Wednesday, 19 September 2012
Lost in the Western Desert
As they say: a darn good read! I picked it up at Skook books which rewarded me so well on my first visit this weekend.
The desert war has always fascinated me. It's the topography of the battlefields, as Barnett says, almost empty and therefor best suited for a clash of generalship. Here the operational genius of Rommel and O'Connor would stand out against the mediocrity of most others. But there's also the strategic side, the long distances and the logistic challenge (where Rommel showed less brilliance, perhaps, but which he tried to make up for with bluff and sheer willpower).
This book is not so much about the operational and strategic issues as about the character and ability of the commanders of the Eight Army and its predecessor, the Western Desert Force. Obviously, Barnett favours O'Connor and Auchinleck, while he writes Cunningham and Richie into the ground, even if with some sympathy.
But the venom is in the tail. Barnett's account of Montgomery's command is a textbook character assassination. After exposing him as a mean but before everything else a self publicising monomaniac who furthers his carreer at the expense of others (as opposed to modest men like O'Connor, Wavell and Auchinleck of course), he then destroys Monty's military reputation.
Not only (and this is Barnett speaking, not me) does Monty steal the good ideas for Alam Halfa and Alamein from Dorman-Smith and Auchinleck, he then also bungles the planning for Alamein (presumably counting on the effect that Rommel would have to withdraw anyway due to the Torch landings) and only saves it by superior resources and bloody single mindedness. He then finally fails to catch Rommel in pursuit. And at all times Barnett implicates that Montgomery tries to shift the blame and claim the glory.
In the appendices there's also an eulogy for Eric Dorman-Smith, obviously a highly talented, but non-conformist staff officer. Barnett sees him as the creative element during much of the successfull operations who was perfectly teamed with commanders like Wavell and Auchinleck, who appreciated his talents and knew how to employt them constructively.
However, after Auchinleck's removal, Dorman-Smith's carreer went downwards and at several times he was removed from commands. Barnett claims he was doing well in all those positions and that the reasons behind his repostings had to do with his intellectualism and intolerance for the mediocrity of others.
Whether or not this explanation is 100% correct I don't know, but there is clearly a pattern in the British army of WWII where visionary and intellectual officers (think also Hobart) lost out to more practical and especially more conformist ones.
Most surprising to me is that Wavell has no more prominent role in this book. While he maybe was always more than only a desert general, his presence in the background was highly influential in the first two years of the war. Barnett is generally favourable to Wavell.
Barnett is an excellent writer, despite his biases. I'm only now becoming aware of the factionalism in British military history writing, and it's still a bit fuzzy for me, but I get the impression that Barnett is part of the Liddell Hart group.
The problem for me is that I have always instinctively taken sides with O'Connor, Wavell (I even named him my favourite general) and Auchinleck. And Barnett's story of the bright elite losing out to the mediocre establishment makes them the natural underdog and plays on my self image as talented and non-conformist (Stop laughing, please!).
But I am also wary of totally discounting Montgomery's ability. He was obviously not a nice person to be associated with professionally, but he's always seemed solid to me. I've also grown suspicious of black and white characterisations.
So while enjoying this book very much, it leaves me not entirely convinced of the characterisations of the people involved.