Tank War tells the story of the 5th Royal Tank Regiment from the debacle of Dunkirk to the end of the war. It’s informative book and gives details of the major tank battles in North Africa, Italy and northern Europe, following one particular group of soldiers from beginning to the end.
At the outbreak of the war in France British tanks were outgunned and outmanoeuvred, though some were able to reach Brest, Cherbourg or St Malo, from where they were evacuated. In this opening chapter we are given brief pen portraits of the members of the squadron, and the events leading up to the evacuation. Later we follow the developments in personnel and equipment in England in the summer of 1940, and the eventual arrival in North Africa later that year.
Urban tells the stories of each of the soldiers who were part of the group and this is an interesting part of the narrative throughout the book. He also shares the soldiers’ views of the different tanks they had at their disposal, comparing the British, American and German tanks that were deployed at various points during the war. He makes it clear that it was Hitler’s focus on the Russian Front that enabled the allies to get the upper hand in North Africa, though he is very supportive of Montgomery. Later he is equally clear about the tactical achievements of D-Day, when one panzer group was held back in Normandy, suggesting that if this group had been deployed against the landings, the war might have turned out very differently. By the later stages of the war the German tanks were huge – the size of two trams – and able to outgun the allies’ vehicles, so that tactics used in Northern Europe needed to take account of this.
The book traces the development of the British tank brigades, claiming that the influence of the old cavalry regiments hampered the development of effective tactics, slowing the development of effective tank warfare. There are other comments that reveal the divided and ineffectual nature of aspects of British society – such as the relative unreliability of the British tanks at the beginning of the war, compared to the US machines: he relates this to the role of the skilled British workman – who expected to fine tune and and maintain vehicles, whilst in America the tanks were mass produced to a finer tolerance.
The cover compares this book to Band of Brothers, but I think anyone who chose it because of that comparison would be disappointed. It doesn’t have the same kind of intimate and racy descriptions of the soldiers’ lives – it’s more academic and formal. Nevertheless, this is a good choice for anyone interested in WW2 and military history.