Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Mark Urban is a prolific author, with a focus on the grittier side of army warfare. I think I have read only one of his previous titles, and that some time ago - Big Boys Rules, about the SAS in Ulster. This time the subject is very close to Urban’s heart: in a previous career, before he became a journalist and author, he himself was a tankie. His empathy with the men of 5th Tank Regiment sings from every page. Speaking purely personally I think that tankies are only marginally less insane than submariners for wanting to spend hours if not days in such a confined space subject to such terror. But then I have never been an infantryman, and, as Urban points out, many of the men who volunteered for 5RTR in WW2 did so purely to avoid that fate.
5RTR’s first experience of the Afrika Korps in April 1941 sounds terrifying. Urban does not hold back in stressing the deficiencies of British tank design (relative to German), particularly in the early part of the war. Survival was a hard earned skill. The book is based around the stories of a handful of 5RTR men, mostly NCOs, gleaned from diaries. And in a couple of cases extensive interviews with these by now very elderly veterans. It is a unit history told through their eyes. My preference is for the reverse - personal accounts, which shed light on a unit’s history. An example would be The Guns of War, by George Blackburn – which covers some of the same actions as this book.
The virtue of Urban’s framework is that it allows the mistakes and successes of the unit’s management to be set out. During the course of the book there are at least two senior officers who are unceremoniously bundled out of the regiment. One of the more fascinating themes is how experienced NCOs pulled some of the levers of power, and were able to despatch incompetent officers of surprising seniority.
Early chapters chronicle the escapades of 5RTR in the North African campaign. The Germans complemented their better equipment with more flexible tactics than the British. At this stage, British tank tactics seemed to have owed more than a little to Nelson’s ideas of how to bring his fleet into action. As is well related elsewhere, it was not until Rommel over-extended his supply lines that the odds began to swing back into our favour. The sagas of Urban’s chosen characters well illustrate how 5RTR earned its sobriquet of the “Filthy Fifth” – they were for the most part a hard-drinking bunch with a singular attitude to authority, but a burning desire to see the job done.
Even if the right command structure was in place, Urban makes it clear that effective tank campaigning is crippled if radio comms were not in place – which was often the case. The reader is never in doubt about these soldiers’ harsh working conditions: within the cramped confines of a ‘Honey’ an officer describes the team dynamics – “Orders were never necessary, not that the use of naked authority was ever the best way to control a tank crew. Nowhere else did such a small body of men with such diverse backgrounds, interests, and education live so much together in such close contact with the enemy. In such conditions no man could hide his fear or weaknesses for long.”
There were some hellish battles, and some exhausted soldiers, before Tobruk eventually fell. Both sides took large numbers of prisoners as the war ebbed and flowed. Strangely 5RTR men fared better if they were taken by the Germans, than by the Italians: the latter, apart from ‘thieving and looting’ – which rather went with the territory – left their prisoners malnourished, their treatment hampered by maladministration as much as malice.
The author highlights the effect that Montgomery had when he arrived in theatre – his communications style providing a welcome morale boost. More colour on Monty’s interaction with his men would have been welcome. On the other side, Rommel suffered hugely from the inefficiencies of the Italians’ supply lines, and then Hitler’s delaying proper replenishment of his Afrika Korps until it was too late. However there is scant coverage of the political and military debate back in Britain when the Allies’ North African campaign was looking doomed.
The Tank War The men, the Machines and the Long Road to Victory
Mark Urban Little Brown, 28 March 2013
When Monty’s men march in their victory parade through Tripoli, a 21st C reader will be thinking they deserved several months leave in England. But it was straight on to the Italian campaign. At least the locals were welcoming, and the tankies’ diets (and alcohol consumption) improved. It was at this stage that 5RTR suffered one of its less than effective COs: Dicker Wilson led from the rear. Failing to gain the respect of his men, he was finally dismissed in May 1944 as a result of pressure from the “shop stewards” in the NCO cadre.
The Tank Corps’ equipment was frequently lacking. In Africa the losses due to mechanical failure were as high as 80%; the swapping of types between units was continuous. By Italy, Urban reminds us – too many times – of the advantages given when 5RTR eventually received its American Grants with a 75mm main gun, which gave them better anti-tank capability. The proof copy I read was missing its maps, and these are vital in understanding the sweeps of some of the battles. There is the occasional odd dislocation in the book – ch 14 concludes “By May 1944 open revolt was brewing in the 5th Tanks”. Chapter 15 opens “By April 1944 feelings in the Shakers Wood camp had reached an intense pitch.”
