Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Almost 80 years after it ended, the fighting in the Western Desert during World War 2 continues on the shelves of bookstores all over the UK. Like the fight on the Tobruk siege lines in 1941, it shows little sign of ever abating. Much of what we see published today however just traverses old ground, and very rarely goes deeper into the structural and institutional reasons for why the British Army’s campaign in the desert in 1941 and 1942 played out the way it did.
As a student of this campaign for 15 years, it is therefore refreshing that a book has been published that successfully challenges my cherished presumptions and beliefs, by adding a new perspective to the analysis. This is James Colvin’s “Eighth Army versus Rommel”, and it is hard to see how serious students of the campaign will be able to pass it over. Mr. Colvin has succeeded in bringing something genuinely fresh to the table, in the form of an analysis of the British Desert Army’s informal networks – or maybe rather ‘cliques’ or ‘tribes’ – and how they influenced personnel selection, decision-making and thereby its actions.
In doing so he has also succeeded in bringing more grist to the eternal mill that grinds on regarding the reputation of Montgomery, something future historians will no doubt be grateful for. That is not to say there are no flaws – there always are – but on the whole, this is a solid piece of research that deserves a place on our bookshelves.
The book is structured in a logical manner, following the timeline of events, and provides a sound overview of the background of the men who led the campaign on the British side, the fighting and the underlying doctrines.
It starts with an overview of the culture of the institution that was the army in the desert, in particular the way that cliques formed around which public school a general had graduated from, and which regiment they entered, or whether they had served in India. This overview was a revelation to me, as a foreigner with only the dimmest insight into the nature of the British school system, and it has helped me review quite a few of my judgements. This is contrasted (unfavourably to the British) with the way leaders were made in the German army.
It then continues with a discussion of doctrine, training and equipment, which is reinforced by an appendix on the equipment situation, in particular tanks. This section also discusses (again unfavorably to the British side) the comparative doctrine of the German and British armies at the time. This and the preceding chapter are genuinely fresh material, where great care has been taken to present a solid case.
This is followed by a chapter entitled ‘Auchinleck’s Men’, which mixes a description of the war in the desert with an overview of the main protagonists on the British side, once Auchinleck took command in July 1941. This is a critically important chapter, as it introduces the heavy reliance on the Indian Army leadership pool that characterized Auchinleck’s leadership period in the Middle East. Confusingly, this section also contains a description of the CRUSADER battles and Rommel’s counteroffensive, which weakens, rather than strengthens the chapter. The dismissal of General Cunningham, arguably a (if not the) critical point in Auchinleck’s leadership in the Middle East, is mentioned in passing, with more time spent on Ritchie as his successor.
The next two chapters examine the nadir of the British Army’s performance in WW2, the battles of Gazala and Tobruk, followed by the recovery of 1st Alamein and then a detailed discussion of the run-up to the catharsis that swept the Middle East in early August 1942, and of this catharsis itself. This is a good section, covering the doctrinal soul-searching (Brigade groups? Combined arms? Fortified locations?) which dogged an army that had recently suffered a severe reverse and did not really have a handle on its opponent. Where the British Eighth Army leadership somewhat amazingly seems to have gotten all the answers wrong, all of the time.
A short chapter on Montgomery concludes the book, followed by the annex on equipment. This annex is thoroughly researched, although it probably takes the case for the impact of up–armouring German tanks prior to CRUSADER too far. There is not much evidence that this happened on a large-scale to the tanks of Panzerregiment 5 (while those of Panzerregiment 8 arrived in theatre with better armour). Nevertheless, the overall assessment of the impact of equipment is sound.
Mr. Colvin manages to put forward a convincing case that there was more wrong with Auchinleck’s leadership than just his flawed selection of subordinates. He argues that the failings extended to the promulgation of flawed doctrine, and coming under the influence of men he trusted who had some questionable views on how to beat Rommel. While at least one of the examples chosen to demonstrate this (Auchinleck’s order to form Jock Columns in early December 1941) is in my opinion unfair, the overall case is well made and convincing. Nevertheless, further criticism, such as that of the prosecution of the first battle of El Alamein with a weak and destabilized Eighth Army, is possibly taking matters too far. While 1st Alamein was a costly campaign, it did achieve two things:
- It stopped the Axis in its tracks and gave Eighth Army the confidence that it could beat Rommel, something that was arguably needed after the Cauldron, Tobruk and Matruh; and
- It bought time for the anti-supply campaign, so well described in Richard Hammond’s recent ‘Strangling the Axis’ to work. While Mr. Colvin notes that Axis forces were quickly brought up to strength, he ignores the impact that the loss of supplies had during this period.
Other than that, I would also take issue with the assessment of some of the British leaders. For example, Brigadier (later Major General) Gatehouse is given a good mark for his performance during CRUSADER, with the opinion of a tank-driver sergeant being rolled out to confirm that he had understood combined arms. Be that as it may, my recent article in Scientae Militaria lays out Gatehouse’s operational failing in the early stages of the CRUSADER campaign. It is also likely that the New Zealand contingent would have had some interesting observations about the performance of Gatehouse’s tanks, when they were stuck on the Zaafran feature on 1 December 1941, hoping to be rescued by them.
