Tim Moreman's second volume in Osprey's Battle Order series, Desert Rats: the British 8th Army in North Africa 1941-43, is a fairly conventional look at that famous fighting force. While the author does a fairly good job packing a lot of data into a small space, he doesn't make much effort to get off the well-worth path created by a previous generation of British historians on the Desert War and readers may fail to see any unique value that justifies its purchase. At any rate, this is a nice companion volume to the earlier (and better done) volume on the Afrika Korps and many readers will probably regard them as a matched set.
After a short introduction describing the 8th Army's creation in September 1941 and its combat mission, the author moves into an 18-page section on unit organization. Although the author provides a large number of line and block charts on units from division down to battalion, he provides relatively little data on the number of personnel and weapons authorized. Furthermore, while he does provide 8th Army charts for November 1941, May 1942 and November 1942 (the last, on pp. 73, is mis-labeled as July 1942), he does not list constituent brigades in each division or important corps-level artillery and engineer units. Unlike other Osprey Battle Orders books, such as the one on the Afrika Korps, the author actually provides very little information on the core component units in the 8th Army. Some allied units, such as the Greek 1st Brigade which fought at El Alamein, are never mentioned and the Polish Carpathian Brigade gets only a nod. This failure to provide a detailed organizational study is the biggest weakness of this volume.
The author then provides a 14-page section on doctrine and training, noting the pernicious effects of faulty pre-war training on British tactical performance in the desert. This is a very well-written section and the closest that comes to a reflective look at what went right and what went wrong for the British in North Africa. Particularly interesting are the author's description of the British creation of maneuver training areas in Egypt and the lengthy period required to train replacements arriving from England. A short section follows on weapons, focusing on infantry equipment, tanks and artillery - useful for novices to this subject. A 7-page section on C3I is also a bit of an eye opener, in that British tactical communications in North Africa were apparently pretty awful and greatly hindered coordinated operations, although the author also uses German sources to point to a rigid British style of issuing overly-directive orders. The volume also has 9 maps (the Mediterranean theater of war; North Africa; Operation Crusader - 3 maps; the Battle of Gazala; the Battle of Alam Halfa; the Battle of the Mareth Line; the Battle of Wadi Akarit), a bibliography and a list of abbreviations used.
The 28-page section on combat operations, focusing on Crusader, Gazala, Alam Halfa, Mareth Line and Wadi Akarit is the heart of the volume. This section is interesting and well-written, but doesn't seem to tie it all together into a coherent theory of how 8th Army evolved from a fairly amateurish colonial-era army into a modernized, combined-arms force, as Niall J. Barr did in 2005 with Pendulum of War. Indeed, Barr's book is not even mentioned in the bibliography and the author doesn't say a word about the string of abortive British infantry brigade attacks prior to Alam Halfa. Indeed, much of the narrative in this volume is similar to the type of writing we saw 30 years ago in Purnell's History of the Second World War, without benefit of more recent research. For example, not once does the author detail the evolution of British artillery tactics, including the TOT mission and the corps-level "stonk," that greatly increased British firepower at El Alamein. British improvements in engineers - which would make a big difference on D-Day - are also over-looked. The conventional view - to look mostly at tanks, infantry and anti-tank guns - just doesn't do justice to the 8th Army. Readers may also detect two annoying biases on the part of the author: a tendency to treat the Germans as ten feet tall and a tendency to lionize Montgomery at the expense of all the previous commanders of 8th Army. The Germans made plenty of mistakes in the Desert War, but here the author tends to make them look nearly invincible. Also, Montgomery certainly made big contributions to the improvement of 8th Army, but this author seems to suggest that nothing prior to Monty mattered much, which is far from the truth and slanderous to Wavell and Auchinleck.