19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 16 August 2002
This is a book that tells you how it was. It protrays in vivid detail how the war in the western desert played out for all of the participants; it combines excellent descriptions of the 'soldiers war' - a war of heat, flies, boredom and terror - with a fine exposition on the developing strategic situation in 1941-2. Throw in a good dose of Churchill's battles with the House of Commons, mix it with the seige of Malta, the misguided exploits of the Luftwaffe figher aces and a refreshingly honest assessment of the chief protangonists Montgomery and Rommel and and you have a cracking good read. Whether you are a historian, military enthusiast or casual browser, the engaging style of this book will hit the mark.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 26 February 2010
This is not a book about el Alamein! The book covers pretty much the entire North African campaign from the beginning of the war, up to the surrender of the German and Italian armies in Tunisia in 1943. Many such histories do put their main subject in context in this way, but Bungay takes this to extremes - in a book with 10 chapters, the Malta campaign (for example) gets an entire chapter, whereas the purported subject of the book: the three phases of the battle of El Alamein itself only warrant a single chapter for each. And they're not long chapters either - at 230 pages this is a positively anaemic book considering its scope.
Now, all this does not in fact detract from the story and indeed its brevity makes all the more readable. However, it acts better as a primer on the desert war than a detailed account of the battle of itself. It's well written and considers the war from all aspects - strategy, tactics, politics, supply and logistics and it includes a chapter on the soldier's war. It takes its lead from a wide range of sources, published and unpublished, contemporary and modern, official and unofficial, but it doesn't rely very heavily (if at all) on interviews with surviving old soldiers. It is, nevertheless, by no means a dry account and is written with intelligence, insight and the occasional flash of humour.
Highly recommended as an introductory or supplementary text but you may want to try other more in depth books as well.
42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on 4 October 2002
Stephen Bungay's last book, "The Most Dangerous Enemy", broke new ground in military history by analysing the strategic and organisational elements of the conflict in terms of modern management thinking. By bringing a similar approach to the most important land battle Britain fought during World War II, Bungay again demonstrates the power and the versatility of the approach, while picking up some of the more intriguing themes from his earlier work.
Here again the analysis of organisational details is scholarly and precise. It is also immensely revealing, showing the effect on the battle of contrasting management styles: the German "mission command" approach offering enormous benefits in flexibility, motivation and creativity, compared with the more feudal British style, which appears to have managed to combine bureaucratic decision-making with "permission to whinge". It is in this context that Montgomery's leadership qualities and his deliberate rhetoric and self-glorification are seen as justified by their effectiveness... His caution and thoroughness contrast strongly with the personal nobility and flair of underrated heroes like Auchinlech and O'Connor but they could not have achieved the morale boosting impact Monty did; they could not have achieved at least some semblance of cooperation between tanks and infantry as Monty eventually did; most importantly they would not have emphasised training to the point where the British army was finally and permanently transformed into at least an adequate fighting machine.
Bungay's analysis of logistics is again painstaking and insightful, showing the importance of communications (particularly of Bletchley's brilliance at decryption) and the criticality of the large "overhead" that so disturbed Churchill. It is through this analysis that one gets an understanding of many of the individually determining features of the campaign, such as the importance of Malta, the impossibility of desert fighting without plenty of petrol and the impact of air superiority on desert supply capabilities.
In all this analysis, Bungay never loses sight of the human side of war. His descriptions of the soldiers' point of view (the flies, the terror of being burned alive in a tank, the general indignity of all forms of desert death) are exceptionally moving.
In a similar vein, Bungay takes us through the impact of the many personal clashes which characterised the war for both sides: Douglas versus Park (again), Rommel versus Kesselring, Montgomery versus Lumsden. Interestingly many of the British conflicts seem to have been about style - the archetypal British public schoolboy against the pragmatic modern concept of leadership - while the Germans' were more about substance. Rommel's frustration with Kesselring has a logic which seems to be lacking in Montgomery's distaste for Lumsden. Nor does Bungay omit the disastrous effect of lionising the air hero, Marseille, on Germany's effectiveness against British bombers, another theme that echoes his analysis of the Battle of Britain.
For all this analysis, Bungay, like the best type of management thinker, never loses sight of the big picture. The strategic emphasis on Russia that caused Germany to pass up the chance of domination in North Africa and the Middle East at the start of the campaign, the importance of a victory to the political support that enabled Churchill to continue to lead the war effort, and the fundamental incompatibility of Germany and Italy as allies, are all thoroughly documented and explained and their significance demonstrated.
