Book Review – El Alamein and the Struggle for North Africa: International Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century

Jill Edwards (ed.), El Alamein and the Struggle for North Africa: International Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2012. Notes. Index. Pbk. pp. 237. £21.95

Reviewed by Phil McCarty, PhD Candidate, University of Wolverhampton

El Alamein

Professor Jill Edwards, Head of the History Department at the American University of Cairo, has compiled a collection of essays from fifteen international historians to mark the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein. This is Edwards’ second volume on the battle, following Al-Alamein Revisited: The Battle of Al-Alamein and Its Historical Implications published in 2000.[1] The volume certainly fulfils its remit in terms of the subtitle; British, American, Australian, German, French, Italian, South African, Egyptian and Greek historians have contributed.

El Alamein is a battle where myths are well-established in the popular mind and are nigh on imperturbable, despite half a century of re-evaluation since Corelli Barnett’s attack on the Monty myth in The Desert Generals.[2] There perhaps too many to list, but key are that solely Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery’s planning transformed a demoralised army and swept Rommel before it. This was something that Montgomery nurtured to the point of libel and Winston Churchill did not aver. Another is that an assertive Australian Prime Minister defied Churchill to withdraw two Australian divisions to defend the home country in the face of Japanese threat and, most pervasive of all, that Rommel was a military genius only foiled by lack of support from home and the dynamic change of command in August 1942. All are addressed in this volume.

There are twelve chapters in the book, the opening ones covering the forces of the Dominions and Empire plus the French, emphasizing how ‘international’ and indeed ‘coalitional’ the Desert Army was. Other key themes are the role of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean; the role and experience of Malta as a vital strategic hub; higher command in North Africa; the mythologizing of Rommel; modern attempts to map and preserve the geographical information of the battlefield and the experiences of the Egyptians behind the lines, especially in Alexandria.

In the main, this is a book where the actual battle itself is not represented in detail except in Glyn Harper’s chapter on the New Zealanders. The emphasis is on other operational and strategic factors. For operational narratives there are few better than Niall Barr’s Pendulum of War,Stephen Bungay’s Alamein and with Bryn Hammond’s recent El Alamein dealing admirably with the soldier’s perspective.[3] Indeed, the chapters on the South Africans and French almost go to pains to emphasize that their nations’ part in the battle was slight or not significant. James Jacobs writes that:

…the South Africans’ role was to play only a secondary role in this battle…. In comparison to other countries, the South African contribution was small… to be part of a larger team. (pp. 26-27)

Conversely, both Peter Stanley and Glyn Harper, writing on the Australians and New Zealanders respectively, suggest (Stanley expressly, Harper more by inference) that El Alamein has been eclipsed as a feat of arms in their respective nations’ popular imagination, despite its considerable contribution to nationhood mythology at the time. Remy Porte’s chapter on the Free French focuses more on the impact on the perception of its troops as an extension of the cause due to their performance at Bir Hakim during the Gazala battles in May.

In such a compendium some essays will stand out more than others, and an early one here is Alan Jeffrey’s ‘Training the Troops:  The Indian Army in Egypt, Eritrea and Libya 1940-42’. This detailed and cogent piece examines how the Indian Army took training and combat lessons seriously in Africa, especially after the arrival in command of the 4th Indian Division of Francis ‘Gertie’ Tuker from having been Director of Military Training in India. Tuker had been a prodigious producer of training notes and contributing to the development of doctrine. The Indian Army’s performance in East Africa had shown that sufficient and diligent training, with battle experience, led to capable units. When replacements had inadequate time to integrate and make good deficiencies the price was often paid; effectiveness was also blunted in many cases due to the piecemeal posting of units, which undid much of Tuker’s diligent preparation for the very issues needed to take on the Germans effectively. These would include infantry-armour co-operation, artillery co-ordination and desert movement. However, for the Indian formations, Montgomery’s arrival was not a benefit. Montgomery did not hold Indian formations in high regard, using them arguably inefficiently at El Alamein and rapidly discarding them from Eighth Army after the Tunisian Campaign where their mountain warfare experience told. However, does this mean that they were not to benefit from Montgomery’s reputation for training? Jeffreys suggests this was not necessary, as innovations from Indian training had already been incorporated into training schools in the Middle East. General Sir Claude Auchinleck had insisted in the formation of a Directorate of Military Training Middle East in early 1942, drawing from the Indian model.

Thus Auchinleck, Harding and others began the reorganisation of training and the issue of training material with a common tactical doctrine for the Middle East theatre [sic] before the great trainer, General Montgomery, took over command of the Eighth Army (p.49)

This chapter is a signal example of the new scholarship on Commonwealth and Empire armies in the Second World War.

A problem the Indians faced was that unlike the Australians and New Zealanders they had no “Blamey Charter” in that commanders could refer orders affecting their formations back to their home governments. This was especially true in cases where units would be broken up or moved to other, non-national formations.   Peter Stanley notes in his chapter, ‘The Part We Played in This Show’ that Auchinleck was constantly frustrated in his wish to redeploy brigades, and that Major-General Leslie Morshead  of 9th Australian Division was particularly forceful in this and Major-Generals Daniel Pienaar of the South Africans and Bernard Freyberg VC of the New Zealanders would also resist. This led to strained relations not only between the commanders, but also between nations, and operational breakdown through lack of trust. Stanley suggests that this reflected Auchinleck’s view that the brigade had become the ‘real tactical unit in the desert’, which he recorded in his correspondence with General Air Alan Brooke, however, the ANZACs and South Africans did not.  This tension would improve; the connection between Morshead and Major-General Douglas Wimberley and the affiliation of 9th Australian to 51st Highland Division was noted as one of ‘efficient and helpful mentors’ (p.65).

