Chapter 4: The Logistic Foundations (1939–40)
See Map 4
‘Military history means the survey of administrative in at least as great a degree as strategical and tactical genius. ... People who have never studied military history do not realize that a campaign is a gigantic picnic, and that, unless careful arrangement be made long beforehand for every detail of food, forage, clothing and carriage, an army may perish. ...’
(From a lecture on ‘Military History’ delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1913 by the Hon. John Fortescue.)
THE TERM ‘administration’ was used by the Army and the Royal Air Force alike to mean the whole process of providing forces with what they require or of performing some service for them. The fact that land and air forces would often be operating from the same area had led the Air Force to adopt a system very similar to the Army’s. Briefly this was for the officer in chief command to exercise control of administration through his staff and thence through the heads of the administrative services. The latter were suitably represented at the various subordinate headquarters, so that policy could be centrally controlled and executive functions decentralized. In 1939 the administrative services were as follows: medical, chaplains, pay, provost, graves, supplies and transport, transportation, ordnance, works, engineer stores, remount, veterinary, canteen, postal, labour, hirings, salvage, printing and stationery. In respect of several of these services the requirements of the Air Force in the Middle East were handled wholly or in part by the Army, while their own maintenance organization included the supply, repair and salvage of aircraft, and the supply of equipment and motor transport.
The Army Council’s instructions to General Wavell (Appendix 1) entrusted him, amongst other things, with the control of high policy, the preparation of war plans, and, in the event of war, the
co-ordination of the action of the land forces and the distribution of available resources between them. For his immediate tasks he was provided with a modest staff of five officers, of whom one was to be ‘administrative’. It was not to be expected that this staff could do more than serve as a peace time nucleus; indeed, it had not been in existence more than a few weeks when the outbreak of war with Germany and the negotiations for the Treaty with Turkey convinced General Wavell that the administrative side in particular must be strengthened at once, so that considerations of movement and maintenance could be given full weight in the earliest stages of planning. Early in October Brigadier B. O. Hutchison was accordingly transferred from Palestine to take charge of the administrative side.
The alternative to a planning staff would have been a complete General Headquarters, but to establish this was hardly feasible.1 The British Army was in a state of rapid expansion, so that trained and experienced officers were scarce, and the needs of the French front, which were considerable, naturally took priority. The administration of the troops in Egypt, the Sudan, Palestine and Transjordan, and East Africa could, for the present, continue to be directed from the War Office. The disadvantage was that General Wavell had to lean heavily upon the staffs and heads of services of the existing Commands for the detailed and specialist work required in the preparation of his plans, and much of this work fell outside the purview of the Commanders to whom these officers were primarily responsible. This was an anomalous situation, which had to be accepted for the time being. If, however, the war were to spread to the Middle East, a more rational system, with administrative responsibility taking its proper place as part of the function of command, would clearly be necessary.
It was also clear to General Wavell that the land forces in the Middle East would sooner or later have to be appreciably strengthened if their contribution to the war was not to be confined to trying not to lose it. He therefore initiated a preliminary survey for the creation of a base for a force of fifteen divisions—say 300,000 men. This figure was no more than an estimate based on a consideration of possible roles, for by the end of October, when the survey of ports, railways, roads and sites was completed, the long-term policy for the Middle East was still being considered in London.2 At the beginning
of December General Wavell accompanied by Brigadier Hutchison and Air Commodore Drummond flew to London to join in the discussions.
The investigations being made by the Army led Air Chief Marshal Mitchell to enquire of the Air Ministry in October whether a large increase of air forces was also contemplated, for he was under no illusions as to the magnitude of the administrative preparations that would be necessary. He was told in reply that the main problem for the time being was to expand the Royal Air Force into a force capable of gaining and maintaining superiority on the western (European) front. There could be no question of reinforcing the Middle East in the near future. Nevertheless, his dissatisfaction at his want of men and equipment, coupled with the knowledge that the Chiefs of Staff were seriously considering the operation of Air Force units in Turkey, prompted the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief
to send his senior administrative officer, Air Vice-Marshal A. C. Maund, to London early in January to represent the difficulties under which his Command was already labouring. If the worst deficiencies were not made good it would be quite impossible to maintain an air force in Turkey or anywhere else. A few days later the War Cabinet’s policy became known.
In their review of military, policy in the Middle East dated 5th December 1939 the Chiefs of Staff estimated that in view of the weakness of the Allied air forces and anti-aircraft artillery it could not be said that British interests were secure against Italian attack. If Germany or Russia were to begin determined offensive operations in the Middle East it would be necessary to provide additional land and air forces to defend our interests and to prevent the defeat of Turkey. If Italian hostility were added to German or Russian aggression, we should have to deal with the Italian fronts before we could give any assistance to Greece or Turkey. Apart from the salutary political effect of a show of force there were therefore good reasons for building up our forces, but this ought not to be done at the expense of essential requirements in Western Europe or of the ability to defend Singapore. Moreover it would be useless to add considerably to the forces without first developing the bases and communications which would sustain their operations. This administrative development, it was realized, would—particularly in respect of the land forces—be a more lengthy process than the actual concentration of troops and air forces. It ought therefore to be put in hand at once, so that if the strategical situation were to require the despatch of additional forces these would be able to function with the least possible delay.
