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Land Long Read Military History

Maximising Fighting Power: Eighth Army at Alamein 1942

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The second battle of El Alamein took place over 23 October to 4 November 1942.  The battle saw the Allied Eighth Army commanded by General Montgomery breach an obstacle belt and defeat their opponents in the desert.  Speaking of the victory Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously declared “before Alamein we never had a victory.  After Alamein, we never had a defeat” helping embed the battle in popular imagination.  Since then, the battle and the wider campaign has been studied extensively with an average of one book being published about it every three months since 1945.1

Using a modern academic view, Jim Storr notes that there is a distinction between studying war and warfare.2  War is strategic, it asks ‘why’ battles are fought.  Much of the literature on Alamein is in this area.  Warfare is ‘how’ they are fought.  Arguably, studying warfare is more important for military professionals than studying war.  This article looks at the battle from a modern perspective with the aim of critically evaluating elements of modern British doctrine.  There is an historic irony in writing this.  The Eighth Army was opposed by Rommel who famously declared “the British have some of the best doctrine in the world… it is fortunate their officers do not read it”.

To help dispel this myth, this article takes the modern definition of fighting power and expands three key deductions underpinning the Eighth Army’s success in 1942.  As a term, ‘fighting power’ is unhelpfully defined.  Martin van Creveld described it in 1980 as “the sum total of qualities that make armies fight” but this doesn’t provide a framework to expand a practitioner’s understanding.3  The current Army Doctrine Publication Land Operations defines it as ‘a concept that describes the operational effectiveness of armed forces’ and breaks it down into three distinct elements: moral, conceptual, and physical components.4  This provides a better framework from which to look at the battle.

Structure and argument

Using this definition, this article presents three core deductions.  Firstly, that leadership matters in maximising fighting power.  But leadership must be underpinned by effective staff systems.  Secondly, that the Eighth Army had a bottom-up learning culture that utilised the best ideas to maximise doctrine.  This was exploited by empowered Army level staff and centralised authority.  Thirdly, that the quantitative and qualitative edge the Eighth Army had was not enough to guarantee victory.  There was a broader investment in logistics that gave commanders greater tactical options.  These deductions combine to show that the Eighth Army maximised its fighting power by understanding its limits and that it had the confidence to adapt to its mission.  Whilst developing these conclusions, this article draws critical points from modern doctrine to either validate it or show how history can help improve it.

Having said that it should also be noted what this article is not.  There is no attempt to describe a comprehensive history of the battle.  The role of the Desert Air Force and Royal Navy isn’t covered.  Likewise, it will not look at the Axis forces.  It is focused on how the Eighth Army developed as an organisation before the Battle of El Alamein.  As such, the time frame is narrowed to General Montgomery’s assumption of command on 13 August ending with H-Hour on 23 October 1942.  Clearly, however, many themes have their foundations before the 13 August and evidence from the battle is used to explain the conclusions.

Historical context

North Africa was a strategic priority for Allied forces with the need to protect the Suez Canal, and more critically, the Iraqi oil fields.  As such, in 1942 new weapons and equipment were arriving in theatre; notably US Sherman tanks, Spitfire fighters, and 6 pounder guns.  This gave the Eighth Army both a qualitative and quantitative edge over the Axis forces that they hadn’t had during the fighting season of 1941.  At the operational level, they were also aided by air and sea interdiction of supply lines degrading the Axis forces.5

The historiography of El Alamein shows clear national biases.  The historian Simon Bell notes that the battles are told through the eyes of celebrity generals – Montgomery and Rommel – as a duel between commanders and not armies.6  Biases in the German literature suggest that the Axis lost because of the Eighth Army’s material superiority and Rommel’s absence on sick leave.7  More broadly, Operation TORCH, the invasion of French North Africa, began on 8 November leading many to question if El Alamein had a purpose at all.8  Yet little of this literature helps understand what the Eighth Army did to prepare itself for the battle.  Nor does it help bring military themes forward into modern operations.

