A photographer in North Africa found that survival mattered more than great images.
On November 10, 1941, 36-year-old Croswell Bowen boarded a ship headed for war. Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II were still weeks away, but Bowen had joined a unit of American Field Service volunteers attached as ambulance drivers to the British Army in North Africa. Bowen, an American writer and documentary photographer, would take pictures to publicize the effort.
Things didn’t work out as planned. Stricken by leg pain first diagnosed as “shell shock” during the German attack on the Libyan port cities of Gazala and Tobruk in the summer of 1942, Bowen left the front and was shuttled from one medical unit to another until he was finally diagnosed with polio. Returning home, unable to walk without crutches, he turned a diary of his war experiences into a memoir that he failed to sell.
Bowen eventually became a heralded writer at the New Yorker, and he wrote several books before he died in 1971. The memoir, however, seemed destined never to be published. Until now. Back from Tobruk, edited by Bowen’s daughter Betsy, will be released by Potomac Books in October. It’s the tale of Bowen’s 12-country, 40,000-mile odyssey through a war whose cost in human bodies and souls deeply troubled him. “The more I see of war, the less I think of the whole business,” he wrote.
The excerpt and photographs that follow date from the first days of the German attack. Gazala and Tobruk fell, and the Germans advanced toward Cairo. But they never made it, and eventually the Allies pushed the German and Italian forces out of Africa altogether.
Gerry is keeping up his attack. At night his bombers come over and prowl around, dropping stuff here and there, occasionally lighted flares. The boys in our unit are all eager to get a flare because of the big white rayon parachutes that float them. It makes a wonderful souvenir to give a girl. They even run out of their dugouts during the bombings and go up, say, on the ridge where a flare has dropped, so as to retrieve it.
Today I look at one. The material of the parachute spread out is about 15 feet in diameter. Six metal wires hold up a kind of tray on which four magnesium candles are set. When one goes, out another lights up. The Gerry pilots time the dropping of them very well, and the flame seems to last until just before the parachute hits the ground. The machine gunners around our camp pop at them, and their tracer bullets appear to reach the flares but to no avail. Even if a bullet hits the parachute, it only makes a little tear in the material. But we hate these flares. They violate our escape into darkness. It does not seem fair. It’s like someone turning on a light in your room when you are lying in bed naked and on top of the covers.
Artillery is popping around our camp all day. Occasionally, in the distance, a great geyser of dust goes up in the air like the water hurled in the air by Old Faithful at Yellowstone Park. Generally such an explosion is too far away to photograph even with a telescopic lens. If it is too close I duck into a slit trench like everybody else.
These explosions are just explosions. They look just the same as they look in peacetime when a road is being dynamited during exacavation.
I know that a man with a rifle, crouching in the foreground, and the explosion in the center of the picture, is a natural for publication. But somehow it seems pointless to expose myself to this added danger for an explosion picture that still does not say much of anything except that dust and stones are being hurled into the air at a terrific rate of propulsion. And if a man is crouching in the foreground, he shouldn’t be. He should be deep in a slit trench or flat on his belly.
I know I can make pictures here that will knock the eyes out of editors. With little or no danger, I can make pictures of the sappers exploding enemy ammunition, nice so-called action shots that editors will want. There are plenty of soldiers here perfectly willing to pose for me with their bayonets drawn, crouching behind mounds or pointing their guns over the edges of slit trenches. I can get them running at imaginary enemies with drawn bayonets as if they were in an infantry charge.
But they’d all be faked pictures, and they’d not even be characteristic of this kind of warfare. It doesn’t seem right.
Here my sense of values seems to be shifting. The most important thing is not to get the picture. Our first struggle is to exist, to keep from being killed, to survive. Then, too, it seems crass to be here, where men are fighting and dying, merely to take photographs.
Modern war, particularly desert warfare, is singularly ill-suited to photography. The whole essence of this kind of war is dispersal. Keep everything spread out. Into a good picture you try and crowd as much as you can. It would be ideal for a picture to have one tank in the foreground and one 25-pounder and a whole lot of the same thing arranged in the background. Then you’d have a nice pattern shot.
The idea at the front is to keep everything concealed, to make everything blend into the desert, to prevent anything from standing out. Shadows are avoided as much as possible. Shadows reveal guns and tanks to pilots and show up well on aerial photographs. Shadows are also essential to a good magazine picture.
Tanks at the front move into action, their treads clanging like gigantic chains. They keep their distance, shooting at each other when they are almost out of each other’s sight. They are like battleships firing at each other from miles away. This front is spread out over miles and miles, and tanks must be spread out to cover all the line. If they bunch together, in any case, they’d be a nice target for dive-bombers.
The 25-pounders are scattered here and there out of sight of each other. You see a crew puttering about fussing with the gun, loading the shell. They hold still. The gun recoils. There is a puff of smoke. BANG. You hear the sound. This little crew of men seems so cut off, seems to be doing something almost pointless, hurling steel off into the distance at something you can’t even see. Certainly they are in communication with the whole battery by telephone, but you can’t hear what is being said.
Infantry move over a piece of ground like a lot of football players on an open-field run. Their bayonets are the only indication of battle. Machine gunners stay in their holes, waiting, waiting, waiting. Ammunition trucks move in the distance, ambulances, a staff car. But they stay far apart.
Everything about this war is so vast and gigantic and tremendous. There is no feeling of personal combat. How completely man is licked by the machine age, even in war. The soldiers each have infinitesimal jobs when compared with the whole front. One man unloads a box of ammunition. Another stays at one 50mm gun on a tank. Another performs a certain mechanical operation on a 25-pounder. They are like workers on the assembly line of an automobile plant. One man tightens a certain screw on a certain type of automobile engine all day long. He never feels that he has accomplished something big that’s wholly his. It is so difficult to see the connection between his screw tightening and the finished engine. And so it is with the soldier who continually says to himself and out loud, “What am I doing to win the war so we can go home?”
Yet everything in the conduct of the battle is so terribly interrelated. A fouled spark plug on an ammunition supply truck silences a 25-pounder at the front. A flat tire on a fuel tank truck leaves a dozen tanks behind during an advance of an armored column. An infantry battalion can be partially demoralized and terribly weakened by a food ration supply truck that’s lost its way to the battalion’s bivouac.
What keeps everything going? Everything about an army seems inefficient. Everything seems to go wrong. Yet things happen, things get done. Everybody advances and retreats together.
These are the things I think as I drive about this desert front. I am being very cautious about where I take out my cameras. This is partly because the pictures would not be much anyway and partly because I am uneasy about my pass. I know that an irate, nervous officer could make a lot of trouble for me if he didn’t happen to like my face.
In one way, I would like to see the enemy. I would like to comprehend what it is we are fighting, see the men we are fighting. Like all the soldiers I talk to, I want to face the enemy and know what he is like. I would like to photograph him.
On my way back to our camp, I try to collect my jumbled thoughts. I try and fit together what I am seeing, try to make it form into some kind of pattern. It all seems so unreal, like an army on maneuvers, like a big game. You do not feel any strong emotion of zeal or hatred or exhilaration.
Then, as I am walking along near a wrecked troop carrier, I see a glove. It is a single glove. Inside the glove is a hand, blown loose from the arm at the wrist.
I feel something now. I throw up.
Excerpted from Back from Tobruk, by Croswell Bowen, edited by Betsy Connor Bowen. Copyright © 2012 by Potomac Books (www. potomacbooksinc.com).
Originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.