There is a lot of hyperbole about Alamein, but let’s be fair it matters to us because it was a British and Commonwealth victory that came after so much anguish. We’d had all those years of failure elsewhere and the seesaw warfare across the desert blue. Now at last we had a success to grasp for our very own before the true impact of junior partnership in a coalition became unpleasant reality. Well, that’s the sensible way to look back at it in the warmth of hindsight, isn’t it? Not quite how it was seen on the factory floors or in the public bars or in the blacked out parlours of a hopeful Britain, a distant Melbourne or Wellington. Victory is sweet.
But it wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t straightforward. Hard lessons had to be learned and some things never really were understood on a universal level. Good men were swept aside, egos clashed and reputations were sealed. We know the chief of them; Bernard Law Montgomery. His star rose in the desert and his place in history set. But the sands were cruel and others who deserved much, much better fell by the wayside having done so much to build the foundations on which Monty’s glory stands. It isn’t right and it isn’t fair, but it was war, literally so.
This isn’t just a tale of the British Army; there were Germans and Italians in North Africa, too, of course. We discover they had plenty of problems of their own with logistics and body count and above all with the pipe dreams and ego of their much trumpeted leader Erwin Rommel and, by the by, we cannot forget the lunacy of the Fuhrer back in Berlin.
Bryn Hammond reminds us that El Alamein wasn’t one battle but two, and if you count Alam Halfa you might argue it was three. The first was Auchinlek’s and although he stopped Rommel he did not inspire confidence in Brooke and the restless armchair general in Winston Churchill and this is where the brash little Monty steps in. But there had even been doubts in him and had Strafer Gott not fallen foul of a marauding 109, then history might have been different. Who can say? The Auk’s right hand man was the clever Eric Dorman-Smith, Chink to some; and I am reminded of my recent review of Dick McCreery’s biography where he wasn’t exactly described in glowing terms, coming across as a panto villain at the Court of the Auk. But it was he and Auchinlek and other specialists who set the Middle East Command and 8th Army on a sounder footing and the man who gained the most put two badges in a Royal Tank Regiment beret and achieved something close to immortality while they faded away.
Once battle is joined the author’s strengths come to the fore and that is in an earlier war where the foundations of Alamein were well and truly laid. It is surely no accident why Bryn came to write this book and why his knowledge of the Great War led him to this most special of victories for a British Commonwealth army in World War II. I could ask him when he comes to lecture at my branch of the WFA or when he pops up on the social network I use, but he’ll only be there to prattle on about Everton FC and I can’t think of anything worse.
There have been other books about Alamein and at the moment a far bigger name has one on the go and if his publisher sends us one I’ll review it, but this one does it for me. You get a no nonsense approach to a complicated set of circumstances and a close up look at what it was like for the ordinary bloke from the heart of England, the Outback or the South Island who fought and died in that crappy place. My favourite moment is when a bunch of Maoris did the Haka before storming a German strongpoint. The cast is huge; along with the countries I’ve mentioned already there were South Africans, Rhodesians, and Indians, plus some French and Greeks and they were there facing the Germans and Italians – a mixture of the average and the elite – notably the Folgore Italian parachute division who were no slouches. But the majority were British, yearning for a victory and some real leadership to show them the way. It was described as a “War Without Hate” but there were arbitrary killings of prisoners and plenty of bloodlust and behind the frontline German units the Sonderkommando were waiting to deal with the Jews they gathered up. There was plenty of hate going round in the desert sun. Explaining it all takes skill. You are in safe hands here. Bryn does the preparatory sketches for you to do the colouring in. When it was over they rang church bells in Britain to signify a victory at last after so much pain. The author shows it wasn’t that simple but the bell ringing was perhaps the right things to do.
It was a long road. I read a review of a new single volume of the whole war the other day which described America as the victor and Britain as the hero. I make it right. I’ve grown up to believe that Britain did not win the war, we survived it. We came through more or less intact, but totally skint. But for too many years our leaders clung to the notion we were great victors when that epithet belonged to the Soviet Union and the United States. They were blind. They would point to the likes of Alamein and say “Look what we did” ignoring the obvious truths that our Allies took all the spoils. We’d lost an empire; we were broke and were still pretending we very important when we were over night has-beens. I’m not sure we’ve ever got that thing right in our national head. But we will always have the glorious moments when our people showed what we could do accompanied by the Commonwealth as we know it today. It brings a lump to my throat when I think of the sacrifice it took and all the men from my country and all points on the world map which were once pinky red who fetched up in the desert and stopped the Desert Fox. Other battles were bigger and perhaps more important, but this one was ours and it will forever be thus. I am unashamedly proud to be British. Ring the bells!
The Battle that Turned the Tide of the Second of the Second World War.
By Bryn Hammond
Published by Osprey Publishing £18.99
ISBN: 978 1 84908 640 0