The British Empire Library

The Desert War: The Classic Trilogy on the North African Campaign 1940-1943

by Alan Moorehead

They say that journalists provide the first rough draft of history, well in that case we are very lucky that the Australian war correspondent Alan Moorhead not only sketched out the first draft of the war in North Africa for historians but soon after wrote up his notes and experiences and produced this remarkable three volume history entitled the Desert War. His three books cover the entire war from the very first days of Italian entry into the war, through to the infusion of the Afrika Korps and then to the collapse of the Axis powers and their eventual defeat in Tunisia in 1943. What makes these books so wonderful to the imperial minded reader is the shear breadth of the conflict. He covered the Middle East Theatre in its very widest sense imaginable; from the initial Italian forays into Egypt, to the loss of British Somaliland, to the campaigns against the Italian colonies in East Africa, to the Naval clashes in the Mediterranean, to the Allied forays into the Vichy French Levant, to the British diversion to Greece and Crete, to the the Anglo-Soviet intervention into Persia and the abortive coup in Iraq and right up until the Americans landed in North Africa and their coordination with the Eighth Army to defeat the Italians and Germans in Tunisia. Of course, the primary focus of the book is certainly on the fighting in the Western Desert and you get a real understanding for the fluid nature of the warfare in this spartan terrain with its own challenges and opportunities for the strategists and soldiers who had to fight there. Although the land war does provide the focus of the book, one of the pleasures of reading this book is just how well the author considers so many facets of the campaigns from the fighting at sea, to the fighting in the air, to the importance of supply and repair teams in keeping armies going. He illustrates how medics operate to ameliorate the damage done on the battlefield. He considers the relative importance of propaganda and morale in motivating soldiers to fight and almost always gives credit where credit was due even to the Axis forces. This book was not an unvarnished hagiography of how wonderful the Allies were and how despicable the Axis were. Considering that he was writing whilst World War Two was still under way, it is pretty remarkable the extent of the home truths that he delivered in the pages of this book. You could not help thinking that any German strategists reading this in 1944 would gain a fantastic insight into the Allied war machine and especially the formidable Eighth Army which had become one of the Allies' foremost military machines by this stage in the war. In essence he provides a holistic explanation for the entire theatre stretching for three years and covering an area of many thousands of square miles and encompassing millions of people either fighting directly or effected by its consequences! Quite the undertaking.

Another aspect that you take from this book is just how much this campaign was an imperial campaign from start to finish - although with the important rejoinder of the entrance of the Americans towards the latter stages of the campaign. The book provides a glimpse of the Zenith of Britain's full Imperial reach and the extent of its influence to be able to conduct such a sustained military campaign so far from home. The forces assembled and directed out of Cairo were the epitome of the scope of Britain's Empire. Joining the British were Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Indians, Rhodesians, Canadians, Africans and of course a veritable United Nations of defeated Free Forces such as Poles, French, Greeks, etc... The Middle East was also at the epicentre of the Empire with troops and supplies from Asia and Africa being able to get to the Middle East up through the Suez Canal easier than the British could themselves. Of course, the Suez Canal became a strategic target in its own right and its possible fall in 1942 worried the Allied planners every bit as much as it excited Axis ones. Again, it is the ability of the author to zoom in to the minutiae of the lives of individuals within the conflict and then pan outwards to provide an over-arching strategic oversight into what was going on that makes this book so accessible. I have to say that I am always a fan of journalists writing history. They obviously have the gift of crafting beautiful sentences and paragraphs which is a skill that all too often fails historians, biographers or memoirists. This is a beautifully crafted book from start to finish and he makes images and gives accounts that burn themselves into your own imagination. For example, I felt as if I were privileged to accompany him when he gave his account of going on a bombing mission from Sudan to Kassala in 1940 - itself a fascinating insight into a lesser known theatre of the war. He flew on the mission on a Blenheim bomber which was relatively advanced for the theatre that they were operating in. His front row seat of what it was like to go on these long bombing missions interspersed with short periods of exhilaration and definite danger provide primary evidence of the most eloquent kind. You could experience the visceral pleasure for the author on feeling the lift of the plane as the bombs were released but also the unreality of the experience and how divorced the proceedings were for the airmen when contrasted to those feeling the effects of the bombing run at the target. He was full of admiration for the airmen he came across and perhaps provide one of the best descriptions I have read about their attitude to war:

