Where the Action Was: The Desert War, 1941-42 Alan Moorehead and the power of immediacy

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1941 was a quiet year for the British war effort. Unless you were in North Africa

To Dare and Endure (spoiler, that’s the working title of Volume 2 in the Stokely Chronicle) is set in 1941 and early 1942, in what many would call the quietest year of World War 2 for the U.K. During 1941 the principle fighting front for British troops was in North Africa. That long campaign tends to be dismissed as “the see-saw war,” and not  much is written about it apart from a few books lionizing Rommel or focusing on the Long Range Desert Group. But Alan Moorehead’s The Desert War has been a wonderful and helpful exception. As another reviewer has said, this may be “the gold standard for embedded journalism,” and its greatest strength is immediacy.

alan moorehead 3Alan Moorehead (This is a detail from an awesome photo that appears to be under Getty license. The full image can be seen here)

Alan Moorehead was one of the pre-eminent British correspondents during the Second World War. He covered the North African campaign from its humble beginnings in 1940 to its explosive climax in 1943. He also traveled, during these years, to India, the United States and the United Kingdom. He has a keen eye for the big picture of a campaign, won or lost, and a genius for details that give the reader a gut feel for the moment of battle, the moment of victory or the moments of relaxation that come before and after.

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To give just one example, Moorehead was caught in a crossfire near the front during the first British campaign against the Italians. He writes:

then from the hill ahead a long whining scream of bullets came at us down the roadway. We were ambushed. . . . Clifford and I made for the wooded bank on the left, but it was hopeless—the enemy were firing almost at point-blank range, two or three hundred yards away. . . . One Breda-gun burst set the armoured car next to ours ablaze, killing the men inside. . . . The enemy’s tracer-bullets made long crisscross sheaths of light down the road.

Our driver had been cruelly hit on the arm by an explosive bullet as he had leapt from the truck. . . . He was huddled crookedly in the shallow drainage gutter, quickly drenching in his blood. Clifford joined me, and together we tore off his greatcoat and cut away his sweater and shirt. But then the Italians creeping closer saw us—the last of the British left around the cars. They blew our truck to bits while we lay four yards away trying to stem the wounded man’s flow of blood. . . . The fire was very close and very heavy and our cover not more than eighteen inches, so we had to stop and be still from time to time. Then a piece of shrapnel struck Keating in the forearm, while a bullet tore a ragged hole in his leg. He fell forward softly upon the driver in the shallow trench. Clifford was nicked neatly in the behind. Another bullet passed through the folds of the sleeve of my greatcoat, and, certain I was hit, I remember waiting frigidly for the pain to come.

If I have a criticism of the book at all, it’s that Moorehead rarely mentions the date. When I attempt to correlate the real events of the book to the fictional events of my story, I have to find other sources. But for immediacy and atmosphere, this truly is the gold standard.

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