Although the German Field Marshall Rommel and his vaunted Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK) are still in the public imagination more than six decades after the end of the Second World War, the men who inflicted the first serious defeat upon them are known only to specialists. Operation Crusader in November-December 1941 was a Commonwealth offensive to break Rommel's siege of the port of Tobruk that started poorly but eventually managed to force Rommel and his DAK to conduct their first major retreat. Author Ken Ford walks readers through this complicated six-week campaign and provides a blow-by-blow account of the first major clash between German and British armored forces. As usual, Ford writes from a parochial British perspective, with no German or Italian sources used. Many of the English sources used are fifty years old, yet Ford writes a coherent narrative that is easy to follow and enjoyable for readers already familiar with this subject.
The volume begins with the standard introductory sections on origins of the campaign, opposing forces, commanders and plans, all of which are satisfactory. The only odd note is the omission of Italian commanders and any discussion of the Ariete Armored Division, which played an important role in the campaign. The order of battle is decent, but does not mention key factors like tank strengths in each major formation (overall tank numbers are deceptive since some tanks are usually held in reserve as replacements). The campaign narrative itself is 57 pages long. The author provides a short bibliography and a few observations on the battlefield today (which is in Qadaffi-land). The volume has six 2-D maps (Rommel's first offensive, April 1941; disposition of forces prior to Crusader; the opening moves, 18-19 November 1941; the breakout from Tobruk, 20-21 November 1941; First Battle of Sidi Rezegh, 22-23 November 1941; Rommel's retreat) and three 3-D BEV maps (the first armored battle between British and German forces, 20-21 November 1941; Rommel's dash to the frontier; the New Zealand division on Sidi Rezegh ridge). Overall, the maps were quite good and supported the text very well - they are one of the best selling points of this volume. I had mixed impressions about the three battle scenes by John White (25-pounder guns from 7th Support Group being overrun by German panzers at Sidi Rexegh; Rommel leads the Afrika Korps to the Egyptian frontier; the link-up between 8th Army and the garrison of Tobruk), which seem rather crude and artificial, particularly the personnel. On the other hand, the vehicles seemed to have a surrealistic photo quality, yet White's work can't compare with illustrations by Peter Dennis.
This volume can be read as a solid campaign summary by those readers just interested in the North African Campaign or it would be useful for military readers seeking a good case study of leadership and C2 issues in a modern battle. The British commander of 8th Army (Cunningham) developed a meticulous plan that admirably used deception to lull Rommel into a false sense of security and built up a numerically-superior armored force with the logistics to conduct sustained maneuver warfare in the desert. As the author notes, Cunningham gets high marks for OPSEC, organization, and logistics, whereas Rommel's operations were usually ad hoc improvisations with pick-up teams and inadequate attention to supply issues. Yet Cunningham based his plan for Operation Crusader upon certain assumptions about how Rommel would respond and when this did not occur, he demonstrated great inflexibility and unimaginativeness in modifying the plan. Indeed, the contrast between the command styles of Cunningham and Rommel are polar opposites.
Once the DAK failed to rise to the bait and immediately attack the mobile forces in XXX Corps approaching Tobruk, Cunningham tried to do too many things at once and squandered his advantage in mass. Although the author tries to put a positive spin on the first armored battle between the Germans and the British, the truth as even this volume indicates, is that the DAK defeated the British 7th Armored Division in detail and was on the verge of stopping Crusader at the gates of Tobruk. Although the author does not get down in the weeds in tactical details, it is clear that 8th Army tactics were crude at this point and hindered by faulty tanks and weak anti-tank defenses. Interestingly, as the author writes, "Rommel's reluctance to participate in an armored battle on the first two days of the offensive had resulted in the initiative gradually slipping from the grasp of Eighth Army's commander." This was an odd case of doing nothing actually being the best course of action (very tough for staff officers to brief that CoA to the Old Man).
Yet in war, commanders do not know that what their adversary is thinking and Rommel was not aware that Cunningham was getting ready to retreat. Instead, Rommel impulsively left a half-won battle with XXX Corps to `dash to the Egyptian border' in hopes of disrupting 8th Army's lines of communications and forcing a retreat. However, Rommel's thrust struck only emptiness and left him out of effective communications for several days. This is partly an example of what von Clausewitz called `friction' caused by communication problems and partly due to Rommel's unorthodox command style. As Ford notes, Rommel's behavior in these days was weird and counter-productive, ignoring the views and orders of his subordinates and essentially indulging in a wild goose chase. The result was that the British recovered their balance and eventually eked out a victory that forced him to withdraw. There are a lot of good lessons about battle command in these pages. However, the author's conclusion that "old-fashioned generalship [Auchinleck] had, in this instance, got the better of flamboyant mobile operations [Rommel]" is a bit too self-congratulatory. Both sides made mistakes but British generalship did not triumph over German maneuver warfare, since it was weakness in logistics that eventually stole the victory from the Afrika Korps.