Summation: A vivid evocation & excellent cupola eye view of the armoured battles of the Desert war from 1940 to 1943.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Even though this is written as a work of fiction, the author based it 100% on fact. Presumably the main reason for this decision, I believe, was to protect his incompetent subordinates & fellow officers.
Unlike most of the other soldiers in the to and fro desert war, Cyril Joly served with the Armoured Corps throughout this part of the war. Unlike the other theatres of war, the desert was eminently suitable for armoured warfare. Without the distractions of civilisation such as towns & people, the true potential of armoured vehicles was unleashed.
Apart from the permanent force soldiers like Cyril Joly, who were stationed in Egypt before the Italians invaded the Land of the Pharaohs in 1940, none of the other soldiers were involved in all the battles from the commencement of the war until the defeat of the Germans in Tunisia in May 1943.
The most riveting part of Cyril’s saga terminates with his appointment as Brigade Major immediately prior to the battle of Adam al-Halfa in September 1942. From then onwards, he is no longer in the heat of the battle but on its periphery. One almost hopes for his demotion to again see the war at periscope level.
If warfare can ever be classified as civilised & gentlemanly, this is the war to be accorded this distinction. From this testament, one swiftly becomes aware of the real reasons for the Allies inability to defeat the Germans in spite of their numerical superiority.
Undoubtedly, the quality of German forces with their martial Prussian background has plenty to do with it but that was not the only reason. The use of the 88mm anti-tank gun employed as a screen in front of their Panzers probably accounted for the majority of the Allies losses. That and their larger calibre tank guns, the Mark IIIs 50 mm main gun compared with the Allies 2 pounders & the 37mm gun of the Stuart. This meant that in the flat environment of the desert, the gun’s range was decisive. The only way in which the Allies could destroy the counterpart’s tanks, was by out-manoeuvring them in order to attack their flanks.
Initially in 1941 the Americans supplied their M1 Stuarts as part of the Lend-Lease, nicknamed the Honey in British service & then only at the beginning of 1942 the M3 General Grant. This tank carried two guns, the main one being 75 mm but it was mounted in a sponson, which severely limited its utility. Again the main gun mounted in the turret was only 37mm.
It was only immediately prior to the Battle of El-Alamein that the Sherman tanks started being supplied. This tank then tipped the scales in favour of the Allies but German battle tactics still ensured that in spite of their paucity of tanks, they were nevertheless still a formidable force to be reckoned with.
Not only must one read this book for its vivid evocation of armoured warfare, but it is also Joly’s elegant writing style. Often such personal narratives lack the novelist’s finesse but not Joly. Never flowery, the style almost reflects a professional touch unlike many of this genre.
For all of those aficionadas of warfare & WW2 in particular, this book is a gem. I have reread it many times but it never seems to lose its sparkle