El Alamein: The People's Battle
Michael Paris describes the film record of the North African victory, and how the footage represents a tour de force in terms of wartime documentary and national effort.
On June 10th, 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France – ‘a mean skulking thing to do’, wrote Harold Nicolson to his wife, Vita Sackville-West, and likened the Italians to those who ‘rob corpses on the battlefield’. But for Mussolini, hoping to extend his Mediterranean empire into Egypt and seize the Suez Canal, and turn the Mediterranean into an Italian lake, the timing was perfect. The British, demoralised by the collapse of France, and pre-occupied with the expected German invasion of the British Isles, were unlikely to be able to reinforce their small garrison in Egypt. In September Marshal Graziani’s Tenth Army, over 200,000 men, cautiously crossed the Libyan frontier into Egypt, driving towards the Suez Canal – the War in North Africa had begun. It would last until May 1943 when Anglo-American forces captured Tunisia and destroyed Axis power in North Africa. For the first two years, the desert war was little more than a series of bitterly fought engagements that see-sawed back and forth across the Western Desert as both sides sought the advantage. Finally, at the third Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery began the offensive that would drive the Axis from Africa.
El Alamein was the turning point in North Africa: the victors, the British Eighth Army and its commander, Bernard Montgomery, are still fondly recalled icons in the memory of the Second World War. Images of the ‘Desert Rats’ advancing through German minefields in the opening phase of battle; of Sherman tanks churning up clouds of dust as they speed westwards while Hurricanes of the Desert Air Force roar overhead, have become an integral part of the visual memory of the war. But why is El Alamein so clearly remembered? Certainly it was the first significant land victory achieved by British forces in the Second World War, and the first step in the campaign that liberated North Africa. It paved the way for the eventual invasion of the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe – Sicily and Italy – and the fall of Fascist Italy; but compared with later battles, El Alamein was a small affair, and fought a long way from Europe. However, the battle and the subsequent campaign was filmed as it happened by cameramen of the Army Film and Photographic Unit, and that footage was edited into one of the most effective, and widely seen, of all wartime documentaries, Desert Victory, released in 1943. But the film is much more than just a visual record, for it perfectly encapsulated the mood of the times, and it has enshrined El Alamein as the ‘people’s battle’ in popular memory – an enduring tribute to a nation in arms fighting a ‘people’s war’.
The initial Italian invasion of Egypt in 1940 was repelled by a few divisions of British Middle East Command. By February 1941, reinforced units under the command of General Archibald Wavell had advanced 1,700 miles into the Italian colony of Libya, taking the port of Tobruk and over 114,000 prisoners. Hitler, unwilling to see his Italian ally humiliated, sent a tank division and air support (later expanded into the Afrika Korps) under the command of General Erwin Rommel to strengthen the Italian army. Rommel launched his offensive in April 1941 retaking Libya and driving the British back to the Egyptian border. Only Tobruk, garrisoned by battle-hardened Australians, held out. Churchill appointed General Auchinleck to North Africa, and the new commander unleashed his counter-offensive in December 1941, relieving Tobruk and pushing west as far as El Agheila. However, a new German attack, in May 1942, not only pushed the British back into Egypt but re-captured Tobruk as well. The British were now holding a forty-mile front bordering the sea, just east of the town of El Alamein. The resistance of the Australians at Tobruk had been the one bright spot in an otherwise depressing campaign. Two major British offensives had been defeated and the Afrika Korps was now just 60 miles from Alexandria – Egypt appeared to be about to fall into enemy hands.
Auchinleck managed to hold the Germans at El Alamein, but Churchill, keenly aware of just how precarious the situation was, visited Egypt in August with Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, for discussions with his commanders. Auchinleck was replaced by General Alexander as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, with Bernard Montgomery to command the newly created Eighth Army, as Middle East Command had been renamed. The Prime Minister’s brief to his new commanders was simple, ‘to take or destroy… the German-Italian army together with all its supplies and establishments in Egypt and Libya’. Montgomery’s first task was to bring the Eighth Army up to strength and to rebuild morale – distressingly low after the constant reverses of the past two years. Through the autumn, new units began to arrive in Egypt including 300 American-built Sherman tanks, while Montgomery carefully prepared his plans. At the same time, the decision had also been made to produce a film record of the offensive.
