From murder mysteries (Death on the Nile) to memoirs (Seven Pillars of Wisdom), the desert sands of the Middle East have caught the attention of writers and readers. If you are in the mood for straight history, here are some titles to check out. For the purposes of this discussion, I'll stick to the period between 1914 and 1945. -- LC Wells
(LCW) If you want to do some in-depth research, I highly recommend Desert Explorer.
It is a wonderful slice of long-gone life. Not only do you get basic facts about the period from 1918-1952 in Egypt, the Sinai, and Libya, but you get a memoir chockfull of details of that world: the kind of cars that were used to explore the desert, the kind of food they carried, and the kind of upbringing they had. In fact, the "Zerzura" of the press name is really the name of a lost oasis, the "Oasis of the Little Birds," which was first mentioned about 1246 AD and mentioned in other historical chronicles.
Patrick Andrew Clayton was one of those men who between World War I and World War II plotted and explored the great desert expanses of Egypt and Libya. This biography was written by his son, Peter H. Clayton, working from the Clayton family diaries, and photographs. This is the great strength and weakness of the book. If you want the overall picture of the Desert Wars (both first and second), this will not give it to you. But if you want the human element rather than constant "then IX Corp moved from (blank) to (blank) with 32,000 men," this book is excellent.
Born in 1896, Clayton served as an officer during the First World War, both in Egypt and then up into the Balkans. After being mustered out, he decided to go back to Cairo to take up an appointment as a topographer.
Over the next twenty years, he charted and explored the desert along with other men such as Ralph Bagnold, W. B. Kennedy Shaw and the Count de Almaszy (from The English Patient which, remember, is fiction -- the man himself was quite different, including the manner of his death).
Desert Explorer is a refreshing dump of cold water on the romanticism of Lawrence of Arabia. Clayton wasn't one of those men who wrote his own life, and probably wouldn't have considered it highly interesting. His son has used a number of sources outside the family chronicles to place the diary entries in historical context, but it's the touches of family that made this book worth reading. Peter Clayton was taken on many of his father's explorations when he wasn't in public school in England. He occasionally refers to himself in the text ("Horrible child!"), but through his eyes you get an understanding of his parents and the desert.
For example, "Once he pointed out to me, after I had failed to repeat my earlier swimming prowess, that in Maadi I had been quite a big frog in a small (swimming) pool, in Gezira I was a small frog in (an Olympic size) pool. The same applied to school in Bulaq. This gentle remark, over our regular cup of tea and fried egg sandwich on the Men's balcony after our late afternoon swim, I was to remember and value its message." Patrick Clayton comes off as a loving, intelligent father of the very British type.
He was also a brilliant cartographer and an innovative officer. When he was recalled to Egypt (after an unhappy period in Kenya) he was appointed Major, and went to work with Bagnold on creating the Long Range Desert Patrol. His age and experience were invaluable to teaching the recruits about the desert and how to use it to their advantage.
Unfortunately, he was also caught early in the history of the Desert Campaign. He led several raids on Italian outposts. In one, he was slightly wounded, taken captive and sent to a POW camp in Italy. Escaping months later, he was recaptured and sent to a camp in Czechoslovakia. He whiled away the rest of the war using his talents for creating maps and lettering, creating fake documentation for escaping POWs and sending back intelligence information in his letters through code. He had to be careful about that, remarking that the Gestapo "got two of my friends, but were good enough to send back the urns to bury."
Freed in April of 1945, he was repatriated and, after some time to readjust to civilian life, he was sent back to the Middle East to deal with the land and properties and the problems between the Arabs. He left Egypt abruptly in 1952 when the riots broke out and much later went back to England with his wife. He died of an aneurysm in 1962 at age 65.
I found this book at the following Internet Link:
(LCW) John Gordon has produced a classic book on the World War II desert campaigns. It starts with World War I, including T.E. Lawrence, and goes through the disbanding of the Long Range Desert Group in 1945. It includes the first understandable explanation of the differences between the Special Air Squadron (SAS), the LRDG, and PPA -- Popski's Private Army. It is also well illustrated with photographs and several maps. The jewel in this book is the extensive bibliography at the end which refers to other titles, memoirs, and official sources.
On a readability scale, it's a little on the dry side. Readers need to have a real interest in the topic and a feel for the landscape of Egypt, Libya, and the North Africa desert. However, it serves as a solid basis for any in-depth study of the Desert campaigns.
(Note: It is a little pricey. I checked out a library's copy to see if the information was solid, before I ordered it. I recommend readers do the same. Many excellent sources are unreadable because of their style, not content.)
Editors: Adrian Gilbert, Field Marshall Lord Bramall
(CMB) At this price, what does it matter if you have to navigate your way through a rah rah attitude and paeans to the indomitable soldier who went through the war with robust good humour, and no matter that quite a few of the photos are of the cleanly staged, "this is the army" variety. There are interesting details about the individual soldier's experience throughout, many quotes, and an excellent overview of the people, battles, objectives, and weaponry of the North Africa campaign. After researching photos of the European Theatre, which I did all last year for Cranking Up A Fine War, I find the staged photos disturbing in their cheerfulness--but they along with the unstaged photos give a good look at the uniforms and equipment and point out one Rat Patrol-related fact: men in the African campaign tended to wear whatever they felt like, from their hats (often kaffiyehs) to their shoes (often sandals) to their shirts (or lack thereof). As the book puts it, the desert forces had an inclination toward "sartorial eccentricity."
The chapter specifically devoted to the Long Range Desert Group is short, but makes a much more accessible introduction than a longer, more detailed book such as The Other Desert War. Overall, the book is a coffee table-style lesson about the North Africa campaign from a very British perspective. Writers daunted by heavier tomes and despairing of finding what they need for a brief project will appreciate this book; it will get you started and provide the beginnings of fleshing out the framework of the show.
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