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One of the Best ! Lucian K. Truscott

Lucian K. Truscott: The Soldier’s General

By Nathan N. Prefer

In his Maxims of War, Napoleon Bonaparte wrote, “It is exceptional and difficult to find in one man all the qualities necessary for a great general. What is most desirable, and which instantly sets a man apart, is that his intelligence or talent are balanced by his character or courage.” In North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and France, Lucian King Truscott, Jr., proved himself just such a man.

The future general began simply enough when he arrived on January 9, 1895, in Chatfield, Texas. Although the family soon moved to Oklahoma, he would always claim to be a Texan at heart. The grandson of an immigrant from Cornwall, England, he nearly died at a young age when he was playing in his father’s office.

His father, Lucian King Truscott, Sr., was a physician in Chatfield and was busy in another room when his son decided to taste something that looked good in his father’s office. His choice was a poor one, however, and he swallowed some carbolic acid. His father heard his screams and saved his life, but that day he earned one of his trademarks, a raspy, gruff voice that one observer called “a rock-crusher.”

The Truscott family moved to Oklahoma when the land boom began in 1901. Here, young Truscott came into contact with the U.S. Cavalry, an attachment that would last a lifetime.

To help his parents support him and his three sisters, he decided that he and his mother would both attend the Summer Normal School at Norman, Oklahoma. The goal was to acquire a teaching certificate. By age 16, having lied about his age, he was teaching school at Stella, Oklahoma. Later, after another family move, he taught in Onapa, Oklahoma.

Despite his success in achieving a trade, he was restless. This was no doubt what caused him to enlist in the Army Reserves program in which, after two years as a lieutenant, he would become a Regular Army officer.

Lieutenant Truscott’s first assignment was to the 17th Cavalry on the U.S.-Mexican border near Douglas, Arizona. Here he gained on-the-job experience with the vagaries of morning reports, sick reports, duty rosters, and troop administrative requirements.

By the time World War I ended, Lieutenant Truscott was an experienced, if combat-deficient, Army officer. Concerned that he would soon have to return to civilian life, he was relieved to learn that his regiment was being shipped to Hawaii for garrison duties. But before he shipped overseas, Lieutenant Truscott acquired something far more important to his life and career.

General Lucian K. Truscott
General Lucian Truscott proved a capable combat commander in the Mediterranean Theater and rose to command the Allied Fifth Army during World War II.

Sarah Nicholas Randolph was the fourth-generation granddaughter of President Thomas Jefferson and, as such, she had a comfortable life and lofty social standing. Lieutenant Truscott was soon in love, and under the pressure of a move to Hawaii, the two were married on April 5, 1919, in Cochise County, Arizona. With the wedding came a promotion to first lieutenant. In Hawaii he took up polo and became a highly regarded horseman, something he would later have in common with another rising star, George S. Patton.

In a shrinking postwar army, Lieutenant Truscott nevertheless earned a promotion to captain. The interwar years were typical for the Truscotts. After Hawaii came California, then back to Douglas, Arizona. Texas was next, the fourth move in three years. In 1925, Captain Truscott was ordered to attend the Troop Officers’ Course at the Cavalry School in Fort Riley, Kansas where he later served as an instructor.

In 1934, after serving as a troop commander of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment at Fort Myer, Virginia, where he met Majors Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton and participated in dispersing the “Bonus March” on Washington, he was selected to attend the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, another prestigious stepping stone to high command. His performance earned him promotion to major, along with an instructorship that lasted until 1940.

In September 1940, the newly promoted Lt. Col. Truscott transferred to the developing armored force. Soon after, Colonel Truscott was off to Fort Lewis, Washington, where he renewed his friendship with Colonel Eisenhower. Together, the two men participated in maneuvers in California. Both would also later participate in the 1941 Louisiana Maneuvers.

After these large-scale maneuvers, Truscott found himself back in Texas, assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division. When word came of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Truscott was promoted to full colonel. While training with his troops Colonel Truscott received an urgent call from General Mark Clark of the War Department who ordered him to report to Washington immediately.

Upon arrival in Washington, Truscott was surprised when General Clark asked if he wanted to become a British commando. These light raiding forces had been developed by the British while they bided their time to rebuild their military strength. General Clark went on to explain that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had agreed to invade Europe in 1943 and, in the meantime, U.S. forces would establish within their organization a group of U.S. commandos.

Truscott was sent to General Eisenhower for details. Eisenhower explained that Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall believed that the U.S. Army lacked combat experience throughout its ranks. To achieve this goal, a group of American officers were being sent to England to observe and learn from the experienced British. Colonel Truscott would lead the group that would observe the British Combined Operations Headquarters, the top headquarters for the commandos.

General Lucian K. Truscott
Following the disastrous Dieppe Raid of August 1942, American Rangers and British commandos rest. General Truscott was a major proponent of the Rangers’ formation and was a primary observer during the raid.

After studying every document he could lay his hands on regarding the British situation and listening in on War Department meetings about American plans for the European invasion, Truscott set off for London. As he flew via Canada to England, he received promotion to brigadier general in May 1942. His group began to absorb the organization of the British commando structure from Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, and he was invited to sit in on planning conferences for the cross-Channel invasion. He observed commando training and exercises.

The lack of American infantrymen in England at the time and the continuing movement of American units to training bases caused General Truscott to create a unit that could then instruct others rather than pulling men out of existing units. As a result, the 1st Ranger Battalion was created.

In June, General Truscott was advised of a plan to land a large raiding force at the English Channel port of Dieppe in German-occupied France. Since several commando units would be involved in this operation, Truscott had 50 of his newly trained rangers added to the invasion forces. It would result in the first American combat losses in the European Theater. He observed the bitterly opposed landing from offshore.

General Marshall arrived in London in July, and Truscott was summoned to give a detailed report on every aspect of his stay in London to date. Later, he would attend a meeting with Generals Marshall, Eisenhower, and Clark to go over the same information. Using this data, General Marshall had a tentative plan drawn up for the Allied invasion of Europe. Disagreements between the Allies were resolved, albeit temporarily, by a decision to invade French North Africa in 1942. Truscott and his staff became involved in the planning of the new operation and worked with Eisenhower and Patton on the details.

General Patton was pleased to see his old friend. After asking Truscott what he had been doing in London, Patton said, “Dammit, Lucian, you don’t want to stay on any staff job in London with a war going on. Why don’t you come with me? I will give you a command.” Truscott replied that he was eager to get in on the fighting, but he would need Eisenhower to release him. Patton quickly obtained Truscott’s release and placed him on his staff where he became deeply involved in the planning of Operation Torch, the North African invasion.

With the planning completed, Truscott returned to the United States for his new duties. These involved his command of Sub-Task Force Goalpost, a heavily reinforced regiment from the 9th Infantry Division scheduled to land at Port Lyautey in French Morocco. Organizing an efficient task force took all of Truscott’s time, although he did manage to see Sarah and Lucian III, who was now a West Point cadet.

With a force of 9,079 officers and men, Truscott’s Sub-Task Force Goalpost landed against minimal opposition on November 8, 1942, and seized Port Lyautey and its vital airfields. There were problems, of course. During the approach, the task force lost its direction. H-hour had to be delayed while the assault waves reorganized. Heavy seas slowed matters as well. Some boats missed their assigned beaches. At daybreak, French planes strafed the beaches. Overall, though, the invasion succeeded, and the objectives were soon secured. The French surrendered on November 10. This success earned Truscott promotion to major general.

With the invasion complete, Sub-Task Force Goalpost was disbanded. This left Truscott without a command, so he went to Eisenhower in search of a new one. He was told to “wait around for a few days.” Concerned with the slow progress of American forces toward Tunis, Eisenhower made Truscott his deputy chief of staff to control operations with the British First Army. This was a difficult job, requiring the cooperation of the American, British, and French forces involved. This posting would prove an essential part of the eventual Allied victory in North Africa.

General Lucian K. Truscott
After executing a landing behind German lines at Brolo, Sicily, a soldier of the 3rd Infantry Division digs a foxhole while preparing a machine-gun position.

Once again, Truscott’s outstanding performance earned him a new job, this time commanding the 3rd Infantry Division. The division had an outstanding World War I record and had been stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, in the interwar years, where both Eisenhower and Truscott had served with it. The division had participated in the North African invasion under Maj. Gen. Jonathan W. Anderson. When the latter was promoted to command of X Corps, Eisenhower gave the division to Truscott in April 1943.

Truscott’s first steps were to improve the training and physical endurance of his new command. As he remembered, “I had long felt that our standards for marching and fighting in the infantry were too low, not up to those of the Roman legions nor countless examples from our own frontier history, not even to those of Stonewall Jackson’s ‘Foot Cavalry’ of Civil War fame,” he wrote. Adopting a tactic of the rangers and commandos, he ordered his men to march at the rate of four miles per hour.  Despite initial skepticism, the new rate, soon dubbed “The Truscott Trot,” was achieved by all units of the 3rd Infantry Division and helped make it one of the best combat units of the war.

Alerted for Operation Husky, the coming invasion of Sicily, the division began a new training cycle. The 3rd Infantry Division assaulted Sicily as part of the newly created Seventh Army under Patton. The landings were lightly opposed, and the division quickly moved inland. On the third day of Operation Husky, Truscott was already up front with his leading units, pressing them forward. As he observed one battalion attack an enemy position, his driver advised him that standing in the middle of the road with binoculars was inviting incoming fire. The group retired to a nearby ditch.

Soon Patton came calling. He was frustrated that his army was under orders to pace the advance of the adjoining British Eighth Army under General Bernard L. Montgomery. The two men talked the situation over and felt that the Seventh Army could easily conquer the western half of Sicily with the prize of its largest city, Palermo, if given permission. Together, the two men decided upon a “reconnaissance-in-force” to the west to, as General Truscott wrote, “clear up the situation.” Thus began the “Race for Palermo.”

General Lucian K. Truscott
Lieutenant Colonel Lyle Bernard, who led the 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment during the amphibious assault at Brolo, confers with General George S. Patton, Jr., commander of the U.S. Seventh Army.

A few days after the capture of Palermo, the 3rd Infantry Division was back fighting the Germans in mountainous eastern Sicily. Progress was slow and costly. This time Patton sent his deputy, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Keyes, to order Truscott to have one of his battalions conduct an amphibious landing behind the German lines. Truscott agreed with the idea, but insisted that it be within supporting distance of the main division force. This soon became a point of disagreement and resulted in a rather famous episode in Truscott’s career.

