Chapter 5: After the Fall of France
The surrender of France and the entry of Italy had transformed the situation in the Mediterranean. Formerly the French fleet had offset the Italian, and the French armies in Africa, combined with the British, placed Allied military strength on approximately an equality with the Italian there. If the French fleet and the French colonies had continued to resist after the surrender of metropolitan France the scales would still have been heavily weighted against Italy. But, when most of the French leaders at home and abroad accepted the terms of the armistice, the western basin of the Mediterranean was left open to the Italian fleet until Britain could assemble a force to dispute it. Italy could now concentrate her Libyan armies on the Egyptian frontier, and the force, equivalent to about two divisions, which General Mittelhauser commanded in Syria and which had been counted on to support the Turks should Germany attack them, was lost to the Allies.1 Propaganda had vastly exaggerated the strength of the Allied army in the Middle East and it seems doubtful whether Dominion statesmen, for example, realised how small it was either before or after the fall of France.
One of the most disturbing elements in the new situation from the point of view of the military commander was that the navy, now lacking bases in the central Mediterranean, except for Malta, could not guarantee to prevent the transport of Italian – and perhaps German – reinforcements to North Africa, and that the convoys bringing men and supplies from England to Egypt would probably have to travel by the Cape. It was estimated that, allowing for the time needed to re-train troops after the long voyage twice through the tropics in crowded transports, the use of the Cape route would add three months to the time taken by a unit to travel from England and be ready for action in Egypt. Indeed there was even a danger that the Red Sea route would be denied by the Italian air force in East Africa, and the overland route by way of Basra would have to be used.
The new situation was one which the British War Cabinet could hardly have foreseen, and there was little that it could do quickly to increase British strength in outlying areas. The British Ministers had sent to France every division that they had been able to equip, and more. The survivors of this force had returned to England with, at the best, the weapons that they could carry in their hands. In England, also, the Royal Air Force was facing an inevitable and decisive contest with the German Air Force, and could spare no reinforcements. It was evident that, in the immediate future, the military defence of the Middle East would have to depend
increasingly on forces from India and the three Dominions east and south of Suez.
The control of British policy now rested chiefly on the shoulders of one man – Winston Churchill, the new Prime Minister. When Chamberlain dropped the reins Churchill inherited a system under which responsibility was widely and variously distributed; but it was not difficult for this learned, confident and autocratic leader to establish a highly-centralised machinery for the conduct of war.2 The portfolio of Minister for the Coordination of Defence had been abolished in April 1940. In May Churchill added the title Minister for Defence to that of Prime Minister. He established a “Defence Committee (Operations)” consisting of himself as chairman, a small group of ministers, and the Chiefs of Staff; this committee examined plans prepared by the Chiefs of Staff and made decisions on behalf of War Cabinet. A post-war review of the system said that “the duties of the Prime Minister as Minister for Defence were never defined. It was left for Mr Churchill to develop a method of working, through the Defence Committee and the Chiefs of Staff Committee, which
enabled him to provide the drive without which warlike operations cannot be conducted. ... He used as his staff the small military Secretariat of the War Cabinet, which had previously served the Committee of Imperial Defence.”3 The duties of the Committee of Imperial Defence, an advisory not an executive body, had already been taken over at the outbreak of war by the War Cabinet then established. It was desirable that executive power should be concentrated in a central authority – Britain’s unpreparedness was a result largely of lack of a unified policy – and it was fortunate that there was in England a politician as resolute and knowledgeable as Churchill, itching to take up the German challenge.
No responsibility was too heavy for him; no detail too small. The memoranda which he distributed daily among his subordinates sometimes gave directions on high strategical policy, but as often contained pronouncements on items of equipment, training, tactics, or even grammatical usage. In his directives on operations in the Middle East, for instance, he was to give instructions about the movement and equipment of individual units and sub-units.4
To consider the problems of the relatively remote Middle Eastern theatre Churchill set up a Ministerial Committee of the Secretary for War (Mr Eden), for India (Mr Amery) and the Colonies (Lord Lloyd), “all experienced in war and deeply concerned in that theatre”. To an Australian the absence is conspicuous of the Secretary for the Dominions, since it was on the Dominions that the area would now largely depend for its military defence.
Indeed the new system left the problem of cooperation with the Dominion Governments, who controlled one-third of the Anglo-Saxon citizens of the British Commonwealth, where it had been before. In the words of the post-war review quoted above this cooperation was maintained as hitherto by “a very close touch between the Governments of the Commonwealth not only by telegraphic means but by constant meetings between ministers, officers and officials on all levels.” This generalisation does more than justice to the liaison between, for example, the Australian Army and the War Office, which was in fact maintained from June of this year until January 1941 by a relatively-junior ordnance specialist with the rank of temporary lieut-colonel and with an office at Australia House.5
A first necessity was to meet the new challenge to British sea power in the Mediterranean, and to that end Churchill sent a battle squadron commanded by Vice-Admiral Somerville6 to Gibraltar to fill the gap left by the French fleet, now lying inactive. And, in the eastern Mediterranean, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, though he led a force that included only three battleships, against Italy’s five, promptly demonstrated that he did not intend to surrender the central Mediterranean to superior weight of metal. On 11th June he began a sweep towards southern Italy with his battle squadron while two cruisers shelled Tobruk, the main Italian fortress on the coast of Cyrenaica. These forays failed to entice the Italian fleet to attack.
There still remained the fear lest the French fleet or a substantial part of it should fall into German hands. The British Cabinet decided to take drastic measures and on 3rd July, having failed to persuade its commander to come to terms, Admiral Somerville fired on and disabled most of a powerful French squadron at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria. At the same time the commander of a French squadron of one battleship and four cruisers at Alexandria was persuaded to discharge the fuel oil from his ships and in other ways render them harmless. Later in July Cunningham’s fleet, which was at sea covering a convoy from Malta, saw the Italian battle fleet and engaged it at long range, whereupon the Italians made off while a strong force of aircraft made heavy but unsuccessful high-level attacks on the British ships. Thus, within a month, British naval ascendancy in the Mediterranean was firmly re-established.
The entry of Italy increased the British leaders’ anxiety about the internal security of Egypt whose Prime Minister, Ali Maher Pasha, was unsympathetic towards Britain, and whose King was under strong Italian influence.7 The Egyptian problem was complicated by the existence of an Egyptian army of 30,000 men which, though poorly led and weak in mobile artillery, nevertheless possessed more anti-aircraft artillery than the British forces and was “in many respects much better equipped than most of the British forces”.8 Consequently General Wavell had to be ready at short notice to use part of his force to take control in Cairo and Alexandria. The internal situation in Egypt was greatly improved from the British point of view when, in June, the King was persuaded to appoint as Prime Minister, Hassan Sabri Pasha, a former Ambassador to Britain and an Anglophile. In Palestine neither Jews nor Arabs seemed likely immediately to alter their cooperative attitude because of France’s surrender and Italy’s entry against Britain. Wavell recognised, however, that the strong anti-
British element in Iraq, encouraged by Britain’s misfortunes, might upset a situation that for the time was “unsatisfactory but quiescent”.
Although a trickle of reinforcements had been reaching him in the eight months since October 1939, Wavell now possessed, in Egypt and Palestine, only one armoured division and one cavalry division (both not fully equipped), two infantry divisions – the 4th Indian and 6th Australian, both incomplete – and part of the New Zealand Division (little more than a brigade group). There were also nineteen British battalions, including elements of the 6th British Division, but only three were brigaded and there were only two unattached artillery regiments – not enough to make it possible to create a British infantry division on the spot. In Kenya were two brigades of East African native troops soon (in July) to be reinforced by two brigades of West African natives; in the Sudan three British battalions and twenty locally-raised companies; in Somaliland an African battalion and five local camel companies. On the other hand the Italians were then believed to have about 250,000 troops in Libya, and 200,000 in Abyssinia.9
The shortage of artillery and engineers, which made it difficult to form even one United Kingdom infantry division in the Middle East, was partly due to an inherent defect in the British Army system. In peace about half of that army was employed on colonial garrison and police duties for which a normal allotment of artillery was not required; and, since the Indian Mutiny, the precaution had been taken of including very little Indian field artillery in the Indian Army. Consequently, in the early stages of the war, there was not enough artillery to go round, and, in the Middle East and India, large numbers of fine regular infantry battalions could not be formed into effective divisions for lack of artillery and other -technical troops. This waste of splendid fighting units was extremely puzzling to colonials. These were the infantry battalions which they regarded as then the best in the world, and they were largely frittered away on garrison duty when they might have been formed into divisions of outstanding quality if technical troops had been sent out from England to support them. In London then and later Churchill bombarded the War Office with sharp complaints about “the shocking waste of British Regular troops on mere police duty” in the Middle East and India.10
In the air Air Marshal Longmore’s11 force, which included six squadrons in the Western Desert, three in the Sudan, three in Kenya, four at Aden, and nine elsewhere in Egypt, was greatly outnumbered by the Italian, and possessed no fighter aircraft more modern than the Gladiator biplane.12 In Egypt and Palestine Longmore had a frontline strength of 168 aircraft against an estimated Italian strength of 400 in Libya. In Sudan, Kenya and Aden he had 85 against 170 Italian machines in Abyssinia. What it lacked in numbers and equipment the British force made up in skill and spirit, however, and, early on the morning of Italy’s declaration of war, had bombed all Italian aerodromes within range, destroying or damaging hangars and aircraft and setting fire to petrol dumps.
It was likely that, because of the tropical rains which fell in Abyssinia from early July to September, Wavell and Longmore would have time to re-deploy their forces before a serious Italian attack began; and in the Western Desert it was improbable that the Italians would attempt large-scale operations in high summer. Wavell ordered General Dickinson13 in Kenya and General Platt in the Sudan to put small and mobile forces astride the main routes leading out of Abyssinia with orders to fight delaying actions should the Italians advance in strength. In July superior Italian forces drove the Sudanese outposts from the frontier settlements of Kassala and Gallabat, thus severing the Khartoum–Port Sudan railway, and in Kenya two Italian brigades drove a company of the King’s African Rifles (an East African native regiment) from a similar post at Moyale. However, the rainy season had descended and Wavell believed that the Italians would not make a major attack until it was over. In the meantime he proposed to send to the Sudan an Indian brigade due to arrive in August.
