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We went to North Africa in 1960 on our way back from Germany where we went to buy our Khombi campervan.
We were supposed to catch the Nile Steamer but on the sea voyage from Greece to Cairo our ship was involved in an accident with another ship and had to call in at Limosol for emergency repairs. The delay meant that we missed the steamer.
I don't remember the grand tour of the Egyptian desert but I presume we did the usual sightseeing trip to the pyramids.
My father wanted to go into Libya but we weren't granted visas as there was some sort of upheaval going on in that country at the time so I shall recall another trip to Libya in another time ... when my father went out there in his youth.
The year was 1940 ...
We are all familiar with the famous Desert Fox, Herr General Rommel, and his adversaries Montgommery and the Desert Rats.
Much is written about the battles at Tobruck and El Alamein between the Germans and the British/Australian forces.
But not much is written about the time before this ... when the British fought the Italians.
This is where my story begins ...
Many Special Force units which carried out many daring behind-the-lines operations of WW2 sprang from the ranks of the British army. These included the Special Air Service (SAS), Popski's Private Army, the Special Boat Service and the Long Range Desert Group. However, the Long Range Desert Group was the original desert Special Force.
The soldiers from the Coldstream and Scots Guards who had been stationed in Egypt before the outbreak of war were the Commandos' first recruits. They were later joined by crack troops from the Cavalry Brigade which went out to Palestine in January 1940, soldiers of famous units such as the Yorkshire Hussars, the Yorkshire Dragoons and the North Somerset, Staffordshire, Cheshire and Warwickshire Yeomanry Regiments, as well as some of the toughest and versatile New Zealand and Rhodesian troops.
When the 11th Scottish Commando, or Black Hackle, was disbanded after heavy losses in 1941, at the costly battle of the Litani River in the Lebanon, against Vichy French forces, its members were given the choice of joining the Long Range Desert Group, SAS, other Commando units, or returning to their original regiments. Many put their special skills in explosives, close comat and raiding to good use in the Long Range Desert Group.
Ford and Chevrolet trucks, and later jeeps, were heavily armed with Vickers machine guns, Lewis guns and Browning heavy calibre weaponry, plus a formidable array of small arms, Tommy guns, rifles, grenades, mines and explosives. The machine guns were oil cooled for ease of traverse and to prevent overheating in the fierce desert temperatures. Patrols consisted of four or five trucks as the optimum workable unit and occasionally patrols joined forces for big raids. Experiments were even carried out with field guns and anti-aircraft weapons carried on the back of trucks to stiffen firepower even further.
The foundations of this unique fighting unit had been laid down more than 30 years before in WW1 when the Duke of Westminster Yeomanry roamed the desert in converted Model T Fords.
This was the era when Lawrence of Arabia became a living legend by blowing up railway lines, hitting the enemy with stunning force, then melting away into the desert - just like the Long Range Desert Group.
For about six months in 1941/1942 the Long Range Desert Group kept constant check on enemy vehicles moving along the coast road and those many miles behind enemy lines. With powerful binoculars and up-todate photographs they noted everything down about the enemy's activities. They also transported men and supplies in specially converted trucks to points all over Libya for espionage, link-ups with the Arabs, or for helping prisoners to escape.
The Long Range Desert Group also linked up with Free Frenchmen from the Chad and attacked the Murzuk oasis in the Fezzan where the Italians had a small fort.
Later, when the Eighth Army was preparing its great comback battle at El Alamein the Long Range Desert Group was busy disrupting Rommel's communications and panicking districts all over the rear areas.
Withdrawn from Tunisia in April 1943, the Long Range Desert Group went into training for reconnaissance in mountainous country and the men who had been used to the burning desert heat now learned to use skis on snow. Their headquarters were established on Leros and another patrol stayed on the German occupied island of Seriphos for nearly a month living on nothing but beans and marrows. On the first anniversary of Alamein a party of 50 set off to liquidate the German garrison on the island of Levitha but ran into a strong German garrison and was forced off the island.
