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5.0 out of 5 stars THE DEFINITIVE ACCOUNT OF EL ALAMEIN, 20 Nov. 2012
This review is from: El Alamein: The Battle that Turned the Tide of the Second World War (General Military) (Hardcover)
The Battle of Cambrai in 1917 and El Alamein in 1942 suggest one common theme to those with some knowledge of military affairs: tanks. Tanks, above all, dominate perceptions of these Great and Second World War battles. Bryn Hammond is a recognised authority on tanks and armoured warfare, so it is no surprise that his attention has been drawn to these two battles. His first book, `Cambrai 1917', was published to wide acclaim in 2008. Tellingly, it was subtitled `The Myth of the First Great Tank Battle'. In it, Hammond demonstrated that whilst the British deployment of armour was certainly a key factor in the opening of the Battle of Cambrai, a narrow historiographical focus on that aspect had distorted the wider picture of what was an all-arms battle and a stepping stone in the evolution of the BEF which went on to win the greatest series of victories in the history of the British Army between August and November 1918. Now, in his second book, Hammond has turned his gaze forward by a quarter of a century to the Battle of El Alamein, and shows how the stepping stones to victory laid in the Great War were revisited and evolved as the foundations of victory in the Second World War.

In `El Alamein, The Battle that Turned the Tide of the Second World War', Hammond once again demonstrates that, whilst the role of armour was a key factor at El Alamein, there was much more to the affair than a simplistic clash of landships on a sea of shifting sands. And in exploring this bigger picture, Hammond in the process draws the reader's attention to the fact that the Second World War battle was won in large part by deploying principles first recognised and developed in the harsh school of the Great War.

In contrast to the `steel and fire of tanks and guns', Hammond also gives time and attention to the `most amorphous element of warfare' - morale. Rightly, he points out that "[i]n June 1942, Eighth Army's greatest enemy was the effect on morale of the two previous years of desert warfare." However he is also right to balance this with the observation that, in order to emphasise the impact of Montgomery, contemporary and subsequent accounts could tend to "over-stress the depth of any `morale crisis' in Eighth Army in July 1942." Here again, Hammond draws convincing parallels with his previous work on the Great War, noting the inclination of some in the BEF of 1917 towards extrapolating too much from "the `grousings' and complaints of the ordinary `Tommy'." Sir Douglas Haig had understood that reserving the right to grumble was a natural state of affairs for the British soldier, which was quite separate from the question of morale.

More tangibly, Hammond delivers a brilliant exposition of how, at El Alamein, there are numerous examples of returns to the use of principles of warfare first developed in the Great War. Nowhere is this more apparent than in gunnery techniques and their integration with other arms. Hammond notes how contemporary observers were struck by the similarity of numerous examples of infantry attacks preceded by artillery preparation to what had been developed in the BEF by 1918. Add to this the resumption of techniques such as flash-spotting, sound-ranging, gun-calibration, survey and meteorological observation, and Montgomery's pretence that he had overseen at El Alamein something markedly distinct from the `failed' methods of Great War commanders becomes an ironic undertone to Hammond's retelling of the 1942 battle.

Beyond such parallels, however, Hammond is also excellent in identifying what was new - for example the (relative) reliability and speed of armoured and other mechanised transport and - above all - air supremacy and fire power. Whilst Hammond knowledgeably discusses the relative merits of the tanks which spearheaded movement, he also emphasises the equal importance of anti-tank guns and gunnery. Also examined are the techniques which had to be developed to clear the vast minefields which mushroomed just beneath the desert sands. Leading on from this, Hammond also recognises the peculiarities of the environment in which the Desert War was fought, and the impact of this on both men and the technologies of war.

And it is a concern with the men who fought the Battle (or, more accurately, series of actions) of El Alamein, and who commanded them at lower levels which most informs Hammond's book and brings it vividly to life with their personal accounts, making the book an exciting and often moving reading experience. The characters of Rommel and Montgomery are central only to those elements of the story where their input was indeed central. And Hammond is surely right to eschew the casual use in his text of such colloquialisms as `Monty', `The Auk' and `The Desert Fox' - for as he rightly points out, despite such terms being in use and encouraged by propaganda contemporaneously, "an army commander is no one's `mate'." Neither Rommel nor Montgomery are deified or vilified - Hammond is refreshingly free of the post hoc `blame game' which is the mainspring of too much military `history'. Montgomery's flaws of character are noted where relevant, just as the myth of the `clean war' commonly held to have been fought by Rommel's forces is put into the context of Rommel's knowledge of the Nazi agencies preparing to impose their racial and other policies in the wake of his armies. Quite apart from that, Hammond's account makes explicitly clear that the Desert War, like all war, was essentially a bloody affair with an ethos of kill or be killed at its heart.

This is as scrupulously balanced an account of El Alamein as could be wished for. It deals in the realities of war for the men on the ground and the commanders who led them in furtherance of the requirements of their political masters. The details of the execution of that task makes grim reading at times, yet this is somehow always leavened by examples of the human spirit managing to rise above the horror of war in Hammond's judiciously selected quotes from participants. At the end of it all, Hammond convincingly sums up why fighting and winning El Alamein was worth it for the British. He does an excellent job of contextualising it as a victory gained by Britain and her Imperial and Commonwealth forces before the nature of her role on the world stage changed forever with the advent of American troops landing in North Africa. To borrow one of Hammond's own analogies from his 'Cambrai' book, his 'El Alamein' takes the reader's vision beyond the viewing slit of a tank commander who was there and contextualises the big picture. El Alamein was not, as Hammond points out, the point at which the war was won, nor a victory in the main theatre of the war. It was, however, a necessary victory for the British after their backs-to-the-wall moment of 1940 . Following on the heels of his `Cambrai 1917', this book firmly establishes Hammond in the foremost rank of military historians of the sombre wars of the first half of the 20th century. If you want to understand El Alamein, and buy only one book from the many which have come out on the back of the 70th anniversary of the battle, make it Bryn Hammond's superb reassessment. Highly recommended.
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