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First Victory

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First Victory: Britain's forgotten struggle in the Middle East, 1941
Constable and Robinson, 2006

'This is a book which deserves to be widely read and should be required reading for those involved in the management and conduct of operations in the Middle East today.' Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, MC
'I...found the account of our operations fascinating.' His Grace the Duke of Wellington, KG., LVO., OBE., MC., DL
'Excellent book...Lyman reveals the fascinating story of the forgotten desert battles of 1941 that fundamentally changed the course of WWII.' Military Illustrated

The Oxford Times review
In (1941) Britain was still fighting for its life and, according to Robert Lyman, the Middle East was the key. In First Victory (Constable, £20), he follows his highly-rated book on the Burma campaign, Slim, Master of War, with a probing look at the war out of Cairo, which embraced several of today's hotspots – Iraq, Syria and Iran.

Lyman offers a valuable, provocative assessment of the military operations, challenging Churchill's famous description of North Africa being the first fruit of victory.

Colin Gardiner, 12 October 2006

Review by Sarantakes US War College
World War II is a much more ragged or multilayered conflict than World War I.  While the Great War was clearly a Eurocentric contest in origins and termination, the Anglo-German conflict was only one element, even if it was the central one, in the hostilities that came in the 1940s.  Germany and Japan were allies in about name only, and there were a number of peoples that attempted to take advantage of the United Kingdom’s troubles and preoccupation with the Nazi threat.  The origins of Britain’s disputes with Italy and Japan can be better understood in many ways as colonial wars than as part of some plot concocted in Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo. 

Efforts in India and Burma to overthrow British authority were clearly efforts designed to take advantage of the opportunities that the war offered.  Many of these conflicts were important in World War II only in the way that they connected back to the main European theater.  Such was also the case in the Middle East.  Robert Lyman examines what were essentially a series of individual wars that had little to do one with another in First Victory.  Of course, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Iran remain hot spots and make this book relevant to people other than historians.

Lyman, in a well-identified thesis, argues: “the contention of this book is that through the loss of Iraq, and the German capture or domination of Syria and Iran, Great Britain could well have lost the war in 1941.  The continuance of Britain’s strategic position in the Middle East was therefore crucial to her survival in 1941” (p. 2-3).  The reason: this region was the main source the British had for oil.  Had hostile parties cut off this source of fuel, it would have been difficult for the United Kingdom to continue the war with the United States still neutral.  His argument is quite sound and well-supported.

The British triumphed often with meager resources.  Had these campaigns lasted longer than a few days, the situation might have been much different.  The main reason for these quick campaigns, unlike those of today, is that the enemy lacked resources, was often trying to exploit the situation, and had no resolve to fight long and hard.

Lyman shows his experienced and nuanced judgments in this account.  A former British Army officer and biographer of William Slim, he gives his readers an even handed account of all the significant figures in his account.  Slim clearly emerges as a competent general, but in the clash over strategy between Winston Churchill and Sir Archibald Wavell in which the general clearly advocated policies that were wrong, he avoids painting Wavell as an incompetent which would have been easy given his removal from command. 

Lyman is likewise good at presenting the views of Charles de Gaulle fairly, which ran counter to those of Vichy, but also at times those of Britain and later the United States.  Many English-speaking historians have failed to really understand that there legitimate grounds for policy differences between the French and their Anglo-American allies.  The author is also good at presenting fair portraits of people like the Shah of Iran who ran afoul of the British during the war.

The book is based entirely on British sources.  Lyman’s ability to present the foreign perspective is the product of a good mining of the relevant literature on this region.   As a result, it is a solid, serious work that is accessible.  Many people other than just specialists will find this book of use and interest.  Highly recommended.

Nicholas Evan
Sarantakes US Army Command and General Staff College
Fort Gordon, Georgia USA

Westminster Bookshop review
It is commonly held that Montgomery's 1942 victory at El Alamein was the turning point in Britain's fortunes during the Second World War – that it was 'the end of the beginning' (Churchill). However, Robert Lyman reveals here how in the summer of 1941, beleaguered British forces put together a series of largely forgotten victories in Iraq, Syria and Iran that secured crucial supplies of oil and curbed dangerous German expansion in the region.

It's an exciting story of victories achieved against the odds – fraught negotiations between London, Cairo and New Delhi, hastily assembled troops and campaigns fought and won in harsh desert conditions. The siege of the RAF base at Lake Habbaniya in Iraq is a brilliant example of this, and forms one of the most exciting passages in the book. 1941 could have been the year in which Britain lost the war – Lyman reveals here how close we came.

The Westminster Bookshop, June 2006

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