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Nations at war
Latimer, Jon. Alamein. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002
Acknowledgments; Introduction; photos; maps; Orders of Battle; Notes; Bibliography; Index
If this review seems like an uneven mix of criticism and praise, that's because it reflects the uneven, sometimes maddening nature of Jon Latimer's new book, as well as our high expectations. Alamein proves to be surprisingly frustrating in many places, but ultimately praise-worthy. In fact, despite its deficiencies, Alamein has already become a very popular work on a topic which has experienced no shortage of books.
A topic which has experienced no shortage? Within the last twelve months or so publishers have also delivered books on North Africa from
Bierman and Smith,
just to name a few. Of those, more than any other we approached this one with the greatest enthusiasm and the highest expectations, anticipating it would become the standard work on Montgomery's victory in the desert. Alamein does not quite earn that accolade, butat least for its second halfthe book should earn critical applause as well as popular success.
Despite the overall strength of the book, the Introduction and first chapter don't make an especially auspicious start, with Latimer offering a rather dull overview of the battlefield, armies, weapons, and leaders. More than anything else, one minor point catches the eye when the author claims, citing Fletcher, that British tank design suffered due to requiring AFVs to fit on railcars when "...the British rail gauge [was] narrower than the Continental." By every reference available, the British rail gauge at 4 feet, 8.5 inches was (and is) identical to the standard rail gauge in France, Germany, etc. A very minor mistake? Yes, but mentioned here because it quickly becomes part of a pattern of small mistakes in tangential issues throughout the book.
Latimer devotes little ink to Graziani's "offensive" and Operation Compass, but the book perks up a bit with the arrival of Erwin Rommel, who becomes the center of attention throughout much of the early going. Unfortunately, too much of the material remains tepid. The bulk of what Latimer has to say in the opening chapters seems like recycled filler, at least partly because he tends to use sources far removed from the original documents and participants. For example, Latimer cites Lewin's Rommel as Military Commander for information on Claude Auchinleck's state of mind, rather than works closer to, and more closely focused on, Auchinleck himself. Likewise, Latimer relies on A Noble Crusade by Doherty for material on operations by New Zealand forces, rather than going straight to the excellent and highly accessible NZ official histories and unit histories. While there's nothing inherently wrong with relying on secondary and tertiary sources, Latimer is not always very careful in sorting through what those authors have to offer. For example, Latimer states that the Germans captured 1600 British prisoners in one particular engagement and cites Mitcham as his source for that figure, but Latimer goes on to say in his endnotes (which many readers will never see), "Mitcham, as an American using mainly German sources, tends to swallow some of the wilder claims of their operational success without question...." So, did the Germans really take 1600 British prisoners? Latimer doesn't clarify anything when he cites Mitcham and then casts doubts on Mitcham's accuracy.
As mentioned above, the pattern of small mistakes in peripheral material continues. Latimer explains the Australian evacuation from Tobruk this way: "By mid-November the garrison of Tobruk was mostly British and Polish: fears that the "Rats of Tobruk" [the Aussies] were enjoying themselves too much had prompted wives and sweethearts to press the Australian government for their relief...." This explanation, uncited, arrives out of nowherewhy on earth would anyone think the Aussies were enjoying themselves too much during the siege of Tobruk?and fails to match any other account of the relief of the Aussies. The generally accepted explanation has to do with the long-term, ongoing insistence by the Australian government that all their troops, rather than being dispersed around the theater under various British commanders, must be deployed together as a complete force under an Australian corps headquarters. (See, for example, Maughan's Tobruk and El Alamein.)
All in all, the first fifty pages or so of the book are not very inspiring. Although Latimer offers a few fresh insights along with his synthesis of previous books on the opening phases of the war in the desert, too often he relies on less rigorous sources and passes along the work of previous authors without due diligence.
