. “Good old BBC! I’d like to meet that fellow someday.”

“It’s not our fault if the censor holds things up,” snapped Skipper, ever defensive on the subject of our employers.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize this was the BBC!”

A ripple of amusement went round the group. To my horror, the voice on the wireless changed, and it was followed by my own bland and sprightly tones describing my first impressions of Cairo. The tittering grew in volume until, after a while, they ceased to listen and the conversation became general. With the merciful darkness hiding my face I prayed to God that nobody would realize it was I who was talking.

“Wonderful how well some people manage to report a war from the bar of Shepheard’s.”

I should have been warned before; but then, who would be qualified to warn me of what one’s own voice sounds like in the battlefield, saying such things? Someday, no doubt, textbooks will be written on the subject, and I hope that on page one will be inscribed: “The only critics who matter to the war reporter are the troops among whom he has to live.” Probably this should have been selfevident, but somehow, when I did that little piece about Cairo, I was thinking more of my mother and Betty than of these men here.

As the moon rose higher and we sat talking beside the trucks, the lore of the Army was passed from mouth to mouth — how the Long Range Desert Group had taken Kufra; how an adventurous German, dressed as a British redcap, had brazenly stood at a crossroads near Agedabia directing all the British soft-skinned vehicles (including a couple of generals) up a side road into the bag; how the San Giorgio battleship had shot down Balbo by mistake near Tobruk, and how Collishaw of the RAF had sent, over one of his own planes and had dropped a wreath on the spot.

And I thought to myself as I listened to all this, how different it is from what I had expected, and at the same time, how much more exhilarating. This is the army that is defending the jugular vein of (he British Empire at one of the greatest crises in its history. Yet it doesn’t really seem to give a damn. On the whole it is being lazy and fairly incompetent and extremely bored — except for the colony in Cairo, which is thronging through all the available exits as fast, as it can.

This doesn’t seem to be quite as it should be. On the other hand, what about these men sitting on the beach, swapping stories before they go to sleep — stories of a strangely detached and impartial kind, many of which are cracking up a relentless enemy whose two Panzer divisions are liable to cut them off before morning? It seems paradoxical, and yet there is a kind of common sense about it that is much more heart-warming than the phony heroics that good soldiers are supposed to display.

The radio is still switched on — Grieg’s piano concerto is pealing out now. And as I listen to its crashing arpeggios, I suddenly feel glad to be here, and I know somehow that I have picked up good news at Alamein — although there is precious little of it I shall ever be able to use in a press dispatch.

And now, as ten o’clock approaches, somebody looks at his watch and says, “How about our bedtime song?”

Skipper fiddles with the dial of the receiver, and in a few moments there come the opening bars of an orchestra, going oom-pah, oom-pah. And then, the softly caressing voice of a woman, singing in a deep and lovely contralto:—

Vor der Kaserne vor dem grossen Tor
Stand eine Laterne and steht sie noeh dovor,
So woll’n wir da uns wiedersehn,
Bei der Laterne woll’n wir steh’n
Wie einst Lili Marlene
Wie einst Lili Marlene?

“Why can’t the BBC give us something like that?”

“How’s that for a nice bedroom voice?”

It is a German woman, singing both armies to their sleep. She does it every night, and there is something in this final touch that grips my overstrained emotions and wrings them like a damp rag. It is just about all that I can take, this evening. The stirring of the night wind — the beating of the sea on the beach — the distant growling of the guns — and that woman’s voice.

A us dem stillen Ravine, a us der Erde Grand
Hebt rnich wie ini Tranmedein verliebter Mund.
Wenn sich die spaeten Nebel dreh’n,
Werd ich bei der Laterne steh’n
Wie einst Lili Marlene
Wie einst Lili Marlene.

Maybe I might try just that one on the censor?

One by one our visitors knock out their pipes and tramp oil’ across the sand in search of their scattered trucks. I peel off my clothes and lie down in a bedroll in the shadow of the recording truck, my pencil and notebook still by my side. For a long time I stare upward at the stars, listening as before to the throb-throb-throb of the aircraft passing overhead.

Behind us on the skyline the transport column continues to slip by — truck after truck all running eastward — a succession of purring smudges.

So long as that traffic keeps moving, the road to Alexandria must st ill be open behind us.

Keep running, smudges! Keep running!