Magazine article History Today

El Alamein, the People's Battle: Michael Paris Describes the Film Record of the North African Victory, and How the Footage Represents a Tour De Force in Terms of Wartime Documentary and National Effort

Magazine article History Today

El Alamein, the People's Battle: Michael Paris Describes the Film Record of the North African Victory, and How the Footage Represents a Tour De Force in Terms of Wartime Documentary and National Effort

Article excerpt

ON JUNE 10TH, 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France--`a mean skulking thing to do', wrote Harold Nicolson to his wife, Vita Sackville-West, and likened the Italians to those who `rob corpses on the battlefield'. But for Mussolini, hoping to extend his Mediterranean empire into Egypt and seize the Suez Canal, and turn the Mediterranean into an Italian lake, the timing was perfect. The British, demoralised by the collapse of France, and pre-occupied with the expected German invasion of the British Isles, were unlikely to be able to reinforce their small garrison in Egypt. In September Marshal Graziani's Tenth Army, over 200,000 men, cautiously crossed the Libyan frontier into Egypt, driving towards the Suez Canal--the War in North Africa had begun. It would last until May 1943 when Anglo-American forces captured Tunisia and destroyed Axis power in North Africa. For the first two years, the desert war was little more than a series of bitterly fought engagements that see-sawed back and forth across the Western Desert as both sides sought the advantage. Finally, at the third Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery began the offensive that would drive the Axis from Africa.

El Alamein was the turning point in North Africa: the victors, the British Eighth Army and its commander, Bernard Montgomery, are still fondly recalled icons in the memory of the Second World War. Images of the `Desert Rats' advancing through German minefields in the opening phase of battle; of Sherman tanks churning up clouds of dust as they speed westwards while Hurricanes of the Desert Air Force roar overhead, have become an integral part of the visual memory of the war. But why is El Alamein so clearly remembered? Certainly it was the first significant land victory achieved by British forces in the Second World War, and the first step in the campaign that liberated North Africa. It paved the way for the eventual invasion of the `soft underbelly' of Europe--Sicily and Italy--and the fall of Fascist Italy; but compared with later battles, El Alamein was a small affair, and fought a long way from Europe. However, the battle and the subsequent campaign was filmed as it happened by cameramen of the Army Film and Photographic Unit, and that footage was edited into one of the most effective, and widely seen, of all wartime documentaries, Desert Victory, released in 1943. But the film is much more than just a visual record, for it perfectly encapsulated the mood of the times, and it has enshrined El Alamein as the `people's battle' in popular memory--an enduring tribute to a nation in arms fighting a `people's war'.

The initial Italian invasion of Egypt in 1940 was repelled by a few divisions of British Middle East Command. By February 1941, reinforced units under the command of General Archibald Wavell had advanced 1,700 miles into the Italian colony of Libya, taking the port of Tobruk and over 114,000 prisoners. Hitler, unwilling to see his Italian ally humiliated, sent a tank division and air support (later expanded into the Afrika Korps) under the command of General Erwin Rommel to strengthen the Italian army. Rommel launched his offensive in April 1941 retaking Libya and driving the British back to the Egyptian border. Only Tobruk, garrisoned by battle-hardened Australians, held out. Churchill appointed General Auchinleck to North Africa, and the new commander unleashed his counter-offensive in December 1941, relieving Tobruk and pushing west as far as El Agheila. However, a new German attack, in May 1942, not only pushed the British back into Egypt but re-captured Tobruk as well. The British were now holding a forty-mile front bordering the sea, just east of the town of El Alamein. The resistance of the Australians at Tobruk had been the one bright spot in an otherwise depressing campaign. Two major British offensives had been defeated and the Afrika Korps was now just 60 miles from Alexandria--Egypt appeared to be about to fall into enemy hands. …

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