Monthly Archives: August 2011

A new front: the importance of El Alamein

Bungay sums up the importance of El Alamein and North Africa:

“However, from a strategic perspective, even the modest level of damage inflicted directly on the Axis at El Alamein was significant. It forced Hitler’s attention back to the west and began a process of serious attrition there which, combined with the relentless losses in Russia, was to lead to total defeat. Until then, his forces had been concentrated in the east, and were beginning to be stretched. With the loss of the desert, he had to divert forces to Africa. With the invasion of North Africa, he had to occupy Southern France, and found a Vichy French army suddenly becoming a Free French army and fighting against him. After they had cleared North Africa, the Allies invaded Sicily. On 25 July 1943 whilst fighting there was still going on, there was a coup d’etat in Rome, and Mussolini was imprisoned. The Allies then invaded the Italian mainland; on 29 September Italy surrendered to the Allies and on 13 October declared war on Germany. This meant that not only did German troops have to man the lines in Russia, Italy and the Balkans to replace the Italians who had been there, but they also had a new enemy. As a result of Alamein, what had begun as an imperial war developed into a main front with broad strategic and political consequences.”

It is early in 1943, not long after the third battle of El Alamein and before the surrender of Italy that Flight Sgt E.L. Britton arrives in Africa and his war begins.

On one side or the other we take our stand

On 24 October 1954, a memorial to the Eighth Army was unveiled at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in the desert near the railway station at El Alamein. Field-Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein gave an address, which he summed up by saying:

“There are things in this world which are true and things that are false; there are ways that are right and ways that are wrong; there are good men and bad men. And on one side or the other we take our stand; one or the other we must serve…We can only secure a better world, and abolish war, by having better men and women; there is no other way and no short cut.”

When he awoke on morning in late February 1976, Montgomery said that he had had a very bad night. “I can’t have long to go now,” he explained. “I’ve got to go and meet God- and explain all those men I killed at Alamein.” During the night of 24 March, he died. (Bungay 237).

Battle at dawn

Egyptian desert at dawnDawn and dusk were the commonest times of battle, so crews in the North African desert had to be up before sunrise to ensure several hours of tension. ‘There is no knowing what thoughts may come during these approach marches,’ Keith Douglas has written. ‘They are the only moments when it is hard to avoid reveries, and they take place during the last and most depressing hours before dawn.’

Reading Douglas’ words, I thought of Wellum and the Battle of Britain pilots, waiting for first light. I thought of the bomber crews waiting for dusk, flying through the night and limping home to their airfields at dawn.

Grim memories rest in these watery hours of faded light:

 ‘There is no cold like the cold of a desert dawn. It is a long, slow strangulation of sinew, blood and bone… You get up and hug whatever you have in the way of covering around and over you. You see monstrous shapes moving slowly in the strange, suffused light and hear muttered cursing, and you begin to see the flickering flames of sand burning inside a score of cans…Generals do not choose to make their attacks at dawn simply because of its deceptive visibility. They do so because men of war discovered long ago that this is the time when man is most susceptible to the terrors of his imagination.” (Harrison 85)

Desert weariness: learning to live in North Africa

All the soldiers had really come to the desert to kill each other, but they spent most of their time learning to live there, in what the Eighth Army called ‘up the blue’.

In the summer, which lasted from May until October, daytime temperatures ranged from 20-60C. It was often 40C in the shade. In other seasons, it soon got very cold after the sun set. It was desperately dark and very easy to get lost during moonless nights.

Sand and grit got into everything. Dust storms would leave men with red-rimmed eyes and brown knees.

There was precious little water- meaning that the foul, chlorinated liquid was drunk sparingly and used even less for washing. The tinned food rations were unpalatable and were the same, day after day.

The desert was filled with millions and millions of flies. The came in vast swarms, like a punishment from God. They settled on the faces, clinging around the eyes and mouth. Food had to be consumed under cover and tea drunk with a protective hand over the cup in between sips. Together with the action of the sand, they turned even the smallest lesion into a ‘desert sore’ which would not heal.

But, after awhile, getting used to everything was the greatest problem. In the featureless landscape, some found the monotony, what one man has called ‘the unbroken succession of empty, ugly and insipid days’, the hardest thing to bear and resulted in a form of depression known as ‘desert weariness’. The desert induced a mental torpor which if unchecked became total apathy and morale and fighting efficiency declined. (Bungay 74).

RAF in the desert

The RAF had begun to build up its strength in the desert just after the Battle of Britain and just in time for the first offensive in 1940. When it opened, the RAF had about 220 aircraft, mostly bombers, with just two full squadrons of Hurricanes (hardly enough to establish air superiority).

In mid 1941, the RAF’s newly appointed AOC-in-C Middle East, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, sat down with Auchinleck (Montgomery’s predecessor) to work out how the RAF and the Army should work together to defeat a common enemy. The RAF would bomb ports to disrupt supply lines and attack the lines of communication behind the battlefield. Casting pre-war RAF doctrine aside, it was also agreed that the army would receive air support directly on the battlefield (Bungay 104-107).

