Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Events in August 1941

Because of the difficulties experienced in Crete with an airborne attack, the Germans declined to mount another airborne attack against Cyprus. The British expected the Germans to attack, as they thought the island was vulnerable. In fact, the Germans expected that Cyprus would be reinforced, and that is what happened in the event. Cyprus had only been garrisoned by the 7th Australian Cavalry, but they were replaced by a British Hussar regiment, which was reinforced by the 50th Division, which had just arrived from Britain. This had all happened by late August. By holding Syria and Iraq, the British had better secured their vital interests in the Suez canal and the oil fields.

The British expected that the Germans might penetrate to the Middle East through Turkey or through southern Russia. They told Turkey that they would support them, if attacked, with four divisions. As 1941 progressed, there was increasingly less likelihood that the Germans would reach the Middle East from the north. General Blamey told his government in Australia that he thought that the year was too late for the Germans to attack to the Middle East. General Blamey was a rather problematic man, exemplified by his treatment of General Lavarack, but he was competent enough to have a good strategic sense. He was also a strong advocate for the Australian government in the face of Churchill and his demands on the Australians. The British had a lot of uncertainty about the Turkish government and their potential attitude towards the Germans. There was no guarantee that they would not allow the Germans to pass through Turkey to reach the Middle East, in some assessments of the prospects. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Concerns in the north after June 1941

As a theater commander in the Middle East, General Auchinleck was focused on the possibility of the Germans attacking from the north, either through Turkey or the Caucasus. He was no longer responsible for Iraq, as that had been given to the Commander in Chief in India. He and General Wavell had switched jobs, so Iraq now belonged to Wavell. A new concern was added when the ruler of Iran decided to become closer to Germany and Italy and get rid of British and Russian influences. In typical Churchill fashion, he insisted on calling Iran "Persia". That was a deliberate show of disrespect for the Iranian government. The British had helped to develop the oilfields in Iran, and felt that the country was a vital interest. General Quinan, in Iraq, was instructed to prepare to go into Iran.

He had limited resources in August 1941, when the order came. He had the 8th Indian Division, whose third brigade only arrived on 10 August. He also had the 9th Armoured Brigade, formerly Habforce. Despite the name, they were without tanks. It was joined with the 2nd Indian Armoured Brigade at Kirkuk and Khanaqin. The 10th Indian Division in northern Syria was added to General Quinan's available units. The 10th Indian Division was notable for having General Slim as division commander. They were up against a small Iranian army of ten divisions. They had about 524 artillery pieces and about 280 aircraft. The British and Russians were acting together and presented a joint ultimatum to the Iranian government on 13 August 1941. When the response was received, the invasion was planned for 25 August.

On 25 August, a brigade from the 8th Indian Division was landed at Abadan and took the island and refinery. Also on 25 August, another naval force landed troops at Bandar Shapur. The Iranian army surrendered by 28 August. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The new strategic situation in the Mediterranean and Middle East after the German invasion of Russia in 1941

The Syrian campaign started prior to the German invasion of Russia. Prior to that, Germans and Italians were only fighting in the Western Desert against the British. The British seem to have attributed exaggerated prowess to the Germans, as the British expected that Russia would quickly collapse under German attack. Russia certainly had a dysfunctional government, but did have a better army than the western countries realized. British thinking was that Germany would take Cyprus and Syria after winning the battle for Crete. They imagined that they might see Germans advancing into the Middle East from the Caucasus.

The British were stronger during June to August than they had been. With the German air force diverted to Russia from the Mediterranean, the British were able to add air strength to Malta with the idea that they would be able to operate against the supply convoys to Libya from Italy. General Auchinleck took over as theater commander from General Wavell, who went to India. The army received new units and equipment. They had new aircraft from the United States and new tanks from there as well. They were in the process of forming the 10th Armoured Division and had a the beginnings of the 50th Infantry Division. Forces from East Africa were now available to the Western Desert after the defeat of Italian forces in Abyssinia. African troops were left to finish off the remaining Italian forces in East Africa. The 1st South African Division, and the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions were sent to the Western Desert.

