Change of Desert Command

BRITISH ARMY NORTH AFRICA 1942 (E 15295) Winston Churchill shaking hands with Lieutenant General Ramsden, commanding 30 Corps, while visiting the El Alamein area, 7 August 1942.

Lt General Bernard Montgomery, GOC 8th Army, standing in front of his personal Grant tank, 5 November 1942. He had commanded the first major victory against the Germans and was about to become world famous.

While Rommel had no doubt that Auchinleck had halted Panzerarmee Afrika’s advance, Winston Churchill did not share that view. Instead Churchill saw the July battles from a perspective that owed much to his political position. He had returned from the United States where he had learned, from Roosevelt, of the fall of Tobruk, to face a ‘no confidence’ vote in the Commons. Although that vote was defeated, Churchill believed that military failures had been responsible for its having been tabled and considered that he needed a victory. That Auchinleck gave him such a victory, albeit of a defensive nature but of strategic significance, during July did not impress the prime minister. The stubborn Irish general had lost the confidence of his prime minister for his ‘refusal to accept … prodding’ and had ‘received a form of ultimatum’ on 12 July, warning that, unless Rommel was defeated, Auchinleck’s northern front, now under threat from the German advance in the Soviet Union, would not be strengthened. Yet, on 17 July, Rommel told the Italian High Command: ‘Any more blows like today and I do not anticipate being able to hold the situation.’

One of Auchinleck’s biographers commented that:

Churchill remained unable to see the fight for Egypt being won almost under his nose, and even Brooke [the CIGS] held fears for the desert battle and his friend’s grip upon it. When, on 27 July, Auchinleck put the Eighth Army on the defensive once more, Churchill considered his signal announcing the decision to be ‘very depressing’.

By contrast Auchinleck was not depressed but planned an offensive to evict Rommel from Egypt. He was making plans for training and reinforcing Eighth Army for that operation, in which he was supported by his fellow-Irishman and acting chief of staff, Major General Eric Dorman-Smith, known as ‘Chink’. Chink had been at the Auk’s side during the retreat to Alamein, providing him with much advice and a seemingly-endless fund of optimism. (Dorman-Smith is usually criticized by writers of this period, often taking their cue from some of his contemporaries who had axes to grind. On the other side, Auchinleck’s supporters do not always acknowledge Chink’s work. Fortunately, an excellent and balanced biography of Chink, by Lavinia Greacen, Chink, does much to set the record straight.) Sir Francis de Guingand, whose abilities as a staff officer were identified first by Auchinleck, although his name is more closely connected with Montgomery, wrote of this period:

to put the record straight – for there has been much controversy over this point – a great deal of the Staff’s time was taken up in carrying out the studies necessary for producing plans for a future offensive against Rommel.

On 27 July Dorman-Smith produced an ‘Appreciation of the Situation in the Western Desert’, presenting a remarkably accurate picture of forthcoming events. This appreciation, which noted Eighth Army’s object as being ‘The defence of Egypt by the defeat of the enemy forces in the Western Desert’, included a summary of the existing situation, factors affecting operations – including comparative manpower and armour strengths, as well as morale and ground, political considerations and the linkage to the Russian front – summaries of courses open to both armies and of tactical techniques and future organization. He concluded that Eighth Army was committed temporarily to a defensive battle: it lacked the strength to dislodge the enemy and required reequipment and training before being fit for offensive operations. Since neither side was likely to be reinforced strongly on land during August, he argued that no immediate offensive by either was likely, but an Axis offensive was possible towards the end of August. Provided there was no change in the land and air situation, Eighth Army would receive reinforcements of two armoured and two infantry divisions about mid-September, which might allow a new Allied offensive in late-September.

One factor omitted by Dorman-Smith was the supply of Sherman tanks from the United States. Dorman-Smith quotes Eighth Army’s heavy tank strength as ‘some 60 Grant tanks’ with another sixty due in early-August, but with no further tanks coming until September. However, Roosevelt had already promised 300 Shermans to Churchill and these, with a hundred M-7 105mm self-propelled howitzers (known as ‘Priests’ in British service, the soubriquet deriving from the mounting for an anti-aircraft machine gun which resembled a pulpit. A British-designed and built self-propelled 25-pounder, on a Valentine tank chassis, was already known as Bishop, ‘for no accountable reason’ while the clerical theme continued with a Canadian variant, Sexton, a 25-pounder on a Ram chassis, and a self-propelled 6-pounder anti-tank gun, known as Deacon.) were en route from the USA, travelling in seven fast ships, one of which was sunk, to Egypt. Dorman-Smith seems to have been unaware of the promised Shermans which began arriving in Egypt at the beginning of September. They were not ready for battle until October; some units received new tanks on the opening day of the final battle.

