Alamein: War Without Hate
Contributor: Andrew Nguyen
Review Date: 8 Jan 2010
Note: This is for the edition of the book when it was first released in Britain.
In September 1940, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invaded Egypt in order to gobble up territory and show Nazi Germany that his armed forces could hold their own. It launched a three year campaign that raged back and forth between the Axis and Allies. It was in the desert where one of the greatest German generals would earn his immortal fame and the legendary name of the Desert Fox. It was there that the British Army would have its last hurrah and where the new American Army earned the experience needed to fight Hitlerâ€™s Wehrmacht. Finally and compared to other fronts (particularly the Eastern Front), the War in the Desert, came the closest to being a clean fight that one could get in war.
Many authors have published books about the desert war. Amongst one of the books is Alamein: War without Hate. Written by John Bierman and Colin Smith, who are also journalists, the main story of the book, which is the desert war, consists of six parts with maps and pictures mixed in as well amongst the pages.
The book starts off with the first part appropriately titled Reunion which takes place in 1999. It described the reunion that took place in Germany between all of the veterans of the desert war. Despite the legacy of the war as a whole and perhaps because of the legacy of the battlefield that they fought in, these old veterans are more able to communicate with each other about their experiences without much trouble. A good portion of the discussions turns to dealing with German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the legendary Desert Fox while his most well known foe British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery elicits little discussion.
The next five parts detail the desert war, which covers the fighting in North Africa along with the aerial siege of Malta. Starting with the Italian invasion of Egypt, the war proceeded in stages from September 1940 to May 1943. It swung back and forth between under-supplied Axis forces that fought well and mostly well supplied and mostly badly led Allied forces. The combination of official reports as well as personal stories from both sides, with some of them at times oddly funny, help bring into mind what it was like in the desert war. Due to its importance in the desert war and perhaps due to the title, the battle of El-Alamein, the duel of Rommel and Montgomery who are two equally effective leaders of their respective armies, has its own part. After Alamein, the Allies have the initiative as they run the Axis forces into the ground, in the process, particularly in the case of the Americans, gaining the combat experience that they need for later campaigns.
After the main story concludes, there is an epilogue titled Requiem that describes a gathering of old veterans at the actual El-Alamein battlefield in 2000 where all pay their respects to the dead on both sides. Amongst the description of the region that they visit is that the legacies of the war still litter the area as a result, a visitor may most certain feel a dark chill after visiting the region. At the end of the book there is a listing of acknowledgements and sources, the chronology of the desert war, a bibliography and the index.
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19 Mar 2019 07:09:36 AM
Although I was caught up in the lives of the participants in your book, â€śAlamein War without hate,â€ť and saddened by many of the outcomes, I was mainly disappointed to see that the Italian soldier received very unfair and biased treatment. For the deep sense of respect I have toward all people involved in that terrible event and I as an Italian feel obliged to reply to you.
After 60 years and in order to reflect the title, you (as seasoned ex-television correspondents and award-winning journalists), had a good opportunity with this book to restore the balance of heroism and to reinstate the truth. But it appears that you have been driven on the path of prejudice and stereotyping â€“ the same technique used many times over by the victors of war. I found inappropriate Rommelâ€™s words for the title '' War without hate'' as for the way you are pointing out only negative aspects and for the bitter sarcasm, it transpires only a certain dislike toward the Italians. It could have been a less factious and more equilibrate book, at least after 60 years, instead it repeatedly humiliates the Italians and the little recognitions you were forced to give to them, were made mumbling.
The memory of those who gave their youth and their life for a war which they fought at the best they could -- (not to exclude the utter lack of equipment, supplies, and general support from Italy) -- should never be overlooked. The true recognition of their struggle would have given your book its' real meaning. I believe that those who take the responsibility to write, thus transfer memories to future generations, must also have a sense of responsibility toward future generations by telling the whole truth.