The War Cabinet agreed with these views on 15th January 1940. The policy for the land forces was to be as follows. Only those formations already under orders for the Middle East should be sent there; namely, one Australian division and the 1st Cavalry Division to Palestine, and one New Zealand division to Egypt. The base organizations in Egypt and Palestine were to be put in hand at once, and the gradual accumulation of material reserves for a force of nine divisions, including the present garrisons, was to be begun. One division, which the Government of India had already offered to provide, should be made ready in India for the defence of the Anglo-Iranian oilfields. Reserves of material should be accumulated in India for a force of three divisions which might be employed in Iraq and Persia. Basra should be developed as a base port for a force of this size. In case of interruption to traffic in the Red Sea the overland route Baghdad—Haifa was to be further improved, but the capacity of the route Mombasa—Cairo was likely to be so small that no great effort was to be devoted to it. The existing figure of go days for war reserves would also apply to any additional forces sent to the Middle East.3 It was also decided that an additional battalion of the Sudan Defence Force should be raised, and that one brigade, and later a second, of the Royal West African Frontier Force should be transferred from West Africa to Kenya, where the necessary reserves for them should be built up. Finally it was decided that the Turks should be induced to develop their air facilities and communications in Thrace and western Anatolia, for which purposes technical advice and help should be made available to them.
The policy for the Royal Air Force was to be: to increase the mobility of the existing squadrons to enable them to operate from Turkey or Greece; to build up the strength gradually to a total of 4 heavy and 8 medium bomber squadrons, 10 fighter, and 5 army co-operation squadrons; to make certain provisions on shore for the Fleet Air Ann and for the Royal Air Force co-operating with the Royal Navy; and to plan base facilities for operating twelve additional heavy bomber squadrons. The implications of these decisions are referred to later in this chapter, but it will be understood that they could not be pursued as isolated projects. The Army and the Air Force were obliged to take each other’s expansion into account, for the Army was the joint provider of a great many services (of which transportation was one)4 and of common-user stores (including
food and building materials) and it was obviously desirable that sites, resources, and facilities should be allotted to the best advantage. As regards construction, the arrangement was broadly for the Air Force to retain responsibility for all work at their stations in the Canal and Delta areas and for the Army to undertake new airfields west of the Delta, and in general to be responsible for electric power, water, and bulk petrol supply.
The immediate effect of the War Cabinet’s decisions, as far as General Wavell was concerned, was to add to his responsibilities. He was now to take command of British land forces in East Africa and British Somaliland, and any that might be sent to Turkey or the Balkans including Greece.5 If major land operations occurred in or near Iraq, Aden, or the shores of the Persian Gulf, he was to command the land forces involved. As he had not the staff to enable him to exercise all these functions forthwith, he was to be free to assume administrative control in the several areas of his Command in accordance with the situation and the means at his disposal. Heads of the principal services were appointed to act as technical advisers during planning and to prepare for the assumption of administrative control. To clarify his own position, his title was changed on 15th February 1940 to ‘Commander-in-Chief Middle East’.6 His area of responsibility was a very large one, involving a great deal of tedious travelling. Much of his time, and that of the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief and other senior officers of both Services, would have been saved if suitable long range communication aircraft had been provided. The matter was repeatedly referred to London, but the first really suitable type—the Lockheed—combining reasonable speed and comfort did not reach the Middle East until November 1940.
Egypt was of course admirably situated as the main location of a central reserve. The populated and cultivated Delta and valley of the Nile are unsuitable for large military installations, but elsewhere all is desert, which although barren, shadeless, and inhospitable is capable of carrying railways, roads, runways, and buildings amply dispersed against air attack. Of still greater importance was the existence of the threc deep-water ports, linked with each other and with Cairo and the Delta by the standard-gauge Egyptian railway system. The bulk of the commercial traffic was carried by Alexandria,
which was now to be used as a naval base. Port Said was a useful transhipment port. Suez, though only partly developed and scarcely used, except for pilgrim traffic, possessed great possibilities for expansion. The flexibility thus provided in Egypt was further increased by the existence of a railway link between the Suez Canal and Palestine’s deep-water port of Haifa. Thus the whole area possessed the essential attributes of a large overseas base, but even so its development was a very different matter from the establishment of bases in France, separated from the industries and resources of the United Kingdom by no more than the width of the Channel.
The region is one of the driest in the world: the sun is hot, and the wind is dust-laden. Egypt depends for its water supply, and hence for its very existence, upon the river Nile, and even from this plentiful source the water is unsafe for drinking, and even for washing, without treatment. This, in outlying areas, involved the erection of much plant, so that the time required to prepare a camp or depot was often governed by the installation of a safe water supply. But the Nile gives life to the soil and by intensive cultivation Egypt is able to export cotton, corn, and vegetables. In 1939 her industries of war time importance were very few, and all her iron, steel, coal. timber, and machinery were imported. There was a small oilfield near Hurghada but no other mineral deposits of any consequence. In Palestine, too, there was a’ general lack of raw materials, but this essentially agricultural country was nevertheless rapidly developing its industries. There was a valuable production of cement, and an appreciable quantity of motor transport was in use. An all-weather road from Beersheba to Ismailia was nearing completion, providing yet another important link between Palestine and Egypt.
