by James Colvin
Warwick: Helion / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2020. Pp. xii, 249.
Illus., maps, append., notes, biblio., index. $49,95 paper. ISBN: 1913336646
Learning to Fight in the Western Desert
One might think that the story of the Desert War has been done to death, but in his first full length book British independent scholar James Colvin addresses the persistent problem of why the Eighth Army took so long to get the better of its principal Axis opponent, Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
Digging deeply into newly available documents and recent research, Colvin argues, convincingly, that the Eighth Army’s generally poor performance during the first eighteen months of the Desert War was a result of British military culture as much – if not more – than prewar parsimony or inferior equipment, just as the success of its German opponents was of their military culture. He looks at the British Army’s “club ethos”, the very close ties of loyalty and the shared prejudices among officers based in part on social background and education, and fostered by the regimental system, with its “fashionable” and “unfashionable” regiments, and between British officers and those of the Indian and Dominion armies. Colvin uses as an example tensions within the Royal Tank Corps between cavalry regimental officers and Royal Tank Regiment officers.
Colvin gives good accounts of the planning and execution of numerous operations, with an emphasis on how they were perceived by the various commanders and how the internal tensions in the officer corps handicapped the development of effective tactics and proper command and control. He credits Bernard Montgomery for reshaping the army, improving organization and tactics, leading to greater effectiveness. As he does this, Colvin also gives us some looks at the Axis side, with some useful observations on the strengths and weaknesses of the German and Italian armies, noting that the latter was better than is usually depicted.
Eighth Army Versus Rommel is an essential read for anyone interested in the Desert War or the British Army in World War II.
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