El Alamein and the Pursuit After… Part II

It was surprising that General Alexander, in his Despatch published in 1948, was somewhat dismissive of the casualties incurred in this third battle. Alexander claimed that Eighth Army’s losses at El Alamein “were not unduly severe” and later that: “Our casualties were a negligible factor as far as the pursuit was concerned.” But Alexander was comparing Alamein to the attritional battles of the First World War. As he pointed out in his Memoirs, there was “one rather big difference.” At Alamein, casualties averaged just over 1,000 a day. On the first day of the Somme they had numbered “some 60,000.”

As with any battle of attrition, the cost of success was high. Eighth Army suffered 2,350 men killed in action; 8,950 wounded; and 2,260 men missing—a total of 13,560. In addition, 500 tanks and 111 guns were put of action and the DAF lost ninety-seven aircraft during the battle. These are not negligible figures and prove, as the British official history stated, “the battle was anything but a walk-over.” Panzerarmee losses were high too. An estimated 1,149 German and 971 Italians were killed in action, with a further 3,886 Germans and 933 Italians wounded. A more precise figure was recorded for the number of Axis prisoners taken during the battle. By November 11, it had reached 30,000.

The breakdown of Eighth Army’s losses indicates its multinational character. Of the total casualties incurred in the October battle, the percentages suffered by various nationalities were: UK troops 58 percent, Australians 22 percent, New Zealanders 10, South Africans 6, Indians 1, Allies (Free French, Greeks) 3.45 Two Australian historians have made much of these figures. They write that:

The Australian Division, although representing just under a tenth of the Eighth Army’s strength, had suffered more than one in five of its casualties. Further reports revealed the scale of the Australian contribution to the battle. Thirteen per cent of the 9th Division’s men had been killed or wounded, which is exactly double the British percentage and three times that of the other Dominion formations.

No one could ever question the contribution of the Australians to the final outcome of the battle and their heavy casualties are just one indication of the hard fighting they endured. But using casualty figures as a yardstick of contribution is misleading. It needs to be remembered that the UK casualties were not evenly spread across all its formations and some UK formations, such as the 51st Highland Division and 9 Armoured Brigade, suffered heavier percentage casualties than the Australians. In fact, 51st Highland Division, with 2,827 killed, wounded, and missing, suffered the highest number of casualties during the battle. The bulk of this Division’s casualties were in its nine infantry battalions, which collectively had a casualty rate of around 40 percent. The 2nd New Zealand Division losses had also been heavy, given that it was well understrength before the battle began. More than 1,700 New Zealanders became casualties during this second battle of El Alamein. More than a third of these casualties, some 651, had occurred in the first twenty-four hours of the battle, the highest number suffered amongst the five infantry divisions used on the opening night. Among the 7,350 graves of Allied servicemen in the Alamein cemetery are those of 1,049 known and fifty-six unknown New Zealanders. After the October battle, the New Zealand Division was now below strength by 3,600 men, a deficiency felt especially keenly in the infantry, the artillery, and the engineer corps. It had commenced the long campaign in June with nearly 20,000 men. In November 1942, its strength had almost reached 13,000 again. Niall Barr was correct in his assessment of the human cost of the last Alamein battle. He wrote that, “Eighth Army had finally crushed the Panzerarmee but the human cost to both sides had been grievous.”

In his later years, Montgomery was acutely aware of this human cost and felt it deeply. In 1967, on the 25th anniversary of the battle, Montgomery went to Egypt on what would be his last overseas trip. With a former staff officer, he visited the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery on the ridge near Alamein station, which has a clear view of most of the battlefield. Montgomery had been there on October 24, 1954, when the cemetery was officially opened, but this visit in 1967 was a more poignant and restrained affair. After spending considerable time before the headstones of two brothers killed on successive days, Montgomery quickly left the cemetery. That evening, walking beside the Mediterranean, Montgomery was silent and subdued. He confessed to his concerned companion, “I’ve been thinking of all those dead.” That forlorn feeling, no doubt tinged with a sense of guilt, often returned. In the last month of his life, Montgomery awoke after a troubled night. He told his friend, Sir Denis Hamilton, the reason for his disturbed sleep:

 

I couldn’t sleep last night—I had great difficulty. I can’t have very long to go now. I’ve got to go to meet God—and explain all those men I killed at Alamein.

