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Churchill's Desert War

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l to r: Brooke, Churchill, Montgomery l to r: Brooke, Churchill, Montgomery

Was the Desert War against Germany and Italy a sideshow to main events in Europe? Not in the estimation of author Jonathan Dimbleby. He has a special connexion with that war, as his father Richard was the BBC’s first war correspondent. His recollections are mentioned at pertinent passages in the book.

“It is bizarre that the conflict in the Middle East and North Africa is sometimes dismissed as a ‘sideshow’ merely because Hitler failed to make it a priority to rival” his invasion of Russia. At this time, July 1941, “Hitler’s hubristic vision knew few bounds,” writes the author.

The German generals had devised a “grand scheme” to “destroy the British Empire” by taking control of the Middle East and then on to India. The British actually believed this was likely, as it was expected that Germany would defeat Russia in a matter of weeks. No one expected Russia to sacrifice 25 million men to ensure the destruction of Nazi Germany over a period of four years. The idea that Russia would “emerge victorious would have been almost universally ridiculed,” says Dimbleby. Since Russia did hold on, the theatre of operations in North Africa, known as the Desert War, assumed great importance.

Major General John Kennedy (no relation to President John Kennedy) was the British army’s director of military operations in World War II. Dimblebey describes him as “the most outspoken of Churchill’s military advisors.” Despite the fact they often were at odds over strategy, Kennedy later wrote he and his colleagues “never ceased to be aware of his stature or to feel other than deeply privileged to serve him. He towered over us all like a Colossus.”

Here is Dimbleby’s assessment of the British general Neil Ritchie in charge of the front line against Rommel: “Cautious and plodding, he was psychologically and intellectually unable to react with the incisiveness required on the battlefield.” It’s no wonder Churchill exclaimed in exasperation “Have you not got a single general in the army who can win battles, have none of them any ideas?”

This quote was recorded by General Alan Brooke, who, says Dimbleby, “was exasperated by the Prime Minister’s bombastic behaviour.” As Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1941, Brooke met with Churchill daily throughout the war, and he also comes under close fire from the author. He was “abrasive, impatient, and volatile.” Not the sort of person who could work well with Churchill!

Dimbleby notes that Brooke’s reflections after the war differ greatly from his wartime diaries, which are filled with “waspish judgments.” In one entry, he called Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden (the future Prime Minister) a “peevish child.”

Aside from his deft handling of the actual battlefield maneuvers and battles, Dimbleby is at his best when he examines every nuance of British and American diplomacy that directed the war effort. The nexus the entire Desert campaign came on June 21, 1942. In a reality that would test the credulity of the best Hollywood script writer, Churchill and Brooke were beside Roosevelt at his desk in the White House when an aide brought the news that Tobruk had been captured by Rommel, with the surrender of 35,000 troops. It was one the greatest debacles in British military history. “Tobruk was a beacon and icon,” writes Dimbleby, “a litmus test of triumph or disaster in the Middle East.”

Upon reading the news, Roosevelt said to Churchill “What can we do to help?”

“It was at moments like this,” wrote the British General Ismay, “that one realised what a priceless asset the Allies possessed in the intimate friendship and mutual understanding between Roosevelt and Churchill.”

The entire course of the war changed at this moment as the Americans opted to make the Desert War the top priority, delaying the Allied landing in France until 1944. This was the exact opposite stance of the entire American generalship just the day before.

A crucial factor in changing their minds was something that almost no one knew at the time. It was at this moment that the code-breakers in England discovered that the entire secret communications by an American officer in Egypt, Bonner Fellers, to the American intelligence service, had been read by the Germans for months! It was this information that gave Rommel all the information he needed to consistently defeat the British. In light of this extraordinary embarrassment, the Americans had their tail between their legs and did what Churchill wanted. As Dimbleby adroitly remarks, “Churchill cleverly turned America’s mortification to British advantage.”

The author uses German sources (recollections by ordinary soldiers and Rommel himself) as well, serving to give a well-rounded picture of events. When Tobruk fell, Hitler cabled Mussolini: ”It is only once in a lifetime that the Goddess of Victory smiles.” With that he endorsed Rommel’s plan to attack Cairo. But in doing so, Hitler “made a strategic error of such magnitude as to seal Rommel’s fate at El Alamein.” Thus the subtitle of this book: The Road to El Alamein, which was General Montgomery’s victory over Rommel.

A well-researched and fast-paced account of the Desert War, this book deserves a place in any library of World War II.

Destiny in the Desert: The Road to El Alamein – The Battle that Turned the Tide of World War II (532 pages including 40 pages of notes and sources) is $35 from Pegasus Books.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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