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Alamein

    Alamein - War Without Hate
   

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 Egypt’s Western Desert when they obligingly shot down Lt-General ‘Strafer’ Gott, Churchill’s 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 Auchinleck’s Middle East Command which in June had seen the loss of Tobruk with over 30,000 prisoners and the 8th Army’s 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 East’s 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, Britain’s best known and, for a while, most popular soldier since Wellington and always Brooke’s 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. What’s 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 Rommel’s 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 Fox’s 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 Barnett’s once dissident views became the new orthodoxy. Despite, some years later, a lengthy riposte by Nigel Hamilton, Monty’s main biographer, it remains so to this day. In Spielberg’s 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 Viscount’s 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 Army’s forward HQ on the Ruweisat Ridge. In Churchill’s 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 Auchinleck’s 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 Army’s 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 Montgomery’s 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 full moon.

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 army’s 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. Rommel’s 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.

Montgomery’s 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 way.

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 sports days.

Along the 51st Highland Division’s 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 - straighten up.”

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 Rommel’s 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 other’s 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 wasn’t 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 Zealand’s 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 wasn’t 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 Rommel’s 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

 

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