The deep analysis and managerial insight Bungay has brought to this work has again shown itself to be a powerful framework for gaining a revealing and fresh perspective on historical events and a refreshingly original experience for the reader. It is to be hoped that there are more such works in Bungay's pipeline.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 31 March 2003
Notions of leadership in the business community, which I serve as consultant and educator, are fuzzy and confused. Military leaders, however, face disaster if they fail to ensure clarity of mission. Dr Bungay's crisp analysis of mission command, which defines mission as the union of task and purpose, goes a long way to explaining the success of Rommel despite the Wehrmacht's inferior resources, and the initial failure of British forces in North Africa. But this is much more than an historian's account. Dr Bungay practices as a leading business strategist, and this book is a must for the business leader's bookshelf. The fascinating discussion of Montgomery's turnaround of British morale also provides practical takeaways that restore the Aristotelian art of rhetoric as a competence that any leader must master.
Professor Dominic Houlder, London Business School
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 4 December 2013
This book should really have been titled as a history of the North Africa campaign in the Western Desert as it provides a concise and well judged history of the campaign from its opening moves through to the pursuit of the German and Italian armies into Tunisia. Bungay writes with clarity and has a wonderfully engaging style which draws the reader in and makes the book a joy to read. His judgements and opinions are supported by clear arguments and logic and whilst never afraid to voice criticism and highlight failure is generally respectful and sympathetic towards those about whom he writes. The story of the second Alamein actually occupies a relatively small section of the book. Bungay demonstrates the importance of strategy and logistics and frequently contrasts Rommel's often brilliant tactical leadership with an almost complete failure on his part and of the Axis leadership to develop a coherent strategy in the theatre and to appreciate the realities of their ability to supply an army in North Africa. The failure to capture or at least neutralise Malta had catastrophic consequences for Rommel and the failure of the army to co-operate with the Luftwaffe scarely less so. The British on the other hand for all their tactical failures, often poor generalship and despite numerous battlefiled reverses developed army - air force co-operation and displayed a great command of logistics along with a clear strategy. As they closed the tactical gap and improved their battlefield performance the scene was set for the climactic battle of Alamein. Perhaps the best part of the book is the authors comprehensive assessment of Montgomery, few figures of history has divided opinion in the way Montgomery has and much history is divided into either hagiography or polemical character assassination. The figure that emerges in this book is of a deeply flawed human being who was really very unpleasant yet who was the right commander at the right time to command at Alamein. Montgomery transformed the fighting spirit of the 8th Army, and his attention to detail, training achievements and successes should not be discounted as a reaction to the deeply unpleasant attitudes he himself displayed to others and the self image he created. Few pictures of Montgomery are as nuanced or balanced and the book is worth buying just for this appraisal. Extremely highly recommended.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Successful modern business strategist Stephen Bungay previously brought his formidable analytical skills to examine the Battle of Britain in his impressive book `The Most Dangerous Enemy', a defining work in understanding that important historical conflict.
In this shorter work about the desert campaign culminating in the Battle of El Alamein, Bungay once again brings his intelligent analytical mind to examine the conflict from perspectives focussed not only on the battlefield, the armies and their equipment, but on the political and strategic hinterland governing the motives and actions of the various participants.
Of inestimable importance, the author illustrates, is the big picture. Hitler saw the Mediterranean theatre as a sideshow to his invasion of the USSR, sent the Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK) under Rommel to Libya to prevent Mussolini suffering the humiliation of total defeat at the hands of the British Commonwealth forces, and simply wanted `not to lose.' The DAK never received sufficient resources or supplies to finish off the British forces because British warships, submarines and aircraft based in Malta were sinking their supply ships all the time, and when the DAK reached Alamein their supply tail was too long and continuously harassed by the allied air forces. The Panzerarmee Afrika which comprised roughly even numbers of German and Italian forces - fundamentally unsuited as allies - were unable to invade Egypt and occupy Cairo and Alexandria partly because of these factors (and partly Auchinleck's skilled defensive battle). Occupying Cairo was not something Hitler was enthusiastic about, though Mussolini greeted the prospect with great relish and looked forward to riding into Cairo on a white horse as `The Conqueror of Egypt.'
Churchill by contrast wanted to win in North Africa and dominate the Mediterranean, rather than just `not lose' and was never content with a stalemate. There were important strategic and political reasons for fighting and winning the battle at Alamein, which the 8th Army did not need to fight for military reasons because the `Torch' landings would have ultimately led to Rommel being attacked from the west by overwhelming allied forces and having his supply lines severed. The battle had to be fought and won to prove that the British Army could defeat an equivalent German Army fighting under a German general; to rebuild the 8th Army's confidence as `winners'. Stalin on the one side, and the Americans on the other, also needed to be convinced that Britain was an effective ally with a hard-fighting army which could comprehensively defeat the Wehrmacht in the field on its own. Secondly, the victory was needed to secure Churchill's position at home, as by 1942 his conduct of the war was being criticised and he had already faced a censure motion in Parliament. Churchill certainly made the most of the victory: after November 1942 his position as PM was never challenged until the 1945 election.
