Monday, January 14, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“EL ALAMEIN AND THE STRUGGLE FOR NORTH AFRICA: International Perspectives from the Twenty-First Century” edited by Jill Edwards (The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, New York, $NZ34:95)

            I grew up next to an Auckland suburb with street names like Matapan, Tobruk and El Alamein. The suburb had sprung up in the 1950s and memories of the Second World War were fresh, although as a small child I had little idea of what the names meant. Only when I was a little older did I get an inkling. In those days 1YA (the Auckland radio station of what was later the National Radio network) still ran a regular programme for ex-servicemen from the war – reminiscences, soldiers’ songs (doubtless in cleaned-up versions), news about RSA activities and about reunions. Hearing bits of these broadcasts, I picked up the idea that somehow North Africa and its desert had once been significant to New Zealand.

Later I found British books for kids, which would have me believe that El Alamein was THE great battle of the Second World War, which had been won personally by Bernard Montgomery. I indignantly rejected this silly idea once I read about Stalingrad, the Kursk Salient and the Battle of Midway. Ever since I have had the vague idea that the North African campaign was a mere sideshow to the real business of the war, which was won by a combination of a British holding action, American money and technology, and Soviet manpower.

Time, then, for me to brush up my ideas a bit and to read a book which shows that El Alamein, if not the major event of the Second World War, was nevertheless a matter of considerable importance.

On 70th anniversary of the two battles of El Alamein appears El Alamein and the Struggle for North Africa, a book of essays by fifteen international experts – British, American, French, Italian, Egyptian, Australian, New Zealand and others.

            Jill Edwards’ Introduction places the battles in their general context – the Italian role in the war that drew Allied countries into what would otherwise have not been a theatre of war. It became one once it was clear that the Axis grand strategy was to take over the Middle East as a source of oil. Thus the Suez Canal and Egypt were important objectives for Axis forces to capture.

It is understandable that the South African James Jacobs’ essay is the first in book. Its ostensible purpose is to deal with the role of South African forces in the first (July 1942) and the second (October-November 1942) battles of El Alamein; but in doing so Jacobs also provides a general overview of the battles and their strategic significance in the Second World War. In effect Jacobs’ chapter becomes a general history of the Battles of El Alamein with a certain South African inflexion. Jacobs seems concerned to defend the South Africans’ reputation, knowing that in the first battle a very large number of them were captured. Hence their role was diminished in the second battle and is rarely celebrated in way the Aussie and Kiwi efforts are.

Alan Jeffreys, writing about the part of the Indian Army (quite different in organization from Commonwealth troops), emphasizes their importance in the “forgotten” campaign in East Africa and their training, while noting how subordinate their role at El Alamein was. Peter Stanley’s article on Australians is like part of a conversation on the whole thorny topic of Australian military nationalism. It’s not only the fact that Aussies (like other Commonwealth commanders and troops) sometimes contested British leadership. It’s also the fact that nationalism dominates Australian historiography and, in Stanley’s cool judgment, distorts the way the role of the Aussies’ role in North Africa is now seen. He speaks of general Australian ignorance of the significance of the two battles of El Alamein, noting ironically “Sydney has an El Alamein memorial fountain in King’s Cross, but the place is more associated with the war on drugs than the war against Nazism.” (Pg.67)

There is not so much nationalism in Glyn Harper’s account of the New Zealand contribution, partly, perhaps, because Harper knows there is good reason to be equally critical of both British and New Zealand command. Harper cleaves more to the progress of the battle itself than some other contributors do. The conduct of Kiwi forces was praiseworthy, with the error of one officer getting his troops to advance far beyond his assigned objective and hence having to be called back. The trouble was in the pursuit phase of the battle when Rommel’s Afrikakorps was falling back hastily and New Zealand infantry were to be the main force chasing them.

Montgomery has been much criticised for his caution in this pursuit, as (despite the advantage of Ultra intelligence) he still feared the Afrikakorps was in greater strength than it was. But in Harper’s account, referencing private correspondence of Kippenberger and others, Bernard Freyberg was even more unnecessarily cautious and may have cost the Allies almost as much grief as he did on Crete. Harper says the battle really was “the end of the beginning” as Churchill said, and did for the first time see initiative in the war pass from Axis to Allies. But it was not the knockout blow it could have been. Not for the first time in the writing of New Zealand military history, Kippenberger comes through in a more positive light than Freyberg does.

