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Destiny In The Desert, By Jonathan Dimbleby

This sober history reflects on the significance, and motives, of the Battle of El Alamein

The victory by the British and imperial forces in the slugging battle of El Alamein (23 October-4 November 1942) was famously described by Churchill as not the beginning of the end of the Second World War but the end of the beginning. For the first time in wartime Britain, the bells of victory were rung. Yet how significant was it?

 In his lucid and very well-written book, produced for the 70th anniversary, Jonathan Dimbleby seems in two minds. On the one hand, he appears to acknowledge that it was strategically irrelevant to the larger purpose of defeating Nazi Germany, but on the other seems reluctant to debunk Churchill. So he devises some (ultimately unconvincing) counterfactual reasons why it should be celebrated. It is a great merit of Dimbleby's volume that he does not regard the North Africa campaign as a self-contained event and thus places it in the context of global grand strategy, but he often seems reluctant to go where his own evidence points him.

Bluntly stated, the entire North Africa campaign, and Alamein in particular, exemplified Churchill's notorious wartime practice of putting the interests of the British Empire ahead of the defeat of Nazi Germany – a policy which explains his ferocious opposition to the American desire for the earliest possible Second Front in Europe. Churchill argued that the North Africa campaign was needed to maintain the lifeline through Suez to Singapore and Hong Kong; that Britain needed to do something in the war besides bombing Germany; and that the Wehrmacht, if victorious in Russia, would sweep down through the Caucasus, into Turkey and on into Egypt.

The latter scenario, like the fabled German-Japanese link-up in India, was chimerical. President Roosevelt, pressed by many of his Joint Chiefs of Staff to concentrate on war in the Pacific after December 1941, inclined to a "Europe-first" policy but was stymied by Churchill's obstructionism and perennial obsession with peripheral strategies. In the end, FDR agreed to concentrate on Africa, purely to get US troops into action by the November 1942 Congressional elections.

An Anglo-American invasion of Vichy-held North Africa was agreed, to coincide with a major British offensive in Libya. It became a Churchillian obsession to score a great victory before Operation TORCH – the Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria – took place on 8 November 1942. Roosevelt grudgingly acquiesced in TORCH once his advisors pointed out that casualties would be low and it could mean the end of French colonialism in Africa.

None of this places Churchill in a particularly favourable light. The 13,500 British and imperial dead at Alamein might have been avoided. To be fair, some historians argue that the Germans would have defeated any Second Front before 1944, so that Churchill's peripheral policies can be retrospectively justified.

The great merit of Dimbleby's enjoyable narrative is that he can see right through the egregious Field-Marshal Montgomery and exposes the "Monty" myth for the bunk it is. A liar, libellously jealous of all his confreres, Monty was an insanely ambitious sexual oddity, almost solipsistic in his self-regard. His victory at Alamein was made possible by the careful preparations of his predecessor as Eighth Army commander, Claude Auchinleck.

Yet Monty not only wrote "the Auk" out of his boastful accounts of Alamein, but lied viciously about him, presenting him as a defeatist. Monty enjoyed a fourfold advantage over Rommel at Alamein in manpower and materiel. He had four times the tanks and planes, while Rommel did not even have enough fuel for those he had. Dimbleby estimates the manpower figures as something like 200,000 for Monty and 100,000 for Rommel, but Rommel had only about 53,000 effectives, his numbers padded out by demoralised Italian troops. Additionally, Monty had the vital weapon of ULTRA intercepts. He was aided too by a clever disinformation campaign and the creation of a fake Allied army by camouflage, as described exhaustively in Rick Stroud's book, The Phantom Army of Alamein (Bloomsbury, £16.99).

A great general does not simply defeat the enemy on the field of battle but finishes them off. Monty allowed the Afrika Corps to escape to Tunis where, under a revivified Rommel, they astonishingly held the Allies at bay until May 1943.

The more one examines the battle, the less impressive the fortnight's brutal campaign of attrition seems. Dimbleby is too intelligent an analyst not to be aware of this but it is almost as if some atavistic imperial chauvinism prevents him from delivering the knock-out punch on Churchill and Monty. Certainly his subtitle – "the battle that turned the tide" – is mere hyperbole. What turned the tide in late 1942 was the catastrophic German defeat at Stalingrad. It cannot be said often enough that it was the Red Army that tore the heart out of the Wehrmacht and essentially defeated the Nazi war machine.

Stalin had every justification for his anger that, while the Soviets were engaged in the titanic struggle on the Volga, FDR and Churchill were amusing themselves with minor ventures in North Africa. The one impressive achievement in North Africa was caused by Hitler's folly, not Allied brilliance. By his refusal to pull out at the end of 1942, Hitler ensured that in May 1943 240,000 German troops were taken prisoner in Tunis, to add to the 250,000-plus surrendered at Stalingrad. One understands why a nation in rapid decline should want to celebrate Alamein, but the brutal truth is that alongside the world-shaking Soviet defeats of the Nazis at Stalingrad and Kursk, battles like Alamein and the Kasserine Pass look like fleabites.

Frank McLynn's latest book is 'The Road Not Taken: how Britain narrowly missed a revolution' (Bodley Head)

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