Dorman-Smith’s Appreciation has been criticized by a number of writers, most of whom choose to quote in isolation to advance arguments that ignore the document’s main message. They also choose to ignore other factors that do not suit their own arguments, including the efforts made by Auchinleck and Dorman-Smith to improve training and, especially, co-operation between arms. Auchinleck has often been pilloried for allowing Eighth Army’s formations to fight in small packets. Chief among his critics was Montgomery, who claimed that it was he who ordained that divisions should fight as divisions and not be broken up. Apart from the fact that divisions were broken up under Montgomery, it was Auchinleck and Dorman-Smith who espoused the principle that ‘battles are best fought by divisions fighting as divisions or, better still, corps fighting as corps; but mobile divisions and corps’.

Pitt points out that battlegroups were created at this time, giving the erroneous impression to some that the Jock Columns of 1941 had returned. However, the purpose of these battlegroups was to create mobility and ensure, as far as possible, that immobile infantry would not be retained at the front.

To promote better co-operation between arms, Auchinleck had already established a higher war course at Sarafand for officers likely to become divisional commanders, had expanded the Staff College at Haifa (adding an RAF wing to it) and had grouped in one area in Palestine all the tactical and weapon-training schools in Middle East Command ‘to ensure that a uniform doctrine, which took account of the characteristics of all three arms and was attuned to modern conditions, was taught under a single direction’.

Such changes take time and although there were improvements on the ground – artillery being used to much greater effect through concentration – these were not always noticeable to the average soldier. Animosity continued between infantryman and tankman, between tankman and gunner and between gunner and infantryman.

Air co-operation, however, was good. The airmen had provided excellent support in the withdrawal and, once the battle had become clearer on the ground, became an invaluable part of Eighth Army’s fighting strength. Although Luftwaffe elements had been transferred to support Rommel, the RAF dominated the skies over the battlefield and was also providing first-class intelligence through tactical reconnaissance missions flown over enemy lines, much of them by the Hurricanes of No.208 Squadron RAF. Farther afield, RAF bombers continued pounding Axis supply ports while torpedo-bombers harassed convoys carrying supplies for Rommel.

In theory the Axis logistical situation should have been much better than that of the Allies: for the German and Italian armies, supplies had only to be ferried across the Mediterranean from Italy to North Africa whereas British supplies had to be shipped from the United Kingdom, North America, India or the southern hemisphere Dominions via South Africa to the Suez canal. However, the theoretical smoothness of the Axis logistical machine was abraded by the presence of a very hard piece of grit in its workings: Malta. We have seen how, after the fall of Tobruk, the Axis strategic imperative should have been the conquest of Malta but that Rommel persuaded the Führer otherwise and had been permitted to carry out Operation AIDA, which Auchinleck had stopped at El Alamein. Now Rommel’s panzers thirsted for fuel that was being despatched to the bottom of the Mediterranean by the RAF and by British submarines operating from Malta, while his soldiers were short of food, clothing and ammunition for the same reasons. Captured British stores could only provide so much. Malta was strangling the Axis endeavours in North Africa. Hitler and his generals would have done well to recall Napoleon’s axiom that ‘I would rather see the English on the heights of Montmartre than in possession of Malta’.

Those endeavours had also suffered from errors made by German planners. Taking Italian advice, they had not sent diesel-engined vehicles to Africa, although such engines were better suited to desert conditions than petrol engines. Nor, initially, had they adapted their vehicles, including tanks, for desert conditions while their soldiers never achieved the same level of familiarity with desert conditions as did their British counterparts. Among the worst examples of bad German planning was the failure to supply fuel oil for cooking or workshop furnaces, relying instead on wood shipped from Italy in space that could have better used. Even though many of these problems had been overcome by the summer of 1942, they reveal a logistical weakness that cannot be laid entirely at Rommel’s door.