The first date for the landing was postponed when German aircraft destroyed one of the landing craft. When the next scheduled date was postponed by Truscott because he felt that the bulk of the division was still too far away to support the isolated battalion, Keyes appeared and demanded the landing proceed. He reported to Patton that Truscott did not want to carry out the landing. An hour later, Patton came screaming into the 3rd Infantry Division command post.

Truscott recalled the scene. “He was screamingly angry as only he could be. ‘Goddammit, Lucian, what’s the matter with you? Are you afraid to fight?’ I bristled right back: ‘General, you know that’s ridiculous and insulting. You have ordered the operation, and it is now loading. If you don’t think I can carry out orders, you can give the division to anyone else you please. But I will tell you one thing, you will not find anyone who can carry out orders which they do not approve as well as I can.’” Truscott’s reply calmed Patton immediately, and the two men settled down to discuss how best to relieve the amphibious force.

Lieutenant Colonel Lyle W. Bernard’s 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, itself at two-thirds strength, was reinforced with three batteries from the 58th Field Artillery Battalion, a platoon of the 10th Combat Engineer Battalion, and a platoon of Company C, 753rd Tank Battalion. As Truscott feared, the battalion took severe punishment in its isolated beachhead, and the division, despite its best efforts, took longer than expected. Seven of the eight artillery pieces were lost as were several tanks and other vehicles. But the battalion survived. By August 16, the division was on the hills overlooking Messina. The battle for Sicily was over.

Initially relieved that his division would not be in the assault phase of the invasion of southern Italy, Truscott was soon ordered by his new commander, Maj. Gen. Mark Clark of the Fifth U.S. Army, to be prepared to land farther north once the Allied advance made progress in that direction. But the strong German defense of the Salerno beachhead soon changed such plans. In less than a week, Truscott was ordered to prepare his division to land at Salerno and join the battle there. While his men sailed to Italy, Truscott went to the beachhead to see things for himself and confer with General Clark. Traveling by PT-boat, he visited the beachhead, saw the strong defenses, and received orders to assign his division to the Fifth Army’s VI Corps once ashore.

During the battles along the German Winter Line at Cassino, Truscott learned of an old plan, Operation Shingle, that had been discarded and now suddenly revived. The VI Corps, along with the 3rd Infantry Division and the British 1st Infantry Division, was to land at the town of Anzio, on the coast behind the Winter Line.

The initial landings in January 1944 went surprisingly well and caught the Germans by surprise. But as always, they recovered quickly and soon had the beachhead surrounded. During the early days of the battle, Truscott was wounded in the leg when an enemy shell exploded nearby. Saved from serious injury by his favorite cavalry breeches and boots, he remained on duty after medical treatment.

The attack to break out of the beachhead failed when unexpected German reinforcements stopped the advance. During this attack, General Truscott suffered a personal blow when three ranger battalions assigned to his division for the attack were overwhelmed by the enemy. The Allies went on the defensive. For several weeks, the VI Corps would struggle to save its beachhead from increasingly heavy enemy assaults.

 Truscott was asleep in his headquarters on the evening of February 16, 1944, when he was awakened by Colonel Carleton. He had a message from General Clark that relieved Truscott of command of the 3rd Infantry Division and appointed him deputy commander of the VI Corps.

Truscott arrived at the VI Corps headquarters to find Lucas and his staff concerned over the latest German counterattack, which threatened to push the Allies into the sea. He observed that there seemed to be “a feeling of desperation, of hopelessness” prevalent in the headquarters. “My optimistic assurance that nothing ever looked as bad on the ground as it did on a map at headquarters did little to dispel the pall-like gloom.” Truscott contacted the division commanders, learned the situation, and was satisfied that each had done all he could, and that in fact, the situation was not as bad as first feared.

A few days later, Clark visited the beachhead and invited Truscott to accompany him on a tour of the frontline units. During the ride, Clark intimated to Truscott that in a few days Lucas would be relieved of command of VI Corps, and that Truscott would replace him. Truscott recalled, “I replied that I had no desire whatever to relieve Lucas, who was a personal friend, and I had not wanted to leave the 3rd Infantry Division for this assignment. I had done so without protest because I realized that some of the command, especially on the British side, had lost confidence in Lucas.”

General Lucian K. Truscott
In February 1944, General Lucian Truscott replaced General John P. Lucas in command of the U.S. Army’s VI Corps. Three months later, the corps executed a pivotal role in the breakout from the embattled Anzio beachhead.

Continuing as deputy corps commander, Truscott had some ideas to improve the Allied position. He called in the corps artillery officer, Brig. Gen. Carl A. Baehr, and asked how the artillery was employing its guns. Disturbed by what he heard, he called for the 3rd Infantry Division’s artillery operations officer, Major Walter T. (“Dutch”) Kerwin. After Kerwin explained how the division massed its guns against enemy attacks, Truscott ordered him, accompanied by Baehr for authority, to make similar arrangements for all corps and other divisional artillery units.

On February 22, 1944, Clark returned to the beachhead and met with Truscott, ordering him to assume command of VI Corps the next day. Truscott repeated his earlier arguments against relieving Lucas, but was informed that the decision had been made. Later, after Lucas had been informed of his relief by General Clark, Truscott expressed his regrets as to how things turned out. Lucas expressed no hard feeling against Truscott, and the two men remained friends until Lucas’s death.

As corps commander, Truscott had to deal with problems relating to both the American and the British troops under his command. Further, Clark had established an advanced Fifth Army headquarters at the beachhead, and this brought its own problems in assigning space, priorities, and rights of way.

By May, the VI Corps was heavily reinforced and ready to break out of the Anzio beachhead. The original plan had VI Corps striking east to cut the line of retreat of the German Tenth Army. The opening attacks went well, and General Truscott was ecstatic. After viewing the progress of the attacks, he returned to his command post where Clark’s chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Donald W. Brann, was waiting. The new orders required Truscott to turn the bulk of VI Corps north to capture Rome. Only a token force was to be left to try to cut the German escape route.

Truscott “was dumbfounded. I protested that the conditions were not right. This was no time to drive to the northwest where the enemy was still strong; we should pour our maximum power into the Valmontone Gap to ensure the destruction of the retreating German army.” But the orders remained, and Truscott obeyed, participating in one of the war’s most controversial episodes.

With the capture of Rome, the VI Corps stood down for a brief rest. The months of July and August were spent training and planning a new operation, the invasion of southern France. This time Truscott and his VI Corps were under a revived Seventh Army commanded by Lt. Gen. Alexander (“Sandy”) Patch, a veteran of the Pacific War. Allowed to pick his own combat units for the operation, Truscott chose his favorite 3rd Infantry Division and the equally battleworthy 45th Infantry Division, which had fought under his command at Anzio. The third division was the 36th (“Texas”) Infantry Division, which had led the breakout at Anzio.

Truscott planned and executed Operation Anvil-Dragoon, the invasion of southern France, with little difficulty. The landings were lightly opposed, and the drive inland began quickly. The push toward the Belfort Gap went as planned, and the Germans were too busy withdrawing to make much of a defensive stand. Things continued to go well as the VI Corps entered the Vosges Mountains near the German border. As winter slowed operations, Truscott was visited by Eisenhower, who told him, “Lucian,  I am going to assign you to organize the Fifteenth Army. You won’t like it, because this Army is not going to be operational. It will be an administrative and training command, and you won’t get into the fighting.”

General Edward H. (“Ted”) Brooks would take over VI Corps while Truscott returned to the United States for a well-earned rest before returning to command the new army. After two years of fighting in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and southern France, General Truscott was finally going home.

He thoroughly enjoyed his visit. Besides spending time with his wife, he visited West Point to see his son, Lucian III. As he was preparing to return to Europe, he was suddenly called to Washington. While at the War Department, he learned that the unexpected death of a British senior commander had resulted in a series of promotions and moves that would now affect him. One of the unexpected moves was the promotion of General Clark to command the Fifteenth Army Group in Italy. That left a vacancy in command at Fifth Army. General Marshall asked Truscott, “How do you feel about going back to Italy?” Surprised, Truscott replied, “Sir, I will do the best I can wherever you wish to send me.”

Taking his faithful staff, Truscott assumed command of the Fifth Army in Italy. With 300,000 soldiers under its command, including at various times Britons, South Africans, Polish, New Zealanders, Brazilians, and soldiers of other nationalities, Truscott’s Fifth Army pushed against the new German Winter Line, captured Bologna, broke the back of German resistance at the Gothic Line, and pushed into the Po River Valley, dispersing the German Tenth and Fourteenth Armies. It was a part of the force that accepted the first surrender of a German army group in World War II when Army Group C surrendered to Allied forces in Italy.

General Lucian K. Truscott
While an Italian woman does her laundry, South African M-10s fire on enemy targets in the city of Bologna. This action took place late in the Italian Campaign as the war in Europe was winding down. Around this time, General Lucian Truscott had returned to Italy to assume command of the Allied Fifth Army.

With the defeat of Germany, Truscott returned to Texas and then volunteered for the war in the Pacific. He was assigned to a group of high-ranking officers who were directed to visit China and prepare to serve there until the defeat of Japan. But even as the group was conducting inspections, Japan surrendered. The war was over. His assignment to command a group of Chinese armies against Japan was moot.

Returning to Italy, Truscott learned that Fifth Army headquarters was to become inoperative. He said goodbye to his faithful staff and decided to visit his friend Patton, then on occupation duty in Germany. Expecting to be sent home to an unknown assignment, Truscott was suddenly caught up in another of Patton’s indiscretions. As he was making the rounds of farewells, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, caught up with him. Eisenhower wanted to see him immediately. Truscott reported to Eisenhower and learned that he was to replace Patton as commander of the Third Army. For the final time, Truscott protested, but agreed that for the good of the service Patton had to go.

The exchange between two longtime friends went without rancor. When introducing Truscott to the Third Army, Patton said, “A man of General Truscott’s achievements needs no introduction. His deeds speak for themselves.” And so they did.

As the commander of the Third Army on occupation duty, Truscott was faced with new challenges. Tens of thousands of displaced persons needed caring for. He became involved in Cold War politics when, for reasons of their own, some Americans claimed that the Army was abusing or neglecting these unfortunate people. Alerted to the coming storm, Truscott invited newspaper reporters to visit the camps and report accurately on the conditions. Additionally, he was responsible for the trials of Nazi war criminals. He also was responsible for opening a university program for refugees under the auspices of the United Nations. Many who knew him were surprised at his rapid adjustment from combat leader to government administrator.

