REVIEW: THE PHANTOM ARMY OF ALAMEIN

Mark Barnes
 
 
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In 1940 a group of artists, sculptors, film makers, theatre designers and set painters came together to form the Camouflage Unit

Try and have a guess how many books have been published in the English language about some facet or other of World War II. Well Okay, I don’t actually know the answer, but it has to be in the tens of thousands if not more, right? So, take yourself back to when this all started and we actually find the war was still going on when the Allied propaganda machine was creating heroes and punching out stirring morale boosting stuff on precious paper supplies. The obvious example leaping out at us is the classic Enemy Coast Ahead by Guy Gibson. Whether he wrote it all or had help from Roald Dahl is a moot point. One of my lesser known favourites is Return via Dunkirk by the anonymous Gun Buster published in November 1940. The authors are now known to be the team of John Austin and his artillery officer son Richard, who died in 2001.

Once the war ended the big guns unleashed their broadsides in a succession of self serving biographies to insure their version of events would retain a quasi-religious status of truth in the new battleground of war memoirs. In some respects a good deal of the finessing or pure blarney in many of these accounts seem to have won out, because a lot of what they claimed as fact still turn up as such in modern works despite the publication of official documents in London and Washington to prove to the contrary. Myth becomes fact quite easily.

Of course we did get proper unbiased WW2 history in all this. Some say the Australian Chester Wilmot virtually invented it with The Struggle for Europe, but sadly, he was a victim of the structural failings of the De Havilland Comet, so it remains his monument. William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is the whopping tome my dad couldn’t make me read, whereas I had no problem with anything Cornelius Ryan wrote. The war’s copper plated heroes who actually did the fighting fell in with a mixture of chancers and gifted ghost writers to produce some genuine classics. Some wrote their own, including Peter Townsend. His Duel of Eagles saved me from a miserable holiday in Tipperary in 1973, while the immortal loon Gunner Milligan, who shall remain blameless, rescued an equally miserable excursion to a soggy Blackpool in 1976. Great authors gave us books that endure forever. You will all have your favourites.

The printed war goes on and on. We seem to have reached a point where you might wonder just how much more there is to tell. In fact, we have got ourselves to a place where serious writers revisit big events and pour over the documents and correspondence often not available for earlier efforts to try and re-evaluate the campaigns we think we already know. Go onto Amazon today and you will find any number of them. One I should be reading right now is by the Evertonian guardian of the IWM’s treasures, Dr Bryn Hammond. I have got it on order, mate, honest.

So, with all the big stuff done and re-done or our popular epics rehashed with new snaps, fees permitting, and enhanced supposedly with essential introductions by the great, the good or the conveniently available; we are left with all the odds and sods of the war to discover. There is a surprising amount of it out there to take in.

Up steps Rick Stroud, who we know from his helping hand for the wonderful Victor Gregg, with a genuinely charming and stirring tale of a remarkable group of men. Rick brings to life the incredible adventure of a disparate group of artists, sculptors, model-makers and conjurors who only a British Army in war time could find. Men, who on being sent out to the unforgiving Western Desert, performed all kinds of trickery to deceive the wily Desert Fox with a deep sense of comradeship their brilliant leader Geoffrey de Gruchy Barkas inspired. The author describes the colour and the chaos of war in the desert as our heroes wander in and out of the Blue in a succession of battered motors. They build amazing things out bits of junk like a giant episode of Blue Peter. I am not taking the mick, these guys were geniuses. Their spirit of improvisation and artistry was immense. Having to do this while battle raged and armies swung two and froe across the desert must have been a nightmare. Generals came and went. Finally he arrived, one of those men whose self serving memoirs we all know so well; the future Field Marshal Viscount Bernard Law Montgomery of Alamein.

The thing is, it wasn’t all Monty, because there was also Alex, the future Field Marshal Viscount Harold Alexander of Tunis. Now, we all know Monty didn’t think he had a lot going on up top but the fact is he was a
lot more than just a Dapper Dan and he grasped the importance of what the camoufleurs could do. Camou what? Yep, you heard me; they even have a proper name for the artisans of the trade. Amazing, isn’t it? What you can learn in such a pleasurable way in the otherwise tedious surroundings of a commuter train. The epic nature of the deception of Operation Bertram and its role in the Battle of El Alamein is beautifully told. The British, some like to tell you, aren’t inventive and don’t do stuff. We know they’re talking cobblers, but if you’re short on inspiration, read this book.

This beautifully told story outstrips the standard of many of the WW2 books I’ve seen recently and is an exercise in finding the right blend of unusual subject and solid research mixed with plain good old fashioned intelligent writing. I can’t fault it. You may have wondered why the hell I bothered with the preamble about the old books, but the answer is simple. If you think about it seriously, all those grand biographies by general this and field marshal so-and-so or the histories by eminent professors and high placed journalists from that classic era where most of our accepted history comes from stuck to a fairly solid script and it was only in the footnotes that you found little tidbits of detail of a story that make up whole books for the Rick Strouds of this world. The terrific band of camoufleurs at Alamein might, just might, at the will of a 1950s author and the whim of his disciplined editor have made no more than a sentence, if they were lucky; at the bottom of a page in six point Times New Roman in one of those books now going dry on your granddad’s book shelf. Isn’t that sad? Think of what he missed and count yourself lucky.

Mark Barnes

THE PHANTOM ARMY OF ALAMEIN
How the Camouflage Unit and Operation Bertram Hoodwinked Rommel
By Rick Stroud
Published in hardback by Bloomsbury £16.99
ISBN: 978 1 40882 910 3