The distorted memory of Alamein

British soldiers during the second battle of Alamein (The Times of Israel)

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”, declared Winston Churchill. That quote might reveal why the second battle of Alamein seems only to reach a limited audience of military history specialists and enthusiasts. In terms of visibility and shelf space, Alamein doesn’t rank with D-Day, Stalingrad, or Bastogne.

Knowing that the battle stopped Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s advance on Egypt during the turning point year of 1942, one can reasonably wonder why that is so. In a nutshell, “the absence of the victors left plenty of room for the ‘losers’ to have their say. […] the British state’s insistence on not telling a national narrative over-represented the voices of its enemies”, explains historian Simon Ball in The Folio Society edition of his insightful history of the battle fought in the sands of North Africa in October and November 1942.

Material rather than manpower would have been the drivers of the Allied victory. In sum, “the Axis had lost the battle for four reasons: enemy air superiority; the poor performance of the Italian troops; the Eighth Army’s superiority in modern weapons; and their own lack of fuel.” Rommel became an icon – a phenomenon I observed on numerous occasions while visiting military museums in the United Kingdom – and his opponent, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery drew flak from “old régime” figures who could not stomach the methods of this iconoclast figure who privileged meritocracy. The tenants of that school preferred to give way to Rommel rather than applaud the success and qualities of Montgomery. That phenomenon is regrettably still observable to this day.

Alamein also fell on its sword to give way to Stalingrad, which became the iconic battle of 1942. In scope and numbers, it was hard to compete with the incomparable sacrifices consented by the Soviet people in soldiers for the fate of the city on the Volga. Yet, in October 1942, Stalin admitted that his troops were losing because of Nazi air power. In that regard, the second battle of Alamein contributed to releasing pressure on the Kremlin. To that end, Simon Ball brings up revealing information that deserves to be quoted at length:

“When the Germans launched their offensives in North Africa and Russia in June 1942, five of the Luftwaffe’s fifty-one bomber groups were in the Mediterranean. By the end of the Battle of Alamein, nineteen groups had reached the Mediterranean. The German bomber force in the Mediterranean peaked at twenty-three groups during the German retreat from Alamein to Tripoli.”

Unquestionably, the Allies gave quite a hand to Moscow, and Alamein was much more than a consolation prize to soothe national pride. It certainly brought a welcome respite for the Red Army. But since acknowledging it wouldn’t fit into the Russian-centered rationale of the Great Patriotic War, don’t expect any thank you notes in the mailbox.

Truth be told, Alamein never stood a chance against Stalingrad. Given the magnitude of the Soviet sacrifice and position as an emerging superpower, the result was almost a foregone conclusion. But far from being “an unnecessary battle fought to impress the Americans and bolster home morale,” Alamein nevertheless deserves its place among the determining battles of World War II. The consequences of a German victory would have been immeasurably costly to the Allied war effort, on top of being catastrophic for the Jewish population living under the British Mandate in Palestine. Less than 500 km separate Cairo from Jerusalem as the crow flies.

Given the fact that his influence over Roosevelt and Stalin was on the wave as the war went on, I doubt Winston Churchill gladly “slit the throat of the battle’s reputation in order to better manage the wartime Grand Alliance”, if only because it served the British interest to celebrate that resounding victory. But many sacrifices needed to be brought on the altar of victory, and Stalin was not an easy ally to placate.

One of the book’s merits is to show that, tragically, the legacy of Alamein fell prone to successive waves of “entrepreneurs” – like the controversial Basil Henry Liddell Hart – who influenced its cultural legacy since the last shot was heard. Simon Ball eloquently maps out the evolution and state of things, which calls for fresh interpretations and reevaluations about them. In that regard, the interest generated about the war in Africa by series like SAS Rogue Heroes can only be great news.

Alamein is not a traditional military history book. The author doesn’t recount a battle manned by larger-than-life personalities and human sacrifices, nor does he delve into military minutiae. The book explains the cultural afterlife of the battle. Given the weight of perceptions – through books, movies, and other products – in the understanding and valorization of the past, Simon Ball’s work brilliantly shows that history is indeed written by those who write it.

As a final observation, we are grateful to The Folio Society for offering readers the possibility of discovering or rediscovering great battles to the general readership. The exquisite quality of the binding significantly enhances the reader’s experience before adding to the beauty of his or her bookshelves.

I’m looking forward to the next title published in that collection.


Simon Ball, Alamein, London, The Folio Society, 2022, 248 pages.

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