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.”
By Colonel James E. Moschgat, Commander of the 12th Operations Group, 12th Flying Training Wing, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas
William “Bill” Crawford certainly was an unimpressive figure, one you could easily overlook during a hectic day at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Mr. Crawford, as most of us referred to him back in the late 1970s, was our squadron janitor.
While we cadets busied ourselves preparing for academic exams, athletic events, Saturday morning parades and room inspections, or never-ending leadership classes, Bill quietly moved about the squadron mopping and buffing floors, emptying trash cans, cleaning toilets, or just tidying up the mess 100 college-age kids can leave in a dormitory. Sadly, and for many years, few of us gave him much notice, rendering little more than a passing nod or throwing a curt, “G’morning!” in his direction as we hurried off to our daily duties.
Why? Perhaps it was because of the way he did his job-he always kept the squadron area spotlessly clean, even the toilets and showers gleamed. Frankly, he did his job so well, none of us had to notice or get involved. After all, cleaning toilets was his job, not ours. Maybe it was is physical appearance that made him disappear into the background. Bill didn’t move very quickly and, in fact, you could say he even shuffled a bit, as if he suffered from some sort of injury. His gray hair and wrinkled face made him appear ancient to a group of young cadets. And his crooked smile, well, it looked a little funny. Face it, Bill was an old man working in a young person’s world. What did he have to offer us on a personal level?
Finally, maybe it was Mr. Crawford’s personality that rendered him almost invisible to the young people around him. Bill was shy, almost painfully so. He seldom spoke to a cadet unless they addressed him first, and that didn’t happen very often. Our janitor always buried himself in his work, moving about with stooped shoulders, a quiet gait, and an averted gaze. If he noticed the hustle and bustle of cadet life around him, it was hard to tell. So, for whatever reason, Bill blended into the woodwork and became just another fixture around the squadron. The Academy, one of our nation’s premier leadership laboratories, kept us busy from dawn till dusk. And Mr. Crawford…well, he was just a janitor.
That changed one fall Saturday afternoon in 1976. I was reading a book about World War II and the tough Allied ground campaign in Italy, when I stumbled across an incredible story. On September 13, 1943, a Private William Crawford from Colorado, assigned to the 36th Infantry Division, had been involved in some bloody fighting on Hill 424 near Altavilla, Italy. The words on the page leapt out at me: “in the face of intense and overwhelming hostile fire … with no regard for personal safety … on his own initiative, Private Crawford single-handedly attacked fortified enemy positions.” It continued, “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, the President of the United States …”
“Holy cow,” I said to my roommate, “you’re not going to believe this, but I think our janitor is a Medal of Honor winner.” We all knew Mr. Crawford was a WWII Army vet, but that didn’t keep my friend from looking at me as if I was some sort of alien being. Nonetheless, we couldn’t wait to ask Bill about the story on Monday. We met Mr. Crawford bright and early Monday and showed him the page in question from the book, anticipation and doubt in our faces. He starred at it for a few silent moments and then quietly uttered something like, “Yep, that’s me.”
Mouths agape, my roommate and I looked at one another, then at the book, and quickly back at our janitor. Almost at once we both stuttered, “Why didn’t you ever tell us about it?” He slowly replied after some thought, “That was one day in my life and it happened a long time ago.”
I guess we were all at a loss for words after that. We had to hurry off to class and Bill, well, he had chores to attend to. However, after that brief exchange, things were never again the same around our squadron. Word spread like wildfire among the cadets that we had a hero in our midst-Mr. Crawford, our janitor, had won the Medal! Cadets who had once passed by Bill with hardly a glance, now greeted him with a smile and a respectful, “Good morning, Mr. Crawford.”
Those who had before left a mess for the “janitor” to clean up started taking it upon themselves to put things in order. Most cadets routinely stopped to talk to Bill throughout the day and we even began inviting him to our formal squadron functions. He’d show up dressed in a conservative dark suit and quietly talk to those who approached him, the only sign of his heroics being a simple blue, star-spangled lapel pin.
