Hailed as ‘the prince of war correspondents’, Alan Moorehead won an enormous, loyal readership in Britain with his despatches from the African front. Writing for ten to twelve hours a day in the lulls between battlefield sorties, he also gathered material for the three books of The Desert War Trilogy, which he published during the war itself. Together they form an electrifying contemporary account of one of the most thrilling and decisive arenas of the Second World War.
‘We hunted men, not land, as a warship will hunt another
warship, and care nothing for the sea on which the
action is fought’
Posted to Cairo by way of Greece in mid 1940, Moorehead felt that the city was a backwater compared to the terrifying but exciting events unfolding in Europe. Yet, within a few months Africa had become a key theatre of war. In order to keep any hold on the Mediterranean, Britain needed to protect Egypt and Malta. Naturally, it was also preoccupied with the defence of its own shores. Mussolini seized the opportunity to annexe swathes of empire and in September, the Italian Tenth Army advanced into Egypt. Throughout the first shock retreat and then the counter-attack of Operation Compass, Moorehead was in the thick of the action. Flying in the few aircraft supporting the army, going out on daring night patrols and raids, he experienced the reality of desert war conducted on what he later called a ‘shoestring’ – 36,000 Allied soldiers attempting to hold out against 200,000 Italians. From Cairo, Moorehead reported on the airborne invasion of Crete and the ‘lowpoint for the fortunes of the British in the Middle East’. By the end of the summer, with Axis troops exhausted for the moment, Field-Marshal Wavell, with typical military understatement, summed up the year as ‘some setbacks, some successes’.
‘The new battle when it came would no longer be a border skirmish
but a full-scale test of strength between the Germans and the British’
Moorehead gives a superb evocation of the siege of Tobruk: the bravery of the sailors who risked everything to bring supplies to the town, as well as the famous ‘Rats of Tobruk’ – a German insult, adopted as a badge of pride by the Allied defenders. In the attack and counter-attack that raged from November to February 1942, Moorehead could see the superiority of Axis guns, tanks and leadership: ‘The cold fact was that somehow the British had to build a better army. And build it quickly.’ Elsewhere in the world, Allied fortunes were on a knife-edge: it seemed to many that India might fall to the Japanese, just as Singapore, Malaysia and Burma had done. Moorehead was sent to India to report on the burgeoning independence movement, and he provides a fascinating insight into the turbulent politics, through his talks with such key figures as Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah. In the desert, the storm of Rommel’s new offensive was gathering and Moorehead returned in time to witness the painful defeat at Tobruk, and the first battle of El Alamein in which the British ‘emerged from their blackest hour’.
‘It was useless to picture these men who were winning the war for
you as immaculate and shining young heroes … They had seen too
much dirt and filth for that. They hated the war. They knew it.’
Moorehead sailed from Cairo to Halifax, Nova Scotia, then travelled overland through the United States. In New York, Washington DC and back in England, he considered the public mood, from alternating optimism and cynicism in America to the mingled exhaustion and resourcefulness of ordinary Londoners (a tram that runs off the rails is instantly lifted back on by its passengers). Political will was building for a second front with Churchill determined to make a push in Africa. The chance for decisive action came in November 1942 when Allied troops landed in the Vichy territories, while Montgomery fought his way across Libya. Moorehead was with the army in Tunisia and saw terrible action at close range: ‘I will never grow used to the sight of the dead’, he wrote bitterly. Campaigns and battles followed hard upon one another: the battle of Kasserine Pass; the battle of Mareth; the fight for Tunis and Cape Bon. The Allied armies slowly advanced through the mountains, engaging in bloody, hand-to-hand actions at every step as they sought a clear path to the coast. Moorehead was in place for the climactic battle and to see ‘an entire German army laying down its arms’.
On one level Alan Moorehead’s Desert War Trilogy is extremely personal, relating his own – often highly dangerous – experiences as a correspondent; on another it is an exceptionally valuable piece of historical analysis. Max Hastings, military historian and himself a correspondent during the Falklands War, writes in his introduction to this new Folio edition, ‘I am astonished not only by the vividness of his descriptions, but also by the acuity of his judgements.’ As an Australian, Moorehead had a healthy objectivity about the ‘polo-playing messes’, as he called them, and was unapologetic about making unfavourable comparisons between the Allied and German leadership where necessary. This approach annoyed a few, but won him respect from both the soldiers and the public who appreciated his honesty. Moreover, Moorehead was trusted by the commanders-in-chief, including Wavell and Montgomery, who took pains to discuss their strategy with him, giving him a unique perspective. The result is exceptional: a powerful immediacy, stemming from personal observation that no historian can hope to replicate, combined with a strategic overview and inside knowledge denied to most participants.
Born in Melbourne in 1910, Alan Moorehead began reporting for the Melbourne Herald. In 1936 he left Australia for London and the Daily express, which had a daily circulation of 4 million. As war correspondent in Cairo he created the despatches which turned him into the most well-known and respected correspondent of the war. He later wrote many more bestselling works including The White Nile and The Blue Nile, both previously published by The Folio Society. He also wrote the first biography of Field-Marshal Montgomery and a history of Gallipoli which won him election to the Royal Society of Literature. Moorehead suffered a stroke at the age of 56 which prevented him from speaking or writing, but he later published his collected essays under the title A Late Education with the help of his wife Lucy. He died in 1983.