In early 1946, General Truscott received word that Sarah was seriously ill at Walter Reed Army Hospital. He remained home for 10 days, until he was convinced Sarah was getting well. On the return flight to Germany, he became ill. An electrocardiogram indicated a heart attack, and the doctor ordered several weeks of bed rest. Told that his condition was not improving, Truscott retired on September 30, 1947, after 30 years in the United States Army. He later briefly served as a deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Promoted to the rank of four-star general on the retired list, Lucian King Truscott, Jr., died at the age of 70 on September 12, 1965.

Nathan N. Prefer is the author of several books and articles on World War II. His latest book is titled Leyte 1944, The Soldier’s Battle. He received his Ph.D. in Military History from the City University of New York and is a former Marine Corps Reservist. Dr. Prefer is now retired and resides in Fort Myers, Florida.

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A Victory! Good News for a change! I am so grateful!! Leadership of the highest kind Some Red Hot Gospel there! Stand & Deliver This great Nation & Its People

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Dear Grumpy Advice on Teaching in Today's Classroom Leadership of the highest kind Manly Stuff This great Nation & Its People This looks like a lot of fun to me! Well I thought it was neat!

And some Folks think that US History is boring

How George Washington ran up a $17,253 bar tab 2 days before signing the Constitution

Eric Milzarski ,

Washington's Farewell to His Officers
George Washington bids farewell to his officers in New York. 
Washington’s Farewell to His Officers by Alonzo Chappel/Wikimedia Commons
  • George Washington and his soldiers celebrated the signing of the Constitution by racking up a $17,253 tab.
  • The soldiers were also celebrating Washington being elected as the first president of the newly independent country.
  • The exact details of the night are hazy but the receipt for the night was saved in the First Troop Cavalry archives.

America was built on alcohol. Many of the founding fathers distilled or brewed their own booze because the ingredients needed to make it flourished perfectly in the soil of the newly formed United States.

Remember, Samuel Adams isn’t just some fictional mascot made up to publicize a brewing company, and Budweiser’s “George Washington recipe” is actually historically accurate.

Also, the terrible road conditions of the time made transporting grains the traditional way, you know, in bread and stuff, a true hardship. It was much easier to just turn whatever you grew into alcohol — which would net an even better profit.

All of this is key to understanding that the founding fathers would more than likely drink any modern military barracks under the table. No single moment best exemplifies this than the time George Washington and his Army buddies celebrated the signing of the Constitution by drinking enough booze to rack up a tab worth roughly $17,253 in today’s currency.

It was the night of September 15, 1787, and George Washington had many reasons to celebrate. A few months earlier, in May, he was elected president at the Constitutional Convention. The United States Constitution had just been finalized and debates were finally settling as the momentous document cruised towards its eventual signing, just two days later. This night was also the farewell dinner for Washington before he set off to do bigger and better things.

Hey when you defeat the British Empire, a man can develop a real thirst!

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Unspeakable Truths about Racial Inequality in America written by Glenn Loury

This is the text of a lecture delivered by the author as part of the Benson Center Lecture Series at the University of Colorado, Boulder, on February 8th, 2021.

I am a black American intellectual living in an age of persistent racial inequality in my country. As a black man I feel compelled to represent the interests of “my people.” (But that reference is not unambiguous!) As an intellectual, I feel that I must seek out the truth and speak such truths as I am given to know. As an American, at this critical moment of “racial reckoning,” I feel that imperative all the more urgently. But, I ask, what are my responsibilities? Do they conflict with one another? I will explore this question tonight.

My conclusion: “My responsibilities as a black man, as an American, and as an intellectual are not in conflict.” I defend this position as best I can in what follows. I also try to illustrate the threat “cancel culture” poses to a rational discourse about racial inequality in America that our country now so desperately requires. Finally, I will try to model how an intellectual who truly loves “his people” should respond. I will do this by enunciating out loud what have increasingly become some unspeakable truths. So, brace yourselves!

I begin with a provocation: Consider this story from my hometown newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, that ran on May 31st, 2016. (Things have only gotten worse since.) I ask you to bear with me here because these details matter. We must look them squarely in the face:

Six people were killed, including a 15-year-old girl, and at least 63 others were wounded in shootings across Chicago over Memorial Day weekend.

The total number of people shot during the weekend this year surpassed the 2015 holiday, when 55 people were shot, 12 fatally, over Memorial Day weekend.

The most recent homicide happened late Monday in the Washington Park neighborhood on the South Side.

Officers responding to a call of shots fired about 11pm found James Taylor lying on the ground near his vehicle in the 5100 block of South Calumet, according to Chicago Police and the Cook County medical examiner’s office. Taylor, who lived in the 6500 block of South Ellis, had been shot in the chest and was pronounced dead at the scene, authorities said.

Witnesses at the scene were not cooperating with detectives.

About the same time, a man was shot to death in the West Rogers Park neighborhood on the North Side.

Officers responding to a call of shots fired about 11pm found 39-year-old Johan Jean lying in a gangway in the 6400 block of North Rockwell, authorities said.

Jean, who lived in the 100 block of North Ashland in Evanston, was shot in the neck and taken to Presence Saint Francis Hospital in Evanston, where he was later pronounced dead, authorities said. Police said he was 25 years old.

A source said the shooting stemmed from a dispute between two women. One of them has a child with the man and the other was his girlfriend. Both women were armed, and the man was eventually shot during the argument. No weapons were recovered from the scene.

About 5.20pm Saturday, a man was shot to death in the Fuller Park neighborhood on the South Side.

Garvin Whitmore, 27, was sitting in the driver seat of a vehicle with a passenger, 26-year-old Ashley Harrison, in the 200 block of West Root, when someone walked up to the vehicle and shot him in the head, according to police and the medical examiner’s office.

Whitmore, of the 5800 block of West 63rd Place, was pronounced dead at the scene at 5.29pm, authorities said.

All of the victims were black people. Sixty-three shot, six dead, one weekend, one city. Here’s the thing: reports such as this could be multiplied dozens of times, effortlessly. If a black intellectual truly believes that “Black Lives Matter,” then what is he supposed to say in response to such nauseating reports—that “there is nothing to see here?” I think not.

Violence on such a scale involving blacks as both perpetrators and victims poses a dilemma to someone like myself. On the one hand, as the Harvard legal scholar Randall Kennedy has observed, we elites need to represent the decent law-abiding majority of African Americans cowering fearfully inside their homes in the face of such violence. We must do so not just to enhance our group’s reputation as in the “politics of respectability” but mainly as a precondition for our own dignity and self-respect.

On the other hand, we elites must also counter the demonization of young black men which the larger American culture has for some time now been feverishly engaged in. Even as we condemn murderers, we cannot help but view with sympathy the plight of many poor youngsters who, though not incorrigible, have nevertheless committed crimes. We must wrestle with complex historical and contemporary causes internal and external to the black experience that help to account for this pathology. (There’s no way around it. This is pathology. The behavior in question here is not okay. That one can adduce social-psychological explanations does not resolve all moral questions.)

Where is the self-respecting black intellectual to take his stand? Must he simply act as a mouthpiece for movement propaganda aiming to counteract “white supremacy”? Has he anything to say to his own people about how some of us are living? Is there space in American public discourses for nuanced, subtle, sophisticated moral engagement with these questions? Or are they mere fodder for what amount to tendentious, cynical, and overtly politically partisan arguments on behalf of something called “racial equity”? And what about those so-called “white intellectuals”? Do they have to remain mute? Or, must they limit themselves to incanting anti-racist slogans?

I don’t know all of the answers here, but I know that those victims had names. I know they had families. I know they did not deserve their fate. I know that black intellectuals must bear witness to what actually is taking place in our midst; must wrestle with complex historical and contemporary causes both within and outside the black community that bear on these tragedies; must tell truths about what is happening and must not hide from the truth with platitudes, euphemisms and lies.

I know, despite whatever causal factors may be at play, that we black intellectuals must insist each youngster is capable of choosing a moral way of life. I know that, for the sake of the dignity and self-respect of my people as well as for the future of my country, we American intellectuals of all colors must never lose sight of what a moral way of life consists in. And yet, we are in imminent danger of doing precisely that, I fear. Here’s why. 

The first unspeakable truth: Downplaying behavioral disparities by race is actually a “bluff”

Socially mediated behavioral issues lie at the root of today’s racial inequality problem. They are real and must be faced squarely if we are to grasp why racial disparities persist. This is a painful necessity. Activists on the Left of American politics claim that “white supremacy,” “implicit bias,” and old-fashioned “anti-black racism” are sufficient to account for black disadvantage. But this is a bluff that relies on “cancel culture” to be sustained. Those making such arguments are, in effect, daring you to disagree with them. They are threatening to “cancel” you if you do not accept their account: You must be a “racist”; you must believe something is intrinsically wrong with black people if you do not attribute pathological behavior among them to systemic injustice. You must think blacks are inferior, for how else could one explain the disparities? “Blaming the victim” is the offense they will convict you of, if you’re lucky.

I claim this is a dare; a debater’s trick. Because, at the end of the day, what are those folks saying when they declare that “mass incarceration” is “racism”—that the high number of blacks in jails is, self-evidently, a sign of racial antipathy? To respond, “No. It’s mainly a sign of anti-social behavior by criminals who happen to be black,” one risks being dismissed as a moral reprobate. This is so, even if the speaker is black. Just ask Justice Clarence Thomas. Nobody wants to be cancelled.

But we should all want to stay in touch with reality. Common sense and much evidence suggest that, on the whole, people are not being arrested, convicted, and sentenced because of their race. Those in prison are, in the main, those who have broken the law—who have hurt others, or stolen things, or otherwise violated the basic behavioral norms which make civil society possible. Seeing prisons as a racist conspiracy to confine black people is an absurd proposition. No serious person could believe it. Not really. Indeed, it is self-evident that those taking lives on the streets of St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago are, to a man, behaving despicably. Moreover, those bearing the cost of such pathology, almost exclusively, are other blacks. An ideology that ascribes this violent behavior to racism is laughable. Of course, this is an unspeakable truth—but no writer or social critic, of whatever race, should be cancelled for saying so.

Or, consider the educational achievement gap. Anti-racism advocates, in effect, are daring you to notice that some groups send their children to elite colleges and universities in outsized numbers compared to other groups due to the fact that their academic preparation is magnitudes higher and better and finer. They are daring you to declare such excellence to be an admirable achievement. One isn’t born knowing these things. One acquires such intellectual mastery through effort. Why are some youngsters acquiring these skills and others not? That is a very deep and interesting question, one which I am quite prepared to entertain. But the simple retort, “racism”, is laughable—as if such disparities have nothing to do with behavior, with cultural patterns, with what peer groups value, with how people spend their time, with what they identify as being critical to their own self-respect. Anyone actually believing such nonsense is a fool, I maintain.

