Willem Steenkamp
The South Africans have a different view of warfare to Europeans and Americans, primarily because they have a small population living in a vast, mostly undeveloped area. This different tradition of thought does not preclude military effectiveness, as was demonstrated to the British in the Boer War. Rather it emphasises different aspects of war. Small populations cannot sustain high casualty rates (c.f. Israel). Large distances place greater stress on mobility and endurance. Lack of infrastructure requires self-reliance. The net result is a different approach to soldiering. This is always of interest, even more so when the African approach can be directly compared with the European. I was therefore really looking forward to reading this book.

The birth of the South African nation was not straightforward and, unsurprisingly neither was the genesis of its armoured forces. This book was commissioned to produce the history of the South African Armoured Forces. This is part one, which covers from its birth to 1942’s invasion of Madagascar.

The First World War campaigns in Southwest Africa (i.e. Namibia) and East Africa were the only ones that involved South African Armoured cars. They are covered in detail and provide a useful insight to the European reader of the huge distances involved. At that time, of course, no one had any tanks so the armoured car (mostly Rolls Royce), pretty much impervious to .303 calibre, had a fundamental role as a fire support platform, albeit with sufficient mobility to generate shock action.

We’re then led through the mechanisation period and to the beginning of the second world war, by which time the South African Armoured Corps comprise a number of armoured car regiments. The early campaigns in Somaliland and Abyssinia again involve staggering distances with the armoured cars combining scouting tasks with the earlier role of mobile pill boxes. Of course, they were vulnerable to field artillery and heavy machine guns but speed, guile and the use of ground still meant that they were a very effective part of the close battle – particularly against ill led or chary troops.

Following their triumphant campaign, the armoured car regiments moved up to Egypt to join what became the Eighth Army. They were probably the only troops who were not fazed by the distances involved, nor indeed by the relative sparseness of the desert. However, facing Rommel’s Afrika Korps was a step up. The South Africans were therefore taken under the wing of the in theatre British armoured car regiments (the King’s Dragoon Guards and the 11th Hussars). This move hastened both their integration with the Eighth Army formations and increasingly armoured form of warfare.

The tale of the South African experiences, from the Gazala Gallops, Operation Crusader, Tobruk and Alamein is a vivid account of formation (i.e. medium) reconnaissance. The perils and opportunities of facing tanks in armoured cars are expanded upon and the endemic problems of operating 50 kilometres ahead of the main body are well described. The South Africans improvised, replacing twin Vickers turrets with captured 37mm and 47mm guns, devising ways of keeping in radio contact and, wherever possible, sowing chaos in the enemy rear area. This whole part of the battle has not been written about often and is highly instructive.

The book ends with the South African invasion of Madagascar, then a Vichy possession, in May 1942 which was new to me (and will be I suspect to many).
So, this is a book covering an important and interesting part of warfare from a refreshing perspective. To that extent the author, Willem Steenkamp is to be congratulated and any student of armoured warfare should read it. There are some problems though.

Firstly, the maps, which are simply inadequate in number, resolution and location. Much of the tale is of small scale actions (which is the nature of reconnaissance). Frustratingly there are seldom maps to explain the action.

Secondly the author eschews any abbreviations, even of rank. This adds significantly to the word count and slows the narrative. At times this is exacerbated by further parenthetic notes explaining the future career of the individual concerned. Now, while I accept that this information is important in an official history (which his book is) it would be a far easier read if supplementary information was consigned to foot notes.

Finally, there is the tone, which at times is portentous (particularly when quoting from some memoirs), at times pompous with and overuse of the passive voice. There is also a tendency to melodrama.

However, in spite of these failings, I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in reconnaissance or armoured warfare and am looking forward to Part 2.

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