Six divisions were to be based on Egypt and three on Palestine, with Egypt holding rather more than its share of ammunition, reserve vehicles, and transportation stores. The divisional ‘slice’ was to be taken at 25,000 men with a sixty per cent. surplus of vehicles.7 In Palestine, the plan was to expand the existing depots at Sarafand and supplement them by further construction at Khayat Beach near Haifa. In Egypt, the main depots were to be in the Tel el Kebir-Qassassin area along the railway and sweet-water canal to the west of Ismailia. Others were to be sited beside the Suez Canal and the Great Bitter Lake, e.g., the supply depot at Firdan and the ammunition depot at Abu Sultan. A few installations were to be in the
neighbourhood of Cairo. The extensive caves at Tura and Massara (from which the stone for the Pyramids at Giza was quarried) were already being adapted to receive ammunition, aircraft bombs, and other explosives.8 In the hills to the west of Suez large petrol storage installations, part Army, part Air Force, were being erected. Suez was likely to become an important port of entry and would have to be enlarged; the first step was to build wharves for lighters at points in the Gulf of Suez and along the Canal.
Before these plans could be acted on, General Headquarters Middle East had a fundamental difficulty to overcome. Work was already proceeding as quickly as possible on preparations for the troops who were expected shortly, but local stocks of materials were practically exhausted. Everything depended upon how quickly essential supplies could be obtained from overseas. In these circumstances General Headquarters Middle East, to their credit, acted with great promptitude and acumen. They placed orders, for quickest possible delivery, wherever they could, and did their best to cut down the demands on the United Kingdom. They made direct approaches to South and East Africa, India, Burma, Malaya, and Australia, and in addition contrived to save time and shipping space by tapping some of the nearer sources. Local production of cement, bitumen, bricks, and so on, was increased as much as possible. Although there were delays and disappointments, it was not long before a flow of stores, in addition to shipments from the United Kingdom, began to arrive from these eastern markets. Timber (notably from Rumania until the Dardanelles were closed) ; steel, fabricated ready for use and in sheets for making anti-tank mines and containers for oil, petrol and water; tin; gelignite; defence stores; tools; pumps; pipes and fittings; machinery for road work; workshop plant; cargo handling gear; and so on. A large quantity of machinery, pumps and pipes was even ordered in Italy, but when the German Ambassador heard of this transaction it was quickly stopped. However, there was a pleasant windfall of German-made pipes in Palestine, which enabled a water pipeline in the Western Desert to be started. This policy of converting the available money into tangible assets as quickly as possible was amply justified by results. It enabled General Headquarters Middle East to remain one move ahead, which was indeed fortunate, for when the final approval from London for the completion of the nine-division base was given it was soon followed by an increase in the planning figure to 14 divisions to arrive by June 1941, and 23 by March 1942.9 The slice was now to be 35,000.
Even so this large programme did not represent by any means the whole problem. The installations had not only to be built, but to be manned in such a way as to function reliably in all conditions. Egypt could provide ample unskilled labour, but a strong framework of trained and disciplined units would clearly be necessary. Of these base and lines-of-communication units there were practically none, owing to the general shortage and the low priority given to the Middle East. The base installations in Egypt in 1939 were about adequate for the existing forces and no more. Later, when the Middle East suddenly became the centre of activity, there was a pressing need to make good these deficiencies, and this came into violent conflict with the urge to build up the fighting troops. Thus began a long, and at times violent, tug-of-war between the Teeth and the Tail.
The outlying base at Basra presented a special problem. The first troops to land would come from India, and would have to be maintained from there. But if the force became involved in major operations it was to be under General Wavell’s command, and therefore the administrative control at Basra should be exercised by General Headquarters Middle East. As a working arrangement, therefore, the detailed planning for the lay-out at Basra (Shaibah) was begun by India on a basis agreed with Middle East.
A further question concerning Iraq was that of the overland route between Haifa and Baghdad. In September 1939 General Wavell reported that the road seemed to him to be reasonably satisfactory as a reinforcement route—east to west—although there were some particularly bad stretches in Iraq which would be impassable for several days in bad weather. He regarded this situation as unacceptable because the road might be wanted at short notice for military movement from west to east; if for instance, the garrison at Habbaniya were threatened by revolt. (This is precisely what happened in May 1945.) Moreover, if the Air Force made extensive use of their aircraft depot at Ha bbaniya, they would require the road to be fit for regular traffic. By arrangement with the Government of Iraq (who would not agree to bear a portion of the cost) work on this portion was begun under British supervision in May 1940, and by the end of the year it was ready except for winter use.
Yet another administrative commitment arose over the ‘Jungle’ forces. Detailed plans had to be made for organizing, moving, and maintaining them, treating the Middle East for this purpose as the base from which advanced bases would have to be thrown off as necessary. To operate the advanced bases and the often primitive lines of communication would require many administrative units, the lack of which has already been referred to. Some of the projects were pursued beyond the planning stage: for instance, technicians
and construction parties and plant, all badly wanted elsewhere, were sent to Gallipoli and Anatolia for work on anti-malarial measures, jetties, roads, and airfields.
