The Western Desert Campaign in Manga: Two Cases
I’ve recently come across two masterful allusions to this WWII campaign that IMO exemplify possible ways in which a manga can effectively reference history. I guess I should preface this with a super-condensed and possibly inaccurate summary of what happened in the Western Desert Campaign. Here it goes:
1. Italy invades Egypt (September 1940)
2. British counterattack with devastating effect (December 1940)
3. Germans under Rommel step in and beat the British (March-April 1941)
4. Siege of Tobruk – a vital Allied position defends itself against the Axis (1941-2)
5. Tobruk falls to Rommel. High point for the Axis (June 1942)
6. In and around El Alamein, the Allies retake the offensive (July-November 1942)
7. Rommel is recalled, which effectively means game over (February 1943)
Now, let’s see what the manga do with this.
I. Five Star Stories and Tobruk
According to Japanese Wikipedia FSS author Mamoru Nagano is a tank maniac, especially in love with the Soviet and German tanks of the Second World War. Proof of this can be found in the setting for the first main arc in the story as a whole, which takes place in the court of Juba Bardaim in a place called Bastogne. Now, as it happens, Bastogne was a town in the Ardennes around which some fierce tank battles were fought in WWII.
Then there’s Tobruk. Our main character so far, is meister (that is, glorified mecha-nic) Ladios Sopp. We see a couple of men gossipping about the legendary skill of this meister, who repaired 12 mortar heads in 36 hours during the Battle of Tobruk 15 years earlier. We also find out that this is 10 times the usual speed for such repairs.
Taking into account the awesome power wielded by a single MH (mortar head), we can quickly conclude that this “Battle of Tobruk” was a) massive and b) massively destructive for Mr. Sopp’s side. After all, he wouldn’t have had a chance to repair so many MHs if his side was having an easy time of it!
We can make reference here to point 5 in my summary of the Western Desert Campaign. Rommel’s final capture of Tobruk resulted, on June 13th (Black Sunday) in the destruction of close to 230 British tanks! My response to Nagano’s allusion here is to conclude that if Ladios Sopp had been around many of those tanks could have been rehabilitated and the Allies would have reversed the German tide. Ladios saves the day!
Here the allusion has an epic effect: it puts into our heads a sense of the legendary greatness of Sopp.
II. Galaxy Express 999 and El Alamein
Here the effect is not epic so much as lyrical. The ninth stop of the Galaxy Express is the planet of El Alamein. We know nothing much will happen on this planet because the 999 is only stopping for ten minutes.
Maetel explains that the planet has been named after the great tank battles on Ancient Earth because of the similarity of its situation. It’s a barren, desert wasteland and nowadays it’s only inhabited by semi-fossilized weapons (basically futuristic tanks :)) but it got to be that way because of a period of continuous human warfare.
It’s a beautiful chapter even as it stresses the futility of human conflict. What better way to underscore this futility by focusing on “fights for sand”?! This ambivalence between praising war and berating it is at the core of Leiji Matsumoto so it’s nothing to be surprised about.
The chapter is really short and the allusion to El Alamein doesn’t really add any new content to it so much as stress it and give it some poignancy. “Ahh, El Alamein” is what Leiji wants to get out of us. And he does a good job of it.
A NOTE ON THE NAME OF LADIOS:
The Japanese original is “レディオス” which would usually be transliterated as Redios or Ledios. I’m guessing the translation “Ladios” banks on English-speakers pronouncing the name as “lay-dios”. Anyway, this transliteration resonates extremely well with the Spanish language.
“Dios” in Spanish means (male) god, but “La” is the feminine definite article. As a rule, one would write “el dios” for “the male god” and “la diosa” for “the goddess”. In a Spanish context, then “La Dios” sounds like a transgendered deity, or the androgynous divine. Appropriate for Mr. Sopp.
IMPORTANCE OF THIS WESTERN DESERT CAMPAIGN IN HISTORY:
Basically, Hitler’s inability to defeat Great Britain made (in the long run) the European Continent vulnerable to Allied attacks from the North. The Allied victories in North Africa meant that Hitler’s Europe would now be vulnerable from the South as well. Eventually we get invasions of Sicily, Italy and finally, from the North, the landings at Normandy.
If the Axis had won the Western Desert campaign and taken Egypt, the Mediterranean would have become practically all theirs (notice that Spain, though technically neutral, sent a volunteer force to fight the Soviets under German command). William L. Shirer points out the potential further consequence of an Axis overrun of Egypt. Look at this map:
The red asterisk on the bottom left is Tobruk, and is a rough indication of where the heavy fighting in North Africa was going on. The Axis were pushing East from that point, the Allies pushing West. Notice the other red asterisk near the top right corner. This is Stalingrad, which the Soviets and Germans contested long and hard during the time Rommel was fighting the British around El Alamein.
The point of reducing Stalingrad was to allow the Germans free access to the Caucasus in the South, where a lot of oil was located. At the same time, it was thought that if Rommel did break through and take Egypt, the next natural step would be going into the Middle East and taking over the oil resources there. The nightmare for the Allies, says Shirer, would be the Germans from the North linking up with Rommel’s group in the Middle East.
As it turns out, Stalingrand and El Alamein both became great Allied victories by the end of 1942. Couple this with the enormous American triumph over the Japanese at Guadalcanal around the same time (November-December to be exact) and you get a triple blow of doom that the Axis could never overcome…