Peter Willett is best known for his role in the horseracing industry, but he had an earlier wartime career as an officer in the Queen's Bays, a former cavalry regiment that had converted to tanks, fighting in North Africa and Italy. This autobiography focuses on that military career, but does also cover the post-war racing career. The emphasis is on the author's personal experiences rather than a general history of events, so there are plenty of anecdotes and memories of individual moments, as well as detailed accounts of armoured warfare.
Willett fought at the battle of Gazala, during the defensive battles on the El Alamein line, and during the Second battle of Alamein. His unit then had a surprisingly long break out of combat, running from May 1943 at the end of the Tunisian campaign to May 1944 when it moved to Italy. It also missed the pursuit after El Alamein, when only a limited number of tanks could be supplied over the long desert roads. The desert battles are the main focus of the book,
Willett paints a picture of a unit that was generally well led, although he also reports a number of quite series failures of command. It is clear that the regiment was dominated by former public school boys, which gave it a distinctive tone. Willett is unusually willing to discuss the failings of his fellow officers - one was described as 'a beautiful officer, but … also extremely stupid'. Others who performed well in combat were less impressive in the post-war world, and again he was willing to discuss their failings.
I was surprised by just how seriously the post-war army took its' horseracing - Willett got invaluable experience for his later career by helping to run the racing scene after the end of the fighting in Italy. There is also an interesting chapter on his career in racing, to complete the picture.
Overall this is a rather entertaining description of life in a unit at the heart of some of the most significant events of the Desert War.
1 - Service Tradition in the Family
2 - In the Ranks
3 - The Road to a Commission
4 - The Road to the Desert
5 - The Gazala Line and El Alamein
6 - Second Alamein
7 - The End in Africa
8 - Interim Days
9 - Approach to War in Italy
10 - Coriano and Montecieco
11 - The End in Italy
12 - Post War
13 - The Racing Years
Author: Peter Willett
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military