Authors: Steven Pressfield
WHAT FOLLOWS is a work of fiction, but its basis in reality is fact.
All details of the trucks and tanks are historically accurate, as are desert geography and place names, campaigns of the war and timing of battles, equipment, weapons, nomenclature and all wireless and operational protocols. All military units are real, with the exception of T3 Patrol and “the Regiment” of 22nd Armoured Brigade, which are fictional. Everything about Rommel's history and death is true. All incidents concerning the reconnaissance and outflanking of the Mareth Line in late 1942âearly 1943, excepting those involving T3 Patrol, actually happened.
Patrol designations and commanders of the Long Range Desert Group are historically true and their orders are as they were issued in fact. Where actual historical characters appearâJake Easonsmith, Paddy Mayne, Nick Wilder, Ron Tinker, to cite the more prominentâall actions that they are said to perform before and after the central patrol are exactly as the real individuals performed them. Other characters are composites or inventions.
Only men who do not mind a hard life, with scanty food, little water and lots of discomfort, men who possess stamina and initiative, need apply.
From the initial British Army Circular,
North Africa, summer 1940,
seeking volunteers for what would
become the Long Range Desert Group
WHEN my dad died, his closest friend came forward as a mentor and surrogate father to me. This was not without its challenges since Chapâhis full name was R. Lawrence Chapmanâlived in England, while my family's home was in Manhattan. Chap's profession was publishing, so he got to New York regularly on business; I remember him taking me to the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden every winter, in the days when the indoor track and field events were held in an arena so dense with cigarette smoke that you could barely see from one side to the other. Summers, I visited Chap and his wife, Rose, in London and at Rose's brother Jock's cottage at Golspie in Scotland. Chap and Rose had a stepdaughter, Jessica, who was exactly my age, and two sons, Patrick and Tom, a couple of years older. The four of us were inseparable.
Chap had lost his own parents when he was quite young, so he was sensitive to the needs of a boy without a father. He took me trekking and fly-fishing; he taught me how to brew a cup of tea and how to write a declarative sentence. Chap was quite a celebrated editor and publisher; it was not unusual to find writers like Harold Pinter and John Osborne sitting down to supper. Chap was also, though he never talked about it, a war hero. He had won a DSO for his service in North Africa during World War II. DSO stands for Distinguished Service Order. The only British decoration higher is the Victoria Cross, the equivalent of our Medal of Honor. I was too young to understand much of this then, but I was impressed all the same.
I remember Rose showing me a photo album once at their flat in Knightsbridge. There was Rose, circa 1939, looking as glamorous as Gene Tierney in
And young Lieutenant Chapman, as dashing as Tyrone Power. I squinted at yellowing snapshots of youthful Englishmen and New Zealanders of Chap's unit, the Long Range Desert Group, posing beside wilderness-rigged trucks armed with .30-caliber Brownings and twin .303 Vickers K machine guns. You could see the “sand channels” mounted on the vehicles' flanksâperforated steel tracks that the men used for extricating trucks stuck in the soft sand. Rose said that such patrols routinely crossed hundreds, even thousands of miles of waterless, petrol-less desert, where there was no mercy and no hope of rescue if anything went wrong.
Sometime in the early seventies, Chap began writing a memoir of this experience. I was eleven or twelve then; I remember Chap sending Jessica and me to the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane to look up Army records for him. The documents had only recently become declassified; there was a stamp on the first page of each that read
MOST SECRET TILL
Jessica and I got five pence apiece from Chap for copying these papers, which was big money in those days. Chap worked at home in his study, a tiny cubby littered with his war journals and diaries, correspondence with former comrades, maps of North Africa and operations reports in English and German. I was fascinated. I plagued Chap with question after question, most of which he was patient enough to answer.
It was not till the early nineties, however, when I became a historian myself that my thoughts returned seriously to Chap's memoir. I was visiting him and Rose in Scotland; Chap and I were playing the Struie golf course, next door to Royal Dornoch. I asked what had happened with the document. It was in a drawer at home, Chap said. He had finished it but never shown it to anyone except Rose. I asked if I could see it.
“No, no, it's a mess. Besides, I can't publish it.”
Chap expressed a number of reservations, largely about the personal nature of the material. He feared, he said, causing pain to the still-living widows and grown children of the men whose deaths he described in his pages. I could see that his own grief was deep and keenly felt. Still, as a writer, you can't let stuff like that stop you, and Chap knew it.