Wavell had counted upon at least hampering the Italian force in Abyssinia by assisting those Abyssinian tribes who were still resisting the occupation, but the Foreign Office, fearful lest the Italian dictator be offended, had prevented him from sending agents into the country. On the eve of Italy’s declaration of war, without having consulted Wavell, it arranged for the exiled Emperor Haile Selassie to travel to Egypt, having first given him the impression that he would be supported with large forces of troops, tanks and guns. For some time after his arrival it was necessary for the Emperor to remain at Khartoum, somewhat disillusioned by the discovery of the true position, while a small mission of British officers and some 300 to 400 armed Abyssinian refugees were sent across the border to reconnoitre and to encourage the rebels.
A more immediate threat to the Nile Delta was offered by the Italian Army in Libya, which, after the death of Marshal Balbo whose aircraft was shot down over Tobruk by Italian guns in June, was commanded by Marshal Graziani. Graziani was one of those who won his marshal’s baton in the operations in Libya and Abyssinia.14 The administrative work in the forces he had commanded in both countries was considered to be efficient, but there were signs that he himself lacked confidence and drive; and his only opponents so far had been ill-armed and ill-organised Africans. Nevertheless, he and his subordinates had acquired more experience of motorised warfare in the arid north and east of Africa than British commanders had been able to.
Wavell’s staff believed that Graziani commanded, in Tripolitania, the Fifth Army (General Gariboldi), which included eight Italian divisions and perhaps one Libyan; and, in Cyrenaica, the Tenth Army (General Guidi), of four Italian divisions15 – the 62nd (Marmarica), 63rd (Cyrene), 3rd Blackshirt (21st April), 4th Blackshirt (3rd January) – the 1st Libyan, composed chiefly of native troops, and perhaps part of the 2nd Libyan. Wavell believed that the Italians might dare to drive his covering force back from the frontier, but, because of the difficulties of supply, he doubted whether they could make an effective attack into Egypt without the support of German armoured forces and German organisation. “If the Germans do support them with armoured forces, and perhaps parachutists and airborne troops,” he wrote, on 26th July, “we may be faced with a stiff battle on the western frontier, in which we shall be very greatly outnumbered in the air.” He estimated that two armoured and three infantry divisions would be needed to meet such an attack.
Between the Italian Army and the Nile delta lay 240 miles of desert which received only enough rain to support scattered clumps of low, spiny scrub. Its surface consisted generally of fine clay subsoil, often sprinkled with stones; here and there were patches of fine sand. From the Egyptian side a railway reached out into the desert as far as Mersa Matruh, an ancient seaport town of about 6,000 people, and thence a bitumen road travelled west to the village of Sidi Barrani. From Sidi Barrani an earth road continued to Salum, a small harbour near the Italian frontier. There the 600-foot escarpment, which, to the east, lay generally twenty or thirty miles from the coast, touched the sea. West and south of Salum this escarpment was climbed by two principal tracks leading into Cyrenaica,
one mounting the escarpment above Salum to Fort Capuzzo and the other travelling through the Halfaya Pass, six miles south of the port. Along the frontier, from the sea coast to the edge of the Great Sand Sea south of Giarabub, the Italians had erected barbed wire entanglements twelve feet wide whose principal object was to enable them to control the Bedouin caravans. On the Italian side a first-class road ran from the settled and fertile area near Benghazi to Fort Capuzzo. However, lack of water rather than lack of roads and railways was likely to impede military movement in the intervening desert. Between Mersa Matruh and Tobruk, seventy miles within the Italian frontier, there were few wells, and their capacity was limited. Around the railhead and water supply of Mersa Matruh the British Army had, since 1939, been digging and wiring a strong system of defences. The Italians on their side had built two elaborate fortresses, one an arc of strong posts round Bardia on the coast just across the frontier; the other round Tobruk.
Until the development of efficient motor vehicles, the desert was an imposing obstacle to the movement of large armies. In the past twenty years, however, the mechanical movement of large forces across open and flat or undulating country had been made possible by the improvement of tanks and the development of wheeled vehicles of more rugged build and greater power. Even so, the wear and tear on vehicles in the desert was of an entirely different degree to that suffered in well-roaded areas. The life of a track of a tank or carrier on the sandy, stony ground was only 1,500 to 2,000 miles, the life of an engine relatively very short, and the consumption of spare parts correspondingly high.
Wavell’s general plan in the Western Desert was one formulated before his arrival: to regard Mersa Matruh for the present as his main centre of resistance and allow the enemy to advance so far without offering strong opposition. Thus the enemy might be drawn forward into the almost-waterless desert and at length an opportunity would present itself of hitting him hard while he was at a disadvantage. Nevertheless (as in Abyssinia) Wavell decided to post a small force on the frontier to harass the enemy. The command of all British troops in Egypt belonged to General Wilson and until June the 7th Armoured Division (General Creagh16) was directly under his control. In that month, however, the political situation in Egypt was so uncertain that it was not considered practicable for Wilson directly to command the formations in the Western Desert and General O’Connor,17 formerly commander of the 6th British Division, formed “Western Desert Force”, comprising the 7th Armoured Division, the Matruh Garrison (chiefly the 22nd British Brigade), the 5th Indian Brigade, and some units of the New Zealand Division.
O’Connor gave the task of harassing the Italians to a force drawn from the armoured division and consisting of a light tank regiment (7th
Hussars), an armoured car regiment (11th Hussars), two motorised infantry battalions and two artillery regiments. These were composed of expert and confident regular troops who knew the desert and what their equipment could do, and they immediately began making damaging forays into Cyrenaica. On the night of the 11th June (Italy had declared war on the 10th) the 11th Hussars cut their way through the frontier wire and, after a skirmish, took seventy prisoners. Three days later the 7th Hussars occupied Fort Capuzzo and the 11th Hussars took Fort Maddalena and patrolled to the Bardia–Tobruk road. On the 16th a squadron of the 11th Hussars established an ambush on the Bardia road, killed twenty-one men, took eighty-eight prisoners, including General Lastucci, chief engineer of the Tenth Army, and destroyed forty vehicles, without losing a man. In an action on the 16th a force including a tank and an armoured car squadron and some anti-tank guns killed or captured 148 Italian troops and destroyed seventeen Italian light tanks. By July, the situation seemed temporarily to have been stabilised both in the Sudan and in the desert.
Thus, when General Blamey and Brigadier Rowell arrived in Palestine from Australia on 20th June they came not to the training area of a force intended for the Western Front, but to a theatre of operations in which their troops might be called on to go into action at short notice. Blamey’s corps consisted only of a nucleus headquarters, some corps troops and the incomplete 6th Division. The 7th Division in Australia included only two brigades, which had been training for about a month. The 18th Brigade, with some troops of the 6th Division, was in England. Therefore one of
Blamey’s most pressing problems was to complete the organisation and equipment of the 6th Division. When he arrived it was still short of a regiment of field and a regiment of anti-tank artillery and several engineer, medical and maintenance units. There was neither a pioneer nor a machine-gun battalion, each of which was normally attached to a division in battle. To complete their equipment the units which were in Palestine needed, to take some examples, twenty-four field guns or howitzers, 283 light machine-guns (out of a total establishment of 569), 222 anti-tank rifles (the units had about six each), 1,060 binoculars, 948 prismatic compasses, 120 telephones, 120 miles of electric cable, 166 carriers and light tanks, 941 other vehicles. Each battalion had only four 2-inch mortars instead of twelve; for the twenty-four artillery weapons with the division there were only eighty rounds of ammunition a gun. It had been possible to train a full battalion in mobile operations only by pooling vehicles so that battalions could use them by turns, and there was no substantial reserve of vehicles in the Middle East.
Soon after his arrival Blamey decided to send a trusted staff officer, Colonel Ronald Irving, to Melbourne to explain the equipment shortage and to press for a statement of policy. Irving flew to Melbourne where, after a discussion with General White, he prepared a paper for the Minister in which he said that the Australian division might be called upon “to fight for its very existence at any moment” and was in no state to do so. The threat to Britain and the temporary closing of the Mediterranean sea route would for an indefinite period prevent it obtaining fighting equipment from the United Kingdom. It was urged, therefore, that an immediate decision be made to provide what equipment could be spared from Australian resources, and, particularly that ninety Australian-made Vickers and 116 Lewis guns be dispatched so that at least the infantry would be armed, if only with last-war weapons. As a result of this mission it was decided that the remaining artillery, engineer and other units of the 6th Division be dispatched as soon as possible, even if they lacked some weapons, but opinion was against the two AIF divisions in Australia going abroad until the possibility of Japan entering the war had diminished. However, the prospect of obtaining equipment other than rifles and machine-guns from Australian factories was improving. It was expected that the first 2-pounder anti-tank guns would be delivered in October, and two batches each of 200 transport vehicles were being loaded into transports; it was decided to equip the 6th Division as far as possible from Australian sources, though not to send away Lewis guns from Australia’s small stock. Small numbers of Vickers guns, anti-tank rifles, mortars, pistols, carriers and ammunition were sent to Palestine. Half the carriers produced by Australian factories were to go overseas and half to be kept in Australia.
In addition to commanding the Australian corps General Blamey was commander of the AIF, and it was because General White foresaw problems that would face him in that capacity that he had been anxious that he should go promptly to Palestine. In April Blamey had been
entrusted with the wide powers needed by the commander of a force which, though under the operational control of the British or Allied commander-in-chief in the theatre to which it was allotted, nevertheless was an independent force whose commander owed allegiance to his own Government. General Blamey’s authority and responsibility were set out in the following charter based on that which had been drawn up in the war of 1914–18. It said:
(a) The Force to be recognised as an Australian force under its own Commander, who will have a direct responsibility to the Commonwealth Government with the right to communicate direct with that Government. No part of the Force to be detached or employed apart from the Force without hi8 consent.
