Following our success with Fire
in the Night, this was the second
book I wrote with John Bierman and came out in time for the sixtieth anniversary
of the battle in October 2002 though its subject matter is much larger. It
is nothing less than a narrative of the whole war on the southern Mediterranean
shore from 1940 to 1943, wrote Sir John Keegan whose hosannahs made all
our hard work worth while.
On 7 August 1942, the Messerschmitts of Jagdgeschwader 27 brought General Montgomery
to Egypts Western Desert when they obligingly shot down Lt-General Strafer Gott,
Churchills choice as new commander of the 8th Army against the wishes of
General Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. The prime minister
and Brooke were visiting Cairo to investigate the inexplicable inertia of
Auchinlecks Middle East Command which in June had seen the loss of Tobruk
with over 30,000 prisoners and the 8th Armys retreat to the El Alamein
line - the last decent defensive position before Alexandria and the Nile Delta.
Nor was the overall strategic picture any better. The Russians were losing ground
in the Caucasus and there were fears that. Rommel might provide one half of a
pincer that would seize all the Middle Easts oil.
Brooke admired Gott, a desert veteran and one of those responsible for the rout
of the Italians almost two years before. But a conversation with him shortly
before his death had convinced the CIGS that he was too tired for the job though
it was a popular appointment. Gott, a gentle giant rarely far from the sharp
end, was so well loved that people could not accept the simple facts of the death
he met hitching a lift back to Cairo on the shuttle the RAF ran with their old
Bombay transports. The legend grew that he had survived the initial crash only
to go back inside the blazing aircraft in an attempt to rescue some stretcher
cases on board.
This version can still be found in print. There is no truth in it. Gott was trapped
in the fuselage along with a dozen wounded being evacuated from the Alamein front
despite a miraculous emergency landing by nineteen-year-old Welsh sergeant pilot
Hugh Jimmy James who got a Distinguished Flying Medal for it . James,
badly burned himself, dropped through the cockpit emergency hatch then watched
with horror as the paint bubbled on the jammed door through which he had expected
his VIP to escape.
Out of these ashes would arise 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, Britains
best known and, for a while, most popular soldier since Wellington and always
Brookes first choice for the job. In the post-war years Monty, the cocksure
little man whose TV series in praise of his own generalship was a huge success,
ranked only just below Churchill as a national icon. This was the general who,
after three years of world war, had delivered Britain its first major land victory
against the Germans. Whats more he had done it in time for it to be undiluted,
apart from some essential hardware, by any mass American involvement . In the
words of the Australian desert veteran and official historian Barton Maughan
it was, ...that grand but old-fashioned British Commonwealth of Nations,
fighting its last righteous war before it was to dissolve in shadowy illusion.
Then in 1960 the historian Correlli Barnett published The Desert Generals.
In it Barnett argued that Montgomery was not as good as he said he was. He was
actually the victor of the Second Battle of Alamein and had never properly acknowledged
his debt to Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck who had won the first battle
by fighting Rommel to a standstill. It had also been Auchinleck, influenced by
his clever deputy chief-of-staff Major-General Chink Dorman-Smith,
who had concluded that Rommels next thrust would be at the Alam Halfa ridge
and prepared his defences there accordingly. None of this prevented Churchill
and Brooke from replacing Auchinleck with Alexander as GOC Middle East.
Montgomery twisted the knife in the wound. He so denigrated Auchinleck to Churchill,
falsely accusing him of plotting to bolt for the Delta if attacked again in strength,
that he was never given another field command despite his obvious tactical brilliance.
Not something, according to Barnett, that Montgomery was well endowed with .
Despite considerable material superiority he won Alamein by a narrow margin.
As for the plodding attempts to cut off the remnants of the Desert Foxs
Panzerarmee after the breakthrough, these are derided as, lost as a dray
horse on a polo field.
Montgomery, even more than most generals, was undoubtedly an egomaniac and when The
Desert Generals was first published the time was probably ripe for a dose
of iconoclasm. But the pendulum soon swung so far the other way that Barnetts
once dissident views became the new orthodoxy. Despite, some years later, a lengthy
riposte by Nigel Hamilton, Montys main biographer, it remains so to this
day. In Spielbergs D-Day epic, Saving Private Ryan, the only
hint of British participation in the Normandy landings is a mumbled aside from
one GI to another that, in his opinion, Montgomery is over rated.
So, for some people, is the Viscounts most famous battle. From the commanding
ramparts of sixty years of hindsight it has become fashionable to consider whether
Alamein was even a necessary fight. Might it not have been better to do nothing
until Operation Torch, the Anglo-American landings in Vichy French Morocco and
Algeria, had taken place? Surely, faced by this threat to his rear, Rommel would
then have to turn back? Meanwhile, perhaps the dray horse would have been better
employed learning to gallop.