On Leros itself the Commandos who were scattered all over the island, saw a lot of fighting. One party, at the top of Mount Clidi, retook the position from which it had been forced out of by crack parachutists and held it until well after British forces surrendered.
Greece, Albania and Yugoslavia became what the desert had been. One Commando officer stationed along the Adriatic coast had a huge bounty put on his head by the Germans, but none of the partisans with whom he worked gave him away, even though he was there for four and a half months.
As the Germans pulled out of the Balkans, it became the Commando's job to hinder the retreat. They followed the Germans out of Greece, some of them getting as far as the Adriatic, to Athens and even Salonika. Others went due north from Greece to link up with more Commandos who had been dropped by parachute in souther Yugoslavia and on the European mainland, one squadron had undergone intesive training in mountain warfare, ready to help take Hitler's mountain fortress in Bavaria if needed.
About 80% of the Commandos voluteered for service in the Far East but the war on Japan was brought to an abrupt end with the dropping of the atomic boms on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
I do not know whether my father was a member of the Long Range Desert Group or not ... but he did once say to me that I "would never be able to open a tin of beans if I was stuck out in the desert with no can-opener" ...
You can read about the exploits of the Long Range Desert Group commandos in the book Sting of the Scorpion by Mike Morgan (Sutton Publishing) ISBN 0-7509-2481-0.
The operation in which the British army was engaged from May 1940 until the end of 1942 in the Libyan desert was unlike any other in which they had previously been engaged.
Tanks had practivally never fought other tanks. Nobody had any experience of highly mobile operations ranging over wide areas in which tanks fought each other. Senior commanders tended to gloss over the problems of how the tanks got there and what was liable to happen on the way. The official view envisaged the function of "mechanised cavalry" as providing a covering force which would enable a commander to discover the enemy's dispositions and strengths, and probe his intention before he committed his main force.
The Mobile Division (Egypt), and later as the 7th Armoured Division, was formed in 1938/1939. When Italy declared war in May 1940, the force available to Wavell amounted to no more than 40,000 men and the only force immediately available to fight Marshal Balbo's Tenth Italian Army of 80,000 men was the 7th Armoured Division.
The Division had only one of its two armoured brigades at its disposal, which had only 2 regiments of tanks. One regiment was equipped with light tanks and the other was a mixed collection of "cruisers" some of which were still awaiting delivery of their guns.
O'Connor's offensive against the Italians started at Sidi Barrani on 8th December 1940 and reached a triumphant conclusion at Beda Fomm, south of Benghazi, on 7th February 1941.
The regiment of heavy, slow infantry support, or "I" tanks - the Matildas, had supported the attacks of the 4th Indian Division at Sidi Barrani and the 6th Australian Division at Bardia and Tobruk to great effect, while the 7th Armoured Division's lightly armoured cruiser and light tanks had outflanked and surrounded the static Italian garrisons, preceded and covered by the ancient armoured cars of the Italian 11th Hussars.
The British allies sustained less than 2,000 casualties of whom 500 were killed, and totally defeated an army of 10 divisions, capturing 130,000 prisoners, 380 tanks and 845 guns.
The desert took its toll on the tanks. The mileage which the tanks could clock up before tracks or engine needed repair or replacement was limited. Distances were great, and wear and tear was high.
Aside from this there were three crucial elements which lead to the eventual British defeat in Libya.
The first was Wavell's decision to replace the 4th Indian Division by the 6th Australian immediately after the battle of Sidi Barrani - the 4th Indian Division was more suited in training and character for attacking the Italians in Abyssinia than the inexperienced Australian division.
The second was not to permit an advance to Tripoli after Beda Fomm - the delay meant that Rommel's 5th Light Panzer Division arrived unheeded on February 12th 1941.
Thirdly, Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff gave the order to deploy troops from Libya to Greece ...
