At first glance, the topic of armoured warfare in North Africa in the Second World War appears to have been well covered in existing literature. However, looks can be deceiving. Armoured operations played a critical role in both Allied and Axis efforts to achieve a decisive victory in this theater, even though they were set within the context of combined arms warfare. Nevertheless, most of the existing literature focuses on a few well-known battles, such as Second El Alamein, and a few commanders, such as Rommel and Montgomery. After reading about the Afrika Korps and Erwin Rommel for over 50 years, I’m frankly surprised that no one has yet written a beginning-to-end analysis of armoured operations in North Africa in 1940–43. Tankers who did serve in North Africa, such as Michael Carver and ‘Pip’ Roberts, have written some very useful accounts about armoured operations there, but primarily from the British perspective. It is also surprising that, while the names of Rommel and Montgomery – who were not tankers – live on eight decades after El Alamein, the names of the squadron-, battalion-, brigade-, and division-level commanders – who actually fought the major tank battles like Gazala, El Alamein, and Kasserine Pass – have all but disappeared. Nor has there been a serious effort to examine armoured operations in the Desert War in 1940–43 from a holistic perspective, incorporating the viewpoints and experiences of all the major combatants. Consequently, the majority of armoured operations in North Africa in 1940–43 are actually not particularly well covered in existing literature, which becomes more apparent when you start looking for tactical details. My intent in writing Desert Armour: Tank Warfare in North Africa is to provide a focused, analytic account of armoured operations in the North African theatre, from the tactical and operational perspectives of both Allied and Axis combatants. Military operations which were not armour-centric fall outside the scope of my book.
The North African campaign is often regarded as something of a sideshow, a mere preliminary to the campaigns in Italy and Northwest Europe. Yet, by mid-1942, both sides were conducting corps-level armoured operations involving two or more mechanised divisions. Indeed, the scale of armoured battles fought in North Africa in 1942–43 was comparable to that of many of the large-scale battles fought on the Eastern Front in the same period. Altogether, Germany committed nine tank battalions into the North African theatre, while Italy sent 18, Britain 39, and the U.S. Army seven. Altogether, the deployment of 73 armoured battalions with a nominal strength of more than 3,500 tanks indicates a rather large-scale commitment.
Some readers may question why I put so much emphasis on pre-war doctrine and tank developments before moving on to the actual campaigns. The reason I adopt this approach is the essential need for context in historical evaluation – which is the purpose of this work. The armoured forces that fought in North Africa in 1940–43 did not spring up suddenly out of the sand, but rather were the result of conscious, pre-war decisions made about doctrine, training, likely missions, and technology. Germany’s Panzertruppe entered the Desert War with a battle-proven doctrine for conducting combined arms warfare, tanks that were effective and capable of further technical improvements, and well-trained leaders and crews; all in all, a recipe for success. The Italian armoured experience in North Africa was significantly different from the other combatants’ in that the Regio Esercito’s tank units suffered from pervasive technological constraints, which determined their doctrine and tactics. The British Army came to the Desert War with essentially two different concepts of how to use armour – either as fast, independent, mechanised units capable of rapid manoeuvre, or as plodding tools of infantry support. Both concepts worked well against the Regio Esercito in the first six months of the campaign, but then frequently misfired against the Afrika Korps. It is an often painful but necessary component of military history to expose how pre-war decisions contributed to failure or success on the battlefield.
Desert Armour was originally intended to comprise a single-volume history that covered all significant armoured operations in North Africa from 1940–1943, which proved to be a daunting task. Osprey opted to split the book up into two volumes, with the first covering the period of 1940–41 and the second covering 1942–43. Unlike traditional Desert War books, which tend to focus on Rommel versus various 8th Army commanders, Desert Armour provides a more balanced picture, with Italian armoured forces struggling to play a major role alongside their German allies, while the role of American-built tanks provided to the 8th Army, and the eventual arrival of U.S. Army armoured units in Tunisia, are also given their due. Desert Armour is written with an eye to logistics, intelligence, technical factors, command and control, and the men who employed them on the battlefield. The shibboleths of wartime propaganda – which tended to minimize the Italian role and to maximize the role of Rommel – are given no weight in these pages. Instead, I base my assessments on actual combat performance, which might be unsettling for readers accustomed to a certain way of looking at the Desert War. My intent is not iconoclasm, but objective historical inquiry.
