Table 7.

Use of water diviners

1. We have during this war drilled about 20 miles of boreholes, mostly fairly shallow, and therefore I consider that our accumulated experience of water finding in this enormous area is probably as great as that of any other organisation in the world. Our main problem has not been to find water but to find drinkable water. There are of course very large areas in the Middle East where there is no water whatever, but one can say that in the majority of cases there is an underlying water bearing stratum, usually with a thin low salinity layer floating above water of undrinkable saltness. The thickness of potable water varies considerably.
2. We have bored in hundreds of localities chosen as the result of:
(a) Observations of existing wells and old habitations.
(b) Changes in the desert vegetation.
(c) … expert geological advice.
(d) … highly sensitive measurements taken by our geophysical section.
(e) … emphatic assertions from water diviners.
3. Our experience has been, without one shadow of a doubt, that the water diviners' assistance has been absolutely worthless. Not only in their percentage of successes below what would have been expected by mere chance, but their ability to distinguish between saline and non-saline water does not exist. They have been given a fair trial and we have come to the conclusion that they should be prohibited from even offering gratuitous advice.
4. I have no idea where the Officer who stated that we were recruiting a military squad of diviners obtained his information: we have never done any such thing. It is, however, impossible to prevent individuals (in two cases out here senior R.E. [Royal Engineers] officers) wandering about with hazel twigs, and when we have received most firm assertions that one point from their observations would be better than another in an area where geologists could only give very rough indications we have sometimes drilled where the diviner wished. In no case however have we employed them officially, nor of course have we accepted their advice if it was in any way contrary to that of our geologists or, when we have had time to employ them, our geophysicists.
5. I know that before the war this system was advocated at the SME [School of Military Engineering, Chatham] and a certain number of hours of every Young Officers Course was (in my opinion) wasted in practicing this ‘art’. Perhaps this is the activity to which the cutting from the NEW YORK TIMES refers.
6. We have had an enormous amount of assistance from our geologists, who in my opinion are experts, and we have had quite remarkable results from the geophysical earth resistivity measurements of our geophysical section [42nd Geological Section South African Engineer Corps]. Our well boring sections contain excellent material both from the practical and geological point of view [i.e. some officers were professional well borers, some professional geologists, prior to appointment]. I therefore resent most emphatically the various rumours that are reaching us that we have not taken the best advice or adopted the best methods in competing with our water problem. I repeat that it is a problem of salinity in 99% of our cases and not merely finding water in a non-water-bearing area.
7. We are engaged in co-relating and tabulating all our results so that they may be of use in future years, as we feel that we have been lucky enough to have resources at our disposal far beyond those available in peace-time.
8. I may add that during the recent advance over country in which the enemy had done his utmost to destroy every source of water we were able to produce water with yields up to 100 and more tons a day in very numerous places within a day or two of them being re-captured. It is perhaps not generally recognised that the problems of water supply in the Western Desert are mainly of supplying the railway with immense quantities of extremely low salinity and low hardness water, and distributing the water obtained from very widely scattered water points to a rapidly moving force. The men have of course been on a low ration during the recent advance, but no-one to my knowledge has yet gone short, and the problem has invariably been one of obtaining sufficient lorry lift and containers for distributing the water rather than a water shortage. The demands of the railway have been met mainly by pipeline from ALEXANDRIA, but during the last two or three days there has unfortunately been a period during which the number of trains moving to the railhead has been limited by water rather than by railway operating considerations. This period should cease in a day or two when we have finally mended the 250 miles [400 km] of pipe which were damaged by the enemy and by severe fighting over the pipe alignment. The delay in reinstating the pipelines has been more a matter of filling them than of mending them and the numerous reservoirs, and replacing pumps.
  • Text of a letter dated 5 December 1942, from the Director of Works, Middle East Forces, to the Director of Fortifications and Works, War Office, London. Appendix 5 to a report filed at the National Archives as WO 201/2812.