Asians are said, sardonically, according to the politically correct script, to be a “model minority.” Well, as a matter of fact, a pretty compelling case can be made that “culture” is critical to their success. Read Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou’s book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox. They have interviewed Asian families in Southern California, trying to learn how these kids get into Dartmouth and Columbia and Cornell with such high rates. They find that these families exhibit cultural patterns, embrace values, adopt practices, engage in behavior, and follow disciplines that orient them in such a way as to facilitate the achievements of their children. It defies common sense, as well as the evidence, to assert that they do not or, conversely, to assert that the paucity of African Americans performing near the top of the intellectual spectrum—I am talking here about academic excellence, and about the low relative numbers of blacks who exhibit it—has nothing to do with the behavior of black people; that this outcome is due to institutional forces alone. That, quite frankly, is an absurdity. No serious person could believe it.

Nor does anybody actually believe that 70 percent of African American babies being born to a woman without a husband is (1) a good thing or (2) due to anti-black racism. People say this, but they don’t believe it. They are bluffing—daring you to observe that the 21st-century failures of African Americans to take full advantage of the opportunities created by the 20th century’s revolution of civil rights are palpable and damning. These failures are being denied at every turn, and these denials are sustained by a threat to “cancel” dissenters for being “racists.” This position is simply not tenable. The end of Jim Crow segregation and the advent of the era of equal rights was transformative for blacks. And now—a half-century down the line—we still have these disparities. This is a shameful blight on our society, I agree. But the plain fact of the matter is that some considerable responsibility for this sorry state of affairs lies with black people ourselves. Dare we Americans acknowledge this?

Leftist critics tout the racial wealth gap. They act as if pointing to the absence of wealth in the African American community is, ipso facto, an indictment of the system—even as black Caribbean and African immigrants are starting businesses, penetrating the professions, presenting themselves at Ivy League institutions in outsize numbers, and so forth. In doing so, they behave like other immigrant groups in our nation’s past. Yes, they are immigrants, not natives. And yes, immigration can be positively selective. I acknowledge that. Still, something is dreadfully wrong when adverse patterns of behavior readily visible in the native-born black American population go without being adequately discussed—to the point that anybody daring to mention them risks being cancelled as a racist. This bluff can’t be sustained indefinitely. Despite the outcome of the recent election, I believe we are already beginning to see the collapse of this house of cards.

A second unspeakable truth: “Structural racism” isn’t an explanation, it’s an empty category

The invocation of “structural racism” in political argument is both a bluff and a bludgeon. It is a bluff in the sense that it offers an “explanation” that is not an explanation at all and, in effect, dares the listener to come back. So, for example, if someone says, “There are too many blacks in prison in the US and that’s due to structural racism,” what you’re being dared to say is, “No. Blacks are so many among criminals, and that’s why there are so many in prison. It’s their fault, not the system’s fault.” And it is a bludgeon in the sense that use of the phrase is mainly a rhetorical move. Users don’t even pretend to offer evidence-based arguments beyond citing the fact of the racial disparity itself. The “structural racism” argument seldom goes into cause and effect. Rather, it asserts shadowy causes that are never fully specified, let alone demonstrated. We are all just supposed to know that it’s the fault of something called “structural racism,” abetted by an environment of “white privilege,” furthered by an ideology of “white supremacy” that purportedly characterizes our society. It explains everything. Confronted with any racial disparity, the cause is, “structural racism.”

History, I would argue, is rather more complicated than such “just so” stories would suggest. These racial disparities have multiple interwoven and interacting causes, from culture to politics to economics, to historical accident to environmental influence and, yes, also to the nefarious doings of particular actors who may or may not be “racists,” as well as systems of law and policy that disadvantage some groups without having been so intended. I want to know what they are talking about when they say “structural racism.” In effect, use of the term expresses a disposition. It calls me to solidarity. It asks for my fealty, for my affirmation of a system of belief. It’s a very mischievous way of talking, especially in a university, although I can certainly understand why it might work well on Twitter.

Another unspeakable truth: We must put the police killings of black Americans into perspective

There are about 1,200 fatal shootings of people by the police in the US each year, according to the carefully documented database kept by the Washington Post which enumerates, as best it can determine, every single instance of a fatal police shooting. Roughly 300 of those killed are African Americans, about one-fourth, while blacks are about 13 percent of the population. So that’s an over-representation, though still far less than a majority of the people who are killed. More whites than blacks are killed by police in the country every year. You wouldn’t know that from the activists’ rhetoric.

Now, 1,200 may be too many. I am prepared to entertain that idea. I’d be happy to discuss the training of police, the recruitment of them, the rules of engagement that they have with citizens, the accountability that they should face in the event they overstep their authority. These are all legitimate questions. And there is a racial disparity although, as I have noted, there is also a disparity in blacks’ rate of participation in criminal activity that must be reckoned with as well. I am making no claims here, one way or the other, about the existence of discrimination against blacks in the police use of force. This is a debate about which evidence could be brought to bear. There may well be some racial discrimination in police use of force, especially non-lethal force.

But, in terms of police killings, we are talking about 300 victims per year who are black. Not all of them are unarmed innocents. Some are engaged in violent conflict with police officers that leads to them being killed. Some are instances like George Floyd—problematic in the extreme, without question—that deserve the scrutiny of concerned persons. Still, we need to bear in mind that this is a country of more than 300 million people with scores of concentrated urban areas where police interact with citizens. Tens of thousands of arrests occur daily in the United States. So, these events—which are extremely regrettable and often do not reflect well on the police—are, nevertheless, quite rare.

To put it in perspective, there are about 17,000 homicides in the United States every year, nearly half of which involve black perpetrators. The vast majority of those have other blacks as victims. For every black killed by the police, more than 25 other black people meet their end because of homicides committed by other blacks. This is not to ignore the significance of holding police accountable for how they exercise their power vis-à-vis citizens. It is merely to notice how very easy it is to overstate the significance and the extent of this phenomenon, precisely as the Black Lives Matter activists have done.

Thus, the narrative that something called “white supremacy” and “systemic racism” have put a metaphorical “knee on the neck” of black America is simply false. The idea that as a black person I dare not step from my door for fear that the police would round me up or gun me down or bludgeon me to death because of my race is simply ridiculous. That is like not going outdoors for fear of being struck by lightning. The tendentious interpretation of every one of these incidents where violent conflict emerges between police and an African American, such that the incident is read as if it were the latter-day instantiation of the lynching of Emmett Till—that posture, I am obliged to report, is simply preposterous. Fear of being “cancelled” is the only thing that keeps many white people outside of the alt-Right from saying so out loud. “White silence” about anti-racism is not “violence.” Nor is it tacit agreement. But it should worry us.

I also want to stress the dangers of seeing police killings primarily through a racial lens. These events are regrettable regardless of the race of the people involved. Invoking race—emphasizing that the officer is white, and the victim is black—tacitly presumes that the reason the officer acted as he did was because the dead young man was black, and we do not necessarily know that. Moreover, once we get into the habit of racializing these events, we may not be able to contain that racialization merely to instances of white police officers killing black citizens. We may find ourselves soon enough in a world where we talk about black criminals who kill unarmed white victims—a world no thoughtful person should welcome, since there are a great many such instances of black criminals harming white people. Framing them in racial terms is obviously counter-productive.

These are criminals harming people, who should be dealt with accordingly. They do not stand in for their race when they act badly. White victims of crimes committed by blacks oughtn’t to see themselves mainly in racial terms if their automobile is stolen, or if someone beats them up and takes their wallet or breaks into their home and abuses them. Such things are happening on a daily basis in this country. We shouldn’t want to live in a world where such events are interpreted primarily through a racial lens. People are playing with fire, I think, when they gratuitously bring that sensibility to police-citizen interaction. That will not be the end of the story.

Yet another unspeakable truth: There is a dark side to the “white fragility” blame game

Likewise, I suspect that what we are hearing from the progressives in the academy and the media is but one side of the “whiteness” card. That is, I wonder if the “white-guilt” and “white-apologia” and “white-privilege” view of the world cannot exist except also to give birth to a “white-pride” backlash, even if the latter is seldom expressed overtly—it being politically incorrect to do so.

Confronted by someone who is constantly bludgeoning me about the evils of colonialism, urging me to tear down the statues of “dead white men,” insisting that I apologize for what my white forebears did to the “peoples of color” in years past, demanding that I settle my historical indebtedness via reparations, and so forth—I well might begin to ask myself, were I one of these “white oppressors,” on exactly what foundations does human civilization in the 21st century stand? I might begin to enumerate the great works of philosophy, mathematics, and science that ushered in the “Age of Enlightenment,” that allowed modern medicine to exist, that gave rise to the core of human knowledge about the origins of the species or of the universe. I might begin to tick-off the great artistic achievements of European culture, the architectural innovations, the paintings, the symphonies, etc. And then, were I in a particularly agitated mood, I might even ask these “people of color,” who think that they can simply bully me into a state of guilt-ridden self-loathing, where is “their” civilization?

Now, everything I just said exemplifies “racist” and “white supremacist” rhetoric. I wish to stipulate that I would never actually say something like that myself. I am not here attempting to justify that position. I am simply noticing that, if I were a white person, it might tempt me, and I cannot help but think that it is tempting a great many white people. We can wag our fingers at them all we want but they are a part of the racism-monger’s package. If one is going to go down this route, one has got to expect this. How can we make “whiteness” into a site of unrelenting moral indictment without also occasioning it to become the basis of pride, of identity and, ultimately, of self-affirmation?

One risks cancellation for saying this, but the right idea is the idea of Gandhi and Martin Luther King: to transcend our racial particularism while stressing the universality of our humanity. That is, the right idea—if only fitfully and by degrees—is to carry on with our march toward the goal of “race-blindness,” to move toward a world where no person’s worth is seen to be contingent upon racial inheritance. This is the only way to address a legacy of historical racism effectively without running into a reactionary chauvinism. Promoting anti-whiteness (and Black Lives Matter often seems to flirt with this) may cause one to reap what one sows in a backlash of pro-whiteness. Here we have yet another unspeakable truth which, as a responsible black intellectual, it is my duty to apprise you of.

On the unspeakable infantilization of “black fragility”

I would add that there is an assumption of “black fragility,” or at least of black lack of resilience lurking behind these anti-racism arguments. Blacks are being treated like infants whom one dares not to touch. One dares not say the wrong word in front of us; to ask any question that might offend us; to demand anything from us, for fear that we will be so adversely impacted by that. The presumption is that black people cannot be disagreed with, criticized, called to account, or asked for anything. No one asks black people, “What do you owe America?” How about not just what does America owe us—reparations for slavery, for example? What do we owe America? How about duty? How about honor?

