Thursday, October 28, 2010

Command questions and an army for Persia and Iraq

Because the Prime Minister wanted the new commanders in the Middle East to focus on defeating Rommel, he proposed a separate command for Persia and Iraq. He proposed that General Auchinleck be the commander. Auchinleck, himself, opposed the idea, as he felt that command over forces in Persia and Iraq belonged with the Middle East. Because General Auchinleck refused the command, General Maitland Wilson was appointed as commander. Auchinleck left the Middle East with Churchill's undiminished admiration, despite all the troubles. Auchinleck had been able to stop the Axis advance in the July battles and had thrown the Axis back on the defensive, with the British forces on the attack. Auchinleck had reported that the British would not be ready until mid-September, but in the event, the attack was not launched until 23 October. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History, which we have summarized here.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The air strength situation in the summer and fall 1942

As the American air presence built up in the Middle East, supplies of replacement aircraft to the British were not keeping pace with losses. 11 RAF fighter squadrons had been reduced to half-strength. 9 more squadrons had no aircraft. The British were receiving Kittyhawks and Baltimores from the United States, but not in numbers sufficient to make good the losses. The Merlin-engined Kittyhawks all went to American squadrons. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the American squadrons were not ready for combat operations. There was plan to limit the RAF to just 65 squadrons and to have 24 American squadrons. Even if the RAF were reduced in strength, they still needed to replace obsolescent aircraft. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tanks shipped to the British forces in the Middle East

Tanks are the common factor in two tables in the Official History. One table gives tanks shipped to the Middle East from the UK in 1942, up until September:

January 60
February 143
March 74
April 264
May 113
June 179
July 114
August 254
September 34

This shows the tanks shipped to the Middle East from North America:

January 102
February 192
March 251
April 73
May 25
June 3
July 33
August 132
September 407

We don't know this, but we can only imagine that many of the 407 in September were M4 Sherman tanks. This information is from Vol.III of the Official History: The Mediterranean and Middle East.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

General Montgomery takes command

General Montgomery addressed officers at the Army headquarters to inform them of his high-level plans and intentions and to start the process of building some enthusiasm. Montgomery intended to defend Egypt at El Alamein. The army would succeed there or die. Montgomery knew that a great influx of reinforcements was en route and that the army's circumstances would be completely changed. Montgomery planned to hit Rommel's army, and keep hitting them, until they were out of North Africa. The British and their allies would finally have the resources available to make that a reality. One of Montgomery's first acts was to bring the headquarters at Burg El Arab, where they would be close to the air force headquarters for better cooperation. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The replacements: August 1942

After General Gott's death, the CIGS tapped Lt-General Bernard Law Montgomery to command the Eighth Army with General Alexander as his theater commander. Churchill's instructions to Alexander were to "take or destroy" the Axis army. All other activities were to be subordinated to that task. The policy was "no more retreats" and that the army would fight with the divisions kept intact. Given the static situation that the British found themselves in at the El Alamein line, General Montgomery was the man they needed to fight the coming battle. Montgomery was the master of the static battle on a fixed front. He was not the man to fight the fluid, mobile battle. The plan was to wait to fight until all the preparations were made, at least if Rommel permitted that to happen. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Churchill gives Auchinleck guidance

On 12 July 1942, the Prime Minster, Winston Churchill informed General Auchinleck that there no available divisions that could be sent to the northern front by October. At this date, there still had to be negotiations with the Americans about future plans and dispositions. Churchill recommended beating Rommel as the best solution for now. The General Staff expected that the winter would postpone the threat in the north until spring 1943.

Churchill had long been an Auchinleck supporter. He had from early on encouraged him to take command of the army in the field. Auchinleck had always thought that taking command of the army would cause the overall theater command to suffer, so he kept looking for subordinates to fill in as proxies in the army command. By May 1942, Churchill had become increasingly irritated that Auchinleck would not step in and command the army when Churchill had urged him to do so. By the time of his visit to the Middle East in the fall of 1942, Churchill decided that new commanders were needed in the Middle East to fight Rommel. He would move Auchinleck to a different command in the area (Iraq and Persia). Churchill wanted General Brook, the CIGS, to theater commander, but he demurred. Instead, Harold Alexander was become theater commander with Lt-General Gott as the 8th Army commander. These plans were disrupted when General Gott was killed when a Bombay was intercepted by German fighters, was forced down, and destroyed. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Uncertainty in the Middle East

During the summer of 1942, the commanders in the Middle East became increasingly concerned about threats from the north against their position. The Germans might well blitz across Russia and down the east side of the Black Sea. The smaller countries like Iran (the British insisted on calling it Persia), Iraq, and Syria might throw their support to the Germans. The commanders had hoped to get a better intelligence assessment from Britain, but received none and, in fact, no guidance at all. In Britain, the War Office dismissed the idea that there was anything of substance to the concerns of those in the Middle East. The Middle East commanders worried that all their forces were engaged in the desert and that they had no defenses facing north. They were keenly aware of the forces that had been diverted to the Far East after December 1941, and had some vague hope that some of them might be pulled back to face the uncertain threat. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, October 11, 2010

High level meetings in July 1942

Winston Churchill was in negotiations with the Americans in July 1942, at a time when the British had no military successes. The Americans had been keen for a cross-channel invasion in 1942, but Churchill was able to dissuade them and to put in place plans more compatible with what he wanted to see happen. He was successful in getting the Americans to agree to a North African invasion and to postpone the cross-Channel invasion until the Allies were better prepared. The North African invasion was named "Torch" and was planned for 30 October 1942.

After these discussions, Churchill turned his attention to the Middle East. He had the sense that a change of leadership was needed in North Africa and the Mediterranean Theater. The British ought to have beaten Rommel in North African, and the generally held opinion was that with a better general, they would have. While Churchill was thinking of visiting the Middle East, he received an invitation from Stalin to visit Moscow. In the event, he made the trip on an American B-24 Liberator, an aircraft with the necessary range. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The situation at the end of July 1942

General Auchinleck had persisted in attacks that always seem to end in disaster because he sensed that the Axis forces were close to the breaking point. Too much was being tried on an ad hoc basis, but Rommel agreed with Auchinleck's assessment that his forces were being pushed to the limit. General Auchinleck thought that the Italians were at the point of collapse, so he concentrated on attacking them. Rommel wrote on 17 July 1942 that the British were destroying Italian formations, one at a time. The Germans were too weak, however, to fight without the Italians. The Axis forces were fortunate to survive this period with their lines intact and it was a very close thing. The saving grace for the Axis was that the British operations were hastily mounted and without adequate preparation or planning. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Tanks, anti-tank mines, and anti-tank guns

The Official History's assessment was that at the end of July 1942, the British had not figured how to use infantry and armour in cooperation, at least in a changed environment dominated by more powerful anti-tank guns (used offensively) and by widespread use of anti-tank mines. The British plans for the battles in July were formulated as if the old situation were still in place. That is, that infantry could attack and open up corridors for armour to advance into the enemy's rear area.

The situation had also changed in that Rommel had gone on the defensive, rather than being prepared to blitz to exploit British weakness. The land in the narrows between the Qattara Depression and the Mediterranean was fast being blocked by mines and barbed wire. Fortunately for the British, by November, they would be commanded by the master of the fixed-piece battle, Bernard Law Montgomery.

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