El Alamein. Getting to the Core of the Complex Campaign.
My grandfather had been in North Africa in the Second World War and then had the misfortune, like so many who had been in North Africa, to be shipped across to Italy to end up at Anzio.
As a child, war was something distant and surreal, even though I was part of the first generation to see recent coverage of Vietnam on the television. Now I wish I had taken the time to talk more with him about his experiences, although, like the generation before him, who had lost so many husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, he probably kept it all in.
El Alamein, may seem like strange holiday reading, but for the first time I was able to pick apart this complex campaign and get a sense of what he might have experienced in his time in the desert.
Your doctoral thesis was on tank warfare. Why are you interested in this particular form of warfare?
I wouldn’t say that I was especially interested in this type of warfare. My interest in the First World War had started when, as an undergraduate, I studied a course on ‘Britain and the Great War’ under the inspirational John Bourne. This was an aspect of the military conduct of that war that I felt had not been adequately explored. The important thing was to do a piece of original research and the development of tactics was a subject that had always interested me. I also felt that it was a litmus test for the ‘Lions lead by Donkeys’ school of thought. When provided with a wholly new weapon, how did the high command in the First World War use it? Did they learn the lessons of each occasion when tanks were used and adjust their tactical principles accordingly?
Would you talk a little about your doctorate and what the thesis involved?
My thesis was entitled The Theory & Practice of Tank – Other Arms Co-operation on the Western Front in the First World War, 1916-1918.
I did the whole thing on a part-time basis. It was what I did when I came home in the evenings from a full-time job. I always joked that it was something to do because there was nothing on television!
I was fairly assiduous in working through large numbers of my chief primary source materials: the operation orders and after-action reports (AARs) of British Army units on the Western Front in the First World War.
At that time, because of the restrictions at what was then the Public Record Office, Kew, I had to order large numbers of A3 photocopies at forty pence a sheet and, when they arrived in the post, I began the laborious process of retyping large sections into a text retrieval database and ‘tagging’ items for themes, etc e.g. ‘infantry co-operation’, ‘consolidation’, ‘tactical lessons’, etc.
I covered the war diaries and AARs of tank formations, infantry divisions, brigades, and battalions and those of cavalry and artillery formations, armies, army corps and General Headquarters.
I also have a fairly extensive library of divisional, regimental and battalion unit histories with which to extend my sources and I consulted personal experience accounts (PEs) and oral history recordings from the Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) documents and sound archives.
I was determined to be thorough and was fortunate that, because I was paying for the privilege (with some support from my employer in the first years), I was not required to complete in the same time period as a full-time postgraduate.
My thoroughness was driven by a desire to avoid the ‘lazy’ history which was rife in ‘popular’ (and, indeed, some areas of academic) military history at that time. I also wanted to ensure the theoretical aspects of the subject were connected with the practicalities of fighting a modern industrial war. Hence, my last chapter specifically focused on the conditions in which tanks and their crews operated. The PEs and oral history interviews were a great help for this.
The catalyst for writing was my supervisor’s prompting that at some point you have to stop researching and start writing. It was good advice. The thesis was approx. 80,000 words plus appendices, orders of battle, etc in nine chapters. It required a greater degree of self-discipline than anything I’ve written since. Every word had to count and every footnote had to be correctly formatted and I had to cite the sources used. Most publishers don’t need that for ‘general’ history books now.
El Alamein follows a desert campaign in 1942. Given the complexity of the events how did you organize your research?
I’d had an interest for a long time in the Second World War, North African campaign, but when I began to read more, I realized the extent to which I’d accepted many of the stereotypical myths that I’ve challenged in El Alamein (Rommel – the ‘good Nazi’; the ‘war without hate’; the ‘cowardly Italians’ and so on).
I soon realized that my general knowledge and interest wasn’t going to be strong enough to carry me through the use of the source material, so I did a lot of background reading right through the entire process of researching the book. In fact, I carried on reading even whilst writing. Google Books and my local library were both very useful.
Otherwise, the structure of the work was pretty much what I’d followed with my first book, Cambrai 1917. I took blocks of leave time to get archival material together – especially at IWM and at the National Army Museum. I had some leave in the North East and spent time at the Durham County Records Office where there was quite an extensive collection of material on the Durham Light Infantry.
The key thing was, wherever possible, to use the research trip to get as much material as possible – preferably in a form to take away to work through. Some archives, including the National Archives, now allow digital photography. I also listened to digitised oral history recordings at IWM in my lunch hour. Everything had to be fitted in wherever I could find time.
The sources often dictate where the emphasis in the narrative is placed. I had a broad general aim to cover the three key battles and the multitude of lesser ‘operations’ between late June and November 1942 and I was aware of those books that had covered the battles in detail already (especially the excellent Pendulum of War by Niall Barr). However, because the book’s intention was to focus on the voices of the participants, the whole process is very organic. It grew and took shape through the connections that come to light when using the sources.
Writing was done in the evenings and early mornings. A 5:15 a.m. start before a day’s work was challenging; especially if it followed an evening of writing between about 8.00 p.m. and half past midnight. I’m a ‘deadline writer’ – I need the pressure of a deadline to get me working flat out.
To what extent do you use primary resources? And how much do you use secondary resources, such as academic papers or books?
For Cambrai 1917, I made extensive use of many of the same primary sources I’d used for my doctoral thesis. Alamein is a different type of book in some ways. The personal experiences were the ‘primary sources’ (although several of the personal diaries and narratives have been published as books). These were set against the traditional accounts of the desert campaign and then recent academic historical research, such as Jonathan Fennell’s work on Eighth Army morale, was brought into the mix.
How do you know what’s important and what to discard?
The important thing is to look for where accounts by individuals compliment each other. An exciting account of an incident from one point of view has to be checked against lots of other sources and, often, remains unused when it doesn’t match those sources. However, when an incident is corroborated by two or more individuals its significance and potential increases.
I have always tried to be rigorous in checking and re-checking versions of events. A great deal of material gets left out because it can’t be corroborated by other sources.
It’s also impossible to cover every aspect in a book of this type. Sometimes it’s better to indicate by how little you say that you consider an aspect to be exaggerated in importance.
If someone wanted to write a novel that included military aspects of war. What would be the most useful resources they could look at?
Any historical fiction should be well researched if it’s to succeed. But even historical research isn’t a guarantee a novel will gain favour with an audience familiar with the historical period in which it’s set.
Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong is a prime example. He has made great play of the extent to which he conducted research in the IWM. However, for many interested in the First World War (myself included), his book fails to capture the correct period ‘feel’ or ‘tone’ and its trite and historically inaccurate ending makes it the bête noir of many.
Novels written by those who participated, such as Frederic Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune, R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End and Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy capture what I mean by ‘tone’ – the language and mores of Edwardian society and the British Army. Getting the facts right through extensive research and reading of everything from ‘official histories’ to academic studies is one thing; capturing the right atmosphere seems to me to be where most authors fall down.