Pendulum of War
The Three Battles of El Alamein
by Niall Barr
12 July 1942. A 25-pounder of the 2/8th Field Regiment hits back at the Afrika Korps near El Alamein
The war in the desert during the Second World War has been the source of renewed interest in recent times, not just from the British, who always had great fondness for it but elsewhere as well. A number of books have appeared but this one is the very best. Drawing on recent scholarship, it explains how and why this battle was fought.
As the title says, there were three battles in 1942 around El Alamein, which was not a town but a railway stop in the desert. The first, in July 1942, is known as the First Battle of Alamein and was the battle at which the British Eighth Army halted the German and Italian advance into Egypt. The second, in August, known as the Battle of Alam Halfa, saw the defeat of Rommel's attempt to break through. The third, and most famous, in November, was the Second Battle of Alamein, in which the German-Italian Panzerarmee was defeated and forced to retreat from Egypt and Libya.
Prior to the fighting at El Alamein, the British Eight Army was spectacularly defeated by Rommel at the Battles of Gazala and Mersa Matruh. Barr explains how the Eighth Army was handicapped by poor leadership, faulty tactics and inadequate equipment. One might think that the Eighth Army turned the situation around by changing these factors but, as Barr shows, there was no time for this. The First Battle of Alamein was won in spite of these factors, through hard fighting.
Barr goes into the nuts and bolts of the fighting. He expertly explains the tactics of both sides and how these were determined by their weapons. He goes into the details of the all-important logistics, which alone explains how the two armies were able to fight in the desert. The importance of the storemen and mechanics is underlined. Nor is the role of the air and naval forces in the fighting ignored.
He goes into the critical role of intelligence, particularly Ultra - intelligence gathered from codebreaking activities. Barr does not flinch from explaining that the Germans had broken the American codes and Rommel was receiving first rate intelligence from the American liaison officer. He also tells of the much-neglected signals intelligence - listening in to the radio traffic, both friendly and enemy - and the vital edge that it gave to Rommel, at least until his signal unit was destroyed by the 9th Australian Division.
It's easy for a historian to record that Lieutenant General L. J. Moreshead's 9th Australian Division was the Eighth Army's best division but Barr explains exactly why this was the case. In writing the book, he travelled to Australia and New Zealand and was rewarded not only with detailed documents about their national forces but translations of German and Italian documents unavailable in the UK.
A curiosity of El Alamein is that the reputation of the defeated Rommel remains solid but that of the two victorious Eighth Army commanders, General Sir C. Auchinleck and Lieutenant General B. L. Montgomery, remains controversial. Barr is critical of both, as well as Auchinleck's eccentric and controversial deputy chief of staff, Major General E. Dorman-Smith. while attempting a rehabilitation of Lieutenant General W. H. E. Gott, who was killed by the Luftwaffe on the brink of assuming command of the Eighth Army.
Only the politics of the operation are passed over lightly. Although Barr explains while Prime Minister Churchill was so anxious for a victory at El Alamein, he does not explain how the failure to appoint Moreshead, the best officer, to corps command drove a nail into the British Empire's coffin.
You will not find a better account than this one.