Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Now, Auchinleck

While we have criticized General wavell's conduct as theater commander, we now believe that the worst problems of his tenure were caused by a combination of Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden. If they could have avoided going into Greece, the rest of 1941 probably would have played out much better than it ultimately did. still, the Australian historian, author of Volume III, thought that General Auchinleck was about the best choice at the time of the available men.

Both Auchinleck and Wavell were British Indian Army officers. During the Great War, Auchinleck served mostly in Mesopotamia. Between wars, he commanded a division in a military campaign in 1935. He started 1940 organizing the IV Corps, getting the organization ready to go to France. He did not go to France with his corps, but instead went into Norway as the commander. After that, he commandec V Corps. By July, he was GOC Southern Command with Bernard Law Montgomery becoming V Corps commander. He was in Southern Command for just four months when he was appointed as Commander-in-Chief in India.

When Auchinleck was appointed to succeed Wavell in the Mediterranean and Middle East, Wavell agreed that they would benefit from a fresh commander. In fact, there was nothing wrong with Wavell except that Churchill had lost confidence in him for the wrong reasons. Auchinleck would have a period of time, about a year, where he take the action he thought was needed without fear of being fired by Churchill. Auchinleck was eventually fired by Churchill in 1942.

Auchinleck had the distinction of defeating Rommel in two important battles. Churchill was so impressed by Auchinleck as a field commander, that he begged Auchinleck to take command of the British field army in North Africa, but Auchinleck wanted to be the theater commander, instead, a role that he filled rather poorly. Still, Auchinleck was at his best when he saved the situation in the Crusader operation and drove the Axis forces back to the border area between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in late 1941 and early 1942. Later in the summer of 1942, after Tobruk fell, Auchinleck saved the British position in North Africa by defeating Rommel's forces at the First Battle of El Alamein. Before he left, Wavell's last impact on Tobruk was to place the Tobruk fortress directly under the Middle East headquarters, rather than under the Western Desert Force.

For any Australians hoping that Battleaxe would have meant some relief from the siege situation, such hopes were dashed. In some ways, the men in Tobruk were more concerned about more personal issues, such as their mail from home. In any case, they knew that they were in for a long haul, although news of the German invasion of Russia on 22 June 1941 was a cause for hope. The men heard an inspired speech by Winston Churchill, after which he and the king were cheered. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History and our general knowledge about 1941 and 1942 in North Africa.

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