When you take agency away from people, you remove the possibility of holding them to account and the capacity to maintain judgment and standards so that you can evaluate what they do. If a youngster who happens to be black has no choice about whether or not to join a gang, pick up a gun, and become a criminal, since society has failed him by not providing adequate housing, healthcare, income support, job opportunities, etc., then it becomes impossible to effectively discriminate between the black youngsters who do and do not pick up guns and become members of a gang in those conditions, and to maintain within African American society a judgment of our fellows’ behavior, and to affirm expectations of right-living. Since, don’t you know, we are all the victims of anti-black racism. The end result of all of this is that we are leveled down morally by a presumed lack of control over our lives and lack of accountability for what we do.

What is more, there is a deep irony in first declaring white America to be systemically racist, but then mounting a campaign to demand that whites recognize their own racism and deliver blacks from its consequences. I want to say to such advocates: “If, indeed, you are right that your oppressors are racists, why would you expect them to respond to your moral appeal? You are, in effect, putting yourself on the mercy of the court, while simultaneously decrying that the court is unrelentingly biased.” The logic of such advocacy escapes me.

On achieving “true equality” for black Americans

I am reminded, amidst the contemporary turmoil, of the period after the Emancipation, more than 150 years ago. There was a brief moment of pro-freedmen sentiment during Reconstruction, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but it was washed away and the long, dark night of Jim Crow emerged. Blacks were set back. But, in the wake of this setback emerged some of the greatest achievements of African American history. The freedmen who had been liberated from slavery in 1863 were almost universally illiterate. Within a half-century, their increased literacy rate rivals anything that has been seen, in terms of a mass population acquiring the capacity to read. Now, that was really very significant, for it helped bring them into the modern world.

We now look at the black family lamenting, perhaps, the high rate of births to mothers who are not married and so forth—but that is a modern, post-1960 phenomenon. In fact, the health of the African American social fiber coming out of slavery was remarkable. Books have been written about this. Businesses were built. People acquired land. People educated their children. People acquired skills. They constantly faced opposition at every step along the way, “no blacks need apply,” “white only,” this and that and the other, and nevertheless they built a foundation from which could be launched a Civil Rights Movement in the mid-20th century, that would change the politics of the country. As my friend Robert Woodson is fond of saying, “When whites were at their worst, we blacks were at our best.” Such potentiality seems now to have been, in a way, forgotten as we throw ourselves, as I say, on the mercy of the court. “There’s nothing we can do.” “We’re prostrate here.” “Our kids are not doing as well, our communities are troubled, but here we are, and we demand that you save us.”

This is the very same population about which such a noble history of extraordinary accomplishment under unimaginably adverse conditions can be told. So, pull yourself up by the bootstraps is a kind of cliché, and people will laugh when you say it, and they’ll roll their eyes and whatnot. Take responsibility for your life. No one’s coming to save you. It’s not anybody else’s job to raise your children. It’s not anybody else’s job to pick the trash up from in front of your home, etc. Take responsibility for your life. It’s not fair, and this is another, I think, delusion. People think there is some benevolent being up in the sky who will make sure everything works out fairly, but it is not so. Life is full of tragedy and atrocity and barbarity and so on. This is not fair. It is not right. But such is the way of the world.

Here, then, is my final unspeakable truth, which I utter now in defiance of “cancel culture”: If we blacks want to walk with dignity—if we want to be truly equal—then we must realize that white people cannot give us equality. We actually have to actually earn equal status. Please don’t cancel me just yet, because I am on the side of black people here. But I feel obliged to report that equality of dignity, equality of standing, equality of honor, of security in one’s position in society, equality of being able to command the respect of others—this is not something that can be simply handed over. Rather, it is something that one has to wrest from a cruel and indifferent world with hard work, with our bare hands, inspired by the example of our enslaved and newly freed ancestors. We have to make ourselves equal. No one can do it for us.

 

Glenn Loury is a professor of economics and faculty fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown University and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @GlennLoury.

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The Auk , One of Churchills wasted Generals

Sir Claude Auchinleck GCB GCIE CSI DSO OBE | Royal Irish - Virtual Military  Gallery

The Mediterranean was to Churchill what the Mississippi River was to Lincoln – a vital strategic lifeline. Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert wrote: “The removal of these armoured troops from Britain to Egypt, at the very moment when Britain herself seemed so vulnerable, was a decision of courage by all concerned, principally Churchill, Eden and the Chiefs of Staff, constituting, as John Martin has written, the despatch, ‘of precious troops and arms, including nearly half our best tanks….’”49

Historian David Dilks wrote “it was to [the Mediterranean] theatre that from August 1940, long before anyone could be confident that the threat of invasion had abated, the British government sent a large proportion of its armoured strength. The decision entailed a calculated and bold risk and originated with the CIGS, General [John] Dill and the Secretary of State for War, [Anthony] Eden.

It was first opposed by General [Alan] Brooke, who was then C.-in-C. Home Forces and later to succeed Dill. The Prime Minster, once convinced gave his indispensable support. Without that decision and a series of similar actions in 1941, the Middle Eastern position might well have been lost.”50 Historian Andrew Roberts wrote: “The constant fear of both the American and British High Commands centred on what would happen if the Germans moved south-eastwards into the Caucasus and Iraq at precisely the same time that Japanese naval and air forces managed to close the Gulf of Persia and thus the southern exit of the Suez Canal.”51 The loss of these oilfields would have been devastating to the Allied effort.

In July 1940, CIGS John Dill and Churchill clashed over the prime minister’s criticism of Wavell attached to a report from theMideast commander: “One of the clearest impressions I get from General Wavell’s statement is that, as is his habit, he is taking blame to himself which properly belongs to his subordinates, particularly those who were taken prisoner and are therefore unable to state their case,” wrote Dill to Churchill.

The prime minister responded: “I must retain the right to address my own Cabinet colleagues as I think fit upon such information as is before me at any time.”52 Churchill and Wavell would never understand each other. Historian Carlo D’Este noted: “In Wavell, Churchill had a bright, aggressive commander – of the sort that was in desperately short supply in the moribund British army of the 1940 and 1941 – to tackle one of the most difficult command assignments ever handed a British officer.”53

Communication and personality were key problems between Churchill and his commanders. Historian Corelli Barnett argued that Churchill disdained Archibald Wavell because he was “absolutely tongue-tied” and disdained Claude Auchinleck as defeatist.54 General Ulysses S. Grant, too, was taciturn. Lincoln respected him. Wavell was taciturn. Churchill was annoyed. As Wavell once observed, “Winston is always expecting rabbits to come out of empty hats.”55 Churchill’s impatience was understandable; it was also often unreasonable. “Resentment and distrust now coalesced in Churchill’s mind,” wrote historian Ronald Lewin.

“Twice, in 1940 and 1941, Wavell had opposed shipment of armour through the Mediterranean; though he had accepted support for Greece, he had failed to submit to London a precise military appreciation to justify that acceptance, and Crete appeared to have collapsed because energetic measures for its defence had not been undertaken from Cairo; over Iraq, and again over Syria, he had been reluctant to intervene when instance action seemed critically important; and now, in an operation which, for Churchill, was the inevitable preliminary to the relief of Tobruk and the abolition of Axis in Africa nothing had happened but fumbling and defeat.”56

Like Lincoln, Churchill placed a high premium on aggressive military action by his subordinates. In mid-August, 1940, Secretary of War Anthony Eden wrote Churchill: “Dill and I were much perturbed at your judgment of Wavell. Neither of us know of any General Officer in the army better qualified to fill this difficult post at this critical time.”57 In the fall of 1940, Anthony disclosed to the Defence Committee “that Wavell had decided not to await [General Rodolfo] Graziani’s attack at Mersa Matruh, but to take the offensive himself at an early date; and he followed up this startling announcement with an explanation of Wavell’s plans [the successful attack on Italian forces called Operation Compass].

Every one of us could have jumped for joy, but Churchill could have jumped twice as high as the rest. He has said that he ‘purred like six cats.’ That is putting it mildly. He was rapturously happy. ‘At long last we are going to throw off the intolerable shackles of the defensive,’ he declaimed. ‘Wars are won by superior will-power. Now we will wrest the initiative from the enemy and impose our will on him.”58

In late 1940 Wavell secretly planned a major operation against the Italians in Libya. Keegan wrote that “Wavell also intended to ensure Churchill would not interfere in the operational details and, despite the latter’s chafing at the lack of action by the ‘Army of the Nile’, Wavell kept his silence.”59

In his communication with Mideast leaders at the end of 1940, wrote Ismay, Churchill “wanted, perhaps above all else, to impart to the commanders his own ‘impetuous, adventurous and defying character.’ He wanted them to feel that they were always in his thoughts, and that he was sharing their failures as well as their successes. He wanted them to tell him in what way he could help them, and he wanted them to understand that, provided they showed a sincere desire to engage the enemy, he would back them to the limit, whatever the result.”60

Churchill was, however, determined to pester regardless of whatever his generals did. Churchill worried in December 1940: “General Wavell is only playing small, and is not hurling in his whole available forces with furious energy, he will have failed to rise to the height of circumstances.”61

In early 1941, Churchill agonized over Greece, wanted to keep British commitments to the country made by Chamberlain but saying in October 1940 “that it would be wrong and foolish to make them promises which we could not fulfill.” A few days later Churchill said: “Aid to Greece must be attentively studied lest whole Turkish position is lost through proof that England never tries to ‘keep her guarantees.’”62

Writing to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1941, Harry Hopkins acknowledged that Churchill “thinks Greece is lost – although he is now reinforcing the Greeks – and weakening his African Army.”63 The tradeoff was clear and difficult. The British War Cabinet decided on February 24 to move three British divisions to Greece to fight the Italian invasion. Churchill was ambivalent on what to do and looked to Dill, Eden, and Wavell to advise him. They advised aid to Greece “partly because of the misreading of German intentions and capability by Wavell’s intelligence staff in Cairo, and partly because of a sudden change of heart in Athens,” wrote historian Robin Edmonds.64

Churchill was dubious. Churchill wired Eden on March 6: “Difficult for Cabinet to believe that we now have any power to avert fate of Greece unless Turkey and/or Yugoslavia come in, which seems most improbable….We do not see any reason for expecting success, except that of course we attack great weight to opinions of Dill and Wavell….Loss of Greece and Balkans by no means a major catastrophe for us provided Turkey remains neutral.”65 Eden and Dill concluded otherwise. “In Cairo, Eden and Dill found that Wavell, Longmore and Cunningham were as emphatic as the Ambassador in feeling that ‘Lustre’ should go ahead.”66 Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies was in London during the cabinet discussions regarding Greece and objected vehemently to the initiative proposed by Dill and Eden.67

An unsympathetic historian R. W. Thompson wrote: “Why Wavell gave in remains for most of us a mystery. Four precious British divisions, the very means of complete victory in the desert, were on their way to experience a second Dunkirk on the shores of Greece, followed by a devastating blow upon them from the airborne enemy in Crete, 15,000 men were lost with all their valuable equipment, and the naval resources in the Mediterranean were dangerously extended in the work of rescue.”68 Thompson charged: “Eden had been a poor and dangerous counsellor, for he lived in a rarified political air of his own, incapable of relating political ends to military means, a condition that would bring him to ruin.”69

Admiral Andrew Cunningham recalled the deliberations regarding Greece: “We, the naval element, thought roughly as follows. We were bound by treaty to help Greece if she were threatened, so there was no question at all that it was, politically, the right thing to do. On the other hand, we had serious misgivings if it was correct from the military point of view. We doubted very much if our Naval, Military and Air resources were equal to it.”70

The cabinet met on March 7 to evaluate the situation – with strong support from Eden in a telegram, saying what British leaders believed: “Collapse of Greece without further effort on our part to save her by intervention on land, after the Libyan victories had, as all the world knows, made forces available, would be the greatest calamity….No doubt our prestige will suffer if we are ignominiously ejected, but in any event to have fought and suffered in Greece would be less damaging to us than to have left Greece to her fate.”

