Alexander, Churchill, and Montgomery in North Africa
Finest Hour 181, Summer 2018
By Bradley Tolppanen
Bradley Tolppanen is author of Churchill in North America, 1929 (2014).
In the summer of 1942, after two years of fighting in the desert, British fortunes in North Africa reached their lowest ebb. Rommel and his German-Italian army inflicted a severe defeat on the Eighth Army at Gazala in May, captured Tobruk in June, and forced the British into a tumultuous retreat from Mersa Matruh deep into Egypt later that same month. With smoke billowing over Alexandria as the British burned their papers in the expectation of Rommel’s imminent arrival, the Afrikakorps reached the Alamein line. Under Sir Claude Auchinleck, the Middle East Commander-in-Chief who had sacked Neil Ritchie and taken personal command of the Eighth Army, the British halted the Axis advance in stiff fighting through the first week of July. Poorly coordinated counter-attacks through July, however, failed to dislodge Rommel. In a stalemate, the two exhausted armies paused to resupply, and both “settled down in acute discomfort plagued by flies, heat, desert sores, and all-pervading sand as they dug, wired, and mined their respective front lines.”1
As fighting petered out at Alamein, Prime Minister Winston Churchill grew increasingly concerned. He had watched the disastrous events of the summer unfold from both Washington, where he was in conference with the American president, and on his return to London. The surrender of Tobruk, which had withstood a siege in 1941, had been a particular blow. Now, with Rommel sixty miles from Alexandria, Churchill was little disposed to brook excuses. He would later exclaim, “Rommel, Rommel, Rommel, Rommel, what else matters but beating him?”2
Fred Glueckstein is a frequent contributor to Finest Hour and author of Churchill and Colonist II (2014).
On 9 December 1905, Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman sent Winston Churchill, MP for Manchester North West, a telegram at his house, 29 Belgrave Square: “Greatly obliged if you would come and see me here at six o’clock.”1 During their meeting, Campbell-Bannerman invited Churchill to join his Government as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. The offer was accepted.
On Churchill’s first evening as a junior member of the Government, he attended a party in London where he was introduced to Edward Marsh, a clerk in the West African Department of the Colonial Office:
“How do you do?” asked Marsh. “Which I must now say with great respect.”
“Why with great respect”? Churchill responded.
“Because you’re coming to rule over me at the Colonial Office,” Marsh replied.2
In the winter of 1935, on the recommendation of Sir John Lavery and other artist friends, Churchill travelled to Morocco for the first time for a painting holiday. He was inspired by the light and colours. He referred to the pink Atlas mountains as ‘paintaceous’ and painted some of his most refined watercolours – and one particularly skilled oil painting – here. He was entranced by the exotic, desert landscape and the colours – the pinks, whites and ochres contrasting with the brilliant blue of the desert sky. He gathered a large number of photographs on this and subsequent visits which still remain in the Studio archives at Chartwell.
On his arrival in Durban in December 1899, Churchill was hailed a war hero after his daring escape from the Boer POW camp. His new fame allowed him to override the objections of the War Office and he continued to assume the dual role of officer – with a local volunteer unit, the South African Light Horse – and war correspondent.
For the next six months, he encountered fire, took part in the bloody and unsuccessful battle of Spion Kop in January 1900 and, as the war turned in Britain’s favour, was present at the relief of Ladysmith and the occupation of Pretoria. Returning to England in July 1900, Churchill was feted on the streets of Oldham.
In his last youthful military adventure, Churchill joined British forces in the Boer War. Churchill set off, armed with the important things in life – sixty bottles of spirits, twelve bottles of Rose’s Lime Juice and a supply of claret – and arrived in Cape Town late on 30 October 1899.
He was famously captured only two weeks later by the Boers when the armoured train on which he was travelling in Boer-occupied territory was ambushed and derailed. He made a dramatic escape the following month, making his way to Durban, with the Boers offering a reward of £25 for the recapture of their well-known prisoner, ‘dead or alive’. His dispatches from the Boer War were republished as two books, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900) and Ian Hamilton’s March (1900).
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