Tuesday, May 17, 2005

More consideration of General Auchinleck and Montgomery

General Claude Auchinleck had gained his military experience largely in India. He was born in Northern Ireland (Ulster), and graduated from Sandhurst at the age of 20. That may explain his affinity for Eric Dorman-Smith, another Irishman. He joined the 62nd Punjab Regiment, after graduation and served in the Middle East. In 1933, he had served with Harold Alexander, fighting tribesmen and imposing order. He commanded the abortive operation at Narvik, after which Winston Churchill criticized him as being too cautious. That didn't stop Churchill from appointing Auchinleck to succeed Archibald Wavell as the theater commander in the Middle East and North Africa. Churchill was forever hounding his commanders to fight, as Churchill's political situation demanded action, often before his forces were ready.

The charge that Auchinleck made poor choices in his subordinate commanders is certainly valid. One defense was the lack of talent available, but that does not excuse him from what we see in hindsight as indefensible choices. Alan Cunningham simply did not have the relevant experience to be successful. His entire time in command of the 8th Army was so stressful to him that he was physically and mentally exhausted by the time he was relieved by Auchinleck. Neil Ritchie was a stolid organization man without any apparent original thoughts or ability. He was suitable as someone to take orders, not to be the key decision-maker.

The irony is that Bernard Law Montgomery was even more cautious than Auchinleck, and delayed the next offensive beyond the date that had been planned by Auchinleck. Unlike Auchinleck, Montgomery could only win with overwhelming forces, unimaginably applied. He came close to misfiring at the Second Alamein. The things that allowed him to prevail were his material superiority and the extreme difficulty with supplies that the Axis forces experienced. That allowed Montgomery to wear down Rommel's army until he was forced to withdraw them. Montgomery made such a feeble pursuit that he was never able to catch Rommel's army until they reached Tunisia, when they had no place to go.

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