This photo of Afrika Korps soldiers resting in the desert was taken by their famous commander Erwin Rommel c. 1941-2. German troops in North Africa collectively became known as the "Afrika Korps," although Rommel's army changed its official title several times. The remains of four German soldiers, three under age 25, who fought under Rommel's command were found in the Egyptian desert near El Alamein in a surprise discovery. (National Archives)
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Soldiers who died in the deserts of North Africa during World War II without receiving burial at a local war cemetery might seem lost to the shifting sands.

However, nearly 80 years since the Second Battle of El Alamein brought about what Winston Churchill termed “the end of the beginning” of the war, the remains of four German soldiers were found in an accidental and rare discovery.

“It is rather rare,” Diane Tempel-Bornett, public relations officer for the German War Graves Commission, told HistoryNet. Although one soldier was located east of the Fayoum Oasis in Egypt in 2019, it has been decades since multiple German war graves were discovered in the desert.

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A Bedouin Makes The Find

In March 2022, in the scorching wilderness of Egypt’s Qattara Depression, in an area just two hours south of El Alamein, a Bedouin man stumbled across a set of bones when digging a hole in the sand for a campfire. He had wanted to make himself some tea, according to the commission. Instead he had inadvertently located the grave of a German soldier who lost his life in one of the fierce battles that raged across the wasteland during World War II.

The Bedouin contacted a local representative of the German War Graves Commission, which has established an amicable relationship with tribes in the area.

“The Bedouins sometimes give us clues,” Tempel-Bornett said. “In this specific case, the commission allowed a Bedouin tribe to graze their goats in the area.”

Left: The skeleton of one the German soldiers discovered in the Egyptian desert was found still wearing his wedding ring. Right: The graves of two soldiers were found intact with their identification discs still present. (German War Graves Commission)

Four Afrika Korps Soldiers Located

Ahmed Sedky, the commission’s representative in Egypt, investigated the gravesite, which had been marked with stones. He discovered a military medal, buttons and the remains of a uniform.

“We recognized from the buttons that this was a German soldier,” Sedky said.  

After Egyptian authorities established that the site was a war grave and ruled out the possibility of the deceased being a crime victim or missing person, the commission investigated the site with help from the military attaché at the German embassy in Cairo.

Three additional sets of bones were discovered. All were German soldiers who had fought as part of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel‘s famed Afrika Korps. All four belonged to young men under or around age 25.

One man’s bones were badly burnt and had comminuted fractures all over his body, which could indicate that he served in a tank crew, Tempel-Bornett told Historynet. His identity disc confirmed that he served as a tank crew member.

Identity discs were recovered from the graves. The skeleton of one soldier was found still wearing his wedding ring.

The commission is trying to confirm the soldiers’ identities and to determine additional details, such as the estimated dates of death.

The Importance of El Alamein

This October marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Battle of El Alamein. The bitter struggle between Rommel’s Afrika Korps and British Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army was the first major turning point of World War II, according to most historians and both generals — including Rommel.

“The battle which began at El Alamein on the 23rd of October 1942 turned the tide of the war in Africa against us, and, in fact, probably represented the turning point of the whole vast struggle,” Rommel admitted later in his memoirs.

German War Graves Commission employees and members of the military attache of the German Embassy in Cairo excavate additional war graves during the second investigation of the site. (Johanna Klier for the German War Graves Commission)

The commission is planning a solemn memorial gathering to reflect on the battles that took place in the area, Tempel-Bornett told HistoryNet, with representatives of Greece, the United Kingdom, Italy, Egypt and Germany taking part. The German embassy is in charge of organizing it. She added that that battles there “set the Allied victory in motion.” The commission is also planning to create a new, multilingual, permanent exhibit at the German war cemetery at El Alamein.

“This will reflect not only on the battles, but also on the high number of civilian victims,” Tempel-Bornett said.

Reburial and Looking for More Bodies

After lying forgotten beneath the sands of the Egyptian desert for so many years, the four German war dead will be buried at the German El Alamein war cemetery prior to the memorial service.

The commission plans to probe further sites for possible additional graves with the help of Bedouin clans this October.

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