Monday, March 5, 2018

Something New


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

“THE BATTLE FOR NORTH AFRICA” by Glyn Harper (Massey University Press, NZ45) 

Whether dealing with the New Zealand military or with other armed forces, it is hard to regard the First World War favourably. After a century, the causes of that war have become obscure to us. The First World War has come to seem little more than the clash of rival empires. Small wonder that, in recent years, New Zealand’s best military historians have presented quite unvarnished and sometimes unflattering views of Allied officers and men in action between 1914 and 1918. See, for example, the works of Chris Pugsley, Andrew Macdonald’s First Day of the Somme  (reviewed on this blog) and Glyn Harper’s Dark Journey.

But as I’ve argued before (see the posting TheOne True Good War), the Second World War is usually held in popular memory as a fully justifiable war – the defeat of Nazism and Japanese militarism – and New Zealand’s role in it is esteemed. There have been some dissenters from this view, such as Stevan Eldred- Grigg with his self-satisfied book Phoney Wars (reviewed on this blog), which argued that New Zealand contributed little to the outcome of the war and should have stayed neutral anyway. Eldred-Grigg’s argument was so unpersuasive that his book seemed to have been written more to start arguments than to enlighten anyone.

Yet given the generally anti-militarist views of modern New Zealand, and given fading memories, is there now a danger that the Allied cause in the Second World War will become under-esteemed? Being born long after the Second World War, I have no desire to see inflated patriotic myths revived. But I am concerned that the Second World War be remembered accurately, and that how it was fought is seen in relation to possibilities that then existed.

Hence I welcome Glyn Harper’s The Battle for North Africa, which is subtitled “El Alamein and the Turning Point for World War II”. As a good military historian, Harper does not present a partisan account of the clash between Allied and Axis forces in North Africa, but rather presents as impartially as possible the story of how a series of major battles were fought. This is a work of corrective memory in the face of incipient historical amnesia. It is a welcome companion to the symposium book El Alamein and the Struggle for North Africa (reviewed on this blog) which Jill Edwards edited five years ago, and to which Glyn Harper contributed.

What we generally call the Battle of El Alamein was in fact a series of three battles fought between July and October of 1942. As Harper explains in his introduction and opening chapter (“Military Background”), in 1940 the British under Wavell had defeated Graziani’s Italian army in Libya; but in February 1941 Rommel’s Afrika Korps and Panzerarmee landed in North Africa and pushed British forces out of Libya and into Egypt. The thorn in Rommel’s side was Tobruk, defended by Australians, which he attempted to besiege. But Rommel was starved of resources (the RAF and British navy controlled enough of the Mediterranean to keep supplies from him) and he had to abandon the siege.

Auchinleck replaced Wavell as British commander but, says Harper, the 8th Army that Auchinleck commanded was “clearly dysfunctional” (p.21). British tanks (Crusaders, Matildas, Stuarts) were inferior to German panzers and had a shorter range of fire. The 8th Army had an ongoing problem in coordinating armour with infantry. Morale was low. As a result, in May 1942, Rommel defeated Auchinleck at Gazala and was able to take Tobruk in what Harper regards as the pinnacle of Rommel’s career. The British had been “out-gunned, out-manoeuvred, out-generalled.” As for Rommel’s chronic shortage of materiel and supplies, there is this bizarre detail:

As the British formations retreated, there was little time to carry or destroy their logistical support bases. In July 1942, the Axis forces were using as many as 6,000 captured vehicles as well as numerous British field guns with ample ammunition stocks. It is somewhat ironic that the spearhead units of Panzerarmee were enjoying British bully beef and Imperial Tinned Peaches while driving Canadian Ford trucks filled with Iraqi fuel.” (Chapter 1, pp.30-31)

The British were now on the defensive and what is known as the first Battle of El Alamein took place in July 1942. As well as a numerical advantage in manpower and materiel, the 8th Army had a great advantage in military intelligence, given that general staff were able to read de-crypted Ultra signals. In this battle, New Zealanders presented an effective counter-thrust to the Italian Ariete division, and Australians and South Africans routed the Italian Sabratha division. But even though this first Battle of El Alamein was technically an Allied victory, it resolved itself into a series of minor actions with neither side gaining great advantage. Auchinleck’s leadership was hesitant and erratic and he often lacked the confidence of his officers. He frequently berated infantry for, as he saw it, under-performing, and ignored that lack of coordination between armour and infantry that had been one cause of excessive  New Zealand casualties at Ruweisat Ridge. And while this muddled battle was going on, anti-British Egyptian nationalists in Cairo were momently looking forward to being “liberated” by Rommel; and there was the big “flap” in which British officials and embassy staff burnt documents in the expectations of soon going into captivity.

The measure of both Auchinleck’s frustration and his army’s low morale is that he seriously petitioned for the reinstatement of the death penalty (abolished in 1930) for desertion. Some of his subordinates (including New Zealand commander Bernard Freyberg) wrote “appreciations” of what had gone wrong, including arguments for the greater coordination of arms. Back in London, Churchill and Alan Brooke argued that there should be a “clean sweep” of 8th Army’s leadership. Churchill appointed General “Strafer” Gott to replace Auchinleck. Gott was not renowned for his skills as a leader. Perhaps fortunately, Gott died when the ‘plane he was travelling in, to take up his command, was shot down.

