Field Marshal Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck

Claude Auchinleck while Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army.

(1884–1981) GCB, GCIE, CSI, DSO, OBE

Born in Aldershot and raised by his widowed mother in straitened circumstances, Auchinleck was educated at Wellington, where as a scholarship boy ‘he acquired an indifference to personal comfort that remained with him for the rest of his life’ (Heathcote, 1999, 29). He attended RMC, Sandhurst, and, after some months on the unattached list, was commissioned in the 62nd Punjabi Regiment in 1904.

A captain in 1914, Auchinleck saw war service in Egypt, Aden and, from 1916, Mesopotamia. Appointed to the DSO in 1917, thrice mentioned in despatches and awarded the OBE in 1919 for service in Kurdistan, Auchinleck returned to India as a brevet lieutenant colonel. There he married in 1921, graduated from the Staff College, Quetta, and attended the Imperial Defence College in 1927. From 1930 to 1932 he was an instructor at Quetta and the following year assumed command of the Peshawar Brigade stationed on the North-West Frontier. Having acquired a solid military reputation and promoted major general in 1936, Auchinleck was made Deputy Chief of the General Staff in India. Intent on modernization, he pursued a policy of mechanization with vigour. Free from snobbery, able to listen and a keen talent-spotter, he impressed the visiting Chatfield committee with his proposals to phase out British officers by suitable Indian replacements

Tall and athletic, indeed ‘handsome and charming’ (Ranfurly, 1998, 168), ‘The Auk’ looked the part. Moreover, in an India ‘where everybody watched everyone else’ (Greacan, 1989, 140) he was as popular as he was highly regarded. Recalled to London in late 1939 and made commander of IV Corps, then assembling before being sent to join the BEF in France, he was posted instead to Norway in May 1940. There, as an expert in mountain warfare, he replaced Mackesy as C-in-C land forces and directed the assault on Narvik, the success of which was futile as the port was evacuated within a week of its capture. His subsequent description of the British troops he had commanded as ‘callow’ and effeminate’, unlike the French, who were ‘real soldiers’ (Warner, 1982, 72), did not please Churchill.

Created commander of V Corps in June 1940 and succeeding Brooke as GOC Southern Command the next month, it fell to Auchinleck to prepare defences at points considered most vulnerable to German invasion. Montgomery, then a subordinate, was, typically, unable to recall agreeing with his GOC on anything at this time (Montgomery, 1958, 62), but, promoted general in November and sent back to India as C-in-C, we may infer that Auchinleck had impressed his seniors. Indian formations were already playing a major role in operations in East Africa and the western desert, and, with Home Forces heavily committed to an anti-invasion role, Auchinleck’s brief was to enlarge the Indian Army both for internal security purposes and deployment elsewhere.

In this sense the pro-Nazi Raschid Ali rebellion in Iraq in early 1941 provided opportunity. Whereas Wavell, the C-in-C Middle East, considered intervention in Iraq to be politically undesirable and too large an undertaking for the forces at his disposal, Auchinleck’s readiness to act quickly and send troops from India to southern Iraq helped crush the rebellion. When in June the Western Desert Force failed in its attempt to relieve Tobruk (BATTLEAXE), Churchill decided to sack Wavell and replace him with Auchinleck, a man ‘of a fresh mind and a hitherto untaxed personal energy’ (Churchill, 1950, 237).

The Middle East was a vast command, though in the public imagination the only area that mattered was the western desert. What had begun in 1940 almost as a colonial war, when Italian forces invaded Egypt, had become by mid-1941 the major theatre of Britain’s war effort. Auchinleck’s responsibility was great. No less heavy was the weight of Churchill’s expectations. His ‘splendid talents’ were widely recognized. But so too was his supposed inability to ‘understand Winston’ (Moran, 1968,70).

That Auchinleck’s tenure of Middle East Command lasted little over a year, with his dismissal in August 1942 coming at a time when Axis forces stood a mere 60 miles from Alexandria, suggests not merely that he disappointed Churchill but that he had failed in his command. Declining the offer of the new Iraq-Persia Command he returned to India where, languishing unemployed for nearly a year, he succeeded Wavell as C-in-C. Never again to command troops in battle, his fate from mid-1943 was to preside over the expansion of the Indian Army for the rest of the war, then witness its slide into impotence and disintegration upon independence and partition. Having divorced his wife in 1946 on the grounds of her adultery, his wish to stay on as supreme commander of Indian and Pakistan land forces was frustrated by Mountbatten, the Viceroy, who asked him to resign in September 1947.