Almost overnight, Bill went from being a simple fixture in our squadron to one of our teammates. Mr. Crawford changed too, but you had to look closely to notice the difference. After that fall day in 1976, he seemed to move with more purpose, his shoulders didn’t seem to be as stooped, he met our greetings with a direct gaze and a stronger “good morning” in return, and he flashed his crooked smile more often. The squadron gleamed as always, but everyone now seemed to notice it more. Bill even got to know most of us by our first names, something that didn’t happen often at the Academy. While no one ever formally acknowledged the change, I think we became Bill’s cadets and his squadron.
As often happens in life, events sweep us away from those in our past. The last time I saw Bill was on graduation day in June 1977. As I walked out of the squadron for the last time, he shook my hand and simply said, “Good luck, young man.” With that, I embarked on a career that has been truly lucky and blessed. Mr. Crawford continued to work at the Academy and eventually retired in his native Colorado where he resides today, one of four Medal of Honor winners living in a small town.
A wise person once said, “It’s not life that’s important, but those you meet along the way that make the difference.” Bill was one who made a difference for me. While I haven’t seen Mr. Crawford in over twenty years, he’d probably be surprised to know I think of him often. Bill Crawford, our janitor, taught me many valuable, unforgettable leadership lessons. Here are ten I’d like to share with you.
- Be Cautious of Labels. Labels you place on people may define your relationship to them and bound their potential. Sadly, and for a long time, we labeled Bill as just a janitor, but he was so much more. Therefore, be cautious of a leader who callously says, “Hey, he’s just an Airman.” Likewise, don’t tolerate the O-1, who says, “I can’t do that, I’m just a lieutenant.”
- Everyone Deserves Respect. Because we hung the “janitor” label on Mr. Crawford, we often wrongly treated him with less respect than others around us. He deserved much more, and not just because he was a Medal of Honor winner. Bill deserved respect because he was a janitor, walked among us, and was a part of our team.
- Courtesy Makes a Difference. Be courteous to all around you, regardless of rank or position. Military customs, as well as common courtesies, help bond a team. When our daily words to Mr. Crawford turned from perfunctory “hellos” to heartfelt greetings, his demeanor and personality outwardly changed. It made a difference for all of us.
- Take Time to Know Your People. Life in the military is hectic, but that’s no excuse for not knowing the people you work for and with. For years a hero walked among us at the Academy and we never knew it. Who are the heroes that walk in your midst?
- Anyone Can Be a Hero. Mr. Crawford certainly didn’t fit anyone’s standard definition of a hero. Moreover, he was just a private on the day he won his Medal. Don’t sell your people short, for any one of them may be the hero who rises to the occasion when duty calls. On the other hand, it’s easy to turn to your proven performers when the chips are down, but don’t ignore the rest of the team. Today’s rookie could and should be tomorrow’s superstar.
- Leaders Should Be Humble. Most modern day heroes and some leaders are anything but humble, especially if you calibrate your “hero meter” on today’s athletic fields. End zone celebrations and self-aggrandizement are what we’ve come to expect from sports greats. Not Mr. Crawford-he was too busy working to celebrate his past heroics. Leaders would be well-served to do the same.
- Life Won’t Always Hand You What You Think You Deserve. We in the military work hard and, dang it, we deserve recognition, right? However, sometimes you just have to persevere, even when accolades don’t come your way. Perhaps you weren’t nominated for junior officer or airman of the quarter as you thought you should – don’t let that stop you.
- Don’t pursue glory; pursue excellence. Private Bill Crawford didn’t pursue glory; he did his duty and then swept floors for a living. No job is beneath a Leader. If Bill Crawford, a Medal of Honor winner, could clean latrines and smile, is there a job beneath your dignity? Think about it.
