Chapter 29: The End of a Period
THE departure of an Australian Corps from the Middle East marked the end of a phase; henceforward Australia’s principal effort was to be directed against an enemy nearer home. The events of the two years now ended should provide an answer to the questions whether the military policies of her political leaders had been wise, and how the army of volunteers that they had created had responded to the test.
Both policy and army had been created in controversy between two main groups. In the wisdom that comes after the event it cannot be said that the measures which either group was prepared to take were adequate for Australia’s safety. On the one hand were those who were convinced that the British Commonwealth could not survive unless it stood united, yet were satisfied with a token contribution to a common plan of defence to which, in peace, the United Kingdom provided nine-tenths of the men and materials (a proportion she could not maintain in a total war) and of which she took full direction. On the other were those who were averse from engaging in the defence of British “imperialism” (meaning that complex of political and commercial policies on which Britain’s oversea trade largely depended) and wished to leave the defence of Australia to her own indignant citizens fighting an invader on and round Australian shores. The solution found by Australia’s leaders in 1939 and 1940 was a compromise between the views of these two main groups.
It is now evident that it was within the ability of either the Indian or the Australian Army, promptly mobilised and supported by the modest air and armoured forces that Britain was maintaining in the Middle East, to expel the Italians from Africa within a few months of their entry into the war. Both Australia and India had armies readier for battle and, in most respects, as well armed as Italy’s in Africa. The Indian Army, however, seems to have been regarded at first only as a pool from which the British regulars might be relieved, rather than as an individual army which, with the support of British armour and artillery, might fight its way to Tripoli. An equally powerful weapon lay in the hands of the Australian leaders – the divisions of high-spirited volunteers in the militia. To have appealed to them to go out against the European enemies would, if they responded, have been more likely to deter the probable Japanese aggressor close at hand than local half-measures would do. In Australia in 1939 such an appeal for an all-out effort was not considered; one political party wished to limit Australia to a token contribution, the other was opposed to sending away any troops at all. On the other hand contemporary evidence provided by men then in the militia, and later inquiry among them, suggests that they would have leaped at the opportunity. Most of them had volunteered after the Munich crisis in response to the very threat that had now become a reality.
The Australian leaders were influenced also by a widely-shared conviction that the war would be decided chiefly by aircraft, and that large armies would not be employed. In addition, to have sent a large force overseas would have entailed denuding Australia of military equipment that might be needed to meet attack by Japan. This combination of factors was decisive in preventing the Australian Ministers from promptly sending to Europe and the Middle East contingents comparable in size with those which their country had proudly maintained there in 1918.
The Australian Government’s compromise was to leave the militia army at home unmobilised, and raise a small separate force of volunteers for the German war. The military leaders pressed so persistently for an increase of that force, and after the fall of France the citizens volunteered in such numbers, that it grew until it was able to play a leading role overseas. (Fortunately the circumstances of the war gave time for its training and its full equipment.) Without the Australian contingent, British operations in the Middle East would have been forced into a very different shape. It was the divisions from India and the Dominions south and east of Suez that enabled the British Commonwealth to hold the vital ground in the Middle East in 1941, and of those contingents the Australian (armed chiefly from British factories) was, until late in 1941, the largest.
To what extent had this experience solved the problem of obtaining effective cooperation between contingents from the independent nations that formed the British Commonwealth? In the Middle East in 1941 were British, Indian, Australian, South African and New Zealand forces. Between the British and the Indian Armies there was no difficulty. India did not possess political independence and the British and Indian Armies were virtually one. For their part, the Dominion politicians, probably without reflection, accepted the time-honoured system of delegating command to British generals, yet reserved to their own commanders administrative control and the right of appeal. This was a solution favoured not only by United Kingdom but by some Dominion soldiers, and its adoption in war was made easier both by the employment of common systems Of training and equipment in peace (a considered policy) and by the mere habit of the Dominion governments and their officers of looking to Britain in peace to define policies and plans.1
This peculiar system worked fairly well – remarkably so considering the dissimilarities in temperament between the British political and military leaders on the one hand and those of the Dominions on the other – but
it had notable deficiencies. As we have seen, the Australian Government was not always promptly informed about forthcoming operations in which its troops would play a main part.2 The senior British commanders in the field in 1940 and 1941 sometimes failed to take the leaders of their Dominion contingents fully into their confidence, or to fully comprehend their special status and responsibilities. At this level this faulty liaison could have been anticipated and avoided by thorough instruction in the problem of Dominion contingents at the staff colleges between the wars. In view of the probability that, in war, the Dominion contingents would total perhaps one-third of the forces of the British Commonwealth, the subject was important enough to have justified measures aimed at preparing future commanders-in-chief to meet this aspect of their task with better understanding. The problem recurred persistently in the period covered by this volume; yet, when reporting to the Australian Advisory War Council in November 1941, Blamey could justly say that the British commanders still “had difficulty in recognising the independent status of the Dominions and their responsibility for the control of their own forces”.