The filmmaker Roy Boulting (1913-2001), then attached to the Army Film and Photographic Unit, later recalled that, in the summer of 1942, he had been told just how crucial the offensive at El Alamein was to the Allied cause in the Middle East, and thus felt that a film record should be made of the campaign from footage shot by film units with the Eighth Army. The AFPU had been set up in the summer of 1940, under the control of the Directorate of Public Relations at the War Office. At that time the army’s reputation was at low ebb and there was considerable public scepticism about the ability of the nation’s military leadership. The unit’s initial function was to sell the army and its leaders to the public; to produce a visual record of military operations, and to make footage available to the newsreels. The AFPU was based at Pinewood Studios, and eventually included over eighty camermen working in four self-contained units. The unit attracted a number of capable ex-professional filmmakers such as Boulting and David Macdonald. Boulting, together with his twin John, were rising stars within the film industry. Their first feature, Pastor Hall, had been released in 1940 and the critically acclaimed Thunder Rock in 1942. Alongside these features, they had also made several documentaries including the propaganda short The Dawn Guard (1940), a film which encapsulated the idea of the new Jerusalem towards which the war effort was aimed. The Boultings were committed to the idea of the war as a stepping stone towards a new, better and more equitable society, and it was this belief that made Desert Victory into such a perfect reflection of the people’s war. General Lawson, head of army public relations, learned that Boulting was working with the North African footage and thus the film became an ‘official’ production. As Montgomery’s offensive began and Rommel was driven back from El Alamein, new footage of the campaign continually arrived at Pinewood, which Boulting edited into a narrative. Churchill took a keen interest in the film, believing that it would help boost public morale after so many reverses. The commentary was written by the journalist J.L. Hodson and narrated by the actor Leo Genn. The project was finally completed in February 1943 and released the following month.
The film opens with a dedication to the ‘Desert Rats’ – the men of the Eighth Army – who destroyed the ‘myth of Rommel’s invincibility’. But the opening also reminds us that victory was the result of a collective effort between the armed forces and workers on the home front:
for the sister services, too… the RAF and the Navy … and the workers of Great Britain and the United States … without whose efforts victory could not have been achieved.
The first twenty minutes establish the background to the desert campaign, events that had been recorded in an earlier AFPU film Wavell’s 30,000 (1942), but it makes no effort to minimise the desperate plight of the British after the fall of Tobruk: ‘We lost 80,000 men’ and ‘never had our backs been so close to the Suez wall’. Unable to retreat further, General Auchinleck made his stand at El Alamein, only sixty miles from Alexandria – a natural line of defence, a forty-mile gap between the sea and the Qattara Depression, ‘terrain that no vehicle can cross’, and awaited Rommel’s attack. The visual images on the screen demonstrate the military power that the enemy brought to bear as captured footage shows the Panzers rolling forward accompanied by swarms of dive-bombers. But the line held and, as the narrator tells us, after several days of attack the British, Australians, Indians and South Africans were still there, ‘fighting as doggedly as our infantry at Waterloo’. This determined effort provides the opportunity for planning the counter-offensive – Churchill’s visit to North Africa bringing ‘inspiration and vigour’, and reinforcements beginning to arrive along with the new leaders, Generals Alexander and Montgomery.
There then follows a long section on the preparations; war materiel of all kinds arrives from factories in Britain and the United States as the ‘new’ desert army is trained to perfection. Using maps and diagrams, the plan of battle is explained. Rommel has positioned his strength in the north and south, deliberately leaving his centre weak to entice Montgomery to attack there. Such an attack would draw the British into a trap where they could be encircled and destroyed – a German strategy that had worked remarkably well in France and Russia. Montgomery, of course, has seen through this, and while making it appear he will attack the centre, his thrust will be in the north, spearheaded by battle-hardened Australian and Indian veterans. We are also shown captured German footage of Rommel’s visit to Berlin, where the supremely confident general is promoted to Field-Marshal by the Führer. In the desert, however, all is ready for the offensive on October 23rd.
‘The Battle of El Alamein began in the evening’, we are told, and on screen is a superbly photographed sequence of the Eighth Army awaiting zero hour. Low-level shots of British armour, silhouetted against the sinking sun, moving to their final position increases the tension of the moment. At zero minus thirty minutes, the bombardment of the German positions begins, sappers move forward to clear a path through the enemy’s minefields, and after thirty minutes, the barrage creeps forward while infantry and armour move up under its shadow. The opening of the battle is undoubtedly the most powerful sequence in Desert Victory; beautifully constructed, it provides a real sense of the tension and drama of modern warfare. Against a completely black screen, we hear movement, we can just make out the face of a wristwatch – the hands moving inexorably towards zero hour. The camera pulls back through the darkness, we can just discern the owner of the watch, an artillery officer. He puts on his helmet as sappers move forward ready to mark out a safe route through the enemy minefields. Another time check by the officer – ‘FIRE’.