Questions of policy regarding the employment of the Force to be decided by the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Governments, in consultation; except that, in an emergency, the Commander of the Force may, at his discretion, take a decision on such a question, informing the Commonwealth Government that he is so doing.
(b) The Force to be under the operational control of the Commander-in-Chief of the theatre in which it is serving.
(c) Administration of supply services, and such other questions as are amenable to the adoption of a common system, to be controlled by the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in which the Force is serving – subject to a financial adjustment between the respective Governments concerning the cost of such administration incurred by the British Government. All major financial questions, arising from the service of the Force abroad, to be reserved for direct discussion between the Commonwealth and the United Kingdom Governments.
(d) Administration of the Force in domestic matters to be the prerogative of the General Officer Commanding 1st Australian Army Corps, subject to general control by the Minister for the Army.18
A problem with which General Blamey had immediately to deal was the establishment of an administrative system adequate to the needs of a force which eventually was to number three or four divisions and a corresponding number of corps and depot troops; indeed was likely to become the largest homogeneous force in the Middle East. In May he had sent abroad Brigadier Wynter, his senior administrative officer, or DA and QMG, with some of his staff, to examine the administrative organisation of the AIF, make such changes as he considered necessary, and at the same time to establish an advanced headquarters of I Australian Corps – as a young officer Wynter had held responsible positions in the administration of the old AIF in France and London. Blamey had informed him that the Overseas Base should be moved from Jerusalem to a point nearer the point of entry of the Australians – Port Said, for example; and that he should prepare for the organisation of an AIF administrative headquarters which would take over from the base such matters as records, pay, etc. In this way there would be established under Blamey as commander of the AIF an administrative headquarters, commanded by
Wynter himself, which would control the domestic affairs of the force as a whole, and an Australian “base sub-area” with a small staff, including a canteens and Comforts Fund representative, mainly to receive and distribute reinforcements and supplies. The AIF headquarters would control all domestic administration not in the hands of corps headquarters and would have charge of general hospitals when they were not in a theatre of war. At the same time the establishment of an AIF depot containing reinforcement training units and convalescent depots was contemplated.
Wynter, however, and his nucleus staff had been in the “third convoy” which had been diverted to England, and in June he had been appointed to command the Australian force there. Consequently Blamey had to deal with this problem afresh. He transferred Brigadier Morris and his staff to Gaza, where his own headquarters were established, and removed Mackay’s headquarters to Deir Suneid. The base came under the control of his corps staff, which was still in an attenuated form. It remained to set up a base organisation which would free the corps headquarters to train for action in the field. With this in view he later instituted a new organisation whereby a Deputy Adjutant-General, AIF (Brigadier Andrew19) was made responsible directly to Blamey as GOC, AIF, for the control of records, pay, audit and “questions of general domestic administration of the AIF”20 In November, Brigadier Boase,21 hitherto senior administrative officer of the 7th Division, was appointed to command “Base and Lines of Communication Units.” But the corps staff was not fully freed from administration of static units, having still to control the general organisation of the AIF and the training of reinforcements.22
In September, in anticipation of the large number of reinforcements who were due to arrive in Palestine in that month and October, General Blamey ordered the formation of a training depot containing a training battalion for each infantry brigade, an artillery training regiment and a training regiment of reinforcements for cavalry and other units. Each infantry training battalion was to contain a company of reinforcements for each parent unit, which would provide its officers. Each unit, therefore, would be responsible for the training of its own reinforcements to the extent that its own officers, temporarily seconded, would have commanded those reinforcements in the training period. Thus, one by one, rear
organisations were established, but a result of Blamey’s tardiness in freeing his corps headquarters from administration of the AIF as a whole was that the corps headquarters, as such, were never exercised until February 1941.
It will be recalled that one provision of General Blamey’s charter was that no part of the AIF should be detached or employed apart from the main force without his consent. It was likely, as General White had foreseen, that efforts would be made to detach parts of the Dominion forces, particularly in the early stages of the war when the Allies were weak and every commander was compelled to improvise; and Blamey had been in Palestine only a fortnight when there arose one such problem for the solution of which the Government and its advisers relied upon him. On 3rd July Wavell asked Wilson, Blamey and Brigadier Puttick,23 commanding the 4th New Zealand Brigade, to meet him in Cairo “to discuss re-grouping of units in formations”, and sent them a draft order of battle which predicted the formation of “Egypt Corps”, consisting of the 7th Armoured Division, the 4th Indian, the Matruh Garrison (a British brigade group) and a “6th Australian Division” which, in the draft, consisted of the 16th Australian and 4th New Zealand Brigades, with the Australian divisional cavalry regiment, artillery and other troops. In reserve, under Wavell’s immediate command, were to be grouped the 17th and 19th Australian and the 16th British Brigades. The intention was that an improvised division for service in Egypt and the desert should be formed from the two Dominion brigades which were farthest advanced in training and equipment. Puttick immediately cabled this proposal to his commander, General Freyberg,24 who was in England with the second contingent of his division. Freyberg’s response was characteristically prompt and emphatic. On the 4th he cabled Wavell:–
Have just received your proposals for reorganisation with its repercussions upon the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Egypt. As no such change can be made without the approval of the New Zealand Government, I hope these proposals will not be proceeded with. I do not wish to disclose to the New Zealand Government the proposals as outlined by you to break up the New Zealand Force, as they would make a most unfavourable impression in New Zealand official circles with repercussions you probably have not foreseen. The answer to any such proposals would, I am sure, be an uncompromising refusal.
These were very strong words – “break up the New Zealand force”, “most unfavourable impression”, “uncompromising refusal” – but, at the outset, and in terms that could hardly have been more emphatic, they reminded Wavell and his staff that Dominion commanders had a responsibility for keeping their forces intact, and had the right of appeal to their
Governments.25 At the conference next day, a new organisation was agreed upon under which the Egypt Corps included separate Australian and New Zealand groups, Blamey agreeing to the detachment of his brigade only on condition that it was fully equipped.
Before this reorganisation had been carried out the question of detaching troops, this time solely from the Australian force, arose again. As soon as General Blamey arrived in the Middle East he had agreed to earmark a brigade for police duties in Egypt should a political crisis demand it, and he detailed the 16th for the duty. On 13th August he learnt from Wavell’s headquarters that now that the brigade had been allotted to the Egypt Corps, the 17th had been detailed for the “security” task (that is to say, the 6th Division was to lose not one but two of its brigades) and that the 17th had been placed on a higher priority for equipment than the 16th Brigade. Blamey replied to this proposal in terms only a little less emphatic than Freyberg’s of six weeks before:–
I am most anxious (he wrote to Wavell on 13th August) to give you every help and backing in your very difficult task, but in view of the very definite agreement between the British and Australian Governments for the employment of the AIF as a single force, and the instructions of the Commonwealth Government to me in this matter, I must ask for the fullest details of the proposals before I can give consideration to the question of further detachment.
He pointed out that if the second detachment was made the 6th Division would be split into three parts, one in the Western Desert, one in Cairo and one in Palestine, all working under different commands. He repeated a request which he had made earlier that the headquarters of the division be included in the Egypt Corps, a proposal that had been rejected because of the shortage of signal equipment. If this were done the division could be completed in the Western Desert as equipment for the remaining brigades became available. Blamey took the opportunity of urging that transport and equipment be issued to the division. The 6th Division, he said “must have training with the full scale (of transport) before it can be considered ready to take the field. I am very loth to allow this Force out of my control until I am assured of its fitness for the task involved, and I am very certain that the Commonwealth Government will demand this of me. If I am correctly informed, this equipment is available.” The outcome was that the 6th New Zealand Brigade which had arrived in Egypt on 29th September was, from 13th October, allotted the role of reserve for internal security, leaving the 17th Australian available eventually to join the 16th west of the Nile Delta.
In July another incident had occurred which underlined the individuality of the Dominion forces. On the 26th of that month there arrived at Australian corps headquarters a copy of a proposed order to all troops under Wavell’s command in which it was stated that, although the Commander-in-Chief had full confidence in the common sense and judgment of the majority of the troops, he had decided to prohibit listening in to German broadcasts “in recreation rooms etc.” A covering letter by Wavell’s chief of staff, Major-General Arthur Smith26 said that a disadvantage of the order was that men with suspicious minds might think that there was much truth in the German broadcasts after all, and that the wishes of the commanders of the Australian, New Zealand and South African forces were being consulted before the order was issued. Blamey passed on the proposal to Mackay and he to the brigadiers, all of whom opposed the prohibition, two of them, Savige and Allen, with some vehemence. Savige considered that it would be most unwise and that it would make the men suspicious of British Broadcasts. The always-candid Allen said that he felt that this was an opportune moment to invite attention to the frequent obvious omission of unpalatable information from BBC broadcasts. “The men are beginning to feel that our information is almost as inaccurate as the German,” he wrote.
Blamey’s reply to his immediate superior, General Giffard,27 commander in Palestine and Transjordan, was that he considered that the ban would be unwise. He quoted as an example of the kind of omission that was likely to cause his troops to suspect their own news the official report that one empty oil tank had been hit in the first Italian raid on Haifa, when the troops knew that several full tanks had been set on fire. Would it not be possible, he asked, to issue a daily news sheet showing a comparison of British and enemy communiques? He contemplated doing something of the kind himself. Finally an order was issued by British headquarters in Palestine that tuning-in to German or Italian broadcasts was forbidden in all places where communal wireless sets were used, the reason given being that “dissension” had been caused between troops who did not wish to listen and those who did. Blamey was informed, however, that the prohibition did not apply to troops under his command.
The incident illustrated how different were relations between officers and men in Dominion and British forces. In the Dominion armies any distinction between officers and men above what efficiency demanded (and it did not demand marking stretches of Gaza Beach “for officers only”) was quickly resented; and an attempt to prevent listening to enemy broadcasts would not only have caused indignation but very probably have been disobeyed by men who would have argued that they had enlisted, voluntarily, to fight for the preservation of just such a liberty.
