IS Harvests Rommel’s North Africa Legacy in Pursuit of Mayhem

The North Africa Campaign of WWII comprised some of the fiercest fighting ever seen across desert terrain, with momentum swinging violently between the Axis and Allied powers, before the latter’s eventual victory in 1943. The eventual success of the Campaign set up the invasion of Sicily and the subsequent Allied advance through the Italian mainland.

British tanks rumble across the desert during the North Africa Campaign
Allied tanks rumble across the desert during the North Africa Campaign

Almost 100,000 troops lost their lives on both sides, with more than 5,000 tanks and 9,000 aircraft destroyed along with countless thousands of tons of other war materiel. The rusting carcasses of some of these machines are a stark reminder of the intensity of the Saharan battles but even more significant is the legacy of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) left by the conflict.

Mile upon mile of dense minefields were laid by both sides during the fighting, with thousands of artillery shells, mortars, bombs and other munitions failing to detonate and remaining primed and deadly in the ground 75 years on.

This legacy has been a constant menace to the Bedouin tribes that continue to inhabit the region, with only sporadic Explosive Ordnance Clearance (EOC) tasks undertaken by the Egyptian government and international bodies since WWII. What remains a constant menace to the indigenous population has only recently been brought to global attention by the actions of the barbarous Islamic State (IS).

IS has made steady ground in Egypt, with the lawless deserts of the Sinai Peninsula and the Sahara now sheltering hundreds of jihadists intent on waging their terrorist war across international borders. It is has been noted that amongst IS’s wide-ranging and ad hoc armoury are devices with explosives harvested from UXO relating to the North Africa Campaign.

IS fighters in Sinai province
IS fighters in Sinai province

With more than 17 million land mines thought to remain buried across the Sahara, it is little wonder that IS has taken the opportunity to increase its chain of supply. Removing the munitions and reusing them in their crude Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) appears to be a further sign of the group’s adaptation in the face of an international onslaught.

Such a tactic may not be novel, however, with the 2004 truck bombing of the Taba Hilton now believed to have been caused by a bomb using explosives pilfered from WWII UXO.

Whilst the exact origin – i.e. Allied or Axis munitions – of the IS explosives is unclear, most media reports are attributing it to the Nazis and to one general in particular: Erwin Rommel.

Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox’, established a reputation for tactical mastery during the early phases of the North Africa Campaign, with his Panzer Divisions routing the chaotically-managed British Army during the initial exchanges in the desert.

Erwin Rommel: the Desert Fox
Erwin Rommel: the Desert Fox

Renowned and revered both in Germany and across the Allied world, Rommel would eventually be forced to commit suicide by Hitler after his alleged involvement in an assassination attempt against the Fuhrer in 1944. By then his Axis forces had been pushed out of North Africa with an invigorated Allied army led by Bernard Montgomery seizing the upper hand after the decisive Second Battle of El-Alamein in the Autumn of 1942.

Australian troops during the Second Battle of El-Alamein
Australian troops during the Second Battle of El-Alamein

UXO has contaminated huge tracts of land across the world since the 19th century, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians unable to escape the horrors of the past. It is no irony that IS – already one of history’s most hideous formations – should choose to harness this tragic legacy to inflict even more misery on those powerless to defend themselves.

Whilst it might give the Egyptian authorities and their allies a vigorous prod towards addressing this unwanted legacy – and Cairo should by no means be solely responsible for a job whose necessity has primarily been caused by the European powers – it is equally likely to encourage other terrorists to attempt similarly risky feats, harnessing the explosive remnants of war in their quest for ever greater devastation.

The days of ‘gentlemanly warfare’ – if such a thing ever existed – have long since past.

Iran Plays Powerful with Control Over Hormuz Strait; 500 Years on from Afonso de Albuquerque

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most strategically important waterways in the world today.  Providing the only sea passage between the Persian Gulf and the open ocean, it is used to transport approximately 20% of international petroleum requirements from the Middle Eastern oil fields.

The Strait of Hormuz has great strategic and, by extension, military importance
The Strait of Hormuz has great strategic and, by extension, military importance

At its narrowest, the Strait flows between Iran to the north and the Omanian exclave of Musandam to the south.  It has been the scene of diplomatic incidents, military clashes and maritime collisions but to Tehran, in particular, it is a chokepoint of great potential.

