World War II graves testify to past bloodshed in Libya

Graves of thousands of dead World War II soldiers lie beneath sands of current Libyan revolution.

Tobruk Libya2 311 Reuters (photo credit: REUTERS/Andrew Winning)
Tobruk Libya2 311 Reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS/Andrew Winning)
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.
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.
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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 very sad."
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 here.
"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 decay.
He himself did not appear to be too impressed by Libya.
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Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
"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."