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The Phantom Army of El Alamein

Following the Battle of El Alamein, the first great British victory of the second world war (and the only one without the assistance of US forces), Winston Churchill told the House of Commons on 11 November 1942: “By a marvellous system of camouflage, complete tactical surprise was achieved in the desert.”

Seventy years on from El Alamein, it is obvious that no consensus exists on what really happened in a clash that everyone at least agrees was pivotal.

Operation Bertram at El Alamein was the largest visual deception campaign in history. It involved an elaborate shuffling of real and dummy forces, with hundreds of tanks and artillery moved overnight into combat positions hidden under canvas covers that disguised them as harmless lorries, and leaving decoys behind where the tanks and guns had been. German reconnaissance would report that nothing had changed overnight. They would also report a large build-up of forces in the south, all dummies. The dramatis personae behind this operation and earlier subterfuges, such as the building of a dummy railhead in the desert from palm fronds and old petrol cans. Overcoming prejudice from the fighting forces, institutional inertia and a chronic lack of resources, they nevertheless achieved what many thought impossible: hiding armies in the desert.

One sidelined figure was Field Marshall Archibald Wavell, a restrained, scholarly soldier and a lover of poetry (his anthology Other Men’s Flowers was published in 1944 and is still in print). Wavell and the flamboyant, irascible Churchill never got on, and Wavell was dismissed on 21 June 1941.

On 23 April 1941, Wavell had drafted a memo to the camoufleurs with a one-liner that would prove the key to the deceptive operation: “Is it a wild idea that a tank could be camouflaged to look like a lorry from air by light canvas screens over top?” The memo is preserved in the National Archives. The idea was realised in the camouflage workshops in the desert, and the disguised tanks became known as Sunshields. The idea was also adapted for field guns under the name Cannibals.

Seven hundred and twenty-two Sunshields, 360 Cannibals, 500 dummy tanks, 150 dummy guns, and 2,000 dummy transport vehicles were used in the campaign.

In the end, the important question is: was the great camouflage deception at Alamein an important factor in the victory – as Churchill, Montgomery and the camoufleurs believed – or not? Useful testimony comes from General von Thoma, commander of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, who was captured on the last day and dined with Montgomery as his guest that night. “He is a very nice chap and he was quite willing to talk about past events,” Montgomery wrote in his diary. Von Thoma confirmed that the Germans were fooled by Bertram: they expected the attack to come from the south and were completely taken aback by the ferocious assault from the north.

But what Churchill omitted to say in his report to parliament, was that following the initial surprise attack, the British advance became bogged down in a minefield. In the end the battle was one of attrition, and the larger British force prevailed.

Churchill’s attempts to get his own way with his generals and the Americans. It is sobering to read the saga of incompetence and backbiting in the British camp that preceded Alamein, especially the catastrophic Greek campaign of early 1941, which resulted in ignominious withdrawal and huge losses of men and equipment from the Middle Eastern theatre. Destiny in the Desert is no sanitised contribution to our self-congratulatory anniversary. There’s no doubt that Montgomery made himself unlikeable on many occasions, but in this account the dice seem loaded against him.

Seventy years on, we realise that perspectives have shifted and we see the past differently. In a strange quirk of events, last year the RAF was bombing Benghazi once again. The scenario that prompted this return could not have been imagined in 1942. In September 2011, David Cameron visited Benghazi to praise the Libyan rebels, who had “fought like tigers”.

But in 1942 the wishes of those who lived in this region “were of no account to the principal protagonists”.

So why was the first great British victory of the second world war being fought on north African soil at all? Because, Churchill’s war was as much to save the British empire as to save Britain itself, and for this he needed the help of an America that was always hostile to British imperialism. Churchill had to prove that the British could successfully engage the Germans in north Africa to enlist America in the goal of preserving British power in the Middle East. He succeeded in the nick of time. The victory at El Alamein came four days before the first Americans arrived in north Africa for Operation Torch.

Had Alamein been lost, the Americans would have had to do most of the work themselves and the British empire might have ended even sooner than it did. But for now, Churchill had the victory he craved.

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