Having read and accepted Dorman-Smith’s Appreciation, although he initially refused to agree it because ‘it did not contain a sufficient offensive spirit’, Auchinleck then sent off his own, regular, report to London in which he noted that ‘We must now stand on the defensive and recruit our strength for a new and decisive effort’, which was not likely before mid-September. Winston Churchill, far from pleased with this prediction, decided to fly out to Egypt and assess the situation himself. Brooke, already planning such a trip, had suspected that Churchill was ‘very intent on following along close behind me if possible’ and learned on 30 July that ‘Winston had decided to follow me at once to the Middle East’. Churchill had wanted Auchinleck to come to London but the latter had refused to do so while fighting raged along the El Alamein line. Now the two would meet in Egypt.

Brooke arrived in Egypt a scant thirty minutes before Churchill and began a round of visits and meetings, including one with Auchinleck. He also met General Corbett, Chief of the General Staff in Cairo, with whom he was unimpressed, deciding that he was not fit for his job. Since Corbett had been suggested as a possible Eighth Army commander by Auchinleck, this, in Brooke’s view, was an unfavourable indication of Auchinleck’s ability to select men, which confirmed Brooke’s ‘fears in that respect’. However, the suggestion had been that Corbett should take over on a temporary basis until a new army commander was appointed; Auchinleck proposed that the man to fill this post should be Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery. Although he had not enjoyed good relations with Monty in Britain, the Auk considered Montgomery to be the best man for the field command in the Western Desert.

Churchill’s visits to Eighth Army’s tactical HQ behind Ruweisat Ridge and the RAF HQ at Burg el Arab left him with the impression that the RAF was much better organized than Eighth Army. At Ruweisat the prime minister breakfasted with Auchinleck in the latter’s spartan surroundings, a wire cage surrounded by flies, whereas luncheon in the RAF mess at Burg el Arab had been brought specially from Shepheard’s Hotel and there was ‘white napery, gleaming silver, brandy in goblets’ and a cooling breeze from the nearby Mediterranean. Such contrasting meals helped shape Churchill’s attitude to the commanders in the Middle East.

Of one thing Churchill was already convinced: Auchinleck’s place was in Cairo, not at the front with Eighth Army which needed a new commander. Auchinleck agreed with him, having already suggested Montgomery for the role. Churchill, however, was advocating that command should go to Lieutenant General ‘Strafer’ Gott, who had been on active service in the Middle East since the beginning of the campaign. Brooke interviewed Gott, who he felt needed a rest and was too tired to assume command of Eighth Army, but Churchill’s view prevailed. Gott was appointed.

At one stage Churchill had even suggested that Brooke should take over Eighth Army but, although tempted, the CIGS considered that his duty lay in remaining in his existing post. In his discussions with Brooke, the prime minister suggested that Auchinleck should be removed as C-in-C Middle East. Since he felt that Auchinleck might keep Montgomery, his favoured candidate for Eighth Army, on too tight a rein, Brooke was inclined to agree. Their choice of replacement was General Sir Harold Alexander, another Irishman and Churchill’s favourite general. Unwilling to dismiss Auchinleck outright, the decision was made to divide Middle East Command with a new Near East Command, headed by Alexander, under which Eighth Army would serve, and a redrawn Middle East Command, encompassing Persia and Iraq, under Auchinleck. However, the war cabinet, while agreeing to divide Middle East Command, insisted that that title should be retained by Alexander’s command, to avoid confusion in the eyes of the public, and that the title ‘Persia-Iraq Command’ be adopted for Auchinleck’s area of responsibility.

News of the changes was delivered to Auchinleck by a staff officer. In a subsequent meeting with Churchill the Auk declined the Persia-Iraq Command, believing that the division of the original Middle East Command would prove impracticable in the event of crisis and that his appointment to a command with much reduced responsibilities

would look to the public too much like the appointment of an unsuccessful general to an operational sinecure – a policy of which he would thoroughly disapprove had it happened to anyone else …

By the time Auchinleck learned of the planned changes, Gott was dead, killed when the aircraft in which he was flying was shot down by a German fighter. Brooke’s first choice, Bernard Montgomery, was to command Eighth Army. Auchinleck would retire to India, although he would be appointed C-in-C India less than a year later. His chief of staff, Eric Dorman-Smith, was to go also: Brooke disliked him intensely, as did many others, and a subsequent episode in the Anzio beachhead would destroy Chink’s career. Thus did the men who had stopped Rommel, saved Egypt and the Middle East, bow out physically of the history of the desert war; but their ghosts continue to haunt discussion of that war.

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