Centre for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies

Britain and the Desert War, 1940-1943: A Cultural History

Professor Martin Francis

This is the first cultural history of the British war effort in North Africa between 1940 and 1945, and brings together two traditionally quarantined fields of study: the history of race and empire in modern Britain and the history of Britain’s participation in the Second World War.  Despite the fact that the Second World War was almost immediately followed by the dismantling of Britain’s empire overseas, narratives of empire and decolonization have rarely been placed in dialogue with the narrative of social and cultural change in Britain during the war. Indeed some authors (notably Paul Gilroy in his Postcolonial Melancholia, 2002) have argued that an unhealthy preoccupation with Britain’s 'finest hour' during the Second World War has served, since 1945, to prevent Britain from acknowledging the trauma of the end of empire.  By contrast, I argue that empire (and its eventual demise) was intrinsic to how Britain experienced, and comprehended, the Second World War. By focusing on the war in North Africa, I believe this imperial dimension to the war can be more easily exposed to public view and scholarly scrutiny. 

Indian Soldiers North AfricaThe British army’s campaigns against German and Italian forces in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia in 1940-1943 accounted for the greater part of the total British war effort during the Second World War.  However, the Desert War has been misrepresented in both postwar popular memory and in most historical accounts.  First, it has been characterized as essentially a European war, which, while it took place in Africa, involved fighting with European weapons against a European enemy.  Second, the fact that many of the classic military encounters took place in an apparently vast, empty terrain has led to an assumption that this was a uniquely 'civilized' war, characterized by chivalry towards opponents and an absence of atrocities against civilians.  My study will call into question both of these assumptions.  I will argue that the Desert War consistently operated within an imperial rubric.  Far from being a sideshow to the war against Nazi Germany in Europe, a more globalized (and chronologically extended) perspective on the Desert War reveals its origins in a longer-term competition between two colonial powers (Britain and Italy, the latter making up the majority of Axis troops in the region, even after the arrival of German forces under Field Marshal Rommel in 1941) to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of a third imperial entity, the Ottoman empire.  The conflict in North Africa was also intertwined with the growing viability of both Arab nationalism and Zionism, two movements that were to contribute to the eclipse of British dominion in the region within a decade.

Moreover, the British Army in North Africa was a genuinely imperial force, with many of its most famous commanders products of Ireland (rather than mainland Britain) and a high proportion of its men drawn from the white dominions (especially New Zealand and South Africa) and India.  Those Britons who served in North Africa often told their stories through a refurbishing of the imperial adventure tradition, while their attitude to the peoples and cultures of the region where they were fighting were marked by that ambivalent matrix of allure and revulsion which had been at the heart of nineteenth-century orientalist visions of the Levant.  In addition, despite their absence from the established literature, the Desert War profoundly touched the lives of the indigenous peoples of North Africa.  Contemporary desert war narratives (real and fictional) regularly featured the Bedouin and Senussi peoples of the Western Desert, while the war also encompassed the urban, cosmopolitan cultures of several major cities such as Cairo, Alexandria, Benghazi, Tripoli and Tunis.  British attitudes to these populations often revealed a racism and xenophobia which makes nonsense of the desert war being (to appropriate the title of one popular history) a 'war without hate'.