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To return to the narrative of main events in the Middle East: by the middle of July, in response to the raids of the British covering force, the Italian commander in Libya had moved stronger forces forward until two divisions and units of two others were on or near the frontier. During the month British raids continued; by the end of it the Italians had four divisions forward. However, the British fighting vehicles were wearing out; of 306 tanks on the establishment of the division28 only 200 were as a rule with the units, the remainder being under repair. Towards the end of July Wavell ordered that all tracked vehicles be withdrawn for overhaul, and the Support Group of the division, augmented by one squadron of tanks, took over the frontier.
In East Africa, after their minor successes at Kassala and Gallabat in July, the Italian force undertook a more ambitious venture. In French Somaliland General Legentilhomme, the French military commander, unlike Nogués in Algeria and Mittelhauser in Syria, remained belligerent, ignoring the Armistice, but he was overruled by a meeting of his Council and on 15th July a Vichy general took command. The French troops were withdrawn from the frontier, thus leaving British Somaliland open to an Italian invasion which the scanty forces there – one Indian (1 / 15th Punjab) and two African battalions and some local camel companies – could not be expected to resist with success. The situation was precarious but, after consulting Brigadier Chater,29 who was the local commander, General Wilson (in Wavell’s absence in London) decided to hold Berbera as long as possible, and sent in two more battalions, the 3/15th Punjab and the 2/Black Watch, but the defending force had no artillery,30 except four small howitzers.
Early in August an Italian force equipped with artillery and tanks invaded Somaliland and, after a hard battle, forced the defenders back into an untenable position, with the result that, on the 17th and 18th August, the whole force was embarked, having lost 260 men, including 120 “missing”. The Italians admitted 1,800 casualties.
However, in spite of these successes the Italian leaders – naval, military and air – were displaying less enterprise than their strength justified. It soon became evident that the Red Sea route, though protected against air attack only by two Blenheim squadrons, could be used with reasonable safety, and, in late August and early September, a squadron, consisting of the battleship Valiant, the aircraft carrier Illustrious, and two cruisers
escorted a convoy from the west to Malta, where it joined Admiral Cunningham’s force and proceeded to Alexandria.31
Meanwhile the Australian brigades had been moving nearer the scene of action. In the first half of September the 6th Division less the 19th Brigade moved to Helwan camp near Cairo to complete its training and equipment. It had been there less than a fortnight when the problem of detachments arose again. Wavell had agreed that the 16th Brigade should have one month’s training with full transport and equipment before being used for an operational role, but, before half that time had passed, orders were issued by Wilson’s headquarters that it move to Amiriya on the edge of the Western Desert. Blamey at once signalled to Mackay that the brigade was not to move without his authority, and repeated the signal to Wilson’s headquarters. Wavell was then in London; two days later his headquarters in Cairo signalled that Wavell had consulted Churchill and insisted that the move be made.
Blamey agreed to allow Rowell, his chief of staff, to visit Wilson’s headquarters bearing a copy of Blamey’s charter. Rowell had a stormy interview with Brigadier Galloway,32 Wilson’s senior staff officer, and left him the charter to read, emphasising the need for appreciating the peculiar circumstances in which a Dominion commander was placed in that he had a responsibility both to his Government and to his local commander; and pointing out that, in the present instance, Blamey had informed his Government that the brigade would have one month of training with full equipment. Later in the day Galloway changed his attitude; the brigade did not move until October. The incident illustrates that neither the British Prime Minister (admittedly one who was not always particularly adept in his dealings with Dominion Governments), nor a Commander-in-Chief of a force which included contingents from three Dominions, nor a field commander chosen for appointments in which a combination of diplomatic and military talents were demanded, nor his chief of staff realised that none of them could insist on such an instruction being carried out by a Dominion commander.33
Reinforcement of Egypt had been made the more necessary because the unwieldy Italian force in the Western Desert, where, since July, Brigadier Gott’s34 Support Group of the 7th Armoured Division had been sparring with it, was moving forward. At Bardia or east of it the commander of the Italian Tenth Army, was now believed to have two metropolitan divisions – the 62nd (Marmarica) and the 63rd (Cyrene) – as well as the 1st and part of the 2nd Libyan; in the Derna-Cyrene area were three more divisions. On 10th September an enemy column of about 500 vehicles began to advance, and by the morning of the 11th reached a point a few miles west of Sidi Omar. In the evening the leaguered vehicles at Sidi Omar were attacked by a small column of British tanks and guns, and vehicles and petrol were set on fire. On the 13th the Italian force advanced behind a creeping barrage and occupied Salum. In the Halfaya Pass a company of the 3/Coldstream35 with detachments of artillery and machine-guns held up the Italian advance for some hours and withdrew in good order. Gott had expected the Italians to make a flanking move well south of the coast and had concentrated most of his small force south of the escarpment, leaving only the Coldstream battalion and some artillery on the coast. For four days the Italian army advanced along the coast, constantly harried by the Coldstream and the gunners. They did not attempt a flank move, though they possessed a strong force of tanks, but appeared to be advancing in column with two divisions leading, behind a screen of motor-cyclists, tanks and lorry-borne guns and infantry. At night the force would disperse itself in leaguers with searchlights ready to illuminate the surrounding country if a raid was attempted. When, on the 17th, the column reached Sidi Barrani, after having advanced about twelve miles each day, it halted and began to establish itself in a series of camps which offered all-round defence, at El Maktila, Tummar, Nibeiwa and Sofafi, the line of camps forming a shallow arc running north-east to south-west. In these camps and in the area immediately west of them lay an army estimated at five infantry divisions, two being of Libyan troops, and one armoured group, equal to a division.
In the three months since the declaration of war Graziani thus gained some sixty miles of territory but his published casualties since June were 3,500 and he had lost 700 prisoners. The 7th Armoured Division had only 150 casualties. The operations had revealed that the Italian leaders – except in the artillery, which was often well-handled – were poor tacticians and lacked confidence, and their men possessed little spirit; at the same time they had provided a useful exercise for the British regulars and an encouragement to their dash and self-esteem. It had been a war of professionals against amateurs.
We now know that Graziani undertook this advance only after repeated instructions from Mussolini. On 8th September Ciano wrote in his diary: “Never has a military operation been undertaken so much against the will of the commanders.” The Italian field force
was commanded by General Bergonzoli and consisted of the XXI Corps (62nd and 63rd Divisions and 1st and 2nd Libyan Divisions); the XXIII Corps (1st and 2nd Blackshirt Divisions); the Libyan Tank Group of seven tank battalions; and the Maletti Group, a small mobile force. At the outset the tank group led the way, the infantry following, with tanks and artillery guarding the flanks. The advance to Sidi Barrani was led by the tank group on the right and the 2nd Blackshirt on the left.
Meanwhile, in August, Wavell had been summoned to London to discuss his problems with the Ministers and the War Office staffs. Churchill had not met him, and in the past two months had been issuing memoranda that contained sharp criticism of Wavell’s employment of his forces. “The discussions, both oral and written”, wrote Churchill later concerning the London meetings, “were severe”; and he added36:
The command in the Middle East at that time comprised an extraordinary amalgam of military, political, diplomatic, and administrative problems of extreme complexity. ... While not in full agreement with General Wavell’s use of the resources at his disposal, I thought it best to leave him in command. I admired his fine qualities, and was impressed with the confidence so many people had in him.
Churchill told Wavell that he considered that excessive forces were being kept idle in Kenya, which should be held “with the settlers and the KAR”; the South Africans and West Africans should be transferred to the Delta. There were too many troops in Palestine. He declared to Wavell:
I do not understand why the Australians and New Zealanders, who have been training in Palestine for at least six months, should be able to provide only one brigade for service in Egypt. How many of them are there, and what are the facts of their training? These men were brought at great expense from Australia, having been selected as the first volunteers for service in Europe. Many of them had previous military training, and have done nearly a year’s training since the war broke out. How disgraceful it would be if owing to our mishandling of this important force only one brigade took part in the decisive operations for the defence of Egypt!
In the following days Churchill sent Wavell a series of communications which displayed one of his defects as a leader – his eagerness to lay down the law on details that were in the province of the man on the spot. Churchill’s military experience had been varied but shallow; his intense interest in the details of the profession of arms was not backed by adequate schooling in the everyday problems of a military commander. He questioned Wavell’s statement that armoured forces and vehicles could move as easily on the desert as on the road – a fact that the operations of recent weeks should have sufficiently demonstrated. Finally he wrote a directive in which he proposed a re-deployment of Wavell’s force, battalion by battalion, and gave detailed instructions for the tactical employment of the force in the Western Desert.37
Of greater value to Wavell was a promise of some useful reinforcements, including another Indian division – the 5th – the two regiments of cruiser
tanks to complete his armoured division, and a battalion of infantry tanks or “Matildas”, designed to support infantry in a set-piece attack. Anxious to reduce his commitments by disposing of the blockaded Italian force in Abyssinia Wavell now made the bold decision to allot the Indian division to General Platt in the Sudan and instructed him to plan an attack there. At the same time, soon after his return from London, he instructed his joint planning staff to prepare for an advance in the Western Desert; and he ordered Wilson and O’Connor to counter-attack as soon as the Italian advance reached Mersa Matruh.
In September renewed fear of a German invasion of England had caused Churchill to delay the sailing of some of the small reinforcements allotted to the Middle East; however, in October the British Cabinet, now less anxious about the prospect of invasion, decided that should yet another month pass without it, the Middle East would be reinforced to the utmost extent shipping permitted. If possible one British division would be sent before Christmas and at least four in the first three months of 1941. Wavell was told (on 11th October) to assume that he would receive “25,000 per month from the United Kingdom, and, by March 1941, a further division and a brigade group from Australia.” Therefore, in the middle of October Wavell decided that he would launch a brief, swift-moving offensive lasting only four or five days and, when the enemy force had been defeated, would withdraw the main part of the Western Desert Force on to his railhead at Mersa Matruh. He discussed this proposal with the Secretary for War, Mr Eden, who visited Egypt in that month. Mr Eden and later Mr Churchill (who learnt of the plan on Eden’s return) promised their support, Churchill declaring that “all acts and decisions of valour and violence against the enemy will whatever their upshot, receive the resolute support of His Majesty’s Government”.