The British sent Sir Oliver Lyttleton to the Middle East to handle both political issues and to lead a Middle Eastern Military Council. That left General Auchinleck to be able to concentrate on the military issues. He does seem to have focused to much on the dangers from the north from possible German movement into the Middle East from Russia. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, November 16, 2015

An assessment after the Syria campaign in June and July 1941

The Australian Official History thought that the British, Indian, and Australian troops showed a better spirit than did the Vichy French and French colonial troops. The situation was complicated by the issues regarding the campaign in France in 1940 and the French defeat, the attack on Syria and Lebanon where the French thought themselves to be morally superior to the attacking forces. The campaign was motivated, supposedly, by concerns that the Germans were using Syria for operations. The French thought that the attack was unjustified. The French fought well, at least the Australians thought so.

While the 6th Australian Division learned valuable lessons about mountain warfare in Greece, the 7th Australian Division learned their mountain warfare lessons in Syria and Lebanon. They had the opportunity to apply that knowledge in 1942 in a much different context. They had seen the importance of controlling the ridges in mountainous territory and saw the value of mortars over artillery in such and environment. They also learned how to fight tanks with guns, both anti-tank guns and field guns firing over open sights. They also gained experience with ambushes in mountain passes.

In the Syrian campaign, air power was mostly of minor importance. The exception was the battle for Palmyra, where the French air force had considerable success. An attempt to use air power at Damour had only small success due to the small numbers of aircraft that were available. The mountainous terrain also impeded the use of air power. There was the problem of finding targets on the ground for one thing. There was also considerable delay between requesting assistance and the actual arrival of aircraft. They also found that the French were very successful in concealing artillery from aircraft. The navy, however, was very well protected by aircraft against air attack. That enabled the ships offshore to provide good artillery support to land forces. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Ham-handed British press censorship about Syria in 1941

Politics was a factor in the news about the fighting in Syria. You had the issue that the Free French were trying to create a larger role for themselves and that they had tried to portray the Vichy French in Syria as going to collapse when attacked. Somewhat in line with that was that the BBC was announcing that the French were not resisting, which was untrue. General Lavarack wanted the truth known back in Australia, and the Australian press reports talked openly of the fighting.

The Australians were the most numerous force in Syria by the end of June 1941. The Australians had 18,000 men, the UK had 9,000 men, the Indians had 2,000 men, and the Free French were 5,000 men. British and Indian losses, in total actually exceeded the Australian. The losses include prisoners of war, killed, and wounded. The British and Indian together lost 1,800 men. The Australians lost 1,600 men, and the Free French lost 1,300 men. For the Free French, most of the losses were taken prisoner, as they had 1,100 prisoners of war.

The Australian Official History put the victory on the Australian infantry who had fought well in mountainous territory. They also praised the 5th Indian Brigade. They were said to be the most experienced troops in Syria except for the Australian 2/3rd and 2/4th Battalions. The 5th Indian Brigade was misused by their brigade commander, we think, and they took unnecessary losses due to being exposed to stronger enemy forces without support. The men engaged in the Syrian campaign were very tired by the end. The infantry had been pushed to an extreme, and the mountainous terrain was very difficult. Only the Australian spirit carried them to success. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, November 09, 2015

An assessment of General Wavell

The Australian Official History has an assessment of General Wavell and the events towards the end of his tenure. For Admiral Cunningham, he had a glowing opinion of General Wavell. They had served together during the hardest of times in 1941. The battle for Crete was perhaps the most trying time. Admiral Cunningham considered General Wavell to be a great general, "if not the greatest".

General Wavell got credit for the brilliant campaign against the Italians conducted by General Richard O'Connor. General Wavell also took responsibility for the loss of Cyrenaica to Rommel. They blamed the loss on an incorrect estimate of the Axis strenght. Really, however, Rommel was an expert in infiltration tactics and the modern embodiment of that tactical idea in Blitzkrieg. With Rommel's arrival, the British commanders on the spot were not prepared to combat him, regardless of his force strength. Richard O'Connor had serious health issues, but he was put in the bag when he appeared as an advisor.

