Anniversaries are useful if only because they prompt historians to reassess events, either in the light of new knowledge or from a different viewpoint. Coming three months before Stalingrad and being the last all-British/Commonwealth victory in the war, El Alamein is recognized as a true turning point of the Second World War. Last year, concurrent with the 60th anniversary of that battle, two accounts were published. Each represents a decidedly different perspective and method. Both are good at what they seek to accomplish.
“The Battle of Alamein: Turning Point, World War II” by John Bierman and Colin Smith, focuses on personal accounts and the perceptions of those who participated. In addition, these writers discuss in great detail the personalities and character of the leaders on both sides, emphasizing the extent to which these factors determined outcomes. “Alamein” by Jon Latimer does not provide the same immediacy in terms of individuals but emphasizes administrative, logistical, technical, and strategic factors. One book is more personal in its presentation of the campaign; the other is more technical.
From the beginning of their book, when a reunion of desert veterans is described, Bierman and Smith concentrate on personal stories. They describe experiences under fire but also tell stories about individuals on the periphery (such as Laszlo Almassy, the famous “English Patient”, and Anwar Sadat are two that come to mind) or events such as they attempt to create an espionage network in Cairo. (Artemis Cooper’s “Cairo in Wartime” is also useful for those interested in what was going on in that city from a military, social, cultural, and political perspective).
Latimer also states his theme early on, and it is carried on throughout, and then brought to us again at the very end as an explicit part of the summary. To Latimer, Alamein was not just Montgomery’s victory but a victory of modern armaments. It was, in addition, a victory based on depriving the enemy of supply by the Royal Navy preventing supplies from getting to Rommel. Alamein was also a victory for the RAF for its efforts to provide ground support and interdict the enemy. Latimer’s narrative supports the case that overall the British victory was a triumph of administration: training, planning, logistics both in terms of what the British had and what the Germans didn’t have or didn’t do.
There is, in these books, a difference in the time period covered. Bierman and Smith present a full description of the North African campaigns well before the 2d Battle of Alamein, a period treated rather cursorily by Latimer. Latimer’s real story picks up with the fall of Tobruk in June and concentrates on the subsequent retreat and the battles of Alamein. His account describes preparations and execution, and then briefly covers events after Supercharge. Bierman and Smith provide a good and fairly detailed account of the North African campaigns during the two years preceding Alamein.
While Bierman and Smith provide a wider context in time, Latimer gives a wider context based on strategy: the how and why actions were taken as well as the larger technical and logistical considerations that made their influence felt during the battle. Both books describe the actions in Crete and Malta and their effect on the North African war. Bierman and Smith, however, shade it more heavily as a story involving individuals while technical and logistical aspects are more heavily emphasized in Latimer.
Latimer quotes Wavell’s comment on the infantryman’s skills being so hard to acquire and he tells you, at least in part, what that skills set comprises. He does give us some tactical detail, such as that, in most British night attacks, the battalion was arrayed on a two-company front with guide points on each battalion axis and each company axis. This is not a major item but it lets us visualize how troops were deployed for attack. In another place, he describes the Alamein barrage program as being divided into five phases, with varying rates of fire for 3.5 hours. This timed program was followed as needed by on-call fire support. While more details on the employment of artillery would have been useful, he makes the pre-battle barrage comprehensible in terms of what was done and how. Latimer also gives us samples of fieldcraft such as the use of a device called a “snail” to drip oil on truck tires to create a visible track for following vehicles. These details provide a view of how things were done, particularly apt in a book that stresses technical and administrative advantages.
At the same time, there are details that, when pieced together, suddenly clarify issues. For example, Latimer tells us that the Germans thought of fuel in terms of “issues.” One issue was what was needed to move 100km. Rommel’s stated minimum requirement was 30 issues on hand although there were times when he had only 8. What Latimer is telling us is how Rommel’s force visualized space and support, and what they considered to be the minimal acceptable operating radius and how far below that goal they were. Rommel’s logistical constraints become more specific. Combine this last fact and its implications with the significant detail that 85% of Rommel’s motor transport was British in origin, thus making spares a problem.
By piecing together these facts you begin to better understand Rommel’s supply situation and with this in mind can appreciate the difficulties he faced even before encountering the enemy in the field. On the next level up, Latimer’s narrative of Malta and the toll the British took on Axis shipping in the Med explain how Rommel got into that problem in the first place and how his logistics difficulties were a result of British strategic planning and execution.
While Bierman and Smith do not provide that kind of information, they do describe the main participants. Their portraits of the personalities and histories of O’Connor, Wavell, Auchinleck, Alexander, Ritchie, Montgomery and others are in-depth and balanced. From the other side, Rommel and his subordinates and their sometimes contentious relationships are subjected to the same detail and insight. What is more, there is an analysis of how these men did or did not work well together, or how they worked together despite substantial conflicts. One of the great strengths of this book is that to truly understand what happened, you must know something about the men who made decisions; this part of the story of the North African campaign is well covered here.
Maps are often at the heart of a campaign study and poorly done or too few maps will mar an otherwise account. In each book, the maps are very good and in each case, the maps reflect the style and focus of the book. In Bierman and Smith, the maps are detailed and make extensive use of call-out boxes to explain what happened as well as where and when. They tend to use pictorial representations of terrain or hachure marks to indicate elevation rather than standard topographical symbols. My favourite map in Bierman and Smith is at the end and shows the ebb and flow of the North African campaigns. Start and stop lines and a rolling scroll show the limits in time and space of each advance and retreat.
Latimer has 14 maps that range from the entire Mediterranean to specific battles. One feature on the maps depicting smaller scale actions in the presence of contour lines, other detailed topographical features, and lines of demarcation between units that aid understanding terrain and its effects. As one would expect from a more technically oriented account, the maps here use the standard military symbols rather than pictures.
So, which book is better? It really depends on what you are looking for. I am always more interested in “how it was done.” While I appreciate accounts that describe what it was like for individuals to be under fire, I always look for the bits of technical information, descriptions of tactics, descriptions of the elements of fieldcraft, and the other specific small pieces of information that give an idea of the thoughts and methods that existed and the limitations and potential of the combatants. Latimer had several such pieces and in greater profusion than Bierman and Smith. At the same time, Bierman and Smith’s insights into the personal relations among commanders and how that affected the conduct of the war as well as the description of the time leading up to Alamein receive excellent coverage. Bierman and Smith present the cost of this campaign and its effects on individuals more vividly than Latimer.
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