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Remembering the ‘end of the beginning’

11 November 2012

This is an unusual Remembrance Sunday; it is 70 years since the feats of arms which led Churchill to say: ‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end; but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

It is 70 years to the day since Allied troops were advancing through Morocco and Algeria as part of Operation Torch. It is 70 years to the week since the conclusion of the decisive 2nd battle of El Alamein in Egypt. It is also 70 years since the battle of Stalingrad began to turn against the Germans. More than 13,500 British, Commonwealth and Allied forces were casualties at Al Alamein, and nearly 500 Allied soldiers died during Operation Torch. And, of course, the carnage at Stalingrad far exceeded these substantial losses in North Africa.

Understanding the importance of these sacrifices to abstract concepts such as our freedom remains largely undimmed; but comprehending their impact on those who witnessed them relies on archive material as they pass further out of living memory. The Spectator’s archive from October 16 1942 to November 13 1942 captures something of the relief and euphoria occasioned by a string of decisive victories, emotions that were imbued with renewed belief that the sacrifice would lead to victory.

The journey through expectation, fear and finally triumph can be seen in the work of the Spectator’s war correspondent, ‘Strategicus’ (a pseudonym for the soldier, journalist and historian H.C. O’Neill). On 23 October, the day that the Alamein offensive opened (although the piece was written some short time before then), Strategicus anticipated the ‘potential conflict’ in Egypt, having assured readers a week earlier that generals ‘Alexander and Montgomery know their business’. A week later, as Montgomery’s initial frontal assault began to stall, Strategicus agonised that ‘though the battle has been raging in Egypt for several days, we know almost nothing that would enable us to form a reliable judgment about how it is going.’

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A week later, as Montgomery’s second offensive plan (Operation Supercharge) took shape and threatened to trap Rommel’s beleaguered forces on the Mediterranean coastline, Strategicus hoped the battle was ‘nearing a climax’. Finally, on 13 November, Strategicus announced the ‘transformed European outlook’ in light of victory in Egypt and the success of the landings. The Spectator’s leading column that week heralded the Allies’ ‘Grand Design’, a crucial part of which, as the column concludes, would depend on the Russians making continued sacrifices after their ‘unimaginable.. ordeal’ at the hand of the Nazis and the Wehrmacht. Here is that piece in full:

‘The Grand Design’

The transformation which the face of the war has undergone in no more than ten days continues. The inspiring news of the American landings in North Africa in the midst of the exhilaration which the achievements of the 8th Army had provoked loses none of its tonic effect through the reactions it has elicited on the Axis side. In Hitler’s decision to occupy Vichy France there is nothing to be regretted. It is easier to see what he loses than what he gains by such a step. He has imposed a new call on his army. Troops for the newly-occupied area will have to be drawn from some source where they can ill be spared, whether it be Northern France or Germany itself, or even, by some process of substitution, from Russia. The general effect can only be to rally new sections of the French nation to the Allies. If resistance in Morocco and Algeria had not ended before Hitler made his move that move would have settled the matter, for while some regard might be paid, as was, to orders emanating from Petain as a Marshal of France, all grounds for allegiance to the Marshal disappeared when he was stripped by Hitler – in open breach of the Armistice terms – of even the little brief authority he still retained. But, in fact, Marshal Petain himself no longer desires France’s African colonies to resist the Allies. It is against Hitler’s action, not the Allies’, that he is now protesting, and calling on all Frenchmen to support him. To what open acts of resistance, and consequent slaughter of an unarmed population, that may lead we have yet to see, but it is hard to believe that any Frenchman would stand idly by and watch the hated and despised Italians possessing themselves of Nice.

The Grand Design, it is clear, is still unfolding. Its opening chapters have been of a brilliance beyond all hope or expectation. Synchronisation has been perfect, and the secrecy with which operations of a majestic magnitude were planned was such that the enemy was taken completely unawares, and the whole of Morocco and Algeria, apart from a few unimportant pockets of resistance, capitulated in less than four days in the absence of any Axis reinforcements. The belated arrival of German troops in Tunisia promises only to further the fundamental Allied aim of eliminating Germans. We are familiar with pincer-tactics as a German speciality. The pincers in North Africa today are in other hands. Rommel, unless some miracle intervenes to save him, will be gripped by their remorseless jaws, and the expulsion of every German from African soil, a consummation hardly imaginable ten days ago, is an operation that may well be completed in a month. That depends no doubt on what resistance German airborne troops can organise in Tunis or elsewhere, and with the history of Crete for warning that menace must not be completely disregarded. But conditions in Tunis are very different from those in Crete. The Allies have complete naval and air supremacy in North Africa and the seas about it shores, and with the collapse of the defence of Casablanca and Oran they should have adequate ground forces available to settle the fate of any airborne Germans. There may be sabotage at Bizerta and elsewhere before they arrive, but anything like prolonged resistance seems unlikely.

