The British Eighth Army entered Tripoli on the 23rd January, exactly three months since they had launched the offensive against the Afrika Korps at El Alamein, on 23rd October. They had been pursuing the Germans and Italians, led by Rommel, all the way west ever since.
Tripoli’s major port was the first opportunity to start to re-equip an army that was beginning to look very worn out and threadbare. For many men it was the first chance to replace a ragged uniform and worn out boots. They also got a change in diet after months of ‘bully beef, rice and tea, and very little else.’ Tinned fruit was to make a welcome appearance at Tripoli.
For Montgomery, commanding Eighth Army, it was just a brief pause in the campaign. Neil McCallum was one of the officers who was briefed by him during this period. For him, like many men who encountered Montgomery, it was a memorable experience:
Montgomery has spoken to the officers of the Corps. We gathered in Tripoli in the Miramare Cinema. The auditorium was crowded and on the stage was a notice ‘No Smoking’.
When Montgomery stepped on the stage the auditorium was in darkness and the stage was brilliantly lit from the sides and from above. In this setting he stood dapper and neat and alone. He stood away from the small reading-table and spoke without notes, lightly fingering the belt of his battle-dress.
By some trick of illumination there were shadows cast on his face so that the eyes were in deep pools of darkness and the bony prominences were emphasised. It gave his face the appearance of a skull, and at times it seemed, from my seat at the back of the hall, that we were being addressed by a skeleton in uniform.
Montgomery’s attitude, his personality, were as deliberately arranged as the setting. His cockiness, his unbounded self confidence have long ago become a byéword. All this is part of his success as a general.
When he first stepped on the stage he told us to cough and blow our noses and then be silent. We would later on be permitted to cough at intervals. The pride he showed in the Eighth Army – ‘my army, my soldiers’ – just escaped self-flattery.
His aggressiveness in the field was carried into his talk. It allowed of no modesty, mock or real. He was enthusiastic about what had been accomplished but only in so far as it was a stepping-stone to what he now intended to do.
That, he said, was the wiping out of Panzer Army Rommel. “Rommel has the jitters,” he said. “I hope Rommel is still in Tunisia. As long as he remains in command I’ve nothing to worry about. My only worry is that someone else may be given the job. But I’ll tell you this. Before long Tunis will see a first-class Dunkirk.”
In that way he told us what we were to do next. “The Eighth Army is going to Tunis.”
The myth of Rommel had been broken, at least as far as Eighth Army was concerned, and Montgomery was bound to underline it.
For his part Rommel was equally uncomplimentary about Montgomery, and writes how he could easily have broken the weak British line of advance if only he had had enough petrol. He was never to learn that Montgomery had been able to plan his dispositions in the full knowledge that Rommel did not have any petrol – because of British Enigma intelligence.
Rommel was about to be removed from his command. On the 28th January he wrote to his wife:
In a few days I shall be giving up command of the army to an Italian, for the sole reason that “ my present state of health does not permit me to carry on.” Of course it’s really for quite other reasons, principally that of prestige. I have done all I can to maintain the theatre of war, in spite of the indescribable difficulties in all fields. I am deeply sorry for my men. They were very dear to me.
Physically, I am not too well. Severe headaches and overstrained nerves, on top of the circulation trouble, allow me no rest. Professor Horster is giving me sleeping draughts and helping as far as he can. Perhaps I’ll have a few weeks to recover, though with the situation as it is in the East, what one would like is to be in the front line.
NB The original handwritten diary is not very legible for the italicised part.