Dilemmas of the Desert War: The Libyan Campaign of 1940-1942 Paperback – 27 Aug 2002
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About the Author
Field Marshal Lord Carver, served in North Africa, Italy and North-West Europe, finishing in command of an armoured brigade at the age of 29. He became Commander-in-Chief Far East and Chief of the General Staff. He has published a number of works of military history, notably El Alamein, Tobruk, The War Lords, Wars Since 1945, A Policy for Peace and The Seven Ages of the British Army.
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Top Customer Reviews
Carver starts by describing the length of the Desert War, from the Italian invasion through to Rommel's second advance up to the Gazala Line. In these opening three chapters Carver provides sound arguments why the complete destruction of the Italian military post-Compass was not possible, the doctrinal knock-on effects on the British Army of the success saw during Compass, the strategic issues facing the British of how to defend Egypt while being committed to Greece, the constant interference of Winston Churchill, and Rommel's handling of his forces during his first advance. Operation Crusader is discussed in some detail, and Carver provides major criticisms of both the Allied and German handling of the battle. He notes while both sides were evenly matched in equipment and men, they handled the tactical battle poorly and both sides suffered from lack of communication and co-operation between units. However Carver makes sure the point is hammered home that Allied armoured forces generally fought within supporting distance of each other, that they were, regardless of popular opinion, concentrated but they were handled poorly; while Rommel dispersed his forces and on the whole they did not fight concentrated.Read more ›
The reader has to continually flick back and forth between the various maps included in the text in order to keep track of the narrative. A fold-out map of the whole area would allow a better appreciation of the content.
Despite this the book offers a great insight into the problems of desert warfare, in which the British were untrained and had not learnt the lessons of the Arab campaigns of World War I, where mobility was king.
It also highlights the continual interference from Churchill in pressing the Generals for a victory at a time when Britain's fortunes were at a low ebb. The net result was the disgraceful fall of Tobruk and the general retreat to Alamein.
Unfortunately this long-range interference was passed down the chain of command, often stifling what little initiative the Corps and Brigade Commanders might have shown. A sad repetition of "Lions led by Donkeys".
The main problems experienced by the British and Empire Forces in the desert were the inability to react quickly to Orders, the poor communications generating those Orders and the belief that their opponents must have the same logistic and administrative problems that they faced.
The British commanders exaggerated the effectiveness of their attacks, often resorting to the language of the Public School (Good Show!)to report their daily results; whereas the actual units were often reduced to ineffective remnants. Perhaps a fore-runner of Hitler's delusion of the Eastern Front, where he conceived grandiose attacks with non-existent Divisions?Read more ›
He takes odds with the conclusions drawn by Correlli Barnett in his book 'The Desert Generals'. Unfortunately his prose-stye compared to Corelli Barnetts is dry and convoluted to the point at which the casual reader is totally baffled and put off from reading further.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Carver starts by describing the length of the Desert War, from the Italian invasion through to Rommel's second advance up to the Gazala Line. In these opening three chapters Carver provides sound arguments why the complete destruction of the Italian military post-Compass was not possible, the doctrinal knock-on effects on the British Army of the success saw during Compass, the strategic issues facing the British of how to defend Egypt while being committed to Greece, the constant interference of Winston Churchill, and Rommel's handling of his forces during his first advance. Operation Crusader is discussed in some detail, and Carver provides major criticisms of both the Allied and German handling of the battle. He notes while both sides were evenly matched in equipment and men, they handled the tactical battle poorly and both sides suffered from lack of communication and co-operation between units. However Carver makes sure the point is hammered home that Allied armoured forces generally fought within supporting distance of each other, that they were, regardless of popular opinion, concentrated but they were handled poorly; while Rommel dispersed his forces and on the whole they did not fight concentrated. While Carver provides numerous examples of the problems faced within the Allied ranks he also points out that Rommel bypassed his subordinates, did not appreciate what was happening and conducted reckless moves with his forces that squandered his resources that did not help the battle. Towards the end of this chapter Carver criticises Auchinleck's decision to appoint Neil Ritchie as commander of the Eighth Army, following the sacking of Cunningham who did not appear to be up to the job and was too indecisive. Carver notes that Ritchie did not have the experience to handle this position, and with Auchinleck able to stay for prolonged periods of time at Ritchie's headquarters this highlights that Auchinleck had the ability to take over command of the army there and then, he should have done so and awaited a replacement army commander from the United Kingdom.