The sound of the gunfire of the opening barrage is deafening after the silence of waiting. In the absolute blackness of the desert night, the flashing of the artillery is almost painful. We gradually become aware of movement – infantry waiting for the bombardment to roll forward from the first objectives. They begin to advance, walking into the darkness away from the camera. The pipers of the Highland division sound their battle hymns, bayonets are levelled – and the Eighth Army is swallowed up in the darkness and confusion of battle. The whole sequence is rich with dramatic device and almost unbearable tension. Dawn, and in contrast to the drama of the night, all is calm. The enemy has been surprised, the first objectives have been gained and many prisoners taken. The narrator tells us that, ‘now our forces moved up consolidating and advancing further, infantry, tanks and air force working as one’. We see the low-flying fighter-bombers of the RAF, and in their shadow the advancing infantry. Rommel fights back desperately, but on the ninth day of battle, the British advance along the whole front. In a phrase worthy of Montgomery, the commentator notes, ‘we have imposed our will on him’. It was the breakthrough! The moment that Alexander and Montgomery had been waiting for. Maps show us exactly what has been achieved, and the camera pans over the battlefield revealing the evidence of Rommel’s defeat – the burnt-out panzers, the smashed and twisted wrecks that were once fearsome bombers of the Luftwaffe, the long columns of Italian and German prisoners heading east, and the twisted, shattered bodies of the dead.
The final section of Desert Victory deals with the advance on Tripoli – ‘a feat unparalleled in military history’, the narrator points out. Boulting tackles this in the style of a travelogue, with film of the desert army sweeping into town after town of Mussolini’s empire, while captions tell the audience just how far the Eighth have advanced – ‘Sidi Barrani, 220 Miles’, ‘Tobruk, 370 Miles’, ‘Benghazi, 660 miles’, until finally they enter Tripoli. As the victorious Eighth parade through the city, not as conquerors but as liberators, the narrator reminds us of the prime minister’s tribute to the ‘Desert Rats’:
You have altered the face of war in a most remarkable way … I must tell you the fame of the desert army has spread throughout the world.
But why should this visual record of a relatively small battle in the deserts of North Africa have had such impact on contemporary Britain, and such enduring influence on the memory of the war?
Firstly, of course, because North Africa was the first real British victory of the war – an event that undermined the apparent invincibility of the Wehrmacht. It was also the first time that cinematographers had attempted to create a complete visual record of a campaign – an instant history on film. Audiences were familiar with combat footage, mainly through newsreels, but this, at best, showed only a fragment of the experience of war. Here, however, was the whole story from planning, through execution, and on to victory. More significant, however, was the manner in which the AFPU portrayed El Alamein and the advance on Tripoli, as a campaign waged by a democratic people fighting a people’s war. The constant use of ‘us’, ‘we’ and ‘our’ in the narration of Desert Victory implies that the spectator (the British audience of 1943) is an essential contributor to that victory. The underlying message is that success has only been achieved by collective effort – that behind the cutting edge of the Eighth Army is the entire strength of the nation, a battle where the men and women of the home front were no less participants than those who drove the tanks, flew the planes or slogged through the desert carrying rifles. This is made explicit in several key scenes. During the build-up for battle, we are shown images of war factories while the narrator tells us how much material the home front is producing; that women are playing their part, willing workers content to give their labour for a cause in which they believe. Significantly, when the BBC broadcasts the first communiqué after the breakthrough, we see the news received through the Tannoy in a busy factory where the night shift of women workers is hard at work. The camera focuses on two women: ‘That’ll show ’em’, says one, ‘And there’s plenty more where that came from’, adds her co-worker. Clearly these women, like all on the home front, know exactly what they have contributed to the victory, and what the breakthrough means.
