Tuesday, November 03, 2015

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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