From the book: Dilemmas of the Desert War, The Libyan Campaign 1940-1942 by Michael Carver Published by Spellmount Ltd. ISBN 1-86227-153-4
On 24th May 1940 General Erwin Rommel wrote confidentaly to his wife: "My estimate is that the war will be won in a fortnight."
It was easy to see why he was so sure. British and French soldiers were being hastily evacuated from Dunkirk, and the Germans had Paris in their sights.
As commander of the Afrika Korps, Rommel himself was to experience the disconcerting effect of unpredicatable sabotage attacks by phantom raiders who came apparently from nowhere.
In June 1940 Churchill wrote to his military chiefs of staff instructing them to prepare "specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror on the 'butcher and bolt' policy".
Churchill knew more about Kommandos than most, as he had been captured by them while acting as a war correspondent in South Africa during the Boer Wars. As a soldier too, he had seen the daring and succes of their horseback hit-and-run sabotage attacks. The Kommandos got their name because they were "commandeered" from among eligible citizens.
In less than three weeks after the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, a shambolic party of men crossed the Channel, travelling in tiny motorboats originally designed to pick up ditched RAF pilots.
Although Operation Ambassador was a failure, the raid showed that such exercises were possible ...
A friend of my father recalls a story that my father told him.
"Eric was part of a raiding group. They had to blow up some "big guns". Apparently they were dropped in by parachute and would be picked up by submarine after the raid.
I don't know if the raid was successful but something went wrong and they missed getting on the submarine.
Eric and about 5 other men then spent about two months wandering around the French countryside hiding from the Germans and living off what they could scrounge from the land.
They thought it would be best to try and make it to Switzerland because by that time Paris had fallen and there were Germans everywhere.
One day they came across a German soldier who could speak English. He explained to them that he had deserted and that he too was on the run. They teamed up with him because he was able to get into places and food where their English language would have given them away.
After a while they began to suspect the German soldier of not being who he claimed to be and that he might be sending back signals of their whereabouts to the German army.
Their suspicions grew to the point where they decided it was best to get rid of their German "friend". That night they had to draw straws and the man who drew the shortest straw had to do the "deed".
Eric never said that it was him who drew the short straw but I got the feeling that he was the one who did.
Anyway, after they had disposed of the dead German they carried on eventually arriving near the border of Switzerland. A debate ensued as to whether it was safe to go into Switzerland because it was known that the Swiss would welcome people and then hand them over to the German authorities. So they decided to give themselves up voluntarily and were sent to a prisoner of war camp."
My father's Soldier's Pay Book (Active Service) Army Book 64 shows that he joined the Service on 8th April 1940 and that he was paid in Shillings and Pence until 4th April 1941 when he was paid in Drachma for 2 weeks until 14th April 1941.
He received TAB inoculations on 17.5.40, 21.8.40, 7.9.40, 7.7.41, 28.8.42, 29.5.43 and 10.5.44.
His Will as per the Pay Book is dated 12.11.40 and his rank registered as Sergeant RASC (Royal Army Service Corps.)
His Discharge Certificate is dated 12th August 1946 and his rank is registered as Corporal - Royal Army Service Corps. His Campaigns and Service Abroad is registered as: Middle East from 13.11.40 to 28.4.41 and Germany (POW) from 29.4.41 to 13.5.45
Papers held at Historical Disclosures of the Army Personnel Centre, Kentigern House in Glasgow show my father served in Britain from 2.5.1940 to 12.11.1940, was then sent to the Middle East from 13.11.1940 to 28.4.1941, was captured at Kalamata in Greece and sent to Germany until 13.5.1945.
Photographs in his collection show that he was in Libya, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, Crete ... and at the POW camps in Germany - Stalag XVIIIB at Spittal Drau, Stalag XVIIIA at Wolfsberg, and Stalag 383 at Hohenfels. The earliest date recorded on the POW photographs is from Stalag XVIIIA at Wolfsberg on 29.3.42 when he was in Arbeitskommando A942.