Yet all this time there remained the possibility that it was Italy with whom the first clash would occur; therefore there could be no relaxation of the efforts to improve the defensive arrangements—many of them administrative—in Kenya, British Somaliland, and the Sudan. As a general precaution, and particularly on behalf of the Royal Air Force in the Sudan, it was thought wise to develop the Mombasa—Nile Valley route to a capacity of 300 tons a day. But the fact remained that the first direct threat to the security of the main Middle East bases—naval, army, and air—would probably be from Libya, and this issue was likely to be decided in the Western Desert. Unfortunately the position here was most unsatisfactory, for what was administratively possible fell a long way short of what was tactically desirable.
The problem of supply has naturally loomed very large in every campaign conducted in undeveloped countries, but as a cavalry officer who took part in Lord Kitchener’s Nile campaign wrote in 1899: ‘Victory is the beautiful, bright-coloured flower. Transport is the stem without which it could never have blossomed. Yet even the military student, in his zeal to master the fascinating combinations of the actual conflict, often forgets the far more intricate complications of supply.’10 Forty years on—to 1939—and almost all the army’s horses had been replaced by internal combustion engines; its equipment had become far more elaborate and its weapons more varied and powerful. Mechanized forces had now the ability to strike far and strike hard, if only they could be kept provided with the means to live, move, and fight. But in each of these respects the problems of administration had become more complex than ever; and nowhere more so than in the Western Desert. In one way or another they seldom failed to give cause for anxiety to commanders on both sides. As far as the British were concerned in 1939 the most serious feature of the situation was the lack of motor transport.
At the outbreak of war there were three channels of supply from the Delta to the advanced base at Matruh : the railway, the road, and the sea. The railway had been hurriedly completed, as a single line, during the emergency caused by the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Since then the traffic capacity and the railhead facilities had been somewhat increased. Provision for water storage had been made at many points, but the water found along the coast was largely unfit for use in locomotives and it was necessary to allot one train in every eight to carry water for them. Work on a pipeline to deliver water
from Alexandria to points along the railway was therefore begun.
The scarcity of fresh water was, of course, a very serious matter. Scattered over the Western Desert were a number of large rock cisterns made for catching the rainfall, but their chief use was to store water brought by other means. Tube-wells were sunk in large numbers, but the water from them was often too saline. The principal sources in 1939 were the Roman aqueducts at Matruh and Baggush. These were horizontal passages, or adits, tunnelled into a layer of comparatively sweet water only a few feet above sea level. Attempts to increase the yield by enlarging the passages or by pumping at a higher rate were apt to do more harm than good, as the salinity would increase and the aqueduct would have to be rested to recover.11 Nevertheless the yield at Matruh was appreciably increased, and was supplemented by water-boats from Alexandria and by distillation plant on shore. None of these devices, however, altered the fact that water had to be strictly rationed, and transported by vehicles over considerable distances.
The vehicle situation in the autumn of 1939 was the cause of much concern. In the first place, the total number of available load-carriers was quite unequal to the heavy demands, even after full use had been made of hirings. Every military unit in Egypt and Palestine was short of some of its authorized vehicles, but efforts had first to be concentrated upon trying to provide the Armoured Division with an improvised rearward link or ‘second line’ of transport. The other difficulty was that, although any wheeled vehicle could use the coastal road between Alexandria and Matruh, none that was not desert-worthy could safely leave it.
This desert-worthiness was to some extent a relative condition, but in general it required a high engine clearance above ground; a large ratio of power to weight; convenient gear ratios; strong springs; large low-pressure tyres; and a. condensing arrangement to conserve the cooling water. Even after Egypt and Palestine had been combed for desert-worthy vehicles the Armoured Division was some 200 load-carriers short. Extra mileage was thus thrown on the tracked (fighting) vehicles, adding to their wear and tear, already a matter of great concern owing to the lack of maintenance units. The result was that the mobile troops in the Western Desert were tethered to their railhead by a very short administrative rope. Thus they were placed at a disadvantage tactically, which was one of the reasons why it might not prove practicable to hold Matruh against a determined attack.
Throughout the early months of 1940 great efforts were made to improve the situation. Desert-worthy vehicles of the newly-arrived 1st Cavalry Division and transport units of the 4th Indian Division were lent to the Armoured Division. Some vehicles that had been in reserve were manned by newly recruited Jews, Arabs, Maltese, and Cypriots. The capacity of the workshops to deal with overhauls had been increased. Stocks of spare parts had grown. A motor ambulance convoy and a water-tank company had been raised. The road between Matruh and Sidi Barrani had been improved. By the summer of 1940 the 7th Armoured Division, although still deficient of over 100 vehicles, was able to support the operations of its foremost troops right up to the Cyrenaican frontier—a distance from railhead of 140 miles as the crow flies.
At the outbreak of the war in September 1939 there were only five permanent airfields in Egypt, three in Palestine, two in Iraq, two in Malta, one in the Sudan, two at Aden and one in Kenya, none of which would accommodate more than one squadron. With the exception of one airfield in Egypt and another in Palestine which had runways, all were unsuitable for the operation of modern bombers and fighters. In Egypt there were also a number of desert airfields as far west as Matruh and southwards to Luxor and Wadi Haifa. Living quarters were usually tents, while cook houses and dining rooms were built of prefabricated sectional hutting, and the technical accommodation was in a similarly constructed type of hangar. In Palestine there were some 40 prepared emergency landing grounds, without accommodation, scattered throughout the country. Facilities also existed at the civil airports of Lydda and Haifa which were subsequently taken over and developed for operational purposes.
