The silent Desert shimmered in the heat as a lone army staff jolted down a desert track, trailing a cloud of choking dust. It halted at the collection of tents and vehicles that were Eighth Army Tactical Headquarters, only a few kilometres from where the two opposing armies now pointedly ignored each other as they reached back into their supply lines for new strength.

Colonel Ian Jacob, a member of Churchill’s staff, alighted to be greeted by Auchinleck’s personal assistant, Angus Mackinnon, and together they went into Auchinleck’s caravan, where the general sat behind his desk. Jacob saluted and expressed Churchill’s condolence on the death of Gott, who had been killed a few days earlier when the aircraft carrying him back from the Desert was shot down, and then handed Auchinleck a plain white envelope, its flap sealed with red wax. It was addressed to Auchinleck and marked ‘Most secret and personal’, and written on the back in Churchill’s hand were the words ‘To be opened by General Auchinleck’.

‘For you, sir, from the Prime Minister,’ Jacob said.

Jacob knew the contents, and as he watched Auchinleck break the seal and take out the letter, he felt, he was to say later, ‘as if I were just going to murder an unsuspecting friend’.

The letter, bearing that day’s date, 8 August, was brief and to the point. After some opening Aim flam, it said bluntly, ‘The War Cabinet have now decided … that the moment has come for a change.’ Alexander would command Middle East, Montgomery the Eighth Army. Auchinleck was offered a newly-created command in Iraq and Persia, which was being peeled off from the Middle East command. Auchinleck’s short time as army commander was over, and so too was his appointment as Commander-in-Chief. After careful thought he declined the step down to the lesser command offered him in the north.

With Auchinleck went his confidant, Dorman Smith. Though he did not yet know it, the whole weight of the July failures was to descend on him, and according to Jacob everyone regarded him ‘as a menace of the first order’. By a grotesque twist of circumstance, only three days before his firing Auchinleck had sent Dorman Smith to Cairo to tell Brooke how he believed the army should be reorganised to make it responsive to the needs of Desert warfare. Dorman Smith later recalled, ‘I plodded through it all one sweaty Cairo August day in a hot office.’ Brooke listened impassively, and Dorman Smith, already unknowingly discredited, might well have been talking to stone. Even when he and Auchinleck shook hands on Auchinleck’s departure for India he was unaware of what awaited him. Their parting marked more than a leaving for different destinations.

Auchinleck experienced rebirth of a kind. Though he fought no more battles he went on to new appointments, a knighthood and promotion to field marshall, and in the years after the war he was offered the directorships that come the way of famous men who give prestige to a company prospectus. As the years went by and revisionists studied more closely the foibles and failings of Montgomery, Auchinleck attracted historians who began to portray him as an ill-used hero who had been the victim of the wily Churchill. He died an honoured soldier.

Dorman Smith, who had toiled beside him, went home to Britain to disgrace, demotion and obscurity, and he lived the rest of his life as a rightfully resentful scapegoat, writing long letters often of some thousands of words, and willingly explaining to anyone who would listen the ‘truth’ about July. For many years he had no contact even with old friends, and he believed people to be deliberately avoiding him. Eventually chance put him in touch with Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese, who had been his pupil and who had gone on to higher things. He also struck up a correspondence with Auchinleck, awkwardly adjusting to addressing his old chief by his Christian name. The army ethos stayed with him to the end. He died without honour, known to few.

Such was the fate of the two men who saved Egypt.

Under them the major achievement of the Eighth Army had been to stop the Axis forces and to hold them at Alamein until a new and stronger army could strike back. To that extent the victory belongs to them – but not entirely. In the end it was the resilience and tenacity of the troops who stuck to their task in the face of what looked like impending doom that truly won the day.

If a memorial is ever erected to the defenders of Egypt (an unlikely occurrence) the name of the 18th Indian Brigade should stand at the top. It gave the Eighth Army time to turn and fight and even to destroy an enemy on the point of exhaustion. So why did we fail?

Those who have read the dedication of this book will recall that the simple answer offered is that we were an old army fighting an old war. We were beaten not by superior enemy strength but by our own muddle. So how was it possible for intelligent men holding senior rank to launch three attacks that did not proceed beyond the first phase and each time end in disaster?

What was wrong with the old army?

One explanation for the armour’s failure comes from Perrett, who writes:

‘The root of the problem lay in the way the two arms viewed their casualties. When an infantryman was killed or wounded it was by a bullet, bayonet or high explosive shell, all things which he understood. But the tankman fought in a travelling bomb, packed with high explosives and high octane fuel. All tankmen have a horror of being burned to death in a blazing vehicle while they are trapped because of jammed hatches or personal injury, and the tankmen of the earlier desert battles had heard the screams and smelled the stench too often not to pay the greatest respect to the crack of an 88 shot. As a result their actions were now governed by supreme caution and staleness, not that this in any way excuses them from failing to protect their infantry; and especially not as the same performance was to be repeated a week later.’

