Armies of El Alamein II


he oddity of the Eighth Army was that though this was essentially Britain’s war, at Alamein in July the infantry almost all came from the Dominions, with divisions present from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. Small in population and remote from the centre of conflict, these countries had sent their men from the security of distance to fight what truly in those days was seen as a crusade. Even with all the disillusionment of 1914–18 behind them, there was a sense of urgency and necessity that drove these countries to commit themselves to a war that did not directly threaten them, in the beginning at least, and if there was a degree of self-interest centering on trade in this willing support, there was also an element of idealism, naive though it might seem in our more cynical times. However brutal and unnecessary the Kaiser’s war may have seemed, Hitler’s was inescapable. The Nazis truly were bent on world domination, bolstered by an evil theory of racial superiority, and nothing that has come to light since the war has changed that. Without this understanding the commitment of men to a battle in a North African desert against an enemy they grudgingly respected cannot be appreciated.

Until the disasters of the Battle of Egypt, when an intense bitterness was generated, there was a degree of benevolent tension between Commonwealth troops and those from Britain. Though they respected veterans like the Desert Rats (the 7th Armoured Division, which was created in the Desert), they affected a mild arrogance towards ‘the Poms’, born partly, perhaps, from their sense of national identity, and partly from the fact that, being men accustomed to the open spaces of their own countries, they saw United Kingdom troops as being more at home in big cities and out of place in the wilderness. Moreover, UK troops, for their part, tended to regard those from the Commonwealth as ‘colonials’ and in their vast ignorance of places on the other side of the world were apt to ask galling questions. Commonwealth nations were self-governing democracies, and though they might have lacked some of Europe’s sophistication, they were civilised countries with all the amenities this implies, and Commonwealth troops were scathingly amused to receive inquiries suggesting that their homelands resembled darkest Africa.

The fact that the Eighth Army was run by the British probably didn’t help, either, especially when things went wrong and it was clear that army command was at fault. This is not to suggest that Commonwealth and British troops were at daggers drawn, but there was tension.

For whatever reason, Rommel appears to have regarded the New Zealanders as the elite of the Eighth Army. Certainly they were different, and in some ways more like a tribe or a family, with the huge Bernard Freyberg VC, affectionately known as Tiny, as a father figure at their head. Freyberg, who began life as a dentist, had been a strong swimmer in his youth and gained some fame during the Gallipoli campaign, where he served with the Hood Battalion, when he swam ashore on a mission. He gained a VC in France, and after the war stayed on in the British Army. Though Surrey born, and truly a British Army officer, he grew up in New Zealand, and soon after the outbreak of the Second World War was appointed to command the New Zealand Division.

Wounded during the abortive defence of the Mersa Matruh positions in June 1942 he handed over to the pipe-smoking Inglis, a barrister by profession, promoted to major-general for the occasion.

The New Zealanders came from one of the most geographically isolated countries on earth, just a few blobs of land in the South Pacific, almost on the International Date Line and nearly 2,000 kilometres from the nearest neighbour, Australia. In this fastness, an ambivalent culture was suspended half way between the nostalgia of those who still called England Home, with a capital H, and the realism of an enforced growing South Pacific identity. Though there were some regional rivalries among the New Zealanders – those from the sparsely populated South Island liked to say theirs was the mainland – they hung together as a de facto national army of a country of only 1.6 million people, no more than a medium-sized European city, and while there were also many New Zealanders serving in the air force and navy, the army was the centre of attention at home, and this enhanced their self-awareness. It was a larger division than the normal British formation, as it came with supplementary fighting units and all its own back-up services, its own ‘cavalry’ – a reconnaissance unit in light tanks – and even a spare battalion – the 28th (Maori) Battalion, established especially for the country’s ethnic minority. The Maoris at one time or another were posted to different brigades and were in the thick of the fighting.

So pervasive is wartime propaganda (and what country will denigrate its soldiers either during a war or afterwards?) it is hard even now to say how good the New Zealanders really were. Tuker thought the division was ‘a very ponderous affair … like dear old Freyberg’, and Dorman Smith considered it had not responded easily to the ‘scrambling, impromptu’ sort of fighting of July. Auchinleck, if he did not regard the New Zealanders as the best, at least used them as a criterion by which others could be judged. Writing in 1942 to Sir Walter Monkton, Minister of State in Cairo, he said ‘The Indian Army, as you know, has gained a name for itself which is second to none, not even the New Zealanders.’

Like the Australians and South Africans, the New Zealand Division enjoyed a degree of independence and could refuse an order or ask for Government approval, though this was not something done lightly. The primary political concern was that so small an army should not be annihilated in a single action, and the New Zealanders had vivid memories of a sequence of disasters that had accumulated enormous casualties in dead, wounded and prisoners of war.

The Australians, coming from a larger, more self-confident country, were more flamboyant, and they had a reputation for indiscipline. But according to the wartime writer Chester Wilmot their commander at Alamein, Morshead, was ‘something of a martinet’, and the troops, he said, responded to discipline.

