This short book makes a modest but poignant contribution to the history of the desert war. Much will be familiar to those already well-versed in the desert war of 1940-1943. But, as such a reader, I gained some new insights too. The early Desert Rats of Seventh Armored Division and Fourth Indian Division exemplified prewar professionalism. But the force was soon diluted, as large numbers of less experienced recruits and conscripts joined the fighting. While superior to the Italians, British forces came out second best against the small but highly trained, well-led German forces of Rommel's Afrika Korps. Some of the material covered on training, tactics and doctrine can also be found in Paddy Griffith's World War II Desert Tactics and Mr. Moreman's other Osprey title on the Eighth Army.
Where this account excels, however, is in the short but discerning section on the soldiers' beliefs and sense of belonging. The Desert Rats were a diverse lot, with troops from India, South Africa, Australia, the British Isles and elsewhere. Yet they shared a sense of pride built up from O'Connor's early victories over the Italians. Language differences caused problems, but also built a unique jargon with terms from beyond the English-speaking world, such as sangar, an Urdu term for a hastily-built rock fort. There is an informative write-up on the problems of moving and fighting in the desert. Did you know that most combat took place during the morning and late afternoon, because heat haze made it difficult to see targets at midday?
The write-up ends with two brief stories from the desert fighting, the Battle of the Omars during the Crusader offensive and the stand by 150th Brigade at Gazala. Both accounts integrate well the tactical realities of desert combat, emphasizing the ordeal of ordinary foot soldiers. These concise and fascinating accounts are marred only by the lack of maps of either action.
The account of British tactics at First Alamein balances nicely a battle that has yielded much controversy. As Tim Moreman points out, Auchinleck's creative tactical rethinking may have saved the day in that crucial battle, yet the radical changes he proposed also caused confusion. It was Montgomery who really stamped his personality on Eighth Army, building a myth that counter-acted the Desert Rats' loss of self-confidence in face of Rommel.
The illustrations are extremely good. They include several original paintings that convey Desert Rat infantrymen with pathos and honesty, a quality that is enhanced by informative captions. All in all this is a brief but informative account of ordinary soldiers' life and trials as they fought a tough enemy in one of Earth's harshest environments.