Kippenberger gives some substance to this when he describes how, when he went out to watch a tank battle on 2 July, he was ‘distressed to find several slightly damaged Crusaders making no attempt to get back into the battle. One officer asked me if he should and was disappointed with my emphatic reply’.

These two comments suggest that tank crews had lost their nerve, yet we know that they faced up to the enemy as steadfastly as the infantry. Though there may have been occasions when tired men shrank from battle, they also displayed a suicidal obedience to orders and suffered the consequences.

But at the time the infantry were not so understanding, and Kippenberger recalls that ‘there was throughout the Eighth Army, not only in the New Zealand Division, a most intense distrust, almost a hatred, of our armour. Everywhere one heard stories of other arms being let down; it was regarded as axiomatic that the tanks would not be where they were wanted on time’.

Now the odd thing about all this is the studied silence from the armour commanders. Even Liddell Hart in his massive two-volume work The Tanks brushes lightly over the problem, and no one seems to have taken up the task of answering the trenchant criticism that continued into the peace. For instance Briggs, the brigadier to whom Kippenberger appealed on 15 July and who later commanded the 1st Armoured Division, was given an explicit opportunity to reply when Brigadier Harry Latham, of the Historical Section of the Cabinet Office, on 21 October 1953, sent him a copy of what was to appear in the New Zealand official history with the casual comment, ‘There can be little doubt that they are very sore with the armour’s failure, in their eyes, to support them …’ If Briggs replied, his papers at the Imperial War Museum contain no copy, and no answer appears in the New Zealand history. Was the issue beneath their contempt, or did the tank men simply not understand what it was all about?

There are some things that can be said in defence both of the armour in general and the tank crews in particular.

To begin with, fighting in a tank in the Desert was murderously uncomfortable. True, the Desert was hard on everyone. The front line infantryman, for instance, lay all day in the inhospitable surface of the Desert, beset by flies and broiled by the tropical sun. But in the cool of the night, if not on patrol, he could relax, and field kitchens brought him hot food. For tank crews things were different.

In July 1942 the Medical Research Section at General Headquarters, Middle East Forces, produced a report that identified fatigue a major problem among tank crews at that time. As the battles were being fought in the summer, there was more daylight for fighting, or for watchfulness when there was no fighting, and fewer night hours to do all the things required of tank crews when darkness sent opposing tank formations into laager to refuel, rearm and carry out maintenance. Three hours’ sleep a night is given as the average attainable. Some officers reported going without sleep for 48 and 72 hours.

Throughout the day crews were confined within their tanks, with engine noise and fumes, gun fumes and the wearing of head-phones adding to their fatigue.

The opinion of British regimental officers was that in these conditions men could not fight with any degree of efficiency for more than a week; some thought a shorter time. The suggested solution was to have alternative tank crews.

All this provides some background to the arrival of the distraught Lumsden at 30th Corps HQ on 2 July. The tanks, then, had been in and out of battle for weeks without pause. However, during July men were sent on leave, and the hardships suffered by British tank crews were hardly greater than those endured by the men of the panzers considering the pressure they were under. And so the question remains: Why were commitments accepted by the armour not carried out? If the armour had a problem, why didn’t someone say so? Why did the tanks wait until the protection the infantry gave them had evaporated, and the guns of the panzers and anti-tank units awaited them?

While the armour had every reason to treat with caution infantry assurances that adequate gaps had been made in the minefields, they appeared to make no attempt to make their own plans for reaching the objective and did not even have their own sappers on hand when they bumped into mines. They simply did not seem to know what to do.

If there’s a simple explanation of why this was so, it might lie in two words: mind set. The Dominions’ infantry had no experience with armour, and thought in infantry terms. To the infantry, tanks were tanks, and there was an assumption that they would follow through. The armour, raised in the United Kingdom, had been trained only in armoured warfare and knew nothing of infantry, and we might suspect did not want to know anything. A service in which a colonel can think of regiments in terms of being cosy clubs is clearly in no mind to establish a relationship with common foot soldiers – trade unionists.

This was the weak point of the old army. The Eighth Army in July was not a cohesive force with all its parts working in unison. The left hand hardly seemed to know what the right was doing, yet plans were made that required the two to co-operate, and to co-operate to the most precise timetables. Not even a football coach, where the only disaster could be a lost match, would attempt such an exercise. Those who made the army’s plans were expecting a water-to-wine miracle from men too tired to do anything but follow the well-trodden paths of custom. Of course, it’s fair to ask whether after three years of war such inefficiency should have been permitted, but that’s another story.

In later battles, the army fought not just with better tanks but also closer co-ordination. Yet even then all was not sweetness and light. There continued to be inexcusable glitches, and anyone who reads a report by the German Lehr Division dated 27 July, 1944 – an uncannily coincidental date – must surely have a feeling déjà vu.

