Friday, 11 April 2014

Book Review: Desert Generals

I have just finished reading The Desert Generals by Corelli Barnett. Forgive my ignorance but I’ve just discovered this  to be a classic work about the Desert Campaign in the IIWW, a fact I was not aware of; therefore many of you are probably acquainted with it and can avoid reading this post.

It was suggested as a good reading for my Afrika CoC project in the Too Fat LardiesYahoo Group … and I admit that was right on target. I have enjoyed a lot reading this book and also learned a few facts about the campaign completely unknown to me.

Particularly, I was truly surprised by the sharp and incisive critics on Field Marshall Montgomery, a total unimaginative and inept commander if we attend the arguments of the author and the strong vindications of other highly discredited commanders, like O’Connor and above all Auchinleck.

Auchinleck (as well as his predecessor Alexander) were actually victims of the political ambitions of Churchill; he strongly interfered in the strategic planning and operations of the Desert front, forcing the launch of offensive attacks on Rommel and the Axis armies without a proper preparation and/or sufficiently trained forces for pure domestic political reasons.

The last chapter that deals with the arrival of Montgomery and the El Alamein to Tunis campaign in 1943 is probably the most interesting. According to Bardell, Montgomery who is regarded as the savior of Egypt, only took the plans made by Auchinleck’s staff and later claimed that they were his own design.

Furthermore the second battle of El Alamein was conducted in the worst possible manner, pushing for an un-imaginative frontal assault on the well defended and better handled German defenses, resulting in high and totally unjustifiable spilling of British blood to achieve basically nothing… if Rommel pulled out was not as a result of the British attacks (at significant unfavourable odds for the Germans) but because of the American landings in North Africa (Operation Torch)

Barnett’s thesis is that this battle was totally worthless: it did not destroy  Rommel’s army who in any case was going to leave the area once his base was threatened by the Torch landings; loots of British lifes would have been saved should Montgomery has waited a couple of weeks. But actually, Barnett continues, the battle had a political justification: the last possible genuine British led offensive of the war, as the entry of the Americans in the conflict was to put Britain in a subordinated role.

The book finishes explaining the incompetence shown by Montgomery in chasing Rommel´s army along the coast due to its lack of ambition, imagination and elan to pursue the retiring forces; and this despite the significant shortage of fuel, ammo and reinforcements suffered by the Axis armies.
As said, a total new dimension of the Desert battles and their main actors from the British side. Useful to me also for the excellent and comprehensive narrative of the campaign (from a high-strategical perspective) and also because it complements my knowledge of this warfront with the analysis from the “other side of the hill” (most of my reading so far has been from the German side…)

Is this just a revisionist work? Or is there more that the eye meets? The arguments and the documentation supporting the thesis seems really solid; and considering the poor performance of Monty in Europe, I tend to agree with the author that he made an excellent exercise of PR to cover its weaknesses and clear command mistakes.

Absolutely recommendable to anyone interested in the Desert campaign. Five stars out of five.


  1. Barnett's work has to be taken with a grain of salt as published before ULTRA was declassified and he had a personal vendetta against Montgomery after he refused to be interviewed by Barnett, His main source was the self-serving Dorman-Smith (the Auk's Cof S) who had already taken the name O'Gorman and was actively assisting the IRA. Most balance account I have read is by Jackson, although you can't ignore Hamilton's monumental biography of Montgomery which shows his immense stature as a general and his petty and dislikable personality as a man......

    1. Excellent! Thanks for your comment
      Can you provide the titles of the two books you've mentioned, please?

  2. O.K. you've sold me on that one. It's going back on my reading list.

  3. I agree with Mr. A. Big pinch of salt and a broader base of reading to get a consensus. Monty had faults and personality issues but the Correlli Barnett trilogy goes too far in only one direction. Still, a good read and plenty interesting stuff.

  4. "The Battle for North Africa 1940-43" W.G.F. Jackson
    "Monty: The Making of a General 1997-1942" Nigel Hamilton
    "Monty: Master of the Battlefield 1942-44" Nigel Hamilton
    Monty: The Final Years of the Field Marshal 1944-76" Nigel Hamilton

  5. Very interesting book. Put in the list!

  6. To counter balance the Montgomery fan club, it's worth looking some other titles.

    Field Marshal Auchinleck by Alexander Greenwood, with a Forward by Enoch Powell (confusingly he is sometimes listed as the author).


    'Chink' the biography of Eric Dorman Smith by Lavina Graecan.

    Alexander Greenwood was Auchinleck's ADC, and writes about the whole of Auchinleck's life, including lots of personal details all of which show what a contrast in character he was with the bumptious, and self promoting Montgomery..

    The book on Eric Dorman Smith is very good.

    He was truly a maverick, with a mind of quick silver, in an army of sociable plodders and conformists, personified by the likes of Alanbrooke & Montgomery.

    Who only won because of material and intelligence superiority, and even then made hard work of it.

    It is arguable that he and Auchinleck in winning 1st Alamein saved the Empire. For if Suez and the Middle Eastern oilfields had fallen...