Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Early Battles of the Eighth Army - Adrian Stewart

Title: The Early Battles of the Eighth Army
Author: Adrian Stewart
ISBN: 0-85052-851-8
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Pages: 182
Photo’s: 30 b/w

                The Desert War tends to be loosely divided into three main phases: 1. the Italians and the British, 2. the Axis (Germans and Italians) and the British and, 3. the Axis and the Allies (British and Americans). Stewarts book deals exclusively with what I have identified as the second phase; that being the extensive fighting between Operation Crusader and the Second Battle of El Alamein.

                This period of the Desert War tends to be viewed as one where the Allies under first General Sir Archibald Wavell followed by General Sir Claude Auchinleck were consistently outgeneraled and out fought by the Afrika Korps under Gen Erwin Rommel “The Desert Fox”. While this was so, it was not as clear cut as initially assumed by historians. Stewart examines each of the major operations undertaken by the Allies and Axis during this period and, following an explanation of what transpired, offers in depth explanations of the strengths and weaknesses on each side. As a result of this analysis, the reader quickly realizes that the war in the desert was not the one sided affair that a cursory glance at history may suggest.

                Stewarts work draws a number of conclusions that highlight some of the key pertinent factors affecting the Desert War:

1.       Equipment quality was often, although not always, in favour of the Germans,
            2.       Equipment quantity was, more often than not, consistently in favour of the Allies,
             3.       Rommel was a very difficult subordinate who frequently ignored or selectively 
                   ‘interpreted’ his orders without regard for the larger strategic picture,  
4.     Rommel was a daring, aggressive commander who was willing to accept great risk for success. This approach was adopted by his subordinate commanders and he provided them the independence needed to achieve success,
5.     Rommel did not appreciate or outright ignored the logistical difficulty faced by his Army and overestimated his Army’s capability. His hubris resulted in him ignoring opportunities to secure his strategic  line of communication (the capture of Malta),
6.     Auchinleck was a micromanager who did not have faith in his senior Army commanders. This compromised confidence throughout his chain of command,
7.     Psychologically, Auchinleck allowed himself to be beaten and this translated into a paradigm of retreat that permeated the senior command of the Army,
8.       Auchinleck let slip opportunity due to poor operational decisions (ie Jock Column’s), and
9.      Auchinleck’s HQ was very dysfunctional with very poor communication/coordination  and elemental HQ’s (ie Desert Air Force) not being co-located.


Stewart has drafted an excellent book that clearly outlines the strengths and weaknesses of
each Army’s command personality. The personality of a commander has a huge influence upon the operational effectiveness of a unit; by extension this applies doubly so to Theatre Commands. The Allies had multiple opportunities to break the back of the Afrika Korps well before the 2nd Battle of El Alamein but they failed to take advantage of opportunity. Stewart contends and I agree that this can mainly be attributed to command ineffectiveness. This is not to take away from the audacity and competence of Rommel as an operational commander; the Afrika Korps earned the victories they won. However, the early years of conflict in the desert were never as one sided as they initially appeared. 

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