Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Desert War - Alan Moorehead

This first-hand account of the North African campaign of World War 2, written by a British war correspondent, is deeply compelling.

It is different, and refreshing to read these accounts, from somebody who was actually there. There are some great anecdotes, evoking the atmosphere of the region, so different in some ways, yet also so similar in others, to the European war. The very fact that these writings were originally published whilst World War Two was still raging gives them a rawness and immediacy absent from so many books dealing with the period. This is not just a chronicle of military and political developments, but also a record of life as a war correspondence, a gruelling and perilous existence in itself.

The book does not just concentrate exclusively on the campaigns in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but covers the operations in East Africa (Abyssinia, Sudan and so forth). A large chunk of the text also deals with the fighting between the British Empire forces and the Italians, "pre-Rommel" as it were.

There is an intimate flavour to much of this work, as the effects on civilians and individual soldiers are examined, with much localised drama and colour, rather than just grand strategy. Of course, Moorehead was not always where the main action was, so this is as much the story of his war as it is an attempt to rigorously record the war in Africa as a whole.

Many eye-witness accounts of bombing raids or the aftermath of battles are here, bringing home the fears and hazards both for the individual serviceman and the journalist. Warfare in its many shades is exhibited, highlighting the diversity of terrain and tactical concerns.

As well as covering events on the fields of battle, the book includes lots of material from "behind the lines", from cities such as Cairo, where life seemed to remain relatively "normal", certainly when compared to the beleaguered cities of Europe.

There are some eye-opening passages hinting at how lavishly the Italian forces, and particularly the officers, lived at the outset of the war, certainly when compared to the spartan existence endured by many of their British counterparts. This may go against some present-day perceptions of what the state of play was. We are given detailed, and in some instances poignant, lists of the articles left behind by retreating troops.

Personality portraits of military commanders are another interesting feature, including those who have not always had a favourable press from historians, such as those who oversaw the early exchanges in North Africa. The deeper motivations behind strategy and tactics are also analysed. One is left with quite a positive impression of the effectiveness of the Allied forces in the early stages, although this was of course put into perspective by the arrival of the Germans...

Upon the advent of the Afrika Korps, I detected a darkening in the mood and tone of the book, with some lamenting of Allied inferiority in material and tactical terms. It is also interesting to see some examination of strategy in "real time", linking events in the Western Desert to Greece, Abyssinia and other areas. There are some intriguing tangents, with chapters on the home fronts in Britain and the USA, and also one concerning the political manoeuvrings in India.

The constant references to "we" and "our" may irritate some non-British readers, but we have to remember the circumstances under which these passages were composed, when Britain was under siege both at home and overseas. For this and other reasons, "The Desert War" is definitely a period piece, but a good one.  I didn't think that any "bias", if it can be called that, interfered with the value of the book.


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