Consequently, on 20th October, Wavell instructed Wilson to consider simultaneous attacks by the 4th Indian Division westwards against the Italian camps east of Sidi Barrani and by the 7th Armoured Division against the Sofafi camps. Both Wilson and O’Connor, however, considered the country round the Sofafi camps too rugged for frontal assault and wished to attack the centre of the enemy’s position – the Tummar and Nibeiwa camps held by the 2nd Libyan Division – and, advancing thence to Buqbuq, to cut the communications of the main enemy force. O’Connor proposed that the attack on the central camps be made by the 4th Indian Division and the newly-arrived 7th Royal Tank Regiment, with its heavy tanks, whose strength the Italians had not yet felt, while a force from the Mersa Matruh garrison advanced to Maktila to divert the enemy’s attention from the main attack. The 7th Armoured Division was to engage any enemy columns attempting to intervene from the north-west, west or southwest, and moving through the enemy’s line between Nibeiwa and Sofafi to exploit towards Buqbuq to destroy the enemy’s services in the rear; finally it would cover the withdrawal of the 4th Indian Division to Mersa Matruh. General Creagh of the 7th Armoured Division was ordered to
ensure that the enemy built no fortified camp in the gap before the attack opened. O’Connor’s plan was adopted. It remained to fix the date.
In the meantime, however, Mussolini was preparing to take a step that would profoundly affect the shape of the war as a whole, and, incidentally, the destiny of the force with which this narrative is chiefly concerned.
From the outbreak of war onwards Mussolini’s decisions followed those of Hitler in accordance with the pattern set in April 1939, when, envious of Germany’s success in occupying Czechoslovakia, he overran Albania. Thus, as we have seen, while the German armies were seizing France, Mussolini attacked France’s lightly-held south-eastern frontier, and urged his timid commander in North Africa to invade Egypt. The Egyptian venture made slow progress. From July onwards the German staffs gave consideration to reinforcing the Italian North African army with German armoured troops, and in October Mussolini declined a definite offer of a German armoured force. Later in that month, General von Thoma, in the course of a report on a tour of inspection in Libya said: “Everyone is scared of the British. The two opponents barely touch each other. ... What the Italians are afraid of is that the arrival of German troops might cause the British, who meanwhile have been considerably reinforced, to become more active.”38
Meanwhile, in July and August, still in search of an easy victory, Mussolini had made a series of complaints to Greece, alleging that she was behaving in an un-neutral fashion; and on 15th August an “unidentified” submarine, so the Greek Government announced, torpedoed and sank the Greek cruiser Helle which was lying in the harbour of Tenos bedecked with flags for the Feast of the Assumption. Thereupon Mussolini was sharply warned from Berlin that an invasion of Greece would be unwelcome to the German leaders; he was told that their combined efforts must be concentrated against Britain. Mussolini accepted this counsel until September, when Germany completed a diplomatic offensive against Hungary and Rumania which resulted in those States becoming virtually her vassals. Again jealous and resentful, Mussolini decided to balance these bloodless German victories by occupying Greece. At first he was resolved to tell Hitler nothing about his plans, but his vexation cooled and on 19th October he wrote to Hitler warning him of his intention, yet without naming the date, although he had already arranged that his Minister to Athens would hand General Metaxas, the Greek dictator, an ultimatum at 3 a.m. on the 28th of that month.
This decision was upsetting to Hitler and his subordinates, who were anxious for the time being to avoid military commitments in the Balkans, which they were in process of mastering by diplomatic means. On 17th
September Hitler had postponed his proposed invasion of England (which his naval leaders had always considered extremely hazardous in the face of British sea power). In that month the German High Command was considering instead a plan whereby, in cooperation with Italy and Spain, Axis forces would occupy all the shores of the Mediterranean. As a temporary expedient Russia, who was becoming increasingly antagonistic towards Germany’s advance into the Balkans, would be encouraged to advance not into the Balkans but southwards, and gain an outlet to the Indian Ocean. In September, however, Hitler and General Franco, the Spanish dictator, failed to agree on the sharing of the spoils which they hoped an affiance would produce. In October Hitler turned to France in search of cooperation. On the 24th he met Marshal Petain at Montoire in occupied France, and Petain agreed that:
The Axis Powers and France have an identical interest in seeing the defeat of England accomplished as soon as possible. Consequently, the French Government will support, within the limits of its ability, the measures which the Axis Powers may take to this end.39
Petain, however, meant less than he said. The habitually timid, pessimistic French leader did not intend to enter the war, and evidently made this clear to Hitler. After the meeting Petain, according to one report, said to a friend: “It will take six months to discuss this program and another six months to forget it.”40 Such was the situation when Mussolini wrote to Hitler mentioning the impending attack on Greece.
To the Greeks the Italian ultimatum would not be a bolt from the blue – Mussolini’s newspapers had kept hostility to Greece simmering and had constantly threatened intervention ever since the occupation of Albania, thus maintaining a “strained situation” of which advantage could be taken at Italy’s pleasure. So consistently was this war of nerves continued that on 5th September the British Foreign Secretary repeated Britain’s guarantee to Greece and denounced Italy’s “trumped-up charges” against her.
Most Australians in 1939 placed both Italians and Greeks in the same category of Mediterranean peoples. There were considerable colonies of both in the Commonwealth,41 but few Australians were aware of the extent to which the two peoples had for centuries been separated by religious, cultural and political differences. The Greeks belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church; the Italians to the Roman Catholic. No European people had greater national pride or a more intense patriotic zeal than the Greeks; on the other hand twenty years of strenuous exhortation had failed to arouse even an average degree of patriotic fervour in Italian breasts. The Greek, with all his community spirit, was uncommonly individualistic and prone to party politics in their most violent form; the
Italians had submitted easily to regimentation – “a race of sheep” their self-appointed leader called them. Mussolini’s undisguised ambition was to create a new Roman Empire which, like its prototype, would include Greece; the Greeks regarded Italian ambition as the principal threat to their continued independence.
One reproach which Mussolini could not hurl at Greece was that Greece was one of the “effete democracies”, because the Greece of General Metaxas was no more democratic than the Italy of Mussolini. Since August 1936 when Metaxas had persuaded the King to dissolve Parliament, he had ruled Greece as a dictator. He had imprisoned some thousands of his political opponents, censored the newspapers and the theatre, and established police rule. Here, one might imagine, was a minor dictator and a Germanophile whom the greater dictators could persuade, with bribes or threats (as they had persuaded others) to surrender his people to the Axis, but Metaxas was also a Greek and therefore a patriot, and it seems that the German-Italian alliance never considered it likely that they could suborn him.42
Throughout the eighteen months after the Italian seizure of Albania, Metaxas, well versed in the methods of his enemies, and a shrewd diplomat, pursued a consistent policy: to be meticulously neutral and to present an unruffled countenance to the noisy threats of Italy. In August, however, it seemed apparent that war was inevitable, and he approved the calling-up of some army reservists. On 15th October the Greek Minister in Rome warned Athens that Italy would strike in a matter of hours; on the 23rd he predicted that the blow would fall between the 25th and 28th.
At 3 o’clock on the morning of the 28th Metaxas was roused and told that the Italian Minister, Grazzi, wished to see him. Grazzi presented a Note complaining that Greece had tolerated the use of territorial waters by the British fleet, had connived at the refuelling of British air forces, had allowed a British Intelligence service to be established in the Greek archipelago, had reached understanding with Britain on military matters, had encouraged terrorism in the districts adjoining Albania and provoked frontier trouble. In consequence, Italy demanded the right to occupy strategical points in Greek territory; resistance would be “crushed by force of arms.” Grazzi informed Metaxas that the Italian forces would advance into Greek territory at 6 a.m. Metaxas replied that he regarded the Note as amounting to a declaration of war and that Greece would resist the Italian invasion.43
The Italian people received the news that they were at war with a new enemy with only artificial enthusiasm. No more could be expected from a community of whom Politis, the Greek Ambassador in Rome, had written, on the eve of Italy’s entry into her war against France and Britain: “Public opinion, cowed and timid, fatalistically awaits the Duce’s signal like a kind of death knell. The Duce ... perfectly aware of the public’s state of mind, is anxiously following the great battle in Flanders and awaiting his opportunity to score an easy victory.” The Greeks, on the other hand, entered the struggle with probably a firmer resolution and a more widespread and deeper enthusiasm than any other people had done. The liberals, who had feared that Metaxas and his police would surrender to Italy, were surprised and elated when he rejected the Italian ultimatum as flatly as they themselves would have done. People flocked into the churches; to the Greeks both at home and abroad this was a war in defence of not only their country but their faith.
The army of Greece consisted of thirteen divisions of infantry and one of cavalry; the air force nominally of ten squadrons each of twelve aircraft. Backed by a united people, this army, if it had been organised and equipped to the standard reached in the German Army, or even the Italian, would have been a formidable force, because the men were hardy, well-trained so far as their equipment allowed (for each Greek soldier spent two years of full-time service). However, even by the standards of 1918, the men were ill-armed, at least for open warfare. Each division possessed only from 12 to 36 field guns (compared with 72 in a British division) and there were no anti-tank guns. For transport the army relied on mules and bullock waggons and the strong legs and backs of its men; and only a nucleus of the motor vehicles required by an army could be commandeered in a country which possessed few more than 8,000 motor load-carrying vehicles of all kinds. The air squadrons were equipped with a variety of machines, nearly all out of date. There were some British Blenheims, Ansons and Fairey Battles, some Polish and some French fighters, some German Dorniers and Henschels; all were short of spare parts.44
The frontier which this army had to defend was in the remote north-western mountains, most of it far beyond the railheads. The forces would be supplied along two main routes; those in the west, between the towering Pindus range and the sea, depended on supplies shipped to the small port of Preveza and thence trucked along the single road through Yannina; those east of the range were supplied along the single-track railway to Florina and thence by a road winding up into the Albanian mountains. Only one road, travelling over the 5,000-foot Metsovon Pass from Kalabaka to Yarinina, connected these two lines of communication.
