Book Review – El Alamein: The Battle that Turned the Tide of the Second World War

Bryn Hammond, El Alamein: The Battle that Turned the Tide of the Second World War. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2012. 328 pp. Maps, Photographs, Notes, Bibliography

The Battle of El Alamein is a well-trodden path in the historiography of Second World War. Churchill famously described it in hyperbolic terms when he noted in his memoirs that, ‘Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.’ While this typical piece of Churchillian rhetoric is over simplistic in its view of the seesaw battles that characterised the North African Campaign it does encapsulate El Alamein’s place in British cultural memory. While Churchill bears some of the responsibility for this, the other key figure responsible for this view is Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein who in his memoirs made much of his role in dealing with what he viewed as a morale crisis in the Eighth Army when he arrived and officially took command on 13 August 1942. Corelli Barnett, in his book The Desert Generals, did much to challenge this view, and earned much wrath from the pro-Montgomery camp when it was published in 1960.[1] More recently, Niall Barr has produced an iconoclastic study of the battle that re-conceptualised it into three battles (including Alam Halfa) rather than the more traditional two battles.[2] Additionally, Jonathan Fennell has produced a thought provoking study that examines the central question of whether there really was a morale crisis in Eighth Army, and how this affected its operational performance.[3]

Into this historiographical milieu comes Bryn Hammond’s new account of the Battle of El Alamein. Hammond is Head of Collections at the Imperial War Museum and a noted military historian who holds a PhD in Modern History from the University of Birmingham where he completed a thesis that examined tank co-operation with the other arms of service on the Western Front during the First World War.[4] He is also the author of significant study on the Battle of Cambrai in 1917.[5] This study is notable, as it has reconceptualised our view of that battle from one that focusses on the first mass use of tanks in war to one that places greater emphasis on the importance of artillery and its evolution as the key arm during the First World War

In dealing with a well-known battle, which many historians have examined, it would be hard to imagine whether anything new could be added by Hammond’s account. However, as Hammond himself notes both Barnett and Barr left a ‘sufficiently large opportunity’ (p. 7) to provide a new view of the battle to be presented. Indeed, what Hammond brings to the study of the battle is a much-needed First World War perspective. This book has two great strengths, first, as noted is the conceptual view that Hammond brings to it by considering Montgomery’s operational technique in terms of his First World War experience, and in this respect, Hammond’s established knowledge on this area provides a firm foundation for this. Second, the use of personal first-hand accounts throughout the book highlighting the experiences of the battle is particularly useful.

On the first issue concerning Montgomery’s operational technique, Hammond points out there were many similarities between 1942 and the methods that evolved within the British Army of the First World War. A specific example will suffice here. On 6 October 1942, Montgomery revised the battle plan for Operation LIGHTFOOT (pp. 159-161) to include ‘crumbling’ attacks along the front. This technique has a clear antecedent in the ‘bite and hold’ attacks of the First World War that sought to gain a break-in for operations and then a breakthrough and break-out by multiple attacks along a front. By 1918, the British Army had become a sophisticated fighting machine that could conduct complex operations with integrated battle plans utilising a combination of artillery, armour, infantry, cavalry and air power to achieve operational objectives. For example in August 1918, after success at the Battle of Amiens, the British Armies in France was able to shift its operational tempo from Fourth Army to Third Army, thus illustrating its increasing competence at fighting large scale operations and in gaining ground that slowly pushed back the German Army. In the use of ‘crumbling’ attacks, this is what we largely see in Montgomery’s operations at El Alamein. Indeed, the failure of Montgomery’s Corps de Chassee during LIGHTFOOT would bring him back even more to the techniques that he felt comfortable with when he launched Operation SUPERCHARGE. However, even the concentrated use of armour in the manner that Montgomery wished had its precursor in the First World War, as LIGHTFOOT sought to use infantry and artillery to ‘crumble’ the front at various points in order to punch a hole through which armour could pass. This was all because, as Hammond notes, Montgomery thought about battle planning in in a four-phased process that again had First World War equivalents (p. 160). This is unsurprising given the nature of the El Alamein position and its parallels with the trench systems of the First World War. It is clear that the method needed to overcome these static positions was one based on attrition and careful preparations using a combined arms approach rather than pure manoeuvre warfare, and this was something with which Montgomery was particularly adept. More importantly, as Hammond notes (p. 148) the majority of the senior commander of Eighth Army had First World War experience and this had important implications about how they viewed the conduct of operations, though this should not, as noted below, be considered as a group of officers’ thinking retrospectively but instead drawing on their extensive combined experience.

