Britain’s Most Important Battle in the 20th Century?

This weekend we are commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Second Battle of El Alamein, which took place between 21 October and 5 November 1942 and according to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, marked “the end of the beginning” of World War II. Some believe that North Africa was a side-show compared with the Normandy landings, however if you look at the proportion of casualties, numbers of troops and intensity (bombs dropped and ammunition used), the evidence points to the battles of Alamein being the true turning point of the war.

Whatever the answer, we should spare a thought today for the PBI (poor bloody infantry) who were forbidden from leaving their slit trenches even for a call of nature as they waited all day in trepidation for the crescendo of noise that accompanied the five hour artillery barrage, which began the first phase, known as Operation Lightfoot. Things were not much better for the tank troops. In the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry staging area, the padre, George Hales, conducted a final service. All who were present in that tense and apprehensive atmosphere remembered his talk, with his quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson: “Endure a while, toil a while, never look back.” However, it was the Sappers who perhaps deserve our deepest admiration because as you can see from the brilliant painting by Terence Cuneo, (thanks to his Estate for allowing me to show his art), the mine clearers had to lead the way in the two designated corridors and were exposed to enemy fire with very little protection.

There is still much controversy about Montgomery’s attritionist doctrine, which dominated British military thinking for many years afterwards and resonates in Ukraine today. What is more important, however, is that as we approach the season of Remembrance, we continue to pay tribute to the fallen, who gave their lives for our freedoms today.

Royal Engineers Clearing the Mine Fields at the Start of the Battle of El Alamein, 23 October 1942

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