Review: Archie Henderson
South Africans versus Rommel, by David Brock Katz (Stackpole)
Almost 80 years after the events, it is still easy to get angry with the British military commanders under whom our troops served in North Africa during World War 2.
When our soldiers went “up north” in 1940, they were subjected to British military doctrine, which did not suit the South African way of making war. Explaining this difference of approach is one of the strong points of David Brock Katz’s book, an extension of a thesis for his masters, which he attained cum laude from the South African Military Academy.
Katz’s book has a subtitle, “The Untold Story of the Desert War in World War 2”. If that seems a publisher’s exaggeration, it is a story that has seldom been told and never as forcefully as this.
On the question of doctrine, Katz writes: “Had the British shown greater foresight and availed themselves of the South African mobile capability, the disaster (the destruction of an entire infantry brigade at Sidi Rezegh, Libya, in 1941) may have been avoided.”
South Africa’s soldiers showed their prowess at manoeuvre during the campaign, and victory, in East Africa. But once they moved north, into Egypt, that freedom to apply their national military doctrine was subverted and submerged into the British one. The South African divisions came under the supervision of British corps and army commanders.
And those commanders didn’t have a clue, to paraphrase Katz. While the Germans, and their unfairly maligned Italian allies, had perfected the art of combined arms (a balanced approach using armour, artillery, infantry and, where possible, air) in concentrated attacks, the British fragmented their forces.
The British also had almost childlike faith in tanks being the ultimate weapon, forgetting that the Germans had formidable anti-tank weapons, especially the famous 88 guns.
It is not only Katz who believes the South Africans were hard done by; one of the most astute British military minds thought so too. Eric Dorman-Smith, a controversial British general who was regarded as one of the brightest military minds, served for a while as General Claude Auckinleck’s deputy chief of staff when Auckinleck was Middle East commander. He wanted Auckinleck to fight the German way, with “a couple of armoured divisions wedded to two tactically mechanised unarmoured divisions”.
“The proper people for this sort of work, to my mind, were the descendants of the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) riders who had so often run rings around the slow-moving slow-witted British,” wrote Dorman-Smith.
Alas, it was not to be. When Bernard Montgomery became Eighth Army commander in 1942, he sacked Dorman-Smith, whom he loathed because of some disagreements earlier in their careers. If South African troops had been used more effectively, and earlier, in a role such as Dorman-Smith envisaged, who knows how better they might have performed in the desert. Perhaps the disaster of Sidi Rezegh and the capitulation of an entire South African division at Tobruk, due mainly to British confusion and indecision, may have been averted.
Most books on the war in the North African desert deal with the big picture, involving British and Commonwealth forces and, from November 1942, the Americans. Katz has focused on our soldiers in great detail and it is the first book to do so in 60 years, so it’s long overdue. And it’s not only about doctrine; he has a good story to tell about South Africa’s forgotten war.
Nonetheless, there are a few minor irritations. But with so much detail, footnotes and conscientious research, writing the perfect book is as impossible as trying to stop a tank with a Webley revolver. So it was the South African 2nd Division that surrendered at Tobruk, not the 1st, as mentioned in the introduction – a clear typographical error because the mistake is not repeated. Katz slips up, however, by still having the Aussies in the fortress when it is first relieved in late November 1941. By then the Australians had been evacuated and replaced by the British 70th Division. These are mere quibbles and should not detract from what is not only an assembling of facts – many of them new – but also contextualising, interpreting and explaining what is often a complex series of battles.