Tag Archives: Eighth Army (United Kingdom)

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).


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