Book Review: The Desert War Then And Now

By Alan Culhane

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The Desert War Then And Now by Jean Paul Pallud
(afterthebattle.com $145)


This is an impressive book from almost any angle - a study of the North African campaign of World War II through the eyes of an author who recently wandered the battlefields making colour photos to compare with black and white images from the war years. Pallud's on-site research was completed just before revolution and civil war swept through the region.

We have here a very large book with nearly 600 pages and over 2000 photos. It is not a publication you would like to drop on your foot. The text is easy to read, on well-laid-out pages, with simple maps that accompany the narrative of the campaign.

The opening chapters deal with the region's history, while the last pages cover the various military cemeteries and memorials honouring the fallen of all nations. In between lies a substantial and fact-filled account of the fighting, filled out with a profusion of photos illustrating both this and the old and new scenes that provided the backdrop to war.

Thousands of New Zealand soldiers fought across this North African landscape from late 1940 to mid-1943. The North African names seen on streets in every New Zealand city today commemorating battles such as Tobruk, El Alamein, Bardia, Sidi Rezegh, Halfaya and Takrouna attest to this connection. While the book does not focus on our forces, they rate a significant mention in almost every phase of the long campaign. New Zealand paid dearly for the Allied victory in North Africa - 2989 were killed, more than 7000 wounded and 4041 captured, by any accounting an extremely high casualty rate.

With its focus on battlefield sites, the greatest attention is given to the land battles, but the air and naval wars are reported, too. It's refreshing to see coverage given to special operations from the Axis side, not that they contributed much in the end to German and Italian fortunes.

One example is a short chapter devoted to the daring long-range raid by "Sonderkommando Blaich" in January 1942, directed against Free French forces stationed in Fort Lamy, Chad, more than 2000km from Axis bases in northern Libya.

Pallud's account of this pivotal period of the war that saw the tide turn against Germany and Italy reassesses some of the official myths that survived the war years. Another event closely looked into concerned the raid by British Commandos in November 1941 against a house at Beda Littoria believed to have been Rommel's HQ. The aim was to capture or kill Rommel. The raid commander, Lt Col Geoffrey Keyes, awarded a posthumous VC, was most likely killed by his own men, a case of what is today called "friendly fire".

A major strength of the book lies in the high quality of its photographs, not only in the then-and-now views but the original wartime photos that illustrate actual combat across the battlefields. However, it is distracting to see the author also use a number of obviously staged propaganda shots taken by the British in 1942 and 1943.

The book has a fully referenced index of 15 pages, an essential feature considering the wealth of detail The Desert War Then And Now contains. I would expect it to appeal to readers with family connections to the North African campaign and anybody who enjoys in-depth analysis of that period of the war. Having read it, I felt one corner of my imagination had travelled through time and space to the deserts and sandy coastlines of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

Alan Culhane is a senior lecturer at the Manukau Institute of Technology.

- NZ Herald

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