Churchill hailed the Allied victory at the Battle of El Alamein as "the end of the beginning" for Hitler in World War II. But in that very same speech, he downplayed its significance. Historian Simon Ball separates clichés from facts and chooses the best of the vast number of books written about El Alamein, the Desert War and World War II in general.
You mentioned in your book that more than 300 books have been written on the battle of El Alamein. Why so many?
It’s a topic of enduring fascination to many people in many countries. The ‘super highway’ of El Alamein runs from London—people, publishing houses, big film studios like Pinewood in the immediate post-war period—to New York publishing houses, Los Angeles, Hollywood. It then zooms back across the Atlantic to south-western Germany where all the German generals retired after the war. Rommel was a Swabian. Then there are all the sub-narratives—about Italy or India or the Commonwealth. And then you have the Egyptians, the Palestinians. Even the Cypriots have a dog in the fight. It was a multinational battle at a pivotal time.
What about the Israelis? I know you’re just back from giving a talk in Jerusalem. Why do they care?
In Israeli memory, it’s an absolutely pivotal battle because it saved the Jews of Palestine. If Rommel had succeeded in breaking the British line, the plan was to fall back on Palestine. But the British were going to abandon most of Palestine and try and defend northern Palestine, so the big population centres would have been overrun. People in Israel tell me that they grew up with this battle, their grandparents and parents telling them about it in a really intense way.
And what was El Alamein? As I was reading your book, I gathered there is some confusion about exactly when and where the battle took place.
There is either no confusion or an enormous amount of confusion. I’ll give you the no confusion version: El Alamein is in Egypt and the battle of El Alamein took place between 23 October and 4 November 1942. There were two previous battles on a similar line, one taking place in July 1942 and another taking place in September 1942.
“If you read any popular military history, you’ll still get…how awesome the Germans were. Well they weren’t.”
The British sat down after the war and decided what to call all these battles, so there is a battle honour for ‘The Battle of El Alamein’ and that lasted from October 23rd to November 4th. But there are many other claimants to the throne of being the pivotal battle of the Mediterranean in World War II—and possibly the entire war. So fighting over where it happened and which bit of the campaign is important is endemic to the study of El Alamein.
This idea of the battle being a decisive turning point in World War II, is that accurate?
It is a turning point. Churchill is the person who coined the phrase, “This is the end of the beginning.” He says that five days after the battle ends. So that’s the Churchillian view.
Most of the writing on El Alamein spends a lot of time trying to demonstrate it wasn’t pivotal. There are a variety of constituencies: American and Soviet, left-wing British, right-wing British, German—who, for their own reasons, want to demonstrate that El Alamein is a mere flyspeck in the desert and doesn’t change a lot. One of the reasons there’s been so much historical writing is because so many people really want to put the boot into the battle.
“ Of the 300 books on El Alamein, some of them aren’t very good, but even the quite good ones are partisan.”
But, in terms of how people were thinking during World War II, it was vital. Once the British and the Allies had beaten the Germans in the field, anybody with eyes could see that the Allies were going to win. That was the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle—to show that that could be done.
It also opens up amazing strategic possibilities. It’s the start of the opening of the Mediterranean—which takes a bit of time—but it means that you can join the globe back together. You can use the Suez Canal, you can use the Mediterranean. Some months after El Alamein, you can go from England to India again—just as you would in peacetime.
Let’s go through your book choices. The first one on you list is Niall Barr’s Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein (2004). He’s a professor at King’s College London and you mention, in your email, that it is a very well researched and written book, indeed “a high point of British military history.”
It is. Professor Barr as he now is—Dr Barr when he wrote that book as a relatively young historian—did it meticulously. It’s a book which takes the passion out of it—in a good way. He weighs the arguments, the evidence. He did research all round the world: he went to Australia, to New Zealand and he gathered all the archival material and weighed it up.
Of the 300 books on El Alamein, some of them aren’t very good, but even the quite good ones are partisan. There are very few non-partisans on Alamein. Everybody has an opinion; a strong and emotional opinion.