Although I would like to make clear that my reply is not to be considered in anyway an excuse or a support to the political period that our country lived at the time of these events, as a former armoured officer myself, I know firsthand that the comic book idea that seems to prevail about Italian soldiers has no foundation in reality. Italian soldiers fought well against absurd odds. They had to deal with mismanagement from the Italian aristocratic military circles, which sent them into battle without efficient weapons, proper clothing, mechanized transports, and most importantly without a strategy. They mindlessly condemned the soldiers to surrender or die, without any real hope of winning. The allied propaganda/strategy underlined two types of despicable enemy caricatures. On the one hand the Germans: monstrous, blood thirsty, and capable of unlimited racist atrocities against mankind; and on the other hand, the ally of the German ''monster'', the Italians, perhaps due to a certain jealousy of Italy's famed artistic and humanistic history, the Italian was turned not into a beast but even worse, into a most despised coward the world has ever known.
Churchill wrote in his book, ''The second World War''. 5, Book, Vol. II, '' From Teheran to Rome'', P. 338. ''In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.''
It is not my intention to reply to all the inaccuracies in your book, but I will try to point out the most obvious. On page 6, ''Reunion,'' you began by mentioning being disturbed by the regimental songs sung at reunions. These regimental songs of that time were sung by those whom you sarcastically called the heroes of Bir el Gobi. Those soldiers can actually be consider heroes if you analysed what they did in that battle: ''â€¦..where the 22ndArmoured Brigade was shot to pieces'', and under the conditions in which they fought.
You continued describing the disturbing habit of the Italians tanks of continuing to advance long after all aboard were dead or dying pag. 305. This technique was used by the tankers who, knowing already their fate due to their light and inadequate equipment, were blocking the accelerator pedals making ''self-propelled funeral pyres''. It was an outstanding sense of duty, a gallant example how the Italians were facing the death. We celebrate these actions in several armoured barracks with a memorial stone as the '' charge of the dead'' (e.g. see 11 Armoured Btg., Ozzano Emilia, Bologna). As also recalled in your book, yes the Italian Armoured Divisions keep attacking despite their heavy losses ''They were tenacious''.
''British and German personnel only'' pag. 182. Why was there no mention of all the wounded British cared by the Italian doctors despite the lack of their medical supplies? Furthermore, it must be stated that the British were also well cared for in the Italian prisoner camps, and there was never anger toward the prisoners and they were always respected by the Italians.
The outrageous statement made apparently by Rommel's interpreter in pag. 102, could have been avoided, as it was said by one questionable man, and apparently only so because the Italians had retreated leaving the flank of a German unit dangerously exposed. Why not to mention how many times the Italian units were left exposed and without any kind of support by the German units? (Maybe due to a lack of equilibrium with whom you interviewed). And why was it not mentioned that the Italians kept fighting beyond any hope well after the Germans had surrendered. If one interpreter could have questioned our race, many Italians had a lot of doubts about the Germans of that period considering the way the Italians soldiers were treated by their allies during the North African campaign, as well as the barbarities the Germans perpetrated on our peninsula â€“ (not to mention what they did to other races in Europe). To a reader this useless statement may sound like it was inserted in the book with the same dangerous discrimination toward the Italians. This still after 60 years, and once again humiliating the memory of those who suffered because of this strange idea of race.
However, during the Rommel-imposed retreat, the Folgore led several bayonet charges rather than surrender. The Folgore's fate was similar to that of the Bologna Inf. Div. which marched in the desert fifty hours without water, during the withdrawal from Alamein, chosing to form a square against armour, holding the enemy off for many hours in the open, before surrendering exhausted and dying from dehydration. This, however, only after having beaten off three different assaults by infantry and armour in three days. The commander of the Bologna, surrendered saying, "We are not firing because we haven't the desire but because we have spent every round.". In a symbolic act of final defiance no one in the Bologna raised their hands. The Folgore's fate, abandoned by the motorized Germans, was shared by the Bologna, Pavia, Trento, and the Brescia divisions. All that remained of the Folgore was about a small battalion, which fought on in Tunisia and made in Takrouna another epic battle. The rest of the divisions were either casualties or captured in the desert.
