Desert rats

I’ve found myself watching not one but two different programmes about the Desert War, being shown to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein. As a result, I realised that when I was young I was sold a complete pup about the military skills of the British commander at El Alamein, Bernard Montgomery. Watching Jonathan Dimbleby’s endless documentary, it was clear that after Churchill had removed both Wavell and Auchinleck from the command in Cairo, Montgomery just happened to be the general standing in the right place by the time the British had weakened sufficiently the supply lines of the Afrika Korps and had mustered enough men and tanks to attack the German desert army. Either of his predecessors would have won comfortably as well – and Auchinleck was probably a better general.

The programmes helped me understand a few other things as well. Hitler, obviously, was notorious for over-ruling his generals (so much so that at Bletchley Park they sometimes thought messages they’d cracked were wrong because they made no apparent strategic sense) but Churchill had form here as well, insisting that his generals attack when the attacks were doomed. Wavell departed because he reluctantly followed Churchill’s order and lost disastrously; Auchinleck because he declined to do so because he knew the consequences would not be good.

Rommel, on the other hand, won Hitler’s trust through some outrageous tank attacks; he was a gambler who usually had a shrewd grasp of the odds. His letters to his wife, Lu, which were included in the programme, seemed surprisingly candid. But he lost his last gamble when he was implicated in the 20th July Plot. Even then his military record saved him from the humiliation of a Nazi trial, since Hitler allowed him to commit suicide instead.

A world war

I’d believed before that Britain’s commitment in North Africa was a sop to Stalin, to pin down some German divisions a long way from the Eastern Front. I’ve also had it argued that it was a way into the ‘soft underbelly’ of the Axis, through Italy, at a time when Britain knew an invasion across the Channel was impossible. (Though as a German commander said later, and the Allies learnt the hard way, if you’re going to invade Italy, don’t start at the bottom). But both the programmes I watched suggested that the British understood that it was a world war before other countries, perhaps because of the Empire. Churchill was obsessed with Egypt and the North African desert because he could see the link between the war effort, the Suez Canal, the resources of India, and the oil resources that Britain controlled in the Middle East. The oil in particular, was critical: the German army never quite had enough of it, and it did for them in the end. But it took a while for Churchill to persuade Roosevelt of this. (Eventually the Americans had to insist that the Allies pressed ahead with invading France.)

As an aside, the Dimbleby documentary seemed to have blown the entire budget on travel – he popped up in more locations than were needed to tell the story – which left the graphics to be done in Photoshop, or so it seemed. It made me realise how much the Snows, Peter and Dan, have done to improve the quality of military graphics on television. There were frequent occasions when my understanding of events and tactics would have been improved by a bit of Peter Snow’s electronic tabletop.

Finally, even if Montgomery happened to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, one can see how his name became so important. By the time of the second battle of El Alamein, Britain had been losing the war for two years. But El Alamein marked the turning of the tide, something more than “the end of the beginning”. Three months later the Germans were beaten at Stalingrad, and by then American equipment was pouring into Europe. The autumn of 1942 represented the point at which – largely thanks to the determination of the Soviet army – the Germans became overstretched. Although the Japanese had further successes, the Germans barely won again. But it’s a lot easier to say that in hindsight, now we know how things turned out. In late 1942 the relief of a victory well-won would have been overwhelming.

The image at the top of this post is from World War II Today, and is used with thanks.



  1. I really enjoyed the Dimbleby programme – the BBC have had a good string of historical documentaries recently. My father was a Desert Rat so this one especially interesting – it does a lot to remind the average viewer how so little in the war was certain for the Allies.

  2. What channel were these shows on as I have totally missed them and I am quite a fan of Monty. Even Rommel has some of my grudging respect, deep down that is.

    The North Africa Campaign is so forgotten despite it being a turning point in many ways. Also it was a victory entirely by British and Empire troops allowing Churchill to properly bring the USA into the war and be taken seriously.

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