- Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein
Dr. Niall Barr is a Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies at King's College, London, and currently based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Shrivenham, United Kingdom. A University of St. Andrews graduate, he previously taught military history at Sandhurst. He has conducted three battlefield tours to El Alamein.
While thoroughly familiar with the voluminous secondary literature on El Alamein, the British Empire's most important battle of World War II, Barr's fresh contribution to that campaign is based upon his use of sources deposited in the Royal Logistics Corps Museum, the Royal Artillery Library, and the Royal Signals Museum. With excellent results, the author also returned to the original sources, making full use of the official documents in the National Archives (formerly the PRO), and by making extensive use of Australian and New Zealand archival sources. German documents in translation further contribute to Barr's assessment of the Eighth Army in that turning point year of 1942. And what an Army it was, made up of seven major nationalities speaking forty different languages: British, Indians, French, Poles, Greeks, Australians, South Africans, and New Zealanders—to mention only the main groups.
To his credit, Barr wishes to avoid the bitter partisanship of the "Auk" and "Monty" debate (the "Auk" was General Claude Auchinleck and "Monty" was General Bernard Montgomery) that has raged over the course of time. Rather than dwelling on the debate between these two generals, later Field Marshals, Barr focuses upon the battlefield education of the British Eighth Army from the desperate days of July 1942 to those of triumph between 23 October and 4 November 1942. The Pendulum of War joins the genre of institutional history so ably represented by David French's [End Page 538] study, Raising Churchill's Army (2000). By taking as his subtitle, "The Three Battles of El Alamein," identified as "First" Alamein, Alam Halfa, and "Second" Alamein, Barr does plunge, however, into the historical minefield of battlefield names. He does not accept Correlli Barnett's interpretation that Auchinleck's "first Alamein" in early July 1942 was the "the true turning-point" of the desert war, and not Montgomery's later Battle of El Alamein. Nonetheless, Barr strongly regrets that the historical spotlight has fallen on Montgomery's decisive victory at El Alamein "at the expense" (p. 409) of the earlier fighting in July. He rejects what he terms the popular British "mythology" that Montgomery's appointment to command of the Eighth Army in August 1942 "radically changed the fortunes of Britain's desert army" (p. xxxviii). There is wisdom in the pyramid analogy that every stone must fit into place, and that the top stone depends on all the other stones that make up the middle and the base of the pyramid; Barr's Pendulum of War is an excellent analysis of the middle and base of the Eighth Army pyramid, its organization, methods, and tactics, as well as an examination of the continuity, changes, and improvements that were made in that organization before Monty's arrival in the desert. The critical question then becomes whether the pendulum has swung so far as to dim Montgomery's pivotal role at a time when history held its breath as German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Panzerarmee prepared to advance on Cairo, the Suez Canal, and the oil fields of the Middle East.
At midnight on 4 November 1942, the BBC "wireless" announced at long last good news for the Allied cause: the Axis army commanded by Rommel was in full retreat. Only four months earlier, in the Battle of Gazala, Rommel and his Panzerarmee, benefitting in part from the intercepted reports of the American military attaché in Cairo, inflicted a humiliating defeat on the British Eighth Army, which included the fall of Tobruk, and a headlong flight back into Egypt; 320 miles in eleven days, finally stopping at the Alamein defense line, named...