Published: 10 December 01
Air & Space Power Journal- Winter 2001
Desert Warriors: Australian P-40 Pilots at War in the Middle East and North Africa, 1941–1943 by Russell Brown. Banner Books (http://www.banner-books.com.au), 122 Walker Street, Maryborough, Queensland, 4650 Australia, 2000, 320 pages, approximately $49.00 (US).
It is always refreshing to see a book come along that has the ability to drastically change one’s perception of a significant historical event. Finally, there is a book dealing with the contributions of Australian pilots in North Africa during the middle stages of the Second World War. Although there have been many books dealing with this largely forgotten episode of military history, most of them deal with either a general explanation of the desert air war or, more likely, simply discuss it through either German or British eyes. This story of Australian aviators has certainly been decades in the making.
Russell Brown is a relative newcomer to the writing of aviation history. Although he has authored several magazine articles, with this book he has hit the proverbial home run at his first appearance at the plate. A retired schoolteacher from Australia, the author has completed a wonderfully researched and masterfully presented book that is certain to make an impact in the area of the desert air war. Desert Warriors deals primarily with the Royal Australian Air Force’s 3 and 450 fighter squadrons and with other Australian pilots flying in Royal Air Force fighter squadrons in North Africa and the Middle East. For those readers familiar with Fighters over the Desert, Hans Ring and Christopher Shores’s definitive work on the desert air war, Desert Warriors, follows a similar chronological format. Since Brown focuses strictly on the Australian contributions, however, there is understandably less information reported on a daily basis. This in no way detracts from the book but bolsters the author’s thesis by concentrating on Australian contributions. This, in turn, allows Brown to shed light on aspects of the desert air war, about which most people will likely have little or no knowledge.
In order to capture the spirit and intensity of this conflict, the author uses many primary sources, including original squadron operational records and pilot interviews. Very few original documents other than combat reports can give a reader the timely flavor of actual warfare, and Brown successfully uses these to great advantage throughout the book. Having studied the desert air war for years, primarily from the German side, I found it both refreshing and enlightening to see combat reports from Australian pilots in actual combat with the Luftwaffe. In addition to so much valuable primary reference material, the author has included 166 superb photographs. Coming from private collections, most of these have never before been published and are a wonderful testament to the Australian commitment in North Africa. Finally to be able to put faces to the names of men who fought in the desert is something that, in itself, makes this book a worthwhile study. Desert Warriors is also replete with 14 appendixes that cover aspects such as Australian aces, decorations, victory claims from each of the Australian squadrons, short biographies of some notable pilots, and 16 impressive P-40 color profiles painted by artist Juanita Franzi.
Perhaps the true significance of this book is Brown’s detailed and scholarly research, coupled with its excellent presentation. In many books and articles on the desert air war, pilots of the desert air forces, primarily Australian and South African, are often considered second rate. When we view them through our typical ethnocentric American eyes, we often want to downgrade their abilities in order to justify the apparent kills of their German counterparts. It is apparent that the Australian pilots had their fair share of “Stuka parties” and drew blood against the Luftwaffe on a regular basis. However, they are often incorrectly portrayed as hapless pilots forced to cower for safety in the defensive Lufbery Circle while hotshot Luftwaffe pilots had their way with them, shooting them down in droves time and time again. In our minds, how else could the top Luftwaffe aces have achieved the victories they claimed if their opponents were anything but substandard? Not only does this book demonstrate the quality, professionalism, and tenacity of pilots within the Royal Australian Air Force, but also it debunks the myth of natural German superiority. Although the Germans did have very successful pilots in North Africa, the author is able to compare some German claims to actual losses on several occasions, demonstrating the not-too-uncommon habit of German overclaiming. The author does this not to imply that German claims were widely distorted, admitting that overclaiming occurred on both sides, but to suggest that, on occasion, things were not as they necessarily seemed.
Without a doubt, Desert Warriors is a valuable contribution to the history of the North African campaign. It is by far the most important book written in years on this aspect of the Second World War. Although Brown is an Australian, there appears to be little or no bias in his reporting, and, as a student of the Luftwaffe in North Africa, I believe I would have spotted any unfair or critical bias immediately. It is about time this aspect of the desert war was brought to light, and the author has done an excellent job in presenting objective information. Because of this book, my respect for Australian aviators in the Second World War has grown immensely, and my hope is that, somewhere in South Africa, some writer is doing the same thing for the contributions of the South African air force pilots in this theater.
I highly recommend this book to anybody interested in the air war in North Africa and the Middle East. It is rare for me to stress something as a “must have” book, but Desert Warriors is just that. It would indeed be almost impossible to have a full and balanced understanding of the desert air war without this book as an indispensable reference. Since Desert Warriors is published in Australia, one can order it directly from the publisher’s Web site (see above) or from the only US distributor, Paul Gaudette Books in Tucson, Arizona, telephone (602) 791-3868.
Maj Robert F. Tate, USAFR
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.