General Wavell backed Churchill's Greek adventure. That is not something to brag about. The campaign was politically motivated and was doomed to failure before the campaign started. General Wavell had to lie to the Australian Prime Minister and senior army officer to get them to agree to participate. The operation was obviously doomed to fail to anyone who understood the issues. The loss of Crete was a foreseeable consequence of the loss of Greece.

Wavell was reluctant to participate in the campaigns in Iraq and Syria. He was pressed to do so by Churchill. Resisting the Iraqi rebellion made sense and was successful, ultimately. As for Syria, there was not a pressing need to intervene when the attack came. Churchill misunderstood the Vichy French position and he was blinded by his hatred of them. There were really not the forces needed to invade, but they invaded anyway because that was what Churchill needed, politically. We suspect that he was looking for a quick victory over someone that he could brag about. Both the Germans and French were reluctant to do anything in Syria to prompt the British to invade. The French had briefly cooperated with the German attempt to aid the insurgent Iraqis, but quickly backed off. The Germans were particularly concerned about the possibility that the British would be provoked into invading. Because there was a political need, the Australians went into Syria with inadequate strength. They ultimately succeeded due to the quality of the men and their leadership, but they took heavy casualties in the process that might have been avoided. In any case, General Wavell's usefulness to Churchill had come to an end and he was sacked. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History and our editorial comments.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

More about General Catroux

There is a good Wikipedia article about General Catroux.
He was an older man by August 1941. He eventually lived to be 92 years old in 1969. He was born in 1877, so he was older than many officers. He was 64 by the time of the armistice meeting at Acre. He seems to have been a very fine man. I liked how he handled losing his kepi at Acre, where he figured an Australian soldier had taken it as a souvenir. He had extensive experience in the Middle East and the Far East. His nature was such that he gravitated towards the Free French. He had met General de Gaulle in the Great War, when they were both prisoners of war. By October 1940, he was on General de Gaulle's staff in London. This is based on the Wikipedia article.

A look back at the events of May to July 1941

The campaign in Syria and Lebanon had lasted five weeks. It closely followed the disaster in Crete and the campaign in Greece. We might also include the breakout into the Atlantic of the battleship Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen in March that resulted in the loss of the battle cruiser Hood and damage to the new Prince of Wales. The common thread was the involvement of the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill. We find that Churchill did not accept any responsibility for the outcomes and blamed General Wavell for the mishaps in his theater, the Mediterranean and Middle East. That is unfair, because Wavell should have opposed the campaign in Greece, because it caused the disaster in Libya, due to the withdrawal of troops that were diverted to Greece and then to Crete. That opened the way for General Rommel to practice blitzkrieg tactics in Libya. Churchill was also unhappy with General Wavell over Wavell's opposition to diverting troops to Iraq from the Middle East when there was trouble and to the invasion of Syria. The Australian Official History puts the blame for the loss of Benghazi where it belongs, on Churchill, not General Wavell. General Wavell had held back one Australian division in the Middle East that might have been thrown away in Greece after the battle was already lost.

On June 21 1941, Churchill informed General Wavell that he would go to India and replace General Auchinleck, who would take over as the theater commander in the Mediterranean and Middle East. We will see that the swap did not go well, because General Auchinleck was both a brilliant field commander and a flawed theater commander. Auchinleck had commanded the operations Norway in May and June 1940. He had overseen the portion of the Middle East that fell under the India government and had become involved in Syria at the end.

The Australian Official History also points out that the battle in Western Desert and the attack on Syria and Lebanon were made with reduced forces which affected the outcomes. In the Western Desert, a premature attack was made with tanks right off the ships with untrained crews. Churchill had the ability to push the Tiger Convoy through the Mediterranean with newly manufactured tanks (in one case). He had a naive view of things that all he had to do was provide the tanks and that they would be immediately ready for battle. One vessel was lost with about fifty tanks. They sent Cruiser Mk.IV, Light Mk.VIC, and Crusader I tanks. The first fifty Crusader I tanks were sent before they were mechanically reliable. It was the sort of interference by the Prime Minister that could cause sudden disaster through the war, as was mentioned by Alan Brooke, who became the CIGS after General Dill. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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