- Pursue Excellence. No matter what task life hands you, do it well. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “If life makes you a street sweeper, be the best street sweeper you can be.” Mr. Crawford modeled that philosophy and helped make our dormitory area a home.
- Life is a Leadership Laboratory. All too often we look to some school or PME class to teach us about leadership when, in fact, life is a leadership laboratory. Those you meet everyday will teach you enduring lessons if you just take time to stop, look and listen. I spent four years at the Air Force Academy, took dozens of classes, read hundreds of books, and met thousands of great people. I gleaned leadership skills from all of them, but one of the people I remember most is Mr. Bill Crawford and the lessons he unknowingly taught. Don’t miss your opportunity to learn.
Bill Crawford was a janitor. However, he was also a teacher, friend, role model and one great American hero. Thanks, Mr. Crawford, for some valuable leadership lessons.
Dale Pyeatt, Executive Director of the National Guard Association of Texas, comments: And now, for the “rest of the story”: Pvt William John Crawford was a platoon scout for 3rd Platoon of Company L 1 42nd Regiment 36th Division (Texas National Guard) and won the Medal Of Honor for his actions on Hill 424, just 4 days after the invasion at Salerno.
On Hill 424, Pvt Crawford took out 3 enemy machine guns before darkness fell, halting the platoon’s advance. Pvt Crawford could not be found and was assumed dead. The request for his MOH was quickly approved. Major General Terry Allen presented the posthumous MOH to Bill Crawford’s father, George, on 11 May 1944 in Camp (now Fort) Carson, near Pueblo. Nearly two months after that, it was learned that Pvt Crawford was alive in a POW camp in Germany. During his captivity, a German guard clubbed him with his rifle. Bill overpowered him, took the rifle away, and beat the guard unconscious. A German doctor’s testimony saved him from severe punishment, perhaps death. To stay ahead of the advancing Russian army, the prisoners were marched 500 miles in 52 days in the middle of the German winter, subsisting on one potato a day. An allied tank column liberated the camp in the spring of 1945, and Pvt Crawford took his first hot shower in 18 months on VE Day. Pvt Crawford stayed in the army before retiring as a MSG and becoming a janitor. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan officially presented the MOH to Bill Crawford.
William Crawford passed away in 2000. He is the only U.S. Army veteran and sole Medal of Honor winner to be buried in the cemetery of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
I am going to post a modified version of the answer I have here (Joseph Scott’s answer to Were US Marines tougher than elite German troops in WW2?), as I indirectly answered this question.
Aside from a few Marines crewing shipboard weapons during landings, the Marines did not face German forces during WWII, so we cannot make a direct comparison. However, we can compare the performance of Marines to US Army units in the Pacific and then US Army units against German ones. In the Pacific, US Marines tended to demonstrate a 70% greater casualty exchange rate per man than US Army units fighting against the Japanese in comparable circumstances. The key phrase here is ‘in comparable circumstances.’ The Marines participated in a number of unnecessary and badly supported head-on beach assaults that resulted in high losses. The Army tended to avoid such showy operations.
Meanwhile, in late 1943 through 1944, the Germans tended to enjoy a roughly 100% superiority in casualties inflicted per man against the US Army. So, looked at like that, average German units were actually slightly better than US Marine infantry by about 17%, while elite units like the Hermann-Goering Panzer-Fallschirmjaeger Division enjoyed casualty exchange rates twice as good as the average German unit.
Looking back famous battle of Belleau Woods in WWI, where US Marines did face the Germans, at the end of the first day, Marine losses were 2.5 times as high as German losses. Using T.N. Dupuy’s numbers for the advantages of a defensive position, and considering the Germans were somewhat outnumbered, this would tend to corroborate the numbers above, suggesting a slight German advantage.