Although some reservists had been called up, the frontier was but lightly manned, because Metaxas had feared to provide the Italians with an
excuse by deploying an adequate force opposite the Italian army. At the outset General Pitsikas, the Greek commander in the field, had one division, the 8th, facing the equivalent of five Italian divisions in the Epirus sector; a regiment of Evzones – highlanders of the Greek corps d’élite – facing the “Julia” Mountain Division in the Pindus sector; and one division and a brigade facing three Italian divisions in the Koritza sector.45 The Italian plan was to attack strongly on the west, taking Yannina the principal Greek base there and Metsovon, and thus cutting the road linking the Greeks in Epirus with the railway system of eastern Greece. In five days their infantry and armoured troops, advancing astride the road and at no great pace, were close to Yannina; and the Alpini, who, in obedience to an admirable plan, had moved up the roadless valley of the Aoos (Voioussa), were approaching Metsovon. On the 5th however the Greeks counter-attacked with great fervour, routing the Alpini north of Metsovon and driving back the Italian columns that were moving on Yannina. In nine days they thrust the Italians back across the Albanian frontier and captured much useful equipment, and, on the 22nd November, the Greek force on the Florina front, after a long fight, entered Koritza and began driving the Italians along the valleys leading towards Elbasan and Berat. By the end of November the Greeks had taken Pogradets, twenty miles north of Koritza, and, on the coast, were twenty miles within the frontier, and occupied perhaps one-fifth of Albania. Four of nine Italian divisions that had been engaged had been severely mauled; the Greeks had captured 135 guns, 20 tanks and 250 trucks.
It was a notable victory, the first that the Allies had achieved on land since the war began. The Greeks were elated. Their lightly-equipped army of hardy and confident men, who were able to offset their lack of transport by living on the most meagre rations, and to overcome their lack
of heavy weapons by skilful infiltration tactics, had defeated substantial Italian armies and added considerably to their own equipment at Italian expense.
The defeat profoundly shocked the Italian oligarchy. Mussolini, in spite of his lack of confidence in his army, had expected that the Greek defence would collapse, but, before the first week had passed, the Italian commanders in Greece could see that failure was imminent and that it was the Italian army not the Greek which was in danger. Excited efforts were made by the Italian commander on the spot to find excuses: Badoglio, the Chief of the General Staff, had let them down; the Greeks had superior artillery; the rain had upset the Italian plan. This like each succeeding crisis revealed the weakness of rule by the irresponsible Italian clique in which the fate of each senior commander and official rested in the hands of the dictator, and demonstrated the lack of realism in Italian planning. The war had been undertaken out of vanity; defeats were bewailed not so much because they revealed weaknesses in the forces with which the State hoped to carry out its wishes as because the enemy would be able to splash them across the pages of his newspapers; accurate information was unobtainable in Rome because the object of each commander’s reports was not to tell the truth but to advance himself and belittle his rivals in the eyes of the Duce.46 Each national crisis was an opportunity for personal intrigue. Thus it was brought to Mussolini’s ears that Badoglio had criticised the decision to challenge Greece (he had in fact been opposed to every step Mussolini had made), whereupon Mussolini announced that Badoglio had resigned because of ill-health and age and that General Ugo Cavallero would replace him.
The appointment of Cavallero shocked the Italian officer corps. He had spent most of the period between the wars in senior executive posts in large manufacturing companies, had been involved in charges of corruption, and was believed to have been saved from imprisonment only by the intervention of influential friends.
Early in December Soddu lost heart and advised Mussolini to seek a settlement with the Greeks, and Mussolini, angry and dejected, decided to ask the German leader to negotiate a truce, but later changed his mind. In December, after the Greek advance had been slowed down, he removed Soddu from the command in Albania and sent Cavallero there to conduct operations. Through subordinates he appealed to Berlin for help. However, Mussolini’s action in attacking Greece, and his army’s failure there had caused an increase in the growing coolness between the two allies. On 1st November Halder had noted: “Führer very much annoyed at Italian manoeuvres in Greece. At present he is not in a mood to send anything to Libya or Albania. Let the Italians do it by themselves”; and, on 3rd November: “The Führer stated that he had written off the whole Libyan affair.” Later it was decided that the employment of German
forces would be considered, if at all, only when the Italians had reached Mersa Matruh, and such an advance would not be possible before the end of December.
Mussolini’s attack on Greece had complicated Hitler’s plan for mastering the Mediterranean to the extent that it would enable Britain to obtain a naval base in Crete and airfields in Greece. Nevertheless he continued during October and November to seek an agreement with Spain whereby Germany and Spain would make a combined attack on Gibraltar; and, on 12th November, he directed that preparations be made to occupy the northern part of Greece. Later in the month his staffs persuaded him that all Greece must be occupied.
What of the help which Mr Chamberlain had promised to Greece if she was attacked? The Chiefs of Staff in London had long been considering the possibility that they would be required to give support to Greece. In the early days of the European war they had stated as a settled policy that it was “unwise to repeat the mistakes of the last war and back up weak countries which were liable to be overrun before we could do anything to help them”, and, somewhat later, on 31st May 1940, they had informed General Wavell that, because of their commitments elsewhere and their limited resources, there could be no question of Britain taking Greece under her protection. When Wavell had visited London in August, he attended a meeting of the Chiefs of Staff at which the question of Crete was discussed; Wavell explained that he had not even a brigade with adequate anti-aircraft artillery and air support available to occupy that island. During that month, when the Italian attitude towards Greece was becoming more menacing, the problem was again considered by the Chiefs of Staff and by their Joint Planning Staff, and the conclusion reached that, although failure to support Greece, if it resulted in acquiescence by the Greeks to Italian demands, would have grave consequences on British relations with Turkey and Yugoslavia, no forces could be spared to Turkey, Greece or even Crete until Egypt was secure; and, when direct inquiries were made by the Greek Government, it was informed that no British air forces could be sent. By October, however, Metaxas had become more confident; the danger of an effective Italian invasion of Egypt seemed to have passed; and Wavell had been promised substantial reinforcements from England. Consequently, the British attaches in Athens were empowered to discuss the defence of Crete, though forbidden to disclose the strength of the force Britain might employ there, and told that no support could be given to Greece on the mainland.
Such was the situation when the Italians invaded Greece. Eight days later, on 5th November, Mr Churchill announced in the Commons that “a new call had suddenly been made”. He pointed out that Britain faced “one gigantic army” across the Channel, “another very powerful army” on the Libyan frontier. “We will do our best,” he said. At the same time he was able to say: “We have most carefully abstained from any action likely to draw upon the Greeks the enmity of the criminal dictators. For
their part, the Greeks have maintained so strict a neutrality that we were unacquainted with their dispositions or their intentions.”
Before Churchill spoke, the advanced party of a small British air force had already reached Greece. This force had been sent in response to a request by Metaxas on the day of the invasion for naval help in the defence of Corfu, air defence for Athens, and supplies. It was decided not to dispatch a naval force to Corfu where it would be exposed to Italian bombers, but before the end of October the Chiefs of Staff in London decided to send a military observer (Major-General Gambier-Parry47) to Greece; and in Egypt, on his own initiative, Air Marshal Longmore sent No. 30 Squadron, half Blenheim fighters and half bombers, to Athens; Mr Churchill congratulated him on this “bold and wise decision”.
Meanwhile British troops had landed also in Crete. From April 1940 onwards proposals for the occupation of Crete had been considered by British (and, until June, also by French) leaders. On 21st May the Greek Government gave Britain permission to land troops at any Greek port if war broke out between Greece and Italy. In October, the British attaches, discussing the problem of Crete with the Greek staff, said that they could promise nothing then, but later a brigade might be available; the Greeks revealed that they had a full infantry division on the island, but lacked anti-aircraft and coast artillery; and made it plain that they would resist any British attempt to land in Crete before Italy entered the war. When, later in October, Italy attacked, the Greek Government promptly said that it would welcome British troops in Crete, and one battalion – the 2/York and Lancaster – landed at Suda on 1st November; the headquarters of the 14th Brigade and an anti-aircraft regiment landed on the 6th, and a second battalion, the 2/Black Watch, on the 19th.
The Greek Government next proposed that Britain should take over full responsibility for Crete and enable them to send their 5th (Cretan) Division to Albania. Wavell was unwilling to accept this commitment and at length a compromise was reached: six Greek battalions would be withdrawn. With the agreement of the Australian Government, it was planned to replace these by sending the 17th Australian Brigade to Crete and to appoint an Australian commander of the combined force. Blamey decided that General Mackay should assume the new post and General Lavarack should temporarily command the remainder of the 6th Division until the arrival from England of General Wynter, who would take command of a re-formed 6th Division. Blamey hoped that, by the time the 9th Division was complete, Mackay and the 17th Brigade would have been withdrawn from Crete and the 6th Division reconstituted under Mackay’s command, Wynter returning to the 9th.
In the meantime, however, Wavell, who had other plans for the 6th Australian Division, had flown to Crete to examine the situation and had decided that a small garrison was sufficient for Crete at present and larger forces would cause inconvenience and unnecessary commitment from both
military and naval points of view. The British commander on the island was ordered to base his plans for defending Crete on two or at the most three battalions and some additional anti-aircraft guns. It soon became evident that the Greek general staff proposed to take virtually all their troops and equipment from the island. Nevertheless, on the 23rd November, Wavell informed Blamey definitely that the 17th Brigade would not be needed for Crete. While these problems were being considered two events had notably decreased the immediate military anxieties caused by Italy’s attack on Greece. One was the failure of the Italian advance itself, the other a successful attack on 11th November by aircraft from the carrier Illustrious on the Italian fleet at Taranto, which resulted in severe damage to three Italian battleships and two cruisers; by a single blow half the Italian battle squadron had been put out of action.