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At Alamein, Montgomery demonstrated considerable skill fighting “with the army he has rather than the one he wants it to be.” When Lightfoot failed to achieve the break-in and the battle’s momentum was waning, Montgomery, “resilient but resolute, did not hesitate to change his plan.” The new plan, Supercharge, while not entirely successful, did enough to break the will of his skillful opponent. Throughout the battle, despite many anxious moments, Montgomery radiated “confidence and determination amid all the stress and urgency.” It was an impressive performance. But despite achieving a decisive victory, Montgomery never received the accolades, plaudits, or adulation that his defeated opponent did. As Nigel Hamilton, Montgomery’s sympathetic biographer, noted with some concern:

Author after author would play down or denigrate Monty’s leadership. Not only did Auchinleck acolytes feel duty-bound to do so, but non-military historians waded in, too.

The first book to be thoroughly critical of Montgomery’s performance as a military commander was Correlli Barnett’s The Desert Generals. It first appeared in 1960 and “caused a scandal when published.” It has since been reprinted four times; the last revised edition appeared in 2007, nearly fifty years after its initial publication. Barnett’s book was followed by many others all “intent on chipping away some of the polished marble of Monty’s reputation.”

Conversely, Rommel’s standing as a skilled, daring battlefield commander, maybe even a brilliant one, has endured, especially among British and American historians. David Fraser, for example, described Rommel as “a master of manoeuvre on the battlefield and a leader of purest quality.” He “stands in the company” of other military greats such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Robert E. Lee. Ronald Lewin, not quite as praising, ranked him with Jeb Stuart, Attila, Prince Rupert, and George Patton. For Lewin, who had been an artillery officer in Eighth Army, Rommel’s place “as one of the last great cavalry captains … cannot be denied.” For Martin Blumenson, Rommel’s reputation has only grown since the war. Rommel was “a master of modern warfare” and undoubtedly a military genius; one of the “great captains who epitomized generalship on the field of battle.” In a similar vein, Antulio J. Echevarria II wrote:

Indeed, the decades since the end of the Second World War have seen historians and other writers both add to and clear away substantial portions of the Rommel myth. What remains, however, seems enough to qualify Rommel as one of history’s great, if controversial, captains—perhaps even a military genius. He did, after all, defeat a number of able British commanders before the run was broken by Montgomery at El Alamein.

Rommel’s reputation was not always so high, especially among those he commanded. Reflecting on what had gone wrong in this last battle, the Afrika Korps commander, Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, felt that Rommel deserved much of the blame. He agreed with Ludwig Crüwell that Rommel “never worried about anything apart from his own fixed ideas.” But Rommel had other poor qualities that had contributed to his defeat. He was cocky and overconfident. Von Thoma described the incident that revealed this serious character flaw:

BURCKHARDT interpreted when that NEW ZEALAND General [Brigadier George Clifton] was taken prisoner—I’ve forgotten his name. Field Marshal ROMMEL said: “Tell the General that the war will be over in six weeks and I shall have occupied CAIRO and ALEXANDRIA.” BURCKHARDT told me himself that it would have been most painful for him to have to say such a thing to this General who was standing there so pensively and had had the misfortune to be taken prisoner in the front line, which is no disgrace. So he simply said: “You’ll find you are mistaken, Sir.” I mean later on, if he ever comes to write of his experiences, what will he say about our appreciation of the situation and our over-confidence? Our tanks were nothing but scrap-iron. It wasn’t a Panzer Division, it was just miserable odds-and-ends. To ALEXANDRIA, to CAIRO!

There was more, too. According to von Thoma, Rommel’s battle tactics “were those of an infantryman…. He took no interest … in all the rest, that is personnel or supplies, which are the decisive factors for the whole theatre of war.” Rommel’s reliance on the dense “Minengarten” for protection, especially when they could not be covered by fire, “was fundamentally incorrect.” It was a damning indictment of the man who had recently been von Thoma’s commander, but it was by no means a lone criticism of Rommel. Writing soon after the war, Generalmajor von Holtzendorff felt that Rommel’s forward command and aggression made him an excellent Kampfgruppen [combat team] commander but “seriously impaired his efficiency as an Army commander.” And, according to Holtzendorff, Rommel never understood how armor should be used:

His attitude toward the Panzer arm and its employment suffered from the lack of knowledge of its technical capabilities. This attitude and his constant rejection of material and fully justified objections on the part of the Panzer commanders repeatedly caused heavy losses in material (especially Panzers), which then jeopardized the very idea of the mission.

