TOBRUK, Libya - As tank and artillery fire booms over the Libyan desert once more and soldiers fight over desolate towns, the graves of the dead from World War II battles are a reminder of past struggles against oppression.
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A total of 3,651 soldiers, mostly from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa lie in the Knightsbridge War Cemetery near Acroma, 25 k.m. west of Tobruk.
There are several other such cemeteries in the area, including one for the German dead.
Tobruk itself was the site of a celebrated siege by German and Italian troops which began on April 11, 1941 -- 70 years ago on Monday.
Towns and cities like Brega, Ajdabiyah and Benghazi were also fought
over by the Axis army led by General Erwin Rommel -- the Desert Fox --
and British and Commonwealth forces.
The names have become familiar again as a Libyan rebel army clashes up
and down the coastal highway against Muammar Gaddafi's troops in an
insurrection against his autocratic rule.
The Knightsbridge Cemetery is built on the site of a battle in May 1942.
Bounded by a low wall on a patch of beige desert, the graves lie in
neat rows on either side of a central pathway lined by palm trees. A
large cross overlooks the site.
"All these soldiers died around Tobruk," said caretaker Mohammed Hanish,
who has looked after the cemetery for 28 years in the employ of the
Commonwealth War Graves Commission. "It's a beautiful place, but it's
His father had helped to collect and bury the bodies, he said. Thousands
of Libyans were also killed in the conflict although none are buried
"There were many Libyans with the British. Libyans were helping to get rid of the fascists ruling our country," he said.
The strategic importance of the vast tracts of desert lay in Britain's
need to protect the Suez Canal and Arabian oil fields from any attack
from Italian-ruled Libya.
Early in the campaign, Rommel, a master of speed and surprise, raced
across the desert with his Afrika Korps and Panzer tanks, driving the
British from Benghazi into Egypt.
The Siege of Tobruk lasted 240 days. Radio Berlin derided its Australian
defenders as the "rats of Tobruk" as they sought shelter in tunnels and
dug-outs -- a nickname they proudly appropriated.
The siege was eventually lifted in November 1941 by General Claude
Auchinleck and great tank battles raged back and forth to the west in
the following several months.
Acroma was a key staging post, or "box", for supplies where a number of
desert tracks met. As with today's conflict, the problem of maintaining
supplies of fuel and ammunition over hundreds of miles was a critical
issue.Rommel Outfoxed by Monty
Rommel finally captured Tobruk in June 1942 and pushed on into Egypt.
But the Desert Fox met his match when British General Bernard Montgomery
took command of the Eighth Army. He was defeated at the Battle of El
Alamein in Egypt that November.
Hitler ordered the Afrika Korps to fight to the death but in the end, the Germans retreated back across the desert.
Rommel's headquarters in Tobruk, a blockhouse overlooking the harbor,
can still be seen today, but the site is in a state of neglect and
He himself did not appear to be too impressed by Libya.
"Rivers of blood were poured out over the miserable strips of land which
in normal times, not even the poorest Arab would have bothered his head
about," he wrote (quoted in "Masters of Battle" by Terry Brighton).
Of the soldiers lying in Knightsbridge Cemetery, nearly 1,000 are
unidentified, the gravestones marked only with "Known Unto God."
The other markers give name, age, regiment and date of death. Some have
sentimental inscriptions from parents or wives. Others try to make sense
of the loss.
"He died serving the cause of the liberation of mankind," reads the
inscription on the grave of Lt. Edward Jardine of the Royal Army Service
Corps, who was killed on March 20, 1942 at the age of 24.
Many families and military men have visited the site over the years
although that has stopped since February, when the uprising against
Gaddafi began, caretaker Hanish said.
He said the cemetery was respected by all in the area and pointed to the
fact that crosses in the cemetery had never been desecrated as a sign
that hard-line Islamists were not at large in the area.
Asked what he thought about war and its human cost, he said, "It depends. If war is for freedom, it is good. If not, it's bad."