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Churchill’s Desert Rats in North West Europe by Patrick Delaforce

Thankfully military history has moved on in the past few years. While not so long ago military history consisted primarily of battles, generals, tanks, ships, planes, dates and the ‘great man’ school of history. Although of its time, looking back this approach does seem rather stale. The practice of writing THE history of a particular unit – usually in narrative form – is very much a traditional approach, and Patrick Delaforce has written a number of histories of some of the Divisions that fought in North West Europe with the British Army in 1944 and 1945.

Anyone with an interest in the Second World War will probably be aware that one of the most prominent issues surrouding the British Army was the performance of several of its veteran Division in Normandy in 1944. When he took over command of 21st Army Group Montgomery requested three veterans Divisions from the Eight Army: the 50th (Northumbrian), the 51st (Highland), and the famous 7th Armoured Divisions – the Desert Rats.

I’ve often thought that its pretty misleading to label any military unit as ‘elite’. No unit ever starts off as elite – everyone has to start somewhere, as they say – and units that once had a sharp edge can easily lose it. From my own research, I have found that while the 1st Airborne Division has often been regarded as an elite unit, in many ways it was green and had lost its keen edge. And most historians agree that far from giving the D-Day forces a stiffening of experience, the three Divisions brought over from Italy struggled once ashore. This issue has been looked at in more details by historians such as David French and David Fraser.

Why was this? While historians have debated and researched this for years, sadly Patrick Delaforce glosses over the Division’s performance, seeming to regard it as something that isn’t all that important. Which is a great pity, as discussing it help us get insde the psyche of the fighting soldier, as he goes from one battle to another. I’ve always been pretty interested in the psychology of battle, and I cannot help but feel that the experience of the 7th Armoured Division after D-Day would give a lot of food for thought. Historians have suggested arrogance, battle-weariness, and the difference between the Desert and the Bocage as reasons for the Divisions performance. It is hard to escape the conclusion that a Division that saw two Commanding Generals sacked within 6 months had problems.

After landing shortly after D-Day, Montgomery sent the Desert Rats to capture Villers Bocage, in an attempt to outflank Caen. After they failed it became clear that perhaps the policy of using veteran units wasn’t working quite as it was hoped. After the Desert Rats failed to distinguish themselves in Operation Goodwood shortly after it became clear that the Division would need rebuilding. In subsequent battles other Armoured Divisions were employed – the capture of Antwerp by the 11th Armoured Division, and Operation Market Garden by the Guards Armoured.

There are some bright spots about this book – Delaforce makes use of a number of veterans accounts, which shed light on life for the British Soldier between D-Day and VE Day. Subjects such as food, looting, brothels, medical care, officer-men relations and attitudes towards the enemy are all looked at. But I am sure there are a lot more accounts out there from Desert Rats veterans. And Delaforce seems not to have looked at the wide range of official sources out there, such as war diaries. Which is a real shame. Perhaps as a wartime Royal Horse Artillery officer Delaforce does not wish to be too critical or to delve too deep into the controversial areas.

This book, although interesting, does feel very much like an ‘old military history’. Worth a read, and twenty or thirty years ago it would have been great. But it could do with being updated with a fresher and more objective outlook.

Churchill’s Desert Rats in North West Europe is published by Pen and Sword

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The Desert Rat Scrapbook: Cairo to Berlin by Roger Fogg

One of the most noticeable things about military history is that certain elite units seem to attract a lot of attention. Aside from Regiments such as the Paras, the Marines and the SAS, its quite rare that a larger unit becomes famous in such a manner. Along with perhaps the Light Division in the Peninsula, the Guards Division in the First World War and the 101st Airborne in the Second World War, the British 7th Armoured Division – better known as the Desert Rats – is possibly one of the most well-known Divisions of all time.

Its also inevitable that any famous unit will have a plethora of books written about it, and the Desert Rats are no exception. Patrick Delaforce, George Forty, Robin Neillands and John Parker are among the writers who have published books about this famous Division. Many of them focus on the higher conduct of the war, the senior officers and the battles. But this book, by Roger Fogg, is different. Not only is it based around an enlightening collection of photographs and mementoes, they were collected by his father Ted, a Desert Rat from the Desert through to Berlin.

The 7th Armoured Division was formed in Egypt just prior to the Second World War. Fighting throughout the campaign in North Africa, they went on to the invasion on Sicily, and then Italy. During their time in the North African Deserted they picked up their ‘Desert Rats’ nickname from the Jerboa. In late 1943 they were recalled to Europe to take part in Operation Overlord, and after landing at Arromanches fought their way through France, Belgium, Holland and finally Germany. They ended the war as part of British Army of occupation, and took pride of place at the Victory Parade in Berlin in July 1945. Thus the Division and its men had been on quite a remarkable journey.

Having done a lot of research on my own family’s military history I found this book fascinating. The documents and photographs tell their own story. We should be grateful that Roger has collated them and made them accessible for future generations. Collections such as these provide a wonderful depth to the bigger strategic picture. As useful as well researched books about Generals and Battles are, they can only tell us so much. What about the men they sent into battle? This is a very ‘real’, down to earth and refreshing account. I like the scrapbook concept – its a fantastic way of bringing to life to the kind of collection that all too often gathers dust, forgotten in an attic or catalogued and stored in a museum.

This book tells us not only about the Desert Rats, but life in the British Army in general during the Second World War. For a start, look how many of the men are smoking in the photographs. There are also telegrams home, Army newspapers and handbooks issued to the Desert Rats as they liberated country after country. I only wish I had half as many documents about my Grandad’s war service!

The Desert Rats Scrapbook is published by The History Press

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RSM Frederick Barlow

The Regimental Sergeant Major of a Battalion is the closest thing to god for the men in that unit. In a peculiar, British kind of way, the RSM has an almost holy position as the senior NCO. Responsible for discipline and morale, it is not unknown for the RSM to tick off junior officers.

Frederick Barlow, 33 and from Portsmouth, was the RSM of the 7th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade during the Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942. At the age of 33 and as the RSM he was probably a pre-war regular who had been promoted to be RSM of a war-raised Battalion. The Rifle Brigade was also a fine Regiment to join, one of the most prestigious Infantry units in the Army after the Guards.

The 7th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade were serving with the 7th Motor Brigade. the 7th Battalion were serving as mobile infantry in support of the tanks – a role that light infantry units of the Rifle Brigade and Kings Royal Rifle Corps in particular exceled at. The 7th Motor Brigade formed the infantry support for the Armoured units in the 1st Armoured Division.

The Second Battle of El Alamein came at a pivotal point. Montgomery had just taken over command of the Eighth Army. Rommel, commander of the Afrika Korps, was away in Italy.

When the battle began on 23 October 1942, the initial assault was made in the north. By 25 October the Eighth Army had made a thrust of several miles into the Axis positions. However the battle reached a standstill. In the coming days Montgomery succesfully fended off a counter-attack by the returned Rommel, and then ground the Axis forces down so badly that they had no option but to retreat.

Alamein was a significant victory. Perhaps it was a sideshow compared to the Eastern Front, but for a Britain that been under severe strain it was a much needed boost to morale. Winston Churchill described it thus:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But perhaps it is the end of the beginning”

RSM Frederick Barlow was killed on 25 October 1942. Having looked at events surrounding Alamein, I suspect that he was killed during the heavy fighting when the 1st Armoured Division were attempting to break through the Axis defences. He is buried in Alamein War Cemetery Egypt.

Frederick Barlow’s medals are in the care of Portsmouth City Museums and Records Service, and are currently on display at the D-Day Museum, Southsea.

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