Fortunately, beginning with chapter four, "The Alamein Line," things start to take a turn for the better not only for 8th Army, but also for the book. As it should, Latimer's account begins to utilize some stronger sources, dig deeper into details, and develop its own interesting ideas and conclusions.
However, the armour had not been idle: it had fought its own battle
according to its training, but this was a different battle from that of the
infantry It was as though they spoke different languages. While
Kippenburger noted that 'the fundamental fault was the failure to coordinate infantry and armour', he acknowledged that 'I do not think
that we of the infantry did nearly so much as we could or should have
done to ensure that we fought the battle together. It was an infantryman's illusion that tank fighting was relatively comfortable - though
understandable, given how hard the infantry's own conditions were.
However, a detailed and dispassionate report from the Medical
Research Section at GHQ described the strain on tank crews. They
usually got up sometime before daylight to drive to their appointed position, with little time to wash and breakfast. Fighting usually took place during the early morning or late afternoon, to put the blinding sun into the eyes of one side or the other - fighting during the midday heat haze was difficult if not impossible. Although fighting seldom lasted for more than three hours of daylight, the rest of the day was spent on watch, patrolling, or preparing to receive an attack. These long periods of expectation were found more nerve-racking than actual fighting, especially in the cramped sardine-tin interior of a tank.
Occasionally it would be possible for one or two of the crew to
dismount to stretch their legs or make a brew, but it was common to
spend the entire period of daylight in the tank. The discomfort from
engine fumes and noise was compounded by wearing headphones all
day, with these pinching and irritating, crackling and hissing when not
passing messages on intercom or radio. The effect was like being 'in a
camera obscura or a silent film in that since the engine drowns all
other noises except explosions, the whole world moves silently. Men
shout, vehicles move, aeroplanes fly over, and all soundlessly: the noise
of the tank being continuous, perhaps for hours on end, the effect is of
silence. In the summer months it would be 2100 hours before the two
sides drew apart and retired to their night laagers, entailing another
couple of hours' driving. Maintenance and replenishment would then
begin: a meal would be prepared; fuel and ammunition would be taken
aboard and any minor running repairs would be made; grease and lubricants would be checked and topped up if necessary. It would be an hour
after midnight before the crews could think about bedding down, but
their slumber would be disturbed when it came to their turn to do an
hour's 'stag', on sentry or radio watch. Thus three hours was the
maximum sleep they could get, and senior officers reckoned a week was
the most that tank crews could endure without their fighting efficiency being affected. Yet, when Rommel swept all before him, tank units from both sides were in action continuously for up to three weeks. One officer noted 'with a shock how worn and tired the officers present looked. Red-eyed, haggard, bearded men with matted hair huddled around the map I had marked . . . Lack of sleep had sharpened features and lined every face into a sad caricature.
Besides, the little tin cans on tracks offered little protection to those within. Sometimes tanks were hit by shells which did not penetrate, the armour then glowing red and the tank rocking like a badly cast bell hit with a sledgehammer, while fear gripped the crew before being replaced by stunned relief. At other times the armour would glow red and then white as a shot reached through like a devil let loose, with dreadful
implications for those inside 'The demented ricochet within the
steel trap, the spattered brains, the torn entrails of a gunner impossible
to extricate; the charred skulls and calcinated bodies of boys who
seconds before were alive and beautiful'. 'A tank cannot be readily
fought with corpses or bits of them in it but one hesitates to tip a friend
out into the unfeeling sand for the jackals to vandalize,' wrote Captain
James Graham, 'and it was not uncommon for me to have to hold a
gravedigging session after food and before sleep. The padre was a good
chap but his place was with the main echelon which could be at bulkhead stores fifty miles behind. Usually some honest believer of an officer recited a garbled form of the committal service over the remains before we closed the shallow grave.'
