Desert Armour: Tank Warfare in North Africa: Beda Fomm to Operation Crusader, 1940–41
“gives a sharp analysis of how tanks and mechanized units became the primary formations in the European Theater during World War II.”
“Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics” is an old military saying that was never truer than during the North African campaign of World War II. From 1940–1943, the seesaw military fortunes of Italy, Great Britain, Germany, and eventually the U.S. were determined by the deployment of armored formations conducting operations over vast swaths of desert tracts with almost no cities or infrastructure in formidable terrain using untried tactics and doctrine.
Robert Forczyk is writing a two-volume study of armored warfare in the North African desert, with this first volume covering the beginning of the war until December 1941. The author’s stated purpose is not to write a traditional campaign or battle history, but an operational analysis of how each of the combatants developed, trained, equipped, and deployed armored forces in this very challenging theater.
Each country’s development of tanks from both a technology and doctrine view during the interwar period had a significant effect on how each country employed armor in the early part of the war. Drawing upon their experiences from World War I, their military culture and organization, and their industrial base, each country had a different view of how best to employ tanks. Although England led in the development of tanks in World War I, their military was focused primarily on Imperial tasks during the 1920s and 1930s and although they experimented with various formations and doctrine, the technical limitations of engines, weapons, and drive trains limited their development. The severe downsizing of the military during the Depression years also limited their procurement and integration of armored and mechanized units and England was far behind Germany in September 1939.
Italian armored development was in even worse condition, with a lack of coherent doctrine and tactics and a dearth of material capability to develop and produce modern and reliable tanks. Although the Germans progressed the farthest doctrinally, creating the first true mechanized combined arms units that integrated tanks, infantry, artillery, engineers, and logistic units, they also struggled with the technical challenges of engines and drive trains, and none of the three countries had a fully developed tank force when the war begin.
While the Germans were able to overrun France and Western Europe in a surprisingly swift campaign, there were a number of shortfalls in tank capabilities and employment that the Wehrmacht had to overcome. The British were also reordering their armored forces after their defeat in France when Italy began moving forces from their colony of Libya into British controlled Egypt. The British reacted swiftly to this threat to the Suez Canal and their communications with the eastern Empire and in the first major engagements in the desert, defeated the Italians and pushed them back into Libya. As the author notes, the British tanks were not much better than the Italians’, but a combination of better tactics and training allowed them to secure the region and destroy most of the Italian forces in theater.
When the Germans entered the war, the British had been weakened by the diversion of troops and material to support Greece, also a victim of Italian aggression, which allowed the new German Afrika Korps to drive them back to the Egyptian frontier.
Interestingly, the author does not have a high opinion of General Erwin Rommel, long considered one of the better German Panzer commanders, noting correctly that he, like most German senior officers, simply assumed that logistics would be available no matter the circumstances, ensuring that German forces frequently ran into supply issues during the early part of Rommel’s first offensive. This was part of a general challenge to all the combatants where there were no railroads or extensive road networks and trucks were equally unreliable and always in short supply. Combat consumed large quantities of fuel and ammunition and the ability to retrieve and repair damaged tanks was also a significant challenge to all sides. The ability to keep units supplied in combat became nearly as critical as the tactical employment of those units.
However, the German doctrine proved far superior to the British, and in their early desert engagements the British suffered huge tank losses not to German tanks, but to German anti-tank guns, particularly the dreaded German 88-mm gun that would become the bane of Allied tanks throughout the war.
As this volume ends, the British have essentially worn the Afrika Korps down and pushed them back into Libya once more. But they are now at the end of their supply line and the early 1942 campaign looms once again as Rommel rearms and prepares for another counter-offensive. As each army continues to incorporate hard lessons learned in combat, they continue to improve the reliability and firepower of their tanks and develop new formations that better integrate tanks, infantry, and artillery into the types of combined arms units that will carry the war into Italy and France. The deserts of North Africa proved to be a harsh training ground for modern armored units and Forczyk’s book gives a sharp analysis of how tanks and mechanized units became the primary formations in the European Theater during World War II.