During the research for this book, I looked at the records for virtually every armoured unit deployed in North Africa in 1940–43, including reconnaissance and self-propelled anti-tank units. Unfortunately, the onset of the COVID pandemic negatively impacted my research because the National Archives reading room in College Park, MD, which holds both German and Italian unit diaries, was shut down for nearly two years, and access to British sources was also severely restricted during this period. Nevertheless, I was able to gather sufficient data to cover armoured operations in considerable detail down to the battalion/regiment level, although some records that were temporarily inaccessible might have shed further light.
Much debate has been spent over the years on the alleged deficiencies of British tanks in 1941–42, although technical superiority between armoured fighting vehicles (or other implements of war) is inherently an ephemeral quality. It is true that the 8th Army employed a varied collection of armour in the desert, operating no less than six different models of British-built tanks and three different American-built tanks in 1940–43, which created a variety of issues in the field. Of course, the focus, then and now, on highlighting technical differences between opposing tanks tends to obscure the underlying causes of success and failure on the battlefield, which lay in disparities between training and small-unit leadership. The real weapon is the tank crew, not the tank itself – this has been proven again and again on the battlefield. Most of the British and German tank crews were adequately trained on gunnery and driving skills, although their training on field maintenance and repairs was rudimentary at best. During retreats, too many tanks were abandoned for simple reasons, such as thrown track. Junior armoured leaders at the troop (zug)/squadron (Kompanie) level on both sides tended to be highly motivated leaders, although there were some exceptions. Due to the emergency created by Operation Compass, Italian tank crews were pitched into combat in North Africa in 1941 with minimal training, which led to heavy losses at Beda Fomm. However, once given adequate time to train, the veteran Carristi in the Ariete Division in 1941–42 proved quite capable. Likewise, American tankers faced a steep learning curve in North Africa, suffering unnecessary losses in early actions.
Certainly the most important and enduring lesson that can be derived from three years of armoured operations in North Africa is that senior leaders tasked with conducting combined arms operations need to possess the training, experience, and appropriate mindset to get the most out of their armoured units. Armoured warfare requires an aggressive command style, particularly in pursuit operations, and this was was simply lacking among most of the senior infantry officers who were given command of large tank formations. Only a few senior leaders – particularly Rommel, O’Connor, and Patton – had the necessary instincts to use tanks boldly. Even when senior leaders were cognisant of the principles of combined arms operations, their technical ignorance about tanks could play a major role in preventing armoured units from achieving their full potential (e.g. Longstop Hill) or committing them under sub-optimal conditions (e.g. Hunt’s Gap). Although tanks had been around for 25 years at the start of the Desert War, many senior leaders on both sides knew relatively little about these weapons and only understood them in abstract terms. Indeed, much of their superficial knowledge was based on occasional interactions with pre-war tankettes and light tanks, which had very little in common with the 30-ton medium tanks of 1942–43. Although leaders such as Montgomery or Rommel might pose on tanks, they really had no clue about these weapon systems, which is evident from how frequently they reduced many of their own tanks to broken-down or burning wrecks, against the advice of actual armour officers. The upper ranks in the military machines in each of the major armies was dominated to some extent by reactionary cliques that were generally dismissive of new technologies until forced to accept them. Unfortunately, the military cemeteries at El Alamein, Tobruk, Benghazi, Massicault, Medjez-el Bab, Tunis, and other places in North Africa are filled with tankers who paid the price for mistakes made by a generation of officers who were not ready to play the roles that history handed them.
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