By the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 new airfields for the Royal Air Force were to be built by the Egyptian Government in the Canal Zone. Three years later discussions with the Egyptian Government were still going on, and practically the only work the Egyptians had done was on the important strategic roads in the Canal Zone. There was now no more time to waste, and the responsibility for building the new airfields was transferred to the British. Work was started immediately on six new stations near the Canal. Each airfield was designed to take two heavy bomber squadrons, with four runways and the normal dispersal points and protective pens for aircraft. In Palestine the construction of a new two-bomber station at Aqir (near Lydda) had begun in July 1939. Other work involved in airfield construction was to provide accommodation for men and technical stores; administrative buildings; sick quarters; bomb and fuel installations; mechanical and electrical
installations; airfield lighting and control systems; wireless systems; water supply; drainage; and approach roads.
Temporary landing strips could be made almost anywhere in the desert with very little work. In most places the natural ground provided a satisfactory foundation for permanent runways also. It was decided not to make these of concrete, for which the materials, plant, and experienced labour were not readily available, but to use instead the comparatively quick process of mix-in-place with bitumen. Runways of this type stood up satisfactorily to intense traffic during the whole campaign with very little maintenance. Some of the airfields in Palestine and the Sudan had to be constructed on cotton soil, which becomes like glue when wet and opens up in deep cracks when dry; here it was necessary to lay a thick soling of stone below the bitumen surface of the runways.12
At Malta the only air establishments existing before the war were the seaplane base and engineering workshops and two small grassed airfields. One of these airfields was used mainly by the Fleet Air Arm and the other by Italian civil air lines. Work on a third airfield was begun in October 1939, and completed with four runways by May Imo. But apart from the building of certain underground installations for aviation fuel, bombs, and wireless equipment, nothing was done to plan or provide for the accommodation of further units, or to build an aircraft depot. When aircraft began to operate from Malta in June 1940, the workshops had to be gradually expanded in no properly planned manner into a parent repair and equipment depot to cope with many different types of aircraft and engines. These included Flying-Boats, Swordfish, Walrus, Magisters, Queen Bees, Gladiators, Hurricanes, Hudsons, Glenn Martins, Wellingtons, Blenheims and Fulmars. It says much for this unit that in spite of the shortage of skilled men and most types of spare parts it was able to keep aircraft flying by improvisation and by manufacturing spare parts from whatever materials could be obtained locally.
The policy in force in September 1939 was for each squadron in the Middle East to be responsible as far as possible for maintaining its own aircraft, work beyond its capacity being sent back to the depot at Aboukir. Although this depot had been in existence since the First World War its expansion had not kept pace with the growing needs of the Command. Its position rendered it vulnerable to air and sea attack; its workshop layout did not meet modern requirements; and its airfield was unsuitable for the latest types of aircraft. Plans
had therefore been made to build an up-to-date depot at Geneifa under the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, but apart from some work on the airfield very little had been done by September 1939. Long discussions followed between the Air Ministry and Headquarters Middle East as to whether it would be better to continue with the Geneifa depot and accept the long delay before it was ready, or to arrange for workshop and other facilities at certain of the stations to be extended—a quicker but an unsatisfactory and inefficient alternative. In spite of the pressing need for increased maintenance facilities it was not until June 1940 that a decision was reached, which was a compromise between the two alternatives; but by this time an increase in the strength of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East was being planned, calling for yet another expansion of the maintenance facilities.
The visit of Air Vice-Marshal Maund to the United Kingdom in January 1940 was a timely one, coinciding as it did with the Cabinet’s decision to increase the strength of the air forces in the Middle East. His visit convinced the Air Ministry, when other means had failed, that there was a serious lack of men and equipment in the Middle East, and that urgent action must be taken if the Command was to be in a fit state either to send an expedition to Turkey or to fight Italy. On examination it was found that most of the deficiencies could be met from existing stocks at home; many items in fact could be sent out immediately without upsetting the priorities governing supplies to units in the United Kingdom and France. Other items, particularly aircraft operational equipment, of which there was a shortage everywhere, would have to be divided among units in Great Britain, France, and the Middle East. The main causes of the shortage of men were the ban which had been placed immediately war broke out on sending any airmen overseas, and the fact that the Middle East Command still remained, for the most part, on peace establishments. Indeed, for some of the new administrative units no establishments at all had been authorized. With the removal of the ban on trooping and the issue of war establishments, a start was made to meet the more serious deficiencies, but the situation after Dunkirk caused a further hold-up in the despatch overseas of certain classes of skilled tradesmen.
The Cabinet’s decisions on air force policy had far-reaching administrative implications. First there was the need to increase the mobility of existing squadrons to enable them to operate from Turkey or Greece by the spring of 1940. This was largely a matter of motor transport. The situation in 1939 was better than it had been during the 1938 emergency, when the moves of squadrons to their war stations had been greatly delayed by the shortage of vehicles, but it was not yet satisfactory. Steps were therefore taken to send
out urgently from the United Kingdom enough additional men and vehicles to meet the barest essential needs.