General Hughes of the 44th Infantry Division offered what was perhaps a simple and fitting eulogy for those truly extraordinary men, "I wish to say that in all my life I have never encountered soldiers like those of the Folgore."
Radio Cairo 09.09.1942: ''The Italians have fought very well. In particular the parachute Division Folgore. They have resisted beyond all possible human capacity and beyond all possible hope.''
Churchill said in the House of Commons on 21.11.1942: ''The Folgore are the Lions of the desert.''
And from the book of Desmond Young, â€śROMMELâ€ť, Fontana Books, England 1965, the German General stated:
â€śâ€¦ The duty of comradeship obliges me to make clear, particularly as I (Rommel) was supreme commander also of the Italians that the defeats the Italian forces suffered before El Alamein were in no way the fault of the Italian soldiers. The Italian soldier was willing, unselfish and good comrade and, considering his circumstances his achievement was far above the average. The performance of all Italian Units, more especially of the motorized forces, far surpassed anything the Italian Army had done for a hundred years. There were many Italian Officers and generals whom we admired as men and as soldiers. The cause of the Italian defeat sprang from the entire Italian military and state system, from the poor Italian equipment, and from the small interest shown in this war by many high Italian leaders and statesmen. â€¦''
The book seems poorly researched too and the Battle of El Alamein is actually more than a retelling of that battle. It seems that this work suffers from a typical problem authors encounter when they use one side interviews almost exclusively. This is naturally the fallibities of human memory. After more than 60 years events can become clouded, rearranged or distorted and the interviews were recasted for the book. A dispassionate critique also goes to the part of the book where Montgomery, the "Great Man", is well intentioned to pursuit the Panzers of the Africa Korps as it retreats across Libya but he is badly served by his subordinate commanders, and a worn-out Eighth Army. Honestly, that is a commander's job-to drive his forces if required to find, fix and destroy the enemy. If his forces were exhausted, then the under-fueled, under-fed and under-armed Axis forces were the walking dead.
Anyway I would like to add to this letter a quote by the Italian President, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, pronounced in October 2002, at Sunday's International Service held to commemorate those who lost their lives in the 1942 battle of El Alamein: "Sixty years have gone by since then. The world has radically changed," This is Paying tribute to the soldiers who fell at El Alamein, Ciampi, also a soldier in the Second World War, spoke of how his generation took an oath never to go to war again. "We have tried to build up a different, better world, enjoying greater freedom and justice" and Mr. Sam Bradshaw, chairman of the Eighth Army Veteran's Association, came to the Italian/International service with a heavy heart. "I believe it was war without hate. I don't think the Italians wanted the war either." Al-Arham, issue No. 609, October 2002.
I would like to conclude with a copy of letter from the indignant survivors of El Alamein which I consider after 53 years from its publication the still valuable answer to you. The letter was sent off from Tell el Eissa (El Alamein) on 1950 by Count Paolo Caccia Dominioni to the weekly Italian magazine "Oggi" (n. 20 -18, May 1950), addressed to the director Edilio Rusconi, to dispute the book and the factiousness of General Desmond Young, with its "Rommel". Dominioni spent years giving a grave not only to Italians fallen but also to the ones of other nationality, just another example and maybe the most luminous of how we never show hate but only respect toward all nationalities in war and after war. (I hope that my translation makes well the sense of Dominioni' words):
''I send you this open letter for the General Brigadier Desmond Young, London'':
"Dear Signor Generale, this morning, little after the dawn, were extracted from the ground the mortal remains of seven soldiers. We found skulls, bones, helmets, two friezes of the Australian troops, a fragment of a German identification tag, the lid of an Italian mess-tin and thirteen shoes of three armies. All of the remains were devoured by the desert together with their crosses. But perhaps they never had crosses, because these soldiers died in the rage of the battle in the "no man's land", and their burial was only the sand.