"...they were restless and nervous when they were grounded for a day. They volunteered for every flight and of necessity some each day had to be left behind. They lived sharp vivid lives. Their response to almost everything - women, flying, drinking, working - was immediate, positive and direct. They ate and slept well. There was little subtlety and still less artistry about what they did and said and thought. They had no time for leisure, no opportunity for introspection. They made friends easily. And never again after the speed and excitement of this war would they lead the lives they were once designed to lead. They were no material for peace."

This is by no means an isolated example of the insights that Alan Moorehead brings to his observations of the conduct of the war. He slowly explains how the Allied forces professionalised themselves, improved, learned from their mistakes and adapted to their enemies. It should be said that this book is also full of funny anecdotes despite the seriousness of the endeavours undertaken. One of my favourite stories is an account of British Engineers wiring up the first Egyptian town of Sollum with mines and explosives for when the Italians invaded in 1940. They were about to start exploding those explosives from a safe distance when an Italian Artillery observation plane appeared over the village. Italian gunners directed by the pilot began to lay down a barrage. With a nice sense of humour the British commander ordered his men to wait until they heard an Italian gun fire, then, before the shell landed gave instructions for one of his mines to be exploded. Inevitably the mine went off in a part of the village where the Italian air-observer had not directed fire. The pilot, utterly mystified, signalled back to his guns demanding they should correct their fire. The gunners were equally confused with this farce continuing until all the mines had been exploded..... Interestingly, the author took this as evidence that the British, despite retreating at that time, were in no panic and were utterly cool under pressure and saw it as a positive omen for the future course of the desert war.

There are lots of contemporary imperial references throughout the book. Some of them may well feel a little dated to a modern audience but it is useful to be able to see what the author (an Australian himself) felt was received wisdom or palpably obvious about the world at the time to his intended readership. His observations about Sudan were intriguing. He likened the colony to a "Well run Country Club" but did modify this by saying that it was also somewhere "Where every white man is something" which of course suggests that many non-white men may not have been anything at all! He makes an interesting aside when he explains why the book 'The Four Feathers' was banned in the colony lest it encouraged locals to think that Europeans were anything less than competent to be their rulers. However, he concludes his observations of that colony by stating "British rule is on the whole benevolent and progressive and certainly the best advertisement for Empire I have seen." It does seem that many would agree that Britain's peculiarly organised Sudan Political Service was efficient and responsive by imperial administrative standards of the day but it is still interesting to read about it first hand - even if from a relatively priviliged. It is also interesting to contrast it to the experience of Italians who, once they had been defeated in East Africa, had to rely on British soldiers to defend them from their former colonists! The book does not limit itself even to the Middle East in imperial insights. For a short time, the author was posted to follow General Wavell on his appointment to India. The author explains the intricacies of the Indian Nationalist movements as he shadowed the Cripps mission to try and gain Indian support to continue to wage the war within the Empire. Being the journalist who interviewed many of the Indian leaders, it is interesting to see the divisions and difficulties within an Indian Nationalist movement which had no idea how far away it was from achieving its aspirations. There were some remarkably prophetic comments about the likelihood of division and difficulties in India if the competing leaders remained so intransigent. Once again though he was impressed by the Indian Civil Service with its "Calm strength and foresight". Of course, the Japanese joining the Axis powers once more magnified the strategic situation and brought new tensions and difficulties to the strategic planners. The author did not underestimate the dangers to the Empire nor the importance of India in supplying manpower and resources to the Empire to continue fighting the war. He was puzzled and ill at ease with Gandhi's pacifism which he thought was naive at best and dangerous, given the then circumstances, at worst. However, he did seem to be relieved at the measures being undertaken in Ceylon by the Imperial authorities to stabilise the war in that theatre. Somewhat ironically he left this stabilising theatre only to return to the Middle East to see the Fall of Tobruk and the squandered opportunities of the fighting around the Gazala defences (which he describes magnificently). He felt that much heroism was wasted and thought it too simplistic to lay all the blame for the retreat to Alamein at the hands of the Generals alone. Rather he gives a long list of weaknesses and issues for both sides. His eyewitness account of the retreat brings the story alive and reminds us that those participating in the withdrawal had no idea how far Rommel might advance and if British power in the Middle East might not be washed away for good as a consequence. Indeed the author conveys the extent of the peril through organising the evacuation of his own wife and child from Cairo to Palestine. However, once again he is able to explain the high tide mark for the Axis and why the situation stabilised to the ultimate advantage of the Allies.