But while the breathless development of events sweeps the mind always forward, time must be spared to consider the greatness and significance of the successes already harvested. Their immediate strategic consequences are plain. Assuming that the complete occupation of North Africa is in immediate prospect, the Allies will forthwith have it in their power to deliver air attacks on every mile of Axis-occupied coast in and around the Mediterranean from Crete to Marseilles, and to threaten Sardinia, Sicily and Italy itself with invasion. The Mediterranean – mare nostrum – will be reopened as the normal highway to the east. The steady flow of food supplies from Northern Africa to France, partly for the benefit of Frenchman, more for the benefit of Germans, has already ceased. The last serious breach in the Allied blockade of the countries controlled by Hitler is closed. Italy’s position becomes tragi-comedy, for that duped and guilty nation is doomed to be battered ceaselessly by either its present enemies or its present ally; whatever turn the war may take, it must inevitably plunge Mussolini’s unhappy subjects into still deeper misery and degradation. But inspiring as are the success standing already to the Allies’ credit, more reassuring still is the evidence of patient and far-sighted planning on a spacious scale disclosed by President Roosevelt on Tuesday. The decision to substitute an offensive in Africa for a second front in Europe as the main task of 1942 was hard to take, but its justification is already established, and the systematic efficiency with which every detail of operations stretching from El Alamein to Agadir was planned is of immensely hopeful omen for that phase of the war which follows the ‘end of the beginning’. The art of planning is shown to be no monopoly of Hitler’s.

That still does not mean that the beginning of the end is at hand. Hard fighting in many theatres lies ahead. In particular the lines of communication on which forces in French North Africa must depend for their supplies will be exposed inevitably to concentrated U-boat attack. But where offensive measures can be concentrated so can defensive, and the balance need not be heavily tilted against us. It will be imperative to secure possession of Dakar, but that should be effected without a fight, for there is no France today, except a completely occupied France, to which any French possession can profess loyalty. The last obstacle, incidentally, should now be removed to an occupation by Allied forces of Djibouti on the other side of Africa, a step which would allow the Emperor of Ethiopia that access to the sea on which his country always depended till war cut the port off. Under what flag French Africa, from Madagascar to Morocco, will range is uncertain. In one sense the matter is not urgent. The local administrations continue, and daily life should flow on much as usual. But it is important to make it unmistakeably clear that no French statesman or soldier desires to see French Africa less free in any single particular than it was in 1939. The hope is that it may be regarded as in full alliance with us. General Giraud is there to organise a French army, and some association, it may be hoped, will be established at an early date between him and General de Gaulle, to whose courage and resolution in keeping Free French forces in the field after those fatal days in May, 1940, Mr Churchill paid so warm and well-merited a tribute at the Mansion House on Tuesday. Vast areas of French Equatorial Africa fly the flag of Lorraine. There can and must be no kind of competition between the two administrations.

For the rest the immediate course of the war will depend to some extent on the effect of recent events on the Axis Powers. Not only their military power but their propaganda machine has received a blow from which there can be no recovery, for while skill in framing popular appeals and exhortation goes for something it has been made abundantly manifest during these three searching years that success in propaganda depends on success in military operations. At least we shall be able to talk to the world, and most of all to countries like India, with effect. And that power which Goebbels has so long commanded he must largely lose. He has no possibility of disguising the defeat in Egypt, and as little of explaining away the immensity of the achievement of the Allies in organising the expedition to North Africa and transporting it thither in ships which the U-boats were supposed to have sunk long ago. Hitler spoke last week of new strokes against the Allies. If he had it in his power to deal them he would have dealt them before today. This is not a stage of the war in which any weapon can be held in reserve for an hour. All Germans not completely and irredeemably duped by propaganda have no doubt realised that Germany cannot win the war, but they have hardly reached the stage of realising that they must surely lose it. They can still hope for a peace that will leave her predominant in Europe and in possession of large parts of the territories she has overrun. Till that idea is eradicated the war will continue with increased intensity.