None of these options were exactly staring Montgomery in the face when, on 13
August 1942, he arrived at the 8th Armys forward HQ on the Ruweisat Ridge.
In Churchills words, he was inheriting a command that was vast but
baffled and somewhat unhinged. Only eight months before the 8th Army thought
they were on the brink of victory. Tobruk, first garrisoned by the Australians
and a symbol of imperial defiance that the prime minister had cherished, had
been relieved after a siege of 242 days when the Axis had abandoned the whole
of eastern Libya. Then Rommel rebounded and swallowed up all their gains. Now
Tobruk was lost and the 8th Army had fled so deeply into Egypt nationalist rioters
in Cairo were taunting the British with their slogan, Advance Rommel.
That, only 60 miles from Alexandria, Rommel did no such thing was indeed partly
due to the defences prepared at Alam Halfa. But Montgomery had also inherited
Auchinlecks contingency plans to, as a last resort, preserve the 8th Army
by retreating to the Delta and even Palestine. It was hard to keep them secret.
Among those who died with Gott was a senior official from the British Mandate
administration in Jerusalem who had been visiting 8th Armys advance headquarters
to discuss them. Montgomery realised that the baffled and unhinged army
needed no more talk of retreat. Here we will stand and fight, he
told a knowing bunch of staff officers, some of them listening to their third
commander in 18 months. I have ordered that all plans and instructions
dealing with further withdrawal are to be burnt, and at once. Afterwards,
many of his audience were surprised to discover how impressed they were.
The forty mile Alamein line, anchored securely between the Mediterranean and
the gigantic salt marsh sinkhole of the Qattarah Depression, was the best defensive
position in North Africa because it was impossible for tanks to go around either
flank. Once Rommel, partly because of fuel shortages, called off his offensive
at Alam Halfa in early September it was Montgomerys turn to try and crack
it. Resisting pressure from Churchill to move earlier, Montgomery attacked almost
two months after Alam Halfa on the evening of 23 October, the night before a
Since the beginning of the desert war, there had never been anything in size
or conception] quite like the battle the 8th Army was about to fight. Axis troops
totalled about 104,000 men of whom 50,000 were German. The Italians included
the recently arrived Folgore Parachute Division which had already proved its
worth when, at the end of September, they gave very short shrift to a local attack
by a brigade of British infantry as new to the desert as they were. Ordinary
Italian infantry tended to be poorly officered but the Italian armys general
reputation for cowardice is largely undeserved. Their tanks crews were often
spectacularly brave given the porous nature of their machines. And even elite
units like the Folgore were often under equipped. In protest one officer had
taken to wearing a huge spanner on a string around his neck, to take the
enemy tanks apart.
The British had just over 1000 tanks of which about 300 were the heavily gunned
Shermans and Grants which could match all the panzers with the exception of about
30 Mark IV specials. Rommels armour totalled about 500 of which 280 were
Italian. The British also had more artillery and aircraft but nowhere did they
enjoy the the three-to-one ascendancy staff colleges usually insist is the proper
ratio for an offensive.
Montgomerys plan was brutally simple, its main features being a feint in
the south and a broad infantry frontal assault in the north where they would
punch holes for the armour to pass through. It was the nearest the desert war
was going to get to the kind of 1914-18 over the top horror almost
all its generals had endured as subalterns . But at El Alamein there was no other
Under a waxing moon, Montgomery watched the start of the biggest barrage the
British army had fired since 1918 then went to bed in the caravan one of his
predecessors had captured off Electric Whiskers Bergonzoli. It was,
he explained, his intention to get what rest I could while I could. Rommel
was even further removed, convalescing from jaundice in the Austrian Alps. He
came rushing back on a series of fast planes after a heart attack killed his
deputy General Stumme on the first day of the battle.
Operation Lightfoot was predominantly an infantry and artillery affair with the
frustrated tank crews, some of them hallucinating on the benzedrine pills they
were taking to keep them awake, unable to emerge from the minefields until near
the end. Montgomery predicted that the battle would last about twelve days and
would be a dog fight. He was right on both counts.