What Barr did was to demonstrate that it was possible to examine it while being fair to all sides—the two sides but also the various factions within each side who wanted to argue about who had won the bottle, who had lost the battle, whether it was important, whether it wasn’t important. I’m making it sound dry but it’s not because it’s wonderfully written. If you are looking for a book that will take you from the beginning of the campaign to the end of the campaign, with all the fighting in between explained to you, then Barr’s is absolutely the one to go to. It’s a book I admire enormously.
It’s a very compelling story, isn’t it? As you read it, you want to know what happens.
It is, because it’s a human drama—it’s the highs and lows. The German offensive begins in late May 1942 and sweeps aside the British forces in the western desert.
Are we talking in Egypt?
At the time, they were far to the west, in Libya. They collapse in Libya and have to retreat to Egypt—to flee, to be absolutely honest. Back, back and back they go. Tobruk, the great fortress city of Libya, falls: the garrison can’t hold it. The Germans come on and on and on. And then, the Commonwealth forces make a stand at the El Alamein position—and just about manage to stop the Germans breaking through.
“World War II has created many things, but one of the most notable is an unending stream of cliché.”
They don’t beat the Germans—all they manage to do is stop running away. Then there’s another battle—Alam el Halfa—where the Germans try and take the lines again and the British refuse to fight. They hold their line, saying, ‘We’re not going to come out and fight in the open desert because the Germans always beat us there.’ So it’s a great defensive victory.
Then, finally, the British build up their forces and sweep forwards in the Battle of El Alamein itself, a great 13-day battle in which they crack the Germans on the battlefield. They then pursue them all the way to Tripoli. The end of the campaign is the capture of Tripoli on 23 January 1943, which had always been the aim of these battles—and that’s really the Germans out of Libya. Barr takes you right from Rommel rolling forward to Churchill taking the victory salute in Tripoli. It’s an incredible story and he tells it really well.
Is there a lot about what it feels like to be there, fighting in the desert?
Yes. There are virtually no landmarks. If you see photographs—and Niall Barr actually went a number of times and walked it himself, he has that kind of care for detail—it’s as flat as a pancake. You read about a feature that they’re fighting over, and then you find out it’s just 20 feet high, a convenience on the map. This is a very particular type of warfare that they’re fighting and you need a good eye for it. So there are those human stories.
He’s also very good on the chain of command. King’s provides the staff officer training for the British Armed Forces, and so he works a lot with soldiers. You see what the junior officers are doing, what the middle-ranking officers are doing, and what the senior commanders are doing. It’s incredibly hard to do all that and make it explicable, and he does it triumphantly.
Your next book isn’t about Alamein specifically, but the Desert War in general. You’ve chosen Alan Moorehead’s The Desert War: The Classic Trilogy on the North African Campaign 1940-43. This book has been in print since its first publication in 1944, which is a pretty extraordinary achievement.
This is probably the best book about World War II. Moorehead was the Daily Express’s war correspondent for the Desert War. Each year—1942, 1943, 1944—he wrote up one of these books and they were then put together in 1944 in their classic form as the African Trilogy.
Moorehead was a great journalist, a great travel-writer, and a fantastic historian. When you combine those, the prose is beautiful. In a way, he is telling exactly the same story that Barr does, but the difference is that now it’s a work of passion—by somebody who was there and who was intimately involved. He knew the people.
“ I can’t think of a book to come out of World War II which is more compelling and enjoyable to read.”
I would say Moorehead is a bit like Gibbon: you don’t actually have to agree with his judgements and why would you? There’s been a lot of history since he wrote this. But you can’t replace the immediacy. You can pick up Moorehead knowing nothing. You just need to know something is happening and there’s this fantastic writer who is going to take you through it with passion.
He evokes the places, the smells, the sights and the people so well. Most books sound better when you talk about them than when you read them. Moorehead is much better to read than to hear me talk about it because Moorehead really was a genius. There just happened to be a genius in the right place at the right time. I can’t think of a book to come out of World War II which is more compelling and enjoyable to read. It’s a highpoint of war literature.
In your email, you mentioned it was an elegy for the men who saved Egypt rather than a celebration of the victors of El Alamein. What does that mean?