These criticisms, if valid—and von Thoma was certainly in a position to know what he was talking about—hardly justify the Rommel “myth” or the notion that he was one of history’s “Great Captains” or a military genius. The reality is that Rommel as a military commander was not as exceptional as some of his biographers have described him, nor was Montgomery the disaster he has often been portrayed to be.

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On October 23, 2012, a date that marked a significant commemoration of the Alamein battles, the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail ran a story by Guy Walters with a provocative headline. It read: Was Monty’s finest hour just a pointless bloodbath? Historians claim El Alamein—which began 70 years ago today—sacrificed thousands for the sake of propaganda. The headline, which probably caused distress to some veterans of the battle, was misleading. In his article, Walters claimed that “detractors” of the battle’s significance “maintain that it was a pointless battle in a pointless campaign, fought for political reasons to boost morale throughout the Empire, and not from any strategic necessity.” Once again, Montgomery’s generalship was denigrated. He was described as a “hugely over-rated and unimaginative commander” who “should never have been raised to the status of national hero.” Walters’ headline is misleading in that his article, while not naming any of the “detractors,” actually dismisses their arguments. He concludes:

El Alamein may not have been an elegant victory, and Montgomery may have been a ponderous general who was happy to steal much of the credit from the RAF, but it was a battle that gave the British what it most badly needed—confidence with which to go on and win the war.

Correlli Barnett had certainly dismissed the October Alamein battle as pointless. With Operation Torch, the Allied landings in French North Africa, due to commence in early November, for Barnett this raised “the really interesting question … why this bitter battle … was fought at all.” Barnett was emphatic that the “famous Second Battle of Alamein must therefore, in my view, go down in history as an unnecessary battle.”65 The hindsight in Barnett’s judgement is clearly evident. As David Fraser, with the wisdom of experience, has astutely observed: “In war no man can say how an untried alternative course of action would have gone, since in war nothing is certain until it is over.”

Some senior military commanders were also dismissive of the October Alamein battle. The US Chief of Staff George Marshall was one. Marshall was never impressed with the British campaign in North Africa or with Montgomery’s generalship. In some off-the-record comments made in 1949, his interviewers noted:

He [Marshall] explained that our opinion of the British at that time was not very high in that the President thought the 8th Army at El Alamein would lose again in the desert. FDR said to have them attack at night. The General discussed what was wrong with British command in Africa at some length. He said that the British in the Middle East [8th Army] had committed about every mistake in the book. It was no model campaign. The pursuit of Rommel across the desert was slow. The British even laid a minefield in front of them which benefited the Germans more than it did the British. Here Marshall formed an opinion that Montgomery left something to be desired as a field commander. The experience with Montgomery in northwest Europe confirmed Marshall’s opinion about that.

Even the Chief of the German High Command, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, was dismissive of Alamein and the North African campaign. Shortly before his execution at Nuremberg, Keitel reflected on Rommel’s career. During his interrogation, Keitel had expressed “unlimited admiration of Rommel’s military achievements and courage.” While Rommel’s efforts in North Africa had resulted in some “unexpected victories,” this talented commander’s skills had been wasted there. Keitel wrote, “One cannot help wondering what this daring and highly-favoured tank commander would have achieved had he been fighting with his units in the one theatre of war where Germany’s fate was to be determined.” Clearly, Keitel’s delusions continued to the end of his life. Rommel and the units he commanded in North Africa would have made no difference at all to the outcome of Germany’s defeat on the Eastern Front.

