A lifelong adventurer steered into unexpected trouble while serving in the Afrika Corps.
DURING THE 1930s, Austrian travel writer Max Reisch earned fame for exploits such as motorcycling from Vienna to Bombay. In the Wehrmacht, his mechanical prowess got him assigned as a transport engineer, running a 900-vehicle Afrika Korps motor pool. A deft scrounger happy to obey Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s order that troops find what they needed, Reisch roamed the dunes of Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt in a captured Flitzer, as the Germans called jeeps, combing for stray materiel. On one such foray, accompanied by a repurposed British artillery tractor, Reisch and a handful of men left an oasis at Siwa, Egypt, and stumbled across a fateful line.
In late summer 1942 we bade farewell to exotic Siwa. Soon it would be no more than a distant dream in its otherworldly isolation below the level of the sea. For us, it was back to the din of battle at El Alamein. How odd, that war exists at all! Seen from the vast expanse of the desert, so close to God, it is incomprehensible, as you yourself are when, to your astonishment, you return to the madness of civilization. But then, that is what you were born into. You are a part of it and cannot break away.
About 75 miles outside Matrûh, Egypt, we swung east. We still had time, fuel, and food, and thought we’d drive around the area just a bit longer in the unspoken hope of a good find However, fortune was not smiling on us: we did find a couple of wrecks but they were completely burned out. We had been driving east for many hours and still there was nothing.
It was virgin desert, so completely untouched that we were beginning to despair, when suddenly there was life in the midst of desolation. Two gazelles leaped up from behind a tuft of broom and fled away south.
Heia Safari! [A rallying cry that originated with troops stationed in Germany’s African colonies] This was better than nothing. The Flitzer raced after them. Major Kössler sat on the back of the seat and undid the safety catch on his submachine gun. The gazelles had a start of about 500 yards. Full throttle! But those animals were faster than any we’d read about in our encyclopedia. They didn’t just run, they flew!
The wild hunt continued with the slender animals showing no sign of exhaustion. Then came a long stretch of smooth sand. That was our chance. The Flitzer was gaining and we were roaring along only 50 yards behind the fleeing gazelles. I wonder if my friends in Europe could believe how fast they were going. A glance at the speedometer showed 50 miles an hour.
A gazelle hunt from a moving vehicle is not easy, even with a shotgun. With a submachine gun you need a lot of luck. Kössler took aim and a salvo rattled. One of the creatures fell to its knees but it was up again immediately and racing on at a barely diminished speed on only three legs. This was almost unbelievable. Even on three legs the gazelle kept up a speed of over 30 miles an hour. We didn’t catch up to it again for several miles. Kössler got in a good shot and finally put the creature out of its misery.
At least now we had a respectable offering of roasting meat to take home, although it still wasn’t much. I could imagine our commanding officer growling. “Is that all you’ve got to show after waltzing round the desert for 500 miles?” the Old Man would say. “Rather an expensive roast, Mr. Reisch….”
The prospect of such a reception niggled at me but nevertheless the time had come to think about going back. We sat in the jeep without speaking, each sunk in his own thoughts and only occasionally looking up to check that the sky was empty. Now and then we took a look around the horizon in case there was anything unusual somewhere on its 360 degrees. We were tired and depressed. I remembered the feeling from high-school days when I’d spent all Sunday having a rollicking good time and suddenly in the evening realized that I had done no homework and the next day was Monday.
WHAT ABOUT THAT LITTLE gray streak on the horizon to the east of us? It was a hell of a long way off, six or eight miles. Should we drive over at the risk of another disappointment? Why bother? We had to get home. I said nothing and held our course northwest. The little streak, as small and insignificant as the broken-off tip of a pencil, was already away to one side behind us when Kössler picked it up again as he scanned.
I only nodded and held our course.
Kössler seemed satisfied and we drove on in silence, followed by the artillery tractor, but after a couple of minutes Kössler grabbed my arm and insisted, “We’ve got to go and look.”
His tone was so urgent—almost an order—that I swung the vehicle to the right without delay and set our sights on the little gray streak. It gradually grew larger and finally broke up into a lot of small dots. They were much farther away than I had thought. Kössler was trying to make out the significance of the dots through the field glasses as we went along.
