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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Wednesday 21 September 2022

Lions of the Desert

 This book is Samuel Marquis's take on the Western Desert campaign in WW2. Technically it is historical fiction, although I would describe it as 'faction'. He tries to stick to the historical story while inserting dialogue.

The backdrop is the Western Desert campaign from the arrival of Rommel and the Afrika Korps, to the Tunisian finale. However, there is a focus on the creation of the SAS by David Stirling, including their daring raids in the rear of Axis lines and Operation Condor. This was the German spy mission to Cairo, which has been the subject of many books and films. The best known is probably Ken Follett's, The Key to Rebecca, (made into a 1989 TV movie) and Len Deighton's, The City of Gold. There have also been memoirs published by the key players, including Major A.W. Sansom, the head of British Field Security in Cairo (I Spied Spies, 1965), and Johannes Eppler, the German spy in the Operation Condor affair translated as Operation Condor: Rommel’s Spy.

All of these accounts are significantly inaccurate. In some cases the authors embellish their role, and in others they relied on those accounts. Other interesting participants include Anwar el Sadat, the Egyptian Army officer, nationalist, and later President of Egypt. As the author says, the Condor story needs no embellishment. The real-life protagonists, while admittedly more prosaic than their highly fictionalised doppelgängers, are still fascinating in their own right. The author also has the benefit of the declassified files, which were released in 2006.

He tells the story through the eyes of six of the main historical figures. Lieutenant Colonel David Stirling, founder of the SAS. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of the legendary Afrika Korps, who nearly succeeded in driving the British out of Egypt. Then the more exotic figure of Egyptian Hekmat Fahmy, the renowned belly dancer, regarded as a Mata-Hari-like German agent in previous accounts but a more intriguing and ambiguous character in real life. Then the on-the-ground protagonists, Major A.W. “Sammy” Sansom and Johannes Eppler, aka Hussein Gaafar, the notorious, if incompetent, German spy of Operation Condor. Finally, Colonel Bonner Fellers, the U.S. military attaché in Cairo, who was privy to critical Allied secrets in the North African theatre and inadvertently played an important role in intelligence-gathering activities for both sides in the campaign.

The historical afterword is somewhat longer than most works of historical fiction. He presents the true historical legacy and ultimate fate of the seven primary historical figures in the book. Cairo was the proverbial 'nest of spies' in WW2, and I have read some of these files in the National Archives for my own research. As is often the case, the historical facts can be as fascinating as fiction. This book bridges the gap very well.

The Matilda tank in 15mm.

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