The regiment’s arrival in Normandy was as terrifying as some of its African adventures. Urban relates how Lt Garnett of 1 Tp was pushing up a lane; with sniper bullets flying, he was not keen to poke his head out of the open turret, but was discomfited when a grenade dropped into the operator’s lap “which he swiftly lobbed out of the turret before it could explode. Drawing his Webley revolver, while Garnett grabbed a Sten sub-machine gun, the two men emerged from their turret to see German soldiers standing on the back of their tank…”
The bocage was to prove very difficult terrain for tank warfare. Monty had filled his 21st Army Group with a relatively high proportion of armour (7%) and artillery (17%), and a relatively low proportion of infantry (16%). We know that the planning for Overlord had been thorough and intense – to the extent of sending SBS men in mini-submarines to take sand samples from the beaches all along the Normandy coastline, for example. But Urban fails to explain the failure of planning in Monty’s use of armour in that unhelpful bocage, and why the terrain came as such a shock to the tankies, their not having been briefed about it. 5RTR then encounter the famed Panzer kapitan Michael Wittmann, and suffer at his hands. The episode is related in many other volumes (see The Liberator on my pages, for example. As the capture of Caen stalls, and Operation Goodwood becomes costly, Urban chooses to remain focussed on the men on the ground: blame was batted to and fro between 5RTR and its accompanying infantry units. The reader is best advised to refer to books of broader sweep (eg Beevor’s D-Day) to understand the high level arguments that were raging. Urban notes Monty’s pre-emptive “public letter” (more like ‘public lie’) to the War Secretary on 25 June, in which he asserted “We have nothing to fear from the Panther or Tiger tanks… provided our tactics are good, we can defeat them without difficulty.”
The strength of the Panzer/Tiger opposition was no more evident than when the British tried to break the stalemate of Goodwood. Urban relates a fascinating episode when Maj-Gen Roberts (i/c 11th Armoured) demurred when asked to attack the German armoured concentrations around Bourguébus. In the ensuing action 2 TAF’s bombing and an incredible artillery barrage created widespread battle shock amongst German infantry (see Guns of War for the artilleryman’s perspective on this action).
By this stage of the war many troops who had been in action for a long time – which included a high proportion of 5RTR - began to suffer from battle fatigue (or what might now be called PTSD). This was exacerbated by the appallingly short and infrequent amounts of leave available. The feelings of relief and fatigue by VE day are palpable.
The book is at its best when disclosing the feelings of the central 5RTR characters, and, in my opinion, the book will be best remembered for the great insight it gives into the personal dynamics within a very active regiment. In an ideal world one would have wanted some accounts by members of the German units that had faced 5RTR. But Urban has not delved into German operational archives, and German memoirs comprise a very small proportion of the bibliography. The reader’s immersion in the perils of 5RTR’s war is enhanced with Urban’s occasional use of period slang (eg “a quick shufti”). Most readers will also appreciate Urban’s lack of hesitation in naming incompetent officers.
Tankies seem parochial – perhaps it is because they spend so much of their working day peering through a periscope or narrow slit, and therefore have a limited field of vision. It is odd that Urban completely overlooks the impact of the RAF in the Western Desert. If they had not been there, challenging for air superiority, 5RTR would have been subjected to frequent attacks by Stuka dive-bombers. Yet no such attacks appear in the narrative. Perhaps 5RTR did not know what fate they had avoided due to the boys in light blue.
An engaging account of a Squadron (and later Wing) CO, can be found in Be Bold, the memoirs of Sir Fred Rosier. For the June 1941 campaign he comments: “During Rommel’s advance his columns came under frequent air attack, whilst our withdrawing army units, often moving bumper to bumper along the coastal road, saw little of the enemy air force. There is no doubt that action by the Desert Air Force, the light bombers, the Malta-based squadrons and the Royal Navy weakened Rommel’s forces to such an extent that he was unable to penetrate the Alamein defences and advance further”.
When Tobruk was taken in November the Allies had complete air superiority. By the time Overlord started Fighter Command’s ability to destroy enemy armour had grown immeasurably – it had significant numbers of the Typhoon and Tempest. Whilst the occasional heavy bombing (as at Bourguébus) is mentioned in Tank War, again the RAF’s efforts to destroy enemy tanks (which reached their apogee in the Falaise Gap episode) are overlooked. It was essentially the RAF & the Resistance which prevented the Panzer Lehr division coming from the south to reinforce the other German tank divisions. Had they done so the task of 5RTR in the days after D-Day would have been infinitely tougher.
The book’s final chapter, Journey’s End, is a good synthesis of the lessons learned by the regiment, and a good summary of the evolution of tank warfare, and the position of tanks within the British Army.