“Britain, of course — always wins one battle — the last. It would seem to have begun rather earlier this time. General Alexander, with his brilliant comrade and lieutenant, General Montgomery, has gained a glorious and decisive victory in what I think should be called the battle of Egypt. Rommel’s army has been defeated. It has been routed.” Winston Churchill (see Addendum for full text)
Churchill believed victory at El Alamein was pivotal for Britain. It was but not for the reasons he thought. El Alamein was a victory for Britain and eight other countries. Churchill’s version of the battle of El Alamein is a myth. His brilliant Mansion House speech (see Addendum) celebrating victory at El Alamein began Britain’s ‘we won the war’ delusion, which continues to this day.
Britain didn’t ‘win’ the battle of El Alamein. Britain was part of a coalition, which included eight other countries, six of whom were from the British Empire alongside Free French and Greek soldiers. The USA provided decisive air and logistical support without which it couldn’t have been won. Churchill didn’t acknowledge any of this. He needed a victory after two years of ‘backs-to-the-wall’ defensive action. El Alamein began Churchill’s myth making narrative. His brilliant phrase making was ideal for the task. Can this be bettered at managing expectations and boosting morale?
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” (see Addendum)
Churchill’s complete disregard of Britain’s allies was driven by his need for El Alamein to be a British victory. He knowingly created a myth. Although he declared he hadn’t,
“become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire…” (see Addendum) he knew he’d witnessed the end of British military supremacy.
New Zealand’s historians discuss the El Alamein battlefield differently:-
“The New Zealand Division played a key role in the second Battle of El Alamein, which began on 23 October 1942. Its task, along with South African, Australian and British divisions, was to ‘break in’ through the enemy defences, which were now covered by deep minefields.”
New Zealand’s historians note that British divisions are supporting their troops.
The Indian military contribution demonstrated their loyalty to the British Empire. India’s 25,000 battlefield troops (13%) were fighting at exactly the same time as Gandhi was jailed for his Quit India campaign. Gandhi was joined in jail by tens of thousands of his supporters.
The Australians too have an El Alamein narrative,
“With Rommel’s attention firmly on the Australians in the north, naturally this left his line weakened further south, and on 2 November the British tanks struck a decisive blow there”.
Australian troops created opportunities for Britain to achieve victory on the battlefield because of their gallantry.
The coup de grace to Britain’s military status came two days before Churchill’s celebratory Mansion House speech. Eisenhower’s** Operation Torch invaded western north Africa on the 8th November. America now had a military presence there. This enforced Eisenhower’s role as Supreme Commander of allied forces in north Africa. British generals no longer had unfettered command of their battlefield armies. El Alamein demonstrated Britain couldn’t win battles by itself and Eisenhower’s appointment placed Britain in the second rank as a military power.
Churchill dismissed the palpable diminution of British military status as he mythologised British achievements regardless of the contribution of other nations. El Alamein began Churchill’s myth of Britain’s victory in the Second World War. Britain is still living with the consequences.
Addendum: Churchill’s Mansion House speech 10th November 1942 on the meaning of El Alamein*
After a series of defeats from Dunkirk to Singapore, Churchill could finally tell the House of Commons that “we have a new experience. We have victory – a remarkable and definite victory
Alexander and Montgomery turned back Rommel’s forces at El Alamein, thus winning what Churchill called “The Battle of Egypt.” I have never promised anything but blood, tears, toil, and sweat. Now, however, The bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers, and warmed and cheered all our hearts. The late M. Venizelos observed that in all her wars England — he should have said Britain, of course — always wins one battle — the last. It would seem to have begun rather earlier this time. General Alexander, with his brilliant comrade and lieutenant, General Montgomery, has gained a glorious and decisive victory in what I think should be called the battle of Egypt. Rommel’s army has been defeated. It has been routed. It has been very largely destroyed as a fighting force. This battle was not fought for the sake of gaining positions or so many square miles of desert territory. General Alexander and General Montgomery fought it with one single idea. they meant to destroy the armed force of the enemy and to destroy it at the place where the disaster would be most far-reaching and irrecoverable…. Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. Henceforth Hitler’s Nazis will meet equally well armed, and perhaps better armed troops. Hence forth they will have to face in many theatres of war that superiority in the air which they have so often used without mercy against other, of which they boasted all round the world, and which they intended to use as an instrument for convincing all other peoples that all resistance to them was hopeless….We mean to hold our own. I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire. For that task, if ever it were prescribed, someone else would have to be found, and, under democracy, I suppose the nation would have to be consulted. I am proud to be a member of that vast commonwealth and society of nations and communities gathered in and around the ancient British monarchy, without which the good cause might well have perished from the face of the earth. Here we are, and here we stand, a veritable rock of salvation in this drifting world…. The British and American affairs continue to prosper in the Mediterranean, and the whole event will be a new bond between the English-speaking peoples and a new hope for the whole world. I recall to you some lines of Byron, which seem to me to fit the event, the hour, and the theme:
Millions of tongues record thee, and anew
Their children’s lips shall echo them, and say —
“Here, where the sword united nations drew,
Our countrymen were warring on that day!”
And this is much, and all which will not pass away.
See also his speech to parliament 11th November 1942. This is more a tour de horizon making important points specifically about the arming of the 8th Army in north Africa by the USA. https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1942/nov/11/debate-on-the-address#S5CV0385P0_19421111_HOC_39
** Eisenhower became Supreme Commander on 25th June 1942 and this date can be said to mark the end of the first class status of Britain as a military power.
For the New Zealand contribution https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/the-north-african-campaign/el-alamein
For South Africa https://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/second-battle-el-alamein-starts
For Australia http://www.awmlondon.gov.au/battles/el-alamein
For India https://www.indiatoday.in/world/rest-of-the-world/story/indian-soldiers-heroism-remembered-at-el-alamein-119272-2012-10-22
For Palestine https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/jewish-fighters-in-the-north-african-desert-during-world-war-ii/
For Greece https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_Band_(World_War_II)
For Ceylon (Sri Lanka) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceylon_in_World_War_II
For Free French https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1st_Spahi_Regiment
For the displacement of the nine allied national groups represented at El Alamein see http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2-23Ba-c9.html
For India’s contribution see https://www.google.co.uk/search?sxsrf=ALeKk01gyc13tapx36qxHhkmwc2EXCbw_g%3A1585338966175&ei=Vlp-Xv-jCtSx8gLmj5vgCQ&q=how+many+indian+troops+were+at+el+alamein&oq=how+many+indian+troops+were+at+el+alamein&gs_lcp=CgZwc3ktYWIQAzoECAAQR1CALljSOWCLSWgAcAJ4AIABV4gBmQSSAQE3mAEAoAEBqgEHZ3dzLXdpeg&sclient=psy-ab&ved=0ahUKEwj_prXvt7voAhXUmFwKHebHBpwQ4dUDCAo&uact=5
For Australia’s contribution see https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/el_alamein/reading
For a very humorous memoir see Spike Milligan Rommel? Gunner Who? A confrontation in the desert 1974 (There is a Kindle edition)