Armor #1 – The Battle of North Africa
Zing Communications, Inc
Craig DiLouie is a horror and military fiction writer that I have a lot of time for, as he’s written some absolutely fantastic fiction. I first got to know Mr DiLouie’s work through two military horror series that he has co-authored: firstly the modern-day apocalyptic, zombie horror series The Retreat that follows an American light infantry unit in the United States as it fights its way through hordes of nauseatingly-reimagined zombies; and The Front, which sees the Third Reich unleash a virus that turns the population of much of occupied Europe into the undead. His novels are the highlights of each series, his writing skill and imagination easily turning what could have been generic genre potboilers into enthralling, stomach-churning horror stories. They also demonstrate his innate understanding of the United States military, in both the 20th and 21st Centuries, which is also reflected in the tense, claustrophobic and action-packed Crash Dive series that follows US submariners during World War II. Given all of that, when I heard that Mr DiLouie was publishing a series of historical fiction titles charting the experiences of the crew of an M4 Sherman tank during World War II, I immediately decided to seek them out, and was lucky enough to receive an Advanced Review Copy of the first title in the Armor series: Armor #1: The Battle of North Africa.
Mr DiLouie’s reputation as a writer alone would have been enough for me to read the Armor series, but the cover art – both for The Battle of North Africa and the series as a whole – instantly caught my eye. There has been a great deal of discussion recently within the Horror and Historical Fiction genres about the requirements for cover images, and I don’t feel able to really comment either way on that often fraught discussion. What I can say with confidence, however, is that the cover art for the Armor series is so distinctive and high-quality that it will certainly attract the reader’s eye. It certainly caught mine, with its Art Deco-style imagery and striking use of bold colours, and when my wallet permits, I fully intend to contact the illustrator (Elouise Knapp of EK Cover Design) and see if prints are available for my study wall. In addition to that stunning art, I was intrigued by the back-cover blurb which promised an unvarnished, gritty look at the realities of armoured warfare in World War II and how it affected the men crewing armoured fighting vehicles like the Sherman. A publicity note from the author highlighted that the intention of the Armor series was to recreate a pulpy, ‘dime novel’ experience, and I loved the idea of returning to that concept as a way of creating a stripped-down tale focused on characters and action.
That concept is clearly noted in the Author’s Note prior to the beginning of the novel, with the author clearly stating that some artistic license was taken in regards to the timeline of the real North African campaign, and certain design elements of the M4 Sherman, to allow a focus on the story above all else. I certainly had no problems with this, and indeed wish that more authors could be this honest when writing historical fiction. I also appreciated that Armor focused purely on the viewpoints of the tank crew themselves and no more; there are no interludes to higher up the command chain to provide strategic context, or chapters focusing on their Axis counterparts. This is pure-blooded historical fiction that looks at the experiences of the fighting men and not their superiors, and is frankly all the better for that intensive focus.
True to both the writing style that he’s harkening back to, and his own skill as a writer, DiLouie throws us straight into the action within mere paragraphs of the first chapter beginning. As Vichy French guns shell the beach around the city of Oran, targeting the newly-landed American forces that are opening a new element of the North African campaign, we join the crew of the Sherman ‘Boomer’ under the command of Sergeant John Austin. His crew consists of driver Anthony Russo, loader Amos Swanson, gunner Charles Wade and bow-gunner (or ‘bog’) Eugene Clay, all of the men fresh from training in the United States and with no actual combat experience until they landed at Oran. That doesn’t last long, however, as they engage first the remnants of the Vichy French forces and then the Afrika Korps under the command of Rommel; and they are soon violently and brutally disabused of their simple and often naive belief in a short and simple campaign in the desert.