General Montgomery’s “propaganda” pictureBy October 1942 the Axis Army had advanced 900 miles from their principal supply base and was in a defensive position anticipating an Allied attack.  The Eighth Army had been ordered to attack by the Prime Minister.  For all the debates about personality or material superiority, the Eighth Army still needed to win a battle.  They had to penetrate an Axis defensive belt and conduct an obstacle crossing, a deliberate attack and a pursuit in modern doctrinal speak.

Moral: Command and staff

The moral component is defined as ‘the human aspect…including the will of the force to fight, its leadership, and ethical, moral and legal foundations”.9

The moral component of the Eighth Army is contested in the literature with the debate focusing on force morale in July 1942 and the impact of the arrival of Montgomery as the Army Commander.  To summarise the debate, on one side writers such as Corelli Barnett argue that morale was similar to other Army groups and that the role of the previous commander, General Claude Auchinleck, was not as toxic as traditional historiography leads us to believe.10  On the other hand, Jonathan Fennell points out that the Army had high levels of desertion and troops surrendering suggesting it was an organisation in crises.11

One of Montgomery’s first actions was to order that there be “no more retreat”. Meaningless as an order, as even Montgomery’s supporters note, but one which gripped the imagination of the Eighth Army.  There is a context to this, however, in that the Army had been retreating and beaten by the Axis since 1941.  Churchill’s assessment of the Eighth Army prior to Montgomery was that it was “oppressed by a sense of bafflement and uncertainty”.12  As a leader, there is no doubt that Montgomery understood this context and that he firmly believed that soldiers were the main weapons of war.13  The more decisive part of his leadership was more likely to have been the programme of visits that followed his initial orders.  During these visits Montgomery explained the purpose of the mission exploiting the change in context his orders had started.  Evidence from memoirs shows that this had a positive impact on morale with soldiers having a renewed confidence in their leadership.14  This leadership style was underpinned by his trust in the staff.  Had Montgomery been fixed to a static headquarters, as Auchinleck chose to be, he would not have had the freedom to conduct as many visits and the impact of his arrival would not have been as significant.  Such leadership is now codified in the Army Leadership Code as leaders needing to “provide clear and unifying purpose” at all levels.15  But it was not well understood in 1942.  This demonstrates that leadership matters when it comes to maximising fighting power.

Preparing for battle: British infantry training

A second point for the modern Army to consider is one outside of the control of leadership. John Fennell cites a July 1942 board of inquiry report which found a ‘notable demoralising effect’ when soldiers did not have full confidence in their kit.16  This negative impact will be similar in any future Army deployment.  Indeed, only 36% of soldiers surveyed in 2020 had full confidence in their equipment.17  Another writer identified it as a ‘significant risk’ highlighting the point.18  This means the Army should take how it presents the equipment plan to soldiers more seriously.  More routinely, the Army should not take for granted that soldiers do not look at the propaganda and social media of other armies and question why their equipment isn’t better.  Despite this, the new Integrated Operating Concept protect phase is more focused on physical deterrence than the moral component.19  The Eighth Army example suggests that mindset is a key part of fighting power and that the British Army should look again at how to maximise it.

Conceptual: Doctrine matters

The Eighth Army realised they faced a deep obstacle belt and that they would need to conduct an obstacle crossing and a deliberate attack in order to defeat the Axis Army.  Yet, Montgomery’s command of the Eighth Army did not fully recognise the challenges that the force faced.  The historian Niall Barr notes that it was “remarkable” that Montgomery’s plan did not include any detail of the engineering or artillery components that would prove so successful in maximising fighting power.20  He defined a clear intent, but did not wait to see if his force could achieve it.  The role of the Chief Engineer, Brigadier Frederick Kisch, demonstrates a bottom-up learning culture that exploited the combat experience of the Army to meet the tactical challenge.