At the same time, even as late as June 1941, the Ministers and the Staff in Australia considered that General Blamey himself was providing them with inadequate information about their army overseas, and, by implication, Blamey agreed that this was so. On 22nd June Colonel Hopkins,3 who had been sent to the Middle East to observe developments in armoured warfare, spoke to General Blamey on behalf of the Chief of the General Staff at home and pointed out that the information available in Australia about organisation and tactics in the Middle East was not up to date. Ministers sought additional information and wanted the cables it was receiving from overseas interpreted, he said, but Army Headquarters lacked enough knowledge to supply these needs. Information about tactical methods and new equipment, needed to ensure that training in Australia was on sound lines, was not being received. As a result of this conversation Blamey, within a few days, began sending a periodical liaison letter to the Secretary of the Department of the Army. It was in the first of these that he explained the dispersion of the force he commanded: that on the 5th July the 9th Division and a brigade of the 7th were in Tobruk, two field regiments and a machine-gun battalion in the Western Desert, the 6th Division less some of its units in southern Palestine, I Corps, the remainder of the 7th Division (including the 17th Brigade), the 6th and 9th Cavalry Regiments in Syria, the 7th Cavalry in Cyprus.
Another deficiency inherent in delegation of command to the senior member of the British Commonwealth was that the drawing of senior commanders and staffs from the United Kingdom contingents led to a waste of talent and tended to build up staffs with a somewhat parochial outlook, especially as the United Kingdom drew its higher commanders and staffs almost entirely from its not-large professional officer corps. Special and valuable contributions which Dominion officers could make to the higher management of operations in terrain and climates different from those of Western Europe but commonplace to Dominion officers were largely lost. For example, to most Europeans the weather, dust and drought of North Africa were strange and forbidding, but to many South Africans and Australians these conditions were familiar, and their everyday experience had provided answers to many problems of transport, engineering, and mere living in such conditions.
The example, in 1916, of handing the command of operations in East Africa to South African leaders – first Smuts then Van Deventer – provided a precedent that might have been followed in the Middle East in 1940 and 1941. The fact that, until the spring of 1941, no suggestion was made that one or other of the immediately subordinate commands in the Middle East should be held by an officer who was not of the British or Indian regular service is significant of the degree to which the principle of delegation to the senior partner had been accepted by the Dominions and assumed at the British War Office. There was no written statement of the principle, nor does it appear to have been discussed on the political level until early in 1941. Indeed, so little attention had been given in Australia in peacetime to the problem of command of an oversea force that when it became necessary to draw up a statement of the powers of a general officer commanding an Australian expeditionary force, the army staff asked the Director of the Australian War Memorial to search the archives for a copy of General Bridges’ charter of 1914.4
Thus, in 1940, Generals Blamey and Freyberg were, with the possible exception of Wavell, the most accomplished and experienced senior soldiers in the Middle East; General Lavarack, though junior to these in 1918, had for some years held the highest appointment in the Australian Army; yet only in emergencies were these employed in senior command. Blamey had the conduct of the withdrawal in Greece handed to him when it was about to begin, Freyberg the defence of Crete. First in the Western Desert and, later, in Syria another commander of a Dominion formation, Lavarack, took over at a critical stage.
