Friday, May 3, 2013

Book Review: Brazen Chariots, by Major Robert Crisp

Aside from a few hurried skirmishes and the Defense of Arras in May, 1940, the first major clashes between Allied and Axis armor took place in North Africa, between 1940 and 1943. These battles back and forth across the top of an entire continent carry with them a great deal of grandly romantic mythology; the stalwart "Desert Rats" of the 8th army, defending the besieged Tobruk. The gallant 7th Armoured battling the Panzer divisions of the Afrika Corps in sweeping engagements across windswept desert plains. Taking place relatively early in the overall course of the war and all its horrors, many have labelled the North African campaign the "War Without Hatred" - that the two sides obeyed a kind of gentleman's code of conduct with respect to each other, and oh, if only the entire war could have been fought that way.

Of course, this is cold comfort for the thousands of Allied and Axis troops who burned to death in the red-hot cauldrons of dying tanks, their bodies turned to ash, their fat drizzling out in molten streams to cool like some kind of pudding in the sand beneath their metal coffins. Or all the men who'd been blown to bits by artillery duels, or turned to offal by the impact of fantastically powerful armor-piercing shells, weapons capable of punching through centimeters of armor plate. And let us not forget all the more mundane ways to die: cut down by machine gun or rifle fire, torn by mortar or artillery shrapnel, killed by infection or disease, or perhaps even slowly finished off by dehydration and exposure, lost and alone miles from friend or foe.

Brazen Chariots is Major Robert Crisp's first-person account of the days leading up to and during Operation Crusader, the great push by the Allied 8th Army in November-December of 1941 to drive Rommel and his Afrika Corps away from the besieged port city of Tobruk, among other objectives. Crisp was a lieutenant at the start of the operation, but was field-promoted to captain and given "C" squadron of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment. Rather than the already-obsolete British cruiser tanks built to play the role of mounted cavalry in British armored doctrine, Crisp's regiment was issued American-made M3 Stuart light tanks, the famous "Honeys" so nicknamed because of their reliability and performance, which were legendary compared to the older British cruisers of the time. Although outclassed in battle by the bigger Panzer MK IVs of the Afrika Corps, Crisp states the Honey Stuart could take on the Italian tanks in service at that time, as well as the Panzer MK IIs and (arguably) even the MK IIIs if the Honeys could get the right angle and range.

The book is short - a little over 200 pages of crisp, easy to read text. I was able to get through it in two afternoons, and it is quick to read and a definite page-turner. Crisp has a good eye for detail and his writing is "crisp" and enjoyable. You feel his fear at going into battle against superior German armor and numbers, horror at seeing his fellow tanks "brew up" and burn all about him, comrades blown to pieces by powerful 88s or cut down after bailing out of their perforated tanks before fire or subsequent hits killed the crew. Crisp maintains again and again that the most important thing for light tanks such as the Honey Stuarts was mobility - if your tank was immobile, your life was measured in seconds, not minutes.

Along with the terror of going toe-to-toe against Panzers, Crisp recalls battling against Axis anti-tank guns (which seemed far more dangerous and difficult to kill than I'd at first expect), being strafed by the Luftwaffe, suffering through artillery barrages, and even more boring dangers such as running out of petrol or breaking down in the desert, miles from friendly forces, as well as the anxiety of spotting an unknown vehicle approaching, and constantly having to make the determination of friend or foe...and knowing that you weren't always going to be correct.

All in all, if you have an interest in the North African campaign, of armored combat, or of the life of the British soldiers during the early days of WW2, I highly recommend Brazen Chariots. It is clearly a work that has withstood the test of decades of reading and examination, and deserves a home on the bookshelves of every WW2 enthusiast.


Charles Gramlich said...

I'm pretty sure I've read this. Need to check my goodreads. I had a history minor in undergrad school and was particularly interested in WWII, particularly the German military side of things. Read a lot of the books written about that era. Eventually I began to read less there simply because I couldn't keep up with all the fields I wanted to keep up with.

russell1200 said...

Niall Barr's Pendulum of War is excellent on this period of the war. Goes a long way toward showing how the British had a hard time keeping coordinated, and the Germans did not. It will teach you some respect for doctrine.

Cheeseheadaz said...

Read this book in the 60's and still feel it to be one of. The best books on tank warfare.