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.”