The early chapters cover the strategic war; the tactical war - with an enlightening examination of the different command styles of the Italian, British and German forces, the latter with their `Mission Command' philosophy proving superior on the battlefield; the supply war with a long and detailed section about the importance of Malta which the Axis forces planned to invade (and needed to) but never did; and an excellent chapter `The Soldiers' War' redolent of the author's incisive no-holds-barred analysis of aircrew experiences in `The Most Dangerous Enemy.'
The personality issues between the Germans and Italians, between Kesselring and Rommel, between the British commanders in charge of Malta's air defences and between Montgomery and almost everyone, are dealt with by the author with skill and insight. Bungay is a thorough researcher who wherever possible goes back to original sources - like Rommel's letters to his wife Lucie for example, which are continuously quoted in the book. An examination of the governing philosophies of the two opposing air forces is also very illuminating. The Desert Air Force focussed resources in support of the ground troops by attacking the enemy's formations and supply columns; the MO of the Luftwaffe's fighter arm in contrast was that everything operationally should feed the objective of upping the kill scores of a handful of `Ace' pilots in order to feed Goebbels' propaganda machine for civilian morale-boosting, so the RAF's bombers attacking Rommel's troops were left largely unmolested ("the bombers had tail gunners"). The RAF therefore proved incomparably more effective both strategically and tactically, and although the Me109F was superior in every way to Hurricanes and American lend-lease P40s, it was the RAF who eventually gained air superiority and ensured the ground victory was decisive.
Montgomery might have never emerged from relative obscurity had the transport plane carrying Gott (the initial appointee as 8th Army commander) not been shot down, killing him with others on board. The choice of Monty to replace Gott was greeted by Churchill with scepticism. Bungay does not lionise Monty and is fully aware of his notoriously `difficult' side, but explains where these attitudes originated and demonstrates convincingly that he was exactly what the 8th Army needed at the time. Most importantly Monty recognised that British troops often referred to the DAK simply as "Rommel" and were in awe of the German general. Monty was the first British general to appreciate the importance of what we would now term media management to a wider audience, and by consciously and deliberately marketing himself as a recognisable personality with whom the troops could identify, responded directly to the personality cult around Rommel by creating a counterpoint in himself. He also galvanised the Army in ways his predecessors Auchinleck and O'Connor, for all their achievements and tactical abilities, failed to do. By emphasising training, supplies, inter-arm battlefield co-operation and above all, morale, he told them directly, face to face that they were going to win and "there is no doubt about it." He played to the strengths of the 8th Army and within the limitations of what could be achieved, made it an effective fighting machine; he gave it unassailable confidence in itself and in its leadership. "Montgomery's was a double achievement", writes Bungay, "He fought the battle the army could win, and created the army to win the battle...he had to do a lot more than Rommel, who did not have to build professional skills because the German General Staff had done that in the 1930s. Neither in fighting the battle nor in building the army was Montgomery 100% successful...but successful enough to get a decision on that battlefield and turn the army into an instrument capable of winning battles to come."
Bungay is a superb writer with an engaging, direct style, intelligent and highly literate. Often humorous and always interesting, his books are page-turners and thoroughly enjoyable. His modern management analysis skills bring new perspectives to these historic events, and let's hope hope there are more works in the pipeline.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 13 February 2009
A superbly well written book on a subject that I had no previous interest in.
It was bought on the strength of reading his other book 'The most dangerous enemy' which I rate as one of the best ten books I've read.
He brings history to life. I hope he writes another book soon.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 12 August 2002
The most efficient of the three histories of the battle of Alamein, Stephen Bungay effectively balances the minutiae of battle logistics with the importance of the personalities involved (Rommel, Monty etc) in an always absorbing account of the North African campaign. Excellent but never confusing context details such as the importance of Malta and careful attention to the broader strategic outlook. Really readable properly done history. Lovely looking book, too.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 13 September 2002
An authoritative and well-written account of the desert campaigns in WW2. Manages to place the desert war in the larger context without losing touch with the gritty realities of the lives of the combatants.
Particularly interesting on the details of supplies and logistics - from the strategic importance of Malta to the calorie requirements of soldiers on the front line.
Has level-headed assessments of Monty and Rommel - as people and as stategists.
I recommend this book.
on 26 May 2014
An excellent overview of the Battle(s) of El Alamein with a focus on the practical facts of the war, rather than the myths that have developed. Stephen Bungay seems to have a knack of cutting to the heart of the matter and analysing the war in terms of loses and gains. He describes both the strategic and the tactical elements of the desert war and you come away with a much better understanding of what it was all about. Stephen Bungay is not afraid to compare Alamein to the massive battles taking place on the Eastern Front at the same time, against which it is a mere skirmish in comparison.
This book is both easy to read and highly informative. I would definitely reccomend it to anyone wanting to understand more about the North African campaign and its overall effect on the war.