One of the most striking and authentic elements of The Battle of North Africa is the deft and often unflinching manner in which DiLouie portrays the realities of service during World War II in the North African campaign. We get to see the mundane frustrations that occur before and after combat – things like getting stuck in a traffic snarl when attempting to drive off of a landing beach at Oran, or the exhausting, draining digging needed when a medium tank gets itself firmly wedged in the cloying, sucking mud that the desert turns into with the slightest amount of moisture in the air. These are just some of the elements that drive the authenticity that forms the spine of the novel; this isn’t a title that simply flits from action scene to action scene, and DiLouie excels at highlighting the difficulties and stresses suffered by the tank crew when they are not in combat, which is after all the majority of their service. Indeed, these details help to make the combat sequences themselves all the more shocking by highlighting just how rare and yet brutal tank combat actually was.
Because make no mistakes, when the crew of ‘Boomer’ do enter the fray and engage the Vichy French or German forces, DiLouie doesn’t shrink away from the vicious, ruthless and often cold-hearted truth of combat. The action is always lightning-fast, superbly paced and evocatively described, effortlessly drawing you into the combat to the extent that you feel like you’re right there with the crew, sweating in the buttoned-up confines of the Sherman. You feel every shell strike, machine-gun burst and artillery shell slamming into the sand as the Sherman grinds forward, and it becomes compulsively readable, always making you want to turn the page and see what happens in the next few seconds. The cost of combat is often high, both physically and mentally, and DiLouie demonstrates repeatedly that a tank isn’t an invulnerable dealer of death, but rather a high-priority target on the battlefield that could never be sufficiently armoured to both protect its crew and do its assigned role. The aftermath of the action is just as engaging, if not more-so than the combat itself, as we see each crewmember try and deal with it in their own way, having to come to terms with their survival, their injuries and the losses taken by friends and colleagues. DiLouie asks difficult questions of both the characters and the readers themselves, and rarely provides answers in turn. Is it right that another crew dies a firery death inside their tank while you survive without a scratch? Is it wrong to machine-gun the escaping crew of a panzer when they bail out during combat? The reader – and the crew – are left to fend for themselves.
The characters of The Battle of North Africa – principally the crewmembers of ‘Boomer’ – are by far the highlight of the novel, even more engaging and memorable than the combat sections. DiLouie masterfully portrays the world of a tank crew entirely new to their role, bringing to life the easy yet often spiked banter of a crew new to both combat and working with each other. Each man feels like a genuine, fleshed-out tanker and not just a shallow character from a contemporary dime novel. They have good points and bad, and a host of flaws, all of which emerge and are exacerbated by service in the desert and their shared experiences. Just as DiLouie doesn’t shy away from the grim nature of conflict, nor does he whitewash the often less than admirable qualities of the American tankers. One is a coward, trying to get out of combat and failing each time, and another has a class-based hatred of his colleagues due to his upbringing and education. There’s even the ugly, unwarranted xenophobia directed against the Italian-American driver, who is constantly subjected to barbed comments about his loyalty to the United States and the possibility of defecting to the fascist Italians. Yet all of these issues are eventually sublimated by the chaos of the conflict in the desert into a new form, that of a combat-experienced and veteran crew who can work together. Not perfectly, they being as flawed a generation as those before or after them, yet ultimately one that comes together to grind fascism into the sand and mud of North Africa.
Armor #1: The Battle of North Africa is an instant classic of World War II historical fiction, and certainly DiLouie’s greatest novel so far in his career as a writer. It is brilliantly written, populated with realistic and entirely human characters who stay with you long after finishing the last page, and is searingly, unflinchingly open about the realities of combat during World War II as experienced by the crew of an M4 Sherman medium tank. It takes the best elements of the dime store genre and blends it seamlessly with DiLouie’s inherent skill as a writer and his phenomenal imagination. And at a time when fascism is rearing its head, and becoming inexplicably popular with sections of Western society who seem to have forgotten the blood shed less than a century ago to firmly quash fascism, The Battle of North Africa also acts as a timely and welcome reminder of just what the Allies were fighting against, and what it was like to be a part of the spear tip of the American advance during the turning of the tide against the Axis regimes.