The decision to increase the strength of the air forces in the Middle East involved the formation of one new heavy bomber squadron, seven new fighter squadrons, and one or more new army co-operation squadrons, depending upon the strength and dispositions of the army. It entailed also the rearming of the two bomber transport squadrons and one medium bomber squadron with heavy bomber aircraft. Most of these squadrons were to be based on airfields under construction in Egypt, but additional airfields would be required west of the Delta for the new fighter squadrons. In Palestine, in the Sudan, and at Aden additional airfields would be required.
For the reception of the reinforcing group of twelve heavy bomber squadrons detailed plans could not be made, as it was impossible to say where they might, in the event, be sent. They might operate from Egypt or Palestine; from Tunisia or Turkey; or even from Kenya. To prepare realistically for these possibilities would have meant the building of some 50 new airfields—a project obviously quite out of the question. The only practical solution would be to provide airfield equipment, mechanical transport (including specialist vehicles), aircraft spares, and reserves of bombs, and store them at convenient places within the theatre ready for immediate use should the need arise.
Until 1939 the policy had been to hold reserve stocks to last about two months at the estimated war time rates of consumption. During 1939 financial approval was obtained for raising this to three months, in addition to a working margin. As it normally took about a year in peace time to obtain delivery of major items of equipment, the new programme was very incomplete when the war with Germany began. Moreover, new types of aircraft were being introduced into the Middle East for which there had been no time to build up any reserve stocks at all. The war with Germany resulted in an embargo, on the despatch of any items required by the Royal Air Force at home or by the Air Component in France. Generally speaking, in September 1939, the aircraft reserves in the Middle East were about 140% of the first line strength, and the reserves of explosives and aviation fuel were equal to about three months estimated requirement.
Finally there were the preparations for the squadrons intended for maritime operations. It had been agreed with the Admiralty that four general reconnaissance squadrons should be based in the Central Mediterranean (at Malta, with alternative sites in Tunisia over which discussions with the French were in progress) and two squadrons at the Eastern end (at Alexandria and Haifa). The provision of these squadrons would entail some increase in airfield and
slipway facilities, in addition to which the complements of two aircraft carriers, amounting to six Fleet Air Arm squadrons, would require airfield and maintenance facilities ashore.
The proposal to increase the number of flying units had other implications than the development of airfields. It meant the formation of a fighter group, three wing headquarters, and at least two operational training units, together with many new ancillaries such as maintenance and equipment units, ammunition depots and parks, meteorological stations, and an additional communication squadron. It also involved the provision of more storage capacity for bulk fuel. Not that there was as yet any prospect of the additional squadrons becoming available, and the most that could be done to implement the Cabinet’s policy was to put in hand whatever preparations were possible without drawing upon the resources of the United Kingdom or of the western front. By the time that Italy entered the war and France collapsed, this had not amounted to very much.
But even the operation of the existing squadrons had already stretched the maintenance organization to its utmost. In the Western Desert, in particular, the conditions gave rise to many special problems. For example, there was no air filter that would satisfactorily resist the all-pervading sand and dust, with the result that day-to-day serviceability was seriously affected, while the change to coarse pitch of the variable-pitch air screw was often made impracticable. Instruments, too, were so badly affected that it was necessary to form a special mobile section to service the instruments in the squadron aircraft. Another serious inconvenience was the blowing-out and cracking of the perspex panels of the Blenheim aircraft, due to distortion from the heat of the sun. All these difficulties, and many others, involved so much additional maintenance work that it was found necessary, soon after the war began, to form an advanced repair and salvage section in the Western Desert and to augment the maintenance organization in the Canal Zone.
There is no doubt that more use might have been made of the quiet period before Italy entered the war to develop local resources and build up a stronger repair organization. There were in Egypt many hundreds of civilians with some engineering experience, and a great many more who were capable of being trained as mechanics; as the war went on full use was made of them. Later, too, many garages and small engineering works were brought into the maintenance organization and large numbers of tradesmen were thereby released to meet deficiencies in skilled men elsewhere. But it was not generally realized at the time what an immense amount of maintenance was going to be required, nor how elaborate would the local organization have to be in order to keep a high proportion of aircraft serviceable in a theatre where the conditions were so difficult
and which was so distant from the United Kingdom and all its resources. And, as with the Army, it was to prove easier to obtain recognition of weaknesses in the Teeth than in the Tail.
The fact that Malta might no longer be available as a fleet base during a war with Italy presented the Royal Navy with a new problem. In previous wars ships had been able to proceed to properly equipped and protected bases for repairs and docking. From these bases stores, victuals, and ammunition had been supplied to vessels, and it had not been difficult to arrange for any unit to be within reasonable reach of an established base. Thus the Navy was not accustomed to dealing with administrative problems on a large scale, and as the naval supply services—unlike those of the Army—were almost entirely in the hands of civilians, few naval officers had ever been directly concerned with such matters. But a fleet in the Mediterranean, deprived of the use of Malta and possibly not in control of the passage through the central basin, would be called upon to operate without a fully established base. The only port in the Eastern Mediterranean that could berth a fleet of moderate size was Alexandria, where many commercial facilities existed. It would have to serve both as an operational and a main base; it had the disadvantage of being over 800 miles from the Italian mainland; and, not being land-enclosed, was difficult to protect from seaward.
