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Sahara

Day 79: Tobruk

Michael Palin - SaharaIt's a warm, clammy evening on the north coast of Libya. A coach has disgorged a number of elderly Britons at the door of the blandly modern Al-Masera hotel. Once in their rooms, they will be able to push aside the net curtains and look out over the sea, where a sharp curve of the coastline has created a perfect harbour. It will mean more to them than the average tourist, for sixty years ago they nearly died defending it.

At Tobruk, the Sahara meets the Mediterranean Sea and we are less than 250 miles from the Greek mainland, closer to Europe than at any time since leaving Gibraltar. A hundred and fifty miles the other way, to the south, is the Great Sand Sea, a massive wilderness of parallel sand ridges, hundreds of feet high, rolling across the desert like waves in a hurricane. In the Second World War, the battle for control of Egypt and the Suez Canal was confined to the area between these two seas, a thin strip of land, whose only outlet was the port of Tobruk. The fighting was fierce and Tobruk itself changed hands five times between 1940 and 1942. But for eight crucial months, between April and December 1941, despite being surrounded by the enemy and bombed from the air, Allied troops clung on to Tobruk and kept open a vital supply line. The siege cost many lives, and the men filing into the hotel, some shuffling in on the arms of others, some with sticks and some in wheelchairs, are returning, one last time, to the place where they lost so many friends.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 79
  • Country/sea: Libya
  • Place: Tobruk
  • Book page no: 210

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