Kirkus Reviews QR Code


The Three Battles of El Alamein

by Niall Barr

Pub Date: May 5th, 2005
ISBN: 1-58567-655-1
Publisher: Overlook

A wide-ranging, technical analysis of the bitter campaign, throughout the second half of 1942, for dominion of Egypt.

Barr (Defense Studies/Kings College London) examines the North African theater in the context of the larger war, and in particular what was happening on the near periphery: the Nazi airborne assault on the island of Crete, naval actions in the Mediterranean, ground combat in Ethiopia and an uprising in Iraq through which “Britain came dangerously close to losing its control of the Middle Eastern oil supplies.” Charged with relieving the besieged port of Tobruk, much of the British Eighth Army found itself penned up west of the city. Even though Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps had fewer soldiers and a third fewer tanks, it threw the defenders back to the Egyptian frontier in a disorganized retreat that caused an American military attaché to observe that the Eighth’s “tactical conceptions were always wrong . . . its reactions to the lightning changes of the battlefield were always slow.” The destruction would have been worse had the German ground forces not outrun their air support. Even so, centered on the little rail stop of El Alamein, the Eighth rebuilt its command, removing many staff officers and instituting the brigade rather than the division as the main unit of combat and movement. Though some officers were not eager to hurry back into combat with Rommel, Winston Churchill was eager to have a British victory before American forces landed in Morocco in Operation Torch, accelerating the schedule for a major offensive led by Bernard Montgomery. Surprising some observers, and certainly surprising Rommel, the Eighth rose to the occasion very capably indeed. Barr closes by concluding that in the Alamein campaign the force “was granted the breathing space it needed to assimilate lessons that transformed it from a clumsy and inept fighting formation into an effective and battle-winning army.”

A useful study of the war in the desert, though meant for readers with some appreciation of strategy, logistics, and tactics.