Realising the Axis obstacle belt outclassed the Army’s capabilities Kisch asked all of his subordinates to detail best practice.  Noting that different divisions used different techniques there was no standard measurement of success or effectiveness.  Kisch organised a conference in early August which led to the establishment of a School of Mine Clearing.  The School determined the best mine clearing methods and then trained the breaching parties from across the Eighth Army.  This used combat experience from across the Army in a bottom-up way.  This was then cross trained and validated to ensure a common approach.  The second order effect is that it allowed accurate timing for obstacle clearance to be fed back through the staff system granting more freedoms to the manoeuvre arms.

October 1942: A mine explodes close to a British truck

It is more remarkable that this happened ‘under contact’ with an Axis attack defeated on 30-31 August.  Despite this, the Eighth Army maintained a priority on developing the conceptual component.  Taking another modern doctrinal angle, Army Field Manual Command only mentions lessons or doctrinal development four times and in the context of post operational scrutiny or international interoperability.  Lessons from Afghanistan suggest that the modern Army has had to relearn this with the campaign study observing that a dedicated lessons team needed to be established following the deployment.21

A second deduction to draw here concerns how the staff were empowered.  ‘Empowerment’ can be an empty word in a modern military context.  It is often used to hide a lack of resource or general disinterest in solving problems.  In 1942, however, it was backed by command and control authority.  Montgomery issued early orders that “divisions would fight as divisions”.22  The impact of this is that command of combat support elements, such as engineering and artillery, was centralised under Army staff control.  This is the doctrinal norm today, but prior to this order the Eighth Army was more dispersed and utilised as brigade task groups.  One divisional commander described this as a “menace and a danger” to the force.23  Before this reorganisation any amount of innovative behaviour, such as that showed by Brigadier Kisch, is unlikely to have been shared Army wide siloing best practice.  The change in lines of command, combined with staff willing and capable of defining new doctrine, allowed the Eighth Army to exploit the conceptual component.

Physical: Material gives tactical options

Whilst there is no doubt the Eighth Army had more war material and soldiers than their Axis opponents,24why and how they got it offers interesting doctrinal angles to consider.  Martin van Creveld notes that North Africa was all about ports and securing supply lines.25As such, tactics were predictable and armies routinely conducted ‘South hooks’ into the desert to outflank a position.  A conclusion shared by Montgomery as he determined how to defeat the Axis Army.26

That the Eighth Army was close to its supply bases was a factor but does little to help explain how the Eighth Army exploited its advantage.  There are many tactical themes to be drawn together to show how the physical component was maximised.  For example, vehicles were shipped as parts and assembled in theatre allowing more per ship.  By June 1942 over 25,000 people were employed in local workshops building the material that the Eighth Army needed.27  In context that equated to 12% of the Eighth Army’s total strength.  This ratio is beyond anything the expeditionary Army of post WW2 would deploy again.  On Operation HERRICK, Afghanistan, for example, all equipment less some water was shipped to theatre.  The Army’s capstone doctrine seems limited in its application of sustainment operations in contrast to the network established by the Eighth Army.28  The Eighth Army could also rely on uniformed lorry drivers from the Army Service Corps to deliver supplies whilst modern commanders are reliant on contractors.  Current operations have problems with contractors, such as the need for integration and timeliness, that the Eighth Army did not have to deal with enabling more tactical risk to be taken.29  This suggests that the modern Army should look again at how it supplies its fielded forces to best maximise combat power.

A Crusader tank with its ‘sunshield’ lorry camouflage October 1942.

There are two further elements to consider in answering ‘how’ the Army exploited this to generate fighting power.  Firstly, it enabled the Eighth Army to properly resource Op BERTRAM, or the deception plan and make it believable.  Secondly, it enabled the Army’s deliberate and detailed fire plan.

