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John Bierman and Colin Smith. The Battle of Alamein: Turning Point, World War II. New York: Viking, 2002. xvii + 478 pp. Illustrations, maps, acknowledgements sources, chronology, bibliography, index. $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-670-03040-6.

Reviewed by Thomas J. Mayock, Retired Military Historian.
Published by H-Levant (January, 2003)

A Last Hurrah

Bierman and Smith are veteran British newspapermen, well-versed in the history of the Middle East, and who still live in Cyprus. The present work, under a different title (Alamein: War Without Hate), appeared in England last year in time for the sixtieth anniversary of the famous battle. The subtitles "War without Hate" and "Turning Point, World War II," along with the catchphrase "last hurrah," define their work well. The book is dedicated to the dwindling survivors, British, Commonwealth, German, and Italian, of the Desert War with whom they have had numerous interviews. The overall picture of the campaigns presented to readers is designed as a backdrop for the accounts of the veterans' often harrowing experiences.

Let us say at once that the authors succeed admirably in their intent. They write well and neutrally along with a great instinct for detail. All the while, they manage to sustain interest for a diverse audience of veterans, buffs, and scholars in describing the long, back-and-forth campaigns of Wavell, Auchinleck, and, finally, Montgomery.

The book opens with an account of a veterans' four-day reunion at the Rommel Barracks near Ulm, attended by survivors of both sides, including a delegation of unrepentant admirers of Mussolini. The authors use this description to set the moral and historical overtones and focus of the book. An endpiece, entitled "Requiem," describes the war cemeteries at Alamein and reinforces that focus.

Because such a study naturally concentrates on the military antagonists, there is little discussion on the Egyptians whose territory was the original bone of contention, let alone the Senussi and other Libyans who eventually found themselves liberated by His Majesty's forces.

The idea that this war was conducted in a sportsmanlike spirit--ohne Hass (without hate)--gains a priori credence from the fact that a large number of participants believed it. Totally lacking in Africa were the killing of Jews and mistreatment of prisoners that disfigured German campaigns in Eastern Europe. Libya and the Western Desert had few civilians and very few Jews. Rommel was free from interference from the SS and, although mildly antisemitic himself, he had no interest in anti-Jewish activities.[1]

Rommel consistently projected an image of a warrior-sportsman. He might have taken umbrage when the British unsportingly tried to assassinate him.[2] Instead, he expressed surprise that they would think to find his headquarters so far in the rear. Rommel also sent his personal chaplain when they buried the leader of the commandos, the son of a British admiral, with full military honors. Churchill went so far as to publicly compliment him, but the British eventually found it wiser to play down Rommel's popularity, especially since Goebbels had been using him as a propaganda asset.

In the conduct of the war, the British responded in kind to Rommel's example. There were few complaints that the laws of war were violated by either side while there were many instances of thoughtfulness and consideration. The authors do not dwell on the complaints.

The passage of years has diminished the reputations of the great figures of the Desert War, yet Rommel's image has lost little. The reason, in part, is due to the fact that he died early (committing suicide when he was suspected of complicity in the July 1944 attempt on Hitler) and, in part, because he did his best in a strategically specious and logistically hopeless sideshow. On the other hand, his opponent, Montgomery, went on to a stormy and controversial career.

Bernard Montgomery was the kind of soldier the British were apt to distrust after the experience with Oliver Cromwell. He was single-minded, emotionally limited, inflexible, teetotaling, religious, and definitely not clubbable. He nevertheless proved to be what was needed in the Eighth Army, whose officers were inclined to debate orders from above, possessing too much of the old cavalry spirit. Churchill's choice for the Eighth Army was not Monty, a man he subsequently found impossible to bully from London, but "Strafer" Gott who was killed just as Auchinleck was being replaced.[3] Bierman and Smith deal matter-of-factly with the major battles while they follow the Eighth Army to the denouement in Tunisia, the true strategic prize in the Desert War.

On the way to their conclusion, the authors cover a variety of incidents: the siege of Malta; Colonel Fellers and the purloined American Black Code; plans to evacuate Egypt (which almost caused a post-war court fight between Field Marshals Montgomery and Auchinleck); the three battles of Alamein; and the fobbing off of Churchill while Monty got the job done.

The Desert campaign remains a justifiable source of pride for the British, the first where they were able to defeat the Wehrmacht and the last they won without sharing honors with the Americans. Even so, the American nose was already in the tent. American tanks and trucks had appeared in quantity and the local air force had been equipped with a large number of American aircraft. When Washington decided that American planes should generally be flown by American pilots, an American air force gradually appeared in Egypt. A group of B-24 bombers diverted from China even made an ineffectual raid on Ploesti from North Africa, while India contributed a few war-weary B-17 bomber aircraft. The integration of these units into the Middle East forces later foreshadowed the arrangements between the Allies.[4]

Egypt was officially non-belligerent during the war, a status that interrupted progress towards greater autonomy for the Farouk regime. The British took a stiff line with the Egyptians. When King Farouk proved stubborn about appointing a new government, Ambassador Sir Miles Lampson had the palace sealed off and appeared along with a number of tanks and officers with pistols drawn. This demarche so impressed Churchill that he was tempted to send Sir Miles to New Delhi as Viceroy of India.[5] Among the Egyptian Army officers arrested for pro-Italian activities were two future presidents of Egypt, Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The book takes the opportunity to dispel the poor reputation of the Italian troops. The authors note how, after Axis forces reached Alamein, Mussolini flew down from Rome, anticipating a victory and thinking to ride into Cairo in triumph on a horse he brought along for the purpose. The Italians had never succeeded in pacifying Libya entirely, and during the war the British harbored Sheikh Idris of the Senussi tribe, promising not to restore the colonial power. Not long after Libya was cleared, British and French administrations were established in the territory; however independence was delayed for a considerable time period.

The book has excellent maps to follow the action and a good bibliography. There are multiple instances of the use of "op. cit.," making it difficult to determine which footnote is being cited. This drawback is likely to be overlooked by the reader involved in the personal exploits of the book such as the pedigree of Lili Marlene, the true story of the English Patient, the drama of special operations in the desert, or the steamy intrigue of wartime Cairo.

For several reasons, not the least of which were American objections, the British could not fully utilize Egypt, even though cleared of the Axis, as a base for their wartime plans in the Near East. Thereafter came the swift decline of the British presence in the region.

Notes

[1]. See discussions of "Rommel's anti-semitic edicts" in the H-War Discussion Logs.

[2]. The SAS planned to either kill or kidnap Rommel in Normandy in July 1944, but he was strafed and severely wounded a few days before the raid. See David Fraser, Knight's Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (London: HarperCollins, 1993), pp. 513-515.

[3]. Gott was an Englishman who bore the nickname in reference to the German World War I slogan: "Gott strafe England" ("God Punish England").

[4]. See this reviewer's article, "African Campaigns" in The Army Air Forces in World War I, vol. 2, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

[5]. "School of Oriental and African Studies," Research News 9 (April 25, 1999).

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 24/02/04 12:23:44
Stuart.Stein@uwe.ac.uk
S D Stein

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