The Sand Myth

"He might have to fight in the desert"

The Myth

During and after World War Two, a very common reason for circumcising in Australia and New Zealand was

"He might have to fight in the desert. He could get an infection under his foreskin and have to be circumcised then. Better to do it now."

The story has been elaborated to "a high-ranking medical officer found the pain so intolerable that he circumcised himself".

Flies descended in plagues of biblical proportions, heavy chlorination made the water ration almost undrinkable, and when the khamseem blew, its fine dust inflitrated the body's most intimate recesses, setting up colonies of desert sores. A favourite site for these was under the foreskin, which was not only painful for the sufferer, but effectively put him out of action. As a result, many units found themselves seriously under strength, and urgent demands for a solution began to flow in from Divisional Headquarters. Finally, one young M.O. decided on drastic action. Equipping himself with a sharp scalpel and an ample supply of novocaine, he set up a trestle table outside the R.A.P., and invited the members of the daily sick parade to step forward for immediate circumcision under local anaesthetic, proving that this was not such a fearsome operation as it sounded by performing it on himself. I was not present on that memorable occasion, and owing to the prudent foresight of my parents would have been in no danger of becoming a participant, but it certainly has an air of complete authenticity. Some of the Kiwis [New Zealanders] I knew were capable of even more intrepid gestures.

- Erik de Mauny (member of the 2NZEF) "Silver Fern Leaf up the Blue"
in "Return to Oasis"
Shepheard-Walwyn, London 1980, p 221

Not quite "complete authenticity": adult circumcision would require a pair of scissors, not a scalpel. This "vignette" was written nearly 40 years after the event.

That story seems to be the basis of this one:

There was little diversion at the base camp. There was an MO [Medical Officer] who would give talks on the benefits of circumcision - no more sand under the knob [sic] - and would cause a sensation on one occasion when, with a scalpel and a bottle of local anaesthetic, he publicly demonstrated upon his own person the simplicity of saying goodbye to the old fellow's lace curtains.

But such entertainment was rare.

Dean Parker, "The Soldiers' Parliament"
NZ Political Review, Autumn 2003, p 14

New Zealand doctors interviewed in the 1960s often mentioned wartime hygiene problems with troops, and one noted that circumcision peaked in popularity after each World War. It was still being offered as a reason in Australia in 1964. One of the authors of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians' 2002 policy paper mentioned it as a reason.

The same claim has been extended backward in time to the Israelites, providing a medical explanation for a long-term custom.

The story resurfaced in the US after Operation Desert Storm.

In 1941 there was a 70-bed tent hospital for Venereal Diseases, near Maadi in Egypt. One veteran, now 91, told me it was known as "the Lube Bay" (lube, he said, being Egyptian for penis [this word was unknown to an Egyptian woman at the 6ISGI], and there, he said, men with infections caused by desert sand were circumcised - and, he said, in 1940 the order went out that any men who were not already circumcised, had to be.

The Refutation

With an estimated 5000 to 17,000 intact New Zealand men in Egypt, putting them out of action for up to two weeks seems unlikely. The doctors had enough on their hands with up to 680 VD cases per day - and those wounded in battle.

The official medical war history is silent, not stinting discussion of VD or much more minor ailments including tinea (athlete's foot) and haemorrhoids (piles). In connection with gonorrhoea it mentions measure taken

" prevent symbiotic organisms from the prepuce invading the inflamed urethra..."

- strongly suggesting that prepuces were left on the men who had them.

A nurse wrote:

But from time to time, a high wind would blow across the desert, whipping up the sand, which swirled and eddied, a thick yellow cloud. It rendered visibility as poor as a thick London fog. It prenetrarted everywhere. One breathed sand, one sawllowed it, one's eyes and ears and nose were filled with it. One's hair was matted with sand. One's face and arms were yellow and sore from the tiny gritty particles which penetrated the pores of the skin.

These sandstorms would last, on and off, for weeks at a time, until the sand was inches thick in every corner of the hospital buildings, had penetrate every cupboard and drawer and suitcase, had seeped into mattresses, books, watches and had discoloured all the linen, scratched the furniture, and eroded the metals. The hospital at such times, was full of sick and wounded men. Men with injured lungs breathed in sand with the hot fetid air of the khamseen. There was no way of protecting them. Throats became inflamed, and eyes infected. Irriated skin lesions broke down and ulcerated. Raw wounds remained untouched. We didn't dare take down the dressings, but padded and packed and rebandaged as the puss and blood oozed through. Miraculously they healed, and we learnt to leave dressings alone for a few days, even in clement weather. If we knew a sandstorm was brewing up, many injured limbs would be encased in plaster as an added protection against the infiltration from the enemy

- Molly Corbally "Nursing in a Sandstorm"
in "Return to Oasis"
Shepheard-Walwyn, London 1980, p 218

In such conditions it would have been madness to create wounds.