Known to his troops as Ming the Merciless, Morshead was certainly the antithesis of the Australian stereotype. In the words of Australia’s military historian, Dr C.E.W. Bean, he was a ‘dapper little schoolmaster’, a dumpy man with a toothbrush moustache and a quick temper. Originally the Australians had three divisions in the Middle East, and when two were taken home after Japan entered the war, Morshead became, like Freyberg, the protector of his nation’s one division in this theatre.

The Australians liked to rough up the Italians, who greatly feared them, though according to Desmond Young, Rommel was amused by this and felt that it did not show a ‘bad heart’. When the Italians discovered on 10 July that they had been attacked by Australians, their incredulity, according to the commander of 2/24th Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Hammer, ‘was almost pathetic’. The Germans were surprised, too, thinking all the Australians had gone home, and a message from the commander of the 86th Infantry Regiment to a battalion commander on 20 July, warned, ‘Div has just rung up at this very moment to say that units in front of you are Australians – notable patrollers. Keep your eyes open. Don’t withdraw your patrols further than 100 metres from the strong-point or you will find yourself left high and dry and with only an alarm bell for protection.’

The Australians were no lesser soldiers than the New Zealanders, and their part in the 242-day seige of Tobruk fully established their credentials. Indeed, at Tobruk they bested Rommel by having the troops lie low while the panzers went by, to emerge to fight off the surprised following infantry. The tanks, meanwhile, charged on into a trap of guns from which the survivors escaped only by retreat.

Barrie Pitt says they lacked the hard professionalism of regular soldiers but made up for it in sheer size and physical strength, and he describes them as being of immense physique, with rifles in their hands looking ‘like boys’ air guns’. Of course, many Englishmen could not tell Australians and New Zealanders apart – they still can’t-just as many of us can’t distinguish Canadians from Americans, but the story of Australians using captured enemy guns in Tobruk is unadultered Okker. As the guns lacked sights, the procedure for changing elevation was ‘Cock the bastard up a bit’, and when the gun appeared to be on target, ‘Let her go, mate.’

The South Africans were Africans, and they were committed only to the defence of the African continent, a condition imposed so literally that when Auchinleck made plans to withdraw from the Delta should the Axis break through at Alamein, part of his army would have had to withdraw south up the Nile. To have taken the South Africans east across the Suez Canal would have required them to enter Asia.

The South Africans were commanded at Alamein by the prickly Dan Pienaar, who had been appointed as recently as March. He was a student of the Bible and a fatalist, but in his approach to the enemy he exercised a Gilbertian sense of humour. He had German mines sewn in front of Italian troops and Italian mines sewn in front of Germans, and when he learned that the Germans listened to Lili Marlene singing love songs on their forces radio at midnight, he instituted a shelling programme at 11.57 pm.

The South Africans were a people apart among the Commonwealth troops, and their distinctive culture came through in their long ‘a’ and rolled ‘r’, the pace and music of their speech, their exotic songs, and their frequent use of the Afrikaans language, through which they wove army colloquialisms in English. They were, incidentally, the natural rugby rivals of the New Zealanders. They, too, had their sense of identity, and they came to the Western Desert with a successful campaign in East Africa behind them.

After the fall of Tobruk in June 1942 a fairly savage antipathy developed between the South Africans and Australians, who felt their own record entitled them to pass judgement, and the story is told of an Australian who offered a South African a seat in a Cairo bar because, he said, ‘you must be tired after running all the way from Tobruk’. A monstrous brawl ensued.

The Indians were Empire rather than Commonwealth, the last vestiges of the greatest empire the world has known. They were professionals under British command, and in this they contrasted with the more relaxed attitude of the so-called colonials, who were in the army for the duration only.

The Indians had served in East Africa, too, and at Keren had won a battle not many people know about, even today. Here, in rugged terrain, they had battled against tenacious Italians to fight their way up through the Dongolass Gorge to achieve one of the memorable victories of the war. Not all the Indians who came to Alamein were veterans, and some who had never previously heard a shot fired in anger were to stake their own claim to fame by stopping the panzers.

The Indian Army was not entirely made up of Indians, and included British regiments.

It is difficult to generalise about the troops from the UK in the Middle East because they were less homogeneous, a mixture of crack professional regiments and run-of-the-mill support units whose manpower ingredients were English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh, each with their individual regional origins, a combination of dialects and identities that invited rivalries and even a degree of antipathy. Rommel dismissed them as promising amateurs. To the Commonwealth troops, the British, with their ‘funny’ way of talking, were quite strange beings, and as the British ran the army and as it was the British Red Caps and British punishment centres that imposed general discipline on free ranging ‘colonials’, they commonly appeared as authority figures to be resented. It has to be remembered that in pre-war days, tourism was a pastime mainly for the rich, and there was no television to provide us with daily images and sounds from around the globe. For New Zealanders and Australians living at the far end of the Earth, Britain was at least a month’s steaming away, and there was a rich folklore from earlier times of ‘new chums’ from ‘Home’ trying awkwardly to cope with what we now recognise as a culture shock, and the ‘Empire’ was sometimes used as a refuge by misfit Englishmen who hadn’t been able to cope with life in their own country. British kinsfolk in general were almost foreigners, regarded rather patronisingly by New Zealanders and Australians. After the disasters of July, they came to be regarded rather more angrily as ‘Pommie bastards’.