Today, 23rd October 2012, is the 70th anniversary of the start of the battle of El Alamein which ended on November 4th 1942, with the complete defeat of the German-Italian army.  Sadly, but inevitably, there will be very few veterans from Britain, Australia and New Zealand present at today’s decennial commemoration at El Alamein which will in all probability be the last.

In the great British Empire cemetery at El Alamein lie 7,367 young men, among them near the central avenue, lies Private Graham Smith, aged 19, Rhodesia Rifles, a name now barely remembered.  What true Briton cannot but be moved at the devotion of these volunteers in their teens and early twenties from all over the Empire, who didn’t have to be there, but were determined to do their bit for our freedoms.

It is fashionable among contemporary historians to play down the significance of the battle of El Alamein on the grounds that the number (13) of German and Italian divisions engaged and prisoners taken (35,000) were small compared with those destroyed at the battle of Stalingrad just afterwards.  That battle ended with the surrender of 90,000 Germans on 31st January 1943, and probably a similar number killed in the preceding three months of the battle.  Moreover, according to David Reynolds, Professor of History at Cambridge University, whose film about the significance of the Mediterranean campaigns has just been shown on Freeview Channel 19, Alamein was unnecessary because the Anglo-American landings in Morocco and Algeria starting on November 8th (Operation Torch) sealed the fate of the Axis powers in North Africa.

But even if that were true, which it is not, that is not how it was seen at the time, either by the Germans or by the British, or by the Russians and Americans for that matter.

Although remote from the Russian Front the shock of this first decisive defeat of German arms anywhere was felt all the more keenly as only three months earlier the German Afrika Korps commander, the famous Erwin Rommel, had been promoted to Field Marshal, called to Berlin to receive his baton from Hitler himself and fêted as a national hero in recognition of his victories over the British Eighth Army in Libya and Egypt.

Without the victory at Alamein it is difficult to see that the Torch landings 2,200 miles to the West would have succeeded in driving the Axis forces out of North Africa, or prevented the catastrophe of the Germans’ capturing the Suez Canal, destroying the whole British position in the Middle East and occupying the vital oil fields in Iran.

Moreover, the Axis forces, especially the German Afrika Korps were extremely battle hardened.  In proof of this they inflicted a serious defeat on the untried American forces at Kasserine pass in central Tunisia in February 1943, by which time Montgomery’s Eighth Army had fought three more tough battles against the Germans in Southern Tunisia, at Medenine, Mareth and Wadi Akarit, after an epic 1,500 mile march across Egypt and Libya.  The subsequent surrender of all Axis forces in North Africa which Hitler had heavily reinforced after Alamein, on May 13th 1943, netted a further 150,000 prisoners of war, comparable with Stalingrad in fact.

In his programme, Reynolds like other historians of this period, makes much of the alleged futility of Churchill’s strategy of invading Italy after the victory in North Africa instead of in some way going straight across the channel into France.  But the reality was that the build-up of the US forces needed for a successful invasion of France depended (a) on winning the Battle of the Atlantic so that their troops and supplies could actually reach Britain in sufficient numbers, (b) construction of sufficient landing craft for Normandy, many of which from US yards were being directed to support US stategy in the Pacific, (c) detailed planning and assembly of sufficient sea and air resources not just to land, but to successfully sustain for several months 40 divisions (1.5 million men) across 120 miles of open sea in all winds and weathers, until a working port could be brought into action[1].  It is difficult to see that any of this could have been accomplished before May-June 1944, given that from about September 1943 to late spring 1944 a cross-Channel invasion would have been impossible because of the weather.

But the real significance of the Italian campaign was to ensure that Italy and Greece did not fall under the control of the Russian and Tito-led communists.  By 1943, the principal opposition to Fascist rule in Italy was the Italian communist party.  If Fascist Italy had surrendered as a result of a German surrender, there would have been literally nothing to prevent the Soviet-backed communists taking over the whole of Italy.  As it was, only the arrival of British and New Zealand troops in Trieste at the end of April 1945 prevented Soviet-backed Yugoslav communist forces led by Tito from occupying parts of North-East Italy and indeed the British zone in Southern Austria.

Likewise only the prompt dispatch in December 1944 of some 8,000 British troops from Italy to Greece prevented a Greek communist takeover of that country.

Besides the short-term objective of securing the Mediterranean route to the Far East, the long-term result of Churchill’s Mediterranean strategy was that Greece and Italy did not end up behind the Iron Curtain for 45 years and because of this Yugoslavia was able to wrench itself free from Soviet control after less than five years.  Montgomery’s epic victory at El Alamein and Churchill’s foresight really were that significant[2].  The sacrifice of those thousands of lives was not in vain.


[1] The British, on the left, had to continue to use the “floating” Mulberry port of Arromanches which was towed across the Channel just after the initial landings on June 6th.  The ports of Cherbourg and Brest were not brought into full operation for 3 months after D-day. The American Mulberry was destroyed in the great Channel storm of mid-June.

[2] Montgomery’s victory was significant in another, profound way.  His combination of brains, energy and determination, exhibited at Alamein, bore further fruit in his appointment as Allied ground forces commander for Overlord, the landings in Normandy in June 1944, where the planning for this gigantic operation had to be carried out in meticulous detail.

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2 Responses to “El-Alamein”

  1. ageing albion says:

    I do not subscribe to the revisionist view that has Montgomery as little more than an inflated self-publicist. Nor would I agree that Britain’s actions in the Mediterranean (or indeed the war in general) were no better than a sideshow.

    I would still maintain, however, that the destruction of the entire Sixth Army at Stanlingrad was a much more significant event than any engagement in the West, as indeed was the defeat at Kursk. Just as there is no getting away from the fact that it was the BEF which won the First World War, it was the Red Army which won the Second.

    There are two points I have been pondering recently. First, the significance of Khalkhin Gol – which secured the Eastern Border for Russia, enabling her to concentrate on the west (initially as ally and then as opponent of Germany), and led to the Japanese High Command concentrating on the Pacific, not Siberia, and in turn bringing the Americans into the war.

    Secondly, who and what was responsible for the decline of the British Army relative to the German from 1918 to 1940? At the time it seemed to be explained away on the basis of German numerical superiority and invulnerable tanks, neither of which bears scrutiny. I suspect that after the war no-one really wanted to ask that sort of question, and instead pointed simply to the fact that Britain finished on the winning side.

    Similarly, there are serious questions to be asked about the performance of the army in Basra post invasion in 2003, yet the army seems to have deflected all of these and blamed any difficulties on politicians and the Americans.

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  2. Frederick May says:

    These are good points. On the relative significance of Stalingrad and Alamein, I would say that Alamein was a battle the British really had to win and really could have lost, with not only the strategic consequences which Stephen Bush set out, but the political consequences at home, namely the virtual certainty that Churchill would have been removed from office. The damage to British Army morale might well have been irreparable too, as its starting point post Dunkirk was nowhere near as solid as say post-Somme in 1916. For the Soviets, not winning at Stalingrad would have been a setback for Stalin, but it would have led the Germans nowhere: their fate was sealed when they invaded Russia in the first place, so long as the Soviets didn’t make a separate peace with them. With Russian factories turning out over two thousand T34s a month by the autumn of 1942 and about 10 million mobilised for the Red Army, there was no chance that Stalin would agree to anything that Hitler could accept.

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