The Libyan Desert covers a large, arid land mass, but in "Wheels Across the Desert: Exploration of the Libyan Desert by Motorcar 1916-1942" Andrew Goudie puts the immensity of the desert into perspective, showing, as an example, a map of India to the same scale overlying a map of Libya. The book provides a brief geographical and historical background: the people, the landforms, the water resources, and the dust storms on which the author is an authority. Goudie devotes an early chapter to giving the reader a true feeling for that vastness and space. He illustrates it by describing one of the most daring and successful raids of the Second World War.
He has also put together a great cross-section of characters, which gives enormous colour to the book. One, whom he says never received the appreciation he deserves, is Dr John Ball, who Goudie points out, was named John Bell in Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient". He travelled with the Light Car Patrols and accompanied Prince Kemal el-Din on his early journey. Goudie describes the battle to conquer the Great Sand Sea using motor cars to surmount the long lines of seif (sword) dunes forming a deep barrier along much of the desert boundary between Egypt and Libya. He includes accounts of the WW1 Light Car patrols and Armored Car Units that operated in the Desert, then moves to the inter-war years, where the now lost art of traveling by vehicle through the desert was recreated (after WW1 ended, all institutional knowledge that was gained by painful experience during the war was completely lost as the units were disbanded).
The author includes Bagnolds expeditions, the journeys of Hassanein Bey, who was accompanied by the redoubtable Rosita Forbes on camel to the oasis of Kufra, some 400 miles from the Libyan coast, in 1921. Another of the characters brought so vividly to life in the book was the short, smart, and rather silent Major C. S. Jarvis, the colonial administrator who strolled around hitting his riding breeches with his swagger stick and taking notes.
Goudie goes on to describe the formation of the Long Range Desert Group, recounting part of the astonishing interview that Bagnold had with the far sighted Wavell, who gave him authority to acquire whatever he needed to form the new unit. There followed the difficult task of finding the right vehicles and the unusual collection of accessories such as sand channels, theodolites, and sun compasses. Also covered are Vladimir Peniakoff & his unit (Popski's Private Army). All in all, it's a good compilation and summarisation of information that can be found in a range of different books and source material. Having many of the old source books myself (Bagnolds and Jervis' books as well as material on the Light Car Patrols and Armored Cars in the Desert), I personally think the author has done an excellent job of putting this all together in one package that's a very enjoyable read.
One has the feeling from reading the book that Goudie, himself deeply involved with the science of deserts, would, had he lived in an earlier age, have volunteered for the LRDG like a shot. His love of the terrain and his interest in the problems facing those early motor borne journeys comes across clearly in the book. The author has vividly described a group of colourful and committed people who combined daring adventurousness with a spirit of serious scientific enquiry. Through his wide research, as evidenced by his extensive bibliography, he has unearthed a mass of interesting material which is complemented by an excellent selection of photographs.