A second element is the way in which the Eighth Army is itself portrayed. This is no coldly efficient war machine, but an army of civilians. The eve of battle sequence reminds us of this other life as the men who face tomorrow’s battle do their washing, write to their families, or sit quietly listening to the pipers. These emotive images of the citizen army even extend to the commanders, Alexander and especially Montgomery. These are men who have won command through their ability. When first introduced, we are told Alexander was one of the last men out of Dunkirk and the man who fought the Japanese through Burma. Montgomery, the commentary explains, ‘lives as sternly as a Cromwell, and who is as much a part of these modern Ironsides’ – metaphors that remind us of the freedoms won by an earlier citizen army. The message becomes still more explicit in later sequences in which Monty is seen briefing a group of soldiers.
Realising that a citizen army fights best when it knows exactly what’s going on … [Monty] saw to it that the plan of battle was known to everybody, from general to private soldier.
Later, during the battle and the subsequent advance, we catch glimpses of the general forging ahead with his troops – the fighting general, the people’s general, leading from the front and sharing the common danger with his men.
Desert Victory was produced by the army, but the other services are not ignored. During the vital build-up period, the contribution of the RAF and RN are stressed, as are their efforts to stop the re-supply of the enemy. ‘During August alone’, we are told, ‘80 per cent of all supplies sent to the enemy went to the bottom’, sunk by British submarines or British bombers. The part played by the Desert Air Force is emphasised throughout the film and footage taken by the RAF Film Unit is effectively used. There is equal emphasis on the joint planning of the battle. One key scene reveals Alexander, Admiral Harwood and Air Marshall Tedder at a joint planning meeting, while later we are told that Montgomery and Air-Vice Marshall Cunningham work closely together during the advance into Libya. Thus was the people’s war made manifest in the collaboration of the forces, the well-informed citizen army where every man knew what was expected of him, and in the co-operation of the millions of war workers at home. It is this democratic struggle of soldier and worker that will bring about the complete destruction of the Axis. As one reviewer noted:
This picture is not only a timely tribute to the munitions workers, as well as all members of the three services stationed in the Middle East, but positive and conclusive proof that, given the tools and encouragement, the British and their Allies will not fail to finish the job of ridding the world of the Nazis and all they stand for.
The film makes reference to the Commonwealth contribution and to the arms provided by American factories. Some critics have argued that the film suggests El Alamein was solely a British victory. But if that is so, it is perhaps excusable given the context of 1943. El Alamein was the first real success against an enemy long accustomed to victory. The British army had been driven from Norway, humiliated at Dunkirk, forced out of Greece and Crete and pushed back and forth across North Africa since late 1940 – even Tobruk had fallen in June 1942 after its heroic siege. The success of the desert offensive and the capture of Tripoli came at a time when British morale was at its lowest ebb. Desert Victory was more than a filmic record, it was a timely reminder that the British were still in the ring and capable of hitting back – the herald of a new and more successful phase of the war.
Churchill sent copies both to Roosevelt and Stalin – a demonstration of British achievement and negating Stalin’s claim that only the Red Army was fighting. But it was the obvious authenticity of Desert Victory that appealed to audiences at home, and indeed little footage was re-enactment. In a November 1943 Mass Observation survey, it was rated the third most popular film of the year. Desert Victory even did well in America and won an Oscar for the most ‘distinctive’ documentary of 1943. Its success inspired a sequel, Tunisian Victory (1944), an Anglo-American production which completed the story of the conquest of North Africa. Desert Victory was probably the most successful of all the wartime documentaries, and footage from the film found its way into a host of other documentaries, and many later feature films such as Ice Cold in Alex and Sea of Sand (both 1958); it was even used to provide virtually all the combat scenes (uncredited) for Hollywood’s 1951 bio-pic of Rommel, The Desert Fox.
The film stands as a testament to the first real success of the people’s army, the men and women of Britain who made possible the final victory. Even today, sixty years after the drama of the desert war was captured on film, Desert Victory still powerfully evokes the mood of 1943 and ‘the end of the beginning’.
Michael Paris is Reader in Modern History at the University of Central Lancashire and author of Warrior Nation: Images of War in British Popular Culture.
- James Chapman, The British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda, 1939-1945 ( I.B. Tauris, 1998)
- Richard Doherty, A Noble Crusade: The History of the Eighth Army (Spellmount, 1999)
- B. Ireland, The War in the Mediterranean, 1940-1943 (Cassell, 1993)
- Annette Kuhn, ‘Desert Victory and the People’s War’, Screen 22 (1981)
- P.Mackenzie, British War Films, 1939-1945 (Hambledon, 2001)
- Desert Victory, Wavell’s 30,000 and Tunisian Victory are all available on VHS video from DD Video and the Imperial War Museum
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