- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 10, 2002

By John Bierman and Colin Smith
Viking Penguin, $29.95, 478 pages, illus.

By Jon Latimer
Harvard University Press, $27.95, 400 pages, illus.

It was an odd place for a "gentleman's war." Searing hot during the day, freezing at night, swarming with flies and churned by sand storms; if there is such a thing as a comfortable place to make war, the North African desert is not it.
But while the battles were fierce and the casualties many, the desert war fought between the British Empire, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany was surprisingly humane. Atrocities were unheard of and prisoners were well-treated, sometimes amazingly so. A good deal compared to Russia or Burma, but still a war, fraught with diverse opportunities for death or maiming, from shredding by mines or artillery to being grilled to a cinder in a glowing metal box the horrible fate of many tank crews.
All aspects of the North African conflict are captured in a remarkable new book, "The Battle Of Alamein: Turning Point, World War II" by John Bierman and Colin Smith. It is, quite simply, excellent, blending the big-picture view of the war the strategy, politics and all-important logistics efforts behind the battles with fascinating details about the lives of individuals: generals, soldiers, politicians and spies. It's release is timed to the 60th anniversary of the decisive battle of Alamein in western Egypt, an 11-day ordeal that ended on Nov. 4, 1942.
Alamein was the first decisive defeat of a German Army in World War II the pivotal battle of Stalingrad ending a couple months later. At the news of Alamein, English church bells were rung for the first time since the beginning of the war. It was followed the next spring by the capitulation in Tunisia of all Axis forces in Africa, some 275,000 men bitterly dubbed "Tunisgrad" by the German Army. Defeat for the British would have meant the Suez Canal, then Middle East oil, falling into Nazi hands.
"Before Alamein we had no victories," Winston Churchill said. "After Alamein we had no defeats."
Mr. Bierman and Mr. Smith, both former reporters, have an eye for the quirky and poignant, and they have woven the blood-red thread of individual humanity through the complex tapestry of a campaign that involved millions of people. Their writing is excellent, spare and witty, allowing them to cover a large chunk of history in a short space, all the while maintaining a magnificent awareness of the people at the heart of their story.
The North African campaign was different, mainly because the Germans behaved themselves. Unlike the war in Russia, there was no perverse racist ideology that twisted mass executions, rape and wanton destruction into "duty" or "service" to the Fatherland. Better yet, the worst perpetrators of Nazi crimes, the SS, never deployed to Africa. Even if they had, the desert was mercifully lacking in civilians who could be tormented or even"collaterally damaged."
"Soldier on soldier, it was fought with a regard for the rules of war unmatched on any other Second World War battle front," the authors write.
Remember that scene from "The English Patient," where the Germans, with the help of a Muslim nurse, cut off the fingers of an allied official? Utter nonsense, like most of the movie. In reality, Laszlo Almasy, the real "English Patient," helped sneak German spies into Cairo and was an advisor to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the famed "Desert Fox" who handed the British some of their most humiliating defeats of the war.
Almasy is one of many intriguing figures who pass through the book others are a young Egyptian officer named Anwar Sadat and the teenage Leah Schlossberg, later wife of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin.
Rommel is one of those men who becomes legendary in life, then downright mystic in death. There is a temptation when speaking about Rommel to slip into the extremes of hagiography or reactive iconoclasm that chalks up all his impressive deeds to luck or his foes' incompetence. To a lesser extent, the same applies to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the victor of Alamein and Rommel's nemesis.
Mr. Bierman and Mr. Smith do a fine job of objectively assessing Rommel (and Montgomery). They paint Rommel as a brilliant tactician, but one prone to reckless gambles. A fearless and innovative battlefield commander, he seems not to have grasped the importance of logistics, or the fragility of his Mediterranean supply routes, which were savaged by British ships and American and British planes.
The authors do an even better job explaining the paradox of Rommel's personality an avid militarist and admirer of Adolf Hitler, but also "a stickler for the Geneva Convention" who insisted prisoners be treated humanely and ignored orders from Hitler to execute captured British commandos and Free French troops.
The British reciprocated this good treatment, creating a situation where men were doing their utmost to kill each other in the most horrendous ways, but without any dislike of each other. Indeed, respect and even admiration were frequently felt emotions about the enemy.
That applied to a lesser degree to the "other" army in North Africa, the Italians. To most, the phrase "elite Italian unit" is a contradiction in terms. But Mr. Bierman and Mr. Smith go to great pains to set the record straight concerning Italy's soldiers with whom the British pretty much had their way in Africa before the arrival of German troops in February of 1941.
Far from being cowards, the Italians' often miserable performance was attributable to mistreatment by an aristocratic officer class that often knew nothing of modern warfare. Poorly equipped and faced with terrible hardships, they stood and fought more often than they are popularly given credit for, with some units even earning the admiration of their foes.
Giving the Italians a fairer shake is a major goal of another book on the same topic, "Alamein" by Jon Latimer.
Mr. Latimer tells much of the same story as Mr. Bierman and Mr. Smith, also relying extensively on eyewitness accounts from common soldiers. Mr. Latimer's work is good history and certainly well worth the read, but is not written with the same clarity and flair as "Turning Point."
Nonetheless, it does provide more detail, concentrating mainly on the Alamein battle, sometimes in painful detail, while Mr. Bierman and Mr. Smith cover the entire war in the North African campaign, from Benito Mussolini's misbegotten attempt to take on the British empire, to the Axis surrender in Tunis.
Mr. Latimer, a former British Army officer, is especially interested in the relationships between the British leaders. The development of the Eighth Army from a powerful, yet cumbersome and unwieldy organization, into a mature combined-arms fighting force is another major theme.
Although it is common to refer to the allied force in North Africa as "British," that oversimplification ignores the role of tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen who came from the farthest reaches of the empire. Without the Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Ghurkas, Rhodesians and South Africans, there would have been no Eighth Army.
Through both books, the North African campaign appears as the British Empire's finest hour, a stunning example of the strength of diversity in the best sense of the word.
Mr. Bierman and Mr. Smith begin their work with a trip to a reunion in 2000, where old enemies share the memories of their youth. Despite the bonhomie of the elderly soldiers, their war was "no contest of moral equivalents" but a "life-or-death struggle of flawed democracy against brute dictatorship."
Mr. Bierman's and Mr. Smith's goal was to memorialize those "who turned the tide." Their work honors them, and enlightens and entertains us. There can hardly be any higher praise than that.

Ron Laurenzo is a reporter for Defense Week.

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