So it was Bernard Law Montgomery who replaced Auchinleck.

More decisive than Auchinleck, Montgomery ordered all plans for retreat to be destoyed. He faced his first trial in August 1942 when Rommel launched an offensive, generally known as the battle of Alam Halfa. Again the 8th Army was, at first, on the defensive. But Rommel was severely ill, he had lost contact with most of his sources of military intelligence and his offensive bogged down when his panzers ran out of fuel. After six days, the battle was over. This was the last Axis attempt to reach Cairo and it was again, technically, an Allied victory. But it was by no means a knock-out blow. There was no immediate attempt by the 8th Army to pursue Rommel’s foces and morale in the 8th Army remained low.

At this point, I put in a personal observation. For whatever reason, Rommel’s reputation has remained high. There is a certain mystique about the man. But Montgomery has aways seemed to me a less impressive figure and part of me always wondered whether his reputation had been built up by British propaganda. I therefore admit that my regard for him rose when I read Chapter 5 (“Preparation and Plans”) of Harper’s book. Churchill was anxious for a quick and decisive victory in North Africa – something to impress American allies as well as boosting home morale. He therefore nagged Montgomery about delivering such a victory and wanted him to prepare 8th Army for an offensive in September 1942. Montgomery would not be bullied. He stood his ground and insisted that such an offensive required massive preparation and would not be possible until October. He then prepared the ground carefully – a rigorous programme of re-training troops, very extensive use of deception to lure Rommel into believing that the offensive would come from a direction other than the real one, and attempts to re-organise the use of armour. By this stage 8th Army had acquired American Grant and Sherman tanks, far superior to British-made tanks. Unfortunately in this matter Lt General Herbert Lumsden was very uncooperative and Montgomery’s effort to form a corps de chasse floundered. Effective pursuit of the enemy remained a weak point.

By this stage, Rommel’s own preparations were entirely defensive. He had all German positions protected by large minefields and was at first optimistic about this defence.

So in Chapters 6, 7 and 8 Harper gives in great detail his account of the second Battle of El Alamein – the one that is remembered. The Allies had air superiority throughout. British artillery overcame counter-fire. British night-attacks demoralised some Axis units (German and Italian forces rarely attacked at night). The deception plans worked well, as some of Rommel’s forces were at first tied up in unimportant sectors. British sappers made effective breaches in Rommel’s protective minefields. 8th Army infantry (Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Highlanders) generally reached their set objectives. Rommel was aware that he could soon face defeat. He had been away in Berlin on sick leave, and in his absence his subordinate, temporarily acting as commander-in-chief, had died of a heart-attack. Rommel wrote “I knew there were no more laurels in Africa” (quoted p.166)

Even so, this was no easy battle for Montgomery and his army. It went on for twelve days (Harper calls his seventh chapter “Slugging It Out”) and there were again failures in the use of armour. New Zealand infantry and 9th Armoured Brigade made a major breach in enemy lines, with great loss of life, but the 1st Armoured Division was unwilling the exploit the breach. In spite of this, the Panzerarmee was pounded and – despite Hitler’s orders that he stand his ground – Rommel had no alternative but to withdraw 60 miles west.

Churchill had the victory he wanted – the first British victory in the war against German-led troops. Panzerarmee was never again in a position to attack Egypt or reach the Suez Canal. Unfortunately, effective pursuit was again not forthcoming. This is the basis of most criticisms of Montgomery’s command. Weakened or not, Panzerarmee was still intact and the war in North Africa would continue for another 6 months until the end of the Tunisian campaign.

It is not only in his concluding chapter (“Reflections and Reputations”) that Harper assesses the reputations of the military leaders. My impression is that he believes Rommel’s reputation to be inflated and Montgomery’s to be lower than it should be. In the text, however, it is Auchinleck, Lumsden and a few others whom he most berates for their shortcomings. He is, throughout, aware of the difficulties Rommel faced getting fuel and materiel when the RAF and Royal Navy were regularly harrassing his supply lines. But he is also aware that, despite its many material advantages, 8th Army was not an effective force until it had an effective leader. In his Introduction he quotes Freyberg:

Freyberg was right in that the Italians and Germans on the Alamein position could not ‘stick it’ against the weight of manpower and materiel wielded against them by an Army commander who demonstrated considerable skill in their use.” (p.3)

He skewers a number of myths, including the idea that Italians were inferior soldiers to their German allies. In his introduction he notes: “The British Army at last showed it could beat the German Army in battle, even though that army had been made up largely of Italians.” (p.4) And: “While Rommel’s defeated Panzerarmee contained many Italian formations, it is a myth that these units did not fight well in North Africa in the Alamein battles.” (p.6) He proves this by recording (Chapter 8, p.230) that the Italians’ last armoured action, with much loss if life, gave the remaining Afrika Korps the chance to escape.

As a densely written and closely detailed work of military history, The Battle for North Africa often requires patience and close attention in the reading. But it is a persuasive and convincing account of a major battle that has often been obscured by legend.

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