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  Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign

The Eighth Army and the Path to El Alamein


Jonathan Fennell


Cambridge Military Histories

Cambridge: University Press, 2011

Hardcover. xx+341 pp. ISBN 978-0-521-19270-5. £55.00 / US$72.00


Reviewed by Martin Kitchen

Simon Fraser University (British Columbia)




Morale, like the Cheshire cat, can provide assistance in moments of crisis but is difficult to pin down and can suddenly evaporate. Almost all those concerned with military affairs from Xenophon to Clausewitz and S.L.A. Marshall have stressed the vital importance of morale. Foch is said to have been the author to the formula ‘Victory=Will’. Montgomery pronounced that battles were won ‘in the hearts of men’. Other soldiers were sceptical of such notions. Rommel was not the only one who knew that Hitler’s appeals to ‘willpower’ were pointless when tanks had neither fuel nor ammunition and offered no protection against the enemy’s airpower and artillery.

The British Army’s brilliant Adjutant General,General Sir Ronald Adam, pointed out that this particular Cheshire cat has to be painted with ‘an impressionistic brush’. Jonathan Fennell in the solidly researched, pointedly argued, fluently written and most enjoyable book never loses sight of the fact that the problem of morale is ‘multidimensional’. He skilfully analyses all the component parts of morale: technology, firepower, personnel, the physical environment, provisions, welfare services, education, leadership and command structure. He marshals a considerable amount of evidence to support his contention that the 8th Army’s morale sank disastrously in the summer of 1942 and was revived under Montgomery’s forceful leadership, leading to victory at Alamein.

No one would seriously deny that the fall of Tobruk and the ‘Gazala gallop’ had a shattering effect on morale. It is the inevitable consequence of such defeats, just as victory is the most powerful boost to morale. The situation was made all the worse by Churchill’s panicky reaction to the loss of Tobruk. Relapsing into his 1940 role he told a horrified Ivan Maisky that the army would continue the fight on the Nile, at Haifa and Beirut. His widely publicised admiration for Rommel amazed Goebbels, who asked himself why the British Prime Minister was thereby lending substantial support to his propaganda efforts. Nor was his constant goading of Auchinleck to go on the offensive in any way helpful. The amazing thing was not that morale dropped, but rather that it remained as high as it did. With poor equipment, inadequate training, a Crusader tank with a 2-pounder peashooter, poor quality officers and in Cunningham a commander who was falling apart, it is a wonder that the army did not disintegrate. Jonathan Fennell even-handedly provides evidence why this did not happen. Auchinleck taking over command was a considerable boost to morale. Reports in July 1942 spoke of ‘high morale’ among the retreating troops, due in large part to the sterling efforts of the Desert Air Force. The massive ‘stonks’ at First Alamein were most encouraging and such use of massed artillery was to prove a major factor in the desert victory. Above all the Germans had a healthy respect for the men in the 8th Army—especially for the New Zealanders. In their eyes this was certainly not Montgomery’s  ‘dog’s breakfast’, but a dogged opponent. They were all too uncomfortably aware that their own campaign had fallen apart and that they were in no better shape than the enemy. No commander, however talented and charismatic, could have dramatically raised the morale of a seriously demoralised army in a matter of a few weeks, as is here suggested.

That Montgomery’s showmanship and self-promotion as well as his insistence on training and physical fitness had a positive effect on morale is unquestionable. What is more difficult to gauge is how significant these factors are compared with the vast pile-up of superior equipment, men and supplies. Jonathan Fennell has no doubts. He rejects out of hand the suggestion that success in the desert was due to technological and numerical superiority. He insists instead that ‘a key contribution made by weapons was their effect in both building and impairing morale’. Or does this simply mean that having a weapon that can actually kill a Panzer is better for morale than one than cannot do the job? He omits one key factor: Montgomery’s ability, unlike Auchinleck, to stand up to Churchill and delay the offensive until he was more or less ready.

The problem seemingly inherent in any discussion of morale is that the text in soon peppered with keen insights into the obvious. Here we have Bill Slim—a superb general but hardly a great military theorist—remarking that success is good for morale, reverses bad. Shils and Janowitz conclude that high casualty rates have a deleterious effect on morale and that primary group solidarity breaks down when large numbers are killed. Colonel Rainer Kreibel of 15th Panzer states that morale is low when troops are provided with lousy equipment. Then we have Marshal’s post-war gem whereby morale holds up, as soldiers perceive that their weapons ‘deal great death or fear of death to the enemy’. When this perception changes ‘morale dies and defeat occurs’.

The picture of morale-boosting measures is altogether too rosy. There was indeed a certain democratisation of the officer selection process with the creation of a large number of ‘officers and temporary gentlemen’, but Picture Post’s claim that the War Office Selection Boards (WOSBs) put an end to ‘clear favouritism’ is wide of the mark. The ‘man management’ courses in the Officer Corps Training Units (OCTUs) were singularly ineffectual and often laughable. Army educational programmes probably did more to help Labour win the 1945 election than they did to boost morale. It would be nice to know the reaction of seasoned troops to the training manual that claimed that Molotov cocktails were ‘a very serious menace to tanks’. The ‘Shepheard’s Hotel complex’ was not overcome by ukase or exhortation but simply by the fact that the 8th Army advanced out of reach. Montgomery always claimed to have fought Alamein according to plan when in fact he showed a certain resourcefulness in trying new approaches when faced with failure. He trained his men to fight one battle, but ended up fighting another. His claim that he fought the kind of battle of which his troops were capable is as rich as Donald Rumsfeld’s clanger: ‘you go to war with the army you have—not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time’.

Morale certainly improved greatly after a period of relative calm for all the reasons that Jonathan Fennell meticulously details, but at the pointed end at Alamein, where casualties were alarmingly high, the fear of death and injury intense, who was immediately concerned with whether a Canadian was sleeping with his girl friend, who was grateful for ENSA and field cinemas, or that the mail arrived on time? What mattered was that the artillery and DAF kept up their relentless efforts. That enabled brave men to do their job and finish it, in spite of all the countervailing pressures.

Jonathan Fennell has made a major contribution to the debate over the Desert War in this valuable study of the significance of morale in warfare, but I remain unconvinced that this illusive issue was the key reason why the amateurs in the 8th Army defeated Rommel’s professionals, not to mention the question whether it was even necessary to fight such a costly battle in the first place.  

One last complaint: it would be churlish nowadays to complain about the frequency of typos—the standard of editing has fallen so markedly in recent years that this is something one has to accept—but Jonathan Fennell deserves something better than the disaster on page 150, where what should have been 'men' becomes 'm145           en'.




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