Eighth Army versus Rommel; Tactics, Training and Operations in North Africa 1940-1942 by James Colvin

ARRSE Rating
5.00 star(s)
This is James Colvin's first book and is based on research undertaken for his MA. It is an academic work in that it is sourced and draws on primary sources. His academic tutor was Matthais Strohn, and this work displays rigour and insights informed by someone close to the British Army.

The book does what is says on the tin, and covers tactics training and operations. However, its real strength is the clinical examination of the culture of the British and Indian Army and how this hampered the commanders and staff of the Eighth Army in developing effective tactics.

9781913336646.jpg
The author pieces together the thinking that led to the ineffective tactics and the influence of the Indian army approach to armoured warfare. It is worth reading alone for the exposition of the thinking of Tom Corbett, Eric Dorman Smith and Francis Tuker and how this led to a battlefield of boxes. Much of this is new analysis and adds a new dimension to any thinking about the desert war battles.
The author is related to two Gunner veterans of the campaign. One relative is the ill fated Beresford Peirse quotes extensively from the papers of his relative Robin Dunn,, an HAC officer during the campaign. However, the Gunners themselves escape critical review without mention of one question often asked. Why didn't the British use Heavy Anti Aircraft guns in a similar way to the Germans 88?

The 261 page work is illustrated with relevant sketches and photographs.

It should be on the reading list of anyone interested in the war in North Africa 1940-1942 or in the wider British Army of that period.

Amazon product
 
Last edited by a moderator:
I'm not sure that you can blame the Indian Army as a whole for ineffective tactics; I mean, Bill Slim and Punch Cowan didn't do too badly...
 

Pteranadon

LE
Book Reviewer
I'm not sure that you can blame the Indian Army as a whole for ineffective tactics; I mean, Bill Slim and Punch Cowan didn't do too badly...
Neither Slim nor Cowan were responsible for the flawed doctrine developed by Tom Corbett of arm our unencumbered by supporting troops and Eric Dorman Smith of battlegroups without divisions. Both of whom were employed in senior staff appointments by Aukinleck.
 

Daz

LE
"However, the Gunners themselves escape critical review without mention of one question often asked. Why didn't the British use Heavy Anti Aircraft guns in a similar way to the Germans 88?"

Maybe because that question has been done to death and showed to be a red herring
 

Pteranadon

LE
Book Reviewer
"However, the Gunners themselves escape critical review without mention of one question often asked. Why didn't the British use Heavy Anti Aircraft guns in a similar way to the Germans 88?"

Maybe because that question has been done to death and showed to be a red herring
Maybe - but as a point that has collected a lot of material it was worth commenting on.
 

Bubbles_Barker

LE
Book Reviewer
I'm not sure that you can blame the Indian Army as a whole for ineffective tactics; I mean, Bill Slim and Punch Cowan didn't do too badly...
They were fighting the Japanese in the Burmese jungle not the Germans in the desert. Jungle vs Desert warfare - very different beasts and generally show up light infantry types when called to fight a mobile armoured battle (where have I heard that before?)

None of that takes anything away from Slim and Cowan who were both fine officers.
 
They were fighting the Japanese in the Burmese jungle not the Germans in the desert. Jungle vs Desert warfare - very different beasts and generally show up light infantry types when called to fight a mobile armoured battle (where have I heard that before?)

None of that takes anything away from Slim and Cowan who were both fine officers.

My point was that tarring the "entire" "Indian Army" with such a broad brush was inappropriate. I'm not defending the tactics of the 8th Army - but their success or failures stand or fall on the individuals in Command.
 

jrwlynch

LE
Book Reviewer
However, the Gunners themselves escape critical review without mention of one question often asked. Why didn't the British use Heavy Anti Aircraft guns in a similar way to the Germans 88?

Because... they did? Just not often, since we were less frequently finding our AT guns ineffective against enemy tanks.

Also, a lot of what was ascribed to 'invincible German 88s' turned out to be done by smaller weapons in flanking positions, overlooked by the tanks who'd charged off unsupported, or were conducting barking-mad manoeuvres like rushing out of a smokescreen, banging off a few rounds (on the move) in the direction of the enemy, caracoling back into the smoke, and wondering why they were being shot to bits for no useful result...
 

Pteranadon

LE
Book Reviewer
Because... they did? Just not often, since we were less frequently finding our AT guns ineffective against enemy tanks.

Also, a lot of what was ascribed to 'invincible German 88s' turned out to be done by smaller weapons in flanking positions, overlooked by the tanks who'd charged off unsupported, or were conducting barking-mad manoeuvres like rushing out of a smokescreen, banging off a few rounds (on the move) in the direction of the enemy, caracoling back into the smoke, and wondering why they were being shot to bits for no useful result...
This question merits a discussion in Bidwell's Gunners at War and Bidwell and Graham's Firepower. The lack of innovation in the Middle East can be compared to Home Forces where Brooke as C in C Home Forces demanded and got an HAA regiment assigned with a secondary anti tank role by July 1941 and anti tank rounds. Long not wholly convincing explanations about the importance of air defence, the lack of urgency in mounting 3" 20 cwt AA guns on field carriages and the lack of the numbers of AA guns to make a difference.