The creation of a new front in Western Europe in 1943 may or may not be necessary. That depends partly on whether the Russians, even after their unimaginable eighteen months’ ordeal, can wear down the Germans this winter as they did last. There are no convincing grounds for believing that German morale is as yet near its breaking point, though Italian undoubtedly is, but the strain on Germany’s military machine, her transport system, her man-power and her food supplies in the months immediately ahead may well have cumulative effects that will make that ultimate collapse as sudden as in 1918. For that development we can well afford to wait. The course of the Allies is clear, to intensify rather than relax their preparations, to strike with the maximum of speed and force everywhere, to consolidate understanding and co-operation between themselves still further, till the end of the beginning becomes not merely the beginning of the end but the victorious end itself.

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Show comments
  • barbie

    All of the programes below mentioned were spoiled by the silly loud music that accompanied them. Why do they do this when presenters are speaking, deafening out the narrative to such an extent one just switches off. Another BBC problem they refuse to deal with.

  • Augustus

    And victories followed thick and fast. Sicily fell, and the Allies landed in Italy. Mussolini was deposed and secretly sued for peace, although the Italian front settled into a hard, slow fight with several German divisions tied down to hold what remained of Axis authority. Field Marshall Smuts believed that Churchill had been right in considering a Mediterranean front, ‘the soft underbelly of the Axis’, and he feared a stalemate like Flanders in 1916, and even enlisted King George’s support. But Russia wanted to see the Allies fighting in France, and did not want them in the Balkans and wanted a ‘free hand in Eastern Europe’. By the time of the Teheran Conference a year later between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, and as the tide of the war turned, the long-term interests of each nation were already beginning to diverge. Rome was won on 4th June 1944. And
    Two day later, after a break in the bad weather, the biggest combined operation ever thought out in the history of the world, landed on the Normandy beaches of France in almost total surprise.

    • HooksLaw

      Mark Clark going for Rome instead of cutting off the German retreat undermined allied strategy in Italy.

      We should be grateful for the victories, they were the result of overwhelming force against a weakening enemy. The overwhelming force, in the West, was provided by the USA.

  • Adrian Drummond

    I tried hard to watch a recent BBC programme “Churchill’s Desert War: The Road to El Alamein” written and presented by Jonathan Dimbleby but struggled. It is such an interesting subject and so I was puzzled and disappointed to see that Dimbleby had done this and not a proper historian like David Starkey (who wrote and presented the brilliant “The Churchills”). Dimbleby kept popping up in Europe and America (no doubt at great expense to the license fee payer) and all I could think about were his hotel bills and eating expenses.

    • Colonel Mustard

      The “walking presenter” has become a modern cliché at the expense of much original archive footage, interviews and documentation (Compare the modern treatment to Victory at Sea or World at War where the presenter talks but is never seen). But one of the reasons is that it is becoming more expensive to show historic footage as it is held by profiteering corporates and agencies with licensing costs becoming exorbitant. Another reason is that the documentaries have become vehicles for celebrity ego trips. That is why we have to endure Jo Brand’s twin brother in a silly panama hat waffling about the Spitfire.

      • Rhoda Klapp

        Victory at Sea. Don’t remember the commentary, but still recall the Richard Rodgers score.

        • Colonel Mustard

          Leonard Graves for the original series. 61,000 feet of archive film footage in 26 episodes. Nowadays it would be 45 minutes if you’re lucky, with a celebrity presenter on a travel junket and plenty of left wing revisionist propaganda subtly or more usually unsubtly inserted.

          • Amergin Selby

            You spoil a valid and intersting comment by the final introduction of your rabid anti-left sneer.

      • Heartless etc.,

        And last night, a ghastly, scruffy, short-wearing “historian” dared to speak to camera about Captain Albert Ball VC, DSO & Two Bars, MC, and visited the Memorial in a field where he crashed and died. The program was saved only by real people (accomplished pilots) doing and commenting on what they were qualified to do.

      • 2trueblue

        Yep, it is still who you know not what you know.

    • 2trueblue

      He was given the role because he is famous, but not necessarily in that particular field. Just the trend at the BBC.

  • Ivan

    No gordon brown at the service today?

    • Heartless etc.,

      No need! – he ‘wrote’ (sic) a book on Courage or some such. Suffice to say that the Hero of the H2B was present, – and ‘on camera’ for a second or two! Ugh!

      • HooksLaw

        Blair is not the hero of any conservatives. But would you say that opposing generals should refuse to learn lessons from Napoleon?

    • Amergin Selby

      So? What are you implying? If he had gone you no doubt would have been asking” What was he doing there?”. Give it a rest.

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