By David Freeman
Destiny in the Desert: The Road to El Alamein—The Battle That Turned the Tide of World War II, by Jonathan Dimbleby. Pegasus, 384 pp., $35, member price $28. Also available in a superb video.
On 13 September 1940, Mussolini ordered the Italian army across the border from the Italian colony of Libya into Egypt. The dictator’s son-in-law dryly noted, “Never has a military operation been undertaken so much against the will of the commanders.” Thus began the war in the Western Desert.
The BBC assigned correspondent Richard Dimbleby to cover the campaign. Over seventy years later his son Jonathan, also a well-known broadcaster, has set down an engrossing account of the long, hard slog that unfolded in the brutal sands of North Africa. Churchill is its main character.
Inspired by his father’s experiences, Dimbleby set out to make sense for himself of the campaign that culminated with the Battle of El Alamein. So much has been written, by professionals and amateurs alike, that confusion and controversy cloud the story. What was it really all about? Was it necessary? Was anything meaningful accomplished? Was it of significance to the outcome? Dimbleby provides reasoned answers to these questions based on a thorough examination of many sources.
Setting the campaign in the wider context of the entire war, Dimbleby begins his story with Churchill coming to power and taking the decision to fight on at all costs. Thus, when Mussolini ordered a campaign to capture Egypt just as the Battle of Britain reached its climax, Churchill made the supremely important decision to commit substantial forces to the war in North Africa.
The Suez Canal formed the carotid artery of empire. Britain’s lifeline to Middle East oil, and to the manpower and resources from India and the Antipodes, had to be safeguarded or all was lost. These facts were not disputed within his government, but Churchill had to struggle for over two years to scrape together the necessary resources, many of which he knew would have to come from America. That Churchill accomplished this, Dimbleby concludes, was one of his greatest achievements in the war.
The story is told so as to keep the big picture in mind while relating the personal experience of those involved. The perspective of political warlords, military commanders, subordinate officers and common soldiers from all countries involved are woven into a pulsing narrative that keeps the reader eager to learn more.
Certainly this now stands as the most accessible account of the war in Libya and Egypt, and the best book for anyone new to the subject. Yet even those who are already familiar with the campaign will be impressed by Dimbleby’s multifaceted approach and sure handling of the facts.
A final note: the author’s father was recalled from Egypt by the BBC without explanation in the summer of 1942, a victim really of the kind of miscommunication that besets all wars. But Richard Dimbleby continued to have a distinguished broadcasting career. Indeed, the BBC thought him best suited to cover Churchill’s funeral.
As mourners passed by Churchill’s coffin in Westminster Hall, Dimbleby commented: “We shall never see Winston Churchill again, but we may do well to print this scene deep in our memories, for many will talk of him that are yet unborn.” And it was Dimbleby, too, who read, in a breaking voice, the valedictory poem “At Bladon,” as Churchill’s casket was lowered into the earth (back cover, Finest Hour 152).
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