During the second half of July Rommel was too weak to do more than hold on dearly, but the British were scarcely stronger, repeatedly threw away good troopsespecially New Zealanders, Indians, and Australiansin foolish operations, and were saved only by the continued arrival of reinforcements and replacements. But 23rd Armored Brigade, straight off its transport vessels, was ruined in a single attack. "[Its commander] had obeyed his absurd orders after protesting, and was sacked for being proved right."
Latimer devotes a chapter to Malta's role in the war in the desert, mostly covering the story of the Pedestal convoy. This is solid but uninspired, and not really new or noteworthy. (By contrast, the new book on North Africa from Bierman and Smith offers a blistering indictment of Malta's governor general, Dobbie.)
The story then turns to Winston Churchill and Alan Brooke in Egypt trying to decide how the British command should be reorganized, who should stay, and who should go. Ramsden, Corbett, Dorman-Smith, and Auchinleck were replaced, the latter for insisting that it would be impossible to mount an offensive against Rommel immediately. (Latimer quotes references to Auchinleck as a "lonely figure" without mentioning that not long afterwards his wife ran off with an air marshal, Richard Peirse.) Harold Alexander was named to command of the Near East (Egypt, Palestine, and Syria) with Strafer Gott, an old desert hand, elevated to 8th Army, but Gott died in a plane crash and Bernard Montgomery was summoned. Of course, Monty soon came to the same conclusion as Auchinleck: no offensive could be mounted at once. The remainder of this chapter, based mostly on Nigel Hamilton's biography, but balanced with other sources less favorably disposed toward the general, describes Montgomery, his effect on 8th Army, and his plans for defeating Rommel. Latimer claims that Monty, despite what has been written by others, notably Corelli Barnett in The Desert Generals, did not simply implement the existing plans of his predecessor. On the other hand, Latimer minimizes Montgomery's claim that 8th Army under Auchinleck was fully prepared to abandon the Alamein position rather than offer battle. Whatever the exact extent of Monty's own planning as opposed to earlier plans by Auchinleck and his staff, it becomes clear that Montgomery thoroughly succeeded in his intention of impressing a new outlook on the 8th Army's officers and men. This part of the book shows Latimer at his best when he closely examines his sources and arrives at his own conclusions.
Latimer's exposition on Rommel's plans for Alam Halfa, contrarily, suffers from the familiar problem of relying almost entirely on secondhand Allied sources even when quoting Axis leaders and examining Axis statistics. His use of Bennett and Hinsley to show how Ultra greatly assisted in disrupting Axis supply lines is considerably stronger. In the end, Rommel's attack ran into thick minefields and unceasing sorties by the Desert Air Force, and the British armor refused to come out and meet the panzers in fluid battle in the open. As much as anything else, Montgomery's firm policy of forcing the panzers to attack antitank guns in prepared positionsto impale Rommel on 8th Army's guns, as the Desert Fox had done to the British many times in the pastproved decisive in a battle where there were no open flanks.
In discussing preparations for Operation Lightfoot, Latimer stumbles in his description of 51st Highland Division: "This was one of the best British divisions during the First World War, but had been the only division to surrender during the Battle of France in June 1940." That's a galling description of a division that was intentionally sacrificed at St Valery-en-Caux! The chapter improves with explanations of the training, artillery planning, and specific tactical devicestapes, rearward-shining lights, phase lines, traffic control centers, etcutilized to handle movement and assembly of troops. Still, some of Montgomery's subordinates harbored considerable doubts about some aspects of his original plan.
At first Montgomery insisted that the plan would be followed: he had plenty of tanks, and did not mind how many were lost if the result was achieved. But he would have been in an untenable position had he persisted with a plan genuinely incapable of implementation. When the armoured commanders made their original protest, McCreery took it to Alexander, who returned him to the desert with a brief to explain the Commander-in-Chief's views, backed by a charming letter which
enabled Montgomery to announce a change of plan as though it were entirely his own decision, uninfluenced by the reservations of the armoured commanders, and thus retaining his authority. This intervention by Alexander demonstrated his quiet ability to smooth the waters within his command, the ultimate responsibility for which was his alone. Consequently, on 6 October Montgomery issued a memorandum outlining a change of plan, or at least of emphasis, in which the burden of the battle would move towards 'crumbling' by the infantryattacking the enemy infantry from flanks and rear to cut off suppliesa much harder and more deadly battle than previously envisaged. Significantly, the 'dogfight' battle was now expected to take 10 to 12 days instead of seven, and it raised the importance of the artillery yet higher.
