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Book Review: From Tobruk to Tunis

6 September 2021
Book review
Military history
Land combat

The Impact of Terrain on British Operations and Doctrine in North Africa, 1940-43

Book cover of Tobtuk to Tunis

By Neal Dando

Helion, Solihull, 2016. 207pp.

Reviewed by Brigadier Chris Roberts, AM, CSC

In this book, Neal Dando seeks to prove the 'significant impact of the physical terrain' on British operations during the North African campaigns from 1940 to 1943, and 'the subsidiary effect this had on tactical doctrine.' The principal purpose behind this study is his concern that historians have not paid sufficient attention to terrain on the fighting in North Africa. Hence his attempt to elevate the importance of the landscape on the planning and conduct of these campaigns.

Structurally, Dando begins by discussing the terrain from Egypt to Tunisia, first covering it at the operational level, and then going over the same ground from the tactical viewpoint. He then follows the various campaigns chronologically, where in each chapter we are again served a description of the landscape and principal features of the battlefield. As some actions were fought over much of the same ground, this becomes repetitive. Nonetheless, the book makes some contribution to pre-existing historical analysis by providing additional details to a number of features that are not so well known, especially in Cyrenaica.

The operations and battles are considered under a series of generally standard headings in which the subject matter is covered briefly, including terrain, preparations, a battle summary, and the effect of terrain and doctrine on the battle.  In an attempt to briefly cover complex actions, the narrative is often disjointed and confusing, and includes minor tactical events that have no bearing on the effect of terrain at all. In places, the observations seem to be thrown in without any relevance Dando’s thesis, or indeed to the overall conduct of the battle. Furthermore, on occasions Dando claims the terrain influenced the battle without giving any reasonable explanation as to why, while other explanations are cursory at best. His analysis of the subsidiary effect of terrain on tactical doctrine is missing.

Whether terrain 'heavily influenced' the conduct of some operations as much as Dando would have us believe is questionable. Certainly at Alam Halfa, First Alamein and in Tunisia they were central to the operational plans.  In others, however, the terrain was less of a factor than a host of other issues—enemy dispositions, the Eight Army's doctrine in the use of armour, muddled thinking in the employment of Jock Columns, intelligence, and a fractured and undisciplined command during 1941 and 1942—all of which Dando addresses repeatedly, and again in the penultimate chapter.

In summary, this is a disappointing book. While Dando goes some way to proving the impact of the physical terrain on British operations during the North African campaigns from 1941-1943, he simply fails to address its subsidiary effect.  Ironically the effect of terrain regularly takes a back seat to other more compelling matters that affected British operations, which Dando cites in rather more detail. Structurally, Dando would have been better served to have presented his case based on a regional approach, addressing the Egyptian Frontier, Cyrenaica, Alamein and Tunisia as separate chapters. Having described the terrain, he could then have focused on analysing the extent of its impact on the operations conducted in each area, without the extraneous detail and repetition that detracts from his account. Moreover, this is a book that would have benefited greatly from an experienced editor, both in its structure and its written presentation.

Overall, the central purpose of the book is never properly developed in a cohesive and compelling manner, and it lacks the rigour of analysis to prove some of his assertions.

 

Chris Roberts graduated from RMC Duntroon in 1967 and saw operational service in South Vietnam with 3 SAS Squadron. More senior appointments included Commanding Officer The SAS Regiment, Commander Special Forces, Director General Corporate Planning - Army and Commander Northern Command. Retiring in 1999 he spent 7 years in executive appointments with the Multiplex Group. He is the author of Chinese Strategy and the Spratley islands Dispute and the seminal and highly acclaimed The Landing at Anzac, 1915; and is co-author of Anzacs on the Western Front and The Artillery at Anzac.

 

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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