Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Assessing the early war period Australian policies

Prior to the end of 1941, the principal Australian war effort was concentrated in the Middle East and Africa. Australian strategic policy thought was divided between those who wanted to be intimately involved with the British Commonwealth on defense matters and those who were inclined to operating independently, as they disapproved of "British Imperialism". The Australians in 1939 and 1940 had policies that were a mixture of supporting the British Commonwealth and operating independently. One conclusion of the Australian Official History was that either the British Indian Army or the Australian Army were sufficiently strong to have won a campaign against the Italian Army in Africa. They point out that the British did not sufficiently appreciate how good the Indian Army was during this period. We could conjecture that the reason was racism from a faction of the British establishment. Both Generals Wavell and Auchinleck were very knowledgeable about the British Indian Army and we would expect that they could appreciate their capabilities.

The Australians were a much different army. They were based on the militia and were all volunteers at this point. Interestingly enough, of the two Australian political parties, one party was opposed to any participation at all, while the other wanted to limit any involvement to a token force. The Official History proposes that a stronger effort might have helped deter any Japanese attack. Apparently, the Australian militia forces were ready to become involved in the war and welcomed the opportunity. The ordinary people understood the political situation in Europe quite well, so that after the Munich crisis, many Australian men joined the militia.

Having the British in charge created a situation where good officers from the Commonwealth countries were ignored, leaving the top positions for British officers drawn from a rather limited group of officers, not all of whom were really capable of command. We see examples of Churchill's "cronyism" with the advancement of his friends, such as General Maitland Wilson. In the Great War, the war in Africa was commanded by the South Africans, and in 1940, that could have been a precedent to be followed, but instead, the British ignored the possibility and wanted their officers to command instead. The Australian Official History says that Generals Freyberg and Blamey were the "most accomplished and experienced senior soldiers in the Middle East," with the possible exception of General Wavell. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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