The Iranians periodically threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz and have, indeed, made the potential for such a scenario central to their belligerent foreign policy.  It is the United States, unsurprisingly, that is typically the target of such threats and whilst Iran would suffer from halting oil shipments out of the Persian Gulf, its control over the Strait is an undoubted bargaining tool.

It is 500 years since the great Portuguese explorer, conqueror and administrator Afonso de Albuquerque perished in Goa, that strategic gateway to India whose capture secured a foothold for Lisbon in Asia. Eight years prior to his death, Albuquerque had sailed into the Strait of Hormuz on the orders of his patron, King Manuel I of the House of Aviz.

Ever since Vasco da Gama had landed at Calicut in 1498, the Portuguese had been in competition for dominance over the lucrative Indian Ocean trade with Muslim merchants, whose own commercial routes stretched all the way to Egypt and the Mamluk Sultanate, Manuel’s rival in the Mediterranean.  Capturing Ormuz Island on what is today Iran’s southern coast would be a major step in thwarting Muslim ambitions.

Da Gama's famed voyage initiated an era of worldwide European exploration and conquest
Da Gama’s famed voyage initiated an era of worldwide European exploration and conquest

With little effort, Albuquerque and his men captured their target in October 1507, only for their joy to be short-lived.  In a harsh climate without sufficient supplies, Albuquerque’s aim to build a garrison to hold the island led to resentment amongst his subordinate captains and provoked resistance from the local population.  A mutiny of the Portuguese ensued, whereby all bar Albuquerque’s ship returned to Portuguese India and Ormuz was lost.

Not to be deterred – and after securing Goa and Malacca in a series of brilliantly daring raids – Albuquerque returned to Ormuz again in 1515 with more than 1,000 men in 27 heavily-armed vessels.  This time the conquest led to the establishment of a permanent garrison, effectively cutting off the Indian Ocean to the Muslim merchants and securing the first overseas empire by a European power.  Indeed, it would not be until 1622 that the Portuguese presence at Ormuz was ended by the British.

Ormuz offered the Portuguese a grasp on both the Indian and Persian trade
Ormuz offered the Portuguese a grasp on both the Indian and Persian trade

There are few men as ‘great’ as Albuquerque today – and this term refers to his military and administrative achievements not his propensity to dispense brutal justice to those who dared cross him – nor as pioneering as his predecessors da Gama and Francisco da Almeida.  Indeed, we live in a world where such personalities are discouraged and any sense of individualism is often treated with noted scepticism.

Albuquerque was a formidable much so that he earned the sobriquet O Terrível (The Terrible)
Albuquerque was a formidable character…so much so that he earned the sobriquet O Terrível (The Terrible)

The 16th century was characterised by the disproportionate achievements of the few against the many.  Nowadays it often appears as if thousands upon thousands of faceless diplomats and bureaucrats are incapable of creating the slightest change.  The Iran nuclear deal took the involvement of hundreds of such characters and, whilst driven by a select few global ‘leaders’, time is likely to prove how ineffective this venture has been.

Iran’s threats ring hollow; closing the Strait of Hormuz would hurt its enemies but also itself.  Sometimes it is hard not to pine after the dashing era of Albuquerque and his bloody-minded cohorts, who could ride roughshod over the barricades and penetrate the enemy heartland, safe in the knowledge that their technological and martial superiority would grant them passage.

Alas; timid diplomacy, bureaucratic gridlock and unadventurous leaders are all we can hope for in our tormented world of scrutiny, cynicism and obstinacy.


Crowley, R (2015), Conquerors: How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire

Mosul Dam on the Verge of Collapse: Echoes of the Yellow River Disaster of 1938

Fears persist that springtime snow melt will lead to an uncontrollable rise in water pressure that will finally cause the collapse of Iraq’s Mosul Dam, potentially devastating vast swathes of the country and killing and displacing millions of people.

Italian engineers have been hired to repair the Mosul Dam. But has the Iraqi government left it too late?
Italian engineers have been hired to repair the Mosul Dam. But has the Iraqi government left it too late?