Already tonight they are resting in the respective cemeteries between tens of thousands of companions and under a veil of light wild flowers.
The heat has immediately dried the paint of the inscriptions on the crosses: 2 Unknown, assumed Australian from the 9a division, 3 Unknown, assumed German from the 164a division, 2 Unknown, assumed Italian from the Trento Division. It was not possible to write more, but it is already something as we did not bury them in the "International" section ruled by the words "Sacrifice conjunctis nulluna confinium".
Now it is night, one of those dark nights that you know very well and you know very well also the light type "Hurricane", dripping oil, that served us until little minutes ago to finish the reading of your fine book ''Rommel''. Doesnâ€™t it seem to you luxurious, for the sole warrior of El Alamein that today resides on this battlefield, to read this book here in the absolute solitude?
The Italian reader, running through the book, gives to every page a preliminary look than immediately reveals between the lines the word "Italianâ€ť and after the first pages, seeks anxious of what you are discussing, like when in the buzzing of a hostile crowd, hears to pronounce its own name.
Poor Italians, for all these years, inflated we become disagreeable, but it was not said too much because, although all, we awakened a certain apprehension. Then we were put to the test, we were not worse of the other, good workers certainly, and also good soldiers. But the good soldier should be nourished, armed and quite commanded, that was not, and the test resulted unfavourable, even if happened a deployment of exceptional messed up and unacknowledged heroism.
Stopped therefore the other people's apprehension, the Italian soldier was and comes covered of affronts, between a downpour of slogans. You Signor Generale, have stuck to this habit: if we exclude some reticent reserve, your concept fluctuates between the scorn and the sarcasm. Your book is called to the success: and a lot of editions will do of it, and each will be more complete of the precedent. Why, after to have interrogated the witnesses German, does not interview also us that - after all were by the side of Rommel and collected his indisputable recognitions? Why, in your story are cited only episodes that do not do us honour, often â€“ and excuse me â€“ I have to accept them with reserve, while systematically are been hiding the others? The surrender of the stronghold of Tobruk was done by general Klopper to the Trento division, the same than few months later has sacrificed itself entirely here from where we are writing, leaving few prisoners in the British hands. The armoured division Ariete was destroyed five times and its regiment carristi alone had one thousand dead. The parachutists Folgore division was decimated between Munassib and Himeimat, without to yield: fell only the stronghold of the prince Costantino Ruspoli, when these was killed with almost his entire company. Your radio broadcast, between November and December 1942, exalted five times this division: why none of you has anymore spoken later on it? The divisions Trieste, Littorio, Bologna, Brescia, Pavia and different other units underwent many times igual fate, nine Italian generals left their lives in this desert. We are in many, Signor Generale, that from the defeat went out with the heads held high, available to give today - to you as soldier and writer - the tribute of our deposition. It exist a balance that we have the duty to restore and there are some inaccuracies to correct.
We also would like to sincerely contribute to the memory of Rommel. He sometimes sacrificed us coldly, but it was a prince soldier, only a soldier that did not want useless massacres and unheard cruelty. So it was killed by German hand.
Tonight we feel we are very united to seven boys to whom we were able to provide an honoured grave, recovered in a mined land where recently died other two Bedouins and we had fear this morning, the honest fear of the good soldier.
It seems that now we are writing a little bit also for the seven Unknown, because they are really near to the truth, but they cannot write. They are certainly, and here we all agree, Italians dead of the Trento, German dead of the 164a, and Australians dead of the 9a.
Teil el Eissa (EI Alamein) - PAOLO CACCIA DOMINIONI.
''Manco' la Fortuna non il Valore''. It lacked fortune, not valor.