El Alamein-The Battle That Turned the Tide of the Second World War

By Paul Robinson 15 Mar 2013 0

?Here we will stand and fight, there will be no further withdrawal.  I have ordered that all plans and instructions dealing with further withdrawal are to be burnt, and at once.  We will stand and fight here.  If we can?t stay here alive, then let us stay here dead.? (General Montgomery to his senior commanders shortly after taking command of the Eighth Army).

The battle of El Alamein that took place in North Africa in November 1942 must rank as one of the most well-known battles of the Second World War.  This is because it is often seen as a major turning point in the war; also it involved two iconic military formations-the Afrika Korps and the Eighth Army.  However it probably achieves its profile from the perception of the battle as a clash between two of the most famous field commanders of the time-Rommel and Montgomery!

It is interesting therefore that in his preface the book?s author, Bryn Hammond, says that he hopes his book ?goes beyond the ?Rommel versus Monty? approach?.  He goes on to say that ?there are other ways to make sense of the battle?.  Therefore this offering from Osprey Publishing?s general military history output (rather than say one of its more high profile paperback series eg Campaign or Men at Arms) looks from the beginning to be providing something different on a battle that has already had many thousands of words written about it!

The book starts with a review of what brought the armies of the Axis (Italy and Germany) and the British, Commonwealth and Dominion troops (India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) to battle around an otherwise insignificant railway halt to the west of the capital of Egypt.  The author thus takes us back to the overwhelming defeat of the Italian Army by O?Connor?s Western Desert Force; the introduction of German forces led by Rommel to support their allies and the arrival of Claude Auchinlek as CinC of all British forces in the Middle East (NB for ease of reference and with apologies to all concerned I?ll use British in this review to refer to all the nationalities on the Allied side).

However as the author said in his introduction this account focuses not on the generals.  Clearly their decisions and the pressures they were under (for example fuel and supplies in Rommel?s case and nagging from Churchill for attacks to be made in the case of the British commanders) are part of the story.  But the focus is on what led to the make up and operational and tactical methods of the Eighth Army in the lead up to El Alamein and thus how the battle itself was fought.  So we have a mixture of narrative on the various operations undertaken by the British forces and what went right and wrong.  For example: the failure of infantry and armoured formations to co-operate and co-ordinate or the influence of new equipment, for example the massive impact of the introduction by the British of the 6 pounder anti tank gun.  Also the influence to new tactics is discussed such as the use, on the British side, of centralised control of artillery.  Time and time again this provided a weight of fire that stopped Axis attacks dead in their tracks (and this type of centralised artillery control became a very important aspect of operations later in the war).  Of course the impact of the leadership of the two ultimate protagonists, Rommel and Montgomery is discussed; Rommel?s failure to properly take into account the logistical difficulties his troops faced and Montgomery?s eccentricities alongside his ability to motivate the ordinary soldier.  But these are not a major part of the book and form part of the narrative where necessary

Within this narrative we have first hand accounts from those that took part.  What is interesting is the variety of accounts used.   These range from the sage advice of Squadron Leader Billy Drake of the Western Desert Air Force: ?Airfields were very nasty.  You only did one attack and never, never a repeat attack because that?s where everyone got killed.? to the British tank man Alf Flatlow describing the effect of the Benzedrine tablets many of them had taken: ?By now we had taken our second and third doses of ?pep? tablets and I was feeling very queer-I suffered in a slight way from hallucinations. ??..We all wished we hadn?t taken the darned things?.   These accounts are nicely placed within the broader overview of the text to remind the reader what it was like at the sharp end of battle.  Overall the writing is crisp and moves along at just the right pace for the reader to properly absorb and assess the author?s comments and arguments.

The text is supported as with most books of this type by two sets of black and white photographs.  These show a mix of some of the military personalities and items of military hardware.  Whilst a number of these images are familiar I have to say that an excellent job has been undertaken to present some fresh photographs that don?t just regurgitate the ?usual suspects?.  Both sides are fairly evenly represented and we have a spread of military equipment from the British 2-pounder anti-tank portees through Italian Semovente assault guns to the infamous German eighty-eights!   The selection of photographs does elevate this part of the book from what one might call an expected level of filler to a genuinely useful contribution to the book that adds to the written word in a valuable way.  There are also a few maps which are individually clear so no complaints there but I thought one or two more may have been helpful in giving a clearer picture for those unfamiliar with the North African campaign.

At the back of the book we have the Order of Battle fro the Eighth Army as of 23 October 1942.  This gives the composition by brigade down to battalion level and includes the various  Army and Divisional troops plus artillery and engineer units.  It also has a breakdown of the Western Desert Airforce by Squadron and includes the aircraft operated by each squadron.  This information is really useful for any wargamers wishing to recreate the operations described in the book.  There is also an excellent glossary of terms at the back for those that don?t know their Begleitkommando from their Regia Marina!

The book definitely views the campaign from a British perspective.  And whilst the account isn?t biased, you need to look elsewhere for a more evenly balanced version of events.  Having said that the author does take time to point out that the very old cliché about the standard of Italian troops during the Second World War and the North African campaign in particular is to a large extent untrue.  We have here plenty of examples of the courage of the Italian tank men; especially later in the campaign when their tanks were becoming increasingly obsolete in the face of the Grants and Shermans of the British.  Also the Folgore parachute division fought with skill and determination!

Overall a good book.  I have read reasonably widely over the years on the North African Campaign and found this book provided a refreshing perspective.  I think it would manage to satisfy an old campaigner like myself as well as a reader new to this theatre of operations.

Available now in hardback from Osprey Publishing, normal price £18.99/$24.95 (ISBN 9781849086400)

Review written by: Paul Robinson

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