Book Review
Britain's Desert War in Egypt
Britain's Desert War in Egypt & Libya 1940-1942 'The end of the beginning'
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by: Adie Roberts [ IN_WAR_AND_PEACE ]

This book was first published in 1964, with a foreword by Professor N.H. Gibbs, M.A., D. Phil. This new publishing 2019 has a forward by General Sir Nick Carter KCB CBE DSO ADC Gen Chief of the Defence Staff.
The book covers a pagination of 228, this book has been written 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 desert wars of Egypt and Libya between June, 1940 and November 1942.


Foreword to the 2019 Edition
List of Maps
Chapter 1 The Strategic Background to the North African Campaigns, 1940-42
Chapter 2 The First British Offensive (1). “Operation Compass”, the battle of Sidi Barrani
Chapter 3 The First British Offensive (2). The Development of the Campaign after the battle of Sidi Barrani
Chapter 4 The Advent of Rommel
Chapter 5 Rommel's First Offensive
Chapter 6 The Second British Offensive. Operation “Battleaxe”
Chapter 7 The Replacement of Wavell and the Preparation for Operation “Crusader”
Chapter 8 The Third British Offensive, Operation “Crusader” (1). The Opening Phase, 18th-23rd November 1941
Chapter 9 Operation “Crusader” (2). The Second Phase, 24th - 30th November 1941
Chapter 10 Operation “Crusader” (3). Phases III & IV, 1st December 1941- 17th January 1942
Chapter 11 Rommel's Second Offensive and retreat to Gazala
Chapter 12 The Lull, February to May 1942
Chapter 13 The Battles at Gazala (1). The Period of Planning and Preparation
Chapter 14 The Battles at Gazala (2). The Fighting south of Gazala and the Fall of Tobruk
Chapter 15 The Retreat to El Alamein
Chapter 16 The Fighting in El Alamein Positions in July 1942
Chapter 17 The Arrival of Montgomery
Chapter 18 Montgomery's Doctrine of War and Command, and the Battle of Alam Haifa
Chapter 19 The Battle of El Alamein (1). The Plans
Chapter 20 The Battle of El Alamein (2). The Fighting
Chapter 21 Some Points for Further Consideration
Notes on Abbreviations
Comparative Chronology of the Desert Campaigns
by Major H.C.H. Mead, M.A.
Who's who


The book takes you through each chapter and phase, explaining about the strategy of the time which dated back to the reign of Elizabeth I. British strategic policy when engaged in war with any of the leading European powers was to rely on the use of sea power to force the enemy to disperse his forces while the sea lanes are kept open and an army strong enough to deliver a decisive blow at a vital point is built up. Such was the need for a nation with limited resources of manpower which frequently found itself unprepared for war. We relied heavily on supplies of food and raw material from overseas.
Conversely, her continental opponents strove to isolate her militarily by defeating her allies one by one thus cutting off our vital overseas supplies. For all these enemies the physical subjugation of Britain was the ultimate objective, but in the end, each suffered resounding defeat at the hands of the stubborn islanders who by keeping the sea lanes open gave themselves time to create the weapons and armies needed to destroy their enemies on their home ground.

This then was the basis for British strategy in the 1939-45 war and the context for which the fighting in the Mediterranean should be studied.
Britain, already at war with Germany, began by hoping to keep Italy neutral and never contemplated a Mediterranean campaign without the help of France with her possessions of Algeria and Syria, but the fall of France and Italy's entry to the war brought about a radical change and after Dunkirk, when every effort being directed to the defence of the British Isles the defence of the Mediterranean and the Middle East was left in the hands of a tiny British force sandwiched 500,000 Italians in Libya and Italian East Africa.

Operation compass was the first of the British offensive, this then was the region in which the fighting war in the Mediterranean began when on the 11th of June 1940 with the campaign in France nearly over, Italy declared war. On the 22nd of June, France capitulated and Italy was left with just one enemy to face.
The battle of Beda Fomm marked the end of the Italian 10th Army and XIII Corps counted 25,000 prisoners, 100 medium tanks, and 100 guns captured or destroyed

This short campaign of ten weeks was the first to be fought by modern armies with comparable air support what was for the most part completely open country and was lucky enough to see events prove their judgement right.

With the destruction of the Italian army at Beda Fomm, the threat to Egypt seemed to have been removed and on 16th February the British Government decided to hold Cyrenaica with the smallest possible force while the rest of the army and air force concentrated in Egypt. Meanwhile, German troops were beginning to arrive in Tripoli, thus the advent of Rommel

Rommel's first offensive, despite his limitations imposed by Berlin on the 23rd of March, advanced to and captured El Agheila and its excellent water supplies. On the 31st March, the Germans attacked the British right at Mersa Brega and induced a withdrawal which soon developed into a major retreat.

Operation Battle Axe, became the British second offensive in the Mediterranean theatre but the use of the German 88mm gun became something the British armour was ill-prepared for, along with the poor training of the army and the crews of the armour division new and also poorly trained saw a series of defeats for the British army.

The replacement of Wavell soon came about although Prime Minister Winston Churchill, said in fairness to Wavell that the Burden had been a long one that had seen Wavell become tired. His replacement was soon to be General Sir Claude Auchinleck the former commander in chief of India with Wavell going the other way
With Rommel having been given the role of commander of Army Group Afrika and was to concentrate on the capture Tobruk, which Rommel hoped to achieve in October

The “Crusader” fighting lasted for the best part of two months, beginning with the advance of XXX Corps on 18th November 1941, and ending on 13th January 1942, when elements of the 8th Army unable to make further progress faced the Germans on a line from Mersa Brega to Alam al Mgaad.
To try to establish air superiority over Cyrenaica, the air battle had begun five weeks before the tanks rolled westwards?

The second phase of the “Crusader” battle covered the seven days 24th to 30th November 1941. On 23rd November Rommel's position was much as Auchinleck had foreseen, and it was not until 6 am, on 24th, with his army in great confusion, that he learnt from Cruewell of the defeat of the British armour at Sidi Resegh.

Crusader ended in January 1942, with Cyrenaica once more cleared of Axis troops but with the 8th Army worn out after two months hard fighting and with its supply lines so stretched that when it reached Agedabia its striking power had gone. Auchinleck had won the battle but had not destroyed Rommel's army, and now as he waited at El Agheila, the German commander was in a much improved administrative position.

Rommel's second offensive, the crucial was 12th January when as a means of delaying the expected offensive, Rommel decided to mount a spoiling attack against the British forward positions. At the time the Germans enjoyed a numerical superiority in the Cyrenaica border area and the dispersion of the British seemed to offer a chance of local success, though a shortage of German troops and supplies prevented Rommel from looking for any chance of far-reaching exploitation.

The lull, February to May 1942, as soon as the front was stabilized at Gazala Auchinleck and Ritchie resumed the preparations for the new offensive as a matter of the highest urgency. Tripoli still remained as the most important long-term objective but a more immediate need was to regain the airfields in Western Cyrenaica. Without these landing grounds it was impossible to supply or reinforce Malta except at prohibitive cost, and in the absence of offensive air and naval strikes from Malta the enemy in Africa could build up his strength with ease. It is not surprising, therefore, that as the months passed Churchill pressed Auchinleck to attack at the earliest possible moment.

Battles at Gazala the period of planning and preparation, while arguing with the Defence Committee in London Auchinleck decided to reorganise the army so that in future armour, artillery, and infantry would work in close and permanent association rather than as semi-independent elements of the military whole. He began by giving the armoured divisions, which had hitherto been overloaded with tanks and weak in support units, an Armoured Brigade group and a Motor Brigade Group only.

The Battles of Gazala the fighting south of Gazala and the fall of Tobruk, the actual fighting at Gazala took place in four phases, Rommel's attempt to crack open the British positions from the rear, his pause in the Cauldron to regroup and re-establish his communications, his counter-attack against the British armour, and the capture of Tobruk

The retreat to El Alamein, the Axis powers had intended for some time that the fall of Tobruk should be followed by the capture of Malta, which thanks to timely arrival of air reinforcements had regained its offensive capability, and by the end of June was once more threatening the supply routes from Italy to North Africa. In the final analysis, however, the fault must lie with Auchinleck. In the first instance, Ritchie's appointment was meant to be temporary and Auchinleck could have replaced without excessive difficulty, either after “Crusader” or the retreat to Gazala, instead of which he not only chose to leave him in command but failed to see that his own wishes were carried out.
The fighting in the El Alamein positions in July 1942, after the defeat at Matruh Auchinleck, increased his efforts to plug the gap between El Alamein and the Qattara Depression while Rommel strove to prevent the 8th army from settling into a firm and strong defensive position. The latter felt that if he could carry the El Alamein area the Delta would be his for the taking and he drove his men on, allowing no respite. Having reached El Alamein this was, without doubt, the course to adopt, for the longer, the British stayed there the harder it would become to turn them out, but as his supply position deteriorated Rommel must have wondered whether he should not have paused after the capture of Tobruk.

The arrival of Montgomery, meanwhile as the fate of Egypt and the Allied position in the Middle East seemed to hang in the balance, Churchill and Roosevelt were making vital decisions about the conduct of war as a whole. Chief among them was the conclusion that there would be no cross-Channel operation in 1942, and the decision to make an Allied landing in French North Africa (Operation “Torch”) not later than 30th October that year.

Montgomery's doctrine of war and command, and the battle of Alam Halfa, the new commander of the 8th Army was one of the most intensely professional officers in the British army and has favoured posterity with a clear recital of the doctrine on which he based his practice of war.

The battle of El Alamein, the plans, the Alam Haifa victory had two particular results for General Montgomery. It confirmed his position as a commander who could win against Rommel, with all that implied for the confidence and morale of his army, but it also imposed a delay on the preparations that he and Alexander were making for a new British offensive.
Churchill, becoming increasingly anxious about “Torch”, pressed for the offensive to start at the end of September but Alexander, mindful of the need for thorough preparation, supported Montgomery's decision that the full moon period of October was the earliest possible time if success was to be assured, and D-Day was finally set for 23rd October.

The Battle of El Alamein, the fighting, the battle itself was fought in three phases. Between 23rd / 24th October came the break-in, which was followed in turn by the dogfight phase, which lasted from 25th October to 1st November and ended with the pursuit of the beaten Rommel.

This offering from Pen & Sword Publishing is so much more than the bite-size pieces of information that I have given you so far, I have looked into the Africa theatre over a long period of my interest in modelling and military history. I found out that I did not really know anywhere near as much information on it as I do now, the book is easy to pick up and read, very difficult to put down, and full of information on the personal battles between Rommel's Afrika Korps and the Britsh 7th and 8th army and its generals and officers before the advent of Montgomery.
There is eight pages of black and white photo's depicting some of the fighting, the men in charge and a letter written by “Monty” to General H. Essame in April 1964 after the General had sent a copy of the book to Montgomery for his consideration.
There are also a number of drawn maps in the book some showing you the whole of the Middle East, some of the other maps show movements of the armies, their lines of attack/ defence a really fantastic piece of work.
Each chapter of the book is written, articulately, thoroughly researched, and is a huge testament to the men from both sides, Allies and Axis who not only fought out in the harsh deserts of North Africa but gave the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives for their respective Countries, regardless of the reason. It is also a fantastic piece of work that is also about two of the most respected officers, by their sub coordinates, junior officers and their own men such was the belief in both Rommel and Montgomery.


I can completely understand why this book was written with the intention of providing British Army Officers who are studying for the Staff College and Promotion examinations as it is easy to pick up and read and unlike so much of the controversy that surrounds many of the battles of the North African Campaigns, as well as many other battles and campaigns of World War 2. I feel the book is written so that it is without much controversy and allowing you to make up your own mind about the outcomes making this as I have said earlier is so easy to pick up and read but hard to put down.
I am so lucky to be able to have reviewed this book and must thank Pen & Sword , Darren Baker chief editor of Armorama, and Jim Starkweather, CEO of the Kitmaker Network, The Big Boss.
Highs: Pretty much the whole of the book, an excellent read, and an amazing insight into the North African campaign
Lows: Unfortunately, the LRDG has been omitted from this book.
Verdict: Just, please go and read this book if you are interested in the North African Campaign as a modeller, or interested in military history, this is a must book
Percentage Rating
  Scale: N/A
  Mfg. ID: ISBN 1526759780
  Suggested Retail: £19.99
  Related Link: 
  PUBLISHED: Sep 07, 2019

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About Adie Roberts (In_War_and_Peace)

I am disabled after a terrorist bomb I have in the past made models for TV and film and work with local museums making new models for display. I also take on commission builds for people

Copyright ©2021 text by Adie Roberts [ IN_WAR_AND_PEACE ]. All rights reserved.


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