A spirited biography of one of the most storied units in British military history.
The Eighth Army, writes military historian Neillands (The Bomber War, 2001, etc.), was huge: at the end of WWII, it encompassed “four corps totaling eight divisions, plus a number of infantry and armored brigades and the 2nd Commando Brigade—a total strength of over 600,000 men including reserves.” It was also an extraordinarily cosmopolitan force, made up of Indians, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, British, South Africans, and Poles. During the war, Neillands writes, the Eighth was celebrated: it had, after all, broken Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps at places such as El Alamein. But immediately afterward—the Eighth was disbanded in July 1945—it was all but forgotten, perhaps, he suggests, because its most famous commander, Bernard Law Montgomery, left it for a higher post at the end of 1943, and perhaps because the Italian campaigns in which the Eighth spent 1944 and ’45 had become sideshows behind the better-known Allied landings in France and subsequent invasion of Germany. The Eighth achieved greatness against considerable odds, Neillands writes: during the Desert War it was poorly coordinated, badly equipped, and outgunned; as one officer recalls, “Our tanks were designed like sports cars, the German tanks like agricultural machines, which of course a tank is.” Too, its first commander, relieved in 1942, seemed sometimes reluctant to seize the initiative, even though he performed brilliantly at El Alamein. The Eighth performed more brilliantly still under the egomaniacal but highly effective Montgomery, and just as well under the even more egomaniacal American army group commander Mark Clark, earning high distinction in savage battles such as that for the strategically important heights of Monte Cassino.
For WWII buffs, especially those wanting a rounded view of the Mediterranean Theater—a useful companion to Douglas Porch’s Path to Victory (p. 121).