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In Rommel’s Backyard: A Memoir of the Long Range Desert Group by Alastair Timpson with Andrew Gibson-Watt

Military Memoirs are always useful to read. True, depending on the author style they might not always be the most rivetting, but what better than reading about what happened from the horses mouth? Here the wartime memoirs of Alastair Timpson, an officer with the Long Range Desert Group, have been admirably edited by Andrew Gibson-Watt.

Timpson joined the Long Range Desert Group early in the Desert War, and became a commander of one of the patrols. He gained a reputation for sharing the dangers and discomforts – not something that British Officers have always been known for. Indeed, his memoirs show a real connection with his men - something that was obviously crucial in the close-knit work behind enemy lines. He comes across as a level-headed, sensible man who was also more than happy to take the fight to the enemy when necessary. History would suggest that these qualities are an ideal combination for a special forces officer. The Group’s war was spent very much out in the Desert, conducting raids, attacking airfields, transporting the SAS, and most notably, carrying out observation on Axis supply routes and giving useful intelligence to the High Command. There are some incredibly stories here, made all the more incredibly by Timpson’s modest style of writing. His story of his observation post being camped on by a German convoy, and his subsequent escape, is breathtaking.

But its not all about the action. Timpson writes about the ever present North African flies, the monotony of Bully Beef, the shortage of drinking water, relations with the indigenous Arabs and Bedouin, the relations between the Germans and Italians (who seemed to despise each other), and the nasty illnesses that could be contracted in the desert. These kinds of details add colour to our understanding of what it must have been like to serve in North Africa. Of course, we can never KNOW exactly what it was like – this is something of a cliche – but we can get pretty close to it. And in some ways, this is more important to history than knowing who fought who where and when.

As the Desert War came to a close when the allies defeated Rommel, Timpson returned to his Scots Guards Battalion. In some ways this was a wise move, for the Long Range Desert Group’s role raison detre had vanished, and it saw little fighting after 1943. However, whilst serving with his Battalion in Italy Timpson was seriously wounded at Monte Camino, and after a long recovery fought no more. Fortunately, Timpson kept meticulous notes, intending them to be of interest to his family. After his death, however, his son realised that they would interest a much wider audience, and offered them for publication.

A few things struck me whilst reading this book. Firstly, if only the members of Bravo Two Zero had read it before they set off for their ill-fated patrol in the Gulf. The Long Range Desert Group proved that you CAN operate vehicles behind enemy lines in the Desert. And vehicles - in this case heavily armed Jeeps and supporting trucks – were surprisingly easy to hide, and also packed a serious punch. The original SAS reverted to Jeeps after their attempts at airborne drops were a disaster. The history was there for all to read, so why did Bravo Two Zero insist on going in on foot, against all the evidence? On the other hand, Peter Ratcliffe was the SAS’s Regimental Sergeant Major in the Gulf, and his book ‘Eye of the Storm‘ could be interchanged with Timpson’s – the tactics are exactly the same.

Secondly, that the British Army in the Western Desert gave birth to all manner of private armies in the toing and froing with Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The SAS, the Long Range Desert Group, Popski’s Private Army, the SBS, Layforce, the Special Raiding Squadron and also Army Commandos also fought in the Western Desert. It was an incredibly untidy situation, with all kinds of units and men operating at any given time. Most of these units seem to have formed independently and organically, with a particular officer developing his own ‘baby’. The extent to which their work was co-ordinated and the degree to which these units worked together would be interesting to research.

Finally, Timpson’s experiences are an illustration of the Brigade of Guard’s role in the British Army. One of the Long Range Desert Group’s Squadrons – G Squadron,  G for Guards - was comprised solely of Guardsmen, with one patrol from the Coldstream Guards, and another from the Scots Guards. This recruiting policy was strictly adhered to, to the extent that the men seem to have been perplexed when some Grenadier Guards were sent to join them! This is a prime example of the age-old dilemma between capbadge loyalty and flexibility.

I found this a very interesting and enjoyable bo0k indeed. And not only that, but also thought-provoking – which is never a bad thing. It should appeal both to fans of special forces and current-day soldiers alike.

In Rommel’s Backyard is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, special forces, World War Two