Book Review: The Desert War (Ladybird) by James Holland

Book Review: The Desert War (Ladybird) by James Holland

One Star out of Five – Avoid

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Book Cover


This doesn’t happen often, but I am afraid I absolutely cannot recommend this book. I picked it up with high hopes to find an accessible treatment of the desert war written by a serious author, but unfortunately I was sorely disappointed. It has the air of a rush job, using limited and outdated sources by the looks of it (there is no bibliography) and it has substantial factual errors in it. The ‘further reading’ section seems to be a marketing section for the author, and cannot be taken seriously.

For the same money you can pick up a second hand copy of e.g. Jackson’s ‘Battle for North Africa’, and you’re far better off with that.


The best thing about the book are the illustrations, which are really nicely done, and bring the typical Ladybird style to World War 2.  They have a (good) comic book feel to them.

With that out of the way, when I picked up the book over a year ago I started reading it, and almost threw it into a corner, when the author accused the Italian navy of being “feckless”. Of course, no reason is given, and it appears to be just something thrown to the jingoistic target audience. But apart from this flawed assessment, there are also a number of factual errors. Some of more, some of less importance, but all of them easily avoided with even a minimal research effort. A selection below:

  • The surrender at Beda Fomm happened on 7 February, not 12 February, as claimed (presumably for effect, since this was the day Rommel arrived in Tripoli);
  • The prize at Beda Fomm were about 25,000 POW, over 100 tanks and over 100 guns.
  • it wasn’t two German divisions but less than one that reached Rommel in February 1941. The second division did not join until May.
  • There was no further Empire attack after Beda Fomm in North Africa that pushed back the Italians.
  • The diversion of Uboats into the Med was ordered in early September, well before the autumn supply crisis, and was not meant to ensure Axis supplies to North Africa, but rather threaten the Empire supplies into Tobruk.
  • At the battle of the Duisburg (BETA) convoy, two, not three Italian destroyers were sunk, and only one by Force K, the other by HM/Sub Upholder.
  • Operation CRUSADER is described in a way that makes it clear that the author doesn’t understand the operation, at all.
  • He invents a German tank push to Bardia prior to the ‘dash to the wire’.
  • He claims that a failure by the Italian motorised corps to join an attack on Tobruk on 5 December as linked to the decision by Rommel to withdraw. This is fantasy. There was an attack at Bir el Gobi, far to the south, which the Italian motorised corps could not reach. What happened on 5 December was that Rommel was informed that no supplies would be coming, and the German command chose to blame the failure of the attack at el Gobi on the Italians. They then prepared the retreat to the Gazala position.
  • There was no final assault on 7 December. There were local counterattacks with the aim to hold back advancing Empire forces.

The above covers the section of the war in the desert I am deeply familiar with and should give clarity on the amount of factual errors in the book.

Areas covered

The book covers the whole of the desert war, including the naval aspects. It is simply too much for such a short work, especially when it is not underpinned by solid research.

Room for Improvement

See above. There is room and a need for an accessible work on the Desert War. This, unfortunately, isn’t it.


Instead of spending money on this book, those interested in a general history of the desert war should pick up a used copy of Major General Jackson’s ‘Battle for North Africa 1940 – 1943’. Yes it’s dated, but it is a solid bit of writing, and you’ll come away learning more than you would from this effort. That’s the book I started on, and it is a good point to start.


The review is based on the paper version of the book. It was not provided for free and I have no commercial interest in the book.

Further Reading

Major General Jackson: The Desert War

Official Histories (online) on 

Relevant despatches by Wavell, Auchinleck, Alexander, and Cunningham on the London Gazette site.