These parallels raise several interesting historiographical questions. First, just how sophisticated was the British Army of the First World War? Given that Montgomery was ultimately successfully in winning El Alamein using methods with clear First World War antecedents this book adds to the ‘learning curve’ debate of First World War historiography as much as it does to that on the battle itself. Montgomery’s use of First World War tactics rather than the supposedly more modern ‘Blitzkrieg’ tactics highlights just how progressive developments in the British Army were, and how sophisticated a fighting machine it was in 1918. While there were clear strategic factors that hindered Generalfeldmarshal Erwin Rommel’s ability to win the North African campaign such as logistical problems and German strategic directions of the war in general, they do not strictly mean that he would lose the battle. This ultimately came down to the operations and tactics utilised at the front. In this respect Rommel was ultimately found wanting and Montgomery was actually able to adapt and modify his battle plans when elements were found wanting as seen by the shift from LIGHTFOOT to SUPERCHARGE. Secondly, linked to this is the question of British Army developments in the inter-war period. If Montgomery used First World War methods, then it must be the case that the British Army’s operational thinking did not progress in the inter-war period. I disagree; I would suggest that by 1918, the British Army was far ahead of its counterparts and that what we actually see in the inter-war period is the case of relative decline and improvements in military innovation in comparative terms. The British Army did not so much decline as the German Army improved. Of course, the British Army did continue to experiment; however, it faced institutional and operational problems that slowed developments. Most notable of these is the simple fact that the British Army, unlike the German Army, remained engaged in operations in its traditional policing role throughout the inter-war period; indeed Montgomery himself commanded the 8th Infantry Division during the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936-1939. Finally, is the question of why did Montgomery engage in these methods. Hammond is clear that there was a morale issue in Eighth Army. The use of massive firepower bolstered British Army morale and Montgomery’s method became, as Stephen Hart has shown, the cornerstone of his operational technique for the rest of the Second World War.[6]

The second advantage of this book lies in its use of first-hand accounts throughout to illustrate and support Hammond’s analysis. Many of these sources come from the vast sound and document collection held by the Department of Collections at the Imperial War Museum. The use of these sources adds a personal touch to understanding the battle. For example, in describing the impact that Montgomery’s arrival had upon troops, Hammond cites Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson Smith of the 57th Anti-Tank Regiment (p. 111) who claimed that the whole atmosphere changed after his arrival. This type of first-hand account reinforces the academic approach undertaken by Fennell in examining Montgomery’s impact upon Eighth Army’s morale. However, more importantly Hammond utilises this type of source to support his central argument about the character of the operations undertaken by Eighth Army. For example, Carol Mather (p. 149), a liaison officer at Eighth Army, noted that the plans had a sense of familiarity about them as they were, ‘going back to the First World War.’ Additionally, Hammond cites Major-General Douglas Wimberley’s private papers that are held by the Imperial War Museum. Wimberley, General Officer Commanding 51st (Highland) Infantry Division, noted (p. 158) that the training and preparations for El Alamein had been a principle that had been ‘drummed’ into him in the First World War. This integration and rigorous use of first-hand sources is an exemplar of how they should be utilised rather than being used out of context, as many popular histories tend to do.

Overall, this book is an excellent addition to the historiography of the Battle of the El Alamein and should be read by anyone with an interest in the North African Campaign and the British Army in general. Additionally I would suggest anyone seeking to understand the importance of the First World War to the changing character of war should read it in order to understand that wars enduring legacy to the process of transformation that occurred in warfare in the early part of the twentieth century. On a purely personal note it was good to see mention of the role of the Western Desert Air Force during the Battle of El Alamein, though the importance of air power has yet to be given the full treatment that it rightly deserves in gaining victory in North Africa.

By Ross Mahoney, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

You can download a copy of the review here.

[1] Corelli Barnett, The Desert Generals (London: Kimber, 1960); Corelli Barnett, ‘The Desert Generals Revisited’, Address to the Annual General Meeting of the British Commission for Military History, 5 February 2005.

[2] Niall Barr, The Pendulum of Battle: The Three Battle of El Alamein (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004).

[3] Jonathan Fennell, Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign: The Eighth Army and the Path to El Alamein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). For a review of this work see; Craig Stockings, ‘Review of Jonathan Fennell, Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign: The Eight Army and the Path to El Alamein’, Journal of Military History, Vol. 76, No. 4 (October 2012) pp. 1278-1280.

[4] Bryn Hammond, ‘The Theory and Practice of Tank Co-Operation with Other Arms on the Western Front during the First World War’, PhD Thesis (University of Birmingham, 2005).

[5] Bryn Hammond, Cambrai 1917: The Myth of the First Great Tank Battle (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2008).

[6] Stephen Hart, Montgomery and “Colossal Cracks”: The 21st Army Group in Northwest Europe, 1944-45 (Westport, CT., Praeger, 2000).


3 responses to “Book Review – El Alamein: The Battle that Turned the Tide of the Second World War

  1. Pingback: Book Review – El Alamein: The Battle that Turned the Tide of the Second World War « Thoughts on Military History·

  2. Pingback: Veterans of El Alamein, the Second World War battle that was a turning point for Britain and her allies, have gathered in the desert to mark its 70th anniversary. « just telling it as it is·

  3. Pingback: Humber Armoured Car Mk.II British Army - Bronco 35085·

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