[Cross posted from Thoughts on Military History]
Niall Barr, Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein. London: Pimilico, 2005. 576pp. Illustrations, Maps, Notes, Index. £10.99 (pbk)
The Battle of El Alamein is hotly contested ground, not just between the protagonists themselves but also by the many authors who have tried to describe and analyse the battle. The conflicting views have centered primarily on the British conduct of the battle and who planned the success that eventually came at the end of Operation SUPERCHARGE. Effectively the analysis fall into two camps, first, there are those who argue that much of the success was laid by the planning of General Sir Claude Auchinleck who took over from Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie after the disaster that was the Battle of Gazala. This group is most notable represented by Corelli Barnett and his work The Desert Generals. At the opposing end of the scale, as represented by Field Marshal Lord Carver in his work El Alamein, we have the argument that it was the taking over of the Eighth Army by Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery and the effect he had on the morale of the British forces in the desert, which swung the battle in Britain’s favour.
However, with this new work from Niall Barr, a lecturer (now a Reader) at the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College, we have a new and invigorating analysis of the battle. The first thing you notice about this book is that Barr labels El Alamein as the three battles. This is as far as I am aware a first. Traditionally it has been seen that if there were three battles these were First Alamein, Alam Halfa and Second Alamein. However, Barr re-categorises this and argues that the Battle for Egypt, the retreat after CRUSADER that culminated in the Battle of Gazala, was in actual fact the First Battle of El Alamein and Barr argues that the battles around the El Alamein position started on 1 July 1942. This is both refreshing and interesting.
Not only does Barr offer a refreshing view of the battle dealing with the issues facing all the major protagonists on both sides he also offers excellent analysis of the effect of air power of the battles and how the Western Desert Air Forces campaign against Axis supply lines. This campaign effectively cut Generalfeldmarshal Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika off from its supply’s, which had to cross the Mediterranean. The Western Desert Air Force was able in this interdiction campaign to dislocate the Axis forces and remove their one major advantages from the battlefield, that of mobility. Without the ability to manoeuvre Rommel’s forces were not able to counter attack in the way they had previously and thus, this campaign allowed the Eighth Army to fight to its strength and wear down the Axis forces to the point were they had no other option than to retreat. Barr offers excellent discussion of the role of air power and is to be commended on this as no truly effective analysis of the Western Desert Air Forces’ contribution to Allied victory in North Africa and the Western Desert exists.
The author has provided the reader with an excellent up to date analysis of the battle and he weaves through the myriad of sources and debates in such a way that you are left fully understanding the complexity of this decisive battle and how it was not only important in terms of being one of the turning point of the war but also that it was crucial for Britain and Churchill who at the time of the battle was facing at vote of not confidence in the House of Commons. Overall if you are interested in the desert war or the persona of Montgomery I would recommend this book. As the Richard Holmes noted in his review of the hardback version this book, ‘Deserves to become the standard work on the desert war in 1942.’
Update: I first wrote this review five years ago and it is worth noting that this book remains the most important work on the subject. However, I would suggest that it should be read in conjunction with Jonathan Fennell’s work Combat and Morale in the . This excellent work has shifted and deepened our understanding of victory in North Africa by focussing on the issue of morale and how it affected the fighting power of the Eighth Army. It is clear that Montgomery was, despite historians attempts to suggest otherwise, critical to victory. The evidence that Fennell deploys in his analysis clearly shows that there was a morale crisis in the Eighth Army and that Montgomery worked to improve it before launching his assault.
N.B. As well as Fennell’s work Bryn Hammond has a new book out on the battle that should help us further understand this important battle. Hammond has focussed on Montgomery’s operational technique and builds upon his previous work on Cambrai. The key question he seeks to answer is, ‘Was it really true that Montgomery eschewed the principles and methods of the British Army in the First World War in the planning and execution of Second Alamein?’. I am looking forward to this book.
By Ross Mahoney, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham
Printable version can be downloaded here.
Citation: Ross Mahoney, ‘Book Review of Niall Barr, Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein’, Birmingham “On War”, 8 May 1012