Armies of El Alamein I


Was there another battlefield in modern times when the armies were so diverse yet so small? El Alamein brought together men from around the world in a profusion of cultures, each secure in their own sense of identity and ready to assert a particular point of view as the occasion arose.

There were, in fact, not two armies, but two groupings of armies.

In theory North Africa was the Italian theatre, and the Germans came reluctantly and then sent no more than three divisions as a ‘blocking force’ except near the end, when it was too late. The Italians had most of their front-line forces there, and the Commander-in-Chief was an Italian, though once the Germans arrived, Rommel in effect ran the Desert war for the Axis.

On the British side it was very much a Commonwealth and ‘Empire’ war, with Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Indians joined with United Kingdom formations, supplemented by Free French and Poles, though none of the latter two fought at Alamein in July. Army and corps commanders were from the British and Indian Armies.

Looking at the many nationalities involved, the obvious curiosity is that the North African campaign became essentially a struggle between the Germans on the one side and the British and the Commonwealth forces on the other. The Germans were always the shock troops and it was the Germans who at times of crisis rushed hither and thither to plug holes and fling in counter-attacks.

At best the Italians were regarded by friend and foe with wry amusement, at worst with contempt. While this must be accepted as wartime stereotyping, it is true that Rommel had to interlace Italian troops at Alamein with Germans to prevent the line from giving way. It is also true that Italian units quickly collapsed before determined attack, and that they were sometimes absent when their German allies needed them. It may even be true, as Desmond Young reports, that in the face of an Australian attack outside Tobruk in 1941, the Italian troops fell on their knees with cries of ‘Sancta Maria’. Rommel, so the story goes, crisply told the Italian commander to ‘stop them praying and persuade them to shoot’.

Even to say there were times when the Italians did fight with ferocity is to sound patronising, and does not alter the fact that in 1940 a massive Italian army advanced only hesitantly into Egypt and was then overwhelmed by an opportunist British force a fraction of its size.

The truth of that, though, is that the Italians had no tanks or anti-tank weapons that could touch the British infantry tank, the Matilda, and even the British cruisers ran rings around them. Ill-armed, poorly equipped with transport and badly led, the Italian forces could neither stand and fight nor flee, and had no choice but to throw up their hands – gratefully, perhaps, because there was no enthusiasm among them for fighting. These days that might be seen as a virtue rather than a vice, but in the 1940s such liberality was not highly regarded. The stakes were too high. Yet it was more complicated than that.

The Italians were truly not interested in war, and their militaristic image of pre-war years was no more than a Fascist charade. So far as the alliance with Germany is concerned, not even the Fascists were wedded to the idea of a neighbour dominated by a Teutonic version of their own totalitarian creed. Liaison between Italians and Germans was poor, sometimes non-existent, and the Pact of Steel that created the Rome-Berlin Axis was as phoney as Mussolin’s bluster. This antipathy penetrated to the lowest levels.

The adjutant of the 1st Battalion, 5th Panzer Regiment, noted in his diary after visiting an Italian shop in North Africa on 2 September 1941, ‘… any nationality is served more cheerfully than a German’. His own view of the Italians is reflected in an entry for 30 August when he recorded: ‘An English U boat damaged an Italian vessel. The Italians took revenge – excelled themselves by shooting down a plane – unfortunately a German Ju88.’

All this was read with pleasure after the diary’s capture, and related in British intelligence summaries.

The plain fact is that the Italians were unprepared in mind and equipment for war and, thanks to Fascism, which perpetuated privilege, a strong caste system dominated the army command structure. Many Italians had an affinity with the English that leached away enthusiasm for a war with Britain, and considering that Mussolini was once highly regarded in England, the alliance might well have gone the other way.

Even Rommel, who was caustic in his criticism of the Italians, offered a plea in mitigation for the Italian soldier. He was, he said, poorly equipped and poorly led by a privileged officer class who did not always consider it necessary to make an appearance in battle, and who enjoyed the luxury of having meals of several courses while the troops did not even have field kitchens. He might also have added that the officers’ life-style included flamboyant wardrobes and travelling brothels.

There is very likely a cultural component in this, too. Italians are people who express their every emotion, often with no restraint. By contrast, the Germans, British and Commonwealth troops came from more phlegmatic traditions, and this is a distinct advantage when death or mutilation threatens. To release emotion is to invite panic, and when everyone around about is doing the same, only disaster can result.

Moreover, the making of a soldier demands more than putting a man into uniform, giving him a gun, filling him with propaganda and pointing him towards the enemy. There’s a necessary conditioning, a delving into the psyche for primitive drives that enable a man to thrust a bayonet into another human being and put his foot on the corpse while he pulls out a blade dripping red. Soldiering is not about brass bands and heroics, or even impersonal killing at a distance. It’s a bloody business that requires a man to be prepared to kill or be killed, and in the process put aside all other considerations, including thought for the future. The British, too, had no great heart for the war, at least until it started, and they did not properly prepare for it. Their forces were to some extent blighted by the class system, and great losses were suffered in consequence. Auchinleck was hard put to find a good army commander, and at Alamein, where he himself commanded, his subordinates failed him.

In the House of Commons, during the debate on a motion of censure during July 1942, while the battle raged at Alamein, one speaker scathingly suggested that there were generals in the Czech, Polish and French forces in Britain who could do better than the British generals then engaged in Egypt. If Rommel had been in the British Army, he said, he would be no more than a sergeant, and there was in fact a sergeant in a British armoured brigade who had been chief of staff in the Spanish Civil War and had won the Battle of Ebro.

