THE EYES OF THE DESERT RATS – Review by Mark Barnes

It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture a dusty landing ground miles behind the front line being shocked into life in the dead of night by explosions as time bombs placed in aircraft start to go off.  There is a romance to it as you see the raiders slipping away amid the chaos to quickly drive off into the desert in a bunch of strange looking trucks. This sort of thing was a feature of a very real war fought in the Western Desert from 1940-1943. It was the stuff of endurance, innovation and all kinds of courage. It was where our concept of special forces found it’s soul.

There are have been some magnificent books on the Desert War in recent times and it has been my good fortune to review them for WHO.  Classics from Bryn Hammond and Rick Stroud stand out along with the marvellous After The Battle treatment of the conflict. Add to this a thoroughly welcome reprint of the Alan Moorhead trilogy in single a volume – a contemporary classic that everyone with an interest in World War II should read.

Here we have another most welcome addition to our library of the Desert War.

Reading about the specialities of the eminent historian David Syrett it seems a little strange that he would swap familiar oceans for the sand seas of Libya; but the best historians fear no barriers and the proof is in this enjoyable and very readable book.

The story begins with true exploration and adventure when Ralph Bagnold and his chums set out to map great swathes of the desert between the wars. They invented the kit they needed and had that ‘can do’ spirit that seems to come from a lost age of British pioneers who really did amazing things.  When war with Italy came in 1940 it was Bagnold who came forward to use his very specialised skill set to help gain victory out in The Blue.

As the title suggests, the Long Range Desert Group were the eyes of the British Army in the desert where their chief enemy were the elements and the myopia of many British staff officers. There were too many occasions when highly skilled reconnaissance experts found themselves acting as conventional mobile forces. But there were a great many occasions when the LRDG was able to get on with what they were very good at and the results were vital to ensuring accurate appraisals of enemy activities. Their work also helped to mask the increasing importance placed on Ultra, even though it was an erratic source of accurate intelligence at that time.

The LRDG had the virtual run of vast swathes of Libya that the Italians could not conceivably defend. Once the Special Air Service came on the scene the heat was turned up a couple of notches as reconnaissance and surveillance were coupled with sabotage and disruption.  David Stirling, Paddy Mayne and their gangs of buccaneers caused murder and mayhem behind the Axis lines but this book takes immense care to set all their achievements into context. Shooting up trucks and airfields is the stuff of movies and computer games but the author never underestimates the seriousness of it all.

There so much here to learn from – British Army politics, the immense challenge of traversing the desert, how both the LRDG and the SAS found recruits and the importance of particular makes of trucks. The introduction of the jeep revolutionised what the SAS could do. There are times when it is almost impossible to get your head round how these men survived the elements let alone having the strength and guile to fight the enemy.

The lengths the Italians and Germans went to confront both the LRDG and SAS are not ignored. This is no one sided bit of gung-ho populism which would have been just as welcome, if I am honest; but rather a sober and extremely balanced history of extraordinary times and remarkable people. It might just leave your hair standing on end. Some of the things the LRDG and SAS got up to are staggering. Tales of endurance, stunning bravery, innovation and sheer bloody determination are as inspiring as you might expect.

I find it difficult to fault this book. The sad fact is that David Syrett passed away in 2004 and his widow Elena completed the manuscript with encouragement from David M Glantz, who also provides the forward. I hope she is proud of the end result. This is exciting history well told and it will add to the picture we have of the Desert War of 1940-43.  There is something to it I can’t quite put my finger on, a little like one of those rock albums where the tracks have been finished after a popular musician has left us; but this is an important work that would have achieved nothing lost in a box file never seeing the light of day. Helion deserve full credit for making it available to us, and it illustrates the slightly off beat and intelligent publishing they excel at.

David Syrett was clearly the real deal as a historian and this book is a credit to his memory. I like to think he would be pleased with the book we have here and I am confident it will become essential reading for anyone interested in the Desert War or the beginnings of special forces. 2015 is off to a great start.

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.

British Long Range Reconnaissance Operations in the North African Desert 1940-43
By David Syrett
Helion & Co
ISBN: 978-1-907677-65-6

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.