The tactics that brought victory to British armored forces in North Africa in the fall of 1940 were inspired by the bold flanking maneuvers carried out by Sir Edmund Allenby’s cavalry during World War I.
A lopsided pincers movement became the British army’s favored tactic in war games during the two decades between the end of World War I and the start of World War II. While a large, slow-moving force engaged the full attention of the enemy, a smaller and more mobile force would make a wide turning movement through undefended territory to strike a hard blow against a soft spot in the enemy formations. In the week-long army maneuvers of 1925, for example (the first such exercises the British had held in thirteen years), both sides employed this technique, using infantry and lumbering heavy tanks to fix the enemy to the front while horse cavalry, light tanks, and armored cars made wide detours in search of a vulnerable flank.
In some respects, the tactics used during the large-scale field exercise of 1925 were a product of peacetime conditions. After all, exercises in which earth-shaking, eardrum-splitting, lung-bursting explosions are represented by a few words spoken by a major with a clipboard have often been characterized by a bias in favor of movement. Nonetheless, the attempts to outflank opposing units during the army maneuvers of 1925 bore little resemblance to the shallow envelopments and oblique attacks that had been so much in evidence in British sham battles of the years before 1914. Traced on a map, the flanking actions of 1912 or so resembled straight pins that had been bent. Those of 1925 had more in common with fishing hooks.
The fashion for wide turning movements seems to have been inspired by one of the few unambiguous victories the British army won during World War I, the battle at Beersheba in what was then Ottoman-occupied Palestine on October 31, 1917. In that battle the infantry, field guns, and heavy howitzers of the XX Corps attacked Ottoman defensive positions west of the ancient village while Field Marshal Edmund Allenby sent the mounted infantry and horse cavalry of the Desert Mounted Corps on a wide detour through the desert to attack from the east.
Culminating in the famous charge of the Australian Light Horse, the exploits of the Desert Mounted Corps were more spectacular than the pedestrian achievements of the XX Corps. Nonetheless, the bombardments and assaults carried out by the XX Corps performed the indispensable service of drawing Ottoman attention away from the place where the latter formation planned to attack.
Conditions that might be hard to replicate in future wars, however, had made Allenby’s victory at Beersheba possible. The Turks had disposed their troops at Beersheba based on the false belief that the desert east of the town was so inhospitable to man and beast that no British formation could attack from that direction. Thus rather than facing fully manned, well-built defensive positions, the Desert Mounted Corps encountered a screening detachment that had not only failed to build barbed-wire obstacles but also neglected to dig proper trenches.
The troops manning these shallow ditches, moreover, lacked the skill to make full use of their weapons. In the aftermath of the battle, British officers discovered that the Ottoman rifles had their sights set for long-range fire. Many bullets that might otherwise have found victims within the ranks of the Desert Mounted Corps had passed harmlessly over the heads of the men attacking from the desert.
Descriptions of the Battle of Beersheba that appeared in the British military press in the years after World War I made no secret of the special conditions that had permitted those tactics to succeed. But that did little to prevent visions of lopsided pincers movements from taking root in the British military imagination. Indeed, at a time when the most heated question of the day was the pace of mechanization, both the defenders of the horse and the advocates of armored warfare found common ground in the image of small, highly mobile forces smashing into the flanks of enemy formations.
In 1924 an amendment to Field Service Regulations provided a general framework for the combined arms tactics of the British, the manual that army, explicitly endorsed this curious convergence of opinion. “Owing to their mobility,” the manual stated, “tanks may sometimes be employed, especially in conjunction with cavalry, to make a wide turning movement around the enemy’s flank, against his reserves and the flanks or rear of his gun positions and his headquarters.”
During the decade that followed the maneuvers of 1925, advances in automotive technology strengthened the position of wide turning movements within the tactical repertoire of the British army. But while the most sophisticated armored warfare theorists believed that the future belonged to reasonably fast tanks weighing twenty tons or so, the transmissions and suspensions needed to make such vehicles mechanically reliable had yet to be perfected. (Even under ideal circumstances, the handful of British twenty-ton tanks in existence in the 1920s traveled at less than ten miles per hour.)
To preserve force structure for the day when suitable vehicles became available, the British army equipped its tank battalions with lighter tanks of various sorts, the heaviest of which weighed thirteen tons. By the standards of the day, these “light” and “medium” tanks moved extremely fast, with road speeds of twenty miles per hour or more. However, their armor was thin and their armament light. Because of these limitations, British tank battalions became the mechanical equivalents of the mounted brigades that had fought at Beersheba—units that, while capable of rapid movement, lacked the ability to deal with serious resistance.
By the late 1930s, engineers had solved the technical problems that had previously prevented the manufacture of reasonably fast twenty-ton tanks. Some armies, such as those of Germany and the Soviet Union, exploited that advance to develop the immediate precursors of the main battle tanks of World War II—vehicles that possessed a good balance of speed, armor, and firepower.
