Sunday, February 19, 2012

Montgomery, Rommel, and a map of the Desert War

Yesterday, I decided to take a short break from preparing class materials and translating The Functional Art and went for a walk to a Barnes&Noble store nearby. Browsing the new books and, sometimes, buying one or two is highly relaxing.

On the New Non-Fiction table I saw a book that caught my eye immediately: Monty and Rommel: Parallel Lives by Peter Caddick Adams. I am not that interested in World War II in general, but its African theatre has been an exception since 2002, when I did a project on the 60th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein for El Mundo. I got hooked by something John Bierman and Colin Smith used for the title of his own account of the Desert War: it was a War Without Hate. Sure, soldiers died, blood was spilled, pain was not spared. But no war crimes were committed, POW were treated decently, and each side showed due respect for its adversaries. There has never been anything like a war between gentlemen, but the Desert War is probably the closest to that ideal.

Moreover, I've always had a weakness for Erwin Rommel. He fought for the wrong cause, but he was never a true Nazi, or so it seems: he refused to deport Jews from France during his tenure there and, when World War II was approaching its end, he was forced to commit suicide after being caught in a conspiracy against Hitler. Rommel was not a saint, and he certainly defended one of the most murderous regimes the world has ever endured, but he was praised by Churchill himself more than once— as a "great general", a true soldier and a patriot. Sometimes fine people fall in the wrong side of history and don't know how to break away, I guess.

Anyway, let's finish the digression. When I put my hands on a history book, the first I take a look at is its maps. Monty and Rommel includes ten, and they are quite neat. One of them and this is going to sound odd is very dear to me. It's a version of the one below, which is low-res and not as great as the book's. The reason I like this kind of display so much is that it is not just a map, but also a bar chart that encodes distances.

The map includes all the main locations of the Desert War between September 1940 and March 1943. Pay attention at the colored bars at the bottom. The first one represents how deep the initial Axis offensive, led by the Italians, was able to advance into Egypt before it was stopped by Archibald Wavell and pushed back to the middle of modern Lybia (that's the second bar).

Rommel took over the Axis forces in Western Africa in March 1941 and, at the head of the newly formed Afrika Korps, he advanced to the border with Egypt again in less than two months. Then, another British offensive drove Rommel back to El Agheila, in the Gulf of Sidra. Rommel reorganized the Afrika Korps and tried for a second time. He reached El Alamein. But he failed and was forced to withdraw.

This back-and-forth game is what maps like the one above depict so simply and so effectively. Besides, for those acquainted with war history, it tells a story of fuel scarcity and long and weak supply lines. Imagine the German Army as a dog with a rope tied around its neck. The other side of the rope is tied to a tree trunk in Tripoli. This rope is the supply line. Now, visualize the British Army the same way, but with the beginning of the rope in Alexandria. The more the dogs tried to move away from their main supply centers, the more the ropes stretched, and the more likely it was the animals got strangled by the tightening knots. That's how the Desert War developed. Until the British dog found out how to get a longer rope: by securing naval dominance in the Mediterranean.

If only this particular map had a scale...