on 22 September 2013
Looking back at the North African campaigns, readers need to consider the value of straight history when judging the merits of fiction.
Moreover, one of the great non-fiction memoirs is Keith Douglas's "Alamein to Zem Zem" that records his experiences of tank combat.
A worthy novel (with much autobiographical material, apparently) is Cyril Jolley's "Take These Men".
Penelope Lively borrowed some of the flavour of these two in her far more recent novel "Moon Tiger", which contains fictional diary entries and personal memory of the Desert war.
Another novel (as I recall) entitled "Hellfire Pass" (referring to Halfiya Pass) describes the experiences of a British Artillery crew, with a motorised 3.8 inch anti-aircraft gun, very similar to the better known German 88mm gun.
We might also consider the excellent Eighth Army infantry memoirs of John Bowlby (albeit, mainly in Italy), and the occasionally lighter infantry memoirs of Spike Milligan.
John Brophy's "Immortal Sergeant" is another infantry book worth remembering.
And there are the many books about David Stirling, and Popski, and the Long-Range Desert Group, and the Special Air Service.
"Sands of Valour" is a novel of tank warfare across North Africa.
It begins with the arrival of Rommel and the Afrika Korps, and the desperate retreat of out-gunned and out-fought and ill-equipped British and Allied forces.
The successive particular tanks used (as with Cyril Jolley's book) are carefully described, along with the tactics.
Central to the story is a desert-wise, charismatic troop leader (it is some years since I read the book, and I do not recall his name), loosely comparable to Lawrence of Arabia, or Orde Wingate, in his eccentricity, and selfless bravado.
Equally central is a more ordinary tank captain, through whose eyes most of the story is told.
"Sands of Valour" has been compared, in a "Daily Telegraph" review, to Nicholas Monserrat's naval epic "The Cruel Sea", which may genuinely be taken as the great novel of the Atlantic Convoy battles by corvettes and other escort vessels.
I don't see "Sands of Valour" as quite as good a book, and on balance, prefer Keith Douglas, and Cyril Jolley, AND straight history.
Perhaps the nightmarish scene where the charismatic leader takes the milder-mannered tank captain deep into the desert for a prolonged night of debauchery with some Arab women seemed, to me, to demean the military focus.
The final regrouping, re-equipping and retraining, after the brutal retreat, that culminates in the cauldron of the breakout at El Alamein, is the concluding climax to the book. The human costs of battle are unflinchingly detailed, even though this results in a bitter end to the novel, just as the next stage of the North African campaign gets under way.
But perhaps that is the reality of war. Central characters in a sustained story are killed, or severely wounded, and THEIR story ends, while the larger story continues, beyond the end of the book.
Keith Douglas survived North Africa, only to be killed shortly after landing in Normandy.
Not quite as good as "The Cruel Sea", or Douglas, or Jolley, but well worth reading in its own right.
John Gough - retired, Deakin University -- firstname.lastname@example.org