When the Church Bells Rang

By Mallinson, Allan | The Spectator, August 3, 2002 | Go to article overview

When the Church Bells Rang


Mallinson, Allan, The Spectator


ALAMEIN

by Jon Latimer

Murray, L25, pp. 400, ISBN 0719562031

This year is the 60th anniversary of the battle of Alamein. The name may not quite have the resonance of Trafalgar or Waterloo, but at El Alamein we beat the Germans in a stand-up fight, saving Egypt, the Suez Canal and the Middle East's oil. And it was Rommel we beat too. Thus is the battle in the pantheon of great victories, for as Churchill wrote, `Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.'

This reading of history is, however, flawed. So much about the battle is carefully crafted myth. Despite Correlli Barnett's seminal The Desert Generals, published over 40 years ago, and others which have followed in like vein, the image persists of, before Alamein, a beaten, demoralised British Eighth Army being galvanised by the arrival of Lieutenant-General Bernard Law Montgomery, the battle itself then going strictly according to Monty's Master Plan, with the Desert Rats at last under command of an incomparable general.

What is true without doubt is that the second battle of Alamein, in October 1942, was one of the hardest - if not the hardest - set-piece battles fought on the Allied side, and that afterwards the Montgomery star was firmly in the ascendant, eventually eclipsing that of every other British general. But was Alamein the turning point that Churchill described? Did Montgomery find a whipped army, shake it up and then, with unique mastery of operational art, turn the tables on Rommel, the unbeatable Desert Fox? Was the battle even necessary from a strictly military point of view?

Jon Latimer perhaps wisely leaves the first and last questions essentially unexplored. Barnett and others have already had their say. What we have instead is an outstanding study of the battle itself, carefully situated and explained, clearly and dramatically described, superbly illustrated and mapped, and showing a real understanding of sometimes arcane factors like logistics and the elements of unit morale. Latimer does so too with the advantage of what we now know of Ultra (the special signal intelligence source - the Enigma machine decrypts) and the diaries of the then CIGS, Field-Marshal Sir Alan Brooke. Alamein is an intricate portrait of Eighth Army before and during the battle; we are even told what tunes the pipers in the Highland regiments played as they advanced.

Above all, he lays into the myths, one of the most enduring of which is the cowardly ineffectiveness of the Italians:

For too long there has been a fatuous contempt for Italian arms in Anglophone countries, largely as a result of wartime propaganda. The truth is that Italian soldiers were tough and hardy, and on innumerable occasions they fought as bravely as any soldiers in the world. But the Italian record in adapting operational concepts to technology was almost uniformly disastrous. In both the Army and Navy, doctrine inhibited the adoption of new technology; but in the Air Force the absence of doctrine had the same effect. All three services suffered from intellectual rigidity and lack of interest in developments elsewhere, and combat came as a profound shock.

In any case, to sniff at Italian fighting spirit demeans the British achievement at Alamein, where half the Axis casualties were Italian. Rommel himself had no doubts. He could easily have blamed his reverses on an unreliable ally, but of the Ariete division, for example, he wrote, `We always asked them to do more than they possibly could; and they always did. …

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