Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Some might be familiar with the theme of this book as Mark Urban presented a two-part series based on it, broadcast on BBC2 in early January. Why the book’s publication was not better tied in is a mystery to me.
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 absolutely 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.
The first half of the book chronicles 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 communications 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.”
The men, the Machines and the Long Road to Victory
Mark Urban, Little Brown, to be published 28 March 2013
ISBN 978 1 4087 0363 2