Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Australian army officers in 1941

The result of the Australian participation in combat in 1941, was that they had increased confidence in their senior officers. Of the younger officers, General Lavarack was promoted. General Wynter, who had advocated concentrating on defending Australia, had a health breakdown that removed him from a combat opportunity. He had been the Australian commander at first. There were now militiamen commanding Australian divisions. Generals Morshead and Allen had been battalion commanders in the Great War and then were brigadiers and division commanders in 1941. Most of the brigadiers in 1941 were not professional soldiers. One problem was that many Australian officer candidates were not immediately commissioned when they graduated the course. Many officers received as reinforcements from Australia were not as capable as the officer candidate graduates. The success rate for the officer candidates was much higher than that for reinforcement officers.

The Australian army had a successful system for historical records. The system had been started during the Great War. From 1914, C. E. W. Bean had been a war correspondent for Australia. In 1941, the head of the Australian War Memorial had been an assistant to Bean. A photographer and cinematographer were added in 1940. General Blamey also added a war artist, Ivor Hele. They ended up with two organizations, one for immediate news for publication and the other for historical records. The system performed badly in the Libyan campaign against the Italians, because of a flawed system for allocating vehicles for correspondents. The result was late or lost material. General Blamey's intelligence officer established a censor in Cairo, who was the ideal combination of newsman and intelligence officer. That was a system that performed well over time. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Dual responsibilities for an Australian commander in 1941

General Blamey had been the commander of the Australian contingent in the Mediterranean and Middle East in 1941. When he was appointed deputy commander, under General Wilson, that created a problem. Several times during 1941, a Dominion commander as appointed to critical commands. On short notice, General Blamey had been put in charge of the retreat and withdrawal from Greece. General Freyberg, from New Zealand, had been put in charge of the defense of Crete. Sometime during the fighting in the Western Desert, and then again in Syria, General Lavarack was put in charge. General Lavarack was younger than the others and was a more junior officer in the Great War. The Official History suggests that when General Blamey had been appointed as Deputy Commander, that the Australian Government might have put someone else in charge of their forces in the Middle East.

The Australian Official History blames the errors in command, rightly so, on Churchill and his closest advisers in Britain. With General Wavell as the theater commander, he had successfully defeated the Italians in the Western Desert and in Ethiopia (they call it Abyssinia). When the main players in Britain decided to move into the Balkans that they put the Western Desert in jeopardy. They very nearly lost everything due to throwing away army and naval forces in the Greek campaign and the battle for Crete. General Wavell was made a scapegoat for Churchill's errors in policy and planning. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The war changes dramatically from November to December 1941

Some writers have criticized General Auchinleck's concern about a German attack from the north into the Middle East as a mistake. They said that he should have ignored the possibility and concentrated on the war in the Western Desert. We see now, though, that mainstream British opinion was very concerned about dealing with a German attack from Russia, either through Turkey or from the Caucasus. If he had not been planning for such an attack, he might have jeopardized his position as theater commander. The concern about a German attack was largely built on the lack of good information about the fighting in Russia. In fact, although there had been a large part of the Soviet Army that was poorly equipped (just as the Germans and British), the Russians had the best tanks and some of the best artillery in the world. The KV-I heavy tank and the T-34 medium tank were the best tanks in use in 1941. They were small in numbers at first, and some were thrown away in badly chosen situations, but they dominated the battlefield when they appeared in combat. The Germans scrambled to respond to them. In late 1941, the Germans were close to the high-water mark, although there would be further advances in the summer of 1942. The Soviet government and armed forces were not going to collapse. They had a hard core that would carry them through to better times and they started to receive British and American shipments of tanks and aircraft to supplement what they had.

Everything about the war changed after 8 December 1941 in the Far East, when the Japanese attacked. One immediate impact was that some of the Australian brigadiers from the Middle East were sent back to Australia. There were also discussions, very naturally, of sending men from the Middle East back to Australia. In January, the decision was made to send the 6th and 7th Australian Divisions along with the corps headquarters to Australia. The Australians in the Middle East had a hard time taking the Japanese threat seriously, as they could not conceive that the Japanese might invade Australia. One immediate effect was that the decision was made to replace the 7th Australian Division in Syria by the 9th Australian Division. The Australians were destined for Java, so General Lavarack and Allen set off by air. The divisions were sent in convoys for the Far East starting on 30 January. This last part is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The force in Syria in late 1941 grows and prepares for a German attack

The threat of a German invasion of Syria from the north was being taken very seriously in late 1941. The mainly Australian soldiers in Syria were kept busy preparing defensive positions. Another corps headquarters, the X Corps, was moved to Syria. When the 18th Brigade was withdrawn from Tobruk, they rejoined the 7th Australian Division, also in Syria. There were many changes. The British 6th Division was renamed the 70th Division and moved into Tobruk. The 6th Australian Division was finally rebuilt. The division had greatly suffered in Greece and the battle for Crete. They took the place of the 70th Division. General Wilson no longer commanded "Palestine and Transjordan", but became 9th Army commander. The army headquarters was located north of Beirut at Broumane.

There were many complaints late in 1941 about Australian troops committing vandalism and stealing. On the lighter side, a proposal was made to train ski troops from each Australian division. There was snow in the mountains to the north and the snow in late 1941 was very heavy. They proceeded with the training, but ultimately, the training was stopped.