Incidentally, the Germans actually demonstrated superior skill at beach assaults during the Crimean Campaign on the Eastern Front, when they made a division-sized amphibious assault against the extremely heavily fortified position at Severnaya Bay. Rather than alert the enemy to their attack with an extensive preliminary bombardment, German guns held their fire, waiting in support until called upon. Moving over the straight by night, the Germans landed at first light, and assaulted so rapidly that by the time the Russians realised they were under attack, the Germans already had a firm foothold ashore, and quickly overcame the entire Soviet defensive system with relatively light losses, again outnumbered. Bear in mind they were assaulting a beach area that was more extensively fortified than the Atlantic Wall the Allies attacked.
Why? Well, let’s look at how they were trained and selected:
The US Marines had a more comprehensive marksmanship program than the US Army, one which placed much greater emphasis on fire discipline and accuracy. This is born out in combat footage. In a US military study of combat footage from WWII through Vietnam it was observed that Marines, 90% of the time are seen to aim carefully, to fire predominately on semi-automatic when armed with automatic weapons, and to fire off shots on semi-auto more slowly and with greater deliberation. By contrast, Army soldiers are seen to rapidly fire off shots, often emptying their magazine, with less time taken to acquire their a target or assess range. Where the US Army relied on volume of fire, and many officers had little faith in marksmanship under combat conditions, the Marines valued precision shooting.
However, the Germans were known for having a similarly superior marksmanship program which, as far back as WWI and before, placed great emphasis on teaching soldiers to evaluate ranges under combat conditions, to prize accuracy over speed, encouraged concentration of fire to suppress or destroy targets, and taught that one should withhold fire until within effective range to cause significant damage, and preferably until the minimum possible range, to achieve the most decisive effect.
As early as the turn-of-the-century, the Germans had devised pop-up targets and moving targets for marksmanship practice to improve realism. Soldiers who identified a target and evaluated the range were taught to immediately call out this information, so that other soldiers nearby could quickly adjust their sights and engage the target. Every platoon and squad had a designated observer, generally a more senior soldier picked for proven ability to accurately identify range and target, who would report this information to their commander to allow them to assess how best to allocate fire and make sure everyone’s sights were correctly set. In the infantry squad, this individual was typically placed with the machingunner, who was seen as the major source of firepower.
Unlike the US system, where recruits learned on rifles, followed by only cursory familiarisation with their other weapons, unless they were designated a BAR gunner, Germans were trained from the start on rifles, submachineguns, pistols and machineguns, learning how to fire the latter from the bipod, from the very stable four-legged mount made for it, which could be fitted with a scope for accurate fire to 2000m, and even from the hip in “assault fire.” (And yes, this can be done effectively in real life, provided the weapon is braced properly and the range is short. There are a number of accounts of German machinegunners using this technique to good effect against enemy squads caught in the open at 50–75m during assaults.) Those demonstrating the best marksmanship with the weapon were made the machinegunners, but everyone was effectively trained in it’s use to 1000m and could quickly take over the weapon. Every Marine was a rifleman, but every German soldier was both rifleman and machinegunner.
The US Marine Corps had developed a strong tradition and unique sense of espirit d’corps that the Army, outside of a few individual units, lacked. Despite civilian jokes about the narrow-minded, quaint, stubborn ways of the Marines, they had and have the reputation of an elite service, which attracted higher quality volunteers than the Army got. However, Marine training was built on the same psychologically backwards, counterproductive “break them down and build them up” approach the Army used, only with greater intensity and brutality. Random beatings, sadistic hazing and petty harassment were a regular feature of training. This tended to stifle some of the very initiative that would later be encouraged, alienate more intelligent recruits, and leave Marines with mixed, conflicted feelings about the service, something of a love-hate relationship. The Marines also tried to buttress this tradition by wasting a lot of training time on an obsession with such militarily useless matters as Napoleonic marching drill, something they are still famous for their skill at. On top of that, the Marines, like the US Amy, had a centralised depot training system, which meant that initial training was conducted by instructors who would not form part of the recruits’ unit, giving the whole thing a more distant, impersonal, factory assembly line feel.
