We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

Fighting in North Africa

LAURENCE REES: How significant then is what’s going on in North Africa, because judged only by numbers it’s something of a side show, isn’t it?

ROBERT CITINO: There’s no doubt that by numbers North Africa is the classic sideshow of the war, for all that’s been written about it. However, let me defend the importance of North Africa. It’s really the only place that anyone on the Allied side was encountering the Germans at all for most of 1940. The British had their successes and they had their failures in North Africa against Rommel but at least it was a place where a small portion of the German army was being encountered and perhaps then something learned about German procedures and something learned about how to counter some of those German procedures. North Africa proved to be the place where the United States was first able to land ground forces and that’s Operation Torch late in 1942 when the Anglo-American Army came in from Operation Torch and linked up with Montgomery after his signal victory in El Alamein, driving Rommel into Tunisia and eventually off the continent. And from there was a springboard into the entire Mediterranean campaign.

So we can’t say the war was won in North Africa, nor can we say that it could have been lost, but nevertheless it was a place where allied armies could learn to match German professionalism, so though it was not a decisive theatre it becomes a kind of necessary theatre. The American and British Armies that landed on the continent in 1944 had benefited immensely from their tussles with the Germans in the Mediterranean theatre in 1942 and 1943. In Italy the Germans were ensconced in some of the world’s most ideal defensive terrain and allied armies still learned a way if not to destroy them, to continually push them back, and those were the lessons that I would argue came in handy in 1944 after the D Day landing.

LAURENCE REES: So what lessons were we learning in North Africa?

ROBERT CITINO: Well, better intelligence. General Montgomery benefited from the Enigma Intelligence or Ultra Intelligence that was flowing into his headquarters, and soldiers in both the British and the American Army learnt that a German tank attack as impressive and as much, to use the current cliché, shock and awe as it contained was also something that could be countered with massed anti-tank guns, with steadier infantry formations, and with better fire control systems for the artillery. And certainly the British Army had learned those things by itself by Rommel’s last great throw of the dice at the end of 1942. Montgomery was then able to go on the offensive and actually destroy a German Army, something that the Western Allies had not been able to do up until this point. And Churchill’s famous saying that before Alamein we never had a victory and after Alamein we never had a defeat, still speaks volumes to my mind about armies having to learn how to win.

You can give them all the weaponry in the world and give them the training and send them forth and hopefully the procedures are right, but victory is a kind of a habitual undertaking, and once you learn how to do it you want more of it and perhaps you have also learned some techniques to help you do it. I certainly think that the British had done that against the Germans in 1942. And I think the British also had a level of professionalism and experience against the Germans that the American army completely lacked. It was a matter of on the job training, and I’m just happy that the on the job training took place in North Africa rather than at Omaha Beach.

LAURENCE REES: Why, because it was somehow less dangerous?

ROBERT CITINO: Not less dangerous; they’re dying there. But I think in America a green American Infantry Division that had not fought in North Africa would have reacted much less effectively than the 1st Infantry Division did in Omaha Beach in 1944. I think the stakes were much higher. You could suffer a Kasserine Pass, a tactical or even perhaps, an operational level, defeat in North Africa without risking any strategic target except the lives of the unfortunate casualties. But without risking disaster.  The invasion of France in 1944 was not that way. A break through of German armoured formations near to the beach, or close enough to the beach to lay them under direct fire, would have been a catastrophe of not just operational but strategic proportions. When would a second Overlord have been ready, since it took two full years to prepare the one that did take place in 1940? When would a second one have been ready? 1945 perhaps, 1946 perhaps? We’re talking about a lot longer war. And I know not everyone agrees with that, but that’s my view.