The Campaign for North Africa
Jack Coggins’ The Campaign for North Africa continues his writing about men and war. His earlier works include The Campaign for Guadalcanal, The Fighting Man, and Arms and Equipment of the Civil War. Coggins brings to his writing experience gained while serving as an artist-correspondent with both the United States and British armies and navies during World War II. He has illustrated the book himself and has drawn some eighty maps intended to illuminate the fighting.
This is a very complex story covering the years 1940-1943. It deals with battles fought on difficult and little-known terrain by a variety of land, sea, and air forces of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. It is complicated by the murky diplomacy of Vichy French North Africa and the special problems of a new American Army learning war. In another way, however, it is a fairly neat campaign, restricted to the north coast of Africa, especially to the western half. Forces engaged were not the massive millions of the Russian Front or the European Theater of Operations in 1944- 1945. This is a story that can be told in one volume and Coggins tells it clearly and well.
Although the center of the work is the American-British “Torch” landings in November, 1942, and the subsequent campaigns in Tunisia, the author takes the first sixty pages, as he must, to set the stage. He uses some excellent maps, a summary description of all the nations and lands around the Mediterranean, and an extensive chronology taking the war month by month from June, 1940, to November, 1942. At least a passing knowledge of the geography of North Africa is essential to an understanding of the campaign and Coggins provides it. The Western Desert which stretched more than five hundred miles west from the Nile was a very different battleground from the rugged hill country which began in Tunisia and continued west to the Atlantic. The latter is milder in climate, wet and muddy in fall and winter with cold rains, frost, and occasional snow. This was not only a surprise to the American troops, but it also made it impossible to fight the vast, sweeping tank battles dreamed of by American armored commanders and which had taken place farther east.
Coggins sets the combat stage by studying these eastern battles in 1941-1942 between the German Afrika Korps and their Italian allies with the British 8th Army. This plan is a useful device which allows him to introduce armored tactics in desert warfare, many of the weapons (guns, tanks, airplanes, mines), and the difficulties facing troops and commanders. His descriptions and drawings of the weapons are careful and thorough. He details the order of battle of the forces involved and their commanders along with the number of tanks and guns available to both sides.
The author is obviously intrigued with the Battle of El Alamein in November, 1942, and this section contains some of his most dramatic prose. He balances nicely the plans and problems of the British commander, General Bernard Law Montgomery, and the difficulties faced by the Germans and Italians, under-equipped and at the end of a very long, tenuous supply line. His assessment of Montgomery is fair and standard. Flexible in attack, dramatic and driving to encourage his troops, he seems somewhat laggard in pursuit.
The Battle of El Alamein concludes at the same moment as the Americans and British are landing in Operation Torch two thousand miles and more farther west at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. The hope of the Allies was to slide easily and quickly past the Vichy French defenders, achieve a cease fire, and then pour troops into Tunisia before the Germans and Italians could occupy that strategic center of North Africa. The race was lost. Putting ashore more than 100,000 men from 370 merchant ships and more than three hundred naval vessels was a momentous adventure, especially for amateurs early in our war. Coggins, with great precision and perhaps too much detail, studies each of the landings, the limited but sometimes spirited French Resistance, and the trials and tribulations attendant to any amphibious operation. One senses,...
(The entire section is 1705 words.)