Drill and ceremony training took up a significant portion of a US Marine recruit’s time.
The Germans, in contrast, had largely discarded hazing as a training methodology, recognising it to be out-dated and counterproductive. Instead of mindless sadism, the Germans tried to make training tough in realistic, combat-orientated ways that soldiers could appreciate as actually teaching important battlefield lessons. Breaking the individual personality of the recruit was frowned on in favour of trying to find and build on strong points in their character. Off duty time in training was far more relaxed, and relations between all ranks considerably more congenial than what was found in the very stratified, class-conscious US services. Officers led the training most of the time, rather than farming it out to NCOs as was the US practice. The Germans created a degree of camaraderie across all ranks that was the envy of every other fighting force.
Contrary to the popular stereotype of the precise German formation doing the Prussian Slow March (“Goose Step”) down the Unter der Linden, as far back as WWI the German Army had begun to discard such drill and ceremony training as useless. Only a few specially selected units such as the Leibstandarte and the Grossdeutschland’s demonstration battalion trained for such displays. Most German soldiers learned only a few rudimentary movements like Present Arms, and instead of marching about in formation, they were drilled in practical combat movement, such as taking cover rapidly under sudden fire, and rushing from cover to cover.
The Germans placed great emphasis on combat movement and fieldcraft, and this proved to be one of the greatest differences between German and Allied units on the battlefield. Much of the fire and movement tactics and fieldcraft practiced by armies today was adapted from the Germans, and where the soldiers of our time might find their Allied counterparts’ battlefield behavior old-fashioned, most of what German soldiers did back then would seem quite familiar and modern.
The Germans retained greater combat mobility by never going into combat with the kind of ridiculous loads many Marines were forced to lug ashore, as they knew that was suicidal. Germans were trained to leave non-essential equipment behind (in their platoon carts in land operations) and were taught to never go into battle with more than 22kg on them. All the other stuff would have be brought ashore by follow-on troops once the beach was taken, in amphibious landings.
Training was conducted by each regiment, so that some of the NCOs and officers conducting training would be going to the front with the new troops, ensuring that they had leaders who were familiar to them, and who were likewise acquinted with them, knowing their strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, German troops were rarely put straight into combat when they reached the front. Instead, frontline units organised their own training courses, so that newly arriving troops could be taught all the latest tactics by the very officers and NCOs who would lead them in battle.
A short anecdote from the training of the SS-Verfungstruppe that would later become 2nd SS “Das Reich” will serve to illustrate a number of German training principles:
‘One of our platoon leaders loved that piece of ground, so we were often “in Paradise.” One Autumn day we marched out through a steady drizzle of rain to “Paradise.” We arrived just as the farmer had finished spreading the area with manure. There was a terrible stink of cows and pigs in the air. The prayer, “Lord let this cup pass from me”, was not granted and on our officer’s lips was a satisfied smile as he explained the tactical situation. He waved his hand across the dung-covered “Paradise” and pointed to a small wood. There, he explained, were the enemy trenches and went on to say that it was our task to carry out an attack and to drive him from those positions.
‘The machineguns opened up and we fired our blanks at the imaginary enemy. Then we had to rush forward and fling ourselves flat. Some recruits tried to find a nice place on which to lie down. This caused our officer to order a new movement. “The enemy barrage is too heavy. As we cannot pass through it we will roll over and over on the ground in order to reach a new assault position. Follow me”, and he flung himself on to that dung covered field and rolled over and over. With rifles pressed between our knees and tight to out chests we, too, rolled over and over, cursing and swearing.
‘We returned to barracks stinking from the filth which encrusted our uniforms. But our officer marched at our head as proud as a Spaniard, as if we had just won a battle. Before he dismissed us he spoke a few words. “Lads, think of this. If we were under fire you would not have time to find a nice place to fling yourself down You would hit the deck quickly, irrespective of whether it was a field of flowers or a pile of shit.” He was right, of course.’