The October or second battle of El Alamein was an important tactical victory for Montgomery and Eighth Army. As Stephen Bungay concluded, “However one looks at it, in the third round of fighting at El Alamein Rommel was decisively defeated.” It was “the climax to two years of to-and-fro struggle in the Western Desert.” And there was a strategic effect to the battle as well, which transformed it into one of the turning points of the war. A senior German staff officer at their Supreme Command, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), recalled after the war that this battle was indeed “the turning point at which the initiative passed from German into Allied Hands.” Generalmajor Eckhardt Christian admitted that the OKW “doubtlessly underestimated Africa’s strategic importance” and that by November 1942, “The realization of the enemy’s strength and our own weakness came too late to avert disaster. The enemy now had the initiative and retained it.” Alexander also wrote of the strategic effect of the battle. There were several reasons why the battle had to be fought:

In the general context of our war strategy in 1942, the battle of Alamein was fought to gain a decisive victory over the Axis forces in the Western Desert, to hearten the Russians, to uplift our allies, to depress our enemies, to raise morale at home and abroad, and to influence those who were sitting on the fence. The battle at Alamein was very carefully timed to achieve these objects—it was not a question of gaining a victory in isolation.

And as Alexander pointed out, both his knowledge of military history and his battlefield experience “convince me that a war is not won by sitting on the defensive.”

Winston Churchill certainly saw the battle as a key turning point. For him, the October–November Alamein battle was “the turning of ‘the Hinge of Fate.’” He explained why in two sentences that have become the most quoted (and misquoted) assessment of the battle’s importance. Churchill wrote that:

It may almost be said, [This first part is often omitted] “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”

Little wonder then that on Sunday, November 15, 1942, to mark the victory, the church bells rang all over the United Kingdom. It was the first time in three years that Britons had heard their church bells ring. The BBC made a point of recording the bells of Coventry Cathedral for their Overseas Service. “Did you hear them in Occupied Europe?” a gleeful radio commentator asked. “Did you hear them in Germany?”

The transformation was far more than a tactical and strategic shift. This was alluded to in Guy Walters’ conclusion quoted above. The October–November battle marked a major change in how the British Empire thought and felt about its warfighting capabilities. It was a critical transformation. For British soldier and historian David Fraser, the victory at El Alamein in November 1942 “was the best moment experienced by the British Army since another November day long ago in 1918.” It meant that “the tide had finally and irrevocably turned.” When writing about the British defeat in June 1942 during the Gazala battle, which lead to the “deplorable” loss of Tobruk, Fraser made a profound observation that has often been overlooked by military historians. Fraser perceived that “battles are won and lost in the minds of men, and this one had been lost.” To date, the British armies had experienced few victories and many, costly defeats. There were doubts in the minds of men and women at the highest and lowest levels whether the British could ever defeat an army that included German panzer and motorized formations. That doubt was infectious and had spread to Britain’s allies. The October Alamein battle, inelegant as all Allied victories in this war were, provided convincing and much-needed proof that a British army could achieve a victory over German forces.

After the battle, the Australian commander, Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead, wrote a revealing letter to a friend. In it, Morshead highlighted why Eighth Army had won the battle. He also recorded a significant mind-shift in the Australian soldiers:

It was a very hard and long battle, twelve days and nights of continuous and really bloody fighting, and it was not until the last day that the issue was decided. A big battle is very much like a tug-of-war between two very heavy and evenly matched teams, and the one which can maintain the pressure and put forward that last ounce that wins…. I shall always remember going round the line during the battle and a real digger saying to me “Yes Sir it’s tough all right … but we’ve at last got these bloody Germans by the knackers.”

The feeling towards the end of the Alamein battle was that the Germans were on the ropes and losing the battle. The British Eighth Army, after a hard fight, did at last have “these bloody Germans by the knackers.” While this sentiment wasn’t expressed in quite so colorful vernacular, it certainly became infectious. The Alamein battle “was crucial to the morale of the free world.” The news of Rommel’s defeat at Alamein electrified that free world. Nigel Hamilton wrote that “the sense of a change in the fortunes of democracy was palpable.” It signified, as many noted at the time and after, a crucial shift. The spell was broken and the Germans could be beaten. As the New Zealand official historian wrote, the battle of Alamein deserves its place in military history “because it was the first victory of any magnitude won by the British forces against a German command since the Second World War began.” That victory transformed the British forces. Instead of doubt, bewilderment, confusion, and a feeling of inferiority, there was now the strong belief that your side could fight hard and win. It at last had all the tools to do the job. The long string of defeats, what Churchill called the “galling links in a chain of misfortune and frustration,” was finally over. The British army, with its allies, had turned a corner and it was to experience a string of victories, albeit marked with some setbacks. It had taken a very long time for the Hinge to turn.

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