From the Great Battles Series by Oxford University Press
- Simon Ball
Simon Ball is an academic with several books and articles to his name. He brings his academic approach to this book which gives a very clear picture of the points he is trying to make. Although titled ALAMEIN and is part of the great Battles Series by Oxford University Press, the book is not really about the Battle of El Alamein but about who ‘owned’ the Battle!
There are two distinct camps in this tale, the generals who fought the Germans prior to the Second Battle of Alamein and those that fought the Germans at and after the Battle. The first is led by General ‘Chink’ Dorman-Smith and the second by the supporters of Montgomery. The argument being that the spadework for the Battle had been done and the Battle more or less won prior to kick off on 23 October 1942; the contention being that Monty just came along at the right time with sufficient resources to do the job using plans prepared by the sacked Auchinleck and his Staff. Obviously this is strenuously defended by the Monty supporters.
If the Battle itself was fierce, then the battle of Generals post Alamein was just as fierce with few prisoners being taken. This book therefore is not so much about Alamein but about the history of its story. Britain saw this as a major factor in the war, a turning point, the “end of the beginning” as Churchill put it; but other nations just see it as a major skirmish compared with events elsewhere. Stalingrad was in progress and the monumental events there overshadow Alamein to the Germans never mind the Russians. USA were not involved except to arm the Allies at Alamein so do not see this as of much importance to themselves, which is not unusual for the Americans who seem only to class events important if they are leaders in the event. This only leaves Britain and its Dominion allies, which the author continually calls “Imperial” which grates a bit after a while.
Not long after the Battle had ended and the Germans were withdrawing along the Mediterranean coastline, the anti Montgomery faction got themselves into action. Apparently there was (is?) a government committee of Civil Servants that decided the names of Battles and what actually constituted a Battle. This is where much of the early ‘engagements’ were fought. Dorman-Smith and many of the ‘old generals’ as the pre Alamein lot were named, were determined to take as much of the credit for the battle away from Montgomery to their own General, Auchinleck, and contended that the Battle of Alamein was actually won at what became known as the First Battle of Alamein where Rommel was stopped and contained. Planning then started on taking the war to Rommel and Dorman-Smith’s contention was this planning was done by Auchinleck’s Staff and just taken over by Montgomery. This became a very bitter battle of Generals which went on long after Alamein had moved on and the war had changed direction and priority.
This is quite a sad little book which shows up the egos of Generals who often seemed to think fighting their own side more important than getting stuck into the Germans. The book however is very detailed and well laid out with good illustrations and a comprehensive index and bibliography. It is well written and easy to read, once the reader has realised that this is not about the Battle of El Alamein at all! There is even a chapter on how the media took this up, both as reporting and in movies. One of the best known reporters was Alan Moorehead who reported extensively from the desert war, but he had actually moved away from Africa prior to the Battle of Alamein so his reporting of the Battle is very scant, yet he is still classed as one of the authoritative voices from the campaign. This author contends he was firmly in the old-general camp and worked to enlarge the role of Auchinleck at the expense of Montgomery.
An interesting part of the book is the chapter it devotes to Prisoners of War and the books by three of them taken prison just prior to Alamein. Their viewpoint on the Battle, from the sharp-end contrasts very well with what happened in HQ, although the Ball has used these as part of the for-against arguments by the Generals. One of the Germans taken prisoner was General von Thoma and it is interesting how he was dealt with by the British following his capture, placing him in a special PoW camp and listening to his conversations. All of this being built into the picture of the history of the Battle that Ball is giving us. Very interesting the way information was manipulated, by any and all to fit their agenda.
Overall, a really interesting, is somewhat strange book and certainly not the way I have looked at the Battle of Alamein before. I knew of course that there were differences between Generals, nobody likes being sacked and Monty was not exactly a shrinking violet when it came to self publicity. I really enjoyed this but I hope, when I read other books about this Battle, it does not detract me from what the fighting man did in North Africa, on both sides, from late October 1942.
If the North Africa campaign is your area of interest then this book is an absolute ‘must’ but even so it is worth reading just to learn what goes on behind the scenes when huge military egos collide.
4.5/5 Mr MRHs