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 It has the air of a rush job, using limited and outdated sources by the looks of it (there is no bibliography) and it has substantial factual errors in it.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

Running out of tanks – 4 Armoured Brigade 19/20 November

Running out of tanks – 4 Armoured Brigade 19/20 November

Introduction

This article started off because of a note in the high-level traffic files of 8 Army on a request by 4 Armoured Brigade to scour the Delta for additional M3 Stuart tanks[1] and ammunition for their 37mm guns. The battle that gave rise to the phone conversation was fought over two days, with the initial contact between the forces occurring at or just after 1600 hours on 19 November, and combat broken off due to failing light about 2-2.5 hours later. Combat then recommenced the next morning, when both sides found that their night leaguers were just 3 miles away from each other. At the end of the two days, 4 Armoured Brigade had completely utilized the M3 Stuart tank reserve and also experienced very heavy ammunition expenditure. This prompted the phone conversation that gave rise to this article, appended at the end of this article. An officer in 5 R.T.R. claimed that on 20 November the tanks A Squadron 5 R.T.R. went through 250 rounds of 37mm ammunition each[2].

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‘Bellman’, an M3 Stuart tank of 8th Hussars, 7th Armoured Division, knocked out near Tobruk, 15 December 1941. IWM Collection

 

The note that started the research, from the situation reports of 8 Army, is below.

SECRET

Record of telephone conversation with Lt-Col BELCHEM, G1, S.D. HQ Eighth Army, at 2300 hrs, 20 November 1941

———————–

Eighth Army require as many M3 American tanks as possible on top priority. That is to say, this type of tank is required more urgently than other types, as the reserve held by Eighth Army is all gone.

Eighth Army require to be informed how many M3 American tanks can be sent as a result of this request and when they may be expected.

Further stocks of ammunition for the weapons mounted in M3 American tanks are urgently wanted. It was understood that this request referred to 37mm rather than .300”. Lt-Col Belchem said that a quantity of this ammunition was being held at Alexandria for onward despatch, and that if this reserve was already on its way forward well and good; if not he recommended that as large a quantity as possible should be flown up. 

The above demands have already been referred to the D.D.S.D.

The following day, the rather scarce transport plane capacity of Middle East Command was put at 8 Army’s disposal to service this request, and the Bristol Bombays of No. 215 Squadron flew ten tons of M3 gun ammunition up to L.G. 122 for 4 Armoured Brigade, ‘at short notice’ as the RAF report noted.

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Bombay Mark I, L5845 ‘D’, of No. 216 Squadron RAF, undergoing engine maintenance at Marble Arch Landing Ground, Tripolitania, while engaged on the transportation and resupply of No. 239 Wing RAF, the first Allied fighter wing to operate from the landing ground after its capture on 17 December 1942. Courtesy IWM

Two days later, on 22 November another phone conversation, this time between Brigadier Galloway, the B.G.S.[3] of 8 Army, and Lt.Col. Jennings, discussed the matter of American tanks.

6. They require every American tank we can send up as well as every reinforcement capable of driving the American tank. (Note – Suggest we should examine whether the ammunition situation warrants our sending up many tanks. I understand that ammunition for American tanks is becoming exhausted.)

Following this, on 24 November, Lt.Col. Jennings noted for the war diary the following:

2. Forty American M3 tanks now en cas mobile are to be ordered forward immediately. DAFV[4] is to arrange 40 drivers from 4 Hussars for ferrying them ahead of R.H.[5]

We have published an in-depth analysis of the first day of 4 Armoured Brigade’s two-day battle with Panzerregiment 5 on 19/20 November at this link

The purpose of the expanded article is to analyse in detail the events surrounding the first clash of 4 Armoured Brigade with the enemy, in the process also correcting what I perceive as errors in the historical record that have affected the view we hold of it, and to offer a new perspective that raises questions about both the performance of British armoured units at regimental level, and that of the 21.Panzerdivision

Endnotes

[1] Confusingly, the US forces used ‘M3’ to name the M3 Stuart light tank, the M3 Medium tank (both Grant and Lee versions), the M3 37mm gun, and the M3 75mm gun. Troops nicknamed the M3 Stuart the ‘Honey’ because of the smooth and untroubled ride it provided. The nickname is sometimes used in war diaries and reports.
[2]If the number is correct, this would equal more than two complete loads, and be almost equal to the whole supply per tank that was available in North Africa at the time, 260 rounds according to Niall Barr in ‘Yanks and Limeys’
[3]Brigadier General Staff – essentially the Chief of Staff. Brigadier Galloway of the Cameronians was a well-regarded staff officer, who rose to command 1 Armoured Division in 1943, although illness meant he never led it in battle.
[4]Director, Armoured Fighting Vehicles
[5]Railhead