My father has also a "Personal Ausweis" from the Reichsprotectorat Böhmen und Mähren (Bohemia and Moravia) dated 1.10.42 in the false name of "Franz Pigrol" from when he attempted to escape from the POW camp.
My father did not talk much about his time in the war or in the pow camps, at least not to me.
He did say that he escaped from the pow camp in June and was helped by the French Resistance and I was named Lorraine June because of that.
My cousin says that he made several escape attempts but was captured each time, and on one occasion he and a fellow escapee reached the Swiss border but my father fell crossing a stream and broke his leg. Instead of seeking the freedom they had come so far for his friend called for help and they were taken back to the pow camp.
His last escape attempt was planned just before the camp was liberated in 1945. He and a friend were to pose as plumbers. They had false identification papers and railway tickets to Berlin.
In Greece my father said that he had been sent to Salonika in the rear guard to hold up the German forces while the main British forces retreated. He was at the Corinth Bridge when it was blown up. He then managed to get to Kalamata with the others in his unit but was one of those who were left stranded on the beach. He made a plan to steal one of the local boats to try to get to Crete but his commanding officer prevented him from doing so and thus he was captured.
My aunt insists that my father also fought in France during the war.
Formed in June 1940 the British Commandos made their first raid on the night of 23rd June 1940 by 120 men of the No. 11 Commando/Independent Company. Codenamed Operation Collar the offensive reconnaissance took place on the French coast south of Bologne and Le Toquet.
Their second raid, Operation Ambassador, was launched on the german occupied island of Guernsey on the night of 14th July 1940 by H Troop of No. 3 Commando and No. 11 Commando/Independent Company.
The third major raid was launched on 3rd March 1941 by No. 3 and No. 4 Commando on the Norwegian Lofoten Islands.
On 20th April 1941 the Nos. 7, 8 and 11 Commandos, along with the locally raised Combined Middle East Commando (Layforce) made the first of the Libyan commando raids on the port of Barida.
The Commandos were then used to help defend the island of Crete, and covered the eventual evacuation, with the exception of No. 11 Commando who were reinforcing Cyprus.
The No. 11 Commando was sent in June 1941 to the Litani river in Palestine to fight against Troops of the French Vichy Regime.
No. 2, 3, 4 and 6 Commando, under Louis Mountbatten, conducted a raid codenamed Operation Archery on 27th December 1941 on the Norwegian port of Vaagso.
On 18th March 1942 the No. 2 Commando plus demolition experts from other Commandos launched a raid, codenamed Operation Chariot, on the French dry dock of St. Nazaire.
On 19th August 1942 No. 3 and No. 4 Commando plus several men from other commandos launched a raid on Dieppe to destroy batteries to the north and south of the harbour.
The Special Operations Executive, commonly known as the "Baker Street Irregulars" was formed in July 1940. Originally designated at Section D of MI6, the mission of the Special Operations Executive was to encourange and faciliate espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines.
Operations in France were directed by two london based country sections. the "F" section was kept non-political while the "RF" section was linked to General de Gaulle's Free French operations.
Two smaller sections, the "EU/P" dealt with the Polish community in France and the "DF" section was responsible escape routes and coordination.
Initial raids in 1941 codenamed Operation Archery, were the Norwegian heavy water sabotage, and thereafter more than 400 section "F" agents were sent into occupied France to serve in a variety of functions such as arms and sabotage instructors, couriers, circuit organisers, liaison officers, and radio operators.
The Auxiliary Units, occasionally known as the British Resistance Organisation, were specially trained highly secret units created with the aim of resisting the expected invasion of the British Isles. They were formed in the summer of 1940 and recuited from the civilian population. The "Home Guard" were trained in the arts of guerilla warfare including assassination, unarmed combat, demolition and sabotage. They were provided with a concealed underground Operational Base built by the Royal Engineers in local woodland with a camouflaged entrance and emergency escape tunnel.
