Book Review: 'Raising Churchill's Army' by David French

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Larso
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Book Review: 'Raising Churchill's Army' by David French

Post by Larso » 05 Aug 2007 05:30

Raising Churchill's Army : The British Army and the War against Germany 1919-1945 by David French

I took sometime out from my US memoirs reading (still got over ten to go) to look at this book. I was kinda expecting a book about the expansion of regiments, brigades and creation of new divisions but it's a lot more in depth than that. It's about the creation of an army that could defeat the Germans, in terms of its changing tactics, communications and weapons. It's somewhat of a dry read but the argument is very strong that the British despite their best intentions simply failed to develop their soldiers in a fashion that they could beat the Germans. In the end the army had to change and go about things within its limitations, though success in the desert and elsewhere helped a lot.

There's quite a bit of good detail to support all this. The difference proper communications made is very well argued. I also learned, after reading about it for years - why British tanks had such a limited turret ring. Another quote that stuck in my mind was a British officers dismissal of a German exercise in the 1930s with the comment - when in 'battle' all the German responded in the same way. Implying that Brisish flexibility made for superiority - except the Germans were actually showing the strength of drill, that allowed even junior officers to attack/react quickly in appropriate manners - whereas the absence of drills in the British army and the wide variety of interpretation of the 'manual' was actually a significant weakness. Montogemery saw this and drills, common to all units, became a focus as the war went on.

There is not a great deal of battle accounts but more the findings that followed - again, in the authors opinion, often misinterpreted by the British command. He does look at weapons and the use of artillery in paticular and does discuss the manpower issues that the British faced. As I said a bit dry but I liked it. It was informative and looked at things from angles I had never considered.

The blurb on the back adds this "the first serious analysis of the combat capability of the Bit army in WW2. It sweeps away the myth that the army suffered from poor morale, and that it only won", by adopting Haig WW1 type tatics. Interwar strategy identified technology as the means to reduce casualties but shortages and "doctrine" were great weaknesses.

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Attrition
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Re: Book Review: 'Raising Churchill's Army' by David French

Post by Attrition » 03 Nov 2008 14:19

Hmmm, a deafening silence about your review :) . I found the book rather interesting in its description of the nitty gritty of rebuilding the army after the fiasco of 1940 and the need to find some way of taking on the Axis in N Africa while the rebuilding and re-equipping was done. I've been more influenced of late by john Buckley's comments about theory (or is that 'doctrine'?), that at least in Normandy lack of uniformity was a benefit because decentralisation meant rapid amendment from below rather than argument and delay from above.

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Michael Emrys
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Re: Book Review: 'Raising Churchill's Army' by David French

Post by Michael Emrys » 04 Nov 2008 02:25

Larso wrote:...the absence of drills in the British army and the wide variety of interpretation of the 'manual' was actually a significant weakness.
This is consistent with a lot of my own readings. It is frustrating to read how many times a British (or American, for that matter) unit muffed a chance to score a real advantage simply because the leadership was not mentally prepared to recognize and act on it.

This sound like an interesting book and is going on my "to get" list. Be forewarned though, it is a bit pricey. Whew!

Michael
Incoming fire has the right of way.

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Attrition
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Re: Book Review: 'Raising Churchill's Army' by David French

Post by Attrition » 04 Nov 2008 09:21

There's a paperback which cost me 20 quid. I didn't find it difficult to get me money's worth though.

Larso
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Re: Book Review: 'Raising Churchill's Army' by David French

Post by Larso » 04 Nov 2008 13:26

I had the cheap paperback as well. I think I got it through Amazon, so there was shipping too.

As for the 'deafening silence', I don't mind. I like to post reviews and I'm just pleased to see people reading them. I do really like it when other reviews are added to mine though (so thanks!). This forum has the potential to give readers a really good idea of the quality of military books. Amazon's reviews are not exactly satisfactory - too many people give everything 5 stars. It's a guide sure and I made purchases based on them but the opinions of many readers on this forum are worth a great deal more. Especially as I'm married now and I have to select my books with a much stricter budget in mind!

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Attrition
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Re: Book Review: 'Raising Churchill's Army' by David French

Post by Attrition » 04 Nov 2008 14:07

I'm sure your wife would love a copy of 'Montgomery's Scientists: Operational Research in Northwest Europe - The Work of No. 2 Operational Research Section with 21 Amy Group June 1944 to July 1945' for christmas :lol: :lol: :lol:

I look at Amazon reviews but they're a mixed bag. My review of ED Brose's book on the Imperial German Army never saw the light of day which I put down to damning the prose and suggesting it be best read with the Red Pen at hand. I don't demand the writing of a supreme prose stylist but sentences that scan and make sense would be nice. Clearly an academic-aesthetic point of view isn't box-office :( . Stone & Stone are sometimes helpful (the reviews are a bit hit and miss but they are never short of space) and the newspapers sometimes notice books that are a little more ambitious that the 'pop-up book of beastly Huns'. I was amused by the reviews of Tooze's book, particularly the grudging tone that many of them took.