The eventual appointment of Blamey as Deputy Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East created a special problem – foreseen by Wynter in the article quoted above. Experience had shown that there might be conflict of opinion between the Commander-in-Chief and the Commander of a
Dominion contingent.5 As Deputy Commander-in-Chief Blamey had a dual responsibility – to the United Kingdom and to the Australian Governments. It was desirable that suitable Dominion officers should be employed in higher posts, but when so employed, should they not have been relieved of their responsibilities as commanders of Dominion contingents? Would it not have been wiser of the Australian Government, when agreeing to the appointment of Blamey as Wavell’s deputy, to have given command of the AIF to another Australian? (Later in another area and with another Australian Service the same problem will arise again.)
The errors in the higher conduct of the operations in the Middle East in 1941 were those of political leaders and their advisers in London 3,000 miles away rather than of the senior commanders on the spot. At the outset Wavell’s management of his resources had been both bold and economical. It was essential to deny the Middle East to the enemy and to prevent him from gaining access to the Indian Ocean. On the ground, by bold yet carefully-judged use of limited forces, Wavell succeeded in destroying a large Italian army in North Africa and another in Abyssinia. For the defeats that followed, in the Western Desert, Greece and Crete, the responsibility rests chiefly with the resolve of Churchill’s Cabinet to send an expedition to the Balkans – a decision in which Wavell concurred, although evidently with reluctance. It was not unnatural that, after the disastrous expeditions to Greece and Crete, Wavell should have been hesitant about undertaking operations against Iraq and Syria. Eventually a campaign against Iraq became unavoidable, and it cost little; but, if the British leaders had been able to see into the future, a Syrian campaign might have been undertaken later and its results achieved without much cost. The transfer of Wavell to India at this stage is open to criticism on grounds of fairness and perhaps even of some of the finer points of honesty.
In the Australian force the campaigns of 1941 had shown the worth of the leaders chosen in 1939 and 1940, and incidentally that citizen soldiers could succeed in senior commands. Lavarack having been promoted, and Wynter invalided to Australia, the three divisional commanders were now, in December 1941, militiamen. Two of them, Morshead and Allen, possessed an experience of front-line warfare then rare among generals in any army, Allied or enemy, having commanded battalions in the field in World War I and brigades and divisions in World War II.6 Of the nine infantry brigadiers all but two (Boase, who had succeeded Allen in command of the 16th, and Wootten of the 18th – a retired regular) were non-professional; two (Martin, now commanding the 19th, and Eather, the 25th) were militiamen too young to have served in the earlier war. When Japan attacked, few who had served in 1914-18 as regimental officers
remained with their units; the commanding officers were generally militiamen in their late 30’s and early 40’s.7 Any general conclusions about the ability of a militia to produce senior commanders should take into account, however, that the Australian militia of 1939 was exceptionally fortunate in possessing a considerable quota of leaders then only in their 40’s who had been tested and schooled in four years of hard fighting with the old AIF and as youngsters had risen to senior rank in it; their juniors had been trained by them and their highly-qualified professional colleagues. In many respects the new AIF began where the old one left off.
The problem of selecting men for first commissions – the leaders of the future – had been keenly discussed in the Australian force in the last eighteen months without a fully-acceptable agreement being reached between the regimental officers on the one hand and the senior staffs on the other. It was generally accepted that these officers should be chosen with great care because it would be a long war, and from men commissioned in 1940 and 1941 would be drawn senior leaders of the future. The Australian units had arrived in the Middle East with a full quota of officers plus their “first reinforcements”, most carefully picked from the big pool available in the militia and a few from the ranks. For training selected men a proportion of vacancies at the British Officer Cadet Training Unit at Cairo was accepted by General Blamey as by other Dominion commanders, but when the Australians graduated they were not immediately commissioned (as were graduates of all other contingents) if there was no vacancy for them in a unit. The prospect of promoting men from the ranks was further reduced when, in September and October 1940, three batches of reinforcements had arrived from Australia, including twenty-one officers for each battalion – whose full quota was only thirty-two. Lieut-Colonel Wardle,8 the British commandant of the Officer Cadet Training Unit and an enthusiastic and original trainer of soldiers, approached both Wavell and, informally, Blamey’s staff, to protest against failure to commission Australian graduates immediately. He pointed out that they included, for example, one cadet, Adler,9 who had topped his class and was “one of the best cadets we have had as yet from anywhere”, and others whom he would gladly accept as instructors in his school. It was a singular situation. In 1916-18 virtually all Australian officers had come from the ranks of fighting units and this policy was, in the Australian force, achieving outstanding success at a time when, in the British Army, officers were still being chosen from the “officer-producing classes” regardless of front-line experience. Yet in 1941 Wardle, a British regular soldier, was urging a Dominion commander to commission
his able and fully-trained NCOs.10 The expansion of the AIF after that time made it easier to find posts for Officer Cadet Training Unit graduates, and Blamey ordered that they be commissioned and posted either to units or to the reinforcement depot. He told Wavell that in future he would accept 72 vacancies a year – still a small number in relation to the groups of reinforcement officers regularly arriving.
