Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
10 January 2013
Review by Christopher Rein, US Air Force Academy
El Alamein: The Battle That Turned the Tide of the Second World War
By Bryn Hammond
Long Island City, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2012. Pp. 328. ISBN 978–1–84908–640–0.
Descriptors: Volume 2013, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

Bryn Hammond's El Alamein contributes to the recent resurgence of interest in the decisive desert battle of the Second World War.[1] Readers of military history as well as modelers and many general readers are familiar with Osprey Publishing's typically concise, lavishly illustrated books. But Hammond's study is a deeply researched, full-length account of the El Alamein campaign, featuring many direct quotations of participants. His current position at the Imperial War Museums in London gave him easy access to an invaluable collection of documents, memoirs, and interviews related to the battle—all put to good use in creating this highly readable, solidly researched account of the events in the Western Desert in the last half of 1942.

The book comprises nine chapters, the last three covering the final, decisive battle from 23 October to 4 November 1942. A succinct introduction surveys the war in North Africa from September 1940 to June of 1942 and presents major themes and principal actors. Hammond also illuminates the challenging environment of desert warfare:

The desert was not pure sand; it was gravel and rocky outcrops, soft sand and steep ravines. Conditions and "going" varied between the coastal strip and the desert proper beyond the line of two steep escarpments which was a limestone plateau. This was largely table flat with some depressions and low-lying ridges. The further south one went, the more rugged and variable the terrain became. During daylight hours the heat of the sun on the exposed desert was relentlessly oppressing. At night, temperatures plummeted and it would be bitterly cold—especially in winter. Sudden heavy rainfall was not unknown and could produce floods and boggy ground preventing tanks and vehicles from moving. At all other times, the dust … was a major problem, clogging men's throats and the engines and tracks of tanks and reducing visibility to only a few yards. (21)

The narrative of the battle itself moves through the initial halt at the Alamein line in early July, correctly attributed to Field Marshall Sir Claude Auchinleck's leadership, to the Battle of Alam Halfa in early September, Erwin Rommel's last attempt to pierce the line. In between, Hammond explores the critical command decisions in London and Cairo that gave Field Marshall Bernard "Monty" Montgomery command of the Eighth Army and tried Churchill's patience (only Gen. Sir Alan Brooke's faithful efforts kept the Prime Minister off Monty's back). The account of the battle's main parts, Operations Lightfoot and Supercharge, moves too speedily to an abrupt conclusion that largely omits the slow pursuit, hampered by bad weather, that made the battle a less than complete victory.

Scholars of the war may dispute Hammond's subtitle, insisting that the Battle of Stalingrad, which opened the same month as El Alamein, was a far more significant setback for German arms, or that American forces had already begun to roll back the Japanese offensive in the Pacific at Midway and Guadalcanal. But Hammond rightly stresses the huge morale boost that Montgomery's victory gave to the beleaguered British Empire. In Churchill's words, "before Alamein there were no victories and after Alamein there were no defeats." Further, it led directly to the expulsion of Axis forces from Egypt and Libya, relief for Malta and the Suez, and, together with the Allied landings in Northwest Africa, the reopening of the Mediterranean and Italy's exit from the war. For these reasons, both the battle and Montgomery bulk large in both British military history specifically and the history of the war in general.

Hammond does not fundamentally challenge existing accounts of the battle.[2] His special contribution is both to personalize the battle through primary source quotations and to emphasize World War I's influence in the ultimate success of British arms. He argues El Alamein mirrored the situation on the western front in 1917–18, with its extensive fortifications, massed artillery, and tactical stress on penetration and breakthrough. He shows convincingly that their Great War experiences served Commonwealth ground officers well in the Western Desert some twenty-five years later. Unfortunately, he fails to do the same with regard to air officers, who must have read (First World War pilot) Sir John Slessor's Air Power and Armies,[3] which provided a doctrinal foundation for the Royal Air Force early on in the war. That lapse aside, he gives an excellent account of the RAF's contributions at El Alamein, especially the capable command-and-control system that hampered the tactical mobility of Axis forces and exacerbated their already dire logistical situation.

Hammond's handling of the senior commanders on both sides is judicious and evenhanded. He correctly faults Erwin Rommel's failure to mind his supply lines. On the Allied side, he observes that the Eighth Army was not in such poor shape in July 1942 as Montgomery's admirers claim. He also he credits Auchinleck with blunting the enemy offensive toward the Suez and beginning to restore the Eighth Army's morale before being relieved. But in his conclusion Hammond grants that it was Monty who convinced the men of the Eighth Army that they could defeat the Afrika Korps and finally end the seesaw campaign in North Africa.

The great virtue of the book, however, lies in its vivid evocation of battlefield conditions through quotations of participants. These describe everything from morale to equipment issues and the daily struggle to survive in the desert, "up the blue" with the Commonwealth forces. He recounts both strategic-level decisions in the rear and the tactical errors and successes of the Tommies at the front. The level of detail is well up to the standard of Osprey publications. We learn, for example, that attempts to conceal the identity of the Ninth Australian Division's forces were compromised by their tan desert boots (the original "brothel creepers"), issued in place of standard black ammunition boots; and that the Ninth Armoured Brigade proudly painted the 2nd New Zealand Division's insignia, the "silver fern," on their vehicles when they were attached to the Kiwi unit before the battle (157). Such particulars will appeal to buffs and serious scholars alike.

The writing in El Alamein is generally clear, apart from overuse of the passive voice (see, e.g., 17–18). I especially liked such humorous details as the nickname of artillery Major Brian Wyldbore-Smith—"Madcow-Jones" (149). Among the book's aids to readers is a most helpful Order of Battle, a feature missing from too many works of military history. Excellent maps and thirty-five well-chosen illustrations are other invaluable enhancements. However, the one-page "Select Bibliography" of secondary sources is disappointing.

El Alamein remains a sensitive subject for Britons. It was the last purely British/Commonwealth victory of the war. The Americans' Operation Torch landings just days after the battle marked the beginning of the end of Britain's role as senior partner in the alliance. Hammond cites the critical importance of both American Sherman tanks, which finally brought Allied armor up to par (and more) in the theater, and the Priest self-propelled 105 mm howitzer, which rectified the lack of mobility in the British artillery arm. But perhaps the clearest indication of the shift in precedence among the Allies is expressed in the book's concluding quotation of British Gunner James Brooks of the 64th Medium Artillery Regiment: "I think I've done more than my share in this war and it's about time somebody took my place" (279).

[1] See, e.g., Jon Latimer, Alamein (Cambridge: Harvard U Pr, 2002), Stephen Bungay, Alamein (London: Aurum, 2002), Niall Barr, Pendulum of War: Three Battles at El Alamein (NY: Random House, 2004), and John Sadler, El Alamein: The Story of the Battle in the Words of the Soldiers (Stroud, UK: Amberley, 2010). The return of British forces in large numbers to desert warfare in 2003 may be partially responsible for the renewed attention to El Alamein.

[2] He acknowledges, in particular, Niall Barr's work (note 1 above).

[3] London: Oxford U Pr, 1936.

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