Columns -Thoughts from London

Raman’s war and his historical analogies

By Neville de Silva

The other day a journalist friend of mine (more a TV person than a print journalist) emailed me an article by B. Raman, a former additional secretary of India’s cabinet secretariat and currently the director of the Institute For Topical Studies in Chennai.

Given the political turbulence in Tamil Nadu over Sri Lanka and the pressure by Chennai politicians on India’s central government to take positive action to ensure a ceasefire in Sri Lanka, it was useful to read what a Chennai-based analyst whose writings appear regularly in the Colombo media had to say about the military conflict. More so since he had decided to title this particular piece “Kilinochchi: The Kiss of Death.” That apparently has to be read with a previous article he wrote that was called “Kilinochchi: The Spectre of Stalingrad.”

I remember that his analogy of Stalingrad and the possibility of Kilinochchi turning into a Stalingrad for the Sri Lankan military was rubbished in a riposte that exposed Raman’s lack of knowledge of that battle in the Soviet theatre of war. In this particular article Raman not only continues to claim that Kilinochchi could turn out to be another Stalingrad but also now cites the Allied victory at El Alamein against Field Marshal Rommel’s Panzer Armee Africa as a possible scenario in the battle for Kilinochchi. Since the Stalingrad analogy has already been dismissed as inappropriate and even irrelevant I would not delve into that given space constraints.

What does interest me in Raman’s second piece is the new analogy of El Alamein. Says Raman : “The battle being fought for Kilinochchi is a combined miniature version of the battles for Stalingrad in the erstwhile USSR and El Alamein in North Africa. At Stalingrad, the Soviet Army beat back the Nazis after inflicting heavy casualties on them. At El Alamein, the allied troops commanded by Gen Bernard Montgomery (later a Field Marshal) beat back the advancing Nazi Army commanded by Gen Rommel with heavy casualties. These two battles marked the turning points in the Second World War.”

While it is true that they were decisive battles and did indeed turn the tide against the Axis forces, one must ask seriously whether Raman is not oversimplifying the Allied victory in El Alamein under Montgomery. Had Raman referred to the First Battle of El Alamein, then one might have conceded his point though the outcome of Kilinochchi is still awaited. In July 1942, after Rommel’s success at the Battle of Gazala he struck deep into Egypt threatening the Commonwealth’s use of the Suez Canal. General Claude (the Auk) Auchinleck withdrew the Eighth Army to within 50 miles of Alexandria to a point where the Qattara Depression came within 40 miles of El Alamein on the coast. This gave the defenders a short front to defend and secure flanks because the tanks could not traverse the Depression. In early July the Axis advance was halted in the First Battle for El Alamein.

If Raman had compared, though again the analogy is somewhat tenuous, to Gen Auchinleck’s halting of Rommel it might have been more meaningful. But when he cites Montgomory’s victory over Rommel, then Raman is surely looking at a desert mirage. By quoting Churchill, Raman is paying the usual tribute given to Montgomery as one of the greatest generals of the Second World War and comparable to Wellington before him. Much of this image was built by Montgomery himself, a self publicist and as some say, an egomaniac. When Montgomery died in early April 1976 and the usual gushing tributes flowed in I was on the Sunday Observer. I remember writing an article in that paper debunking this overestimation of Montgomery. If after 30 years I remember correctly the headline I gave to it was “Desert Rat or Field Mouse”. It might be recalled that while Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was called the Desert Fox for his cunning ploys and thrusts and counter thrusts in the African deserts, the British Eighth Army was called the Desert Rats.

After defeating Rommel at El Alamein, Montgomery did not pursue the battered Panzer Armee which had hardly any armour left and were largely without supplies. Montgomery’s overcautious pursuit of Rommel resembled more of a field mouse than the much vaunted desert rats and military historians as well as serving military men have criticized him severely for allowing Rommel’s tattered army to escape when it could possibly have been annihilated. Relying on military historian Corelli Barnett’s superbly written book “The Desert Generals”, I argued that Montgomery was overrated as a general and the real credit should go to his predecessor Gen Auckinleck who halted Rommel.

If Raman is arguing that like Montgomery the LTTE forces would not only be able to blunt the offensive of the Sri Lankan forces but turn the battle later into an offensive victory and inflict reversals, then Raman has obviously not studied the Second Battle of El Alamein in any depth and has cursorily assigned great military prowess to Montgomery, implying of course that Prabhakaran could become another Montgomery. Raman forgot a crucial factor in this particular El Alamein battle. Rommel was sick and away recuperating. His second-in-command Gen: Stomm died of a heart attack on the field and Rommel was hurriedly sent back to take charge.

More importantly, a point that Raman misses or carefully avoids mentioning, is that Rommel attacked though he was facing over-extended supply lines and a relative lack of reinforcements and was well aware that massive reinforcements of both men and material were arriving and more were due to arrive to strengthen the Allied defence. It is true Montgomery stopped Rommel at Alam el Halfa Ridge and Point 102.

Having failed Rommel dug in. This is the crucial point. After some six weeks of preparation when the Eighth Army was ready to strike Montgomery had superiority in men and material on his side. Accounts vary but it is generally accepted that Montgomery had between 220,000-230,000 men and 1,100- 1,300 tanks. They faced a Panzer Armee 80,000 - 115,000 troops and 280-559 tanks. Perhaps the difference in numbers on the Axis side is that some historians and writers are counting only the German component, as the Panzer Armee consisted of a mix of German and Italian infantry and armour. Moreover Montgomery had more artillery and aircraft, though perhaps not the 3 to I ascendancy ratio that military instructors at staff colleges consider necessary for an offensive.

If Raman is saying that the LTTE could turn the tables on the Sri Lankan military in the same way Montgomery did at El Alamein then surely he is forgetting the crucial element in that battle. That is the vastly superior forces, armour, air and artillery support that the Eighth Army had over Rommel who was not getting the logistical support because the German Army was well and truly stuck in the Russian front.
Surely Raman is not suggesting that the LTTE has such superiority in numbers, equipment and logistical support? If he is, living in Tamil Nadu as he does, then he obviously knows much more than anybody on this side of the Palk Straits, save the LTTE leadership.

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