If there is one serious problem with this book, it is that the author actually missed the pivotal Battle of El Alamein himself. He had been posted to the United States for a brief period and gives an important perspective into their growing importance in the war effort. His account of El Alamein is retrospective and lacks the eyewitnesses insight that he is able to bring to most of the other battles and campaigns that he did witness. He does actually head back to the Middle East at a later date but via the Americans and their Torch Landings. In fact, he gives another incredible description on what it was like to be on Royal Navy destroyers as they made their way through the U-Boat infested waters to land in North Africa - just to add more to the holistic nature of this book. Once ashore, he gives a contemporary's eye view on the political difficulties and shenanigans facing the French with the volte face of Vichy French supporters as opposed to the long standing but temperamentally difficult Free French leader of de Gaulle. Again, the author was not to know who would win this power battle between Darlan, Giraud and de Gaulle, but it is interesting to read how the various actors appeared at the time and who he felt had the most credibility and likelihood for eventual success.

It is clear that the author, like many of the British soldiers, had a sneaking admiration for Rommel and the professionalism of the German soldier. It is also clear that he did not dismiss the fighting abilities of the Italians and judged most soldiers on their track record. Likewise with the Allied forces he felt that the New Zealanders and the Guard formations were first class soldiers, that the Indians were courageous, resilient and brilliant in defence and that some of the Free French forces were remarkable formations. He did not write off the Americans after their defeats at Kasserine but was quietly impressed with their capacity to learn quickly and to recover from their mistakes. He makes it clear that the battlefield is a harsh task master and that nothing can substitute for experience whilst not belittling training and suitability of equipment. He conveys the rising confidence in Allied forces as more tanks, planes, guns arrive - the bulk of them from America. You can feel the scales of the Allied powers tipping from Britain to America but by the end of 1943 Britain is still in the driving seat at this point in the war and in this theatre. It is perhaps for this reason that Churchill continued to concentrate his own strategic interests in the Mediterranean - advocating the invasion of Sicily and Italy for instance - cognisant of the fact that Britain's power was magnified in this region thanks very much to its Empire. If so, the later 1944 Normandy landings would confirm indeed that Britain was ceding its strategic supremacy to the growing power of America's armed forces. However, that lies out of the scope of Alan Moorehead's remarkable book, although you do ponder what came after thanks to the analytical insights provided by the author.

This is definitely a book for anyone who wants to read about what was effectively the British Empire's last undiluted military success on a continental scale. The eviction of the Axis forces from both the Middle East and from North Africa was no mean accomplishment. It had its setbacks and difficulties, but the resilience and determination of the Allied and Imperial forces have perhaps never been better explained by someone with a rare gift for writing and who witnessed so many of the events and interacted with so many of the leading actors firsthand; I can think of no higher recommendation to read a book.

British Empire Book
Peter Mansfield
1st Edition, 1944
This Ed, 2017
Aurum Press Ltd