Britain’s Desert War in Egypt and Libya 1940-1942: “The End of the Beginning”

Cover_Britains Desert WarOriginally published in 1964 as The Campaigns in Egypt and Libya 1940-1942 and now reprinted by Pen & Sword, this classic piece of military history by David Braddock is a general’s-eye view of the war in the desert. As I began the book, actually not yet realizing that I was reading a text that was over 50 years old, I found myself totally engrossed by its detailed accounts of all the top-level thinking and planning that undergirded each campaign. As the 1964 introduction states, Braddock wrote the book “with the intention of providing British Army officers who are studying for the Staff College and Promotion examinations with a short but reasonably comprehensive account in one volume of the principal events of the campaigns which were fought in the deserts of Egypt and Libya between June, 1940, and November, 1942” (xi). In my judgment as someone who has read a great deal of military history, Braddock’s work is a satisfying masterpiece of historical summary and analysis. The fact that it covers the campaign from the point of view of the top generals is actually refreshing to me, since military histories of the past 40 years have often endeavored (rightly, to be sure) to relate more of the subaltern’s personal experience of war.

In reading these accounts, I got a new sense of the critical questions involved with planning a military operation at the level of the general staff. What is the goal? Who should be put in command? What is known about the enemy’s disposition? What friendly forces are at hand? Can these forces be supplied? How? How long will the supply last? What role will naval and air forces be able to play? Are there strategic considerations in other theaters that may affect the local campaign? What eventualities are expected to unfold? What is Plan B? Staff planning may not seem like the most riveting angle on war, but on a battlefield like the desert, where infrastructure is minimal and water almost non-existent, and against an opponent like Rommel, whose mercurial, seat-of-the-pants decision-making could be unpredictable and brilliant, the planning considerations are truly fascinating.

Having laid out the grand plans, Braddock’s analysis then follows the battles with a blow-by-blow narrative of troop movements and battle outcomes. He does not describe what it might have been like to cross a minefield or assault a machine-gun position. Rather, he describes how the generals had to adjust their thinking in consideration of what they could piece together about each day’s events. Braddock describes Ludwig Cruewell, the Afrika Korps’ immediate commander, as “the keeper of Rommel’s orthodox military conscience” (76), always trying to get Rommel to do something more prudent. Braddock seems to agree with Cruewell. In describing a critical decision point during Operation Crusader Braddock writes, “In leaving Tobruk and Sidi Resegh to thrust [toward the Egyptian frontier] Rommel lost sight of his chief aim and took what turned out to be an unjustifiable administrative risk by failing to ensure that his forces would be properly supplied” (90).  Auchinleck, the commander of Commonwealth forces, receives high praise for his cool-headed response to Rommel’s dash eastward: “Cunningham… had already given orders for a general defensive action but Auchinleck refused to be made more anxious than was absolutely necessary” and overrode Cunningham, staying the course and ultimately forcing Rommel to turn back (76). No matter what I might think about Braddock’s 1964 verdict on Rommel’s methods, I found myself totally engrossed by Braddock’s analyses of every move on both sides.

Earlier I said that I had not at first realized this book was fifty years old. Before I saw that the book originally came out in the ’60s, but knowing that it had been intended for staff college training, I must say I wondered how applicable the lessons of 1942 could possibly be to officers in the 21st century. When I did realize that the book was written for an audience 50 years ago it made more sense — and yet in the end I would actually say that Braddock’s work, which teaches a sort of timeless battle sense, is not irrelevant at all. For people like me who are drawn in to the histories of military campaigns out of interest — and perhaps even for those who have yet to live new ones as professionals — Britain’s Desert War in Egypt and Libya 1940-1942 offers many insights into the minds of commanders in history’s greatest conflict.

A collection of my own North Africa-related posts can be found here.

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