by Robert Forczyk
New York & Oxford: Osprey, Bloomsbury, 2023. Pp.336.
Illus., maps, diagr., tables, gloss., appends, notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN: 1472851889
Armored Combat in the Western Desert, 1940-1941
Yes, that title is a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? On the other hand, it does cover comprehensively just what the book deals with. And it is very worthwhile read, despite some minor issues. If you have any interest in the North African campaigns of World War II, you will find this well worth your time.
I have been one with such interest in the war in North Africa since at least my first viewing of James Mason as Rommel in the movie The Desert Fox. I remember watching that film on a small black-and-white television set when I was a pre-teen. That initial interest was stoked a couple of years later when I first acquired a copy of the venerable Avalon Hill wargame, Afrika Korps. Other books about the campaign, such as Brazen Chariots, Robert Crisp’s stirring account of his own role during Operation Crusader, stoked that interest. By the time the Game Designers Workshop monster game on that eponymous campaign, Operation Crusader, was published in the late 1970s, I was already leveraging my interests and knowledge of military history and Wargaming—and incidentally a Ph.D.
in probability and statistics—as an operations analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. I was thoroughly impressed at the ambitious modeling designer Frank Chadwick had lavished on the game, which incorporated detailed rules for movement classes, morale, supply status, command and control and airpower. I used it as a counterexample to many who argued that such human elements were beyond the ken of mathematical models.
But back to the book.
Forczyk is the author of several other books on armored warfare in other theaters during World War II, many of which I have read and enjoyed. One of his characteristics is his willingness to pull no punches in expressing his own historical and analytical opinions, even when they may run contrary to much prevailing wisdom. This book is no different.
Forczyk begins his discussion with a concise but insightful review of the evolution of armor technology and doctrine between the wars among the four players in the desert fighting—the British, Germans, Americans, and Italians. This discussion clearly lays out the strengths—and more often the weaknesses—of those ideas and the important role they played in how the campaign unfolded. He describes clearly and concisely how the failures of Italian doctrine and technology facilitated the shocking victories of O’Connor’s 1940 campaign with a small but mobile force (although itself deficient in much of its own doctrine and capabilities of its armored forces) against the much larger but largely immobile and tank-poor Italian army.
Enter Rommel. And we see immediately that, whatever else he may be, Forczyk is not a worshipper at the feet of the Desert Fox. Indeed, his initial descriptions of Rommel as a good division commander promoted beyond his experience and capabilities and plagued with the mentality of a “chancer” carry through all the way to the end of the Crusader operation. Forczyk summarizes Rommel’s principal operational mistakes during Crusader and throughout his first year in Africa:
? “He failed to protect his air bases.”
? “He failed to protect his logistic support base.”
? “He inflicted unnecessary wear and tear on his armored units, which seriously degraded their operational readiness.”
Forczyk criticizes Rommel as well for his tenuous grasp of operational level or theater command, much of which he attributes to his focus on low-level tactics and leading from the front—characteristics of the good division commander but dangerous in the larger role in which he found himself in Africa. Rommel was no staff officer, which had both good and not so good consequences when it came to managing the fighting, especially during Crusader, but extending back even to his first coup de main against the over-extended British forces soon after his arrival in Tripoli in February 1941. That initial attack, a perfect example of the chancer’s art, somehow managed to bundle the numerically superior but badly scattered and inexperienced (after the withdrawal of much of the conquerors of the Italians to reinforce the last cause in Greece and Crete) British forces back to Tobruk and beyond. Once faced with solidly emplaced defenses of the port, Rommel was no longer in his element, and his attempts to carry the town by both quick assaults and more prolonged siege met with costly failures.
It is in Forczyk's discussion of the various armor-centric actions of June to November that his talents as both historian and analyst come to the fore. His criticism of Rommel is matched by his equal disdain for the competence of senior British commanders. Maj. Gen. William “Strafer” Gott, sadly given command of the 7th Armoured Division despite almost proven inability to manage mobile operations, comes in for special criticism. But other British senior leaders such as Lt. Gen. Charles Norrie, commander of XXX Corps during Crusader, as well as both the 8th Army commander (Cunningham) and XIII Corps commander (Godwin-Austen) garner their own dose of Forczyk’s acid pen.
While the senior leaders on both sides are calumnized unmercifully, the common soldiers come in for respectful praise. Perhaps surprisingly, this includes the oft-maligned Italians. Indeed, the very first name in Forczyk's dedication is Colonello Lorenzo D’Avanzo, commander of the IX Battaglione Carri Leggeri, KIA in June 1940, who is joined by two British officers and NCOs and a German as well.
The descriptions of the various operations and fighting are relatively short but incisive and supported by some technical and operational appendices. These latter detail orders of battle for the major British operations of Crusader, Brevity, and Battleaxe as well as several earlier actions. Forczyk includes details of the various tanks used during the campaign on all sides, as well as a list of the major deliveries of tanks to the theater. These are complemented by tables of the technical specs for the penetration of the principal tank and anti-tank guns.
The test of many books of military history for me is whether or not they inspire me to break out and play wargames on the subject. Reading this current book restoked all those old desert-war emotions from my youth and did, in fact, cause me to break out my cherished copy of Frank’s old Crusader game to push counters around the Western Desert once again. I can offer no greater recommendation for any book.
Note: Desert Armour: Tank Warfare in North Africa, From Beda Fomm to Operation Crusader is also available in e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium