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Brazen Chariots: A Tank Commander in Operation Crusader

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A tank officer's story of the desert war in North Africa, Brazen Chariots is one of the most widely praised war books ever published. Major Robert Crisp recounts Operation Crusader, the great tank battle waged against Rommel's Afrika Korps on the borders of Egypt.

224 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1961

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About the author

Robert Crisp

10 books8 followers
Robert Crisp was a South African cricketer who played in nine Tests from 1935 to 1936 before living for a while in England. He appeared for Rhodesia, Western Province, Worcestershire and South Africa.

He went on to a career in journalism and writing, publishing several accounts of his career in World War II, and earning a reputation as an adventurer.

Crisp served during World War II in the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, later writing two books documenting his experiences: The Gods Were Neutral and Brazen Chariots. These books covered his combat during the early part of the war, first during the British retreat in Greece, then the victory that followed in North Africa. He was decorated for his bravery during the North African campaign, and was also wounded there, nearly dying several times from shrapnel in his skull as well as subsequent infection. Crisp ended the war with a Military Cross, Distinguished Service Order, and four "Mentioned in Dispatches".

He went on to a career as a journalist, writing for Wisden and several newspapers. He sailed Greece, climbed mountains, farmed minks in England, and wrote for the East Anglian Daily Times.

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5 stars
125 (38%)
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128 (39%)
3 stars
60 (18%)
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9 (2%)
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Displaying 1 - 29 of 29 reviews
Profile Image for Jonathan.
700 reviews76 followers
April 18, 2021
Excellent first hand account warts n all (Including a devastating friendly fire incident that was their fault).
Profile Image for Antoine Vanner.
Author 15 books43 followers
August 27, 2015
This book communicates, like no other I have read, just what it was like to fight in a tank in the North African campaigns of WW2. In contrast to Crisp's other book, "The Gods were Neutral", he concentrates on a very short period indeed and tells day by day of his experiences in Operation Crusader, the effort to relieve the siege of Tobruk in December 1941. Crisp, a tank commander, had several tanks destroyed under him in the space of a few days and yet he, and his crews continued on doggedly against all odds. One of the most moving passages in the book is when one of his wounded crew-members is taken away and asks if he may address him on this occasion by his Christian name. It is one thing to read high level accounts of complex battles of manoeuvre such as Crusader, with an all-seeing eye describing thrusts and parries by arrows on maps, but Crisp is masterful in conveying the short-term perspective of the men on the ground who have little appreciation of the overall situation and are concentrated only on survival in the next hours and even minutes. Fear, exhaustion and bewilderment are convincingly portrayed but the overall memory of this book is of the sheer bloody-minded commitment of men on both sides to stand by their comrades and to do their duty at whatever cost. Crisp's book is a paean to the greatness of the human spirit in extremity - read it!
Profile Image for Al.
412 reviews25 followers
March 16, 2011
This is a much better effort than MAJ Crisp's first book, The Gods Were Neutral. However, I disagree with the prevailing reviews of this book. It's a good account of British armor operations against Rommel, but it's not great. MAJ Crisp was a tank commander on an M3 Stuart tank, which was one of the lightest tanks produced by the U.S., but not used much after 1943. In only had a 37mm main gun, and VERY thin armor. MAJ Crisp's account is of interest mainly because it's desert warfare and he was in a clearly inferior vehicle to what the German army possessed. Not a bad read, maybe even a classic account, but certainly no more than 3 stars.
Profile Image for Wai Zin.
112 reviews7 followers
December 31, 2021
A British army tank commander described his experiences during Operation Crusader.

He tell the story very clearly and make you feel like you are with him on his Honey tank.

Clashes between two mobile adversaries on the featureless desert is very confusing. Most of the time, they were never sure who they were shooting. Author tell his own heartbreaking friendly fire incident.

Also I can’t help admiring the the very hard working B echelon troops who kept the supply chains for the fighting units.

I dare say this is one of the best book for a military history buff.

Profile Image for Rick.
240 reviews2 followers
March 14, 2012
Crisp's memoir of desert tank warfare during Operation Crusader (late 1941, designed to relieve Tobruk) is held up as a classic of the genre. First published in 1959 (or thereabouts), it is breezy and dry, like a fine English G&T. Crisp does a fine job of conveying what it was like to be a tank commander in a Lee Tank (called by the Brits 'Honeys'), particularly all the 'swanning about' that he drily recounts. He also provides a nice picture of some of daily life of members of the 8th army - the desperate need to 'brew up', the lack of sleep and concurrent need to 'leaguer up', and so forth. As a memoir, this is perhaps what is expected. Still, it is not completely satisfying. Crips doesn't make an effort to explain broader strategy or to contextualize his experiences - one will need to consult other works for this sort of thing. Additionally, Crisp leavens his work with plenty of upper-class army slang from the period - again, this offers verisimilitude, but can be off-putting for a younger generation of readers (even those who are well educated). All in all I respect the book as an important icon of British war memoirs, but found it unsatisfying as an account of the campaign or even as a social history of the 8th army.
Profile Image for Iain.
594 reviews4 followers
September 15, 2012
A very well written account of a tank commander's life during Operation Crusader. I especially liked the vignettes and descriptions of daily life. The risks taken by the "B echelon" supply forces are hailed throughout. Crusader was spearhead by Recon units, followed by fuel trucks, followed by the tanks. The tanks were literally following chains of fuel dumps left by the supply trucks.

The descriptions of battles was well done too. The reader can see the tracer rounds ricocheting off the Jerry armor and up into the sky.

The ferocity of the action is perhaps best summarized by the following paragraph early in the book:

"According to Gatehouse's records [the brigadier of the 4th Armd], the brigade was in action continuously for the first fourteen days of this period without rest or maintenance, and with an average of two battles a day; the brigade centre line covered 1,700 miles and many unit tanks traveled over 3,000; 172 Honeys [M3 Stuarts] were knocked out by the enemy in five weeks (the total strength was 163) and I myself had six tanks knocked out; the average sleep for commanders during the fourteen days was one and a half hours in twenty four; at the end of the campaign the 400 tanks under Rommel's command had been reduced to 58."
Profile Image for Edoardo Albert.
Author 49 books129 followers
January 28, 2022
Some men are bigger than their books. Brazen Chariots is an undoubted classic of tank warfare in the desert during the Second World War but, for Bob Crisp, it was a memoir of just a couple of years in a life of extraordinary adventure.

First, the book: it conveys the heat, the dust, the confusion and, tellingly, the exhiliration that some men feel during combat. Crisp was one such man: extreme situations plugged him into the mains current of life and he revelled in them as much as it's possible to revel in a battle where death and injury is a constant companion. Brazen Chariots is a brilliant account of fighting in tanks in the desert. But it is only a small part of Crisp's story.

Not a family man, Crisp nevertheless fathered two sons, who learned of their father's exploits during the Second World War by reading about them in a comic: Crisp's adventures were featured as true-life story of heroism. By that time, Crisp had left their mother. There were many, many women in Crisp's life. His portrait gives a picture of the man.

It's the sort of half smile to break many a girl's heart. But generally Crisp left his women happy. Towards the end of his life, when he lived in Greece, one of Crisp's sons flew out to meet his father again. Walking into a taverna, he found his father surrounded by ten adoring women, ranging from 20 to 50. Crisp was living in Greece because, aged 60, he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Faced with death (again) Crisp decided to walk around Crete with a donkey. Rather than dying, he thrived, attracting legions of besotted women.

This was par for his wayward course. Crisp was also a cricketer, good enough to play for South Africa in test matches and the only man to have taken four wickets in four balls twice. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twice, the second time having to carry his climbing partner, who had broken his leg on the ascent, back down the mountain.

A South African, Crisp was also one of the founders of Drum newspaper, a radical paper for the black townships of his country. As was the pattern of his life, Crisp later fell out with his partners and went off to try something new: running a mink farm, writing for newspapers, gambling.

Nothing else ever really had the intensity of warfare: Crisp had six tanks shot or burned out under him during the war; he was mentioned in dispatches four times, awarded the Military Cross and would have received the Victoria Cross if General Montgomery had not personally stopped the award on account of Crisp's lack of respect for senior officers and ill-discipline.

Some men are bigger than their books. Crisp towered over his.
Profile Image for Neil Funsch.
134 reviews18 followers
January 16, 2018
A very readable and enjoyable account of a troop commander (3 tanks) fighting in the desert against Rommel during the 28 days or so of the Crusader battle. The author has 5 tanks either destroyed or put out of action under him during the fighting. It is too bad that it is only 182 pages and the copy I purchased is the ancient (1961) paperback and the map is unreadable so be sure to go online and print one out if you want to follow the course of the action. It is described as a classic and one of the very best accounts of men in combat and I would have to agree. The author writes well having been a journalist and his style is just light and self deprecating enough to read as easily as fiction. His backstory is interesting as well and I would recommend looking at his Wikipedia profile. I am looking forward to reading the other and lesser known book of his account of his experiences in the Greek campaign which precedes this story. Highly recommended.
7 reviews1 follower
May 22, 2019
I've read Brazen Chariots possibly 10 times since 1975; loved it every time. I've been reading war history (sad, but true; gotta learn tho) since I was eight in 1953, and I'd rate this book at one of the top ten ever done in English. It should be combined with The Gods Were Neutral however, to really get the full flavor of the British Army's misadventures in Greece and North Africa.
That Crisp was a professional writer is evident; he's got it down pat. The maps in my paperback edition are poor, tho typically most of this type display maps that have half the locales mentioned in the text not included; luckily I have a pictorial history that was annotated by an 8th Army squaddie (who had a very bad time of it, not surprisingly) to help out. Heartily recommended for accuracy, humor, and 'you are there' immediacy!
January 31, 2020
Terrific story of what it was like to endure the "boring-to-terror" routine that typifies warfare in every age, in every kind of combat.

I have no idea why the publisher put a picture of a German tank, a Panzer Mk III, on the cover of Major Crisp's book, since most of the import of the story revolves around his use of a small American tank called the M3 Stuart, which his troop nicknamed the "Honey".

That's just wrong.

Go back, if you can, and look at earlier editions to see the correct representation.
Profile Image for Cadhla Logan.
3 reviews
January 23, 2022
I read all tank warfare from World War Two that I can find, so it is with high interest I found Robert Crisp's BRAZEN CHARIOTS... The story of Operation Crusader in North Africa is a fascinating one. This book is richly detailed and the writing style is muted, carrying the story forward; my only complaint is that the author reached at times for just the right simile or metaphor and at that point the writing itself would detract. But overall, a great read, a fine account of tank warfare!
Profile Image for Tim Deforest.
384 reviews
June 24, 2022
A memoir of a British officer who commanded a tank during World War 2. He vividly recounts his experiences during Operation Crusader in late 1941, when the British clashed with Rommel's troops in a confused battle that lasted over a month.

During this time, no one ever seemed to more than partially understand the overall battle situation. Crisp would be ordered to travel from one point to another seemingly at random. Battles with the Germans occurred with similar randomness. Logistics and supplies were always uncertain. Crisp and his fellow soldiers are perpetually on the brink of exhaustion and often fighting on despite being wounded. The desert terrain is almost as much an enemy as are the Germans.

Crisp--an excellent writer--gives us an edge-of-your-seat account of the battle as seen from his point-of-view. Especially memorable is the day his tank was all that stood between an important airfield and advancing German tanks.

"Brazen Chariots" is a must-read memoir for any WW2 buff.
6 reviews
April 5, 2022
A very interesting story of a tank commander's perspective of war in North Africa. Mostly it seems to be a lot of charging hither and thither, with no-one really knowing what is going on. Definitely worth a read if you have an interest in the North African campaign (although it's not a detailed account of the battle).
72 reviews1 follower
April 17, 2022
This is an anecdotal history, a good description of what it was like to be in the confusing battles during Operation Crusader. Yet it is not a history of the battle, and one does not get a sense of what is going on. There is no "big picture" stuff to give you context. Although well written, it reads like a novel without a plot. It is a quick read though.
2 reviews
December 12, 2018
Amazing book that is down to earth in it's tone without being overly simple. He keeps it neat without missing out on details that you want to hear. His story telling is very vivid and at times even funny.
Profile Image for Maverick.
19 reviews
January 20, 2019
Classical elucidation of battle field and it's trechourous routine. Ideally suited for young leaders in uniform to understand the battle field before practically experiencing it. People outside combat profession may enjoy the crescendo as emotional fiction, however impacts are likely........
Profile Image for Robert MacKenzie.
Author 5 books5 followers
March 19, 2019
I recently got to sit in an M-47 Patton tank, which inspired me to re-read this account of armored warfare in North Africa in WW2. Crisp, an officer in the British 3rd Royal tank regiment, provides vivid descriptions of combat while locked in a horrible steel box.
October 25, 2020
This is the definitive personal remembrance of the war in the Western Desert. Brutal, confusing, exhausting. In other words, showing how war is experienced by those at the tip of the spear. And poorly led from above.
Profile Image for Jack Hwang.
359 reviews6 followers
July 23, 2019
A great recall of the early desert war in 1941. Definitely a classic.
Profile Image for Jason.
110 reviews
April 3, 2022
This book is lauded as the finest account of WW2 tank warfare written, and it might be that. But unlike other tankers' accounts, there's no blood and guts or graphic descriptions of violence; Bob is too classy for that. The main message for me was how utterly futile it was to try to conduct any kind of organised campaign in a vast featureless landscape such as North Africa. Bob really puts you in the picture for that!
Profile Image for Martin Koenigsberg.
742 reviews1 follower
June 18, 2021
In November and December of 1941, Rommel's Axis Panzer Army Afrika (about 2/3 Italian) battled it out with the British Imperial 8th Army in a battle now remembered s "Operation Crusader". In that battle Robert "Bob" Crisp, famous as a Cricket player for South Africa in the 30s, commanded a tank, and then a Squadron of them- driving from just above Bardia on the Coast to several crossing of the Sidi Rezegh ridge, until a sudden surprise ending. This is tank war without GPS locations, Identification Friend or Foe electronics, without clear Radio nets, and with dodgy 1940s technology for living in the Desert. It's just a daily tick tock of the battle- as the Brits get to know their new American-Made M3 "Honey" light tanks- and fight confusion and the Germans at the same time.

As Crisp points out several times- their speedy and reliable steeds had mediocre armour and a pop-gun like 37mm "Anti-Tank Gun"- that had been passed by in 1939 by German Tank Armour on their Medium Mk III and Mk IVs - that were now the Mainstay of the Afrika Korps Panzer Regiments. So the "Honeys" (the US Called them Stuarts-after the ACW General) had to be creative if they wanted to actually knock out a Panzer. And they had to stay away from the Germans' 50mm or 75mm guns that were much more powerful. And then there were the dug in 88s, that could "Brew Up" a tank from thousands of yards away.... It is really compelling reading as the seemingly casual Brits and Colonials (South Africans and New Zealanders) face random death in the desert.

There are adult themes and some graphic injury descriptions, so this is best read by Junior readers over about 12. For the Gamer/Modeller/Military Enthusiast, this is a really great resource. While it's mainly background material for understanding the 8th Army/Afrika Korps struggle, there are more than enough days' that can be used to develop Scenarios and Dioramas. In fact I could see a club making this into a BattleGroup/Flames of War/Bolt Action/Angriff campaign all on its own merits. Read this book- it's part of the WWII Memoir Canon.....
Profile Image for Sonny.
40 reviews1 follower
March 12, 2009
Excellent. A very good piece of writing, here, which makes one think of Ernie Pyle. The author, Maj. Crisp, gives a wonderful insight into the chaos around day and night-time engagements in the Desert War. Add to this the fact that the vehicle he rides in on is a Honey (US Stuart) light tank, which is often overlooked, it is refreshing.

Sure, this is a niche book of a theater of war that seemed to be of more importance to the British, pre-1942, but the tactics that were discovered (move/shoot vs. shoot then move) and the complexities that existed are still around us today.

The book has more than its share of touching little moments between men on a field of battle who are otherwise bored silly and tired. The incredible close calls and chance encounters, alone, are worth reading. All in all, a must-have for anyone interested in the Desert War, light tanks or dusty humans simply trying to get by with humor.
Profile Image for Curtiss.
718 reviews45 followers
January 25, 2012
Another excellent first-hand war memoir by Bantam War Books, covering tank warfare in the desert against the Italian Army and Rommel's Africa Corps.

British Army Major Robert Crisp describes his love-affair with the the American M3 Stuart light tank, which derived its British nickname from Crisp's own declaration following his first test drive, when he said, "It's a 'Honey'," and they were referred to as Honeys by the British ever since.

Despite being undergunned and underarmored (its 37-mm main gun was barely able to dent the frontal armor of Germany's Panzerkampfwagon IV medium tank, and its own armor was easily penetrated by Germany's 88-mm anti-tank gun), the Honey was popular with the Brits for its speed and mobility.
Profile Image for Ty.
3 reviews1 follower
May 16, 2010
I picked this up on a whim at the bookstore and now I am so glad I did. It is a quick paced account of tank warfare from a tank commanders pointo of view. The book almost reads as fiction and is full of minor details that helped me greatly. Humanity and warfare have been stark reflections upon each other for centuries and this book shows it in small but subtle ways.
Profile Image for UnusualChild{beppy}.
2,105 reviews47 followers
March 5, 2013
robert crisp was a tank commander against rommel's forces in egypt. this is the story of a few weeks of his journey before he was injured.

what i liked: the wwI story from a different aspect. you still see the frailty of the soldiers, just in a tank batallion.

what i didn't like: not a lot.
Profile Image for Michael Romo.
411 reviews
September 18, 2020
A fantastic look at tank warfare in north Africa during 1941. We follow the exploits of Major Robert Crisp who in himself was a Herculean character. Make sure to Google him after reading this book. Need I say more?
Profile Image for Ashley.
Author 9 books10 followers
January 28, 2022
I enjoyed this book but the ending is rather odd as the narrator is the author and he's left close to death, yet clearly he survives to write the book. It left me feeling unsatisfied, because it was like he couldn't give the story an end.
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