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Glyn Harper's new book is an exhaustive analysis of the trials and tribulations of the North African campaign, writes Clarke Isaacs.
BATTLE FOR NORTH AFRICA
El Alamein and the Turning Point for World War II
Massey University Press
BY CLARK ISAACS
The October 1942 El Alamein battle in North Africa, writes Glyn Harper, professor of war studies at Massey University, marked the first decisive defeat on land of an army commanded by a German general and containing panzer and infantry formations of the Wehrmacht.
It was this Second Battle of El Alamein which British prime minister Winston Churchill described as "the end of the beginning", and the author has delved deeply to deliver up impressively detailed analysis of this decisive battle’s ebb and flow.
The report of the New Zealand commander in the desert operations, Lieutenant-general Bernard Freyberg, concluded that the "value of well-trained infantry, capable of attacking by night with the bayonet against any form of defence, was fully proved".
Harper writes: "It has been argued that Alamein could not have been won without the contributions of the two elite infantry divisions in the Eighth Army identified by Rommel [Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of the German Afrika Corps] — 9 Australian Division operating in the north, and two brigades of NZ infantry plus supporting units in the centre, and later in the pursuit".
The author notes that the fact the New Zealanders played a vital role was uncharacteristically recognised by Lieutenant-general Bernard Montgomery, commander of the Eighth Army in North Africa: "The Battle of Egypt was won by the good fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire. Of these soldiers none were finer than the fighting men from New Zealand . . . Possibly I myself am the only one who really knows the extent to which the action of the New Zealand Division contributed towards the victory."
Harper believes the battle of Alamein victory transformed the British forces.
"Instead of doubt, bewilderment, confusion, and a feeling of inferiority, there was now the strong belief that your side could fight hard and win."
In an exhaustive analysis of the trials and tribulations of the North African campaign, none is more fascinating than the probing of the personalities of some sadly-wanting British top-ranking officers.
- Clarke Isaacs is a former ODT chief of staff.