Now Colvion's book chucks in material relevant to this topic

Colvin quotes a German source for "almost all armoured units were accompanied by 88mm flak guns, often just one, in the anti tank role. The weapons range, its ability to open fire early and its accuracy generally forced enemy tanks onto the defensive and into acts of desperation"

So even a handful of Heavy AA guns mnight have made a difference.
Nor is there evidence of any push back against the policy of assigning regiments under command of brigades or batteries under command regiments - or the abolishment of the CRA in the armoured division.

I repeat - The Gunners get off lightly.
 

Bubbles_Barker

LE
Book Reviewer
I repeat - The Gunners get off lightly.
You answer your own question in your review - "The author is related to two Gunner veterans of the campaign".
 

Penfold

Clanker
In terms of tactics, does the work reflect on the impact of frequent changes in senior staff? My personal thought is that this prevented staff from developing tactics in light of what actually happened in theatre. This potentially lead to us coming on in the same old way & being beaten in the same old way.

Granddad and his future brother in law were there, so I am buying it anyway.
 
‘Swanning’ - too many Officers thought they were riding with hounds after foxes, not playing a very serious game.
They eventually died out, unfortunately, so did an aweful lot of tank crews before the folly of the tactic was rammed home.
Unfortunately, years of unnecessary heavy losses then fostered an over cautious mindset in many at the top.

and yes, 3.7” heavy AA guns could, and were from 1939 both in NW Europe and the desert used on occasion against tanks. They crews had the necessary drills and training.
 
‘Swanning’ - too many Officers thought they were riding with hounds after foxes, not playing a very serious game.
They eventually died out, unfortunately, so did an aweful lot of tank crews before the folly of the tactic was rammed home.
Unfortunately, years of unnecessary heavy losses then fostered an over cautious mindset in many at the top.

Equally you have to acknowledge the UK was at a disadvantage and had both a much steeper learning curve and a smaller base from which to pass on lessons learned.

Not helped of course by the failure to pass on lessons learned to the wider British army not just the Division / Corps that learned them.


and yes, 3.7” heavy AA guns could, and were from 1939 both in NW Europe and the desert used on occasion against tanks. They crews had the necessary drills and training.

And yet somehow the Germans being forced to depend on this and the British seldom having to resort to such a desperate measure is seen as a British not German failing.
 
Equally you have to acknowledge the UK was at a disadvantage and had both a much steeper learning curve and a smaller base from which to pass on lessons learned.

Not helped of course by the failure to pass on lessons learned to the wider British army not just the Division / Corps that learned them.

I think what's often missed is the British Army was still in learning lessons phase in 1939-41, learning the lessons the Germans had learned in Spain in 1936-39

The fixation with firing Officers when they made a mistake at the start of the war was toxic, lessons weren't learnt, and the next new guy was learning them again.


And yet somehow the Germans being forced to depend on this and the British seldom having to resort to such a desperate measure is seen as a British not German failing.

Indeed.
Much is made of the 88 FlaK, but it's only real 'advantage' for the Germans was it was pretty much the only artillery piece that was invariable pulled by machinery, a big FAMO half track, not half a dozen dobbins, so was always able to keep up with the tanks.

The British meanwhile were 100% mechanised and you had a dependable supply of light, medium and heavy guns with you - all pulled by specialist artillery tractors and prime movers - of course the problem in the early years was getting the them and the tanks to work together. See the glorious last stands of ambushed Tank Sqns and cut off RA batteries in the Desert.

But the Germans had the 88!
Well yes, but the superb British 25lb gun was also an 88
 

jrwlynch

LE
Book Reviewer
And yet somehow the Germans being forced to depend on this and the British seldom having to resort to such a desperate measure is seen as a British not German failing.
Well, when the 2pdr AT was starting to struggle with up-armoured Panzers, we did use 88mm guns to engage enemy tanks until the 6pdr arrived in quantity...

...except instead of a seven-ton, eight-foot-tall AA gun, our 88mm gun was a ton and a half of mobile field artillery, firing a 20lb shot with supercharge instead of its usual 25lb HE round; much easier to move around, more numerous, nearer the front line...

Still worked well, though.
 
Well, when the 2pdr AT was starting to struggle with up-armoured Panzers, we did use 88mm guns to engage enemy tanks until the 6pdr arrived in quantity...

...except instead of a seven-ton, eight-foot-tall AA gun, our 88mm gun was a ton and a half of mobile field artillery, firing a 20lb shot with supercharge instead of its usual 25lb HE round; much easier to move around, more numerous, nearer the front line...

Still worked well, though.

But even thats down to expediency and to counter a temporary adverse situation.