The book's ninth chapter paints a good picture of Axis defensive preparationssuch as extensive minefield constructionand the ongoing attempt by the Desert Air Force to strangle Rommel's supply lines. The increasingly sophisticated aerial tactics utilized against Axis shipping are well explained and make interesting reading. Most of the chapter covers the miserable life in the front lines, with lively descriptions of the luxuries available in Cairo and Alexandria for Allied troops on leave.
Latimer continues his account of preparations for the battle with several pages of details about British logistics, the Middle East Supply Center, front line rations, medical arrangements, intelligence, and especially dummies and deception. These preparations apparently fooled the enemy.
However, the lack of obvious preparations continued to suggest that the British were not yet ready but would follow the pattern set the previous year and open their attack in November. The double loss of Fellers and Seebohm was a considerable blow to German intelligence and, although a replacement radio-intercept company was sent from Germany, this never achieved the efficiency of Seebohm's unit. With a general improvement in Eighth Army's radio procedures and with air
reconnaissance extremely difficult in the teeth of an aggressive and dominant DAF, intelligence had virtually dried up. What information the Axis did have suggested that logistic build-up and the forward movement of troops gave it until the middle of November to prepare. But in the first three weeks of October sea and air attacks sank no less than 45 per cent of Italian and 59 per cent of German tonnage dispatched, and 65 per cent of the latter was fuel. This halved the potential endurance of Panzerarmee's armour and transport from 21 days to 11. Thus Stumme commented on 22 October that his troops were 'living from hand-to-mouth; we fill one gap only to see another open. We cannot build up the basic supply which would enable us to overcome critical situations through our own resources and which allows operational freedom of movement, which is an absolutely vital necessity for the army.' Red-faced, almost bursting out of a uniform a size too small for him, with a monocle positively screwed into his eye socket, he hissed the word Pflicht (duty) almost as a threat, and made it clear that the testing time was close at hand.
With about half the book expended, Latimer opens "Part II: The Battle" with yet more preparations, in particular British artillery planning, mine-clearing programs, and the air offensive. Much as the book shifted into a higher gearmore detail, more interesting information, better sourceswhen moving from the earliest chapters to the advent of the Alamein campaign, likewise the opening of the battle itself finds Latimer taking his book to a new level which proves much closer to the original expectations for Alamein.
As the artillery barrage opens and the infantry crashes forward, so does the narrative. Chapter twelve follows the attack on a battalion-by-battalion basis from north to south, charting the path, casualties, and success (or lack of success) of each company in turn. Latimer mixes in a few telling (and sometimes touching) personal recollections from veterans (taken from earlier works, which is quite understandable this many years later), but mostly cites regimental histories and official histories, almost exclusively from the Allied perspective. Here's an example of how Latimer weaves everything together:
An Australian diarist summarized Alamein thus far: 'Shocking three
days of noise, death and fear. For the troops on the ground there
was at this time a tremendous feeling of uncertainty which affected even
the most hardened soldier. While they could assess the situation on
their own small sector, there was no news of the general progress of the
battle. Fighting seemed to be taking place in every direction, including
to the rear. Conditions in many of the positions were dreadful: the
machine-gunners of 12 Platoon 1/7th Middlesex Regiment, on the
Aberdeen position with D Company 1st Gordon Highlanders, were so
desperately short of water that they had to use the foul coolant from a
couple of their guns' radiators, replacing it in the 'traditional emergency
manner'. Lance-Corporal H. Sleeth volunteered to go back and report
to battalion. He had already been hit twice and it would be a mission of
great danger, but he made it to his Company Headquarters despite
being blown up. Refusing to be evacuated, he then guided a relief patrol
with food, ammunition and reinforcements that evening.