Colville diaried about British support for Greece in March 1941: “It was thrust upon us partly because, in the first place, the PM felt that our prestige, in France, in Spain and in the US, could not stand our desertion of Greece; partly because Eden, Dill, Wavell and Cunningham (who has now telegraphed to point out the extreme length to which his resources are stretched) recommended it so strongly. But the danger of another Norway, Dunkirk and Dakar rolled into one looms threateningly before us.”71

General Hastings Ismay, the prime minister’s top military aide, wrote that Churchill repeatedly advised Wavell that the desert campaign should have priority over Greece. Eden and Dill were dispatched to the area to make a first had evaluation. “Scarcely had Eden and Dill arrive22 in Cairo when the Prime Minister warned them that the Cabinet were in no mood to press the matter of help to Greece.” Eden repeatedly said that help should be sent to Greece: “We are all agreed that the course advocated should be followed and help given to Greece.”72 Biographer Martin Gilbert wrote, however “Churchill’s desire to reinforce Crete and Wavell’s concern for his own strength in Egypt could not be reconciled.”73 Churchill concluded that Britain “should go forward with a good heart.”74

Evacuation from Greece began on April 24 under severe German attack. Not only did Britain lose Greece and Crete, it also lost the gains it had made against the Italian army when Rommel counterattacked in April. Greeks surrendered on April 24 – leading to an evacuation of 50,000 British soldiers. David Dilks noted that “early in May the House of Commons debated a motion of no confidence. Lloyd George attacked the Prime Minister fiercely for surrounding himself with yesmen’. Churchill replied by comparing Lloyd George to Pétain.

In the resulting division the Government won by 447 votes to 3.”75 Wavell’s support for British intervention in Greece would prove his undoing. Historian Robin Edmonds wrote: “This was his first major failure since he became Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. Not only did British forces lose on land, both in Greece and Libya, but the defence of Crete in particular cost the Royal Navy ships that were badly needed in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.”76

Historian Carlo D’Este argued: “However noble British intentions, the Greek campaign did not make good military sense and was little more than a futile political gesture.”77 Churchill observed that the Greece operation had served a purpose: Without it, “Yugoslavia would not now be an open enemy of Germany. Further, the Greek war had caused a marked change of attitude in the United States.”78

After the Greece debacle, attention turned back to the desert war in North Africa. Churchill wrote General Ismay on April 30, 1941: “All concerned are reminded that we have in the Middle East an army of nearly half a million men, whose whole fighting value may be frustrated and even destroyed by a temporary hostile superiority in tanks and aircraft. The failure to win the battle of Egypt would be a disaster of the first magnitude to Great Britain. It might well determine the decisions of Turkey, Spain and Vichy. It might strike the United States the wrong way, i.e., they might think we are no good.”79

Dill wrote Wavell on May 21, “My attitude has always been that if the P.M. has lost confidence in you he should at once replace you. I have told him this several times because I felt he was losing confidence in you; and yet in spite of that I am sure, as I have already said twice, it would be disastrous for you to go now. It is odd how difficult it is to apply simple principles, such as trust or sack. [Lloyd George] didn’t trust Haig and couldn’t sack him. At least I don’t think he could. Too many people had complete confidence in him. Is history going to repeat itself?”80

Biographer John Connell wrote that Churchill’s War Cabinet system “was not a system that brought out the best in Wavell” and “the trust and confidence which Wavell was given so fully by his subordinates he could never get from Churchill.” Connell concluded that Wavell “fought all his campaigns against odds, and in averse circumstances such as few could have surmounted.”81

Churchill was oblivious to the physical problems faced by Wavell as he organized his beleaguered forces – but Wavell was probably insensitive to the political problems that Churchill faced as he rushed tanks through the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean to Cairo. Military historian John Keegan wrote: “What proved the final breaking point was the further development of the desert campaign. With news of more German tanks reaching Tripoli in late April,

Churchill had rushed the ‘Tiger’ convoy through the Mediterranean, a total of 238 new tanks for Wavell reaching Alexandria on 12 May. Churchill expected his ‘Cubs’ to be used immediately, especially as Ultra had revealed the parlous state of [German General Erwin] Rommel’s logistics. Wavell intended to go on to the offensive and launched Operation Brevity on 15 May in anticipation of making good losses from the newly arrived tanks. Unfortunately, Brevity failed as did a second operation – Battleaxe – launched with the new tanks of 15 June.”82 Historian Corelli Barnett wrote that “Battleaxe had been hopelessly premature.”83 In May 1941 Colville noted that Churchill “said some very harsh things about Wavell, whose excessive caution and inclination to pessimism he finds very antipathetic.”84

After the failure in June 1941, of Operation Battleaxe, an operation whose success Wavell diplomatically described as “doubtful,” Churchill axed the Mediterranean commander. Dill warned Wavell on May 21, “My attitude has always been that if the P.M. has lost confidence in you he should at once replace you. I have told him this several times because I felt he was losing confidence in you; and yet in spite of that I am sure, as I have already said twice, it would be disastrous for you to go now. I is odd how difficult it is to apply simple principles, such as trust or sack. [Lloyd George] didn’t trust Haig and couldn’t sack him. At least I don’t he could. Too many people had complete confidence in him. Is history going to repeat itself?”85

Writing on June 20, Churchill declared: “I have come to the conclusion that a change is needed in the command in the Middle East. Wavell has a glorious record, having completely destroyed the Italian Army and conquered the Italian Empire in Africa. He has also borne up well against the German attacks and has conduced war and policy in three or four directions simultaneously since the beginning of the struggle. I must regard him as our most distinguished General. Nevertheless, I feel he tired, and that a fresh eye and an unstrained hand is needed. I wish therefore to bring about a change-over for temporary war time conditions between him and Auchinleck.”86

Churchill had agonized over the decision to his Mideast commander before writing Wavell on June 21: “I have come to the conclusion that the public interest will best be served by the appointment of General Auchinleck to relieve you in the Command of the armies of the Middle East. I have greatly admired your command and conduct of these armies both in success and adversity, and the victories which are associated with your name will be famous in the story of the British Army and are an important contribution to our final success in this obstinate war. I feel however that after the long strain you have borne a new eye and a new hand are required in this most seriously menaced theatre.”87 Always the gentleman, Wavell responded: “I think you are wise to make the change and get new ideas and action on many problems in Middle East and am sure Auchinleck will be successful choice…..I appreciate your generous references to my work and am honoured that you should consider me fitted to fill post of C-in-C India.”88 Still, the dismissal hurt.

Wavell biographer John Connell wrote: “Wavell…was not unaware of the extraordinary linking of the man and the hour, and was far from unresponsive to its poetic and patriotic implications. But never could he give what Churchill asked. Far more subtle and complex in character than Churchill, and far better educated, he was steeled by a lifetime of strong self-discipline. He was cool and reticent where Churchill was warm and overflowing with emotion. He obeyed orders as readily as he gave them, but always with a clear, far-sighted understanding of their full consequences.”89 General John N. Kennedy, who was assistant chief of staff for the British army, wrote of Wavell’s dismissal that “his biggest mistake had been his failure to take the right line with regard to the instructions he had received from London. How far was a commander in the field justified in opposing directives from his Government with which he disagreed? We felt that he must expect to be abused, and to be reproached for lacking initiative, and that he ‘must be prepared to resign if his advice on major questions were over-ruled.’”90 Writing of frustration with the Middle East campaign in the fall of 1941, military strategist Kennedy wrote: “To cope with the situation adequately, it would almost have been worth while to have two staffs: one to deal with the Prime Minister, the other with the war. His domination over the Chiefs of Staff seemed greater than ever; and Dill, on whom fell the brunt of opposing him, now began to show signs of great exhaustion.”

