Tag Archives: Bungay

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).

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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


The Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park

After reading Bungay’s Most Dangerous Enemy, I was intrigued to discover more about Keith Park.

Park is painted as a brilliant tactician, who grasped the situation and made the correct decisions in the heat of battle. However, after the Battle, he lacked the political ability to capitalise on his military triumph and convert it into career gain. This, of course, only serves to further cast him in the role of a hero.

Shortly after the Battle of Britain he was relieved of his command of 11 Group and sent off to train pilots (he would return to front line action in the War, but more on that later).

Vincent Orange‘s substantial biography of Keith Park presents the facts and well-deserved tributes in a readable manner. He enjoyed unrestricted access to Park’s papers and as the first edition of the book was written in 1984, he was able to conduct many interviews with people who had known him.

Orange reveals a man whose energy and courage won him supreme praise from Churchill and the lasting respect of all who served under him.

Christchurch Press writes:

“Park emerges from this very thorough and scholarly biography not as The Great Man, but as a human being with strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us: a man whose greatness is delineated alongside his more everyday qualities.”

Park wasn’t recognised in his time; the official record of the Battle doesn’t even mention his name. However, he has now taken up station as one of the War’s great leaders. To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a campaign was launched to create a permanent monument to him

“Individuals can achieve so much in a single life, and we should never forget how each of us, everyday, can make a difference to the world around us. That is something that Park and his Pilots knew only too well.”

-Terry Smith at the unveiling of the statue of Sir Keith Park, Waterloo Place, London, 15 September 2010

So, a hero now but not then. Why? Did someone fail to see the triumph at the time, or does history start to re-write itself over the decades?