Desert Armour – Tank Warfare in North Africa, Beda Fomm to Operation Crusader, 1940-41, Robert Forczyk


Desert Armour – Tank Warfare in North Africa, Beda Fomm to Operation Crusader, 1940-41, Robert Forczyk

The North African campaign was one of the longest campaigns of the Second World War, and was notable for the repeated changes of fortune, which saw Axis and Allied forces advance or retreat across Libya five times. This book covers the first three - the initial British defeat of the Italians, Rommel’s first offensive and the resulting siege of Tobruk, and the British attempts to lift the siege which eventually forced Rommel to retreat west (as well as the early frontier battles between the Italians and British).

We start with a look at the pre-war doctrines developed by the main combatants – Italy, Germany and Britain (CHECK US), and the armoured vehicles each side developed. This section gives a good idea of how important apparently secondary features such as radios could be. We then move on to a look at the forces in place in the theatre during the Anglo-Italian battles, again looking at issues beyond simple numbers and units including how much training different divisions actually had.

I’m not sure I agree with the author’s criticism of various British commanders for appointing men without much experience of commanding armour to key posts. In 1940-41 the British army didn’t actually have many men with actual experience of commanding tanks in battle – before the fighting in North Africa the only chance to get that experience had been during the disasterous campaign in France and Belgium in 1940, so the pool of genuinely experienced armoured commanders was very small, and many of them were retained in Britain, where invasion was a real possibility. There is perhaps a tendancy to be over-critical of commanders on both sides, with Rommel coming in for a lot of criticism. There are examples of poor performances on both sides – many British commanders early in Operation Compass performed very badly leading to some very heavy losses, but some of their German rivals did little better. The author does actually make a good case for his low opinion of Rommel, pointing out that after nine months of operations Rommel was back where he had started, during his advance east had only captured Benghazi, but had failed at Tobruk and had been unable to advance into Egypt, and had lost almost all of the 300 tanks he started with. He was probably only saved from total defeat by the Japanese entry into the war, which forced the British to rush troops who had been allocated to North Africa to the Far East instead.

The battle accounts are splendid. The author has used sources from all sides, so is very clear on who actually involved in each clash – many earlier books tended to rely on largely British or largely German accounts, so repeated the errors found in those sources – many wartime British sources assume any opponent who fought well must have been German for example, even when they were facing entirely Italian forces, while 88mm guns are blamed for many losses suffered to lighter guns. Here those errors are avoided as the author has the knowledge to be sure who was involved on each side of a battle. He is generally positive about the performance of the tank crews on both sides, including the Italians, who by 1941 were a more compatant opponent than in 1941, but let down by limited equipment and a lack of clear direction from Rommel.

This is a good detailed account of the desert fighting in 1940-41, using the focus on armoured warfare as the framework for an interesting examination of the failings of high level command on both sides.

1 – Pre-war doctrinal and technological influences
2 – The opposing armoured forces in 1940-41
3 – Early armoured operations in 1940-41
4 – The Afrika Korps arrives
5 – The clash of armour

Author: Robert Forczyk
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 336
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2023

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