By late 1941, the Australian divisions were well-equipped. In another change, since they were amply equipped, they were no longer allowed to use captured equipment. For example, the 2/16th Battalion had captured Breda heavy machine guns at Mersa Matruh in April and May 1941. They were discovered when they fired on by British aircraft on 6 October. They were forced to turn them in, as the no policy no longer allowed their possession. We remember the Australian cavalry using captured Italian tanks in early 1941 and captured French tanks in July, but no longer. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A change in the Australian government in late 1941

Mr. Menzies, a Liberal, had been Australian Prime Minister until early October 1941. He was followed by Mr. Curtin, of the Labour Party. General Blamey wanted to return to Australia to confer with the new government, because he was concerned about recent decisions that seemed to be mistaken. He left Egypt in early November and attended a War Cabinet meeting on 26 November 1941. General Blamey argued against disbanding units and told the cabinet that Australia had no need to maintain an armored brigade in Egypt. If they wanted to form an armored division in Egypt, they had adequate corps troops and reinforcements on which to draw. In fact, they were planning to send too many reinforcements to the Middle East, more than would be expected to be needed. He told the cabinet that he expected enough volunteers to keep enlisting so that they would not be concerned about the situation until later in 1942. The cabinet still thought that they would eventually need to reduce the number of divisions.

The New Zealand government was still waiting to hear about the proposed formation of the ANZAC corps. General Freyberg told his government that he thought that with the 9th Australian Division in Tobruk and the 6th Australian Division still not yet rebuilt, that there were insufficient divisions to be able to recreate the ANZAC Corp.

One topic of concern to General Blamey was the possibility of Australians being sent to fight a German attack through Turkey. After the Greek debacle, he was ready to resist without a better plan and adequate forces than were sent to Greece. General Blamey expressed his opinion that Germany would avoid Turkey, and if they attacked the Middle East, they would attack through the Caucasus and Caspian region. They agreed that the Australian divisions might be moved to the Taurus mountains if there were an adequate plan and preparation. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

An ANZAC Army?

One pet project of General Blamey was to form and ANZAC Army with two corps. The army would include the 6th Australian Division along with the New Zealand Division. When the idea was discussed again in May 1941, General Wavell expressed support for the plan. Wavell's opinion was that General Freyberg, the New Zealander, should command the ANZAC Corps. General Blamey replied that he approved of the idea. He also suggested an Australian Corps consisting of the 7th Australian Division and 9th Australian Division under General Lavarack's command. The idea would also include adding an armored division to each corps. The Australian Government hesitated to support the idea because they were concerned about their ability to find enough men to form the units. The Army staff in Australia assumed that there would be much higher casualties than the divisions ever suffered in combat. There were many men in the pipeline from Australia to the Middle East. They were more than enough to form the units that were proposed. General Blamey thought that 39,000 men a year would be adequate to support the units while the staff in Australia expected more than 100,000 men a year would be required. By 13 August, the Australian War Cabinet balked at the proposed organization in the Middle East. They wanted to just increase the number of men in the existing divisions and not add new units. General Blamey opposed the reduced forces for the Middle East. By the end of 1941, they had fully replaced losses and had completed the divisions with some 16,600 men in reserve. Part of the problem in Australia was the new government that had replaced the Menzies government. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Australia and army organizations as of August 1941

When Churchill replaced General Wavell with General Auchinleck, as the theater commander, he apparently had endorsed the use of ad hoc battle groups in the Middle East. The thinking apparently was that if the Germans use ad hoc battlegroups, then the British should imitate them and use them as well. General Blamey, who was a political soldier opposed breaking up divisions to form battle groups. Part of the rationale for battle groups (the German kampgruppe), was to disperse formations to be less vulnerable to air attack. Auchinleck proved that he understood that you have to concentrate your forces at the critical point to win battles when he did just that in the Crusader Battle and pushed Rommel back to El Agheila. Then, after the collapse after the surrender of Tobruk in 1942, Auchinleck took charge and stopped Rommel at the First Battle of El Alamein. But much of the time, from January 1942 to July 1942, the British wasted their time with Jock Columns and the like. Rommel, the master of infiltration tactics could almost at will panic the British army and cause them to scatter. It was only with the arrival of Bernard Law Montgomery that this situation was changed.

General Blamey was appalled that the Australian Government apparently only planned to put four divisions into the field. General Blamey thought that they would eventually have to mobilize many more men that four divisions worth to win the war. He correctly realized that this was to be a very dynamic and mobile war and would require a lot of men on the ground to win the war. And that was before anyone realized that the Japanese planned to enter the war as a combatant. General Blamey also suggested that naval blockade and air attacks would not be the answer to winning this war. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Defensive preparations at Tripoli in July and August 1941

The preparations made at Tripoli in July and August 1941 were based on the assumption that the Germans would enter Syria from Turkey. The plan envisioned that the Germans would use roads and railroads to move forces through Turkey. The planners thought that the German force would include 11 divisions as well as airborne units. While there was some thought that the Germans might move southward along the Mediterranean coast, they thought that a move would more likely be made from Aleppo, to Homs, to Damascus, and by Lake Tiberius, with a flanking movement through Palmyra. Tripoli had a fortress that was made ready for defense in all directions. General Allen, commander of the 7th Australian Division, thought that they would need two infantry divisions and one armored division. General Allen had his men work on building a fortress area large enough to hold that size force. General Auchinleck visited Tripoli in October and informed General Allen that no additional troops, except perhaps an armored battalion were to be added. In response, General Allen redesigned the fortress perimeter to be shorter given the force he had to defend Tripoli. General Blamey disagreed with General Auchinleck about what the Australian troops should be doing. Blamey wanted to see the Australians spending time training, not digging defenses. In the event, some civilian laborers were added to relieve the Australians from having to spend all their time digging. General Blamey, it turns out, agreed with what Bernard Law Montgomery believed, that the divisions and brigades should be kept intact and should not be broken up into ad hoc battle groups. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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