There are now many posts on this site about Bomber Command and their campaign over Germany. Although important for context, they don’t tell the story of Grandpa’s service. His flights were not through the flak- riddled nights of Europe. His war was over North Africa.
Historian Stephen Bungay writes that the British Navy, Air Force and Army each had a battle that they had to win during the Second World War. For the Royal Navy, it was the Battle of the Atlantic; for the Royal Air Force it was the Battle of Britain; for the Army it was El Alamein. So, before turning to the skies, we’ll stop to build a picture of the war from the ground up.
In 1940, Egypt sat, like a spider in its web, at the centre of a crucial geo-strategic network that included the Eastern Mediterranean, Abyssina (invaded by the Italians in 1936 and liberated by the British in 1941), the Middle East and the Suez Canal.
For three years, Axis and Allied forces chased each other over the hostile terrain of the North African desert. The tide turned in the Allies’ favour at the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942. British General Montgomery spent months building up an overwhelming advantage in men and armour, before launching his attacks against Field Marshal Rommel’s German and Italian troops.
Montgomery was a charismatic British commander, matched by Rommel, one of the most striking German generals. The theatre of war was both harsh and romantic, the classic tactician’s paradise and quartermaster’s nightmare.
The battle signified ‘the end of the beginning’ of World War Two, as the Allies forced a decisive breakthrough and broke the Wehrmacht for the first time. Churchill’s faltering reputation was saved, Russia was briefly appeased by Britain’s military contribution and Hitler was forced to turn his attention to more than one front.
With Alamein as a starting point, I’ll explore the issue of supply lines, the importance of air power in this theatre and the harshness of desert life. This will lead us to a dusty outpost in Egypt, where we finally meet up with Grandpa.
“All that is necessary is that each and every officer and men should enter this battle with the determination to see it through, to fight and kill, and finally to win. If we do this, there can be only one result – together, we will hit the enemy for six out of Africa.”