Churchill was better at strategy than politics

Professor Simon J. Ball (University of Leeds)

I recently reviewed Professor Simon J. Ball’s revealing book about the battle of Alamein (The Folio Society). He generously accepted to answer few questions for this blog, and I take immense pleasure in sharing the content of our exchange with you today. I trust you will enjoy reading it.


Professor Ball, I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that the Mediterranean theater during World War II has been overlooked. Why is it important to pay more attention to it? How crucial was it in the big picture of the conflict? 

SJB: The war in the Mediterranean was of central importance. It blew apart the idea of the Mediterranean as a unified zone, although all the major powers tried to engineer integration at some points. Oddly the idea of the Mediterranean as an integrated politico-economic-cultural area, “breathing with the same rhythms”, was popularized by Fernand Braudel in the late 1940s.

The more conventional debate is about the strategic importance of the Mediterranean. This is usually framed as an Anglo-American dispute. As I’ve tried to demonstrate, that’s historically inaccurate: the British did not engage in Mediterranean boosterism.

The argument for the Mediterranean’s military centrality is that the Axis was crushed by a high-tech, low casualty coalition war in three dimensions. The war in the east was a high casualty, low tech conflict.

In your book about the Battle of Alamein, the readers feels that Winston Churchill is torn between the possibility to praise a much-needed victory and the need to appease Allies. Could Churchill have decided not to “slit the throat of the battle’s reputation” for the sake of the Alliance? 

SJB: Yes, he could. It was a conscious choice. I hope no-one uses Churchill’s postwar “before Alamein” aphorism in serious analysis of either his war making or Alamein itself. It’s clear from subsequent events that Churchill was losing his grip on British public opinion. He was better at strategy than politics.

It is clear in your book that the victors of Alamein didn’t write the history of the battle. Fast-forward to present circumstances, how important is it for the military and political leaders to influence the rationale of a conflict? 

SJB: It’s important for them, but it’s vital to the health of liberal democracy that academic historians don’t let them. The state is very good at co-opting historians. Equally, populist revisionists are quite often shysters with an axe to grind or a buck to make.

Do you think series like SAS Rogues Heroes contribute to a change in the public perception? 

SJB: No, they reinforce existing public perception. The role of special forces was marginal in 1942, but the coverage disproportionately high.

If you could have lunch with any of the actors of the Battle of Alamein, which one would it be and why?

SJB: Probably the Italian generals, they would have good food and were vicious gossips.

Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery with His Majesty King George VI (National Army Museum)

What is your assessment of Marshal Bernard Montgomery generalship? In your opinion, has he been fairly treated by historians?

SJB: Highly professional and competent general; lamentable human being. He is rarely treated fairly due to that combination. Montgomery practiced high tech, low casualty warfare in three dimensions and was the right man in the right slot.

While living in the UK, I noticed that Marshal Rommel has quite a huge reputation in the UK. We also read plenty of stories, such as those referring to his generosity towards Allied POWs. Does he really deserve that high level of appraisal? 

SJB: No. Highly competent general with personal charisma. He was neither a convinced Nazi nor a hero of the resistance. A man in the wrong slot.

Are there aspects about the war in North Africa that still deserve more attention from historians?

SJB: Most things to do with the Mediterranean itself, rather than the same arguments about reputation and grand strategy. We could do with a decent study in English of Italian POW camps.

I couldn’t let you go without asking a question about the war in Ukraine. What are your impressions and perceptions about how this conflict is perceived culturally in the West? 

SJB: I’m always a bit distrustful of historians who set themselves up as commentators. Our job is to write the best history we can manage. Having said that the first history of Alamein was written three days after the battle, so the history war will have started already. One of my colleagues is studying just how useless area studies was in understanding the central European space. Personally, I’ll be interested to see how hi-tech does against high casualty war making. The Ukrainians will only be able to fight a high-tech war if the West provides them with a decent air force and accepts that militarily, its use within western Russia is necessary to isolate the Ukraine battlespace, thus achieving military victory. It’s a nice dilemma for policymakers in Washington, Berlin, Paris and London.

Also, I’d be curious to have your insights about the leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky? 

SJB: Good, so far. However, Ukraine has thrown up other charismatic leaders and it didn’t end well for them.

Do you have another book on your writing table and, if so, would you agree to tell us what it will be about?

SJB: I’m writing a history of assassination since 1914 for Yale University Press. I’m heading to the archives as I type this.

Many thanks, Professor Ball, for the generosity of your time. I’m looking forward to reading your upcoming book.


As part of the Great Battle Series, Simon J. Ball’s Alamein is published in a handsomely bound new edition by The Folio Society.

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