“Stop a moment. It’s too bumpy.” He took a long look through the glasses and handed them to me with a meaningful glance. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
Kössler was right: I could see vehicles, masses of them, too many to count.
Or was it just an illusion, our minds playing a trick and showing us what we wanted to see? I spurred on the Flitzer and soon there was no doubt about it. Scattered at random over an area of several miles lay vehicles, empty and abandoned, all British. There could have been a few dozen, or hundreds, maybe more. It was impossible to count them.
Seized with a wild kind of joy, and eager to discover more, we accelerated until we were right in among the British vehicles. At that moment there was a terrible bang and pieces of rubber and metal flew around our ears. Bloody hell! The Flitzer skidded on a few yards into the sand and came to a halt. The left rear wheel hung down as if crippled. Where there had been a wheel and an axle, there were now only fragments of steel and tinplate. Our beautiful vehicle was a wreck. Everything was deathly still except for the pounding in our ears.
The snouts of the British vehicles seemed to be grinning maliciously. “You too! Never mind, there’s room for one more. Welcome to the graveyard!”
Slowly the realization took hold. There were mines lurking here in wait for victims, like ant lions—those predatory desert insects—hiding in the sand, poised for a deathblow.
Mines! With an electrifying shock, I remembered the tractor, and here it came, heading toward us as a cloud of white dust, lumbering along, peaceful and unconcerned as befitted its role as the elephant of the desert.
“We must run back and warn it!”
“No!” Kössler yelled. “Don’t be mad! There are mines everywhere!”
We climbed on to the hood of our broken-backed Flitzer and waved our arms and our caps. The tractor was coming nearer, making slow but steady progress. We waved and gesticulated like madmen. If we lost the tractor too, we would be facing a 750-mile desert march, and Allah have mercy on us.
Another thousand yards and still the tractor took no notice. As it came nearer, Kössler grabbed the submachine gun and gave warning shots. Would they hear it in their closed cab over the drone of the engine? I leapt around on the remains of our vehicle like a jumping jack, and Kössler shoved in a new magazine and blasted away. Suddenly there was a loud explosion and the tractor came to a stop barely 300 yards from us. Was it leaning to one side? Was it down to three legs? We watched the crew getting out, calm and relaxed, not the sort of behavior to be expected if you’d just had a mine go off up your backside.
The solution to the mystery was slightly different: by an incredible chance Kössler had set off a mine with his shooting and that had saved them. Of course the men in the tractor had seen the huge fountain of sand that flared when the mine went off, and had stopped to see what was up.
What now? The Flitzer was a wreck, but that was not so bad, as the tractor had been saved, and moreover, we were within hailing distance. Apparently our comrades were outside the minefield, but reaching them might cost us our lives. We needed to keep a cool head and establish a plan of the minefield. In many cases in a situation like this, you can follow your own vehicle’s tracks backward, but the ground here was so hard and stony that our wheels had left no clear traces.
Still standing on the Flitzer—which for the moment was the only safe place—we made a thorough appraisal of the situation. The British vehicles were all pointing the same way, northwest to southeast, as if coming from Matrûh on their way to the Nile Delta. Every vehicle had driven over a mine, since some had lost their front legs, so to speak, and some their back legs. Interestingly, the vehicles had not been driving in convoy one behind the other, or else only one of them would have bought it. But here in the graveyard of Minqar Qaim, an escarpment jutting from the desert about 80 miles from El Alamein, was a collection of nearly 150 vehicles. They must have driven into the minefield on a broad front like a herd of cattle.
On closer study there turned out to be a certain regularity in the way the wrecks were placed, and from this we established that the mines were set out on a grid of about 25 square feet, so we knew with some certainty that for 25 feet around our Flitzer we had nothing to fear.
Following this 25-foot system, we worked our way toward the tractor, creeping along the ground and looking and feeling as we went. Since we also knew approximately where the mines were, we actually found them. Sometimes we could even see them lying under a thin layer of sand and stones. We dug them out by hand, unscrewed the detonators and laid each mine-case on its back like a helpless tortoise. With a bit of practice, this can be done quite briskly and efficiently. After a couple of hours’ work we at last made our way to the tractor in one piece, though all our hearts were thumping.
