Book review: J. Fennell, Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign (Cambridge, 2013)

In his admirable 2011 book, Jonathan Fennell argues that the morale of the British Eighth Army during the summer of 1942 reached a ‘crisis’ but recovered to be the most decisive factor in the allied victory over Axis forces at the Second Battle of El Alamein.

Jonathan Fennell’s book examines the role of morale in the British victory at the decisive Second Battle of El Alamein in October/November 1942 against the Italian and German Panzerarmee Afrika. He argues that the morale in the Eighth Army was at breaking point in the spring/summer of 1942 but it bounced back by the time of the Second Battle and was the dominant reason for victory. Other factors, he contents, such the Eighth Army’s numerical superiority during the Battle, were secondary. His study focuses on how army policy reforms and situational factors shaped this recovery in morale.[1]


His study’s conclusions are compelling. For example, he examines the relationship between technology firepower and morale. He pointed out that new battlefield technologies, such as the Stuka deployed in 1939-41, had cause morale collapse and panic in soldiers subjected to those weapons. In the desert war, allied morale was significantly affected by the supremacy of German tanks, their famous 88mm gun and their tactics. Fennell argues that the supposed belief in German material supremacy was overcome by giving soldier’s confidence in their own equipment and fighting ability. This was achieved by the introduction of new modern weapons, such as Grant and Sherman tanks, but also training men in new ways of fighting. Soldiers’ confidence was restored in their equipment, which in turn, built their morale. Fennell argues that during the El Alemain Battle, the new improved tanks and anti-tank guns which started to arrive in the Eight Army’ s inventory from early Autumn 1942, actually played a minor role in the fighting as the battle was predominantly a bloody attritional infantry and artillery struggle.[2]


He also makes some interesting points on the evolution of British army personnel selection, welfare and training policies, which, by 1942, had reached such a state of development that they positively contributed to the Eighth Army’s morale during the Battle. For instance, Fennell, points out how soldiers concerns about home and family often affected their will to fight. This anxiety was noted by the army authorities in 1941 and they introduced a series of measures such as welfare schemes to support soldiers and their spouses who had relationship or legal problems and increased the separation allowances paid soldiers’ families. Morale was also helped by an expansion of the leisure facilities, such as mobile cinemas, and the appointment of regimental entertainments officers.[3]


The army also brought in new methods of selection for enlisted and commissioned ranks. The rapid expansion of the army from 1939-1941 meant huge numbers of conscripts were called up. During this period of increase the army had recruited large numbers of what were described as ‘poor quality manpower’ who were deemed to be ‘dullards’ primarily due to ‘low intelligence’. It was believed that these ‘misfit’ men were bad for morale as they were often regarded as ‘outsiders’ in their unit, were more likely to suffer ‘mental breakdown’ and be responsible for ‘crime and indiscipline’. Their presence in units was also believed to have a deleterious influence on the morale of their comrades. During 1941 and the first half of 1942, new tests were brought into assess drafts to weed out those deemed unsuitable for combat. In the field, units sought to return home any men they thought ‘unfit’ for desert combat. This new policy meant that over the summer 1942 the Eight Army received drafts men containing fewer unsuitable drafts which in turn contributed to better morale in the army.[4]


Fennell doubts that the morale of the Eighth Army was significantly sustained by primary group theory.

An Indian rifleman with a SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) Mk III in the prone firing position, Egypt, 16 May 1940.

This idea was put forward by American social scientists after the Second World War and suggested that men were motivated to fight because they had developed strong ‘buddy’ relationships with their comrades with whom they served.[5] He suggests that such relationships could not be built and sustained in the desert because high casualties disrupted group membership and the impact of modern weapons and stress of the battlefield made bonding difficult. He contends that the applicability of primary group theory in the desert may have been further weakened by men’s attachment to the ‘cause’, their desire to defend ‘home’ and men were persuaded to fight through fear of disciplinary sanction.[6] However, Fennell does not examine inter personal relationships at a unit level to support his notion that primary group relations were improbable on the front line. He does not, for example, explore how soldiers in small units related to their peers or their leaders and whether junior leadership by platoon and company commanders was important for morale. More recent research, for example by Robert Engen, suggests that primary group relations were critical for morale and motivation amongst frontline troops.


With this weakness aside, the book is important. It shows how high level macro institutional policy, doctrinal and command changes at the War Office in Britain, and the Eight Army in the desert, had a cumulative and positive affect on the front line soldier’s will to fight at the time of El Alamein.



[1] J. Fennell, Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign (Cambridge, 2013), pp.188-241.

[2] Ibid., pp.50-95.

[3] Ibid., pp.151-188.

[4] Ibid., pp.95-109.

[5] S.A Stouffer et al. The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath, Vols.1&2 (Princeton, 1949). S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire (New York, 1947). E.A. Shils & M. Janowitz, ‘Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II’, Public Opinion Quarterly 12 (Summer 1948).

[6] Fennell, Combat…, pp.241-280.