In these circumstances Australian commanding officers, though impressed by the quantity and quality of the potential leaders in the ranks, saw little prospect of obtaining commissions for more than very few of them. At the beginning of 1941 there were more infantry subalterns in the reinforcement depot than in the battalions, yet the annual intake of infantry NCOs into the officer training unit represented fewer than three a battalion. On the other hand, commanding officers considered that as a general rule the reinforcement officers, selected and trained in Australia, had less ability and less military knowledge than many of their own NCOs.
Reinforcement officers generally have proved a disappointment [wrote one commanding officer]. It is felt that man for man they are on the average as good material as the original battalion officers but (i) the weaker members of the original officers have been weeded out during fifteen months’ hard training, boarded, declared unfit or transferred to non-combatant appointments, (ii) reinforcement officers started in the battalion with an enormous psychological disadvantage in lack of training and lack of experience.
This commander added that the high standard of NCOs directly promoted or trained by the Officer Cadet Training Unit threw the weakness of the average reinforcement officer into relief; he proposed that all new officers should come from the ranks of the unit, except for outstanding militia officers or other outstanding first appointees. In one battalion eighteen lieutenants joined as reinforcement officers in 1941 and nine NCOs were promoted from the ranks. Of the nine all were capable officers, some outstanding; between them they had won or would later win six decorations. Of the eighteen reinforcement officers, fewer than one-third succeeded as regimental officers.11
The discussion of this problem and the policies that emerged – a problem peculiar to the British Dominions where class distinctions were less clear than in Europe or the United States – incidentally illustrated a fundamental flaw of the Australian military system of the time. This was the division of the officers into two groups: a small but highly-trained professional staff corps, many of whose leading members had had little real regimental experience either in peace or war, and a corps of devoted amateur regimental officers in the militia. The militiamen drew their knowledge and traditions principally from the experience of the old AIF, having served in it or been taught by men who had; and they had usually studied the history of the first AIF to discover what warfare meant. On the other hand the professional officer’s experience of the first AIF, if he was old enough to have had any, was sometimes overlaid by twenty years of study of British manuals and training at British schools. With some officers, including men of seniority and influence, the tendency to admire and copy British military tradition reached the extreme of derogating the Australian tradition; a peculiar outcome, since in the nineteen-forties the British official historian of the campaigns in France was holding up to British soldiers the Australian Corps of 1918 as a model.12 It is strange, in the correspondence concerning the problem of selecting new officers, discussed above, to read one senior Australian staff officer quoting a British general staff memorandum of 1919 on the subject, evidently without any appreciation of the fact that the British and Australian officer-finding problem in 1918 had been fundamentally different – even to the extent that the Australian force, which in 1918 was overflowing with “officer material”, was contributing contingents of officers to the British Army, while the British Army was scraping the bottom of the bucket. In the available staff letters and memoranda of 1940-41 on this subject there is no reference to the old AIF.13
In the minor fields of amenities, historical records and publicity the Australian force in 1941 had achieved original and effective results. The Comforts Fund had greatly extended its work. Through its commissioners14 and the amenities officers now attached to each brigade the steady flow of comforts and sporting gear collected in Australia or bought with money subscribed there had been distributed to the men, and a chain of first-rate leave centres had been established. In Jerusalem early in 1940
the Hotel Fast had been acquired and renamed the Australian Soldiers’ Club; at Tel Aviv was a tea shop sponsored by the Fund and conducted by a number of Australian women living in Palestine. (In view of the good work Australian women did in Palestine and Egypt it might have been advantageous if the Australian Ministers had contrived to delay their decision – eventually inevitable – to prevent Australian wives travelling to the Middle East.) When the 6th Division moved to Egypt the Atlantic Hotel in Alexandria had been taken over by the Fund and converted into a soldiers’ club. Colonel Eugene Gorman had entered Beirut with the first troops, and promptly and on his own responsibility had taken over the Hotel Metropole and established it as a soldiers’ club. There were in addition the recreation huts maintained in the camps, run in conjunction with the Salvation Army and YMCA. At the leave hotels men could obtain an inexpensive room, bath, meals and drinks, and army post offices and pay offices were installed.