The overriding conclusion here is not that having more stuff guaranteed an Allied victory, as much of the historiography suggests.  Rather, it’s that having more material enables a greater number of tactical options.  The Eighth Army reaped the benefits of longer-term military plans to stockpile and build things.  Instead of the ‘South flank’ attack the Eighth Army could dictate its action and concentrate on enemy weaknesses.

Montgomery’s answer

Before drawing some conclusions, we should consider how Montgomery underpinned the Eighth Army’s success.  In contrast to this analysis, the three factors Montgomery identified in 1967 largely sit in the moral component:

  • I chose good subordinate Generals and trusted them;
  • I built a very high-class staff under a brilliant Chief of Staff;
  • I had a very clear understanding of the importance of the human factor.30

Drawing a modern parallel, the command of the Eighth Army has more in common with Jim Storr’s view that success is reliant on strong command with synchronised control.31  In contrast, Anthony King suggests that modern British command structures utilise a model of ‘collective command’ in which responsibility is shared.32  The Eighth Army example shows a strong commander with an empowered staff is a combat proven method of command.  It is not fair to say that Montgomery was the primary reason behind how the Eighth Army maximised its fighting power.  However, it is misleading to suggest that soldiers alone won the battle as Montgomery suggests.

Conclusion

The debate over how the Eighth Army maximised its fighting power can never really be solved.  The historiography of the desert campaign is marred by biases and a focus on personalities and strategic purpose.  This article has analysed doctrinal concepts against the components of fighting power.  It has identified three key reasons behind how the Eighth Army maximised its force for the battle.  There are more, of course, this article has not covered intelligence, air or naval power, Napoleonic luck, or Axis failure.  Rather, it has shown how to maximise the individual strands of fighting power and pulled out themes relevant for the modern Army.  Taking each in turn:

The moral.  Leadership matters. But it must be underpinned by staff.  The leadership of the Eighth Army understood the context and Montgomery defined their purpose.

The conceptual.  The Eighth Army had a bottom up learning culture that exploited combat experience.  The staff realised that their capabilities did not meet the challenge but they did not seek easier options.  Training and development was prioritised to find new methods of combat.

The physical.  Having more war material alone does not guarantee success if you don’t know how to use it.  Investment in logistics gave the Eighth Army tactical options

These combine to lead to the conclusion that the Eighth Army maximised fighting power by understanding its limits with the confidence to adapt to its mission.  It exploited best practise across the functions of combat for battle field success.  These themes were multiplied by effective staff control.

In many ways the Eighth Army was more developed than modern doctrine and its internal processes were arguably better than the modern Army.  The ability to identify lessons quickly and disseminate them proved to be vital.  The experience of the Eighth Army also suggests we need to take protecting the moral component more seriously to maximise fighting  power for future operations.  The evidence shows that its main strength was its ability to evolve.  It recognised it was outclassed by the tactical challenge and changed to meet it.  Arguably, modern problems are more complex and require different responses.  But the basis of force organisation remain extant and modern doctrine writers would do well to look again at how the Eighth Army maximised its forces for decisive impact.

Steve Maguire

Steve Maguire is a British Army Officer serving with The Royal Irish Regiment.  He has served at regimental duty, with an armoured infantry brigade, and with the Army Headquarters.  He is also the Wavell Room Senior Land Editor.

 

The views expressed in his writing are his and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.