The German offensive on the island of Crete began on 20th May 1941 with the continuous dive bombing and aerial attacks on Suda Bay. This was followed up by an attemptive sea borne invasion on the 22nd May 1941.
The German offensive was successful and the British and allied troops were given the order to evacuate via the small port of Chora Sfakia on the other side of the island.
The men who were stranded on the beaches at Sfakia after the bulk of the troops had been evacuated at the end of May 1941 were taken prisoner by the Germans. They were marched back over the White Mountains to a makeshift prison camp near Canea.
Some of them were then sent out on work parties to collect and bury the dead, or to work on the airfield at Maleme.
Some stayed there until January 1942, but the majority of them were sent in boats to Greece and then by train to pow camps in Germany where, if they were non-commissioned, were sent out in work parties (Arbeitskommandos) to places such as quarries, factories and farms to work for the Germans. They stayed here in Germany until liberation in 1945.
Quite a number of men managed to escape to the hills where they were helped by the Cretan people. Some were re-captured and some managed to get off the island by boat or by submarine and return to Egypt.
Some were involved in guerrilla warfare between the Cretans and the Germans. And a number of British escapees were parachuted back to the island to work as agents on the island with support from Cairo.
In April 1941 British and allied troops were sent from Egypt and Libya to assist the Greek troops in fighting back the German advance.
Those who arrived at ports on April 12th were greeted by a scene of utter chaos - German bombers had launched a massive air-raid on the shipping there and ships were ablaze and sinking, and some towns had been devasted by an earthquake that had occurred a few weeks before.
However they were able to land and were then transported closer to the battlefields. No sooner than they arrived they were ordered back again.
Some troops were deployed in demolition of the roads and bridges, others laid ambushes for the advance guards.
This went on with intermittent fighting and aerial attacks until the order came for the British and allied troops to withdraw completely.
The RAF began evacuating their remaining aircraft and personnel from mainland Greece from 20th April 1941. Blenheims were making the trip to Crete with up to 9 passengers each, trying to get aircrews and their ground crews back to where they might be of future use.
By the 24th April 1941 the full scale evacuation of ground troops was well under way from beaches in southern Greece - Raphin, Raphtis, megara, Naplia, Monemvisia and Kalamata.
Under a hail of bombs and bullets the evacuees left the Greek mainland. Some didn't make it ... their ships were sunk. Some did, and were taken to Crete - where they came under attack once again.
During the evacuation the Germans wanted to cut off the Allied troops who were crossing the beaches south of Corinth and for this they decided on an airborne assault of the bridge at Corinth.
On the morning of April 26th 1941 the attack started with intense bombing and strafing runs on the bridge defenders - three companies of the Australian 2/6th, a company of New Zealand 19th, a squadron of armoured cars from the New Zealand Cavalry and four from the 4th Hussars.
Gliders carrying Para-engineers landed near to the bridge whose role it was to surround the Allies and remove the expected detonation charges from the bridge. These were followed in by paratroops.
But for some reason before the German paratroopers could capture the bridge, it blew up ...
A Sapper is literally one who saps another's fortifications. A Sapper is often called a "military engineer" nowadays and performs any of a variety of tasks undeer combat conditions. Such tasks typically include bridge and road construction, mine laying, or detection and clearing. In other words, the sapper's tasks now involve facilitating movement of allied forces and impeding movement of the enemy's ...
My father was captured on the 29th April 1941 ...
The Sahara desert has not always been a desert. At times it has been flooded by the ocean and swept by mighty rivers, parts of it were covered in forest and grassland, and as testified by the beautifully illustrated and magnificent Tissili rock art, for 6000 years the Sahara was inhabited by hippos, giraffes, lion and elephant.