Here's one I prepared earlier;

'Dilemmas of the Desert War: The Libyan Campaign of 1940-1942' by Michael Carver.

A careful study of the 8th Army and the battle of Gazala with a brief description of the Desert War up to the battle and its consequences at Mersa Matruh and Alamein.

Carver demonstrates the value of an education in written English in this monograph as he elegantly anatomises the command of the 8th Army. He rehabilitates Ritchie as a maligned and scapegoated figure who was much more than the cipher of much post-war writing which blamed Ritchie for decisions taken by Auchinleck. It seems that he was badly let down by Auchinleck who allowed false claims about Ritchie to go uncorrected. Much criticism was that Ritchie was inexperienced in field command (true) and that he was a mere post box for Auchinleck (untrue). Carver states that the worst mistake Ritchie made was in loyally carrying out Auchinleck's order countermanding his order to evacuate Benghazi (after Rommel repulsed the covering forces near El Agheila in early 1942). From then on Ritchie had a burden of distrust which rightly belonged to Auchinleck from divisional Generals like Tuker (Indian 4th Infantry Div) . Some of them later felt that this was the start of the corrosive loss of confidence in command arrangements which did much to reduce the effectiveness of 8th Army at Gazala and beyond.

As far as Gazala is concerned your intrepid reader formed the impression that it was remarkably similar to Crusader and that in the end, it was (like Crusader) the side which attacked first which succeeded by forcing the defender to fight at an initial disadvantage when the deciding damage was done to its fighting power.

Carver shows with signals from Auchinleck, Ritchie and others that at the crucial time when Rommel was regrouping east of the minefields and sending transport back through them for supplies, the British thought that this movement was a pell-mell retreat and put their energies into plans for a 'left hook' through the desert to cut Rommel off. This misunderstanding deprived the British commanders of the incentive to attack the Afrika Korps when it was crippled by fuel shortage since their plans were much more ambitious. None of this was helped by sandstorms which hampered British air reconnaissance at what turned out to be crucial moments.

Both sides benefitted from signals intelligence but this didn't always reveal enemy intentions and at times allowed mistaken impressions to flourish. Carver explains that although many records were lost in the chaos and others weren't kept (unit signals logs etc) it is possible to construct a narrative with the remainder which in his view is far more critical of Auchinleck and Norrie (XXX Corps commander) than Ritchie.

Some of the details that emerge are consistent with the 'apres-post-revisionist' view of the British army in WWII, such as that the inferiority of British tank armament is exaggerated. The 2pdr gun was superior to the short 50mm and 75mm guns carried by Pz III and IV. Carver points out that there were few MkIII/IV Specials in the desert at the time and a considerable number of Grants and the first 6pdr anti-tank guns. Even with extra armour on German tanks the 2pdr was effective at up to 1000yds (allegedly). It was the long 50mm anti-tank gun and the few 88mm that did most damage to British tanks. Chronic dispersion is put into context - it was the dispersal of armoured regiments relative to each other that was faulty far more than armoured brigades being separated.

Carver makes a compelling claim that it was the vulnerability of infantry divisions on terrain where they needed machinery (which was in short supply) to dig in and which was pointless if it couldn't be done all-round being the greater dilemma in deciding 8th Army dispositions. Clearly the clever answer was to attack, which would make defences superfluous and this was Rommel's main advantage at Gazala. Because he struck first the British were always looking over their shoulder and trying to anticipate threats to the great supply dump they had built at the railhead outside Tobruk. For much of the Battle he made as many mistakes as the British who could have finished him off several times but for bad luck and unfortunate coincidences. As mentioned above, the British had benefitted from this in Operation Crusader since it had begun with the British seizing the initiative which forced these pressures on Rommel.

Since Carver was there he ventures several judgements which make interesting reading - He found the Corps Commander Norrie a consummate diplomat, popular with others but indecisive and tending to wait for Gott to tell him what to think. He found Gott to be an inspiration but so exhausted by the time he was appointed to command 8th Army that his death was a stroke of luck. Monty makes his entrance after Alam Halfa (more by coup d'etat than bureaucratic ritual) and purges the higher commanders much to Carver's satisfaction. The ability of Rommel with about 25 tanks and 2,500 men to rout the 8th Army from Mersa Matruh was a disgrace rather than a defeat; by then Ritchie had been sacked so was beyond blame.

He is rather waspish about Pienaar, commander of 1st South African Div, all but accusing him of shirking his duty and leaving 8th Army in the lurch several times. It makes a refreshing change for an Englishman to read of Dominion troops being criticised as feeble buck passers. :lol:

On the question of who made the decisions which led to the defeat of Rommel at Alamein, Carver finds in favour of Monty for realising that by bringing up infantry from the Delta a continuous front could be manned. Auchinleck's plan was for infantry to be held in positions along the coast road with armoured forces in between, similar to Gazala during the battle there.

Eythenkew!

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