From the moment that the first British battalion landed in Crete and the eight aircraft touched down on a Greek airfield the British Commonwealth was maintaining fighting men on Greek soil. Thenceforward the question of support for Greece became more complicated: could the British Commonwealth send more men, or, if not, could it withdraw a contingent already deployed beside its only surviving ally?
On 4th November – the day before Churchill’s speech – the Chiefs of Staff informed Wavell and his fellow commanders-in-chief that the British Government had decided to give Greece the greatest possible material and moral support at the earliest moment, and that, as it was impossible in their opinion for anything from the United Kingdom to arrive in time, the only course was to draw upon resources in Egypt and replace them from England. As a next step aerodromes were to be prepared for three Blenheim and two fighter squadrons, which should be accompanied by two batteries of anti-aircraft guns. On the 6th Air Commodore D’Albiac48 who was appointed to command this contingent flew to Greece.
The force which embarked at Alexandria on 15th November in obedience to this decision consisted of 284 officers, 50 nursing sisters and 3,913 other ranks, with 579 vehicles and 130 motor-cycles. A little more than half of it belonged to the air force component, which included Nos. 80(F), 84(B) and 211(B) Squadrons and the balance of No. 30 Squadron; the remainder to the army. The military units included the two anti-aircraft batteries, the headquarters of a sub-base area, a number of engineer, signals and other detachments, and the 26th General Hospital. The staff of a small military mission was in the convoy.49 Already there had been established in Athens a Greek Liaison Mission under Prince Peter, the King’s brother.
The leaders of the force, the staff of this mission, and of an Inter-Services Mission under Rear-Admiral Turle50 which had been set up on
14th November, had a delicate task. They were part of a machine to establish cooperation with the Greeks. For example, the administrative officer of the main force had been instructed to choose a base area which would permit expansion to accommodate two divisions, and the possibility of expansion was soon being discussed with the Greeks; yet, early in November orders arrived from both London and Cairo that such discussions were forbidden. General Heywood’s51 instructions from the War Office on 11th November were explicit:
You will not commit His Majesty’s Government even by implication to the provision of any such requirements as may be referred to you by the Greek Government. Nor will you encourage any expectation of specific support without prior sanction in order that false hopes may not be raised.
On the 15th, however, Turk was given a more definite statement of policy from London – “to sustain Greek resistance by all means in our power but without committing in Greece forces which are vital to our security elsewhere.”
Thus, at a time when General Wavell and Air Marshal Longmore had begun at last to receive reinforcements and were planning offensive action on two fronts in Africa, a new commitment was added, which, though its immediate demands were small, might at short notice require strong forces. Already, only a few days after the Italian invasion of Greece, Wavell’s forces had moved forward against the large but isolated Italian army in Abyssinia. There were in November three weak British divisions – the 1st South African, and the 11th and 12th African – in East Africa, where a new commander, General Cunningham,52 brother of the admiral, had taken charge. In the Sudan, the 5th Indian Division (Major-General Heath53) had arrived, and General Wavell had ordered General Platt to undertake “minor offensive operations”. Thereupon, on the 6th November, an Indian battalion with a squadron of tanks recaptured the frontier post of Gallabat. This action was intended to continue until another post had been taken, but nearly all the tanks broke down on the rough ground or were damaged by enemy mines, and the Italians gained control of the air and subjected the forward troops to such heavy bombing that they were withdrawn from Gallabat.
Meanwhile substantial reinforcements were due to arrive in the Middle East during the early winter, and, though they would be too late to take part in the early stages of the planned offensives in East and North Africa, they yet lent weight to Wavell’s planning. The principal additions in December and January were to be the 2nd Armoured Division from England, the remainder of two Australian divisions, and certain Australian
corps units; these would augment General Blamey’s corps to three divisions.
In September Blamey had been informed of the decision of the War Cabinet that the fourth AIF division, to be called the 9th, should be formed by using the troops in England as a nucleus, completing it with certain corps units then in Australia, and forming other units from reinforcements training there. It was hoped to send these additional troops in December. Blamey promptly pointed out that the units in England were highly efficient, and urged that the new units should be the best available in Australia and not formed from new recruits, and that he would now need more corps units. In effect he asked that units to complete the new division be drawn from the 8th, then training in Australia and that his corps units be left intact. This request was agreed to in that the 24th (outer States) Brigade of the 8th Division was transferred to Egypt; and it was arranged that the 18th Brigade, the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion, 2/3rd Field Regiment and 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment and certain engineer and army service units should sail for Egypt from England in the November convoy.
The 19th Brigade had now been incorporated in the 6th Division in place of the 18th. There were then eleven infantry brigades in the AIF: in the Middle East the 16th, 17th and 19th; in England the 18th and 25th (which, as explained later, had been formed in England in June); in Australia the 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 26th, all formed between May and July. A twelfth brigade was needed to complete the infantry of four divisions, and, in October, the 27th was formed in Australia.
Meanwhile the October convoy from Australia was to bring about two-thirds of the 7th Division (10,918 men) including the 20th and 21st Brigades; the November convoy most of the units needed to complete the 6th and 7th.54 The December convoy was to carry the remainder of the 7th in addition to some of the units needed to complete the 9th. Thus Blamey could hope that his corps, which for so long had included only one incomplete infantry division, would, in January or early February, possess three, complete in units and men if not in equipment.55
In addition No. 3 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force had arrived in the Middle East in August 1940 specifically to provide air cooperation with the Australian corps. General Blamey was now pressing for a second such squadron. Two officers of the 6th Division, Captain
In October, the 6th Division (still without the 19th Brigade) had been concentrated in the Amiriya area, west of Alexandria, where it took the Polish brigade under command, and was made responsible for the defence of a position on the edge of the Western Desert, covering Lake Maryut and the Rosetta Nile – a last line of defence against a possible further Italian advance towards Alexandria. There, on the early morning of 16th October, the men watched their first raid on Alexandria, the searchlights groping the sky, anti-aircraft shells climbing and winking and Italian bombs flashing at ground level. There too they were introduced to the dust storms that sweep the Libyan desert – “dust such as we have never known before; you breathe, eat and sleep in dust”, wrote one diarist.
How had these men felt about the events of the previous five months? The news that the German Army had invaded Holland and Belgium had been received with zest as bringing action nearer; and Italy’s declaration
of war, according to more than one diarist, was welcomed on the grounds that Italy would be less useful to Germany as a belligerent than as a neutral, and that it would bring the Australians into the fight the sooner. After the fall of France one man wrote that “the troops have not the slightest doubt that our road is the road of victory, though the feeling is that the loss of France will immeasurably lengthen the struggle.” News from Australia that the fall of France and the entry of Italy had caused a rush to the recruiting offices was a subject of caustic comment by men who felt that many Australians had considered them too precipitate when they volunteered seven months before, whereas they themselves were convinced that they had been more aware of realities and more spontaneous in their response. Those who enlisted in 1939 labelled those who enlisted in 1940 “deep thinkers”.
A strong attraction of the transfer to Egypt had been that Cairo was but sixteen miles away from the well-equipped – but dusty – camp at Helwan, and, at the beginning, one-third of the men were given leave there until 1 a.m. each night. To a visitor Cairo combines many of the attractions of Paris with the colour and confusion of an Asiatic city. The investigation of the city’s night life was “lots of fun – but at what a cost!” The move to Ikingi Maryut, Amiriya and Burg el Arab had the double advantage of bringing the division at least to the edge of the battlefield and yet leaving it within a short journey of the pleasures of Alexandria.
In Egypt as in Palestine the conduct of the men when on leave was reasonably orderly. An examination of the records of the military police in July and August, when some 20,000 troops were assembled in southern Palestine and leave to Tel Aviv and other towns was fairly frequent, shows that, on an average, four men absent without leave were arrested each day and that a “disturbance” or “an assault” (generally on café employees or civil policemen) occurred on about one day in four. When the transfer took place to Helwan the Australian military police at first worked in mixed parties with the British police, but, “much to the annoyance of the British deputy assistant provost marshal”, Captain Hawker,58 in charge of the provosts of the 6th Division, instructed his men to patrol independently, because the Australians were inclined to resent any but their own police speaking to them. Australians were now on leave in the same city as British and New Zealand troops, and Hawker reached the conclusion (as other observers did later) that there was a tendency to blame Australians for disturbances caused by New Zealanders. The men found the Egyptians less easy to get on with than the Palestinians, and the Egyptian police more aggressive; on the relatively rare days when several thousand men were on leave in Cairo or Alexandria, arrests generally numbered six to twelve a day, but “generally there were no arrests and no disturbances even when 500 were on leave.”
Before the move to Egypt and in spite of a shortage of weapons so acute that for months the infantry units, in despair, had used wooden
representations of the arms they lacked (“natures of weapons may be distinguished by different coloured paints or other means” a divisional instruction had said in July) the men had reached a high standard of training. In July Brigadier Allen considered that his brigade (which in June had done well in a four-day exercise with the 6th British Division – a regular formation) was “quite an efficient fighting force”; in August Brigadier Savige considered that the 17th “could give a good account of itself in action.” At Helwan additional equipment was received and more realistic exercises made possible. There the 2/2nd Field Regiment – the 2/1st was still manning anti-aircraft guns in Palestine – shot the only live ammunition that was spared to it between leaving Australia and going into action, and the brigades exercised in the new “box” formation: fighting vehicles and anti-tank guns leading, guns on flanks and rear, and the infantry and “soft-skinned” vehicles inside the box.