The following chapter deals with the interlude between Crusader, and the Battle of Gazala. Rommel's second advance is examined and Carver gives him more credit than before for his handling of the operation: Rommel's forces were generally concentrated, well led, and given clear instructions on what to do rather than the rash moves, countermanding orders, and dispersion seen previously. The same cannot be said of the Allied dispositions, Carver argues, that led to the piecemeal destruction of units that were undertrained, given conflicting orders and not in positions to support one another. In these criticisms Carver appears to echo the argument made by David Fraser in `And we shall shock them'; that the majority of setbacks saw by the British during the early stages of the war was down to inexperienced and undertrained units being deployed in no-win situations by their commanding officers. The latter, Carver claims is Auchinleck not Ritchie; it is a well laid out argument.
Moving onto Gazala, Carver accuses Correlli Barnett of publishing testimonies from British commanders that cannot be supported by the official records. In essence he states various British commanders fabricated facts to cover themselves, Carver then proceeds to provide ample evidence of what the prevailing view within the British command hierarchy of how the Axis forces would attack and where; attacks around the southern flank were not thought to be likely and intelligence indicating the German tank force had started to move in that direction were dismissed. Carver continues his attack on Barnett for the latters `armchair general' comments that he calls "naïve". Carver demonstrates the infighting between British commanders, for example the divisional commander of the 1st Armoured Division not wishing to fully co-operate with the 7th Armour. In addition Carver details the plans laid down by Ritchie and the conflicting views held by Auchinleck and the controversy that opened up between them; the reader is left with the impression that, while Auchinleck had access to ULTRA, he was out of the picture, too far behind the lines to fully grasp the situation and that Ritchie laid out his defence of Gazala as best he could. When battle does come, the latter is exposed to be best plan available since Ritchie had made preparations to defend from a southern attack.
The Battle of Gazala is handled on a day by day basis and covers several chapters. Each of the moves by both sides is covered in detail, and Carver provides sufficient primary source information to provide a clear picture of how Eighth Army's commanding officers were handling the battle. Infighting, the fog of war, and an unrealistic appreciation of what was happening seem to be the main reasons for Eighth Army's defeat; Ritchie would issue orders, his commanders would be too defensive, report over-optimistic information to him, and more orders would be issued on their merit. A prime example of this would be the loss of an entire brigade on the southern flank, that was reported for some time to still be holding out and new orders were issued to include that brigade in subsequent moves. Auchinleck is shown to be somewhat intrusive on Ritchie's handling of the battle, being overly optimistic, and issuing conflicting orders of a period of several days on the issue of should Tobruk be held. It is also shown by the latter stages of the battle Ritchie had also become out of touch of what was happening and over optimistic at what could be achieved. At the end of the battle Carver hails Ritchie's bold move to order his formations to retreat before they were cut off, something he argues would have happened and resulted in the loss of more men than there was if Auchinleck's orders were followed. The second siege of Tobruk is then covered: unprepared defenders and the early complete loss of the command and control element resulted in a position where it was not possible to mount a successful defence; although that did not stop some Allied units holding out for a lot longer than the majority of the garrison.
During this description of the events and the analysis of what happened Carver repeatedly attacks the work of John Connell. He highlights on multiple occasions Carver shows Connell to have purposely misquoted information, and to have provided the wrong dates and times leading to incorrect conclusion. From Carver's attacks it puts Connell's work into serious question.
Carver concludes his work by briefly looking at the Battles of El Alamein, Auckinleck's command of the first battle, the controversy surrounding if Montgomery used Auchinleck's plans for the battles that followed, and giving a brief biography of Ritchie's life.
Throughout the book the main point that is driven home is that between all levels of command there was a lot of infighting going on, and that with so many personal issues the army could not fight as an effective unit. Carver claims that following the war Ritchie was used as a scapegoat by the authors already mentioned above, and Auchinleck; this is a bold claim and during the course of the book Carver is able to support this position: Ritchie was thrust into a position above his head, did everything he could to fight a successful defensive battle, and at the end of the day saved most of his force from destruction, that he did not deserve to be besmirched. Carver also highlights many flaws with the already mentioned authors, and provides an interesting analytical approach to the fighting during the Desert War. While Carver certainly seems to be "pro-Ritchie" and "anti- Auchinleck", he is able to provide evidence to support his positions giving a sense of little basis. My only major problem with the book is, as it moves beyond the fighting at the Gazala Line to Tobruk and the subsequent battles, Carver continues to refer to his other published works without, most of the time, providing quotes or further information from them. All in all a interesting read that provides a new point of view on the battle, and Auchinleck.
Carver's final summation left a lot to be desired. He seemed to indicate that no British commander could have overcome the deficiencies of the British Army structure that led to defeat in the earlier phases of the war. Essentially that the early commanders did their best and that was sufficient. A weak conclusion for a good book.
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