Reporting the Desert War

Richard Knott


For the war correspondents of World War 2, life was uncomfortable, exhausting, and frequently mobile.  Alan Moorehead of the Daily Express, for example, estimated that in one year, he travelled more than 30,000 miles.  All this for a man who hated flying.

Most war correspondents were men.  When Eve Curie, the daughter of the discoverer of radium, arrived in the Libyan desert in November 1941 as a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, she was the only woman for some three hundred miles in any direction.  War reporters endured intense heat by day and bitter cold in the desert nights, as well as sandstorms, fleas, sand-flies, mosquitoes and scorpions.  They also had to face the wary suspicion of British army commanders.

At least the process of writing seemed easier in the desert, maybe because there were so few distractions.  It was a straightforward existence with clear priorities: sleep and food; keeping warm at night; finding news, not getting lost; finding transport.  They were expected to fend for themselves and ‘meals’ often comprised just bully beef and biscuits, bread and margarine.   Drinking was not usually excessive, perhaps a few companionable whiskies in the darkness.

Despite the hardship, the desert could feel like paradise: the clarity of the light, perhaps, or the aching silence; or those occasions when fortune smiled, for example when the correspondents were able to exchange a damp tent for a few nights in a sumptuous coastal villa abandoned by the Italians, enjoying its shady lawns, bougainvillaea, fine wines in the cellar, open fires, and, best of all, hot baths.

Correspondents were invariably worried that news was breaking far away, the action happening somewhere else.  They worried too about despatches not getting through to London or New York, or even Cairo.  They wrote their reports from the desert perched on the backs of lorries, on beaches, leaning against gun emplacements, under the awnings of tents.  Stories were often written at night in flickering candlelight, or under hurricane lamps.   Only a sudden ‘flap’, perhaps triggered by the rapid approach of German tanks, stopped the chattering typewriters of these diligent, brave and steadfast men.  From the desert they eventually crossed the Mediterranean to follow the war into Sicily, through Italy, Normandy, Paris and Brussels to the final victory at Lüneburg Heath.  For many of them that day in May 1945 signalled the end of a journey begun in Spain, reporting that country’s civil war nearly a decade before.

Richard Knott is the author of ‘The Sketchbook War’.  His new book ‘The Trio’, to be  published by the History Press in October, tells the story of three great war correspondents, Alan Moorehead, Christopher Buckley and Alexander Clifford.