Book Review: The Battle for North Africa


Why another book on the 1940-43 war in northern Africa? This is the first question John Strawson seeks to answer in his 1969 work republished late last year by Pen & Sword Military Classics.

The Battle for North Africa seeks to answer that by saying by way of introduction that although the round has been exhaustively covered, there does not in condensed form appear to be an account of the land battles for North Africa which gives proper weight both to those who were in the front line and those who were in the front line and those responsible for the direction and handling of the armies engaged.

“Moreover, during almost three years of fighting, the nature and conduct of these battles unavoidable changed. The changes had many causes – commanders, equipment, logistics, support in the air and from the sea, strategic circumstances, tactical needs. The purpose of this volume, therefore, is not to summarise or reiterate previous accounts of the campaign either in general or particular, but rather, against a background of strategic and tactical development, to trace the changes in the way battles were conducted during the three years, 1940 to 1943, and to see from the viewpoint of those who did it what the fighting was actually like. Such a version of events, which have been so often and so fully related before, cannot be original, cannot be comprehensive, cannot even be select, but it can perhaps be representative.”

This it then seeks to do, although as a South African who had a grandfather and father-in-law involved, one has to lament their mention only in passing.

Strawson`s main thesis is the effect the interaction between land, sea and air forces had on the outcome – for both sides. The extent of Malta in this seems to have escaped many previous telling of the tail. The war in the desert was essential a war of logistics. Both sides needed to transport vast amounts of supplies – food, fuel and ammunition into the theatre for their forces. It might now appear that shipping oil to Libya is taking coal to Newcastle – but it was only many years after World War Two that oil was discovered there. Had only Rommel known…  

Malta lies in a key position between Italy and Libya. To control it is to control the Mediterranean. It was from here that Britain tried to cut the umbilical air and sea cord connecting southern Italy and Sicily with Libya. But Malta too needed constant resupply – especially when active in interdicting the Italo-German resupply efforts. Malta could be supplied from Gibraltar in the West – a perilous route exposed to submarines and Axis bombers much of the way – or from Alexandria in the East. But this route was only possible when much of the African coast was under British control – at least up to Benghazi.

When it was not, supplies to Malta would dwindle, as would the ability of the island to interdict supplies. German efficiency – especially during World War Two is often over-rated. Strawson mentions that the Germans failed to continuously counter-interdict the island – they slacked off when Malta`s efforts went into decline (a good case of taking a short term view rather than the long) and twice failed to invade – something that would have shut-up the island for good and a move that would at critical times have allowed sufficient supplies to cross for Rommel to reach Cairo, the Suez and beyond.

It is the good fortune of history that Hitler never took the war in Africa seriously and kept it under-resourced. After the slaughter of German paratroops in Crete in 1941, neither their commander, Luftwaffe General Kurt Student nor the Fuhrer had the stomach for new airborne assaults. It is argued that the Germans had as many troops in Africa as could be supported and in the en they were simply overwhelmed by the more plodding, but better supplied Anglo Americans. But then there are many routes to victory… It is not always the side with the fancy manoeuvres or charismatic commanders who win.

Another theme explored is British fighting prowess – why were the British so bad at fighting in formations and why the penchant for motorised columns? As said by John James in The Paladins about the interwar Royal Air Force, they fought the way they did because they were not trained to fight any other way. Hence the “brigade boxes at Gazala – division commanders had never fought their brigades in divisions, corps commanders had never fought their corps and the army commander before second Alamein (November 1942) had never fought his corps as an army.

Who was the best (British) desert commander? Strawson casts his vote for Richard O`Connor, who led the Western Desert Force – this was before 8th Army days – to a famous victory over the Italians at Beda Fomm, in early 1941. It was this victory that caused the arrival of Rommel. As Strawson puts it: “It had been that rare thing, the classic armoured pursuit, a battle of annihilation. As O`Connor was later to report: ‘I think this may be termed a complete victory as none of the enemy escaped.` No one throughout he years of desert fighting which were to come, not even Rommel, was ever to repeat it.”

If it as not for the subsequent withdrawal of a large part of his force and logistic support for the ill-fated expedition in Greece, the North African coast would have been cleared of the Axis by April or May 1941. Sadly, the short-term need to support Greece, then being invaded by the Germans as well as the Italians, outweighed the option to take Tripoli and gave Rommel a stage for immortality.       

Is this book worth buying and reading? Eminently! Whether a beginner at reading history or a jaded old-timer, this book does indeed bring a new view to an old conflict.

The Battle for North Africa

John Strawson

Pen & Sword Military Classics


(First published by BT Batsford in 1969)