The Sahara covers over 20% of Africa and its dry heart is about as large as the United States of America. Vast as it is though only 5% of the Sahara is true sand dunes. The rest is gravel plains and rocky highlands.
The larger massifs, like the Hoggar, Air and Tibesti, all harbour considerable water resources in the form of springs and rain-fed pools. And underground streams occasionally well up to form oases of lush desert greenery. In winter, clouds from the Mediterranean region push south and in spring tropical clouds from equatorial West Africa move north bringing rain to the desert's fringes but deep in its interior the Sahara has been denied rain for periods of up to 10 years.
Cities and temples once thronging with a multitude of people have been engulfed by the shifting sands and are now lost beneath the fine grains ... becoming myths in the minds of 21st century man.
The Horn of Africa
Somalia, eastern Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djobouti and parts of northern Kenya form the other great dry region north of the equator. This region is very ancient and has a rich variety of wildlife that has adapted to its arid climate. It is rumoured that the Horn of Africa was once linked to Southern Africa by a vast desert as the plants and animals share similar characteristics.
The Deserts of Southern Africa
These deserts are the most ancient with the Namib being the oldest.
The Kalahari is semi-arid savannah dominated by grasses and woody trees or shrubs and is subject to short, intense summer storms.
The Karoo Desert is a vast arid and sometimes mountainous region habited by dwarf shrubs. The area has two types of rainfall patterns. In the low winter rainfall area succulents grow, giving it the name the Succulent Karoo. The region with the slightly higher summer rainfall is called the Nama Karoo.
The Namib lies on the coast and is extremely arid with meagre rainfall. Life is supported by water bearing coastal fogs.
Life in the Deserts
Despite the lack of rain and scant vegetation, animals have found a way to live, even the great elephant.
Gazelles and antelope most successful in adapting to the harsh environment are the addax, the scimitar-horned oryx, the gemsbok and the dorcas gazelle.
A diverse community of small mammals, reptiles and amphibians live in the sandy and rocky shelters. Gerbils and herboas live in burrows in the vast open plains and dunes. Fennec foxes can survive without drinking anything at all, surviving only on the liquids of their prey.
Only a few species of amphibians can survive the desert because of the need for water for their early stages of development. In contrast, there are nearly 100 species of reptiles found in the Sahara, including skinks, geckos, chameleons, agama lizards, monitor lizards, and snakes.
Every year in spring and autumn, hundreds of millions of birds migrate across the Sahara between Europe and tropical Africa - a journey of up to 9000km (5600 miles) - quite a feat for a small creature weighing only 100g (4 ounces)!
In favourable conditions this desert crossing might take them 30-40 hours. Perhaps half of all those setting out survive this perilous journey, the rest die emaciated and dehydrated in the places where they have sought relief.
Typical of the Saharan desert is the proverbial camel. The dromedary or single humped camel was domesticated and imported to North Africa from Arabia in about 400BC and replaced the horse as
the main means of travel. Although not a true African mammal, it is the most important domesticated animal of the Saharan desert today. The bactrian or two humped camel is a native of Asia.
The camel's hump does not, as most people think, store water. It acts as a fat reserve that can help sustain the animal for several months without food and further helps to insulate it so that the camel hardly sweats. Camels store water in a number of muscular pouches in their stomach releasing it as required. The Bedouin peoples refer to the camel as Ata Allah meaning Gift of God.
Least known but perhaps the greatest diversity of all animal life in the Sahara are the insects.
There are as many as 66 different ant species, which in turn are important prey for the larvae of ant-lions (those curlie whirlies again) which excavate ambush pits in the fine sand.
Dung (scarab) beetles abound in areas where camels, goats and other domestic animals are common.
And here too are found scolid wasps which lay their eggs on the dung beetle lavae. Other insects are blister beetles and the desert grasshopper.
