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Cyril Joly
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
This is a novel but is more the biography of a young officer in the Desert. Joly served with 2 RTR and the book is basically their story with some elements from other actions included. It is a very personal story with Joly’s thoughts and deeds very much to the fore.

The story opens in 1940 with the first skirmishes with the Italian army and runs through to the surrender of all Axis forces in North Africa in Tunisia.

Joly describes the actions very well, the initial glee when up against the Italians to horror when facing the Germans but finally in the resignation of hardened soldiers as they learn to defeat the Germans. Written in six parts the books details the trials and tribulations of 7th Armoured and the thoughts of a junior officer during these periods. My main issue is that the story really remains within Joly’s tank. He is a Troop Leader then Squadron Commander but apart from noting when tanks were hit or put out of action he almost ignores anything not affecting his particular tank. Especially as a Squadron Commander he had the chance to discuss how he lead the tanks but it is almost as though once the engine started in the morning that was it and other tanks did not come in to the story. I know that is not the way he would have operated – he wouldn’t have lasted long if he had – but it does give that perception.

As a young subaltern, fresh to the desert he is apprehensive but willing to learn. Losses were high and replacements constant. He describes how his own tank is knocked out so he goes to his Tp Cpl’s tank and kicks him out to take over that tank and carry on the battle. This happened several times, even when he was a Sqn Command and he chucked a Troop Leader out of his tank after Joly’s tank had been knocked out and the Troop Leader had no tanks left in his Troop. The Troop Leader’s main concern was Joly was driving off with his bedding roll! At the start there was ‘chivalry’ shown between tank crews with crews shot out of tanks being left alone to make their way off the battlefield. As the war went on this stopped and crews on the ground were legitimate targets, for both sides.

The frustrations felt by the tank crews is well described. Sent in to battle time after time but in piecemeal numbers which meant that the British were not using the strength of their armour allowing the Germans to isolate and destroy large elements bit by bit. This left the crews angry, frustrated and losing confidence in their higher command. Eventually, having been pushed back to El Alamein the tactics iused by the Allies changed and the armour started to be used as a strong, united punch which was able to take the \Germans on at their own game. Joly does not mention names of the Commanders, it is a novel after all, but as anyone who has studied the was in the Western Desert will know, it is not difficult to work out who he is talking about.

Joly’s own journey was as Troop Leader, young man learning his trade ‘on the job’, working well with his Squadron Commander. The Sqn Commander is promoted and given command of a tank regiment and asks Joly to go with him as his Adjutant. A change is role and one in which Joly learns about the running of a regiment other than just the fighting. Soon after though, casualties change things again and Joly, now a senior Capt is promoted to Major and given a Squadron. To paraphrase our naval chums “Give me a long war and a bloody one…………..”

Life in a tank in the desert continues, long days without proper food and sleep, confused battles, lack of leadership from higher command and a German army whose tactics and tanks are superior. Joly makes the point of getting to know his tank crew intimately, what they are like, what they think and as he puts it, will take a bit more back from them than he would for the rest of the squadron; then his tank is knocked out and he moves to a new crew that he knows very little about. He acknowledges his reactions to the new crew and tries to get to know them better, just to lose to another crew. The changes must have been horrendous and difficult in maintaining his own personal morale, which dipped really seriously just prior to 1st Battle of Alamein. A new Army Commander brought a new ethos to the Desert Army – not more withdrawals. Music to Joly’s ears.

In the preparation and reorganisation Joly is given another job – he is sent back to Brigade HQ as Brigade Major. Quite surprised by the change Joly has to learn a completely new role. No longer dealing with his men but with Regiments and supporting arms he settles in to this learning to work with and support his Brigadier. When going in to battle he no longer commands the tank but is part of the Brigadier’s crew working the rear link radio. Again a hugely different role but an extremely busy one. During one part of the battle his Brigadier is wounded and a new Brigadier comes in which on hearing that he is losing the man he has learned to work with Joly is delighted to find his old Squadron then Regimental Commander is now the Brigadier. The partnership is rejoined yet again.

And this brings us to the last part of the story, post El Alamein to Tunisia. One of the shortest chapters as the strain, while still there is that of an army going forward, not retreating so Joly does not have a lot to say.

The list of battles in the book is the story of the war in the Western Desert: Beda Fomm, El Aghelia, Tobruk, Benghazi, El Adam, Halfaya Pass, Alam Halfa, Ruweisat Ridge, El Alamein, Tri[oli, Mareth – and they were only the main battles, plenty of patrolling, small skirmishes and plenty of casualties.

These are the thoughts of Joly, written just after the war and still fresh in his mind. This is his story, not that of the Desert Rats, he was but a small part in this whose over riding fact was he survived, unlike so many. Joly left the army after the war as a Lieutenant Colonel and an MC, which he does not mention in the book. This book covers the whole spectrum of the war in N Africa for 7th Armoured. I would like to know what his role after leaving Africa was but the story ends with Victory over the Deutsches Afrikakorps.

4 Mr Mushroomheads.

Take These Men Pen & Sword edition
Much cheaper than the Amazon edition
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