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Book Review: Eighth Army Versus Rommel

13 July 2021

Tactics, Training and Operations in North Africa 1940-1942

Promo image for Book Cover of Eighth Army versus Rommel

By James Colvin

Helion and Company Limited, Warwick, 2020. 261pp.

Reviewed by Brigadier Chris Roberts, AM,CSC (Rtd)

In this splendid and thoroughly engaging book, James Colvin—a former member of the British Territorial Army's 44th Parachute Brigade—provides a penetrating insight into the British Eighth Army's performance against the German and Italian forces during the North African desert war.  It spans the period from General O'Connor's highly successful campaign in 1940/41 to the conclusion of the Second Battle of El Alamein in November 1942. While it has long been recognised that inferior tactics and leadership contributed to successive British defeats in the period between these two victories, Colvin looks more deeply into the reasons why.  Specifically, he considers doctrinal discussion, British military institutions and cultural issues amongst the officer corps in the inter-war years, and how these impacted on the employment of armour and fractured leadership during operations in North Africa.

While Colvin considers German military culture and doctrine, the principal discussion surrounds the Eighth Army, its commanders and the tactical employment of their forces. In doing so, Colvin highlights how muddled doctrine resulted in defeat during the intervening period between O'Connor's success and Field Marshal Montgomery's victory.  He attributes this confusion to opposing views, indifferent and conflicted leadership, an inability to draw correct lessons, and a lack of hard-nosed military professionalism. It is an instructive study that current military officers of all ranks would do well to read.

Colvin begins with a lengthy discussion on the pre-war cultural background of officers, including the social strata of British regiments, and doctrinal debate in Britain.  In doing so, he highlights the effect of the ‘old school tie’ on relationships, the hierarchy of regiments that were considered to be socially superior or inferior, and the conflicting views on how armoured forces ought to be employed. This discussion provides the background to his later study on how events panned out in the Western Desert. It would seem that the zealots for armoured forces—Generals Fuller and Hobart, and Captain Liddell-Hart—as well as the 'Cavalry Club' contributed to the inability of the British to embrace a cohesive and sound combined arms doctrine.

The book then plunges into the various operations undertaken in North Africa, in which Colvin blends narrative with analysis of each operation, and the relationships between the senior commanders; all with a good lacing of quotes from post operation reports and the observations of individuals. While combined arms was well understood in the British Army, the Eighth Army's approach was based around cooperation between arms; their forces split between armoured formations and Support Groups (Jock Columns) which never seemed to operate together. This approach contrasted with the fully integrated all-arms force employed by the Germans. Nor did the Eighth Army follow the British doctrine then being developed in the United Kingdom, which more closely followed the Germans.

Furthermore, in what General Dorman-Smith likened Eight Army’s leadership to a club rather than a disciplined entity, a 'syndicate' method of command operated in which a poisonous atmosphere and a lack of discipline amongst senior commanders pervaded operations. The consequence of both was successive defeats, when on at least two occasions—during Operation Battleaxe and the Gazala battle—the Eighth Army came close to defeating Rommel; but for the lack of aggressive leadership, an avoidance of risk, dysfunctional command at senior levels, and committing armoured units piecemeal without the support from artillery and infantry. Nor were correct lessons necessarily drawn in the post operation reports; being dismissive of an opponent's tactics without rigorous consideration of one's own failings is a lesson that applies equally to today's armies. 

All this ended with Montgomery who flushed out a number of senior officers and formed a cohesive integrated force with a strong ethos of discipline amongst its commanders. It has been claimed by some that at the Battle of Alam Halfa, he simply adopted Field Marshal Auchinleck's plan. But Colvin shows that Montgomery's was different in several salient points, which contributed to his victory. He concludes with an appendix comparing German, Italian and British equipment which shows that, during various periods, British armour was pretty much on a par with German Panzers, and indeed in most instances they outnumbered the Germans and Italians. It was their employment that was the problem.

This is a well written book, and an easy read that moves along quickly without getting into inordinate detail. It is a fine piece of historical analysis. Highly recommended.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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