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Review essay: El Alamein Military Museum and Commonwealth War Cemetery

By Ian Rose
El Alamein Military Museum, 8 October 2010
Italian M13/40 tank at the museum
The nearby Commonwealth War Cemetery

Last year I took a trip to Egypt, returning shortly before the revolution that removed President Mubarak (nicknamed "The Pharaoh", according to our guide, due to his seemingly irrevocable hold on the country). Many tours were advertised when I was looking to go but one reason I picked the one I did was that the itinerary included the Al-Alamein (El Alamein) Military Museum and Commonwealth War Cemetery, located on the coastal road west of Alexandria. Since there's no Wikipedia article on the museum as yet (a situation I may have to rectify) and in response to suggestions from Nick and Ed, here's a quick précis...

The museum is fairly compact but features a plethora of displays inside and out. A large table-top map with figures and coloured indicators, coupled with recorded commentary, takes you through the entire back-and-forth conflict that was the North African campaign, not simply the twin battles of El Alamein in 1942. On the walls are photographs, newspapers, paintings, heraldry, and purpose-written summaries of the battles and other aspects of the conflict which, aside from the spelling mistakes and grammatical idiosyncrasies of Egyptian-English translations, are generally very useful. One attention-getter is a brief exposition of Rommel's phrase Krieg ohne Hass ("war without hate"), highlighting that this was considered a somewhat "cleaner" and more chivalrous conflict than many others of the war, partly by virtue of the landscape being largely devoid of permanent inhabitation.

On the 3D side of things there are dioramas, weapons and ammo, helmets and webbing, mannequins in uniform, and busts of figures such as Rommel and King Farouk. As one might expect, there is a much greater emphasis on Egypt's participation in the war than is generally seen in Commonwealth or American literature. Outside the main building you find a commemorative monument topped with sculpted doves of peace, plaques dedicated to the armies, units and commanders involved in the desert campaign, and well-preserved examples of period hardware including an 88mm flak gun, Crusader, Sherman and M13/40 tanks, armoured cars, field pieces, and even a wrecked Spitfire fighter. There are cafe and restroom facilities in addition to the inevitable souvenir shop. The whole shebang is beautifully maintained and well worth the visit.

The nearby cemetery is on land donated by Egypt and administered by the CWGC, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from Britain. The headstones are arranged in neat rows on the sand, with only a few trees and shrubs for ornamentation. The sparseness of the grounds seems right and proper, as it reflects the terrain over which the armies fought. Some 8,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, South African and Rhodesian servicemen are buried, while a cloister at the entrance lists the names of those "who died fighting on land or in the air where two continents meet and to whom the fortune of war denied a known and honoured grave". The number of names without remains in the cloister provides a sad symmetry to the many graves in the cemetery without names. As we boarded the coach to depart, our guide Hussein took his microphone and remarked, "We are grateful for their sacrifice and wish peace upon them".

Travel advice

  • El Alamein is 105 km west of Alexandria, on a train line, and can easily be reached by car and bus along the Alexandria-Matruh Desert Road. The coach trip took us about an hour from Alexandria; we went however on a Friday, Muslim sabbath, so traffic was relatively light.
  • Admission to the museum is 10EGP ($1.65, €1.25 or £1.05) -- see website. There is no charge for entering the Commonwealth cemetery.
  • This visit was just a few hours in a tour that took me from Alexandria to Abu Simbal but one could easily spend the best part of a day in El Alamein, seeing the German and Italian cemeteries, and more of the battlefield, as well as the Commonwealth cemetery and the museum.
  • Mersa Matruh, about 240 km west of Alexandria, is another tourist destination on the coast that contains war cemeteries.