Thursday, October 04, 2012

Wavell and Auchinleck

I was curious about General Archibald Wavell's background and how that compared with his successor, General Claude Auchinleck. Wavell's father was an army officer, in fact a Major General, and he grew up in India. He followed his father into the army. He quickly accumulated staff officer experience, although he distinguished himself in the Great War in combat and was awarded the Military Cross. He also lost an eye in the process.

General Auchinleck was much more closely aligned with the Indian army and his Great War experience was in the Mespotamian Campaign against the Turks. While Wavell learned Russian before the war, Auchinleck learned Punjabi. Auchinleck commanded troops in combat when Wavell was in a staff officer role. Between the wars, both spent time on half pay. Wavell became a Major General in 1933 while Auchinleck was promoted to that rank in 1935.

Before the beginning of the Second World War, Wavell was head of Southern Command in the UK. He was appointed to command the Middle East in July 1939. He presided over the successful campaign against the Italians in late 1940 until early 1941. That campaign was ended prematurely and in an unsatisfactory way so that Anthony Eden and Churchill's ill-fated adventure in Greece could proceed. Wavell tarnished his reputation in Greece and subsequently in Crete. The Germans, with Erwin Rommel in command, upset the situation in North Africa and that would eventually lead to Wavell's removal.

Aunchinleck was appointed to replace Wavell. We can imagine that he was chosen for his experience in the region. In many ways, Auchinleck lacked the skills to be theater commander. He would have been more comfortable commanding the army fighting the Germans. In fact, Churchill repeatedly urged Auchinleck to do just that. Auchinleck took his role as theater commander seriously and thought that commanding the army in the field would detract from that role. Only twice did Auchinleck take command, and in both cases, he outfought Rommel and saved the situation. Once was in December 1941, when Auchinleck saved the Crusader operation when his choice as army commander, Alan Cunningham, was exhausted after the whirlwind East African campaign. He was not ready to take on command of the army in North Africa, where he had no experience with armoured forces. The second occasion was after the surrender of Tobruk in 1942, when Rommel threatened to advance to the Suez Canal.

Wavell had a better eye for choosing commanders to serve under him, while Auchinleck lacked that ability. However, if you needed an army commanded in a tight situation, you wanted Auchinleck, not Wavell.

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