Elsewhere, Mr. Colvin credits the very successful night attack on Zaafran on 26 November to Brigadier Watkins of 1st Army Tank Brigade. Again, the New Zealanders took substantial issue with this claim. It is clear, based on this, that in some cases the assessment of leadership performance is not as sound as it may appear; however, it is also clear that these are cases which have not been researched in depth, as they do not pertain to the senior leadership.
Where the book could have been stronger, given that despite its title it does focus very much on Middle East Command rather than just Eighth Army, is in discussing the tri-service nature of the campaign more fully. While RAF views are given space, this is less so for the Royal Navy. In reality it was both the RAF and the Royal Navy through their interdiction campaign that kept the army in the fight in 1941/42. All the army needed to do to win the campaign in the desert was to not lose a battle catastrophically. This however was almost too much to ask for, as events in May and June 1942 showed.
It is also important to note that the book title references that the fight of Eighth Army was with Rommel. This is appropriate, as it is true that the key decisions that were made on the Axis side were those of Rommel, for better or worse. Mr. Colvin does however give the Italians their due when discussing mistaken assessments of the performance of their tanks by Auchinleck. Having said that, the book is very much focused on the actions and decisions of the British side, with only minor prominence being given to the Axis.
In terms of the major works that are a ‘must read’ for any serious study of Eighth Army’s performance, Mr. Colvin is clearly in command of his sources, including Major (later Field Marshal The Lord) Carver’s works, Major-General Tuker’s ‘Approach to Battle’, various biographies and other works.
One particular flaw in the source coverage is indicative of the malaise that afflicts much of English-language military history writing. This is the almost exclusive reliance on English-language primary sources. Nevertheless, at least some use has been made of the excellent summary of Axis documents produced in English for the writing of the Official History, contained in CAB146 at the National Archives in Kew. It would have been better to have used original German source material, which has become considerably more accessible in the last decade, but it is a start.
With that out of the way, Mr. Colvin must be commended for the time he has spent in the archives, digging up relatively obscure sources such as General Messervy’s personal correspondence, and the papers of some figures in the desert campaign that many people will never have heard of, such as Major-General Dorman Smith. Even if one were to fundamentally disagree with Mr. Colvin’s conclusions, the book is worth the money for the bibliography alone.
While it may appear that this is a book primarily for those of us who continue to try and find a new angle to the desert war, I would argue that this is not the case. The events in the desert from March 1941 to September 1942 have a wider significance, as they are probably one of the best examples of a command structure failure during a battle. Mr. Colvin’s book helps us to understand the reasons for this meltdown, and should therefore be required reading for contemporary commanders and staff officers; most importantly those who think that tribalism doesn’t affect them or their decisions.
The book provides a close examination of a disastrous period of the British Army’s performance, one that continues to be refought in books and newspapers. Things went horribly wrong for the British in the Middle East for at least seven months, and there is still a lack of clarity around the underlying reasons. Perhaps this is so because the true answer is an uncomfortable one for the British reader. This wasn’t a failure of equipment, or Churchill’s interference, or a failure of doctrine i.e. the ‘it was all Fuller’s fault’ school of thinking.
Instead, it was a failure caused by the men who had been promoted to positions of great responsibility. Cliquishness, personal animosity, classism, all these flaws of British society congealed into one giant train wreck, resulting in battlefield outcomes that can only be considered tragic embarrassments.
Mr. Colvin takes a long, hard look at the performance of the British commanders, and his willingness to criticize them is refreshing. It does however appear that Mr. Colvin has developed an affinity for some of the personalities he discusses, more so than others, and is in consequence kinder to their memories than they perhaps deserved. He proves in discussing Generals Dorman-Smith, Lumsden, McCreery, Messervy and Tuker that he does not shy away from being clear in an observation of failure and character flaws. More of that forthrightness might have been appropriate for others as well.
There is a recent tendency in the historiography to gild the lily about the performance of the British Army and its equipment in WW2, denigrating that of the Germans in the process. While it is no doubt correct to note that in particular Rommel has been falsely imbued with an almost mystic aura of invincible leadership performance, this doesn’t absolve British generals such as Richie, Norrie, Gatehouse and others from their mistakes, which Rommel punished, swiftly and mercilessly. The old saying that “A poor workman blames his tools.” is never truer than when one reads of how British tanks were inferior and thus the battle outcomes in the desert were inevitable. They were not, and they were not. There wasn’t something wrong with the tanks, but a lot was wrong with the leadership.
What makes a successful military leader?
As a final observation, I believe the experience of the North Africa campaign provides a lens to re-examine military leadership. To judge the strength of a military commander on what they do when presented by their opponent with an opportunity. Rommel more often than not picked the opportunity and ran with it, successfully. British leaders however, failed to do so for the most part.
It is then maybe the measure of Auchinleck, that despite the flaws he presented, which are well documented by Mr. Colvin, that on two occasions when presented with this opportunity (the ‘dash to the wire’ and 1st Alamein), he saw it, grasped it and used it to good effect, meting out severe punishment to Rommel. Nevertheless, while successful, this does not excuse his failures on other occasions. In turn, maybe the right measure of Montgomery is that while he no longer allowed his subordinates to commit mistakes on a scale that risked utter failure, he exhibited a cautiousness when presented with an opportunity that is now considered plodding. Regardless of which side we are on in that debate, there is a case, implicitly but no less clearly made by Mr. Colvin, that Montgomery brought a robust level of military professionalism to a colonial army that wasn’t used to it, and in at least some corners didn’t like it one bit.