The Adaptation of Knowledge

These are just some thoughts that I thought I would share. In a new situation we have to think differently.

It is a story from during the War – but it could do with being retold in the current climate.


When the soldier moved from Scotland to the Western Desert, he was astonished at the number of things he had to unlearn. Things that had been drilled into him, he now had to ignore.

For example, in the army, you were always taught to clean and maintain your rifle.

In the desert, if you cleaned your rifle in the standard manner, you were absolutely certain it wouldn’t fire.

Grease and oil attracted sand.


Defences are usually in place before a battle: one imagines forts, walls, to protect the men. And how was this done with nothing but sand? Tanks from both sides could roam at will all over the desert.
So they made Invisible Boxes. Very real Invisible Boxes, it must be said.

Each one could hold a division.

Hundreds of mines were dug and hidden in the sand to contain the troops. The entrances were clearly marked, and could be “shut” just as quickly with the addition of a couple of mines. Every box had a name.


Because the desert was such a disorientating environment, (“like being at sea on land – it was so featureless” ) the sun compass was an excellent example of how to put your knowledge to a different use. ( . Cole and Bagnold  both produced these, but the Cole model was in frequent use))

Quite ingenious, this was a device which used the properties of a sundial, but in reverse. The premise was that if a sundial is set up so that it points North, the shadow will tell the time.

So  if the shadow pointed at the time, you knew where North was.

Once set, a man could get into a truck and proceed with confidence as the shadow fell across the correct time.


Every battle needs a start line.

How did you make a start line in such a featureless landscape?

How could you direct thousands of men to start as one from the correct place?

How could you make a line in the sand, which would be clear to your troops, without letting the enemy see what you were up to?

These were problems that nobody had thought about – but now demanded hours of problem-solving and resourcefulness. It took many false starts, planning and practice, trial and error, before the answer was found.


It took nine miles of signal cable – which it was decided would look quite innocuous. Even if it was seen, the opposition would not know what it meant.

This was laid by sixty men over a period of two nights, with men carefully pacing their way along compass bearings until the points converged. (The angle was critical, as they would all have gone off in the wrong direction in such a flat wilderness if there was an error in calculation.)

Metal spikes were driven in every fifty yards.

The Commanding officer spent the last day giving representatives of each battalion a guided tour, so they were clear, and each was able to mark their own boundaries.

Then, on the night of the battle, parties went out at dusk with rolls of white tape, unrolled them, and fixed them to the cable. Ninety minutes later they had a clear white start line.

They had no idea how the battle would go, but they would all start in order.

The answer isn’t always found in books.

If we’ve never been here before, we must learn as we go.

©Linda Jane McLean


2 thoughts on “The Adaptation of Knowledge

    • Thanks, John.
      What I don’t mention in the post, is that after all the effort and secrecy of start lines, they sent in the Pipers first, at full volume, as was traditional. My father reported that these men started boldly forth, with a smile and a thumbs up to the troops, armed only with their pipes.
      The slaughter was incredible. It was the last time they were used as an advance in battle.

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