The whole 2pdr not being up to the task should never have happenned - The 6pdr was ready - with the benefit of hindsight i doubt there was a single person who wouldnt have reversed the decision to keep pumping out 2pdrs (logical and when intended as it was)

As such ill stand by my desperate measures and seldom comments but will concede that necessity may have been rather more prevalant in 1941 than 42 /43.


Am I alone in considering the 6pdr the best AT gun of the war?

Yes the 17 pdr was more powerful - but it was also bloody huge needed a long time to site and conceal and was in my ** opinion better being vehicle mounted


**Feel free to insert ignorant or ill informed as applicable
 
6lb AT gun? A handy size, could kill Mk IVs with a frontal shot, Panthers with a side shot

17lb At gun? It was a real beast, deadlier than the 88 - it fired, you died, everything was vulnerable to It.
 

jrwlynch

LE
Book Reviewer
6lb AT gun? A handy size, could kill Mk IVs with a frontal shot, Panthers with a side shot

17lb At gun? It was a real beast, deadlier than the 88 - it fired, you died, everything was vulnerable to It.

6pdr - a ton and a little bit, an hour or three of hard work to dig into a fighting pit.

17pdr - three tons of excellent lethal high-velocity death, but needs a full day to dig in as a towed weapon. (Or you can use it in the open, because Jerry doesn't do combined-arms and won't call artillery on AT positions... yeah, right)

Which was why RA anti-tank regiments in 1944 hung onto their six-pounders for mobility and flexibility, (in some cases with a troop of Archers or Achilles for mobile firepower, a troop of 6pdrs for flank shots, and a troop of towed 17pdrs as a 'they shall not pass' stop line) because they could be rushed into flanking positions to deliver the classic "enfilade fire from a defilade position" much more credibly than the bigger, heavier 17pdr.

I wouldn't say the 6pdr was 'better' than the 17pdr but they made a hellishly lethal force mix, as shown by the number of times German panzers broke through British anti-tank defences from mid-war onwards... which is a pretty round number.
 

Pteranadon

LE
Book Reviewer
In terms of tactics, does the work reflect on the impact of frequent changes in senior staff? My personal thought is that this prevented staff from developing tactics in light of what actually happened in theatre. This potentially lead to us coming on in the same old way & being beaten in the same old way.

Granddad and his future brother in law were there, so I am buying it anyway.

True - though that is inevitable in a war that isn't going well. A couple of years ago Aime Fox-Godden's book on learning in war was warmly received - possibly because it was a massive pat on the back for the British Army of the Great War.

Colvin's book could have been used as the base for a case study on how not to learn and apply lessons. There was a confusion of bright ideas that turned out to be utterly wrong. A lack of communication between different theatres, internal politics, and a failure to think through tactical procedures and inadequate training.

Before WW2 there were lots of ideas about how internal combustion engine would change warfare. One big idea championed by Fuller and Liddell Hart and adopted by Hobart, Lindsey, de Gualle and other tank enthusiasts was that tanks triggered a revolution. Small numbers of professionals behind armour would cut through massed armies and avoid the bloodshed of the trenches and attrition. No one knew how this might work in practice.

Colvin's tutor Strohn usually makes mention of the dead prussian who referred to the underlying nature of war and the charactaristics of a particular conflict. But how far would tanks change the rules? Some armoured enthusiasts thought that armoured warfare was as different as naval warfare and thought war would be waged by fleets of tanks shooting it out like battleships and that supporting arms would merely encumber the tanks..

It took the best part of eighteen months of failure before this was recognised as folly. And even then the RAC RMAS precis in the 1980s declared that "the best anti-tank weapon is another tank."


Well, when the 2pdr AT was starting to struggle with up-armoured Panzers, we did use 88mm guns to engage enemy tanks until the 6pdr arrived in quantity...

...except instead of a seven-ton, eight-foot-tall AA gun, our 88mm gun was a ton and a half of mobile field artillery, firing a 20lb shot with supercharge instead of its usual 25lb HE round; much easier to move around, more numerous, nearer the front line...

Still worked well, though.
Up to a point old chap.

The 25 pounder was ok but lacked the accuracy and penetration out to 2000 yards. It was also a waste of the limited amount of field artillery, which in the rock paper scissors combined arms game is the weapon to neutralize or destroy the anti tank guns that kill your tanks.

The AA Regiments in Home Forces were aware of the anti tank and ground role capability of the 3 inch 20 cwt and 3.7 Inch AA guns since after Dunkirk. Routledge's History of AA mentions that orders went out in July 1940 for HAA emplacements supporting airfields to allow for engagement of ground targets. Alanbrooke's diary mentions his struggles between May and September 1941 to use AA guns in the anti tank role. 103 HAA had a secondary anti tank role from July 1941.

The problem the British had in making use of Heavy AA was that we had separated AA from field artillery and focused AA efforts on the air defence of Great Britain. Brooke as C in C home forces was high enough up the chain of command to get what he wanted. No one did that in the Middle East. It would have taken Wavell or Aukinleck to take a personal interest in this detailed tactical problem.
 
Last edited:

Latest Threads

Top