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Day 80: Tobruk

Tobruk, Libya 
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The Rats of Tobruk, sixty years on. They took their name from the propoganda broadcasts of 'Lord Haw-Haw' in the Second World War. 'Come out of your holes you rats!' He taunted. And they did. (Left to right): Francis Cload, Douglas Waller, Leslie Meek, Frank Plant, Peter Vaux, Frank Harrison, Harry Day, James Pearce, Stephen Dawson, Ray Ellis.
Michael Palin - SaharaOn their graves, instead of 'Rest in Peace', is an Arabic inscription. Translated, it reads 'He is forgiven'.

On the way back into Tobruk, we pass the sombre bulk of the German war memorial. It is a replica of a Teutonic castle, on whose dark protective walls the names of the dead are inscribed, unaccompanied by details of rank or regiment. It is simple, powerful and completely different from the cemeteries we saw earlier. The contrast reveals a lot about national character and the myth and legend by which it is expressed. The Allied dead lie in gardens, as if in a state of Eden-like, prelapsarian innocence, as far away as could be imagined from war and suffering. The Germans lie in a different kind of sanctuary. A castle, a bastion, a place where warriors who have fought the good fight sleep with the gods. Both sorts of memorial show, sadly, that our ability to create order and dignity for the dead greatly exceeds our ability to do the same for the living.

The afternoon programme includes a reception at the hotel laid on by the Libyan government. Before the reception there are speeches by a group of distinguished figures. One is introduced as Brigadier Suleiman, 'commander of all the forces in Eastern Libya'.

'Strong Gaddafi man,' Stephen Dawson whispers in my ear.

He is impressive in a suit, with a droopy grey moustache and a confidently authoritative manner, much of which is lost in translation. The interpreter is the complete opposite of the brigadier. He's a sullen civilian in a suit two sizes too big for him. He's also completely useless, and there are long periods of silence between his halting translations. At one stage he turns to the audience and shrugs his shoulders sulkily.

'It's just too many words.'

Finally, the brigadier's patience snaps and he fixes the translator with a terrible eye.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 80
  • Country/sea: Libya
  • Place: Tobruk
  • Book page no: 214

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