The Hunt for Zerzura
By Saul Kelly
A study of the true story behind The English Patient
This is a study of the true story behind The English Patient, one of the least known and most extraordinary episodes of World War II.
In the 1930s, the Zerzura Club (named after a lost oasis in the Libyan desert) met once a year for dinner at the Cafe Royal in London. Ostensibly, its members were cosmopolitan adventurers indulging a craze for desert travel by motor car and aeroplane, and searching for the lost oases and ancient cities of a vanished civilization. In reality they were mapping the desert for military reasons, marking vital wells and checking terrain.
The Club's members were drawn from countries that would soon be enemies, and fellowship masked a vicious rivalry. Mussolini hoped to make Egypt the centrepiece of a new Italian empire, but the British - for whom the Suez Canal was strategically vital - were determined to hold onto that country. When war broke out in 1939, Ralph Bagnold founded the Long Range Desert Group to spy on and disrupt the Axis powers' advance on Cairo under Rommel, while his fellow club member Count Almasy tried to spirit the Egyptian Chief of Staff out of Cairo, and succeeded in inserting German spies. Both of them were using knowledge and desert craft drawn from the hazardous hunt for the Zerzura Oasis, where each had deceived the other about his true purpose.
In telling this story, Saul Kelly draws on interviews with survivors as well as previously unknown documentary material in Britain, Italy, Germany, Hungary and Egypt. His book reads like a thriller by John Buchan or Frederick Forsyth - with one key difference: it is true.
Saul Kelly, who is a lecturer at King's College London (Joint Services Command and Staff College), specialises in the history of the Great Powers in North Africa. He is the author of 'Cold War in the Desert' and 'Whitehall and the Suez Canal', which Douglas Hurd called 'admirable'.
- Other details
- Publication date:
19 Jun 2003
- Page count:
Starts with a fairy tale, becomes a nightmare and ends up as the stuff of fiction — Anthony Sattin, Sunday Times
Kelly has a superb cast, wide canvas and great plot and his writing lives up to them — Andrew Roberts, BBC History