When Churchill’s projects were finally thrown aside, after the useless expenditure of much labour and energy, he obviously did not realize that he had been saved from disasters. On the contrary, he seemed to think he had been thwarted by men who lacked initiative and courage. At such times as this, we often felt that we would give almost anything for a less colourful occupant of No. 10.91

Churchill was worried about the political impact of returning Wavell to London, so Wavell was sent to India instead. Historian R. W. Thompson wrote maintained that “to Churchill, any such person as Wavell must be either a rival or in a position to do him some potential harm.”92 Harold Nicolson, then an official in the Information Ministry wrote in his diary: “Grave public apprehension will be caused by the dégommage of Wavell, and we have not handled it properly. The P.M. simply does not understand that one cannot land the public with shocks.”93 In September 1941, Wavell visited London. “Why does Winston dislike me, Joan?,” Wavell asked Joan Bright as he walked the Defence Department aide back to her office. She wrote: “It was a tragedy that Churchill had lost confidence in Wavell but more of a tragedy that Wavell was so inarticulate, so unable to make out a case for himself. He was a soldier’s soldier, a poet, a philosopher, but he was not astute when it came to dealing with his brilliant Prime Minister.”94

“Dismissal of Wavell, in fact if not in intention, made him a scapegoat for Churchill’s own mistakes,” wrote historian Corelli Barnett. “Now the Commander-in-Chief was gong, Churchill could recognise that he had asked too much of him, and could ease the responsibilities of his successor.” Churchill later wrote: “It was only after the disasters had occurred in Cyrenaica, in Crete, and in the Desert that I realised how overloaded and under-sustained General Wavell’s organisation was. Wavell tried his best; but the handling machine at his disposal was too weak to enable him to cope with the vast mass of business which four or five simultaneous campaigns imposed on him.”95 At the time, Churchill wrote to the viceroy of India of Wavell: “I feel he is tired, and that a fresh eye and an unstrained hand is needed. I wish therefore to bring about a change-over for temporary war time conditions between him and Auchinleck.” Churchill added: “I feel sure Auchinleck would infuse a new energy and precision into the defence of the Nile Valley, and that Wavell would make an admirable Commander-in-Chief in India, who would aid you in the whole of the great sphere which India is now assuming as our flank moves eastward.” Years Later, Generals Ian Jacob and Pug Ismay discussed why Churchill replaced Wavell: “I can see you now, holding out both your hands as though you had a fishing rod in each of them, and you said: ‘I feel that I have got a tired fish on this rod, and a very lively one on the other.”96

General Claude Auchinleck was a general of competence, diligence, diplomacy, class, and ill luck. “As a soldier he was a complete professional and highly talent. He had a distrust of politicians which is shared by many soldiers, and he would not compromise his principles or adopt methods which appeared to be dishonest. “He could not accept the thesis that the end justifies the means; from his background, upbringing and training, honesty was not merely the best policy, but the only policy, concluded military historian John Keegan.97 “Auchinleck was an able and strong-minded officer always ready to attempt the bold and novel course,” wrote historian Corelli Barnett.98 “Auchinleck, with the character of the preux chevalier to which Churchill always responded, handsome, open, frank, a soldier of the firing-line, suffered not so much from distrust as from dissatisfaction,” wrote historian Ronald Lewin. “Like Lincoln in the crisis of the Civil War Churchill sought commanders who could deliver, and Auchinleck’s tragedy was that his great and manifest gifts aroused too great hopes – some of which, unfortunately, might have been fulfilled had the Prime Minister been less exigent, and his general more sophisticated in both his relations with Downing Street and his conduct of the battle. Dill was no deranged Cassandra when he observed, at the time of the switch of appointments, that ‘Auchinleck, for all his great qualities and his outstanding record on the Frontier, was not the coming man of the war, as the Prime Minister thought’.”99

General Ismay wrote that Auchinleck “was not a gambler, but never shrank from taking a calculated risk if the situation so demanded. His whole heart and soul were in the battle, and he was an apostle of the offensive. Time and again he would quote from Nelson’s Trafalgar memorandum: “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.”100 However, noted historian Tuvia Ben-Moshe, when “Auchinleck refused to open his offensive before the autumn of 1941, Churchill recalled him to London, where he informed the general that it would be most unpleasant were the Russians to bear the main burden of the war while Britain did nothing at all.”101 In fairness, Churchill keenly felt his obligations to allies. He wrote the Chiefs of Staff in May 1942 about a pending convoy to Russia. “The operation is justified, if a half gets through. Failure on our part to make the attempt would weaken our influence with both our major Allies. There are always the uncertainties of weather and luck, which may aid us. I share your misgivings, but I feel it is a matter of duty.”102

Auchinleck resisted hasty action – understanding better than Churchill the realities of desert warfare. General Hastings Ismay wrote in his memoirs that Auchinleck “had retrieved the battle of Side Rezegh [in November 1941] when all seemed lost, and more recently he had saved Cairo. On both occasions he had show resolution and tactical skill of an exceptional order.”103 One of the biggest decisions Auchinleck had to make was choosing a commander for the critical Eighth Army facing Rommel. On November 26, 1941, Auchinleck dismissed General Alan Cunningham from that position after Cunningham recommended halting Operation Crusader he was leading against Rommel. Historian Correlli Barnett wrote that the pipe-smoking General Neil M. “Ritchie appeared the best possible candidate for the command of the Eighth Army. There was no time for a new Army Commander to fly out from England; Cunningham must be replaced in a matter of hours.”104 Ritchie was meant to be a temporary fix, but he served for seven months until Auchinleck relieved him. Ismay wrote that Auchinleck “may have been perfectly right to put Ritchie in temporary command of the Eighth Army when Cunningham broke down, but was it wise to keep him there as a permanency. If no one on the spot seemed the right man, there was nothing to prevent his asking for a replacement from England; and there is little doubt that even so senior a man as Alexander would have jumped at the opportunity.”105 Auchinleck observed that “Ritchie was perforce pitch-forked into a command at a desperate moment, knowing little or nothing of his subordinate commanders or troops and told to retrieve an apparently lost battle. I, therefore, thought it only right to ‘hold his hand’ and make myself very readily available for consultation at a short notice.” The assignment against one of the war’s toughest generals was nearly impossible for Ritchie, who was being asked to command subordinates who were both senior to him and far better informed about battlefield conditions.106 General Ismay wrote: “In London it was expected and hoped that Auchinleck would take personal control of the battle; but to the general astonishment, he appointed Major-General Ritchie.”107 Ritchie was the wrong man for the job but it took seven more months to discover how wrong.

Under the press of German General Erwin Rommel’s Desert Corps in the first half of 1942, Auchinleck soon lost Churchill’s confidence in the general’s will to be act aggressively. In May 1942, Churchill wrote Auchinleck: “There are no safe battles. But this one arises from an enemy attack and your forestalling or manoevring counter-stroke, or whether it has to be undertaken by you on its own, we have full confidence in you and your glorious army, and whatever happens, we will sustain you by every means in our power.’”108 Churchill had limited respect for Auchinleck, whom he wrote was “obstinate.” General Ismay wrote of Auchinleck: “Only those who knew him well realised that he was shy and sensitive. He was as much an introvert as his political chief was an extrovert, and there were likely to be misunderstandings between them unless they got to understand each other.” At Chequers, Ismay once tried to help Auchinleck understand Churchill, telling: “Churchill could not be judged by ordinary standards; he was different from anyone we had ever met before, or were ever likely to meet again. As a war leader, he was head and shoulders above anyone that the British or any other nation could produce. He was indispensable and completely irreplaceable. The idea that he was rude, arrogant and self-seeking was entirely wrong. He was none of these things. He was certainly frank in speech and writing, but he expected others to be equally frank with him. To a young brigadier from Middle East Headquarters, who had asked if he might speak freely, he replied, ‘Of course. We are not here to pay each other compliments.’ He was a child of nature.”109 When Auchinleck delayed the Churchill-demanded counterattack against Rommel in January, Churchill called it “intolerable.”110 In May 1942, Churchill wrote Auchinleck: “There are no safe battles. But this one arises from an enemy attack and your forestalling or manoevring counter-stroke, or whether it has to be undertaken by you on its own, we have full confidence in you and your glorious army, and whatever happens, we will sustain you by every means in our power.’”111

The prime minister always thought that Cairo was overstaffed with non-combatants and support personnel. He thought that superiority in numbers should count for something. Churchill’s lack of patience was obvious when he wired Auchinleck: “You have over 700,000 men on your ration strength in the Middle East. Every fit male should be made to fight and die for victory; there is no reason why units defending Mersa Matruh position should not be reinforced by several thousands of officers and the administrative personnel ordered to swell the battalions.” Lamb contended: “It was malicious of Churchill to bombard Auchinleck in this way at the height of the battle” especially when “Auchinleck was in the unpleasant position of having to sack Ritchie and take over command of the Eighth Army in person. It was the worst possible moment for Churchill to nag.” One of the serious problems that the Mideast commanders faced was that their tanks were inferior to the Germans’ tanks. One of Churchill’s problems was that he had told Parliament that British equipment was as good as that used by the Germans. That was not true. Lamb wrote that on May 6, “Auchinleck stated that he could not start his offensive until 15 June. Not until then, he said, would he have the necessary superiority in tanks. And should the fresh Italian division Littorio arrive in the battle zone, the offense would have to be postponed until August, while he had to divert forces to aid Turkey no offensive was possible at all. Lamb maintained that “Auchinleck’s conduct of his desert campaign was definitely first-class; he was defeated not because of his strategy or tactics, but because Rommel’s tanks and guns were superior.”112

Rommel’s strategy was also superior to Ritchies – leading to the envelopment of Tobruk. On June 21, Prime Minister Churchill learned of the fall of Tobruk and the loss of nearly 35,000 British and Dominion soldiers when he was meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House. In his memoirs, Churchill wrote: “This was one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war.”113 Tobruk had obsessed Churchill. Martin Gilbert wrote: “Intent on following the defence of Tobruk as closely as possible, Churchill asked Ismay to prepare both a large-scale plan and a model for him, and, meanwhile, ‘the best photographs available, both from the air and from the ground.’”114 Historian Richard Lamb wrote: “After the fall of Tobruk Churchill plainly had little confidence in Auchinleck, but it is hard to understand why he thought that prodding and pinpricking would help the battle. After the war Auchinleck commented mildly: ‘I was not afraid of Churchill. Some people were. But his interference was a disturbing influence on a chap like myself who was concentrating the whole day and night on one thing. I did not need encouragement to beat the enemy although I was glad to get it if things went well.’ That is the nearest Auchinleck ever went to criticizing Churchill.”115

The fall of Tobruk might have been the very unfortunate result of Churchill’s meddling, according to some commentators. Historian Richard Lamb argues that Auchinleck had made it clear on January 10: “It is NOT my intention to try to hold permanent Tobruk or any other locality west of the frontier.” Neither Churchill nor Brook commented. Auchinleck repeated that intention a month later when he wrote: “If for any reason, we should be forced at some future date to withdraw from our present forward positions, every effort will still be made to prevent Tobruk being lost to the enemy, but it is not my intention to continue to hold it once the enemy is in a position to invest it effectively.”116 Lamb noted: “On 15 June the Prime Minister cabled Auchinleck to ask if the War Cabinet should interpret his telegram to mean that, if the need arose, Ritchie would leave as many troops in Tobruk as were necessary ‘to hold the place for certain. The following day Auchinleck replied that this was a ‘correct interpretation’, adding that Rommel was not strong enough to invest Tobruk and ‘mask’ British forces on the frontier.” Lamb contended: “Churchill’s insistence on Tobruk being defended pushed his general into a gross tactical mistake against his better judgement at the eleventh hour.” He argued: “Tobruk ought to have been abandoned, and the disastrous loss in prisoners and equipment must be laid at Churchill’s door.” Lamb wrote: “Auchinleck was also furious when Churchill wanted him to ‘depute’ a senior officer on his staff to conduct an enquiry into the fall of Tobruk. He protested vigorously to Churchill who climbed down, saying in excuse that it was a War Cabinet request, not his personal one.”117

