“Before Alamein we never had a victory; after Alamein we never had a defeat”: one of many memorable Churchill-isms that do not survive the acute eye of writer and filmmaker Dimbleby in this fine account of Britain’s 1940-1942 North African campaign.
When Italy entered the war in June 1940, its North African colonies’ 250,000 soldiers vastly outnumbered 36,000 in Egypt under harried Gen. Archibald Wavell, who defended an immense area while fending off Churchill’s exhortations to attack. Aware of their dilapidated forces, Italian generals reluctantly advanced in September. After some skirmishing, Wavell attacked, advancing 500 miles and capturing 100,000 prisoners. At this point, Churchill ordered three divisions transferred to Greece to meet a coming German invasion, and Hitler sent several divisions and his favorite general, Erwin Rommel. Disobeying orders to remain on the defensive, he drove Wavell’s forces back into Egypt. Churchill replaced Wavell with Gen. Claude Auchinleck, whose November 1941 offensive overwhelmed Rommel, a dramatic victory that evaporated when Rommel unexpectedly counterattacked, routing Auchinleck’s overstretched forces. By summer, with Rommel back in Egypt, Auchinleck was gone. By the time his successor, Montgomery, attacked in November 1942, Allied control of sea and air reduced Rommel’s supplies to a trickle, and the outcome is well-known. The Desert Campaign remains the most satisfying of World War II. Civilians were scarce, so Germans could demonstrate their prowess without the usual atrocities. The British revealed their distinctive stubbornness in defense and slowness in offense, hobbled by inferior equipment and unimaginative generals.
A great one-volume interpretation, the equal of Rick Atkinson’s recent version and almost equivalent to much longer, older accounts by Barrie Pitt and Alan Moorehead.