Since earliest times swarms of desert locusts have plagued the agriculture in North Africa. The most famous is that of the eighth plague of Egypt recorded in the biblical book of Exodus. In 125BC swarms caused 800,000 people to perish in Cyrenaica (Libya) and 300,000 in Tunisia. Desert locusts have been known to reach southwest Europe and have been seen flying at sea as far as 2400kms from land. They can invade an area of some 30 million sq. kilometers.
People of the Desert
It seems unbelievable that people can survive in the Sahara desert. The main nomadic groups are the Tuareg who are the fair-skinned Berbers themselves descended from the original white Greek and Phoenician inhabitants of North Africa.
Following the Arab invasions in the 7th and 11th centuries, the Tuareg established themselves as camel traders in the central Sahara and for many centuries controlled the valuable trans-Saharan caravans that took slaves, gold and ivory from West Africa to the Mediterranean. Their trading and raiding was subdued by the French who ruled Algeria and since the 1960s it has been increasingly difficult for the Tuareg to maintain their nomadic life.
The deserts of southern Africa are far more ancient than the Sahara and as they have been influenced by a relatively stable climate, have developed the most complex communities of desert plants and animals in the world. Ancient desert sands even lie beneath the lush tropical rainforest of the Congo!
When rains fall in the Kalahari desert animals, birds and insects flock in great numbers to the greening pastures. Here you will find the nomadic eland, the migrating blue wildebeest and Burchell's zebra, the flamingo and many birds which have travelled here from their feeding grounds on the Atlantic coast of Namibia and elsewhere in South Africa. Many lizards and amphibians emerge hastilly to breed. The Kalahari literally springs to life!
In the past great herds trekked seasonally across the Kalahari expanse followed hot on their heels by the little hunter-gatherers, the San Bushmen. Themselves nomads, the San Bushmen once ranged all over southern Africa as little as 3000 years ago.
They are the only true indigenous peoples of South Africa. Prolific even to the foothills of the Drakensberg in Natal, today only about 70,000 of these hardy little tribesmen remain, having been wiped out by south-migrating West African black Bantu tribes and the south-migrating seafaring white tribes who sought to live here, in this place in Africa.
Most of them have now abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and have settled on farms or areas set aside for them by their black and white compatriots. The only ones to have resisted outside pressures and continue to follow the hunter-gatherer lifestyle are the few protected in Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
The Nama Karoo
The Nama Karoo is the second largest desert region of southern Africa. The landscape is generally flat, dotted with rocky outcrops called koppies, and broken by great mountain ranges with a vegetation dominated by hardy shrubs and grasses.
To the south and west lies the Succulent Karoo which is rich in small shrubs and has a unique collection of desert plants and animals.
Within the Succulent Karoo is a special area known as Namaqualand. Here you will find almost 2000 species of succulents such as mesembreanthums (or vygies) including the famous stone plants, crassularas, euphorbias, haworthians, 500 species of bulbs, rhizomes and tuberous plants such as romuleas, moraeas, lachenalias and amaryllids.
But Namaqualand is best known for the dazzling spring displays of its 300 species of annuals. The Namaqualand in bloom is truely an amazing sight! As the number of days for pollination is short the flowers have developed in unique ways to attract insect and bird activity. Here you will find long tubed flowers like Lapeirousia, Babiana and Pelargonium, Prosoeca and the twisted flowers of Microloma sagittatum.
Less well known is the Namib. It is southern Africa's most extreme desert stretching more than 2000km along the coast of Namibia, dominated by dramatic sand dunes, gravel plains and parched riverbeds. It has been arid or semi-arid for the best part of 80 million years!
But it too is home to animals and plants ... which have adapted in unique ways to survive.
Moisture comes in the form of a coastal fog blown in across the cold Benguela Current, and winds are too strong for even the humblest spider to build his web on what little plant life there is.
Instead he spins his web on the sand's surface and crawls beneath. The jumping spider has adapted to perfectly mimic the aggressive Namib dune ants which themselves have gained immunity from attack by becoming evil-tasting.