Expressed in these bald terms Auchinleck’s career trajectory, with its sudden rise and just as sudden fall, invites brief and no more than polite summary. Yet while failed generals, they say, should not be pitied, the verdict that Auchinleck, having had every opportunity to succeed, proved not quite up to the mark, is, in some quarters, stubbornly resisted. An extraordinary feature of the post-war ‘battle of the memoirs’ is the manner in which an alternative narrative of ‘The Auk’ has developed. In this version he is remembered not merely as ‘one of the most underestimated soldiers of the war’ (Boatner, 1996, 18), but also as a ‘flaw[ed] . . . great man’ (Barnett, 1983, 135), the nearest British equivalent to a Second World War tragic hero.

Promotion to Field Marshal was, in wartime, used by Churchill as a form of consolation for disappointment. That it was the Attlee government, not Churchill’s, which bestowed the honour on Auchinleck in 1946 was significant in itself and registered officialdom’s guilty conscience over the way ‘The Auk’ had been treated. Accepting an enhanced knighthood but declining the offer of a peerage, he characteristically wrote no memoirs. Such reticence has tended to increase and not diminish his reputation.

Auchinleck’s ‘failure’ in North Africa remains hotly debated. This stems in part from a peculiarly Anglo-centric preoccupation with the desert war, but reflects too a tendency to dramatize events in terms of personality. Depending on what is read and the reader’s temperament, Auchinleck can be dismissed as the commander who woefully mis-read Ultra intelligence and who, through interfering with his field commanders’ dispositions, reduced 8th Army to a state of bewildered near defeat. Alternatively he can be elevated as the real victor of Alamein. The history of the desert war as siphoned through the Montgomery filter adheres to the former viewpoint, whereas those repelled by Montgomery’s relentless egomania hold to the latter position. To them Auchinleck of the jutting jaw and piercing blue eyes remains the quintessential soldier’s soldier, a man ‘impossible not to like and admire’ (Kennedy, 1957, 159). In the crisis month of July 1942, after 8th Army’s defeat at Gazala and the loss of Tobruk, he assumed command in the field and kept his head sufficiently to save Egypt and leave Rommel ‘outwitted as well as outfought’ before Alamein (Barnett in Carver (ed.), 1976, 264). Hence, Auchinleck’s supporters maintain, he laid the basis for eventual victory in North Africa.

Much attention has been paid to Auchinleck’s relations with Churchill, though much less to the equally significant culture clash that developed within Middle East Command during his months as C-in-C. For the command Auchinleck left was very different in size and composition from that which he had inherited. With formations drawn from Home Forces beginning to predominate over ‘old desert hands’ drawn from all parts of the Commonwealth, British officers came to resent a command set-up so heavily biased towards the Indian Army. Hence Auchinleck’s inability to select the right subordinates became a ‘fact’; the fault lying less with those field commanders he dismissed than with those Indian Army officers he retained. One such was ‘Chink’ Dorman-Smith, who, allegedly, so ‘mesmerized’ the C-in-C with his ‘fertile imagination’ (Carver, 1989, 127), that, if Brooke’s diary recollections are to be believed, Auchinleck’s allowing himself to ‘fall too deeply under Chink’s influence . . . became . . . the major cause of his downfall’ (Danchev & Todman, 2001, 224). The Middle East Command clear-out of August 1942, the so-called ‘Cairo purge’, represented many things, not least the triumph of Home Forces over the Indian Army. Within five years, of course, the Indian Army to which Auchinleck had devoted 44 years of his life had ceased to exist.

Any attempt at assessing Auchinleck’s record as a wartime commander is made difficult in that the post-war ‘battle of the memoirs’ (from which he held himself aloof) has rendered him less a creature of flesh and blood than an item of historiography. Whatever his qualities and defects, he has been constructed as the personification of historical revisionism. Those who prefer their victors straight celebrate the achievements of Churchill, Brooke and Montgomery. Conversely Auchinleck remains an enduringly attractive figure among those for whom heroism is compounded of quieter, more subtle qualities.

Outliving most of his contemporaries and finding himself something of a legend by the end of his long life, Auchinleck received many honorary degrees, deposited his papers with Manchester University and, in 1968, left England for Marrakesh. There, attended by a batman-servant, he lived unpretentiously until his death.

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