The warning bells have been ringing ever since the dam’s construction in 1984, when it was known as the mouth-twisting Saddam Dam. Built on unsuitable geology to line the pockets of one of Saddam’s cronies, the dam has required nightly infusions of concrete to keep it stable over its three-decade existence. This process was halted, however, after its capture by the Islamic State in 2014. Whilst it has since been recaptured, the structural integrity of the dam has been severely compromised and some analysts fear that a collapse is imminent.

Of course the US in particular has been at pains to point out to the Iraqi government the weakness of the dam and the potential consequences of its failure. The government in Baghdad, however, has over the past couple of years downplayed the potentially disastrous situation and continued to insist that people living in its shadow have nothing to worry about.

Whether this is wishful ignorance, naivety or something more sinister is unclear. Could it be that the Iraqi government actually sees the flooding of a large portion of its country as a final defence against the Islamic State? Does it believe that it can control a bursting of the dam and add the force of nature to its weaponry?

PM Haider al-Abadi has called the potential Mosul Dam collapse ‘highly unlikely’ and told his citizens that ‘all necessary measures’ will be taken to prevent such a disaster. Yet he has failed to act with conviction

It seems preposterous that Baghdad would allow millions of its people to perish underwater. However, desperate times call for desperate measures and there are precedents. One in particular is worth noting.

During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek made the fateful decision in June 1938 to destroy the dykes and dams on the Yellow River in Central China. The reason? To prevent the inexorable advance of the Imperial Japanese Army towards the Nationalist government’s then capital of Wuhan.

Hard facts are difficult to obtain but estimates place the death toll from the subsequent flooding in the central Chinese provinces of Anhui, Henan and Jiangsu at 500,000, with at least a further 3 million peasants made refugees.

Refugees of the Yellow River flood of 1938
Refugees of the Yellow River flood of 1938

Chiang was fully aware of the deadly consequences of his order and the fact that Wuhan was surrendered to the Japanese in October 1938 shows how fruitless his diabolical efforts were. Not only did the plan fail to halt the Japanese tide, but it exacerbated an already fraught refugee crisis, with the new Nationalist capital at Chongqing unable to cope with the influx of desperate, starving people.

The Nationalist control over the dispersion of information, coupled with the chaos of war, helped shield Chiang from the blame for the horrendous flooding. His potential allies in the West, however, became fully aware of his complicity in the devastation and may have contributed to the distrust shown towards him by the US and British throughout WWII.

Were the Iraqi government to allow the failure of the Mosul Dam, there would be no hiding place and the blame would be levelled squarely at Baghdad’s front door.

Sacrifice is a necessity in times of warfare and it is reasonable for a government to ask its citizens to make concessions to their daily lives when faced with an existential threat. This is not sympathetic with a government sacrificing its own people to bolster its hopes of survival.

Chiang Kai-shek’s legitimacy declined during the Sino-Japanese War. The Nationalists and their allies may have prevented a total Japanese occupation but that was more to do with the overstretch of the Tokyo regime than an effective strategy of defence and counter-insurgency.

Chiang at the Cairo Conference in 1943 with Roosevelt and Churchill. Both the American and British leader would develop unfavourable opinions about the Generalissimo
Chiang at the Cairo Conference in 1943 with Roosevelt and Churchill. Both the American and British leader would develop unfavourable opinions about the Generalissimo

Furthermore, the corruption and brutality of Chiang’s regime (who it must be said bore the brunt of the fighting) was contrasted unfavourably with the Communist stronghold in Yan’an, where land reform and distribution of resources pointed to a regime of benevolence. The Communists would take control of China in 1949, of course, and this myth was quickly put to bed.

The Mosul Dam should never have been built where it was but it is now imperative that it is reinforced and re-engineered to ensure its survival. That survival may go hand-in-hand with that of the Iraqi government, whose own legitimacy and capacity to control its outlying provinces will be irreparably damaged by any foolhardy decisions to harness nature’s power to destroy an enemy that can only be obliterated through a willing coalition ready to make their own personal sacrifices.


Mitter, R. China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: the Struggle for Survival (2013)