The chapter on the Free French contribution by Remy Porte (translated from the French by Jill Edwards) is one of the most unexpected. Porte freely acknowledges that Free French participation in the battles of El Alamein was at most peripheral and minor; but the Free French defence at Bir Hakim genuinely held up Rommel’s plans enough to allow greater Allied preparation for the coming battle. This is a remarkably modest chapter. For Porte the chief significance of Bir Hakim was the morale boost it gave to the Resistance movement in mainland France as a bona fide success by Free French arms. I am particularly surprised by this modesty, as, in his recent general history The Second World War, the popular military historian Antony Beevor gives a far more heroic account (pp.313-317) of the Free French defence of Bir Hakim.

After these first five essays have dealt in turn with South Africans, the Indian Army, Australians, New Zealanders and the Free French, the remaining seven chapters of El Alamein and the Struggle for North Africa turn to more general matters related to the whole theatre of war.

            The Italian Aldino Bondesan gives a scrupulous account of recent Italian-initiated surveys and archaeological work on the battle sites themselves, which have inevitably been altered by the impact of tourism and oil-prospecting in recent years – and by less bruited things. (“Hundreds of wrecks abandoned after the battle have been removed, and for years fed Egypt’s steel industry,” notes Bondesan on p.122.) A “park” has been set up, with modest memorials to commemorate the key points of the battle. Nick Hewitt, curator of a naval museum in Portsmouth, argues that no matter how battered and beaten it sometimes seemed to be, the Royal Navy was ultimately responsible for destroying what should have been Rommel’s key advantage in North Africa, his short supply route from Europe. German historian Thomas Scheben gives a sober account of the dire conditions for civilians on Malta at the time it was besieged, explains how the island was [precariously] provisioned, and notes the glaring mistake of German command in not knocking Malta out on the many occasions when it could easily have done so.

There follow two chapters weighing up the abilities of the commanding generals.
            Antulio Echevarria’s analysis of Rommel’s abilities as a commander (with reference to the theories of Clausewitz) basically concludes that he was a better tactician than a strategist, often winning small actions with a certain dash, but having nothing to counter what was eventually the Allies’ overwhelming superiority of  manpower and materiel. Echevarria implies that Rommel’s reputation was inflated by the British earlier in the conflict, as a means of explaining their own initial defeats.

Niall Barr weighs up very coolly three successive British commanders in North Africa. First Ritchie, who simply didn’t have what it took, and retreated to the point where Rommel was knocking on Egypt’s door. Then Auchinleck, who in Barr’s judgment was a sound strategist but a useless diplomat, who got offside with his subordinate officers and inspired little confidence. Finally, Montgomery, who appears to have been appointed almost by accident. Barr credits Montgomery with raising morale and getting on well with his officers and troops; but he is careful to point out that Montgomery’s battle plans for El Alamein were essentially the ones that Auchinleck had drawn up. On top of this, Montgomery always knew in advance what Rommel was up to, thanks to Ultra signals; and at the second battle of El Alamein, Rommel faced Allied forces three times larger than his own, equipped with four times as many tanks as he had at his disposal. For Barr, Montgomery was simply one component of the victory.

            I am pleased that this collection ends with two chapters (by Mohamed Awad, Sahar Hamouda and Harry Tzalas) on the reactions to the war of civilians in Alexandria. It is always good to be reminded that more people are affected by war than the serving troops.

            El Alamein and the Struggle for North Africa is at the very least an informative and varied collection. It’s certainly not the last word on El Alamein – no history is uncontested, and there will doubtless be other aspects of the battles that other experts will cover in future books. Also, given that the conduct and morale of Allied troops are discussed in a number of chapters, I (as a non-expert) really felt the absence of a chapter on the conduct and morale of German and Italian troops. I also wonder why the volume ends with a poem by A.E.Housman. I myself would have chosen something by Keith Douglas who, as well as being an excellent poet, was also a tank commander in North Africa in the Second World War. Vergissmeinicht, perhaps?

            Here, however, I’m quibbling. This is a very good and enlightening example of the symposium book.

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