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Where the beginning of World War II came to an end

Alamein, Jon Latimer, Harvard University Press: 400 pp., $27.95 Alamein, Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press Ltd./Trafalgar Square: 266 pp., $27.50 The Battle of Alamein, John Bierman and Colin Smith, Viking Press: 478 pp., $32.95 An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Rick Atkinson, Henry Holt: 682 pp., $30

November 24, 2002|John Lukacs | John Lukacs is the author of numerous books, including "Churchill: Visionary, Statesman, Historian," "At the End of an Age" and "The Hitler of History."

The military turning point of World War II came in November 1942, 60 years ago, at three different places on the globe. At El Alamein in Egypt, the British 8th Army won a battle against the German-Italian African army and began its march westward. A week later, American and British forces landed in Morocco and Algeria, establishing a second front, eventually clearing all of Africa of German and Italian troops. Twelve days later, Russian armies, west of Stalingrad, encircled the German 6th Army, turning hopeful attackers into hopeless defenders.

Something similar was developing in the vast reaches of the Pacific too: By the end of November, the Japanese at Guadalcanal were no longer advancing but retreating (for the first time in the Pacific war), though this was not as sudden or dramatic. On Nov. 15, for the first time since 1940, church bells rang all over Britain. They had been silent for two years, ordered previously to be rung only in the event of a German landing in England.

But Churchill warned his people: "Now this is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning." Yes, November 1942 was only the end of the beginning. The Germans fought on for 2 1/2 years, until the bitter end. Their fighting ability inspires the interest of people in World War II -- ask publishers, booksellers, filmmakers: That interest goes on and on. Nothing like this happened in World War I. The reputation of no German general in World War I comes even close to Erwin Rommel's in the second.

The battle of El Alamein is the subject of three books, published, whether by coincidence or not, around this 60th anniversary. They are different books, but very good ones. Jon Latimer's "Alamein" is the work of a former British Army officer, a meticulous military history inclusive of accurate and often hitherto unknown details. It is a classic, near-encyclopedic reconstruction.

So is "The Battle of Alamein" by John Bierman and Colin Smith, both journalists, whose research too is faultless. It is slightly longer than Latimer's "Alamein" and includes interesting marginal matters (for example, the reconstruction of the doings of Laszlo Almasy, the protagonist of Michael Ondaatje's novel "The English Patient"). Stephen Bungay's "Alamein" is the work of an amateur military historian, the shortest book of the three: terse and brilliantly written by a thorough master of his subject, with perhaps more emphasis on the political background than in the others.

I read the three books in succession, without a sense of weariness or repetition, even when turning the pages describing the same episodes, the same phases of the 10-day battle and the same personages. It occurred to me that few, if any, professional historians may be able to attain the quality of these books.

In addition, every historian of World War II may learn a few of these, chosen at random: The Italian soldiery fought better at El Alamein than has been customarily assumed. As late as seven days after Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery launched the battle, the outcome was still uncertain -- a draw was still possible. German armor was certainly better than Allied armor, even including the newly arrived American Sherman tanks. Air superiority was less decisive at El Alamein than over the Mediterranean, where British air (often assisted by precious information from "Ultra") was able to destroy most of the vessels that were shipping precious fuel to Rommel's overextended supply lines. Desertions were few. Contrary to many of his critics, Montgomery deserves full credit for El Alamein, where British superiority in manpower and armor was 2 to 1, not the threefold or even greater advantage often attributed to Montgomery. (Hemingway called -- loudly -- his 15-to-1 gin-laden martini a "Montgomery.")

Five days after Montgomery's 8th Army finally broke through at El Alamein, American (and smaller British) forces landed in French North Africa, in Morocco and Algeria. "An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943," the first volume of a planned trilogy by journalist Rick Atkinson, is precise, on occasion sparkling; Atkinson's research is extensive; his conclusions are unexceptionable.

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