Book Review: The Desert War (Ladybird) by James Holland

Book Review: The Desert War (Ladybird) by James Holland

One Star out of Five – Avoid

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Book Cover

Overall

This doesn’t happen often, but I am afraid I absolutely cannot recommend this book. I picked it up with high hopes to find an accessible treatment of the desert war written by a serious author, but unfortunately I was sorely disappointed. It has the air of a rush job, using limited and outdated sources by the looks of it (there is no bibliography) and it has substantial factual errors in it. The ‘further reading’ section seems to be a marketing section for the author, and cannot be taken seriously.

For the same money you can pick up a second hand copy of e.g. Jackson’s ‘Battle for North Africa’, and you’re far better off with that.

Considerations

The best thing about the book are the illustrations, which are really nicely done, and bring the typical Ladybird style to World War 2.  They have a (good) comic book feel to them.

With that out of the way, when I picked up the book over a year ago I started reading it, and almost threw it into a corner, when the author accused the Italian navy of being “feckless”. Of course, no reason is given, and it appears to be just something thrown to the jingoistic target audience. But apart from this flawed assessment, there are also a number of factual errors. Some of more, some of less importance, but all of them easily avoided with even a minimal research effort. A selection below:

  • The surrender at Beda Fomm happened on 7 February, not 12 February, as claimed (presumably for effect, since this was the day Rommel arrived in Tripoli);
  • The prize at Beda Fomm were about 25,000 POW, over 100 tanks and over 100 guns.
  • it wasn’t two German divisions but less than one that reached Rommel in February 1941. The second division did not join until May.
  • There was no further Empire attack after Beda Fomm in North Africa that pushed back the Italians.
  • The diversion of Uboats into the Med was ordered in early September, well before the autumn supply crisis, and was not meant to ensure Axis supplies to North Africa, but rather threaten the Empire supplies into Tobruk.
  • At the battle of the Duisburg (BETA) convoy, two, not three Italian destroyers were sunk, and only one by Force K, the other by HM/Sub Upholder.
  • Operation CRUSADER is described in a way that makes it clear that the author doesn’t understand the operation, at all.
  • He invents a German tank push to Bardia prior to the ‘dash to the wire’.
  • He claims that a failure by the Italian motorised corps to join an attack on Tobruk on 5 December as linked to the decision by Rommel to withdraw. This is fantasy. There was an attack at Bir el Gobi, far to the south, which the Italian motorised corps could not reach. What happened on 5 December was that Rommel was informed that no supplies would be coming, and the German command chose to blame the failure of the attack at el Gobi on the Italians. They then prepared the retreat to the Gazala position.
  • There was no final assault on 7 December. There were local counterattacks with the aim to hold back advancing Empire forces.

The above covers the section of the war in the desert I am deeply familiar with and should give clarity on the amount of factual errors in the book.

Areas covered

The book covers the whole of the desert war, including the naval aspects. It is simply too much for such a short work, especially when it is not underpinned by solid research.

Room for Improvement

See above. There is room and a need for an accessible work on the Desert War. This, unfortunately, isn’t it.

Alternatives

Instead of spending money on this book, those interested in a general history of the desert war should pick up a used copy of Major General Jackson’s ‘Battle for North Africa 1940 – 1943’. Yes it’s dated, but it is a solid bit of writing, and you’ll come away learning more than you would from this effort. That’s the book I started on, and it is a good point to start.

Disclaimer 

The review is based on the paper version of the book. It was not provided for free and I have no commercial interest in the book.

Further Reading

Major General Jackson: The Desert War

Official Histories (online) on ibiblio.org 

Relevant despatches by Wavell, Auchinleck, Alexander, and Cunningham on the London Gazette site.