While some peered uncertainly out of their holes, many were kept
busy. All day and all night throughout the battle, signallers'bolstered
by courage and tradition'would run along their lines searching for
breaks and, having located them, fixing, testing both ways, and then
running forward or backward as necessary. 'Sitting ducks we exposed
linesmen.' V. J. Walshe of 2/17th Battalion saw a signaller mending a
line with his back turned. Then he realized 'he was not moving, went
closer and found it was Bruce Wearyno apparent mark on him, sitting upright, but he was dead'. Company orderlies faced similar risks. An
equally important and dangerous task which fell to the sappers was the
destruction of bombs and booby-traps and of damaged enemy tanks
and equipment, to prevent their recovery and repair. Since many of
these tanks and guns had been knocked out early on by long-range fire,
they often remained covered by the enemy, making it dangerous work.
After Lieutenant B. S. Jarvis destroyed his first 88 with a charge, he felt
very satisfied. 'It is grand to think of the Boche making these weapons,
running them over to Sicily and then transporting them all the way to
Alamein only to be destroyed in a twinkling by a British sapper.'
Montgomery's decision to switch north has often been portrayed as
a calculated one which had been made necessary by the peril in which
8th and 9th Armoured Brigades had found themselves. In fact it was
more a result of the constant murmuring of the armoured commanders
and their failure to break through. Although XXX Corps had now captured all its objectives, this had been done only at great cost, especially
among 51st (Highland) Division. By the morning of 26 October, XXX
Corps had already suffered 4,643 casualties while Lumsden's X Corps
had suffered only 455less than half those incurred by XIII Corps'
feint operations in the south. According to Leese, 'we were within an
ace of losing our grip on the battle'. There was also apparent tardiness
in the north, where 1st Armoured Division had failed to push the
armoured shield right on to the Kidney Ridge featurethough its navigation was so poor that it at first refused to admit this and would not
assist the Royal Artillery in surveying-in as the infantry did, showing no
understanding of corps artillery co-operation. When Kirkman reported
that Lumsden 'wanders about the country by himself and the CCRA
[Corps Commander Royal Artillery] doesn't know what's going on',
Montgomery was furious. In his diary he wrote 'there is no doubt these
RAC Generals do not understand the co-operation of all arms in battle.
I have had many examples of this since the battle started. Lumsden is
not a really high-class soldier.' Indeed, only now was 2nd Armoured
Brigade able to close up with the Highlanders on the Pierson bound.
But during the previous two days it had been constantly in action; the
tanks had needed replenishing with ammunition two or three times a
day, with the drivers of soft-skinned 'B'-echelon supply vehicles and
their mates coming right up to the battle positions to do this, showing
great courage and calmness.
The narrative continues with the same pace and thoroughness throughout the entire battle, tying together the threads from many previous works in chapters like "Crumbling," "The Defence of Outpost Snipe," "Thompson's Post," and "Supercharge." Latimer includes a great deal of data about individual units and actions, butas with every good authorhe carefully chooses what to put in and what to leave out. That means, rather than having his book balloon up to six hundred pages or more, he skips some material available elsewhere and does not always touch on every aspect of the struggle. For example, he devotes a single paragraph to 51st Division operations on 25 October. Lucas Phillips in his own highly regarded Alamein, often cited in this Alamein, devotes two pages to the same actions.
