The Desert Generals – Correlli Barnett

The Desert Generals is an excellent book on the Desert War in North Africa in World War II.  It follows the British perspective, which is refreshing, since the temptation to make these campaigns all about Rommel is often overwhelming.

It also gives a fair shake to all the generals that fought there, not just Montgomery.  In fact, it is pretty hard on Monty and his attempts to take credit for others’ work in the run up to the Second and Third Battles of El Alamein.  See – you probably didn’t know that there were three of them.

The first featured general is Richard O’Connor, who faced the Italian invasion of Egypt in 1940 and pulled off a model armored counteroffensive that wiped out virtually the entire Italian army.  But in a common feature of the Desert War, just as he was poised to take Libya, the threat of a German invasion of Greece led to his forces being pulled away.  He was captured by the Germans in the first phase of Rommel’s offensive, when the scattered occupation forces were driven back to Egypt.

After this offensive and the failure of a premature counterattack, Operation Battleaxe, the CinC of the Middle East, Wavell, was sacked and General Claude Auchinleck was put in his place.  Like Wavell, Auchinleck was distracted by the issues of several different fronts during his tenure – he was responsible for the occupation of Syria, and for the possible defense of Iran from Germans coming through Russia.

His appointments to run the Western Desert force did not turn out well.  The first, General Cunningham wilted under the strain of the “Crusader” battle and it was only Auchinleck’s timely intervention that kept the army from retiring back to Egypt.  Instead, by holding fast Rommel had to retreat out of Cyrenaica.  But again, the needs of the Empire due to the Japanese attacks in the Far East led to this force being dispersed and the opportunity lost.

His second appointment, Ritchie, botched the Battle of Gazala and Tobruk and had the army reeling back to Egypt. Again, Auchinleck took over command and reorganized the army sufficiently to stop Rommel at the first Battle of El Alamein in July.  He prepared the defensive plan for the second battle that took place in August, but he was sacked two weeks before that battle and Montgomery took over.  Naturally, Monty never mentioned that he took over someone else’s plan.

Barnett is very critical of Monty’s plan for third Alamein, which dissolved into confusion and casualties due to its own clumsiness, but gives him props for coming up with a new plan.  Of course, since Monty scheduled the battle to happen just before Torch landed an army in Rommel’s rear, he knew that sooner or later Rommel would need to retreat.  He also knew, from Ultra decryptions, exactly how much fuel, ammo, and tanks Rommel had from day-to-day, which makes his ponderous pursuit after the battle even more inexplicable.

The book was originally published before Ultra was revealed, so there is an addendum in each chapter saying how twenty years of new information changed the original text, which was surprisingly little.

The book goes into some of the reasons why the Western Desert Force never quite got the hang of mobile warfare due to inexperience, organizational problems and just not having the right style.  It is a good corrective to the standard treatments of the campaign.

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