The chapter from Aldino Bondesan, Professor of Geomorphology at the University of Padua, ‘Between History and Geography:  The El Alamein Project – Research, Findings and Results’ is innovative. Italian academics and defence geographers have been mapping the Italian positions in the battle with Egyptian support. The chapter is heavy going in places for the non-geographer or the non-technically minded, but has three general lessons for all. First, even though the ground between the Alamein position and the Qattara Depression is still a restricted military zone, it is still subject to encroachment and loss due to development; second, that modern technical means, including satellite and orbital photography are invaluable for appreciation of positions and lastly that the Italian narrative is still perhaps underappreciated in English.

The pivotal role of Malta in Mediterranean strategy features significantly in Nick Hewitt’s chapter, ‘Silent Service: The Royal Navy and Desert Victory’ and ‘Feeding the Fortress’ by Thomas Scheben. Hewitt lays his case early; that without sea control of the Mediterranean, El Alamein may not even have happened, and that having Malta astride the sea lines of communication was critical. He also seeks, with some success, to regain the reputation of the Italian Navy. It fought well with often-inferior craft, as Benito Mussolini sought to preserve better units as a political bargaining chip and reminder of Italy’s maritime status. The convoy battles feature prominently in each chapter, as do the efforts to maintain the shortest supply routes to the Axis forces on the North African littoral. Hewitt describes this predominantly a battle for sea control, whereas Scheben prefers to suggest a battle for airfields, ‘In a sense, Mediterranean battles were battles for airfields’ (p. 154).  Both agree, however, that Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s declaration that Malta had been neutralised in May 1942 was a considerable error, as Luftwaffe diversion to the Eastern Front would not be replaced. The bombing of Malta would relent, and the Royal Air Force could bring more effort to bear on Erwin Rommel’s sea lines of communication. Scheben’s chapter is also very well researched on the maintenance of the civil population on Malta under the severest pressure, and he examines the governmental response in some detail. Of the two chapters, Hewitt’s is perhaps the weakest in terms of overall premise (if one accepts the ‘forgotten’ role of the Royal Navy) and by being supported solely by sparse, secondary sources.

Antulio Echevarria’s chapter, ‘The Highest Rule: Rommel as Military Genius’ is a refreshing corrective. He uses Clausewitz’s criteria that true military genius was a balance between reason and passion, with the vital factor being that these be held in balance. Although commended for his steadfastness, intelligence and undoubted personal courage, the author contends that Rommel was a high-risk subordinate, regularly disregarding orders from higher authority but conversely expecting complete obedience from his commanders. One factor regularly held to compare Rommel favourably against British commanders before Montgomery, his readiness to intervene personally and lead from the front, was a style becoming less relevant under modern conditions, more like a 19th century commander spurring  the troops onwards personally. He suggests that after Gazala in May, Rommel was on the wane. Paying little heed to the moral or material concerns of his troops overall and focussing on the vanguard to the exclusion of many pressing issues, he was also ready to shift blame downwards. Niall Barr’s chapter, ‘High Command in the Desert’ will be familiar in its construct to readers of Pendulum of War. It is one of the strongest chapters in the book, seeking to find balance between the simplistic calculus of Auchinleck bad; Monty good. Auchinleck’s distance, both physically and in a sense morally, from his troops and his heavy reliance on Eric Dorman-Smith are rightly criticised, but his conduct of First Alamein and subsequent plans to defend against advance to the Delta are lauded as proof of his being an original and capable thinker. Monty, however, did possess the greater sense of morale, and his remodelling of the staff system, especially through his effective use of Freddie de Guingand with key staff proved vital. An interesting suggestion is that whilst Churchill was determined to remove Auchinleck, the somewhat ascetic reception he received with none of Churchill’s expected comforts, possibly damned him before any case was made.

The last substantive chapter, by two Egyptian historians, looks at society in Alexandria during the war. Whilst of considerable interest in how it examines the ‘wartime spirit’ of an extraordinarily cosmopolitan city in its support to the war effort, its contention that the self-evacuation of the city by wealthy foreigners to safer areas lit a self-examining spark in the populace leading to the 1952 revolution and the rise of Nasser is perhaps a stretch.

There are some faults in this volume; more detail on the desert air war, a separate chapter, perhaps, is an omission. In places, slightly more judicious editing would eliminate repetition of simple points. In general, there are few surprises for the experienced reader, but the innovative chapters and an overall sense of balance in argument, this is not a volume drawn up along deliberately contentious lines, make this a very useful addition to the bookshelf.

Citation: Phil McCarty, ‘Review of Jill Edwards (ed.), El Alamein and the Struggle for North Africa: International Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 3 June 2013

You can download a copy of this review here.

[1]Jill Edwards (ed.) El-Alamein Revisited: The Battle of Al-Alamein and Its Historical Implications (Cairo: AUC Press, 2000).

[2] Corelli Barnett, The Desert Generals (London: William Kimber, 1960).

[3] Niall Barr, Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004); Stephen Bungay, Alamein (London: Aurum Press, London 2002); Bryn Hammond, El Alamein: The Battle that Turned the Tide of the Second World War (Oxford: Osprey, 2012).


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