What an unedifying affair the war in the North African desert was, at least until November 1942 and the victory at El Alamein. As the author of this brisk study of one of its more admired practitioners writes:
In no particular order, the following were casualties [i.e. sacked]: Wavell, Cunningham, Auchinleck, Norrie, Ritchie, Lumsden, Gatehouse, Rees, Godwin-Austen, Beresford-Pierse, Dorman-Smith, Corbett, Hobart, O’Creagh, Ramsden and Messervy.
There might well have been a separate desk in the military secretary’s department in London dealing with officers who had taken a fall in what was laconically referred to as the Benghazi Stakes.
And it had all begun so well. In December 1940, 36,000 men of the Western Desert Force under Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor had counterattacked an Italian army which had advanced into Egypt from Libya and driven them back 500 miles, destroying ten divisions, taking 130,000 prisoners and leaving Mussolini with only the most precarious foothold in North Africa.
But Churchill then diverted men and resources to Greece in an ill-starred attempt to thwart the Axis powers in the Balkans. O’Connor (who would later be taken prisoner) could therefore not finish the job; Hitler sent German troops under Rommel to bolster his lame-duck ally, and when the Desert Fox launched his own attack in March 1941, British and Commonwealth troops were sent reeling, almost to the Egyptian border.
There followed 18 months of see-saw war in the sand, with great advances by both sides, followed by hasty and equally long withdrawals. In all of this the reputation of Rommel grew, while that of one British general after another was destroyed. The nadir was the fall of ‘fortress’ Tobruk, the strategically critical Libyan port, of which Churchill learned to his chagrin during his second meeting as an ally with President Roosevelt on 21 June 1942. A year earlier he had sacked Wavell as C-in-C Middle East; now he would sack Wavell’s successor, Auchinleck, in a remarkably Old-Harrovian reshuffle. The PM, the school’s greatest old boy, appointed in Auchinleck’s place Harold Alexander, who had been the 11th batsman in the famous ‘Fowler’s Match’ against Eton in 1910; and, to command of the Eighth Army (which Auchinleck had himself been commanding in addition to being C-in-C, having sacked Neil Ritchie), he appointed William ‘Strafer’ Gott, the star of the 1914 Harrow (shooting) VIII.
However, before Strafer (his nickname originating in the Great War from the German imprecation ‘Gott strafe England’— May God punish England) could take command, he was killed when the aircraft flying him to Cairo from Berg el Arab was jumped by Messerschmitts. Only recently has it been established that this was no mere piece of ill luck but the result of the interception of a message naming Gott as the passenger. For the most part, the British needed Bletchley Park to crack German signal traffic (‘Ultra’); all the Germans needed on this occasion was an operator who could understand English, for inexplicably the message had been sent en clair.
In July, during the PM’s vengeful visit to North Africa, Gott had told Alan Brooke, the CIGS, that he didn’t feel up to the job of commanding Eighth Army, that as a corps commander he had tried everything, and that what was needed was someone with new ideas and the confidence to carry them out. Brooke agreed, but Churchill, encouraged by Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, who had served with Gott in the 60th Rifles in the Great War, confirmed the appointment (Churchill had considered, if only briefly, Eden himself instead of Alexander for Cairo — an innovative idea to say the least).
After Gott’s death, Eighth Army did indeed get what Gott prescribed: Montgomery. Immediately on taking command, fresh from England, Monty gathered together the officers of his headquarters and addressed them from the steps of his caravan. Things had got to change, he told them:
The great point to remember is that we are going to finish with this chap Rommel once and for all. It will be quite easy. There is no doubt about it.
In two years of desert fighting, Gott had risen from battalion commander, through brigade, divisional and corps command to that of an army. The life of such a man — especially one so widely admired by all ranks — is in itself worthy of a proper record, and in N.S. ‘Tank’ Nash, a former regular officer known to a generation of readers of the British Army Review as ‘Sustainer’ (a military cross between Stephen Leacock and Peter Simple), he has at last a worthy biographer.
But beyond this, the book — well illustrated, with good maps, fascinating in its detail and scrupulous in its judgments — adds new insights to the war in the Western Desert, not least, as Field Marshal Lord Bramall, the senior Greenjacket, says in his foreword, that ‘the key factor in all battles is the human factor and particularly the character and resolution, as well as the personal skill, of the commanders fighting them’.
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