Soldiers from each of five different allied armies fighting together against the Germans and Italians in Tobruk, Libya. From the left they are Polish, British, Indian, Australian and Czech. AWM via Wikipedia, picture taken 21 October 1941
Errata 10 Jan 2022
An error was kindly pointed out, and I did some more research, and amended the article accordingly. Key changes:
- Error in Indian brigade composition fixed – I switched the Indian/British battalion values in the original table
- Fixed Excel addition error that left out two lines in the addition
- Removed Groupe Larminat as I can not find evidence that it appeared in the line prior to January 1942
- Added AA units consistently across all formations
- Made the count on engineer units more consistent
- Picked up an error in the divisional battalions in the NZ Division, increasing them by one
The outcome of the corrections has been integrated into the text below. It doesn’t change the fundamental argument. The biggest change is on the ‘infantry only’ count, where the British units only provided 27% of all battalions.
This was brought up on the ww2talk forum, and it didn’t sound right.
“The British Eighth Army in North Africa in 1941 was one-quarter British, three-quarters imperial. […]
From ‘Blood and ruins’, Richard Overy.
So I spent part of my Sunday afternoon to look at this more closely. The table below uses the regiment (or battalion) as unit of analysis, rather than divisions. It is the state of 8 Army in the fourth quarter of 1941, with the Free French Groupe Larminat present (they arrived during this quarter) and not considering destroyed formations, such as 5 S.A. Brigade.
The table considers all fighting regiments (infantry, tank/armour, artillery including anti-tank and anti-air and first line engineers) as well as engineer groupings where these reach battalion size equivalent (e.g. in Tobruk). It is deliberately undercounting British formations that are identified in the order of battle but are not clearly grouped as battalions, such as communications units, or sub areas. It also does not include navy or air force units. Assuming an average of 650 soldiers to each of these regiments and battalions, you end up with 91,300 men, or about 78% of the estimated strength of Eighth Army of 118,000 men on 17 November 1941. Once the remaining 22%, mostly supporting logistics and other formations, are taken into account, my expectation would be that the British share of Eighth Army would INCREASE rather than DECREASE. For example, there were few non-British lines of communications formations that I am aware of, and I would not be surprised if about 80-90% of the logistics units were staffed by British soldiers. There were however a substantial number of Empire engineer units in the rear areas, including an artisan company from Mauritius!
The result is as I expected – when you consider the detailed composition, just over half of Eighth Army was British in the fighting units as defined above, so the idea that Eighth Army was predominantly imperial appears wrong. In fact, once the non-Imperial allied are counted in (Poles, Czechoslovaks and French), the share of imperial-origin units was well under that of the British-origin ones. Rather than a quarter, just over 50% of Eighth Army were British.
Furthermore, at this level of units, the British provided just about the largest share. This basic picture does not change much, and makes the British share lower at 44% when one considers only infantry and armour, the two types of formations likely to suffer the highest casualties. It is only when we consider infantry in isolation that the British share drops to 28% with 63% of the infantry hailing from the empire, and 9% from Allied countries (Poles and Czechoslovaks).
Assuming a strength of about 550 men for tank units and 820 men for infantry units, the higher weight of non-British infantry units begins to tell. Altogether these two types of units, which would have borne the brunt of any fighting, accounted for 59,080 men on this count, or almost exactly 50% of the total strength of Eighth Army. Of these, 40% were British, 50% Imperial, and 10% Allied.
Table 1: Composition of Eighth Army, November 1941. ©Rommelsriposte.com
It is important for me to note that this is not meant to denigrate any nation’s contribution. It is perfectly obvious to anyone who has studied the desert campaign that without the support of the Empire, the British commanders would have had little-to-nothing to fight with. The finest Allied fighting formations in the desert in my view were not British, they were imperial, with the infantrymen of Australia, India and New Zealand being the cream of what the Empire could provide in terms of fighting performance.
It is also important to note that in any army, it is the infantry that does the dying, and this was certainly the case in Eighth Army as well, meaning the Imperial-origin units were much more likely to be caught holding ground than British units, the loss of 150 Brigade at Gazala notwithstanding. The big disasters, Sidi Rezegh, Tobruk, Matruh, Fuka Pass, the early fighting in the Alamein position all rested heavily on Imperial units with consequently high losses.
The underlying document is an order of battle for 8 Army dated November 1941, from the files of General Cunningham.
As was pointed out on the WW2Talk forum, the term ‘Imperial’ wasn’t official. The correct term in this context would have been “Crown Forces”.
The 1914 Manual of Military Law Chapter XI “Constitution of the Military Forces of the Crown” states:
” 1. The military forces of the Crown consist of- British forces, Indian forces, Colonial forces.”
The 1939 reprint of the 1929 Manual of Military Law Chapter XI “Constitution of the Military Forces of the Crown” states:
” 1. The military forces of the Crown consist of- British forces, Indian forces, Dominion forces, Colonial forces and the Channel Islands Militia.”
Overy refers to Ashley Jackson, The British Empire and the Second World War (London, 2006). Checking this source, there is no evidence provided for the claim of any kind.