Trying to live with all the dirt and a limited water supply was difficult especially with hundreds of men living in close proximity. The dust and unhygienic conditions in the front lines also caused other problems for uncircumcised soldiers.

Jack Middleton elucidated:

You'd get the cheese under your foreskin. What you had to do was hold on to your penis [foreskin ahead of the glans] and urinate and squeeze it and give it a bloody good wash and then let it go. Some who didn't do that, ooh, they were in a hell of a state. We decided that when we'd come back to Maadi, we'd all go and get our foreskins cut off. Rob from Paeroa, he was the one that was so bad he was in the camp hospital by this time. He had gone and been circumcised. We went to see him one day and he was just about crying in pain. It was all bandaged up and he had a bit of a hard-on and, oh Christ. So all the fellas wouldn't go and get it done.

- Martyn Thompson, Our War: the grim digs:
New Zealand soldiers in North Africa, 1940-1943
Penguin, Auckland, 2005

So one circumcision led to several defections. No compulsion, and a preventive measure ready to hand. (Thompson implies that "uncircumcised" New Zealanders were already a rarity, but the story makes it clear they were not.)

The official history says skin inflammations were a hazard of desert warfare, and they were exacerbated by the very fine sand, but it makes no mention of the foreskin or preputial cavity as a site, nor of circumcision as a treatment. On the contrary, it records that damaging the skin was avoided, as was performing surgery that was not

"...urgent or else offered the prospect of permanent relief of symptoms sufficient to enable a man to be retained in useful employment overseas."

The likelihood is that the men our veteran saw - and he accurately described the sequelae of circumcision - (swelling, discolouration) had been circumcised to treat soft chancre (a Sexually Transmitted Disease), or balanitis exacerbated by phimosis.

Another living veteran of the campain is reportedly intact and has a photograph of a group of men in the campaign, naked, many intact. New Zealand's 28th Batallion was entirely of Mäori who left and returned virtually all intact, after serving bravely in the African desert.

As an experiment, three intact men have tried leaving sand (beach sand, admittedly, not desert) under their foreskins for days at a time. No infection or even discomfort resulted.

Some pro-circumcisionists have gone so far as to claim that men of the Germans' Afrika Korps were circumcised for the same reason. Not many members survive, but one surviving person was in a good position to know:

Letter from Manfred Rommel

Dear Sir,

thank you for your letter from October 3
2002. I have never heard that
soldiers of the Africa Corps were
circumcised. The veterans I could
contact have not either

Best wishes yours

Manfred Rommel


Manfred Rommel was the son of Field-marshal Erwin Rommel, "the Desert Fox". He was 14 in October 1944 when his father was forced to take poison for plotting against Hitler. Naturally, he was in touch with his father's former troops for the rest of his life.

In spite of its want of substance, the sand story was a powerful reason to circumcise in New Zealand in wartime and afterwards.

I'm a retired Navy dentist and spent most of my time with the Marines, off & on 1971-2005. Have been through numerous Chemical, Nuclear and Biological Warfare classes. Plus a few of the Navy's on-line correspondence courses.

In one of the class courses we saw a training film in a pre-WWII Australian study on 'volunteers.' It dealt with blistering agents like those used in WWI. There were a lot of chemical burns under the prepuces. They were preparing for a new war by preparing for the last war.

In one correspondence Course on the treatment of chemical injuries, they mention chemical burns from blistering agents in those uncircumcised.

For my Desert Storm recall I was sent to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro for four months where there were a lot of Warthog crews and supporting personnel - over 3000 at this base. We did exams on all returning personnel. Lots of sand stories - nothing about this sand-penis thing. But, OK, I work on another opening.

Then I immediately went to Camp Pendleton for another three months where we out-processed a lot of tankers. Lot of sand in everything, never heard a sand-penis story there either.

For this thing going on now my group was one of the first recalled to Iraq. I couldn't go. Had a medical classification that wouldn't let me go overseas my last 7 years. Anyway, my buddies that I had served with, some for 14 years, had a lot of sand stories but no sand-penis thing.

No stories of the sand-penis thing from the M.D.s at either base.

In WWII the efficient Germans didn't circumcise.

These guys probably put their Little Dude where it didn't belong. Hell, officers don't get Venereal Disease. They get an undiagnosable, non-differientiated bladder infection.

I think this sand-penis thing is packing the sand in another orifice.

- Richard L. Matteoli, DDS
San Andreas, California


External link: Darby, Robert: The riddle of the sands: circumcision, history, and myth, Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 15-July-2005, Vol 118 No 1218.

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