Desert Armour, Tank Warfare in North Africa
Beda Fomm to Operation Crusader 1940-41
Osprey Publishing has long been known for its extensive and varied lines of military history books. The range of topics / subjects of their published works is simply amazing in scope. Osprey was acquired by Bloomsbury Publishing in December, 2014, but continue to operate under their own imprint.
This volume written by author Robert Forczyk covers the first two years of the North African campaign (1940-41), with a follow-on volume covering the final two years of the campaign scheduled for later this year. The North African campaign has been the subject of a great many books, making this well covered ground, but this volume appears to have some fresh perspectives on some aspects of it. A former armor officer and PhD, author has written dozens of other well regarded published works on other World War II campaigns.
Format - hardcover, portrait format
Page Count - heavyweight, glossy paper, 336 pages
Size - 10.0” x 7.0”
Photos - 180+ black and white, full color images.
Tables / Drawings / Diagrams - tables of tank production data, tank performance data, tank unit composition, other related data. 15 full color maps. Full color renderings of various vehicles/tanks and guns used in North Africa, including some cut-away views.
All text and photo captions are in English
What's in the Book?
Above - the volume’s two page table of contents, done in chronological manner.
In the book’s opening chapter the author closely examines the state of of the armored warfare programs, doctrines and armored forces of the nations which would clash in the North African desert; the Italians, the British, the Germans, and the Americans, who would arrive later in the campaign. This chapter includes some quite interesting tables (such as the one seen above) on the status and composition of the various nations tank programs, as well as detailed evaluation of the tanks themselves.
Above - Throughout the book the reader is treated to some very nice full color renderings of the various weapons and vehicles used during this phase of the North African campaign. While this is a quite text-heavy volume, there’s plenty of interesting eye candy accompanying the text in vintage period photos and these full color profiles of guns and vehicles.
The author does an incredibly complete and thorough job of examining the forces which would battle back and forth across the North African landscape for the better part of 4 years. He discusses the equipment used, structure and composition of the formations, leadership, and goals of the forces involved in great detail. The author does this in a manner that is highly interesting and informative without it being a “dry read”.
Above - as mentioned earlier, there is quite a bit of nice “eye candy” scattered throughout this book, such as the nice cut-away view of the Italian M14/41 tank seen above. Most of these drawings have been featured in books from the Osprey New Vanguard series of books.
Chapter 2 of this volume examines the armored forces employed by the German, British and Italian armies in North Africa. There are some interesting revelations made by the author in this book regarding these forces. For example, the two panzer divisions under Rommel’s command in North Africa were made up of strictly German first-line tanks, while the panzer divisions that rolled into Russia in the summer of 1941 had great numbers of Czech made Skoda Panzer 35(t) and Panzer 38(t) tanks. Rommel’s DAK panzer units actually had arguably better tanks than the units that invaded Russia.
Above - many vintage images illustrate the equipment fielded by the armies involved in the North African campaign. The author has sourced some really clear and crisp images, as well as just a few that may be just a bit less than perfect. However, even the few images that may just a bit dark or not sharply focused are still of great interest and worthy of inclusion in this book.
PLEASE NOTE - the images in this volume are far better in print than my photographs of them reproduced in this review. They look quite good on the heavyweight, glossy paper that this book uses.
Chapters 3,4 and 5 contain very detailed and descriptive accounts of the battles and actions that raged across North Africa from the opening shots in 1940 until the end of 1941. A look at the book’s table of contents will provide you an idea of the scope of this book. The author covers it all, in terrific detail. Very well drawn maps (such as seen above) provide the reader a good overview of these battles.
Interestingly, the author makes the case that Germany’s famed Afrika Korps was originally intended to simply shore up the Italian efforts in North Africa, preventing the Italian forces from a rapid and catastrophic defeat at the hands of the British. The expectation was that once Russia was crushed in 1941, reinforcements would then be freed up to allow total victory for Axis forces in North Africa.
The balance and layout of this book is very well done, with text, drawings, maps, tables and photographs all working seamlessly and logically to provide a wealth of information in an agreeable manner.
While this book is a well balanced account of the tank war in North Africa, and not simply a photographic history, there are a great many interesting photos in this volume. Many will be great reference images for modelers, such as the one above left, showing a Matilda in a dug-in position.
The author provides much interesting information on the commanders of the armies that fought in North Africa, including the famed “Desert Fox”, Erwin Rommel (seen above, right side). I found the author’s examination of Rommel’s effectiveness and how he was regarded by his own immediate subordinate officers quite interesting. Most commonly held popular opinions of Rommel was that he was an infallible genius, a God-like figure to his men. The author presents some accounts contrary to this, where Rommel’s own subordinates thought he was far too reckless, taking undue risks that cost the DAK dearly for little or no gain. Then there’s this; the DAK was provided with 300 front line tanks, and by the desert war’s midpoint at the end of 1941, Rommel had lost them all, and was geographically back where he’d started at the beginning. Granted, there were a great many factors to this, including difficult logistics, etc., but still….very interesting reading!
American involvement in the North African campaign began in July of 1941, with the arrival of shipments of M3 light tanks, called the “Stuart” or “Honey” by the British. What I hadn’t known, was that these tanks were accompanied by a US Army technical team, meaning that there were American boots on North African ground several months before the US was technically at war with the Axis. One member of this team would be killed in action in November of 1941, again, while the US was technically a neutral in the war. Fascinating reading.
Above - another great image of a possible diorama or vignette subject, a Yank M3 light tank being off loaded from a ship in Egypt.
The book concludes it’s historical account with a thorough examination of Operation Crusader, ending in December of 1941, which was the mid-point of the desert war. The final two years will be addressed in a follow up volume.
The book wraps up with several appendices ( seen above), a very good bibliography, notes and an index.
Like many of you I suspect (if you have any interest in the North African campaign, that is), I have quite a few books on the battles, units, and larger than life personalities that commanded armies in North Africa. I’d thought myself relatively well informed on this famed WWII campaign. I can honestly say that this book provided me with much food for thought, and has modified some of my previous conceptions of this campaign significantly.
The author has done a wonderful job of organizing and presenting the wide range of interesting and informative facts pertaining to this campaign, from it’s beginning through to where the volume concludes at the midpoint of the North African war. The text and photo captions are crisply written and informative, while remaining easily followed. The full color vehicle and weapons profiles are well done, the selection of images chosen for this book is wide ranging and of good interest. The depth with which the author explores all aspects of tank warfare during the first half of the North African campaign makes for fascinating reading.
This is a VERY good book on tank warfare in North Africa during 1940-41, so well done that I’d now rate it as among the very best (if not THE best) that I’ve ever read. If you have any interest in the Desert War, this book surely is worthy of a spot in your library.
I’m eagerly awaiting the follow up book which will address the 1942-43 years of the campaign.
Thanks to Osprey Publishing for the review copy
Reviewed by Chuck Aleshire, AMPS Chicagoland
AMPS 2nd Vice President, Midwest Region
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