I would draw your attention to the following points from this story:
1.) The officer leads the training personally, and specifically participates in the most unpleasant aspect of it, demonstrating leadership by example.
2.) He explains the tactical situation the exercise takes place in beforehand, and he further explains the specific necessity of the exercise afterwards; the German armed forces made great effort to get recruits to understand the purpose of everything they did, and encourage active, thinking obedience, rather than mindless automaton behavior.
3.) The officer speaks to his troops in a friendly, comradely manner; he is their teacher, and they are his worthy students. He does not treat them with disdain or belittle them.
4.)The officer does not care that the recruits voice dissatisfaction in the form of cursing, so long as they do what is ordered. No special punishment follows for them having the insolence to do this. German soldiers were expected to be willful individuals who had opinions of their own and were free to voice them to a much greater degree than most Allied troops were.
5.) The story shows the great degree to which the German ground forces trained to reflexively and instantly throw themselves flat under fire. Many Allied soldiers hesitated to do so, or preferred to only kneel in place, exposing themselves to fire in the process.
6.) The Germans made great use of lateral movement while prone to confuse the enemy about their location, and frequently altered the exact axis of their attack to find the best place to infiltrate close to enemy positions safely.
Contrary to stereotype, the Germans had long ago abandoned their own mania for precision marching drill in favour of practical combat skills. Note that no NCO is wasting the time to correct these 5th SS-Division soldiers on their casual attitude to Shoulder Arms.
The US Marine Corps’ background as a shipborne, expeditionary service meant the Marines were often deployed in small landing parties, and at one time, in boarding actions that tended to be much more fluid and individualistic than massed field battles on land, leaving them with a much greater tradition of initiative at the small unit level than the Army. To this day the Marines show more comfort with “Mission-type Orders” than the US Army, though the latter has narrowed that gap a fair amount since the 1940s. NCOs typically enjoyed greater autonomy and responsibility than their Army counterparts.
Germans, on the other hand, invented “Mission-type Orders” or Auftragstaktik. Encouraging initiative down to the lowest soldier, stressing wide latitude in executing orders, rapid and flexible reaction to changing events, and thriving in chaos were the hallmarks of the German military. Of all the combatants in WWII, only the Finnish made comparable demands on the tactical thinking and active participation of their lowest-ranking soldiers, and their system had been created by a German officer.
The Germans possessed one final advantage that added to both their initiative and morale: the selection and training of leaders. In the US, a college degree guaranteed (as today) an officer rank, despite the lack of correlation between either the affluence to pay for college or academic success with combat leadership. The Marines did happen to have a much tougher training course for their infantry officers than the Army (modern Marine Infantry Officer’s Course is similar in difficulty to Army Ranger School), however, the difficulty was mostly in the physical intensity, rather than in tactics and leadership. Marine officers could (and still can) often outrun their whole platoon with ease, but typically lacked the degree of practical job knowledge their platoon NCO possessed. Training for a US Marine officer was also much shorter than what his German counterpart received. Marine officer training was around 6.5 months, which is actually less than what a German NCO had to go through.
Additionally, the US has tended towards a ‘management’ style of command that focuses on choreographing what everyone else is doing, but leaving most of the physical leadership to NCOs. Many US officers have chosen to ignore this and lead from the front, but they were the exceptions, rather then the rule, and the system has tended to discourage this behaviour. This command-post leadership creates to a sterile, brittle, and uninspiring command style, which can’t react to events on the spot.