Footnotes

  1. Jonathon Fennel, “Steal my Soldiers’ Hearts: El Alamein Reappraised”, Centre of Strategic Studies, vol. 14, no.1 (2011)
  2. Described in Jim Storr, The Human Face of War: Continuum, 2009
  3. Martin van Creveld, Fighting Power, Germany Military Performance: 1914-1945, Washington, D.C., 1980, p.2
  4. MOD, ADP Land Operations, p. 3-1.  This definition is also used by the whole of UK defence.  See MOD JDP 0-01 UK Defence Doctrine, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/389755/20141208-JDP_0_01_Ed_5_UK_Defence_Doctrine.pdf#:~:text=Joint%20Doctrine%20Publication%200-01%2C%20UK%20Defence%20Doctrine%28UKDD%29%20%285thEdition%29,which%20all%20other%20subordinate%20national%20doctrine%20is%20derived.
  5. See eg Richard Hammond, “Air Power and the British Anti-Shipping Campaign in the Mediterranean, 1940-1944”, Air Power Review, Vol 16, No1 (2013)
  6. Simon Ball, Alamein: Great Battles, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, pg 81
  7. Walter Warlimont, “The Decision in the Mediterranean 1942”, in Hans-Adolf Jacobsen and Jürgen Rohwer (eds), The Decisive Battles of World War II: The German View,London: A. Deutsch 1965.cited in ibid
  8. Michael Arnold, Hollow Heroes, Oxford: Casemate Publishers, 2015 pp57-58
  9. MOD, ADP Land Operations, 2017, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/605298/Army_Field_Manual__AFM__A5_Master_ADP_Interactive_Gov_Web.pdf
  10. Corelli Barnett, The Desert Generals, Pheonix, 2007
  11. Jonathon Fennel, “Steal my Soldiers’ Hearts: El Alamein Reappraised”, Centre of Strategic Studies, vol. 14, no.1 (2011)
  12. Cited in Douglas Porch, Hitler’s Mediterranean Gamble: The North African and the Mediterranean Campaigns in World War II, London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2004
  13. Viscount Montgomery et al, Alamein and the Desert War, Sphere Books, 1967 pg 92
  14. Jonathon Fennel, “Steal my Soldiers’ Hearts: El Alamein Reappraised”, Centre of Strategic Studies, vol. 14, no.1 (2011)
  15. British Army, The Army Leadership Code, 2015, https://www.army.mod.uk/media/2698/ac72021_the_army_leadership_code_an_introductory_guide.pdf
  16. Jonathon Fennel, “Steal my Soldiers’ Hearts: El Alamein Reappraised”, Centre of Strategic Studies, vol. 14, no.1 (2011)
  17. MoD, Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey, 2020, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/885861/Armed_Forces_Continuous_Attitude_Survey_2020_Main_Report.pdf
  18. James Burton’, A Culture of Apathy and Dishonesty within the British Army, Wavell Room, 2020, https://wavellroom.com/2020/12/09/cultural-apathy-and-dishonesty-within-the-british-army-say-do-gap/
  19. DCDC, Integrated Operating Concept, 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-integrated-operating-concept-2025
  20. Niall Barr, Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein, London: Jonathan Cape Ltd, 2004
  21. MOD, Op HERRICK Campaign Study, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/492757/20160107115638.pdfpg 5-9_2
  22. Viscount Montgomery et al, Alamein and the Desert War, Sphere Books, 1967 pg 67
  23. Peter Stanley, ‘The Part We Played in This Show’, in Jill Edwards ed, El Alamein and the Struggle for North Africa, Cairo, American University, 2012
  24. See comparison table in Niall Barr, Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein, London: Jonathan Cape Ltd, 2004 pg 276
  25. Martin van Creveld, Fighting Power, Germany Military Performance: 1914-1945, Washington, D.C., 1980,
  26. Viscount Montgomery et al, Alamein and the Desert War, Sphere Books, 1967 pg 74
  27. Niall Barr, Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein, London: Jonathan Cape Ltd, 2004 pp 294-296
  28. MOD, ADP Land Operations, 2017, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/605298/Army_Field_Manual__AFM__A5_Master_ADP_Interactive_Gov_Web.pdf
  29. MOD, Op HERRICK Campaign Study, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/492757/20160107115638.pdfpg 4-1_6
  30. Viscount Montgomery et al, Alamein and the Desert War, Sphere Books, 1967 pg 92
  31. Described in Jim Storr, The Human Face of War, Continuum, 2009
  32. Described in Anthony King, Command, Cambridge University Press, 2019

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