A department in which an Australian force had a special tradition to maintain was that of historical records. From 1914 onwards the first AIF had been accompanied by an official correspondent, C. E. W. Bean, with whom there was an understanding that he would write the history of the force after the war. In 1917, largely through his activity, a war records section had been established, and a war memorial which would house the written records and the relics of the AIF had been conceived. In 1941 the War Memorial building at Canberra was opened. In 1940, as a result of the efforts of the Minister for Information (Sir Henry Gullett) and the permanent head of his department (Major Treloar15), General White had included a war records section in the oversea administrative headquarters of the AIF Each of the three men had intimate knowledge of such a section’s needs and requirements. Gullett had been one of Bean’s assistants in 1917-18, had written a volume of the official war history, and for some months had been Director of the Australian War Memorial; Treloar in 1917 had founded the Australian war records section and for twenty years had been Director of the War Memorial; White had been closely concerned with the formation of the war records section of 1917 and of the War Memorial.
Captain Howard,16 novelist and journalist, was placed in charge of the new section. In the Middle East in 1940 a cinematographer and a photographer were added, and General Blamey appointed as a war artist Ivor Hele,17 a young painter who was serving in the AIF At the same time there were then in England or the Middle East two official correspondents,
Early in 1941 Treloar persuaded the Ministers to allow him to join the AIF in the Middle East as liaison officer for the Department of Information and the War Memorial. This was agreed to, and after arriving in the Middle East Treloar persuaded General Blamey that, with Howard’s men as a nucleus, a larger section should be formed consisting of a headquarters and “field teams” (comprising an officer commanding, photographer, cinematographer, clerk and batman-driver) attached to each division; and that more artists be chosen from those serving in the AIF Treloar proposed that the photographers of the Department of Information be incorporated, but this was resisted by Hurley. Thereafter the two groups existed side by side: one an army section concerned primarily with historical records, the other a group of civilian journalists and photographers concerned with producing news and photographs for immediate publication. At Blamey’s request, Treloar, though his duties were mainly historical, exercised supervision over certain internal news services within the army, including AIF News, an AIF broadcast from Jerusalem, the supply of news to Army Headquarters in Melbourne, and the annual production of an illustrated book written by the troops and following the lines of The Anzac Book of 1916. On this account the section was named the “Military History and Information Section”.
In 1941 the Australian force had also established a workmanlike system for the movement of war correspondents and the censorship of their dispatches. At Wavell’s headquarters there was a public relations branch equipped with a modest number of men and vehicles to establish camps for correspondents and to transport them and their copy. After the first Western Desert offensive opened it became apparent that the Australians would need their own vehicles so that they could follow the force with which their interest chiefly lay and not to be tied to the larger group of British and American reporters. An ideal system would have been to provide each member of so small a group of correspondents and photographers with a vehicle and a driver so that all could disperse and between them cover the campaign as widely as possible, bringing their reports to a central camp whence they could be hurried to the censors and the cable office at Cairo. Instead, enough vehicles were allotted to move correspondents and photographers in three groups – the correspondents in one, the photographers in another, and the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Field Unit in a third. As the Australian force moved forward, press camps were set up by an Intelligence officer and former
journalist, Captain Wilson.21 Copy was often delayed in the Libyan campaign (even lost entirely, on the steadily-lengthening journey to Cairo) and lack of vehicles limited the independent movement of correspondents, but otherwise a relationship was established between correspondents and the leaders and men of the army that was of a kind that might reasonably be expected only at the end and not at the beginning of a war. “Conducting Officers”, imposed when the Middle East public relations branch was in control, were dispensed with, and the correspondents moved freely in a force of which they had become a part during the training period in Egypt and Palestine. Some of the senior officers – particularly among the professional soldiers – had not at first overcome the fear of the Press, acquired in the isolated and frustrated period between the wars, but most of them soon became trustful and cooperative, and the correspondents reciprocated. It became evident that such excellent relations could be preserved wherever the band of correspondents was not unwieldy in size and had acquired enough knowledge of the army and of warfare to avoid irritating or embarrassing a commander.
