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Western FrontOctober 1942

Desert War

How did the Allies win the Desert War?
The Desert War is forever associated with Field Marshal Montgomery and the battle of El Alamein - but just how great a general was Monty?

Video Transcript

Commentary: Early in 1943 the British and their Allies marched to commemorate victory in North Africa.

Newsreel Commentary: In 80 days the Eighth army had advanced close on 1400 miles, a feat unparalleled in military history. Throughout the battle and advance, for every casualty suffered it had inflicted five on the enemy. In the words of Mr. Churchill “you have altered the face of the war, in a most remarkable way.”

Commentary: And this was the man credited with leading the Eighth Army to success. Lt General Bernard Law Montgomery. His name would forever be associated with a battle which took place deep in the desert of East Africa. Here, starting in October 1942 at a place called El Alamein.

Words of Sam Bradshaw: Give credit to Montgomery, before Montgomery came we used to go into battle and not know what the hell we were doing. Montgomery insisted that every man was told, his briefing was massive. I remember this what I call the Nelson touch, where he said that every officer and man should be of stout heart, with the determination to win this battle. Let no man who is unwounded surrender, and may God who is himself mighty in battle give us the victory. That was his final message.

Commentary: Montgomery’s triumph at El Alamein was made all the more special because this man had been his opponent- Erwin Rommell, one of the most brilliant military commanders of the Twentieth Century. So did El Alamein demonstrate- as many thought at the time- that the British possessed a warrior even more gifted than the best of the Germans? Well, no, not really.Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein had only been made possible by the destruction of German supply lines to North Africa. Crucially Allied planes and ships prevented Rommel from receiving adequate fuel supplies for his tanks. And the relative air superiority the Allies had gained over the desert by the time of El Alamein made Rommel’s armoured columns especially vulnerable. Then there was the straightforward question of numbers. At El Alamein, Montgomery had twice as many troops under his command than Rommell did. All these are reasons why a number of professional historians don’t rate Montgomery that highly at all.

Antony Beevor: Well, Montgomery, shall we say, certainly overrated himself. After the war he claimed that he should be treated on the same level as Wellington and Marlborough. I mean, that was preposterous. Monty was a very good trainer of troops, he was also good for increasing determination and the fighting spirit, but as a commander, he was very 'staff-cology' as Ismay would have said. Everything had to be done in a very coherent and logical fashion, and he was not quick.

David Cesarani: Montgomery was running coalition warfare. He was first of all running an Imperial Army in North Africa with lots of allies, not all of whom he got on very well with. New Zealand, Australians, he was constantly having arguments with them, treating them rather badly. But I think Montgomery is grossly overrated as a military leader and his political ineptitude is absolutely breathtaking. You know, how he ever became the Chief of the Imperial General Staff after the Second World War beggars the imagination.

Commentary: And another vital factor in the Allied victory in North Africa - one that is often overlooked - is that on the 8th of November 1942, just four days after victory at El Alamein, the Allies landed 60,000 troops in West Africa in Algeria and Morocco.

Newsreel Commentary: In successive waves, the first assault troops, and then wave after wave of British and American infantrymen, signalmen, artillerymen, engineers, medics, armoured forces arriving on the North African beaches and gathering their countless quantities of supplies and equipment, to consolidate their landings. The Allies have arrived.

Commentary: The Allies now could move on the Germans in a giant pincer movement, from both West and East. To no one’s surprise, by the middle of May 1943 the Germans had been defeated in Africa, with Rommel flying back to Germany on sick leave just weeks before. What the Allied triumph in the desert demonstrated, more than anything else, was the power in war of superior weapons, supplies and sheer numbers of soldiers. Monty was just lucky, perhaps, that Rommell himself never had access to an army this size.