Leaving out some minor parts of the battle is not a big problem, but what Latimer includesand the way he includes itcan make a difference. It's true that in the second half of the book he's on much firmer ground with his sources, but he can sound very derivative even when he utilizes the most impeccable references. The British official historians, I.S.O. Playfair and C.J.C. Molony wrote these sentences in 1966:
Opposite the extreme right of the 5ist Division's sector was a conformation shapedon mapslike a kidney bean, and known as Kidney Ridge. Opinions differed widely over where it was in fact, and even whether it was a ridge at all. Nearly a mile to the north-west of it, and about the same distance to the south-west, lay two localities known as 'Woodcock' and 'Snipe', centres of resistance which it was decided to capture. The difficulty was to determine exactly where they were. The best estimates of the two Divisions differed by as much as a mileenough to spell chaos in a set-piece attack.
The plan was to use two battalions of the 7th Motor Brigadethe 2nd K.R.R.G. against 'Woodcock' and the and Rifle Brigade against 'Snipe'supported by all available guns in the 10th and 30th Corps. Zero for both attacks would be 11 p.m. on the 26th, and at dawn on the 27th the 2nd Armoured Brigade would pass round the north of 'Woodcock' and the 24th Armoured Brigade round the south of 'Snipe'.
Latimer writes his sentences this way:
Kidney Ridge faced the extreme right of 51st (Highland) Division's sector and was a conformation shaped, on maps at least, like a kidney beanalthough it was by no means so easily discernible on the ground, and opinion varied as to whether it was a ridge at all. About half a mile to the north-west and a similar distance to the south-west were two localities named Woodcock and Snipe. These were given as objectives for 7th Motor Brigade, commanded by Brigadier T. J. B. 'Jimmy' Bosville, despite some difficulty in deciding precisely where they werea dispute that could lead to chaos in planning a set-piece attack.
The plan was to put a battalion on each of these objectives, supported by all the available guns of both X and XXX Corps, with attacks to be made at 2300 hours on 26 October. At dawn the following morning 2nd Armoured Brigade would pass round to the north of Woodcock and 24th Armoured Brigade would pass round to the south of Snipe.
Is this conformation of sentences uncomfortably similar? Even in the much-improved second half of the book, Latimer tends to lean heavily on earlier writers. That sort of synthesis can be very valuable when comparing and contrasting the conflicting "facts" and opinions offered by other books, but often Latimer simply passes along the material at face value. For example, he offers this near the beginning of chapter seventeen: "The British tactic of sending out battalions unsupported to hold localities with open flanks was not sustainable in broader terms. An advance across a wide frontage was required." A sound doctrine, no doubt, but Latimer simply cites Maughan as the source of this opinion, without further comment. When he does have more to say about a source or a source's reliability (such as with Mitcham, as mentioned above), it's usually buried in the endnotes.
All the quibbling and bitching in this review notwithstanding, Latimer's bookcertainly the part focusing specifically on the Battle of Alamein, as opposed to earlier phases of the campaigncontains a great deal of very solid material clearly presented and engagingly written. It's easy to forgive errors regarding British rail gauge, the Highland Division in France, and the Aussie relief at Tobruk when Latimer launches into Lightfoot and Supercharge, especially given his careful attention to integrating the activities of the navies and air forces with the ground campaign. Latimer also includes lengthy, extremely detailed OBs (12th Petrol Analysis Troop, 1st South African Field Bakery) for both sides, including the Desert Air Force. Although it fails to offer a wealth of fresh insights, Alamein represents, overall, a blend of relevant unit histories, official histories, personal recollections, and some PRO documents that makes this a worthwhile book about the battle, particularly for those unfamiliar with the sources. Despite the existence of some frustrating, even maddening, passages in the early going, by the end of the full four hundred pages most readers will probably be more than satisfied with the book as a whole. Given the steady flow of new books on the desert war, this is certainly not the last word on the subject, but it's likely to remain one of the most popular and highly regarded books about Alamein for quite some time.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Harvard University Press in the US or from John Murray in the UK.
Thanks to HUP for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 1 December 2002
Copyright © 2002 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone