The Desert Rats

Last week I finished Eighth Army, by Robin Neillands.

It’s a history of the “British” Eighth Army, which fought most famously in northern Africa during WWII, and then in the Italian campaign with the US 5th Army.

The Desert Rats, as they referred to themeselves, consisted of British, Aussi, Kiwi, Canadian, Indian, and even some Polish units. Successful in the extreme in the early months of the desert war against the Italians, they retreated for almost a year before the better-equipped and better-led German Afrika Korps, General Erwin Rommel’s (the Desert Fox) most-famous command.

Only after Bernard Law Montgomery (Monty) was sent to lead the Eighth and gave the Rommel his first serious defeat at El Alamein did the tides of the WWII turn, and he lead them from victory to victory (mostly) through Africa, until they joined up with the Americans who landed in Morroco and Algeria in Operation Torch.

(My wife’s grandfather was with those Americans in Torch.)

The Eighth Army finished out the war after another two years of battle clearing the Germans out of Sicily and Italy, and a nasty, bloody business it was. But they will always be known as the Desert Rats for their African campaigns.

I enjoyed the book, particularly because the author went to great pains to let the men speak – it’s a rare few pages that don’t have at least one lengthy quote from veterans of the Eighth.