Tuesday, April 04, 2006

British commanders in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean theater

We might be in a position to offer some assessments of the various British commanders in North Africa and the overall Eastern Mediterranean and Africa. The list includes General Wavell, General O'Connor, General Wilson, General Auchinleck, and General (later Field Marshal) Montgomery.

General Wavell was asked to do some very unreasonable things, but until the spring of 1941, he had responded with a reasonable effort. In many ways, he proved himself mostly lucky, as he seems to have been unknowledgable about the conditions of modern warfare. Perhaps his main strength was his ability to recognize talent and to utilize it. Churchill had ruined General Wavell's attitude by the spring of 1941, so he really needed to be replaced and used elsewhere.

General Wilson ("Jumbo" Wilson) was a solid, old-school soldier, who was given one difficult task after another, and responded reasonably well. The Greek campaign had been forced on the army by Churchill, and was an unmitigated disaster, but General Wilson acquitted himself as well as was possible, in difficult circumstances.

General Auchinleck was more uneven, as he seemed to have trouble with judging people. His main strength was on the battlefield, and Churchill constantly pressed Auchinleck to take command in the field, as Churchill recognized Auchinleck's ability. Auchinleck was out by the fall of 1942, as Churchill's political survival depended on making some changes. Still, Auchinleck had saved Egypt and defeated Rommel in the First Battle of El Alamein, and his plan (with Major-General Dorman-Smith) for Alam el Halfa worked well.

General Montgomery was very conservative, and perhaps that was what was needed to stabilize the situation in North Africa. He was too conservative, and this was enabled by the vast inflow of resources into Egypt in late 1941 and early 1943. We suspect that Montgomery understood Rommel's tactical principles, and used them (cautiously). Rommel let anti-tank guns fight tanks and used his tanks to fight infantry. The Second Battle of El Alamein suggests that might have been how Montgomery fought the battle. In any case, Montgomery seems to have believed in and used combined arms battle groups, but to a greater degree than Auchinleck (and Dorman-Smith). Given Montgomery's success, he is hard to criticize, except for his style and demeanor. Results justify a great deal, even if we dislike his style and demeanor.

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