In Germany, merely having an Abitur and an awesome physique wouldn’t guarantee you the coveted silver shoulder straps. First, you had to submit to a detailed psychological examination conducted by a team of officers and psychologists which sought to test your willpower and determination in adversity, your decisiveness and quick-thinking under stress, and your ability to communicate clearly and teach soldiers, with the latter being tested by literally having the candidate try to teach something they knew to some random soldiers loaned to the psychological board. Assuming you got passable marks, you then had to apply to individual regiments. It was up to the colonel of each regiment to interview you, look over your test results and accept you or not. The German Army couldn’t force any colonel to take a given candidate, and there was no quota system. Having gotten this far, the officer-candidate now attended training as a common soldier in the regiment that accepted them, where they were expected to demonstrate exceptional initiative, decisiveness, determination and integrity. They were tested in their squad command abilities repeatedly. If they didn’t really shine in basic training, they simply became a private soldier.
If they passed, then before 1942, they received a promotion to Fahnenjunker-Unteroffizier (Officer Cadet holding the rank of Corporal/Squad Leader) and went on to a 9 month leadership course, the Kriegschule. From 1942, they had to undertake a six week combat tour first. If they did well in battle as a squad leader, they went on to the leadership course. At any point, they could fail and be stuck as a squad leader. Throughout the course, their leadership qualities, particularly their tactical ability was continually scrutinised and tested, and also heavily mentored by the officers running the course. It was a far more intellectually demanding and mentally focused course than the Marine equivelent. Where a US Marine officer candidate engaged in intense athletics every day, and the most common cause of failure in training was injury or physical inability, a German officer cadet spent 1 hour a week on athletics, but 6 hours a week on tactics, 6 on military history, 3 on weapons technology, 3 on combat engineering, 2 on topography, map reading and navigation, and at least an hour each week on each of air defence, communications and automotive engineering. By far the most common cause of failure at Kriegschule was lack of mental ability. German NCOs had to pass a similar 9 month course.
If they passed, then before 1942 they got another promotion to Fähnrich (Ensign, equal to Unterfeldwebel/Sergeant) and went on to a much more difficult 9 month Waffenschule, where they learned how to command troops in their arm of service. From 1942, they again had to undertake a six week combat tour before proceeding to the advanced course. At the advanced course, the same screening, selection and mentoring was repeated more intensely. Many simply stayed NCOs. But even this course only made them Oberfähnrich (Senior Ensign, equal to Oberfeldwebel/Sergeant Major). They the returned to their regiment for an 8 week ‘field probation’ where the officers would scrutinise them to see if they really had what it took to be an officer. Those that finally made it to leutnant rank (which required a final vote by the officers of the regiment) tended to truly be the most gifted soldiers and ablest leaders in their units, in contrast to the ‘Butterbars’ and ‘Shiny Privates’ US enlisted people still joke about.
German officers were expected to know their soldiers to a much greater degree than their US counterparts as well. A company commander would be expected to remember to congratulate a soldier not only on his own birthday, but on those of his parents’ also. German officers at company level were expected to keep up on any problems a soldier was having at home, and to sit down and have a one-on-one talk with every soldier under their command at least once a month, talking about whatever concerned them and trying to address any problems they had. Unless interrupted by sustained combat, a German company would sit down every day while their commander read out current events, which they were given the opportunity to ask questions about. While the National Socialist system encouraged this as a time to disseminate propaganda, in actual practice it was a time when the company would discuss as a unit whatever was on their mind.
Perhaps most importantly, German officers were taught to lead from the front always. Even Field Marshals led attacks in person on many occasions, belt full of grenades and submachinegun in hand. This attitude of always doing more themselves than they asked of their subordinates won a degree of respect and devotion from German soldiers that US officers simply couldn’t compete with. Even the most cynical and fatigued German soldier found it hard to shirk battle when they ran across their 72 year old corps commander digging a fighting hole and preparing to form the rearguard with just himself and his staff. (Which is how Paul Hausser re-established the defensive line that held the Falaise-Argentan gap open long enough for most of Army Group West to escape encirclement.) Individual US officers sometimes displayed this attitude, but in the German Army, it was expected as a matter of course. This is perhaps best illustrated by the story of a request for the award of the Iron Cross 1st Class which reached the desk of Field Marshal Schoerner in late 1944. The citation described how, during an attack, a certain regimental commander had taken up an MG.42 and led the foremost assault platoon in the attack, staying at the very point of the advance throughout the day of fighting, despite being wounded. As a consequence, their division commander recommended they be given the medal. Schoerner, however, angrily scrawled across the citation document: “Every German regimental commander is expected to be at the forefront of their men in attack and defence. This action in no way merits a special award!”