The one thing that Moorehead missed was the Battle of El Alamein. He was a desert correspondent from 1940 and, by 1942, he was tiring. He didn’t really want to go back in May 1942 and when the campaign began he was in India. He then went back and covered it up until the moment that Churchill sacked the commanders in Egypt in August 1942. At that point, they had managed to hold off the Germans and the Italians and Churchill arrives in Cairo and says, ‘You’re a bunch of losers, we’ve given you all this stuff and you haven’t been able to beat the Germans and Italians. I’m going to get rid of you and bring in a new team.’ At that stage, Moorehead was on his way out. He made his notes in Cairo before leaving but he really wrote the book in America.
“You can pick up Moorehead knowing nothing.”
So an odd exclusion of El Alamein is that there is no great journalistic literature— because the key chronicler had left. The story picks up with him returning to North Africa, to Algiers, in the spring of 1943. He starts off by saying that a great victory has been won. And then it kicks off.
But the people he knew and was intimately concerned with were the ones who were sacked or killed in the summer of 1942. The characters around which the book is built are not the newcomers, they’re the old team whom he’d known from 1940 onwards. That intimacy makes it fantastic. The best desert general up until that point—a man called Gott—is killed in an air crash. He’s flying back from the desert to Cairo to meet Churchill and he’s shot down. That’s the end of that bit of the book, his death. So it really is elegiac. The African Trilogy, as finally published, knows all this is going to happen. Though he wrote it up as it went along, he is writing it just after the events. He knows they’re going to die.
Why do the Nazis invade North Africa?
The Nazis don’t invade North Africa, the Fascists do. Essentially, Mussolini stayed out of World War II until Hitler had crushed France and he was sure the British and French were going to lose. Then he says, ‘I’m in!’ So, in June 1940, the war begins. Libya is an Italian colony—and they launch an invasion of Egypt from Libya. That’s what kicks it all off.
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The Germans only arrive in the spring of 1941, almost a year later. The Italians are doing so badly in the war that Hitler and his generals fear Italy might collapse or leave the war. This would undermine the idea of an Axis and might set off unpredictable consequences. So they decide to support Mussolini in three main ways. One is that they send the Luftwaffe into the Mediterranean to give air support. Secondly, they send submarines into the Mediterranean to interdict British supply routes. And, last and least—but most memorably—they send a land army to fight in North Africa: Rommel with the Afrika Korps.
That’s why they’re all there. But a lot has happened since June 1940. They’ve been banging away. Once you have a war going, you’ve got to fight it.
You mentioned the German general, Erwin Rommel, who is the subject of your next book, by Desmond Young, published in 1950. This book, Rommel, was authorised by his widow, wasn’t it?
That’s right—Rommel’s widow and teenage son Manfred, who later goes on to become an important German politician. Rommel is, effectively, murdered. He’s forced to commit suicide by the Nazis in 1944. After the war, his family are determined to keep his memory alive.
“The film, The Desert Fox, with James Mason, is based on this book.”
They’re cosmopolitan and they understand that they need to get the message out in the English-speaking world. So they turn to Desmond Young. Young is an interesting character. He had done all kinds of things: he’d been a journalist, he’d been a theatre manager, and he’d been a PR man. Latterly, he’d been an information officer—i.e. propaganda officer—for the Indian army. He is captured in June 1942, when Rommel is advancing, and meets him briefly. The book starts with that story of his meeting Rommel.
The family has papers and Young is a man who can put it all together. And he does. The film, The Desert Fox, with James Mason, is based on this book and narrated by Young. In some ways, it’s self-aggrandisement by Young. He builds up Rommel the superman, the brilliant general who beat the British with limited resources. Even at Alamein, Rommel got his troops out—they were not surrounded, they were able to retreat. Rommel is also an anti-Nazi, plotting against Hitler, who is rumbled after the attempt to assassinate Hitler.
Rommel as anti-Nazi hero, as well as great general, is put together by Desmond Young after the war.
It doesn’t correspond to reality?
Like all these things, there is enough in there that is real to make it stand up. Is Rommel a great general? Maybe not. But he’s a very good general. He’s an interesting general—there’s no doubt about that.