The Australian correspondents’ interests at the base in Cairo were well watched as a result of a wise move by Blamey’s senior Intelligence officer, Lieut-Colonel Rogers, who established an Australian censor there. The ideal field censor is a trained Intelligence officer who has also handled news on a city paper. Few of the British censors had had first-grade newspaper experience and most had little experience of military Intelligence. On the other hand the Australian censor, Major Fenton, had been a senior newspaperman and since 1939 had served as an Intelligence officer in Australia or Palestine. He made it his task to ensure the quick release of Australian news from an office where hitherto the overworked censors, responsive to pressure by the groups which in their opinion carried the greatest weight, had given preference first to the big news agencies and secondly to the Fleet Street papers.
The presence of an Australian was necessary also to protect Australian news against a rigid application of Middle East regulations by Englishmen who were unaware of Australian needs; only a man who knew the Australian Army could decide when the use of a soldier’s name or State, or some passing reference, might divulge useful information to the enemy, or detect an ill-considered remark which might do harm at home (thus the South Africans eventually installed a censor who understood their colour problem and the anti-war movement in South Africa). The British censors, who had been under intermittent fire from both the British correspondents and the Americans, warmly welcomed the presence of an experienced newspaperman in their office in Cairo.22
Normally the first news in English which the world received of events on Middle East fronts was a carefully-worded communiqué supplemented
by a report written by the so-called “second eleven” of correspondents in Cairo who had listened to the comments of the “spokesman” on the day’s events – the “first eleven” were farther forward. There was a failure at this stage to appreciate that an official spokesman must be fully in the confidence of a commander and his staff as to current and future operations. Lacking such knowledge, a spokesman, under sharp questioning, may release information which should be confidential, or may inadvertently earn the command a reputation for lack of honesty, when in fact he has merely been ignorant and insufficiently trusted by his seniors. In British commands this task was usually given to officers recalled from the reserve. There has been a reference in the preceding volume to the short-lived policy of Middle East headquarters of describing Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders in communiques as “British Imperial troops” – a practice that seems to have been adopted under pressure from London and ceased during the Syrian campaign.
In the words of one close Australian observer: apart from a natural desire to cover defeats and emphasise success “there was never (in Cairo at this stage) any deep-laid plot to deceive”.
By the end of 1941 the Australian Imperial Force in the Middle East had acquired some of the characteristics of a long-service regular army. The men were all volunteers, and were proud of that fact and of the units and formations to which they belonged; indeed many had developed a far stronger loyalty and affection towards their units than had been inspired by any institutions at home – outside their families. They had been singularly unperturbed by the Japanese onslaught; relatively few seem to have foreseen their transfer to the Far East; and it seems probable that the bitter and misconceived rebukes, which some of them received in letters from Australia for skulking in Palestine and Syria while Japanese threatened their homes, were partly the outcome of their own patent unconcern at the addition of the Japanese to the lengthening list of their opponents. Allied to this was a steadily-increasing pride in their achievements and confidence in their own ability to cope with whatever faced them, a quality no doubt acquired rapidly by a force of colonial volunteers. To them war had become a technical accomplishment, its risks calculated, its results predictable.
Moreover they had demonstrated the wisdom of defending Australia by sending an expeditionary force against Germany (and her Italian and French allies). The eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, which, if held by the Germans, would have enabled them to combine their operations with those of Japan, were still under Allied control, and from that area would soon be sailing east a tried force of some 64,000 men, well-armed, confident and expert, under tested leaders, ranging from those who had handled corps and divisions in the field to youngsters who had fought against Germans, Italians and Frenchmen, in desert and snow, mountain and plain.