‘A successful break-in by the enemy,’ it said, ‘is never exploited to pursuit. If our troops are ready near the front for a local counter-attack, the ground is immediately regained.’

So Auchinleck the infantryman had cavalrymen under him, and this may explain why he was unable to bend the armour to his will or to impel his subordinates, the corps commanders, to see that the job was done.

To be scrupulously fair, Dorman Smith’s view that Auchinleck had to exercise great caution in dealing with the Dominions’ divisions has to be borne in mind. And it is true that in July the frustration engendered by the succession of disasters experienced during 1940 and 1941 boiled to the surface, and the divisional commanders were determined at this critical hour that they would fight as infantry and as complete formations. It was Auchinleck’s misfortune to inherit bitterness from the past.

Indeed, Dorman Smith might have better understood his own fate if he had recognised that in an army made up of a number of little national armies, as was the Eighth Army, army command could not play the numbers game. The Dominions’ divisions had wills of their own and could not be thrown into battle, Haig style, and neither could their losses be shrugged off as just one of those things. What Auchinleck and Dorman Smith saw as limited successes, the Dominions’ divisions saw as unmitigated disasters, and when Churchill, all pink and white from the cooler English summer, arrived with his entourage in August, he could hardly ignore the cries of outrage to be heard on every side, not to mention the newspaper headlines at home following the Gazala debacle. It was Dorman Smith’s misfortune to have all the blame heaped on him. And it might be asked whether this was so because of some logical analysis or whether Dorman Smith’s personality made him the odd man out, the one on whom the pack turns when there’s a lust for blood.

And so, the crunch question: Was Churchill right to sack Auchinleck? The answer must be yes, but for the wrong reasons. Auchinleck was sacked not because of July’s disasters – Dorman Smith was the sacrifice for those – but because he resisted Churchill’s demands that he should attack again without delay. It was something so trivial as denial of an ignorant man’s impatience.

But in truth, as the commanding general, he ought to have borne the responsibility for what happened in July. Though he saved Egypt, Auchinleck also needlessly almost destroyed the army he had vowed to preserve. In this manic dance of war, while the Eighth Army had called the tune, Rommel had dealt resounding blows with a mailed fist as he jigged back and forth, and when the music stopped at the end of July, the piper was as bloody as the dancer. And quite as bad as the physical damage done to the army was the destruction of its unity and morale. The New Zealanders, in embittered arrogance, had become quite insufferable, and Clifton and Kippenberger, two brigadiers whose units had been heavily clobbered, found it necessary to call on their men to desist. Kippenberger reminded them that ‘we are fighting the Germans and Italians and not the South Africans, British and Indians …’

If one wants to make a plea in mitigation of Auchinleck’s performance it can only be said that in picking up an army on the run and turning it around he achieved a minor miracle, and he truly had little time to introduce reforms. But the reforms were long overdue, and as commander-in-chief and army commander he had to carry the can.

Another inescapable question is: What would have happened if the Eighth Army had toppled Rommel in July? It has to be said that trying to answer this involves a great deal of guesswork, and yet it is fascinating, and not without some historical interest to wonder whether Auchinleck’s failure was not a providential postponement of the final showdown. It is unlikely that a July victory would have ended the North African war.

If the Eighth Army had collapsed the Axis line, it would have sent columns racing across the Desert to cut off the survivors at Daba and Fuka, and pounded the stragglers from the air. Without a doubt Rommel’s army would have been annihilated. But could the Eighth Army have filled the vast vacuum that would then have existed between Cairo and Tripoli, particularly as there was so much concern that the Germans might break through in the north?

At this time reinforcements and Sherman tanks were arriving but these would have taken time to integrate into the field army. Even if success had come early in the month or even no later than 15 July, when the army was still in reasonable shape, the Eighth Army was desperately in need of new blood, and by 27 July, when the final attack failed, there was little left from which to assemble a force capable of taking possession so vast an area.

German and Italian reinforcements were also coming forward, and while they too, were inadequate, the reaction of the Germans when the British and Americans closed in on Tripoli the following year suggests that British success in July 1942 would have brought greater reinforcements running, with a new commander if necessary, and at this time the Eighth Army, its sins of faulty planning and organisation all unredeemed, would have had to deal with this new Axis army alone. The whole dreary business of attack and counter-attack could well have started all over again.

The final irony of Alamein in July may have been that in its failure to overthrow the Axis forces the Eighth Army escaped from the trap into which Rommel fell – of winning an indigestible victory. In war, fortune often does favour the brave, but not always. Rommel learned that lesson.

Auchinleck’s admirers feel he was dismissed unjustly and to the extent that he was the victim of his army’s ineptness, perhaps he was. But he had to go because in human affairs symbols are needed as well as substance, and Auchinleck was compromised by the disasters that occurred under his generalship. As things turned out, Montgomery offered the Eighth Army exactly what it needed – a new start and an iron determination that in future everyone would do as they were told. In Montgomery the Eighth Army got a touch, just a touch, of Rommel.

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