Auchinleck biographer John Connell placed much of the blame for the Tobruk disaster on General Neil Ritchie’s tendency to listen to subordinate, General William Gott, rather than his superior, General Auchinleck. Neither accurately assessed the seriousness of the situation. “Auchinleck’s advice was good advice,” wrote Connell, “and when Ritchie took it he was a successful general. When he rejected it, when he fell under other influences, he failed. Men who were subordinate to him, but were sure of themselves and had a greater faith in their own judgment than he in his, could sway his opinion.” Gott’s advice had been to withdraw the Eighth Army and let Tobruk withstand the German siege. “With dismal frequency the British commanders were obliging Rommel by doing what he expected and wanted,” noted Connell.118 In his war memoirs, Churchill clearly placed the blame: “The personal association of Auchinleck and Ritchie did not give Ritchie a chance of those independent conceptions on which the command of violent events depends. The lack of clear thought and the ill-defined responsibility between General Auchinleck and his recent staff officer, General Ritchie, had led to a mishandling of the forces which its character and consequences constitutes an unfortunate page in British military history.”119

The British prime minister received the news of Tobruk’s fall while he was visiting the White House and sitting with the American president. “Tobruk has surrendered, with twenty-five thousand men take prisoners ” read the telegram that President Franklin D. Roosevelt received at the White House on June 21, 1942. “Nothing could exceed the sympathy and chivalry of my two friends,” wrote Churchill of Hopkins and Roosevelt who were in the room with him when he received the news. “There were no reproaches; not an unkind word was spoken. ‘What can we do to help,’ said Roosevelt. Meeting in his White House study with Winston S. Churchill, FDR wordlessly gave the telegram to the prime minister. “Neither Winston nor I had contemplated such an eventuality and it was a staggering blow. I cannot remember what the individual words were that the President used to convey his sympathy, but I remember vividly being impressed by the tact and real heartfelt sympathy that lay behind these words,” wrote Field Marshall Alan Brooke.120 Churchill’s physician remembered that Churchill declaring: “What matters is that it should happen when I am here” before moving to the White House window. “I am ashamed. I cannot understand why Tobruk gave in. More than 30,000 of our men put their hands up. If they won’t fight —‘ The P.M. stopped abruptly.”121 The next day, Churchill declared: “I am the most miserable Englishman in America – since Burgoyne.” In his memoirs. Churchill wrote of Tobruk: “Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another.”122 The loss of Tobruk also led to a confrontation with Churchill’s critics in the House of Commons – his second of 1942.

Churchill and CIGS Alan Brooke went to Cairo at the beginning of August 1843. “Both believed that there was something radically wrong with the Command; but the Prime Minister had not apprehended that whatever previous shortcomings there had been, whatever reverses had occurred (for which he, with his impetuosity and his interference, bore no small responsibility), the Axis forces had been decisively defeated during July. In Brooke the deep and steadfast awareness of his duty, of his personal and professional responsibilities, were tinged with a cautious, somewhat sombre foreboding,” wrote John Connell. “The Prime Minister, as he unashamedly confessed, was looking forward to a rare and exciting jaunt.”123 The delegation also included Field Marshal Jan Smuts, prime minister of South Africa, on whom Churchill relied for military and command advice. Many of the soldiers captured at Tobruk had been South African.

Auchinleck had in effect been serving as both Mideast commander and commander of the Eighth Army on the front lines fighting Rommel. Churchill and Brooke wrestled over new leadership – including at one point a Churchill suggestion that Brooke take over the Eighth Army. Brooke knew he did not have the desert war experience the job required; he preferred Bernard Montgomery for the job. After meeting with Auchinleck, however, Brooke wrote in his diary: “I had expected some opposition, but I felt some serious doubts as to whether an Auk-Monty combination would work. I felt that the Auk would interfere too much with Monty; would ride him on too tight a rein, and would consequently be liable to put him out of his strike. As I was anxious to place Monty in command of the Eighth Army, I felt this might necessitate moving the Auk to some other command.”124

Churchill was intent on a game of changing military chairs. Ideas were thrown out, discarded, adopted, and in one case ended in disaster. On August, 6, Brooke wrote about “[o]ne of the difficult days of my life.” The general recorded: “Whilst I was dressing and practically naked, the PM suddenly burst into my room. Very elated an informed me that his thoughts were taking shape and that he would soon commit himself to paper! I rather shuddered and wondered what he was up to! Ten minutes later he burst into my room again and invited me to breakfast with him. However, as I was in the middle of my breakfast by then he asked me to com as soon as I had finished my breakfast. When I went round he made me sit on the sofa whilst he walked up and down. First of all he said he had decided to split the ME Command in two. A Near East taking up to the canal, and a Middle East taking Syria, Palestine, Persia and Iraq. I argued with him that the Canal was an impossible boundary as both Palestine and Syria are based administratively on Egypt. He partially agreed, and then went on to say that he intended to remove the Auk to the Persia Iraq Command as he had lost confidence in him. And he wanted mt to take over the Near East Command with Montgomery as my 8th Army Commander! This made my heart race very fast! He said he did not require an answer at once, and that I could think it over if I wanted. However, I told him without waiting that I was quite certain that it would be a wrong move. I knew nothing about desert warfare, and could never have time to grip hold of the show to my satisfaction before the necessity to attack became imperative.”

Churchill decided on August 6 that General William Gott would take charge of the Eighth Army. It was a bad choice – Churchill was influenced by the general’s surface characteristics rather than military acumen. Reluctantly, Gott agreed and then flew off to Cairo. En route, his plane was shot down by a German fighter. Churchill was forced to adopt Brooke’s earlier suggestion of Bernard Montgomery to head the Eighth Army. Although Churchill made the decision, it required ratification by the War Cabinet meeting in London with Deputy Prime Minister Clement Atlee in the chair. With Brooke’s support, Churchill decided on another change at the top of the Mideast command – suddenly replacing General Auchinleck as Mideast commanders. General Ian Jacob was dispatched to deliver the news to Auchinleck in a letter which offered him the Near East command. “I felt as if I were just going to murder an unsuspecting friend,” wrote Jacob in his diary. “He opened it and read it through two or three times in silence. He did not move a muscle, and remained outwardly calm, and in completely control of himself. He then asked me whether it was intended that Persia should be under India. I told him that it was not so, the whole idea being that there should be three independent Commands. We discussed this for a bit, and then he led me out into the open, and we wandered about while he cleared his mind by talking to me. He said that it was a very evenly balanced question as to whether Iraq and Persia should come under India, or under the Middle East, but that it would never work to make an independent Command in those two countries. He felt that sooner or later they would inevitably come under India.” He decided that he could not accept the new post because his demotion meant “He could hardly in these circumstances retain the confidence of the troops, and by reason of this invidious position he could hardly have confidence in himself.” Jacob concluded: “I could not have admired more the way General Auchinleck received me, and his attitude throughout. A great man and a great fighter.”125 Auchinleck biographer John Connell viewed Auchinleck’s dismissal as reflecting a difficulty in distinguishing the roles of Mideast commander and Eighth Army leader: “An obstinate refusal to pay much regard to the established procedure of commands and staffs in the Army could be construed as a properly vigorous contempt for red tape and unnecessary convention, and, therefore, not merely pardonable but praiseworthy,” wrote Connell. More damnably, Churchill “blinded himself to the truth, which was that for the past six weeks Auchinleck had not been sitting in Cairo, while great events were occurring in the Desert, attending to matters appropriate to either a Minister or a quartermaster, but at the Tactical Headquarters of Eighth Army, directing those great events and beating Rommel to a standstill.”126

“It was a terrible thing to have to do [dismissing Claude Auchinleck]. He took it like a gentleman. It is difficult to remove a bad General at the height of a campaign: it is atrocious to remove a good General,” wrote Churchill. “We must use Auchinleck again. We cannot afford to lose such a man from the fighting line.”127 After relieving Auchinleck by letter, Churchill “then took off all of my clothes and rolled in the [Mediterranean] surf. Never had I had such a bathing.”128 Auchinleck retired (albeit temporarily) rather than be reassigned to Iraq. Historian Corelli Barnett wrote: “What was Auchinleck’s and [Eric] Dorman-Smith’s crime? It was to tell Churchill to his face in Cairo in August 1942 that his demand for an early offensive against Rommel was simply not militarily reasonable, and that the Eighth Army could not be properly re-trained and re-equipped until late September 1942.”129 Ironically, the excuse that Auchinleck used was not dissimilar to the excuse that Churchill himself used for postponing a frontal invasion of France by Anglo-American forces.

Auchinleck was one of many officials who would be awarded the “Order of the Boot” by Churchill. His predecessor, Archibald Wavell, commented at the time: “The P.M. is in his most Marlburian mood, and sees himself in the periwig and red coat of his great ancestor, directing Eugene (for which part Alexander is now cast) to begin the battle of Blenheim. Heads are falling so fast that the supply of chargers to put them on must run short soon, and the last Reinforcements Camp of Superior Commanders must be almost empty.”130 Auchinleck meanwhile returned to India where on Jun 18, 1943, he was again appointed commander-in-chief of British forces, serving until 1947. Having shaken up the Mideast command, Churchill left immediately for Moscow by plane for consultations with Josef Stalin.

Auchinleck was replaced by General Harold Alexander, who had been commander of British forces in Burma but was preparing for the joint Allied invasion of northwest Africa. Alexander John Colville wrote of General Alexander: “Widely respected for his gallant First War record as an officer of the Irish Guards, Alexander had commanded, with cool efficiency, first the rearguard on the Dunkirk beaches, and the fighting retreat of the British Army in Burma….he had a personal charm which enabled him to allay discord. He explained his plans with a quiet confidence that won immediate attention without seeming to demand it; and he stuck to his guns with as much courage in the Council Chamber as on the field of battle.”131 Historian John Keegan concluded that Alexander “was not a great soldier, though he was a strategist of some insight. Alexander was not a great diplomat, though he had a remarkable facility for making divergent and powerful personalities work together. Alexander was not a great battlefield commander, though he never lost a battle. Alexander could never be said to be a master of detail, nor a managerial wizard, though his armies operated over the most difficult terrain encountered in the European theatre of operations, and yet they were universally regarded as well administered.”132 After the British Eighth Army recaptured Tobruk in November 1942, Churchill declared: “This noble Desert Army, which has never doubted its power to beat the enemy, and whose pride had suffered cruelly from retreats and disasters which they could not understand, regained in a week its ardour and self-confidence. Historians may explain Tobruk. The Eighth Army has done better: it has avenged it.”