The British army, however, took a different path. Rather than buying general-purpose tanks, it began ordering two very different kinds of tracked armored fighting vehicles. Tanks of the first kind, known as cruisers or cavalry tanks, were essentially faster versions of the thinly armored thirteen-ton tanks acquired in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Tanks of the second type, called infantry tanks, carried much better armor but moved considerably slower than their predecessors.
Replacing general-purpose tanks with specialized vehicles led to the creation of specialized brigades. Some of these, which exclusively employed infantry tanks within the framework of army corps, were known as army tank brigades. The others, equipped with cruiser tanks, were called armored brigades. While army tank brigades were autonomous units, easily moved from one army corps to another, armored brigades formed the armored element of mobile divisions. These formations replaced cavalry divisions in mobilization plans. They were custom-tailored to the task of conducting wide turning movements. (This tactic was deemed so important that the small force of infantry, field artillery, and antitank troops assigned to each mobile division took the name pivot group.)
In March 1939, the British government responded to the German invasion of Czechoslovakia by ordering the formation of four mobile divisions and five army tank brigades. But World War II broke out before all (or even most) of the new tanks these organizations needed could be built. On May 10, 1940, when Germany launched its invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern France, the 1st Army Tank Brigade, the single army tank brigade serving with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), was missing one of its three battalions, and the only mobile division with a full complement of tanks (the 1st Armored Division) was still in England.
In the desperate days that followed, neither the army tank brigade nor the mobile division (which had been hastily dispatched across the English Channel in response to the German offensive) could perform its definitive functions. At Arras the 1st Army Tank Brigade launched a counterattack that may well have kept the Germans from surrounding the main body of the BEF. In doing so, however, the infantry tanks attacked into the depth of the German position, where—lacking support from friendly forces—they had no means of dealing with the large-caliber, high-velocity guns the Germans deployed against them.
On the Somme the two armored brigades of the 1st Armored Division found themselves cut off from the rest of the BEF Attached to separate French formations, each went forward in frontal assaults against German antitank guns.
Conditions for employing British armored forces were much more favorable during the first year of the war in North Africa. There, the theater of operations was essentially a scaled-up version of Ottoman Palestine—a long, narrow plain, with the Mediterranean Sea on one side and a vast desert on another. The difference in scale, moreover, corresponded to the difference in rates of movement between horse-powered forces and motorized ones. That is to say, while the battleground in North Africa was five times as large as the one that Allenby had dealt with in World War I, a cruiser tank was five times faster than a man on horseback.
In addition, the Italian forces in North Africa had much more in common with the Ottoman armies of 1917 than with the German armies of 1940. Although the individual Italian soldier was as brave as any other, deficiencies in leadership, training, equipment, and logistics left most Italian formations poorly prepared to deal with unexpected circumstances.
On December 9, 1940, Operation Compass, the first British offensive of the war in North Africa, began when the Western Desert Force made a sixty-mile march through the desert to cut off a significant portion of the Italian Tenth Army. While the 7th Armored Division pushed on toward the sea, the other elements of this task force—a motorized infantry division and a battalion of infantry tanks—reduced a series of fortified camps that dominated the coastal plain. This done, the Western Desert Force turned east, executing a pincers maneuver against the Italian garrison at Sidi Barrâni that persuaded the better part of five Italian divisions to surrender.
In the weeks that followed, the Western Desert Force pushed west along the coastal plain, using its infantry and infantry tanks to fix Italian forces to the front while the cruiser tanks of the 7th Armored Division made wide turning movements through the desert. The most spectacular of these marches was the last, a trek of 150 miles accomplished in less than thirty hours that succeeded in blocking the Italian line of retreat at Beda Fomm. Two days later, the last of the hundred and thirty thousand Italian soldiers to surrender in this campaign marched off to captivity.
Operation Compass was an unqualified victory, not only for the British Empire but also for the British approach to armored warfare. But British operations based on armored divisions making wide turning movements would soon come to an end.
The success of Operation Compass convinced Adolf Hitler to form a custom-tailored antitank division for service with the Italian forces in North Africa. With 115 antitank guns and sixty-nine tanks, this Obstacle Formation Libya (Sperrverband Libyen) was well suited to the task of catching fast-moving tank units in ambushes. Within a few weeks of its arrival in Banghazi this curious organization would be joined by the other elements of the soon-to-be-famous Afrika Korps. The age of Allenby tactics had ended; that of Rommel tactics was about to begin.
Bruce I. Gudmundsson, a military historian who specializes in issues related to organizational change, is the author of Storm Troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918 (Praeger, 1995), On Artillery (Praeger, 1993), and On Armor (Praeger, 2004).
Originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.