Alamein began sedately enough with, on the British side at least, the comforting
rumble of artillery and infantry advancing in the moonlight along the white tape
the sappers had laid to show the way through the minefields. Private John Bain
of the Gordons ( better known today as the poet Vernon Scannell), who like most
of his battalion had not been in action before, was conscious of something oddly
familiar about it all. Then he realised it was the tape. It reminded him of school
Along the 51st Highland Divisions sector they went forward at a stately
50 yards a minute serenaded by their kilted pipers (instruments gratis The Highland
Society) and tried to make it difficult for the machine-gunners by keeping five
yards apart. Officers could heard shouting: Keep up there on the left -
Then the images speed up, become blurred. A nineteen-year-old piper wearing a
Royal Stuart tartan goes down, his fingers still on his chanter. Like all the
infantry the Highlanders have been told not to stop for their casualties but
to leave them for the medics. A veteran tank gunner, who has been wounded several
times himself, watches in horrified admiration as they walk on, apparently oblivious
to this pruning of their ranks. The first enemy strongpoints are encountered.
An Argyll officer goes berserk because out of a trench of surrendering Italians
comes a grenade which cripples his sergeant. He empties his revolver into the
prisoners, then picks up a rifle and bayonet and stabs four more to death. Afterwards,
he goes off to look for a favourite ash walking stick he has lost somewhere.
North of the Highlanders an Australian sergeant, an immigrant born in Durham
and, at almost forty, a bit old for a front line infantryman, sees his platoon
pinned down and dashes forward alone with a Thompson sub-machine gun, killing
three men and capturing another twelve. William Kibby, a plasterer in civilian
life, will get the VC for this and other actions but he will be dead by the eighth
day of the battle.
By then Montgomery will have changed his plans several times. First punching
in one direction, then in another as he seeks Rommels weak spot, despairing
that his armour will ever make the concerted attack he needs and having terrible
rows with Lt-General Herbert Lumsden about it, even making veiled accusations
of cowardice. On the ground the infantry continue to do most of the fighting.
The Argyll officer who killed the surrendering Italians has found himself under
mortar bombardment and sharing a hole in the ground with the Austrian machine-gunner
he shot after the Austrian shot him. They bind each others wounds. A battalion
of Cockneys from the Rifle Brigade, many of them old sweats who been in the desert
since the beginning, inserts its six-pounder anti-tank guns into the innards
of a panzer division and destroys 38 Axis tanks and self-propelled guns.
By now Montgomery had decided to withdraw his armour and in London a despairing
Churchill asked Brooke if there wasnt a single British general who could
win a battle? But Montgomery was withdrawing to regroup. On 2 November he launched
Operation Supercharge through the central part of the front and not, as Rommel
expected, in the northern sector where the Australians were having some success.
Supercharge was a scaled down Lightfoot with two brigades of UK infantry, a battalion
of Maoris and 9th Armoured brigade all under the command of New Zealands
Major General Bernard Freyberg VC.
Zero hour was 1am. First the infantry went in, the Seaforths and Camerons once
again accompanied by their pipers. Corporal Rolf-Werner Völker, a panzer
grenadier manning an anti-tank gun, heard the pipes for the first time and thought
he was dreaming. It was a strange feeling. It wasnt frightening...It
was almost as if we were all taking part in some kind of pageant. Shortly
afterwards Völker, already suffering from dysentery, received some flesh
wounds from a grenade.
The British infantry seized most of their objectives and then it was the turn
of the tanks of 9th Armoured brigade - two Yeomanry regiments and the 3rd Hussars
under Brigadier John Currie, a redheaded cavalryman with a reputation as a fire
eater. But the 9th were late and betrayed by the dawn which silhouetted them
for the Axis anti-tank screen. Currie gave the order to charge. By breakfast
his brigade had lost 270 killed or wounded and only 19 of its ninety tanks were
still runners. But 35 enemy anti-tank guns had been destroyed - his Shermans
and Crusaders rolled over some of them - and the 9th had made a crack in Rommels
line that was soon being exploited by armoured cars. If the British armour
owed any debt to the infantry, said Montgomery, the debt was paid
by 9th Armoured in heroism and blood.
The battle would drag on for two more days until Hitler was persuaded to let
Rommel retreat. Total British killed, wounded and missing were 13,500; 30,000
Axis prisoners were taken and probably about 20,000 killed and wounded. In May
1943 the last Axis troops in North Africa - at a conservative estimate about
170,000 of them of whom 100,000 were German for Hitler had reinforced defeat
- had been pushed into a corner of Tunisia with the Royal Navy blocking their
evacuation to Sicily .
Before Alamein we never had a victory, wrote Churchill. Afterwards
we never had a defeat. Only half true, of course. Yet to come were the
setbacks in the Dodecanese - 5000 men lost when Leros and Cos became islands
too far - Arnhem and the American losses in the Ardennes. But Churchill was right
about it being the end of the beginning. Without counting the Italians,
more German troops were captured in Tunisia than there were at Stalingrad. German
radio talked about an honourable conclusion and it was true they
had bought time to prepare the defences of Sicily and Italy. But this did not
stop the Wehrmacht from calling it Tunisgrad.
Colin Smith, 2005