Up to the time of Munich it was believed that sufficient stores of all kinds and ammunition could be carried afloat in special supply ships which would themselves be able to replenish at Malta, and, as the ports of Egypt would be at the disposal of the Royal Navy in the event of an apprehended international emergency, no undue concern was felt on this score. So far as victualling stores were concerned, it had been found during the Ethiopian crisis that shore facilities were important, but those that had been temporarily acquired on a small scale at Port Said, and to an even lesser extent at Haifa and Alexandria, had been given up in 1936.
There remained the questions of oil fuel supply, of repairs, and, above all, of docking. Adequate storage of oil fuel ashore was of course desirable. At Port Said the Shell Company’s storage tanks were suitably situated and were sufficient to meet the requirements of ships there; but at Alexandria the oil tanks were so close to the quayside that, if they received bomb damage, their content’s would spill over into the harbour where they might cause a conflagration. It was therefore planned to keep at least 25,000 tons of furnace oil stored afloat and dispersed in tankers; this arrangement would not be entirely satisfactory, for apart from the danger of having so much oil fuel in the harbour it was wasteful in tanker tonnage. These
tankers would replenish at Haifa where there was first class storage accommodation, of which the Admiralty had decided as early as September 1938 to take up 60,000 tons, to be filled with oil fuel shipped from the Abadan refinery. They considered that the desert pipeline could not be relied on in time of war. Besides, the oil which it delivered was crude, and the Haifa refinery was unlikely to be working before the middle of 1940. There was the possibility of course that the enemy would succeed in blocking the Canal and would menace the route through the Red Sea, but Admiral Cunningham did not expect that the Canal would be closed for any appreciable period and there was every confidence that, after a few weeks, the Navy could establish command of the Red Sea. Nevertheless, it was clearly wise to concentrate as much oil as possible in the Eastern Mediterranean in case the Canal should be closed.
To meet the normal requirements for repairs the repair ship HMS Resource was to be berthed in Alexandria harbour. In addition there would be repair and depot ships for destroyers and submarines. But there still remained the problem of docking, for in the Eastern Mediterranean there was only one graving dock capable of taking warships up to a 6-inch cruiser of the Arethusa class. This was the Gabbary graving dock, owned and operated by the Egyptian Ports and Lights Administration but later absorbed into Admiralty dockyard control. This question of docking was of great importance, not only for repairs, but also for the cleaning of ships’ bottoms, for the growth that was known to accumulate in Alexandria harbour would so reduce the speed of our ships as to give the Italians a still greater advantage in this respect. As far back as 1937 proposals had been accepted by the Egyptian Government for the construction of a 1,000 ft long graving dock, together with other improvements such as the extension of certain breakwaters and quays, dredging in the harbour, and the deepening of the Great Pass Channel from 34 to 40 feet; this was required to enable capital ships to return to harbour even if their draft were increased by, damage received in action. But beyond a certain amount of dredging in the harbour nothing was done.13
This, then, was the position during the Munich crisis of 1938. It emphasized the necessity for the development of naval base facilities in the Eastern Mediterranean and prompted the Commander-in-Chief Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, to forward a number of proposals for making good the glaring deficiencies which the crisis had brought to light. By March 1939 the most pressing question was still the docking of ships, and the Admiralty suggested that the Malta floating dock, which was capable of accommodating the most modern battleship, should be transferred to Alexandria. To this the
Commander-in-Chief raised the strongest objections, pointing out the disadvantages of losing the facilities of a floating dock at Malta and rejecting the idea of surrendering altogether the use of Malta as a base.14 In deference to his wishes the Admiralty decided to move the Portsmouth floating dock to Alexandria; after a passage causing no little anxiety it arrived only three weeks before the outbreak of war with Germany. This dock (AFD5) had been built in 1912 and during the 1914–18 war had served the Grand Fleet in Scottish waters. It was later moved to Portsmouth, where the greatest care had been taken to preserve the life of its boilers, generators and pumps. On arrival at Alexandria the boilers had to be steamed and the machinery run continuously throughout the whole period of the war, and at no time was it necessary to modify the docking programme on account of mechanical defects. But the fact that it was only capable of taking vessels up to 31,500 tons, which included Queen Elizabeth and Royal Sovereign Class battleships in a specially lightened condition but not any more modern battleship, was to impose definite limitations on the composition of the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet.
It was realized that to provide naval stores and victuals by means of supply ships replenishing at Malta might not be possible during a war with Italy. Accordingly, in January 1939, store depots, regarded as extensions of the Malta Yard, were set up at Alexandria and Port Said. By the outbreak of war the main depot had spread to cover nearly three acres, which eventually became more than thirty, and the difficulty was to find suitable buildings. The excellent dockside sheds were soon required for the transit handling of the great volume of war material for all three Services. The Navy had to adapt such premises as cotton warehouses, an old church, and a disused racehorse stable, and accept the inconvenience and delay, not to mention the security difficulty, of having its stores scattered over a wide area. This led to a requirement for further transport, which the Army helped to provide and operate.