Was Rommel an anti-Nazi? Well, the Germans are still fighting that one out amongst themselves. I think the most recent German feature film on Rommel was in 2012. They’ll write a book and make a film saying, ‘Yes, he was an anti-Nazi’ and then the next one will say ‘No, he was a committed Nazi.’
“When it comes to Rommel’s anti-Nazi credentials, I have to say I’m deeply sceptical.”
Rommel was the commander of Hitler’s bodyguard early in his career—he was not a man on the outs. He was Goebbels’s pet project—one of his staff officers is one of Goebbels’s men. He’s there just to build up Rommel as this great charismatic general, which they do very well.
So when it comes to Rommel’s anti-Nazi credentials, I have to say I’m deeply sceptical. However, you can find many other scholars that would accept him as a potential member of the anti-Hitler opposition. Young is a good PR man. They’re not lies. He takes a particular line and weaves it together in a very convincing way.
I have to say that when I was reading about this in your book, it made me laugh: I found it quite Life of Brian/Monty Python-esque. Basically, the English develop a penchant for this general who is fighting for the other side, and is the loser. For some reason, he becomes a great hero for them.
There are constituencies that have a vested interest in building him up. The people who lost to Rommel want to build him up because they don’t look so bad if they lost to a genius. The people who defeated Rommel want to big him up because they look awesome as a result of having beaten a great general. The only people who dislike Rommel are other German generals, because they’re jealous. So, the people who write Rommel down tend to be a certain kind of German. But many other Germans—especially in the post-war period—want those kinds of heroes. It’s a great idea to have ‘the good German’ and Rommel is a perfect candidate.
Let’s turn to the general on the Allied side, the victor at El Alamein, Bernard Montgomery. You’ve said that it’s impossible to write an attractive book about him. Was he really that awful or did he just not have a good PR man?
He certainly didn’t have a good PR man. Montgomery of Alamein is a good general, he wins whilst keeping casualties relatively low in his battles. He’s a good, careful, interesting, winning general.
His problem is that he’s an appalling human being. He’s an egotist. All generals are egotists but he doesn’t have the charm to disguise that egotism. It’s all about him. Most people who meet Montgomery and spend any time with him, loathe him.
“You can’t beat Montgomery in his own words. Nobody can love Montgomery as much as Montgomery can.”
As a historian, if you start reading Montgomery’s papers, it’s very hard not to loathe him as well. He writes almost wholly about himself, and he does so in unsophisticated self-aggrandising terms. He is never generous to anybody else and he writes like a seven-year old child. It’s awful but actually quite legible.
The trouble is that people have elided Montgomery’s lack of charm with their understanding of the battles he fought. People will do anything they can to admire the other people because they seem–‘nicer’ is the wrong word for war–but more interesting, more charming, more rounded, more sophisticated than Montgomery.
But Montgomery is good at one thing. He’s a specialist at being a general and fighting battles and he does that very well. And, by and large, that’s what you want. It’s easy to write a biography knocking Montgomery, and many people have done it—but to write an uplifting biography of Montgomery is very hard and hasn’t been done.
The book you’ve recommended, Montgomery and the Eighth Army (1991) edited by Stephen Brook, is this a collection of his papers?
Yes. Montgomery kept voluminous papers—he kept a diary and he wrote letters and people wrote to him. There is a huge collection of his papers in the Imperial War Museum and the Army Records Society published a fantastic collection of the key documents in edited form.
“You see the words, ‘He’s no good,’ peppered through his papers.”
You can’t beat Montgomery in his own words. Nobody can love Montgomery as much as Montgomery can. But you can also see his genius. There’s a clarity of thought that you find in very few other military figures. When you just read what he wrote about himself, you see him in the round. The trouble with the biographies about him is that they’re either too hostile or too eager to defend him. You never really get the complexity of the man.
And he’s not actually complex—unless he’s fighting wars. He’s a complex and interesting general and a really tedious human being. So you don’t want to read all the run up and the afterwards, you just want to read about 1942-3 when he is a world historical figure.
Are there bits you particularly like?