As an example of what I mean, check out some of the officers pictured below, and their decorations for close combat, and for personal destruction of enemy tanks with infantry weapons.
Consequently, though the German Army and USMC possessed many similarities, the Germans held the edge in initiative, leadership and morale.
Leadership from the front:Hauptmann (Captain) Peter Kiesgen, recipient of the Knight’s Cross, with 5 Tank Destruction Badges for the personal destruction of a tank by means of infantry weapons in close combat, instructs Hitlerjugend in the art of tank hunting.
Oberleutnant (Senior Lieutenant) Günther Viezenz, wearing 7 Tank Destruction Badges and his Knight’s Cross. He would eventually win 5 Tank Destruction Badges in Gold and 1 in Silver for destruction of 21 enemy tanks.
Hauptmann Ferdinand Frech, holder of the Knight’s Cross, 4 Tank Destruction Badges in Silver, and the Close Combat Clasp in Bronze for 15–24 days in hand-to-hand combat.
Major Goerg Wenzelburger, holder of the Knight’s Cross, and the Close Combat Clasp in Gold for 78 days of hand-to-hand combat.
This Sturmbannfuehrer (Major) of SS-Standarte Germania wears the Knight’s Cross and Close Combat Clasp in Silver for 25–49 days in hand-to-hand combat.
SS-Brigadefuehrer and Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Sylvester Stadler, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Close Combat Claps in Gold for 50+ days of hand-to-hand combat.
Oberst (Colonel) Erich Lorenz, commander of 85.Infanterie-Division, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, 2 Tank Destruction Badges in Silver, and the Close Combat Claps in Gold for 50+ days of hand-to-hand combat.
Generalmajor Otto-Ernst Remer, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Close Combat Clasp in Silver for 25–49 days of hand-to-hand combat.
According to Wermacht General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord
“I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent — their place is the General Staff.
The next lot are stupid and lazy — they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties.
Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions.
One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent — he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.”
Given that, providing that you think that it’s valid, where do you put your political leaders?
Bernie Sanders – Unemployed until middle age, thrown out of a kibbutz because he was lazy, finally found employment in politics where no imagination is required. Turned to communism because it’s a better way to spend other people’s money. Stupid man who learned diligence as a comrade.
Barack Obama – Was a “foreign” student because he could live on free money, and was completely lazy, but seemed to pull through because he was clever. Not a fan of the USA. Became a two term president.
Joe (Slow Joe) Biden – An unimaginative dolt who accepted bribes and wasn’t hoisted on his petard for being creepy because he was a Democrat. Now, a senile old man in his dotage, he aspires to be leader of the Free World. Stupid and lazy. He was suited well for a life in the bureaucracy, not in any sort of leadership.
Donald Trump – Turned millions into billions, was the toast of New York until he became president. Nationalistic, proud American. Sleeps four hours a night, workaholic, hated for not being anointed by the elites the way that Hillary had been. Stylistically bombastic (NY Real Estate Developer), blatantly heterosexual. Clever and diligent.
The Navies version of General George Patton! Grumpy
Now just imagine doing this in some Sunny Clime like say Burma. With its 90 plus degrees and almost 100% humidity.
Plus just to make it more fun. Throw in a mess of Bugs whose sole mission in life is to make you super sick & or dead asap!
There is a reason why we admire these Folks so much! Grumpy