The arrival of the 19th Brigade on 14th November made a full divisional exercise possible, and from the 21st to the 23rd the two older brigades made a mock attack on Burg el Arab, and the 19th, fresh from a series of severe exercises in Palestine, defended it. It was a good test of staff work and leadership; the men were keyed for actual battle and when opposing units clashed tempers ran hot and umpires were ignored. When it was over the diarist of the 16th Brigade recorded that “patrolling had not been aggressive enough”, of the 17th that the brigade “could now undertake operations of any nature”; the 19th’s diarist offered no general comment.
Nearly a year had passed since the division had been formed, and it had reached so high a state of training and confidence as to cause some of its experienced leaders (whose standard of comparison was the then-unsurpassed Australian Corps in France in 1918) to declare that it was the best division they had known.59 The men in the ranks shared these good opinions. At this time an infantry sergeant – a country man with a cautious turn of phrase – wrote in a letter: “This brigade (16th) is now composed of soldiers. We didn’t realise it until we saw the reinforcements behaving badly on leave and looking anyhow. If all our months of training and waiting have done that much it is something. In my ignorance I think that as a brigade it will take a lot of beating. The New Zealanders look a likely crew and I would not underrate the Poles. The Tommies have not the physique of these men. All things considered I would be most surprised if we can’t put up a good show – given of course the opportunity, the support and the equipment.”
Nearly all the officers and sergeants had now attended one or more schools in the Middle East; units and brigades had exercised side by side with British regulars and considered that they now had little more to learn from them. There had been some weeding out of less competent officers and, in each unit, some officers had been promoted from the fine material in the ranks. Leaders and men considered themselves ready for action. What was their picture of the battles that lay ahead?
The previous war had ended with a short period of open warfare after three years during which huge armies had faced each other in continuous trench lines and under conditions resembling those of a siege. Since then soldiers had been developing weapons and tactics which would restore to land warfare its former mobility, and overcome the kind of deadlock that occurred on the old Western Front. In the opinion of the more imaginative among the younger soldiers in all countries this was partly to be achieved by using tanks on a large scale. In 1918 Britain had been forming three armoured divisions (“groups” they were called at the time) each of twelve battalions of tanks to take part in the expected final offensive of 1919 – a large tank army even by the standards of 1940. However, for more than ten years after the end of the war, over-conservative army leaders and the desire of governments to limit expenditure had combined to hamper experiment and reform, and it was not until 1927 that even a mechanised brigade was established in the post-war British Army, and not until 1938 that it was decided to form an armoured division, though in the interval a number of enthusiastic British officers and designers had been working hard on problems of tank design and tactics. By 1938 both the Russian Army and the German Army, whose leaders had seen little virtue in the tank in 1918, had built up substantial tank forces and developed new doctrines of armoured warfare.
In 1936 the British War Office had decided to concentrate on two types of tanks – one the relatively fast “cruiser”, whose armour would resist the bullets of anti-tank rifles and heavy machine-guns, and the second the infantry tank, with armour able to resist either the 37-mm or 2-pounder anti-tank guns, then the most powerful in existence (though the British Army had already designed a 6-pounder gun and the German a 50-mm firing a 41-pound shell).
Side by side with the development of theories of armoured warfare had been evolved tactical doctrines for all arms that created a picture of operations differing radically from those of 1918. It was expected that before two opposing armies clashed there would be a struggle between the air forces for control of the air; such forces as could be spared from this preliminary air battle might be employed bombing the communications of the opposing army or in low-flying attacks on its columns (a form of attack which British military thinkers then considered would be very costly to the attacker if the troops on the ground were disciplined and well-armed). The armies’ advance would be led by a screen of armoured car regiments supported perhaps by light tanks and motorised infantry, whose
role would be chiefly to find the enemy, not to strike him. The main bodies would consist of infantry – “the most adaptable and the most generally useful of all arms,” said Field Service Regulations, Volume 2, 1935, “since it is capable of operating over almost any ground either by day or by night and can find or make cover for itself more readily than any other arms.” With the object of increasing the speed at which infantry could move and reducing the deadly fatigue which the infantryman in battle habitually suffers, the British infantry battalion had been provided with enough motor vehicles to carry its heavy weapons, reserve ammunition and other supplies, and some of its men. To fully motorise all the infantry (as was done for infantry units incorporated in armoured divisions and was planned for a limited number of “motorised” divisions) would clutter the roads with unmanageable columns of vehicles; and in any event infantry would be required to fight in country in which vehicles could not move.60
The infantryman’s basic weapon was the rifle, but each section had also a machine-gun light enough to be carried and operated, if need be, by one man. Each platoon possessed also an anti-tank rifle – the heaviest anti-tank weapon one man could operate – and a small mortar firing a 2-pound bomb. In its headquarters company the infantry battalion possessed some supporting weapons – two 3-inch mortars firing a 10-pound bomb, and ten bullet-proof, tracked carriers, whose principal roles were to reconnoitre and to move the crews and their light machine-guns or antitank rifles across bullet-swept areas to a position where they could usefully be fired from the ground; though the weapons could also be fired from the carrier, which thus was, in effect, a very light tank.
It was considered that infantry would be able successfully to attack a well-equipped and well-prepared enemy only by taking advantage of the ground or under cover of darkness or smoke. Against strong defences they would need the support of artillery to bombard the enemy’s positions, perhaps to provide a moving barrage just ahead of their advance, and to counter the enemy’s guns; and of infantry tanks, heavily armoured enough to resist the enemy’s anti-tank guns – and therefore slow in movement. These tanks, advancing with the infantry, were to break through the enemy’s wire, overcome machine-gun posts and generally increase the impetus of the advance.
In the attack, which would probably be undertaken in the half light, at dawn or dusk, the infantry would advance widely dispersed, with perhaps five yards between men, 100 yards between sections (of eight or ten men) and 200 between platoons. The defending infantry would normally occupy not the continuous trench lines of 1918, but groups of two-man weapon pits, perhaps connected by shallow crawl trenches, and sited so that each platoon or company occupied not a “line” but a “locality” and could defend itself against attack from any likely direction. Such posts would be sited in depth so that, if the attacker overcame the
forward posts, there would be more behind. The weapon pits gave protection not only against artillery and machine-gun fire from the ground or air, but against tanks. It was emphasised that dispersion both in attack and defence would require a high standard of intelligence and initiative in junior leaders.
The principal weapon of the artillery was to be the 25-pounder which could be used either as gun or, by varying the charge, as a howitzer. It was organised in regiments of two twelve-gun batteries. Medium artillery regiments for targets demanding a heavier shell and for countering hostile artillery, were to be equipped with 6-inch and 8-inch howitzers (the latter firing a 200-pound shell) and 5 and 6-inch guns.
The principle was laid down that, if the attack was held, “men held up should not be reinforced with additional men; either the attack should be pressed at other points where progress is still possible, or additional fire power should be provided.”61 If the infantry-artillery-heavy tank attack broke the enemy’s main line of resistance the mobile armoured divisions – cruiser and light tanks and motorised infantry and artillery – would attempt to exploit the success and carry out the pursuit. Despite Britain’s poverty of armoured forces the theory was that the climax of the battle between well-equipped armies would be a fierce encounter between the opposing armoured divisions; once the enemy’s armour had been defeated the battle would be won, and the final phase – pursuit by tanks and aircraft – would open.
In the campaign in France in 1940 the effectiveness of the new British weapons had been proved; though there were not enough of them. The 2-pounder anti-tank gun had pierced the armour of the heaviest German tanks, provided the crew held its fire until the target was about 300 yards away; the infantry tanks had been proof against the German 37-mm gun and, individually, the best heavy tanks in the field.62 However, the Germans were beginning to produce a heavier gun, and a gun-versus-armour race was foreseen in which the Germans, already well-equipped with relatively light tanks and guns, were likely to hold the lead, perhaps for some years.
It was not unnatural that after the defeat in France there should have been bitter criticism of British equipment and tactical doctrines. But, in fact, the German tactics had not greatly differed from those on which the British Army was being trained; and on both sides the campaigns of 1940 and 1941 were fought substantially with weapons and tactics adopted some years before the war. Weapon for weapon the British equipment was superior to the German (it was partly British caution in not putting new weapons into production until they had been exhaustively tested, and partly economy that caused her shortages in 1940). The success of the German
policy of concentrating armoured forces to exploit the break-through, and the failure of the French policy of dispersing their armour, confirmed British leaders in the doctrine that the main armoured forces should be kept together, should consist of relatively fast vehicles and should be used to exploit success and pursue a defeated enemy, while separate formations of heavy, relatively slow tanks were used to cooperate with infantry. The organisation of the British armoured division was, however, altered somewhat on German lines, the principal change being that an infantry battalion was added to each armoured brigade and the anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery strengthened. And although Britain had to build anew her tank forces, the experiences in France persuaded her leaders to aim at far more armoured divisions than had been planned in 1939. Then the theory was accepted that Britain could maintain only three or four such divisions in the field, but by December 1940, in addition to the 7th Armoured Division in the Middle East, and the 2nd which was preparing to go there from England, there were in England, in various stages of preparation, four more armoured divisions – 1st, 6th, 8th and 9th; and another (the 11th) was to be formed early in 1941 – seven in all, not including three brigades of heavy tanks.
Three devices employed by the Germans impressed British leaders, namely the landing of paratroops behind the defenders’ lines, the use of a Fifth Column (a term and practice used in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39); and the scale on which the Germans used low-flying aircraft in close support of infantry.63 This led to intensification of training against air attack.
In the Australian force the special experience of its leaders as young infantry officers in the Australian Corps of 1918, or in the light horse in Palestine, had caused them to emphasise certain points in the British doctrines. The AIF of 1918 had been rich in enterprising young officers promoted from the ranks; and throughout the training of the 6th Division emphasis had been placed on the need for encouraging initiative in NCOs and platoon leaders – a relatively easy task in an army in whose ranks were many potential officers. And, in 1918, the Australians had developed aggressive patrolling to a degree that had bewildered their enemy and astonished senior British commanders. It was a result of this earlier experience that the men of the new AIF were given exacting training in patrolling, particularly at night, and were to go into battle convinced that, in all circumstances, they and not the enemy were to be masters of no-man’s land.