Evening had come on. We decided to spend the night on the edge of the minefield. Inside the tractor, which was really a little house on wheels, we could all sit comfortably, and over tea, bread, and tinned food we gave free rein to our thoughts about the graveyard. Who had laid these mines? How had so many British trucks, reconnaissance vehicles, and jeeps been crippled here? When did it happen? There were many puzzles that the desert refused to answer, but the mines we had dug up told us enough.
They were British mines and the rest was clear. Back in June, when Rommel carried out his surprise advance on Egypt from Tobruk, our high-speed troops surrounded Matrûh.
However, in the night, the British garrison succeeded in breaking out and about 300 vehicles went southeast in a dash for safety. It was a mad and desperate bid for freedom. In their haste they must have forgotten their own minefield at Minqar Qaim, or else they must have miscalculated their position. This nighttime catastrophe must have been frightful, for 137 vehicles were blown up within a few seconds. The remainder who chanced to come through unscathed took on board the survivors and the wounded and reached the Nile. The Allied vehicle inventory that had been left behind in the graveyard of Minqar Qaim was the greatest discovery I ever made in all my many desert journeys, but it was also the saddest.
How many hundreds of thousands of mines must there be, still lying in the Libyan and Egyptian deserts between Tripoli and Alamein? These mines will continue to be a danger until they are eroded in time by salt and rust and the infrequent rains of the desert. This may take many decades, and woe to any unsuspecting nomads and their caravans. The desert will play its usual games with the mines: the wind will cover them with wandering sand dunes so deep that even the strongest mine detector will not penetrate. After a few years the dune will move on and the mines will stand open to the winds like mushrooms in the desert until another dune is kind enough to cover them again.
NEXT DAY WE REPORTED the big find at Minqar Qaim to the CO. Our marvelous experiences in Siwa paled into insignificance beside this important discovery and I almost forgot to present the Old Man with a basket of pomegranates we had brought back.
Now it was time to retrieve our treasure from the desert. Two days later I was on my way to Minqar Qaim with a strong mechanical engineering task force. The mines were cleared and the reclamation of the vehicles began. We put up several tents. The spoils were great, and the loads in the vehicles were also very valuable and a welcome bonus. We dined like princes, apart from being short of water, which had to be carted in from Matrûh.
We worked for weeks on site, getting the crippled vehicles going again. There were masses of spares, because we gutted the really badly damaged vehicles immediately. Every day several trucks that could still take loads left the camp to have their repairs completed at mobile field workshops on the coast.
The Minqar Qaim find became my great engineering passion. I was there nearly every day and frequently spent the night in camp with the local project manager, who was a highly efficient foreman. However, on the evening of September 8, I had business elsewhere.
That night, in spite of a couple of warning shots from the sentry, British scout vehicles roared in so unexpectedly that the whole camp of 16 men fell into their hands. The British took everyone, including the wounded. When I arrived at the camp the next day, I found the tents virtually intact but “our” vehicles, which had just been made ready for transportation, had been burned, as had the weapons belonging to the camp garrison, which had apparently been piled up, drenched with petrol, and set alight.
Minqar Qaim was once again a desolate graveyard. Tommy had taken his revenge.
Reisch’s loss of 16 men led his superiors to accuse him of slack security. In time, four of the missing soldiers limped into camp after a 37-mile trek. Lacking space to carry all their captives, the British raiders had given the quartet food and water and cut them loose deep in the desert. The charges against Reisch faded away. When the Afrika Korps surrendered in May 1943 he escaped to Sicily and then Italy, was wounded at Anzio, and spent nine months recuperating. After the war, Reisch resumed traveling and writing, eventually publishing 22 books based on his experiences. He died in 1985.
Excerpted from Out of the Rat Trap: Desert Adventures with Rommel, by Max Reisch, translated by Alison Falls. Reproduced by arrangement with The History Press. Copyright ©2013 Alison Falls, all rights reserved.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.