The shovel-snouted and wedge-snouted lizards have modifications on their feets and toes so that they can run extremely fast on two legs across the sand and, when confronted by a predator, can dive under the sand and swim to safety. The Grant's Golden Mole also has a tough wedge-shaped nose and no eyes so that it too can swim beneath the surface of the sand.
The Desert's Little Sentries
In the Kalahari and the Karoo you will find jackals, yellow mongooses, snakes, large birds of prey, antelope, zebra and in some places the African Elephant. But of all the southern African small animal life, the most endearing is the Meerkat!
Strictly one of the mongoose family, and not a rat, the meerkat suricata suricatta is native from South Africa to Angola. It lives not only in open savanna country and bush country but also in the scrubland fringes of the desert.
The Desert Foxes
The most beautiful small hunter is not a fox but a member of the cat family. It is the Caracal, and it too lives in semi-desert, desert, open plains and the savanna.
The Fennec Fox Vulpes zerda is the smallest of the foxes identified by its huge ears. It is a true desert hunter living in North Africa, the Sinai Peninsula and southward as far as Niger. It is generally active at night and preys on small rodents, birds, insects and lizards. Fennec Foxes mate for life.
Other predators of the desert and semi-desert regions include the jackal, the black footed cat, and the hyena.
The Desert Rats
The Karroo Rat is a gregarious animal which lives in colonies in the sandy plains of the Cape Province.
Gerbillus campestris or large North African Gerbil is found in the sandy desert region between Morocco and Somalia. They too never need to drink and get all their water supply from the seeds they eat.
Dipodillus maghrebi or greater short-tailed Gerbil lives in the uplands and arid semi-desert regions of Morocco occupying a specific and specialised ecological niche.
Pachyuromys duprasi or Fat-tailed Gerbil lives in sandy desert from the Algerian Sahara to south west Egypt. It derives its name from its habit of storing fat in its tail which enlarges in size during periods when food is abundant. They have very acute hearing helping it to locate underground insects.
Psammomys obesus or aptly named Fat Sand Rat lives in sandy desert from Libya to Saudi Arabia. It too stores fat ... all over its body ... when food is abundant.
Ctenodactylus gundi is a member of the dormouse family and is found in rocky outcrops of the Sahara.
Petromus typicus or the Dassie Rat looks more like a squirrel than a rat. Its common name links it in habit with the dassie, or rock hyrax. They too live in rocky, arid hills and are found in Angola, Namibia, and South Africa.
Bathyergus suillus or Cape Dune Mole-Rat is the largest member of the mole-rat family. It lives in the sand dunes and sandy plains of South Africa up to the Cape of Good Hope.
Heterocephalus glaber or naked Mole-Rat is the smallest of its family and one of the most curious with a unique social structure similar to some insects than to any other mammal. Their colonies are ruled by a single queen, who alone breeds. The queen is tended by non-worker colony members and the workers dig the burrows and gather food for the colony. It lives in arid steppe country of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.
Macroscelides proboscideus is the short-eared Elephant Shrew and is native to the plains and rocky outcrops of Namibia and the Cape Province.
The Cape Ground Squirrel uses its bushy tail as a sun shade, arching over its back to help protect itself from the desert sun. African ground squirrels live in single-sex colonies, coming briefly together with a mate only to breed.
The Desert Hedgehog lives in the arid scrub and desert regions of North Africa, Middle East and Iraq. Its colouring is more variable than its European cousin.
The last rodent worth mentioning, though strictly not a desert creature, is pedetes capensis or Springhare. It lives in dry open country from Kenya to South Africa and when alarmed or travelling distances, the springhare bounds like a kangaroo.
Wild Africa : Patrick Morris, Amanda Barrett, Andrew Murray and Marguerite Smits van Oyen ISBN 0-563-53790-6
The Marshall Illustrated Encyclopedia of Animals : Edited by Dr. Philip Whitfield ISBN 1-84028-087-5