War’s Nomads Cover

War’s Nomads

A Mobile Radar Unit in Pursuit of Rommel during the Western Desert Campaign, 1942-3

Frederick Grice, edited by Gillian Clarke and Colin Clarke

Casemate, Philadelphia, 2015, 240 pages

Book Review published on: June 14, 2019

With the backdrop of the North African Campaign against Germany in World War II, Gillian Clarke and Colin Clarke brought their father’s, Frederick Grice, personal account of mobile radar unit operations to life. In Grice’s firsthand account, he describes the grit, adaptation, and innovation in the use of newly developed radar technology used to aid British air efforts. War’s Nomads: A Mobile Radar Unit in Pursuit of Rommel during the Western Desert Campaign, 1942-3 begins with Grice as an older and academically accomplished soldier who joins the U.S. Army as an entry specialist. After predeployment training and preparation, he sets off with fellow soldiers by troopship on a four-month journey from England to Cairo. Grice’s description of life aboard the troopship punctuated the differences in living conditions and treatment of enlisted soldiers and officers, which by today’s standards would be unconscionable and would receive scorn on social media. He captures the camaraderie that forms amidst the routine of life and along the way, Grice took full advantage of stops and recorded his keen observations through his detailed and concise descriptions of Cape Town, South Africa, and Cairo. His descriptions and commentary seems suited for a traveler’s adventure, and the level of autonomy others and he had at each stop is surprising.

The second half of War’s Nomads, “Erk of the Desert,” covers combat actions taken by Unit 606, Air Ministry Experimental Station, as the ground-based mobile radar unit Grice was assigned to. However, Grice’s account of his reception into theater gives pause as he was left to his own devices to find his unit. From catching a train to stops in transit camps and lifts to various places along the way, Grice captures the uncertainty, chaos, and frustration as he tried to get to his unit for four days. (At the time, it was assumed that it was as an individual responsibility to get to their unit, wherever it might be.) When he finally arrived, his noncommissioned officer remarked, “Well, that’s the first I’ve heard of you … but make yourself at home. …”—an experience that many may relate to.

Grice’s own role on Unit 606’s twelve-man team was as one of the radar system’s operators, who provided navigation and direction-finding guidance to Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft to support forward landing strips as well as terminal guidance for RAF aircraft. While in this role, Grice captured the austerity of desert life that the twelve-member team endured as they moved from positions and encampments on their single truck. His keen eye for details captures his surroundings from living in and improving a dugout fighting position to the challenges of living on very limited supply with shortages of spare parts, water, fuel, and food. Grice’s humility and matter of fact descriptions of Unit 606 reflect his reluctance to make more of what he knew was an important but small contribution to a wider effort that helped enable air power’s effectiveness in the Western Desert Campaign.

A first person testimony, it serves as a reminder of the diversity of wartime experiences and common themes of the shared experiences and camaraderie formed at the edge of battle; the power of individual initiative and resilience in the face of privation; and finally, it weaves a small piece in the tapestry of World War II campaigns and narratives at the scale of an individual soldier.

Book Review written by: Col. Peter Im, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas