THE DESERT WAR The Classic Trilogy on the North African Campaign 1940-43. Review by Mark Barnes

THE DESERT WAR The Classic Trilogy on the North African Campaign 1940-43
Mediterranean Front, A Year of Battle and The End in Africa
By Alan Moorehead
Published by Aurum Press Ltd
ISBN: 978 1 84513 391 7

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

It is seventy years since the Axis powers were defeated in North Africa. The great victory culminating in the conquest of Tunis and its environs, with over a quarter of a million prisoners in the bag, was a massive turning point in the war. For the British it was a clear victory after years of mixed fortunes. For the Americans it was a declaration of intent; the shape of things to come. The balance had swung in more ways than one. The Nazis had tasted complete defeat at the hands of a western army and in conjunction with Stalingrad the realists, few though they were, could see the future. Mussolini’s regime had lost an empire and faced ruin. It was a high watermark for the British, gradually slipping into the junior role of a partnership where the growing power of the United States was remorseless. In many respects it was an end of days and following on from Churchill’s comments on Alamein it pointed to the truth; the Allies would win, it was only a matter of time, immense hard work and sacrifice. It was a long road.

The journey began in 1940 when Wavell’s numerically inferior force of Desert Rats trounced the Italians and ended their ambitions to conquer Egypt. Sadly for Wavell, he had to manage the war in East Africa and gave up a large part of his army to the ill-fated defence of Greece. The arrival of the Afrika Korps set in train a sequence of the belligerents shuttling two and froe in a tit-for-tat struggle. There were triumphs and disasters for both sides but in the end the British overstretched themselves and allowed Rommel to get a whiff of victory. History has been indifferent to the merits of Claude Auchinlek but it was he who stopped Rommel. Alas for him it was his replacement, Monty, who gave the 8th Army the belief it could achieve a decisive victory and took it on into legend.

In 1944 the Australian journalist Alan Moorehead of the Daily Express completed a trilogy of books in which he recounted his experiences following the seesaw fluctuations of fortunes in the desert and beyond in North Africa. His story of the conflict is enhanced by accounts of assignments in Persia, Iraq, India and further afield when he travelled to the USA and back to Africa via the UK. We meet the great and the good; generals, politicians and heroes. We are introduced to humble soldiers and a cast of thousands.

Moorehead saw the war up close and experienced the privations of life in the blue where flies, sandstorms and the heat encroached on every aspect of the conflict. He marvelled at the steadfast nature of the men who fought. He described the logistical nightmare facing the armies and the brutality of the desert. He lived the realities of it all, travelling thousands of miles in a succession of beat up cars and trucks, camping out under cold night skies and seeing combat and death up close. He lost friends and colleagues.

His stories of encounters with some of the leading figures of the 20th Century are amazing, while his descriptions of the people leading ordinary lives are majestic. Where else can you meet Gandhi and Patton in the same pages? I love the way he brings so much colour to his descriptions. His writing style recalls other greats of his era; Buchan, Orwell, Hemingway and even Tolkien. He had something very special and the Desert War was just part of a glittering career. How many books on World War II have you read that have quotes from him? The answer is too many to count.

There are many books on the North African campaign. Some of the newest are both varied and superb and I have enjoyed them immensely. They benefit from the great gift of hindsight afforded us by the passing decades as the history of those times is unravelled. Moorehead did not have this benefit. In 1944 he either knew nothing of, or was unable to speak about Ultra and the finer details of the conflict we now take for granted. The immediacy and intimacy of his writing takes us to places modern writers cannot go.

You might not want to read the trilogy from start to finish as I did, but I urge you to read this book. It is a classic and seventy years on from those times it is still in print, as relevant and just as fresh as the day it was written. We’ve been discussing the merits of old books here at WHO with a view to reappraising some and trumpeting others. With this amazing trilogy we have hit the ground running.

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.