For Christmas I received this history of the British SAS during the Second World War. Yesterday I finished reading and highly recommend it. The book is based on first-rate primary source research and is very well-written. For anyone who’s ever lived in Cairo it will at times read like a walk down memory lane.
While the SAS is now what people may envision a modern Special Forces unit would look like, in the World War Two period, they were a randomly eclectic mix of almost complete military amateurs, from doctors and scientists, to policemen and construction workers, to aristocrats and ex-cons.
They also lived and worked out of the same Cairo apartments that tend to be rented by foreign students studying in Egypt today, not some traditional military facility, so anyone who’s lived there will recognize most of the landmarks cited.
The basic concept seems obvious now but at the time it was so new and innovative and divergent from conventional military thinking that the Germans and Italians were caught totally off-gaurd. They assumed that the desert was too unforgiving a climate, and the distances too vast that their South flank was safe. They barely made any defensive preparations from that direction.
Doing what the Germans (and most of the British military establishment) thought unthinkable, the SAS would ride, sometimes walk, hundreds if not thousands of miles deep into the desert to conduct hit and run raids from the South, described in impressive detail by the author.
It’s hard to describe what the desert is like until you’ve been there. It’s truly a surreal environment. Here’s a couple of pictures from a camping trip I took in the vicinity of the battlefield areas.
Two or three days in an air conditioned car starts to get to you. Can’t imagine spending 60 days out there and walking hundreds of miles by foot:
On a related note – for anyone interested in this topic, Netflix currently hosts an extremely high quality documentary series on British commando units from WWII. They are based exclusively on interviews with the participants. Episode 3 in particular covers the Egyptian Desert war.