“Can you at least tell me what the book's about?”
“It's not even a book. Justâ¦I don't knowâ¦an account.”
“Nothing really. One patrol. Not even a successful one.”
I managed to drag out of Chap that the operation's objective had been to locate and kill Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the legendary Desert Fox.
Now I was really hooked. I pressed Chap to show me a few pages. He wouldn't budge. I accused him of being a chicken writer. He was exhibiting, I said, all the symptoms of publication terror that he always told me his own writers showed.
“C'mon, Chap, you can't be tough on them while letting yourself off the hook.”
“They're professional writers,” he said. “I'm not.”
Back in the States, I found myself unable to let go of curiosity about Chap's story. I began researching the era. The Long Range Desert Group, I discovered, was one of the first of those units that would come to be called “special forces.” It had been based in Cairo and at various oases in the Libyan desert; its missions were raiding and reconnaissance behind enemy lines, against the Italians and Rommel's Afrika Korps. The LRDG was small and secret. Rommel himself had declared that man for man it had done more damage to the Axis cause than any other outfit in the North African campaign.
On August 31, 2002, Chap had a heart attack. He was okay; he recovered quickly. But on Christmas Day two years later he had another. I flew over. I was getting worried. Rose never left Chap's side. Three nights after Christmas, Chap took her hand. He said he didn't think he would see the New Year. By ten-fifteen he was gone.
The funeral was at Magdalen College, Oxford. I was amazed at the turnout. Over four hundred mourners filled the cloister, including three Booker Prize winners, all of whom Chap had either edited or published.
The morning before I had left New York, a parcel had arrived from Rose.
Chap wanted you to have this. He said he won't be a chicken writer any more.
It was the manuscript.
I read it on the flight over, then twice again over the next three days. You have to be careful when you take in something like that, to evaluate it objectively and not get carried away by the emotion of the moment or by your personal affection for the writer. Still, I knew from the first page that this was special. It was all Chap, the best of him as I knew him, and other sides I'd never gotten a chance to know, including his love for Rose, which brought me to tears more than once. But best of all was its portrait of men and of the desert war. Chap's Englishmen and New Zealanders were by no means professional soldiers. They had not trained all their lives for war, as had many of their Axis enemies, yet they rose to the occasion when necessity demanded. Chap's own story was that of a civilian who, under exigency's law, embraced the virtues of war and was transformed by them.
Chap's memoir brought forward a second theme that was, to me, equally significant. This was the self-restraint, even chivalry, that distinguished the conduct of combatants on both sides throughout the North Africa campaign. Because the forces clashed in open desert far from civilian population centers, there was little if any of what we call today collateral damage. The flat, vacant waste, coupled with the extreme nature of the elements and the terrain, lent a sort of “purity” to the conflict. Machine-gunners routinely held their fire when enemy soldiers bailed out of disabled tanks. Stretcher bearers were permitted to dash into the open to evacuate the wounded. In frontline dressing stations, wounded men of Axis and Allied armies often received treatment side by side, on no few occasions from German and British medical officers working shoulder to shoulder. The leading exemplar of this code was Rommel himself. When orders from Hitler mandated the execution of captured British commandos, Rommel tossed the document into the trash. He insisted that Allied prisoners receive the same rations and medical care as he himself was given. He even wrote a book about the conflict called
Krieg ohne Hass (War Without Hate).
Memoirs of the North Africa campaign attest that, fierce and brutal as much of the fighting was, relations between individual enemies retained a quality of forbearance that seems, today, almost impossible to imagine.
This chapter is the introduction to Chap's memoir. The full document follows. It was my decision not to render the text into American English but to leave it in the mother tongue as Chap wrote it. I have edited it slightly for U.S. readers and have added a brief epilogue, whose aim is to bring up-to-date the lives and deaths of the officers and men Chap wrote about, since the time he completed his pages. To avoid using footnotes or a glossary, I have taken the liberty of blending into the text as unobtrusively as possible clarifications for such English-isms or shorthand as Chap occasionally employedâe.g., military acronyms such as KDG ( for the King's Dragoon Guards, an armored car regiment). Where period slang appears, I've tried to shape the surrounding text so that the meaning is clearâor at least decipherableâfrom the context. These alterations excepted, the final text remains as close to Chap's original as I could make it.