Book Review – British Armoured Divisions and their Commanders, 1939-1945

Richard Doherty, British Armoured Divisions and their Commanders, 1939-1945. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2013. Index. Bibliography. Illustrations. Appendix. Hbk 270 pp.

Reviewed by Alexander Clarke, PhD Candidate, King’s College London

armoured divisions

While ostensibly characterised as a naval historian, I could have specialised in two alternative areas. Firstly, the Roman Empire with a specific focus on the pre-Marian Republican Legions, their battles, campaigns and commanders, or second, the history of Armoured Warfare. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Liddell Hart’s A Greater than Napoleon: Scipio Africanus is a very well-thumbed member of my bookshelves and as such provides an interesting counterpoint to this work although it does not feature in Doherty’s bibliography – a not unexpected occurrence but something noticeable.[1]

Whilst not always an indicator of content, it is nice when a book is visually attractive; in this case it really is. The front cover is taken from an excellently atmospheric painting, by David Rowlands, of the 1St Royal Tank Regiment’s Cruiser Mk I and II tanks fighting the Italian’s at Beda Fomm. Within the covers, Doherty sets out a bold thesis, to re-write a common misconception as to the quality, capability and culpability of British Armour in the Second World War as exemplified by Beale’s Death by Design.[2] Doherty does this well providing a clear guide through a very complex part of history with a writing style that is naturally authoritative and factual, in a way that does not overwhelm or force conclusions but instead carries them along through a thought process. Whilst like any thought process there are eddies, and currents which do not always take the quickest or most straightforward route, the reader is never bored and if like me will not be able to put it down.

Doherty starts with an examination of pre-war procurement problems but does not seek to excuse mistakes or re-write history. However, Doherty considers how tiny decisions have a butterfly effect on the long-term nature of procurement such as producing two types of tanks; infantry and a cruiser tanks. Designed to support the infantry, the former were heavily armed and slow while the latter was like the cruisers it took its name from for breaking through and ranging the battlefield seeking to dominate the enemy. Coombs has recently re-assessed the problems of procurement and tank production.[3] After examining these pre-war years, Doherty moves on to analysing the progress of tanks and armour throughout the war, dividing it into ten chapters. Concentrating on the European and North African theatres, a major omission is any consideration of the role of armour in jungles of South-East Asia. However, this is most likely due to limitations of length, and that the British never deployed an armoured ‘Division’ to that theatre though brigades played a prominent role in battles of 1944 and 1945. That is more than excusable though because of the overall quality of the research.

‘First Blood: France 1940’ is the first chapter that really deals with the war, and the performance of the divisions and their commanders and the unfortunate truth is that the war started very inauspiciously. The armoured divisions that the British Army did possess were not ready, and 1st Armoured Division was deployed piecemeal to France. Doherty delves deeply into this failure and the reasons behind this and the effect it had while also contrasting it with the German situation. Doherty makes the apt point that German armour at that time was not really any better than the British, or French. They certainly did not have the technical superiority that became a feature later in the war. However, the Germans were able to use their armour better because they had a better understanding of their operational employment in conjunction with other arms.

In comparison to France, armour in the desert seems to have been better organised and prepared for war, which was perhaps a result of their distance from the War Office, which gave them some freedom from ministerial micromanagement. Another possibility is the combination of personalities involved in the development of armoured forces in the Middle East. Notable were Major General Percy Hobart who was the first commander of the Mobile Division (Egypt), which later became the 7thArmoured Division, and the Brigade Major of the Light Armoured Brigade, Charles Keightley, who spent time in Germany with their panzer divisions’ pre-war (pp. 31-32). Well trained under Hobart’s command, the Mobile Division went to war under Major General Michael O’Moore Creagh and illustrated its effectiveness as a division during Operation COMPASS. Covered in the chapter ‘War in the Desert’, Doherty describes operations from COMPASS to BATTLEAXE in detail, as these were arguably the high and low points for British and Commonwealth armour performance in the North Africa campaign.

Hobart returns to his training role in the chapter ‘Preparing for Overlord’, first commanding 11th Armoured Division and then subsequently 79th Armoured Division. Hobart was relieved from command of 11th Armoured at the point it was declared combat ready after he failed to pass a medical exam (p. 141). However, had this not happened then Hobart would not have taken command of the 79th Armoured and been intimately involved in the development of specialist armour and associated personnel that played a vital role during Operation OVERLORD and throughout the North-West European campaign. However, the most interesting story in this chapter is the formation of the Guards Armoured Division. As Doherty notes, selected for the transition in 1941, the Guards:

…had the officers and men of the right type available, they could be converted probably more quickly than other units, and a large number of officers in the Brigade, holding the general view that armour rather than infantry was becoming the predominant arm, were keen to embark on the venture (p. 140)

