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Pendulum of War: Three Battles at El Alamein Hardcover – April 21, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Historians traditionally depict World War II's decisive North African tank battles in and around El Alamein as strategic chess matches between German General Rommel and British Commander Montgomery. But this insightful analysis of the 1942 campaign, based on exhaustive research, shows that the resurgent Allied victory was a result of many factors beyond the mind of any single individual. The hard-fought, 12-day campaign was dramatic, first, because the battle swung back and forth like a pendulum for months and, second, because it illustrated how the Eighth Army, a force consisting of units from around the empire that was rapidly expanded with minimum training, underwent a "process of development." Barr's account of the events casts aside the notion of a neat, coordinated, top-down command system, preferring instead to illustrate the myriad challenges of desert warfare, including supply-line difficulties, lack of training, transport of heavy equipment, fuel shortages and lack of cover for maintenance and repair. Rather than attribute British victory to any unique stratagem resulting from Montgomery's August appointment, Barr finds that it was the combination of circumstances and positional realities, along with the Allied ability to modify its tactics-an ability the Germans apparently did not share-that led to the decisive victory on November 4th, after a battle that inflicted more than 18,000 casualties. Despite the author's reliance on technical language, Barr's original account brings to life the harsh reality and confusion of desert warfare.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Battle of El Alamein is considered one of World War II's turning points, and it has generated a bibliography large enough to match its importance. However, historian Barr's account is not solely one of synthesis; it integrates his archival research with commentary on officers' tactical performance. According to legend, that of British commander Bernard Montgomery is brilliant, but Niall takes him down a few pegs in his authorial task of sorting out what became, after the war, the battle of the books. Montgomery's victory, after all, came in the last week of a protracted five-month-long battle, and he became commander only after Churchill's first choice was shot down in combat. Barr is more generous in his assessments of the officers who carried out the fighting, and his narrative of the unit-level warfare, with carnage adding up to tens of thousands of soldiers, composes the bulk of his text. Inclusive of German commander Rommel's view of the flow of events, Barr becomes the current standard for a comprehensive history of the campaign. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
Pendulum of War consists of 19 chapters that trace the operations of the 8th Army from the fall of Tobruk in July 1942 to the pursuit of the Afrika Korps after Operation "Supercharge" in November 1942. Four appendices cover several key 8th Army planning documents and 24 maps complement the narrative. The author is meticulous and covers virtually everything, although unlike Jon Latimer's recent book on El Alamein, Barr does not include an order of battle. However, Barr is to be commended for his even-handedness and objectivity, particularly involving his analysis of the relative contributions of the 8th Army's two commanders in this period - Auchinleck and Montgomery. Barr does not defend either man's faults (although I think he goes a bit easy on Montgomery at times) and concludes that Auchinleck's basic plans for fighting at El Alamein were sound, but his command of 8th Army was less effective and less sure than Montgomery's.
Readers will find the first half of the book, somewhat different from the standard histories that have been heretofore available on this subject. While other histories acknowledge that the 8th Army often suffered heavily at the hands of the Afrika Korps, Barr makes clear that such a view is an understatement. Operations such as "Bacon," "Splendour" and "Manhood" rarely get much mention, but Barr expertly details how these fumbling attempts by 8th Army to stop the victorious Afrika Korps ended in one disaster after another. Indeed, before the decisive Second Battle of El Alamein, 8th Army had frittered away much of its infantry in near futile small-scale counterattacks. Military professionals will be surprised to see the planning and execution of brigade-size night attacks that expected the Commonwealth infantry to advance 6-10 kilometers at night through minefields and then seize a fortified position. Amazingly, the Commonwealth forces (particularly the ANZACs) proved quite adept at night infantry attacks, but time and again they were unable to consolidate on the position before the inevitable German counterattacks. Indeed, it is hard to view the British performance in July 1942 as clumsy and it is amazing to see how often the same mistakes were repeated.
In the run up to Second El Alamein, Barr spends a gratifying amount of time examining even possible facet of the coming battle, including the engineer effort, the evolving British artillery tactics (the introduction of the coordinated corps shoot, known as a "stonk"), logistics and intelligence. Barr argues that despite its faulty tactics in the early July battles, the 8th Army evolved into a battle-wise force by October, while the Afrika Korps never adapted to its changing opponent (this is contentious, given that the Afrika Korps escaped its pursuers). Unlike most histories, Barr claims that 8th Army never actually achieved a breakthrough during the final days of "Supercharge" but that it was Axis counterattacks that finally consumed the Afrika Korps meager resources. Barr's coverage of the Axis point of view is somewhat less in this book, with more emphasis on the internal decisions within 8th Army, but he is able to convey the growing hopelessness of the Axis position. Overall, this is certainly one of the very best books on this subject available.
It sticks closely to the detailed maneuvering of the fighting. This occasionally get so complicated that it is easy for a lay reader gets confused or lost. Niall Barr sticks to the warfare. He does not stray into peripheral subjects: there are few human interest accounts of the lives of individual soldiers and relatively little material concerning the larger political context of the war. The narrative also centers almost entirely on the British side, so that one occasionally wishes to know more about the Axis's thinking and planning.
Pendulum of War is nonetheless an absorbing and authoritative account of El Alemein, the justly famous desert battle which proved so important a turning point in World War II.
I read Niall Barr's book to finally learn more about the North African campaign. The book is dry reading, at first. It starts out slowly and methodically. It is not a book I would recommend to the casual reader. But it is phenomenal because it explains, in great detail, just how the British Army went from a string of defeats to victory. Along the way Barr dispels myths surrounding Montgomery and Rommel and backs his assertions with detailed references. After reading the book I felt that I had taken a course at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
Examples of what I learned: In May, 1942, the British captured German 75mm armor-piercing ammunition and modified it to fire in their American Grant tanks. The modified shells were superior to the American 75mm ammunition designed for the tank. Later the ammunition was re-captured by the Germans. At one point, 85% of the trucks used by the German Army were captured from the British.
The Australians captured a German intelligence company that had been supplying Rommel with accurate information gleaned from British radio traffic. Rommel was furious because with the loss of that company went his legendary "battlefield intuition."
Barr explains that one of the greatest lessons learned by the Eighth Army was intricate support between artillery, armor, and infantry. That was General Auchinleck's concept, not Montgomery's.
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