Book Review: A15 Cruiser Mk. VI Crusader Tank – A Technical History

Book Review: A15 Cruiser Mk. VI Crusader Tank – A Technical History

Five Stars out of Five – Highly Recommended Buy

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Book Cover

Overall

This is a self-published work that is based on very considerable archival research, and it sets the standard for what anyone who ever wants to utter an opinion on the Crusader tank (aka Cruiser A15 Mk. VI) will have to let themselves be measured by. Unavoidable reading for anyone interested in British tanks, desert warfare, and general technological development of tanks.

Given that Operation CRUSADER saw over one-third of the Empire tank force consisting of these tanks, in 7 and 22 Armoured Brigade, and later 2 Armoured Brigade, it is of high interest to me.

Considerations

The Crusader is the cruiser tank everyone loves to hate, for its reported reliability issues combined with the ‘peashooter’ 2-pdr gun in the first two versions. The book clearly demonstrates that this is not a fair assessment, and that with appropriate care and maintenance, the tank could operate reliably over great distances even in the unforgiving desert environment. Having read it, it is impossible to disagree with the final assessment, that many of the shortcomings of the tank were due to the flawed initial specification by the War Office (which, as an aside, renders the very good performance of the non-War Office specced Valentine infantry tank all the more intriguing), and the combination of an ‘unforgiving’ tank with a tank maintenance system that in the first line relied fully on the tank crew to undertake substantial work after a hard day of fighting. Overall a fair and balanced judgement, and it is clear that many of the initial issues of the tank were overcome through increasing sophistication of the production. Nevertheless, it never recovered from the initial performance, and tarred the image of British tanks for a long time to come.

Areas covered

The book comprehensively addresses the performance of the Crusader tank based on contemporary reports, utilizing about 100 archive documents, and all user manuals. It also covers later versions of the tank, such as the Crusader AA (anti-air) tank, equipped with a new turret an a twin set of 40mm Oerlikon guns, and the dozer Crusader trials, as well as the Crusader gun tractor. The book also clarifies the question of what was meant by ‘2-pdr HE’ (it was APHE), and it comprehensively addresses the penetration performance issues that arose with the 2-pdr, as well as challenges faced by the 6-pdr with the initial ammunition, in light of the encounters with up-armoured German tanks during Operation CRUSADER.

The book also excels in tracing the history of investigations and reports relating to the performance of the Crusader tank, undertaken by British authorities in the Royal Armoured Corps, who tried hard to understand what was going on in the field and how to address the matters reported up.

Room for Improvement

Nothing really. Yes, the book could be a different book with first person accounts about how muchh Sgt. Whatshisname hated the tank, but it isn’t that kind of book.

Given the self-published nature (produced by Amazon in A4), it is very decent quality, and the few photographs (from the AWM rather than the IWM, I suspect because of the criminal reproduction fees) are good quality, as are the drawings reproduced from the original.

Notes

 

The review is based on the paper version of the book. It was not provided for free and I have no commercial interest in the book.

Further Reading

Operation Report 7 Queen’s Own Husssars

Mechanical Issues of Empire Tanks

Mechanical Issues of Empire Tanks II

Chieftain’s hatch: Crusader Mk. I

Cruiser tank breakdowns and the Battle of Uadi el Faregh

Experience with Cruiser Tanks in 2 Armoured Brigade

Experience with Cruiser Tanks in 2 Armoured Brigade, January 1942

Experience with Cruiser Tanks in 2 Armoured Brigade, January 1942

Following the retreat behind the Gazala line, it was a time for 8 Army to review the experience of the previous three months of fighting. Reports were written, and lessons learned prepared in a systematic way. These are today held at the UK’s National Archives at Kew. On 20 February, Brigadier R. Briggs of 1 Armoured Division’s 2 Armoured Brigade (he would later rise to command the division) issued his report on the experience of his brigade in the short but violent counter-offensive of January/February 42. This battle will be the subject of our first book.

Below are some interesting views on the performance of his brigade’s main armament, the Crusader Mk. VIa and the US-built M3 Honey tanks. The clear view that the Crusader is a better tank then the M3 Honey is of interest, when compared to the report of 4 Armoured Brigade on 3 December 41, which states that the M3 Honey had held up ‘splendidly’ after 15 days of fighting, while the A13 and A15 British cruiser tanks (the A15 being the Crusader tank) were ‘not so good’ (message GD8 GHQ Liaison Sqdrn. to GHQ, 3 Dec 1941, TOO 1440 TOR not given).

Stuarts

A famous Irish Cavalry Regiment (8 Hussars) have just taken delivery of some American Tanks and these Photographs show them putting the tanks through their paces.

The Regiment’s new tanks moving off for action.

Taken by Lt. Palmer 28.8.41 W.O. Ass. No. 261 (IWM E 5062)

[…]

5. Equipment

(a) Crusader Mk. VIa

This proved itself satisfactory as a battle tank, within certain limitations. These limitations are as follows:-

(i) The inadequacy of the 2 pdr gun.

(ii) Insufficient thickness of armour, especially in front.

(iii) A variety of leaks in oil, water, and air systems, many of which occur in places so inaccessible as to require Workshops resources and many hrs for repair. Neither are available in the desert.

(iv) Failure of the engine cooling fan drive to stand up to the work required.

(v) Relatively short life of certain components, notably compressors and swash pumps.

(vi) The Cruiser tank can be, and was, overdriven beyond its capacity; several engines seized while tanks were used for essential fast recce.

(b) General Stuart

The General Stuart proved itself more sound than the Crusader, and required far less maintenance. The air-cooled engine did not overheat, and naturally, gave no anxiety about water leaks. It stood up well to fast work. Its limitations are:-

(i) The inadequacy of the 37mm gun.

(ii) Insufficient armour, especially in front.

(iii) Its design for use by a comd who is also a gunner makes it a dangerous battle tank. It is considered that one offr and a crew of 9 L were lost for this reason. In Cruiser action a tank must have a separate comd and gunner. In this respect the Valentine fails.

(iv) No platform to the fighting compartment makes a crew slow to fire, except to the front.

(v) A bad gun platform on the move. Inadequate telescope sight.

Conclusion

The Crusader is considered to be a better battle tank than the General Stuart. Armd regts should consist entirely of Crusaders until a better tank is produced.

(c) Scout Cars

[…]

(d) Armament

Both 2 pdr and the 37mm gun are inferior to German guns. Until this disparity is rectified, we must be prepared for the inevitable heavy casualties. This is applicable in action against both German tanks and German A Tk guns.

The disparity has led to the inclusion of 25 pdr guns in an Armd Bde in an A Tk role. As the accurate range of the 25 pdr in this role is limited to 1500 yards by their inferior telescope sights, their co-operation with tanks has not been as successful as was hoped. In all three cases, 2 pdr 37 mm and 25 pdr – the telescope sights are inferior to German instruments. If full advantage is to be taken of the 75 mm in the General Grant tank, and of the 6 pdr gun when it arrives, better telescopic sights are essential.

(e) Amn

All out amn is solid. It is therefore designed solely for tank v tank action. In many cases our tanks were engaged at long range by A Tk guns before German tanks came into action. We have no accurate long range reply to this. A proportion of HE for use against A/Tk gunners would have helped.

All forms of smoke were used with success. […]

There are a few interesting points in this report:

1) Only solid shot on issue, also for the 37 mm. Until now I believed that this gun was issued with both solid shot and HE.

2) The need for fast recce, and consequent overdriving of the Crusader. That’s an interesting tactical insight, and shows the ‘need for speed’ in the desert.

3) The points about the quality of the gun sights are important, particularly in the desert where long-range engagements were regularly possible.

Abbreviations:

Amn = ammunition

A Tk A/Tk = anti-tank

Bde = Brigade

HE = high explosive

Mk. = Mark

pdr = pounder