Disruption of supply lines was critical to winning the Battle. Fighting at desert war has been likened to a battle at sea- where the actual territory counts for nothing (waves of a salty ocean or windswept, featureless sands), and advancement cannot be made without machines (ships or tanks…). In this hostile environment, survival meant supplies. In theory, a mobile infantry unit needed 350 tons of supplies a day, including water, i.e. about 10,000 tons a month (Bungay 44).

Tedder re-organised his Command, turning his forward group into Air Headquarters, Western Desert, which soon became known as the Desert Air Force. In July, the Desert Air Force also got a new commander in the form of the New Zealander Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Connigham, who was known as ‘Mary’ (a corruption of ‘Maori’).

The British desperately needed Spitfires to stem their fighter losses in 1942, but they did not arrive. Keith Park acidly observed:

“Early in 1942, Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory had 75 fighter squadrons in England, carrying out massive sweeps over France, as compared with only 52 squadrons when the Luftwaffe was at its full strength during the Battle of Britain. When the C-in-C Middle East asked for Spitfires for Malta,Fighter Command refused…when as few as five Spitfire squadrons could have saved Malta from the terrible blitz of spring 1942. This all arose from the mania of Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory for Big Fighter Wings.”

Douglas intended to tie down the Luftwaffe and force it to withdraw fighters from Russia, but instead pointlessly lost many pilots and planes over France. The only Luftwaffe units ever to be withdrawn from Russia were sent to the Middle East because of the RAF’s activities in Malta and the desert. The Desert Air Force had to wait until May 1942 before it got it first operational squadron of Spitfires.

Following the Battle of El Alamein, Rommel was eventually driven back into the a strip of land between an outcrop of hills and the Tunisian coast. The battle for North Africa did not end until May 1943.

One of the lessons Rommel was to take from Alamein to his later role as commander of the German defences in Normandy was the significance of air power. During the battle, the Allies had flown 11,586 sorties and had lost 97 aircraft. The Axis air forces had managed to put up 3,000 sorties an lost about 84 aircraft. The Desert Air Force hounded the retreat until it ran out of targets, but the Luftwaffe was unable to have any impact on the pursuers (Bungay 196-98).

Monty’s Niece

Signature of Montgomery's great niece

I bought a copy of Bungay’s Alamein at a second hand bookshop in Hay on Wye. I knew that I wanted to read it and was pleased to see an un-battered hard covered copy sitting on a shelf in one of the town’s loveliest shops. After waiting for some pretentious English Literature students to finish making their selection, the clerk served me. As she popped the book in a bag, she said bashfully “Monty was my great uncle.” I thanked her for the book and headed off. An hour later, I went back to the shop and was glad to find that she was still there. I slid the book back across the counter and said “Sorry, I know it’s a bit silly, but would you mind signing the book? It’ so fascinating that you are related to Montgomery.” She was a good sport and wrote an inscription for me (with her colleague laughing at her. I imagine she’s worked in a bookshop for a long time, but probably never done a book signing herself). What a nice way to acquire a little bit of living history. A good reminder why, despite its usefulness, there will always be some things you just can’t get from Amazon.

Stephen Bungay’s Alamein

Alamein coverHaving decided that it was crucial to start building an understanding of the situation in North Africa before 1943, I was glad to discover that Stephen Bungay had written a significant work on the subject. As with The Most Dangerous Enemy he interrogates the reasons why a battle can be won or lost far from the actual front. He considers logistics, supply, training, chain of command, politics and chance as factors in determining an outcome. I think this review sums up the text rather well:

“Following his acclaimed history of the Battle of Britain, Bungay now turns his attention to the other great British triumph of the Second World War – El Alamein. In the North African desert in autumn 1942, the British Eighth Army under General Montgomery defeated Rommel’s Afrika Korps in an epic battle.

For anyone who has any military experience or memories of the Second World War this is an unputdownable account. Indeed, it should be required reading for everyone, especially for the fourth chapter, entitled ‘The Soldiers’ War’, which provides a graphic and realistic account of the conditions experienced by front-line troops. This book is not just an account of a battle, but provides a broad sweep of the events which led up to it, and a less sweeping account of its aftermath. It also puts the whole desert war in perspective in relation to the war as a whole.

Bungay shows how compared with the Wehrmacht the British (and Commonwealth) armies were ill-prepared and undertrained. Montgomery was a prickly egotist, and few will disagree with Bungay’s critical summation, but none who encountered him will ever forget his dynamic and inspiring leadership. His ruthless weeding out of the incompetent went far below senior commanders and transformed the Eighth Army. While Rommel was expert at exploiting opportunity, Montgomery’s genius lay not only in his preparation for battle, but in sticking to his intentions.

Of course, and quite rightly, much is made here of supplies and air superiority, but in the end battles are won by the bloody clash of infantry. If there is a criticism to be made of this gripping analysis, it is in a neglect of those whose bayonets and raw courage actually did the job. The British soldier, at the worst of times, never lost confidence in his own ability, only in those who led him. Montgomery restored his belief.

This is a brilliant account of Alamein and all the issues surrounding it – political, military and technological. Highly recommended.”

-UK Kirkus review