North Africa, including Egypt and Libya, saw significant military action during World War II. While Egypt remained neutral, it became a base for Allied troops during the war. Italian, and later German, troops were stationed in Libya.
The second battle at El Alamein proved to be a turning point in the war - it was the first battle the British Commonwealth forces won against the Germans.
During this period, the 'desert Europeans' that made up the explorations, like Almasy, who was Hungarian, were split up and the expeditions cancelled. Nationality became an important issue, which divided loyalties, and is a theme that Ondaatje explores in The English Patient.