My favourites are his views of other generals. Not long after taking command of the Eighth Army, he writes about his predecessor—a man called Auchinleck—and he writes, ‘Auchinleck is incompetent, he should never be employed in the army again.’ He doesn’t say, ‘Well—things didn’t go too well for the old Auk, but he’s left me with a fantastic position and I hope to make the best of it and he’s always been a great bloke.’ Instead, he says he’s an idiot, sack him and never employ him again. (I should say he is employed again).
Montgomery is utterly unforgiving. You see the words ‘He’s no good’ peppered through his papers. He’ll take a view on someone and then they’re dead to him. He’ll sack them and try and wreck their careers.
At the same time, you see this beautiful clarity of how to fight a war. In his reflective moments, he really lays it out. My favourite bit is where they’re in Tripoli and they have a post-mortem of the campaign. Lots of people come and Montgomery explains exactly what happened, what went well and what went wrong. He boils it down for other people so they can understand it. This is how you fight, this is how you’re going to beat the Germans. That’s why I admire it, as much as I sometimes wince from the lack of generosity.
Moving on to your last book, Stephen Bungay’s The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain (2000). You’ve chosen this as one of the best books on World War II in general, is that right?
I think so. Stephen Bungay was originally a scholar of German literature, so he’s got very good German. He then became a management consultant and currently runs the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre in North London. So he’s not a professional historian.
Bungay wrote a book on Alamein, which is very good, but I happen to prefer this book, on the Battle of Britain. What makes it stand out is that it’s very well researched. It’s very good on the German sources. But it has a central dramatic idea which helps us to understand World War II.
“It’s very hard to convince many people that the British were actually very good at fighting.”
Bungay argues that if you look at the RAF and the Luftwaffe, they actually behave in diametrically opposed ways to what racial stereotypes would make you think. If you take the RAF in 1940, they had a culture of insubordination. It was all about hopscotch to your aircraft, take your dog up in your Spit, do barrel rolls over the CO’s mess. They really are an undisciplined bunch—on the ground and off duty. But, Bungay says, when they take off they have fantastic flight discipline. When they’re in the air, it’s all about hierarchy, obeying orders, doing the right thing. In other words, they are a highly professional air fighting force.
On the other side, when you look at the Germans on the ground, it’s all about discipline. It’s about parades, it’s swearing fealty to the Führer and Goering and their commanders, it’s all about how wonderful they are because they have true, Teutonic discipline.
But as soon as they take off, they’re an absolute nightmare because they’re a bunch of prima donnas. In particular, they want to be aces. And so, they’re always cutting each other up in the air, not obeying orders, goofing off because they think they’ve got a chance of a high-profile kill rather than doing their job—which is protecting bombers.
So, the Luftwaffe comes over Britain in the Battle of Britain and the first thing that happens is that the fighters peel off because they want to be in air-to-air combat, they want to be knights of the air. Whereas the RAF are desperately trying not to fight the fighters, they’re trying to get at the bombers. They have a clear vision about how to win.
That’s why he calls it The Most Dangerous Enemy—because it’s about how the Germans were taken in by British amateurism. They looked amateur but the Germans didn’t realise until it was too late that they were utterly professional.
So, for Bungay, that accounts for the British winning the Battle of Britain?
Yes. Essentially, the Germans put their heads in the lion’s mouth. They thought they were going to roll over these degenerate, democratic powers. And they do roll over France, the Low Countries and the Nordic countries. But there’s something different about the British. Bungay locates it in a number of places—in the British economy, in British institutions and also in hidden bits of the British character.
“The Battle of Britain is an amazing story of villainy, heroism, high tech, beautiful women, handsome men, silk scarves and beautiful summer weather.”
In a way, it’s the start of a series of counterblasts to what is still going on today—and that Young was part of the beginning of—this idea of the German superman in World War II. They lose in the end, but their generals are so much better, their aircraft are so much better, their tanks are so much better. If you read any popular military history, you’ll still get that—how awesome the Germans were. Well, they weren’t.
Bungay is writing popular military history and showing, essentially, what a bunch of dolts they were and how they got their rich deserts.
