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04Nov1942: Victory in El Alamien


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04Nov1942: British forces achieve the first major Allied land victory over Germany, at El Alamein in Egypt.



World War Two: The Battle of El Alamein


By Professor Richard Holmes


The Battle of El Alamein did much to restore British morale during World War Two, and is remembered by the Allied forces with pride. Examine why it deserves its place in history.




Military history, like so much else, is prey to the dictates of fashion. There was a time when El Alamein and the desert war loomed large in British historiography. After all, it had all the classic ingredients of a good story.

In the person of Montgomery, we had a charismatic British commander, matched by Rommel, one of the most striking German generals. The theatre of war was both harsh and romantic, the classic tactician's paradise and quartermaster's nightmare. A British rifleman told a chum that it was:


'A different kind of war. There were no civvies mixed up in it. It was clean. When we took prisoners we treated them fine and they treated us fine. We had a go at them, and they had a go at us. Then one of us f***ed off.'

The late Ronald Lewin, both a veteran of the campaign and a distinguished military historian, acknowledged his own compassion when Axis forces eventually surrendered in North Africa in May 1943, for '...this had been a good enemy.' And, of course, there was a famous victory: El Alamein, which encouraged Winston Churchill to declare that we had neither a victory before it nor a defeat after it.

'Military history, like so much else, is prey to the dictates of fashion.'

But the tide of fashion ebbed away. Books like Correlli Barnett's The Desert Generals were (generally rightly) critical of the British high command, and as more information on British ULTRA intelligence became available, so repeated failure seemed all the more remarkable. Rommel's own character and performance were critically assessed, and the once-romantic 'Desert Fox' increasingly emerged as ambitious, crabby, and tainted by his association with Hitler.

And as our knowledge of the fighting on the Eastern Front grew, thanks first to the pioneering work of John Erickson and, more recently, as additional Russian archival material has become available, it became all too easy to dismiss the fighting in North Africa as a mere sideshow.

I am unrepentantly revisionist as far as the desert war is concerned. Firstly, because there was nowhere else where, after the fall of France in 1940, British and Commonwealth troops could engage the Germans and Italians on land. The humbling of Mussolini was an important objective in its own right, and after the German invasion of Russia in 1941, there was a strong case, military and political, for preventing the Germans from concentrating on the Eastern Front.

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