On 4th November 1942 the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery achieved victory at El Alamein in Egypt after a two-week battle against the Afrika Corps led by General Irwin Rommel. The consequences of this event were somewhat mixed.
The victory was significant in a number of ways. The immediate consequence was that the German advance through the Western Desert was halted, which meant that Egypt was secured and with it the all-important Suez Canal.
The effect of the victory on morale in Britain and elsewhere was immense. Winston Churchill was to say after the war that “Before Alamein we never had a victory; after Alamein we never had a defeat”. This was not factually accurate, but it is understandable that he would have felt that way. He was closer to the mark when he said at the time: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”. It is certainly true that the mood in Britain changed from one of fearing defeat to hoping for victory, and the hope turned gradually to expectation as the months and years passed.
One less fortunate consequence of the victory was that it made General Montgomery extremely big-headed. He seemed to get the impression that he could now win the war virtually singled-handed, which was to result in less happy circumstances as the war progressed. Above all, “Monty” could not stand playing second fiddle to the late-arriving Americans led by General Eisenhower, and their mutual distrust was to cost thousands of lives, such as at Arnhem where an ill-advised plan of Monty’s went disastrously wrong.
Had it not been for the victory at El Alamein, it has to be questioned whether Montgomery would have been allowed so much influence on the future course of the War, which included a number of serious errors on the part of the Allies that stemmed in large part from the distrust mentioned above. As long as Montgomery continued to think that it was “his” war, and that no mere American could have a clue about fighting a war in Europe, then mistakes would continue to be made.
This attitude was not helped by Montgomery’s own character failings, namely tactlessness and lack of diplomacy, which led him to put personal considerations above those of the wider cause. Even his fellow British generals found him almost impossible to work with, but the victor of El Alamein could always boast that he had saved the day and would continue to do so.
One American who saw through Monty’s posturing was the writer Ernest Hemingway who, some years later, invented the “Montgomery Cocktail” at Harry’s Bar in Venice. This was a martini made with 15 parts of gin to one of vermouth; according to Hemingway, this was the proportion of his own troops to the enemy’s that Montgomery needed before he would consider an attack.
© John Welford