It’s an uphill battle because many, including myself, try to say this but you’re pushing against the weight of popular culture that admires the Germans. It is so strong that it’s very hard to convince many people that the British were actually very good at fighting.
Of course, there were massive setbacks and, as a democracy, it took a while to get going because they weren’t very well prepared.
World War II has created many things, but one of the most notable is an unending stream of cliché. You can make your career just trying—in a labours of Sisyphus sort of way—to push back against the clichés. So it’s always fantastic when you see someone who is not an academic doing it—writing it so beautifully and getting it.
It’s a cracking story, as well. The Battle of Britain is an amazing story of villainy, heroism, high tech, beautiful women, handsome men, silk scarves and beautiful summer weather. What more do you want?
My parents were in the Netherlands during World War II. As I understand it, the Germans destroyed Rotterdam and then threatened to do the same to Amsterdam, at which point the Dutch surrendered. Is that what they were trying to do in Britain as well?
They didn’t start off with that but they switched to that later in the campaign, for various reasons. They started off with attacks on airfields. Essentially, they were trying to clear the way for an invasion. They want to prevent the Royal Navy and the RAF being in shape to prevent an invasion, so they’re initially going after the fighting forces.
The European countries really do go over like a pack of cards. The Netherlands holds out for less than a week.
But let’s be absolutely clear: it is the British who really bring the idea of destroying cities into the world of practicality. They are utterly ruthless. Bungay doesn’t need to go into this, because he is writing about 1940-1, but it’s something one should never forget—that it’s the RAF which, later in the war, laid waste to German cities very successfully. It’s a very brutal but, as it happens, very effective way of fighting a war.
You mentioned Churchill and his role in El Alamein. He’s still often quoted and viewed as a hero of World War II. Was he an exceptional leader?
There’s no doubt that Churchill was an exceptional leader but that doesn’t mean he was always right. Nobody is always right.
Churchill comes out of El Alamein spectacularly well because he gets in first: first speaking and then writing the version he wants. Essentially, the British Armed Forces are dolts, Churchill is a genius, and finally he cracks it and he gets the people he needs who can win the war.
The other thing to note is that although Churchill himself comes out of it very well, Alamein doesn’t, because, almost immediately after it’s fought, Churchill deliberately downplays it. The reason he does that is that, for political reasons, he wants to concentrate on Operation Torch—which is the Anglo-American invasion of Northwest Africa. That happens four days after the victory at Alamein is sealed. He also wants to concentrate on what’s going on on the Eastern front and to big up the Russians. So he wants to big up the Russians and Americans in order to make the coalition, which is fighting the Axis, work better. And, therefore, he is willing to sacrifice the reputation of the great British victory in order to do that. And he does it pretty ruthlessly.
How does he spin that tale?
He gives two great so-called ‘victory’ speeches on El Alamein, one at the Mansion House, on 10 November, and one to the House of Commons, on 11 November. In virtually any hostile popular history, these will be the starting point of Britain overplaying the importance of Alamein and how great a victory it was.
The speeches are topped and tailed with nice sentiments. But, if you actually read them, they are pretty dismissive. He says, ‘It’s a consolatory win; we should have won long ago but now we’ve won. Alamein will help the much greater Anglo-American endeavour in Northwest Africa. We must recognise that the bulk of the land fighting is going on on the Eastern front.’ These are the things that Churchill actually says. But when people start off with Churchill speaking, they always start off with him saying ‘this is the greatest victory ever.’ They quote, ‘this is the end of the beginning,’ which is his opening gambit. But that’s not really what he’s saying and it’s not really what he’s trying to get across to the audience. He’s trying to get across how great he is—not how great the generals who had just won at El Alamein are.
Although there’s a lot of revisionism about El Alamein, there’s not actually any orthodoxy. The revisionists tend to be trying to revise something which isn’t based on the reality of what people said.
That’s the space of the professional historian, because the professional historian cares about the detail: what people actually said and how it’s put together. We have the drafts of Churchill’s speeches, we can see how he actually put the story together and built it in the days after Alamein. You can unpick this and understand what he’s doing, rather than falling into the World War II production-of-clichés factory.
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