Clearly, several critical factors merged at an important time when the need for more armour was critical. However, clearly the perceived professionalism of the Guards regiments was a key factor for their selection. Doherty covers the above divisions’ performance in the campaign in North-West Europe but it would be useful to read this in conjunction with Buckley’s authoritative British Armour in the Normandy Campaign, which has exploded many of the myths surrounding British armour’s performance in this campaign.[4]

While the battles in North-West Europe were gruelling, it is arguable that it was those fought by 1st and 6th Armoured Divisions in Italy that encountered the most challenging operational conditions. These battles, fought in the heart of the Apennine Mountains, forced armour to stick to the roads where difficult terrain offered numerous opportunities for ambushes, as there was little room for manoeuvre or envelopment that were the hallmarks of the use of armour elsewhere in the war (p. 209). The chapter, ‘Finale in Italy’, goes into the details of the campaign and the adaptations that allowed divisions to get over obstacles. For example, in the summer of 1944, Allied engineers constructed 856 Bailey Bridges between Operation DIADEM, Fourth Battle of Monte Cassino, and Operation OLIVE, the assault on the Gothic Line. Doherty makes clear that the armoured divisions were overcoming nature as much as they were fighting the enemy.

 Doherty’s key conceptual criticism is aimed at the idea of the infantry tank and its dispersion within infantry formations that emerged during the inter war years. Indeed, Doherty, using Generaloberst Heinz Guderian to support his contention, argues that it would have been best if:

…infantry, artillery and engineers would be motorized and partially armoured ‘within the framework of the armoured division and the motorized infantry division’ (p. 17)

While, perhaps, an understandable criticism, most infantry tanks deployed in independent tank brigades and not in the armoured divisions themselves and thus did not overly affect their employment. However, as Buckley illustrates, the British did eventually evolve effective all-arms brigade groups within the armoured division and that most of the independent brigades integrated effectively with infantry division that they supported to achieve the symbiosis suggested by Guderian.

Overall, this book is definitely one to read even if there is not a specific interest in the topic. Apart from works already mentioned, other books to be read in conjunction with this useful introduction to the subject includes Close’s memoir Tank Commander, Mark Urban’s The Tank War, and Kershaw’s Tank Men.[5]

Citation: Alexander Clarke, ‘Review of Richard Doherty, British Armoured Divisions and their Commanders, 1939-1945’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 31 December 2013

You can download a copy of this review here.

[1] Basil Liddell Hart, A Greater than Napoleon: Scipio Africanus (Edinburgh: Blackwood and Sons, 1926).

[2] Peter Beale, Death by Design: British Tank Development in the Second World War (Stroud: Sutton, 1998).

[3] Benjamin Coombs, British Tank Production and the War Economy, 1934-1945 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013). For a review of this important work see: Jonny Briggs, ‘Review of Benjamin Coombs, British Tank Production and the War Economy, 1934-1945, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 20 December 2013.

[4] John Buckley, British Armour in the Normandy Campaign, 1944 (Abingdon: Routledge, 1944).

[5] Bill Close, Tank Commander: From the fall of France to the Defeat of Germany – The Memoirs of Bill Close (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2013 [2002]); Mark Urban, The Tank War: The Men, the Machines and the Long Road to Victory (London: Little Brown, 2013); Robert Kershaw, Tank Men; The Human Story of Tanks at War (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2008).


2 responses to “Book Review – British Armoured Divisions and their Commanders, 1939-1945

  1. Many thanks to Alex for an entertaining and enjoyable review. I feel, as a land historian, that I should reset the balance of the universe by reviewing a book on British battleships of the Second World War! Beale’s “Death by Design” is disparaged by friends of mine who are British armour specialists (academic and not) almost in terms comparable to Winter’s “Haig’s Command” for World War 1, so I’m glad to see it continued here. There is a overdue review to correct the conventional wisdom that British tank design was lacking compared with the ‘genius’ of German types and we were only saved by American production of Grants and Shermans. It is arguable that types such as the Comet and Centurion were brilliant, but too little to late – but British adaption of American designs in mid/late war (such as the Firefly) were equally adept. My only reservation, with a former professional and abiding academic interest in biographical intelligence, is that the subtitle “…and their Commanders” was less examined. Given that the aforementioned specialists have derided this book overall, I might have liked more on this aspect.

  2. I agree a bit more on the GOCs would have been helpful, especially since it seems that they were at least partially responsible for some of the bigger desasters befalling armoured divisions. I am thinking of Gott’s inability to concentrate his armour leading to Bir el Gobi/Sidi Rezegh and Messervy’s inability to fight his division at Saunnu leading to the reconquest of Cyrenaica by a token German force.

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