‘The fact of the matter is,’ he said, ‘that the British Army is ridden with class prejudice.’

The British, though, had a commitment to the war the Italians lacked, and they were not shackled to a partner who despised them. And for the British, winning was a matter of survival. It’s doubtful if the Italians could see any good for themselves whichever way the war went. They were in a no-win situation, and once the sense of adventure was gone they lacked motivation.

In short, a significant factor in Rommel’s failure in North Africa was not simple Italian unwillingness to fight but a tangled complex of political and sociological factors that hobbled the will of the men with the weapons.

Of course the Italians suffered by comparison with their German allies, who must be considered the best soldiers in the world. Though they may not have been the supermen we sometimes thought, they were remarkable in both attack and defence, and no less than astonishing in their ability to fight much stronger forces on so many fronts, and in their tenacity in the face of their country’s ruin. In the Desert, Rommel was able time and again, in a manner that seemed almost miraculous, to pull together scratch German forces to repair holes punched in his line by the Eighth Army.

‘The German soldier always seemed capable of making one more supreme effort,’ says the official British history.

An American writer, Colonel T.N. Dupuy, who has done some scientific modelling on this subject, reckons that in 1943 German soldiers had a 20 per cent superiority over American and British fighting men. In other words, 100 Germans roughly equalled 120 American or British soldiers. He attributes this superiority not to any innate propensity for fighting, but to the effectiveness of the German General Staff. It is difficult not to feel, however, that this superiority does not also relate to the Germans’ strong sense of national identity, of being Germans, to their tradition of obedience to authority, and the powerful military ethos established by that General Staff – not something for which they were admired but it served them well when they were beset by enemies.

The Germans had never before fought a desert war, though they had campaigned elsewhere in Africa. Officers sent to Russia viewed the African adventure with a jaundiced eye and accused those who went there of ‘unauthorised absence’ from the Eastern front, but in their isolated world, and commanded as they were by a general who was a national hero, the ‘Africans’ wrapped themselves in their own sense of elitism. In Africa they were cut off from their familiar world, with no nearby compensations of civilisation available on leave, such as the Eighth Army had in Cairo, and no comfortable alternative theatre to which they could be posted, such as the British had in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.

Once in North Africa they were trapped in the heat and sand, fighting often without reserves and existing on rations that did little to preserve good health.

But lest he seem larger than life, it should be said that the German soldier could find the prospect of fighting for victory daunting. On 21 August 1941, our panzer regiment diarist wrote: ‘I often wonder how this war, which must be victorious, is to be carried on. Such vast spaces to be conquered against that huge power, England, with her inexhaustible resources. We can only match her with our very best soldiers. But there is a shortage of everything – of material; of reserve manpower; our very vehicles are on their bare rims. Poor rations have made more than 80 per cent of the regiment unfit to be sent forward.’

The German soldier shared, too, the irreverence men of all armies have for the army in general and their superiors in particular. Our diarist perhaps had a stomach ulcer as he recorded breakfast as being ‘carbolic flavoured coffee and mouldy bacon with dauerbrot, the very thing for my stomach!’ and this may explain his description of general staff officers as ‘old bald-headed bureaucrats and conceited young whippersnappers’.

The Germans’ sense of isolation is reflected in a satirical story found sewn into the lining of a coat worn by a prisoner of war describing the return of the Afrika Korps to Berlin ‘long after the war’, when Hitler and Goering are enjoying the quiet of a Europe at peace. The leaders spare the time for an occasional glance out of the window, and then suddenly ‘a caravan of wild-looking creatures comes around the corner driving along crowds of donkeys, laden mainly with stones and sand, others rusty tins which on closer inspection, are found to be Italian AM meat’.

These ‘wild looking creatures’, though German, speak only Arabic, and Goering wonders who they can be. Then a light glows in his memory. Of course, Germany fought a war in North Africa. But what to do with these long forgotten men? Because they could not be integrated into a normal life, they are put on Huneberg Heath, where ‘owing to the absence of sand storms and AM tinned meat, it was not long before their miserable existence terminated’.

The prize for sardonic humour, though, must go to The Desert Song, a poem that was apparently the cause of a German court of inquiry. It bewails the fate of the ‘compulsory volunteers’ of the Desert, badly fed, without pay and deprived of the company of women, and with victory columns ‘just another tale’. One verse portrays Rommel as a hard task master in these terms:

Came dear old Papa Rommel to see this front one day.

He said, No more I’ll permit that, here my army stay.

Advance, those armoured cars and roll on this wheeled host,

I’ll see you devils sweat and toil, I’ll make you devils roast.

Which is pretty much a picture of the man as history portrays him.

A more prosaic but equally telling view of German feelings was given by a German captured during the July fighting. This talkative prisoner told his captors that before the fighting began at Gazala in May 1942, German soldiers could be divided into three categories – the ‘old Africans’, proud of their self-invented title but ‘browned off with the climate and lack of leave; recent reinforcements combed out from desk jobs, young and confidently ignorant; and those who had come from Russia, believing, to the annoyance of the ‘old Africans’, that their new theatre was a rest cure. Since then, the ‘old Africans’ had found this the most arduous campaign yet experienced, the young and confident had had ‘the surprise of their young lives’, and, to the unrepressed delight of the ‘old Africans’, the others had realised their mistake and were yearning for the ‘joys of Russia’.

Yet in the face of hardship, German discipline held.

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