A useful primer on the war in North Africa

Destiny in the Desert: the Road to El Alamein – the Battle that Turned the Tide - review.

German prisoners passing a sign to El Alamein, in 1942
German prisoners passing a sign to El Alamein, in 1942. Photograph: Getty Images

Destiny in the Desert: the Road to El Alamein – the Battle that Turned the Tide
Jonathan Dimbleby
Profile Books, 544pp, £25

The bookshelves of Britain creak with what one connoisseur of the genre once described to me as “Nazi porn”: endless works, some superb, many not, about the Second World War, its prelude and its aftermath. We may shortly reach the stage where, for a time, there is nothing more to be said. However, as various 70th anniversaries from the conflict occur, the temptation to mark them by felling more trees appears irresistible. Normally, 70th anniversaries do not matter; these do, I suspect, not least because by the time of the 75th hardly anyone will be left who bore witness on active service to the horrors of Hitler’s war.

The demand for these books operates on two distinct levels. On one are highly scholarly and specialised works by authors such as Michael Burleigh, Ian Kershaw and Andrew Roberts that take particular aspects of the conflict and contribute to our knowledge of events, providing new insights into a war with which we thought we were familiar. On the other is work that relies on secondary sources and is an opportunity for a non-academic author to offer his – and writing about war remains a predominantly masculine fetish – judgements of people and events in whom the public has an abiding interest. This explains the suffocating quantity of books on Winston Churchill, about whom some of us feel, as Clement Attlee once put it in another context, a period of silence would be most welcome.

Jonathan Dimbleby’s book is in the second category and, provided one is not a Nazi-porn specialist, it is none the worse for that. He patently knows his subject and has good reason to do so. His father, Richard Dimbleby, was in North Africa for the BBC and his son draws on some of the material Dimbleby père accumulated. There is a flavour in this book of what-Ilearned- at-my-father’s-knee, which, provided it is part of a variety of evidence (as it is here), is valuable and interesting. Dimbleby has been into a few archives but is heavily reliant on published work. If you know your Nazi porn, you will learn very little from this book.

However, that is not the point. The book accompanies a BBC documentary, part of the corporation’s laudable mission to remind us that the past did not begin on the morning of Tony Blair’s election. Both the documentary and the book are about accessibility. Sadly, there are too many people in this country who reach adulthood, have their intellectual curiosity awakened about the past, yet realise that what passed for their education has hardly prepared them for the task. If books such as this, easily digestible, factually accurate and written with studied liveliness, assist that process – and I suspect they do – then so much the better.

This is not, though, just a beginner’s guide to El Alamein or the battle for North Africa. Dimbleby gives plenty of context, draws good character sketches and exercises a healthy scepticism about many of our national heroes. He paints Churchill in all his unreasonableness, caprice and occasional idiocy, while reminding his readers that this was total war and we were lucky to have a total bastard leading us in it. He does not spare Field Marshal Montgomery, either, which is just as well. The more one reads about Monty, the more one realises he probably had a medical condition, perhaps Asperger’s syndrome, which rendered him oblivious to his own cringe-making self-obsession and aggrandisement and caused him to fail to interact with brother officers (though he was good with the men, which was even more important).

Dimbleby more or less answers, satisfactorily, a question he poses at the start of his book: was the North African campaign worth the terrible loss of life that resulted from it? It was. It was the Italians, living up to their national stereotype at the time, who landed Hitler in it. Having gone to North Africa and picked a fight with British and Commonwealth troops in the late summer of 1940, they received a thrashing and Hitler felt he had to intervene.

North Africa had strategic importance for the Nazis. It was one of the keys to the Middle East, to the Suez Canal, to the Mediterranean theatre in which the invasion of Italy would eventually be launched and to Britain’s supply of oil. After inflicting grievous losses on the Allies, Erwin Rommel finally overreached himself. His supply lines were not equal to his long-term survival and he knew it. When Monty launched his assault at El Alamein in October 1942, Rommel was in a clinic in Austria, burned out with stress. He flew straight back but the situation was hopeless. However, as Dimbleby points out, the job the Royal Navy did in cutting off Rommel’s supplies and that the RAF did in bombing the German and Italian positions was every bit as vital to the victory as the dogged and heroic Eighth Army.

A North Africa novice will find this comprehensive book the perfect primer for an investigation of the subject. However, it is not well edited – somebody should have reined in Dimbleby’s highly adjectival style, which grates after a while and leads him too often into the swamp of cliché. Also, for a book so reliant on secondary sources, the ones he relies on are curious: Martin Gilbert’s epic Churchill biography and its apparatus do not appear in the bibliography, while quite a lot of pop history, itself reliant on secondary sources and the efforts of research assistants, does. But then, one of the most successful outcomes of such a book is that it stimulates readers to take a further interest and to find and judge the authoritative works themselves.

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Mail