To beleaguered Britons in the autumn of 1942, the hard-fought victory of the Eighth Army under its new commander General Bernard Montgomery at the Second Battle of El Alamein came as much-needed relief.
It followed a year in which the country had suffered a catastrophic run of military setbacks: from the fall of Singapore (described by Winston Churchill as ‘the greatest disaster to British arms which our history records’) to the humiliation of the ‘Channel Dash’ (when three large German warships were able to sail through the Straits of Dover in broad daylight), this truly was the darkest hour.
Public morale was in crisis, with Churchill’s own position as Prime Minister also under threat: he faced two votes of no confidence during 1942, and though both were defeated, unhappiness with his leadership was growing.
Victory in the desert of Egypt represented a turning of the tide. The events of 23 October to 4 November 1942 signalled the end of Nazi Germany’s ambitions in the Middle East, and clearly demonstrated the worth of the British and Commonwealth contributions to the alliance.
Perhaps more importantly, after the previous year’s disasters, the first major British land success of a war that had just entered its fourth year changed the narrative, reviving Churchill’s own political fortunes, and providing a launch pad for future allied advances.
In celebration, church bells rang out in Britain for the first time since the spring of 1940. Though there would be setbacks still to come, it was, as Churchill himself put it in one of his most famous speeches, ‘perhaps, the end of the beginning’.
For Montgomery, Alamein was to make his reputation in more ways than one. Victory in North Africa turned him into the hero of the hour, and catapulted him to national celebrity: promoted to full general and knighted in honour of his achievement, he would go on to hold major commands in Sicily and north-west Europe, and to play a vital role in the liberation of Normandy.
But even in his moment of triumph at Alamein, there were portents of some of the controversies to come. Montgomery’s slow pursuit of the retreating Germans was criticised, as he was perceived to show the caution and reluctance to risk heavy casualties that would become as much a trademark as his famous black beret.
In our special for this issue, timed to mark the 80th anniversary of El Alamein, Graham Goodlad first assesses the life and career of Britain’s best-known and most controversial military commander of the Second World War, and then offers a forensic analysis of the battle itself.
This is an extract from a special feature on Monty and El Alamein from the latest issue of Military History Matters.