After Munich a small reserve victualling depot was established at Alexandria; it was brought into use when the fleet concentrated there after the Italian invasion of Albania. Since then the Army had held a reserve of frozen meat for naval requirements, and arrangements had been made for its replenishment by frozen meat ships from Colombo. The total naval ration strength at Alexandria in October 1939, ashore and afloat, was about 12,000.
If the Fleet had become involved in hostilities in 1935 it would
have been seriously handicapped by the shortage of reserve ammunition. To remedy this situation the Admiralty requisitioned a number of merchant vessels to act as both Armament Store Carriers (ASC) and Armament Supply Issuing Ships (ASIS) and sent them to the Eastern Mediterranean early in August 1939. A scheme was prepared and a site chosen for a naval armament depot ashore near Dekheila, where natural cover existed in caves from which stone had been quarried for over 3,000 years. On the outbreak of war this scheme was still in the planning stage and it was decided that, initially at least, all reserve ammunition should be stored afloat. As it was clearly undesirable for it all to be concentrated in Alexandria harbour, three ASIS were berthed in the Great Bitter Lakes. A further dispersal was arranged in Alexandria harbour by the use of a number of cotton lighters, of which eventually 84 were taken up and moored in a specially protected area. Apart from the additional security, this arrangement provided a ready means of replenishing ships as they entered harbour; while they were berthing, tugs would bring the lighters alongside. Armament offices and non-explosive stores were established on Mahmoudieh Quay.
Thus, by September 1939, action was well in hand to create naval base facilities at Alexandria. But as the days passed and an uneasy peace settled over the Mediterranean, progress was arrested. Ships, including all the repair and depot ships, left the Mediterranean station for active operations in the war against Germany. Under orders from the Admiralty the Commander-in-Chief transferred his flag ashore at Malta on 1st November. Here, in addition to the operational staff, he was followed by the large proportion of the stores, armament, and victualling staff who had been drafted to build up the Alexandria base. Stores started filtering back to Malta, where the ASIS also off-loaded a quantity of their ammunition. The ASC were paid off for employment on more general service. The Bitter Lakes organization was closed down, and early in 1940 the special ammunition lighters at Alexandria were returned to their owners. Only victualling stores continued to be built up, but at a very slow rate.
Concerned at the situation, Admiral Cunningham appealed to the Admiralty in January for stores, ammunition, and other war material to be maintained in the Mediterranean at a level that would suffice for a considerable fleet. The Admiralty agreed, but it was not until May, when Italy’s entry into the war seemed imminent and the fleet once again began to concentrate in the Eastern Mediterranean, that activities were resumed. Stores of all kinds were transferred from Malta, and labour was recruited locally and trained for specialized duties. Armament Stores Carriers and Issuing Ships reappeared, embarked their outfits at Malta, and took up their
berths in the Eastern Mediterranean. By June 1940 the situation was substantially the same as it had been in September 1939, with one important difference. Previously the fleet had included four 8-inch cruisers and only three 6-inch. Now there were eight 6-inch cruisers and none of the larger type. This meant a shortage of 6-inch reserve ammunition, which was temporarily relieved in July by taking advantage of HMS Liverpool’s trip to Aden with 2nd Bn The Black Watch to bring back to the Mediterranean much of the reserve 6-inch ammunition held there for the East Indies Station.
No further progress had been made with the naval armament depot near Dekheila and it was still the policy for ammunition reserves to be stored afloat. The danger of this was soon emphasized when an ASC was hit by a bomb in Alexandria harbour and set on fire. Fortunately the carrier was empty at the time. On the other hand Egypt was liable to invasion and plans had even to be made for a temporary withdrawal of the Fleet from Alexandria; it was therefore not considered opportune to disperse naval ammunition ashore where it might be overrun by the enemy and lost. Some depth charges were, however, stored at Aboukir, and spare torpedoes, eventually amounting to several hundreds, were dispersed ashore at Alexandria and Port Said.
Airfields from which naval aircraft could operate and to which carrier aircraft could be flown on their parent ship’s return to harbour were an essential requirement of a fleet base. At Alexandria this was particularly important because, in the early days, the Fleet Air Arm fighters provided a valuable contribution to the air defence. For this purpose the Egyptian air station at Dekheila had been taken over by the Royal Navy and, as HMS Grebe, provided accommodation for four naval air squadrons. Further facilities were soon needed, and in August 1940 the construction began at Lake Mariut (Alexandria) of an airfield to take six disembarked squadrons, but it was not ready until the middle of 1941. The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief undertook the provision of a separate reserve, storage, and repair station for the Fleet Air Arm at Fayid (HMS Phoenix) in the Canal area, and, in addition, a special depot to meet the growing demands for naval aircraft stores was established in the Jebel Massara, near Tura.
It soon became clear that, for various reasons, the Resource was unable to meet all the requirements of a dockyard, and that a repair organization would have to be established ashore. Starting with an office on Mahmoudieh Quay, an organization was built up which eventually employed a labour force of 2,500. But, although the local unskilled labour was plentiful and efficient, the lack of skilled labour, which was in such demand at home and so rare in Egypt, was a serious handicap, and the fact that British, Maltese, and local
employees all received different rates of pay was not conducive to smooth working.15 But the most serious difficulties arose from shortage of plant and machine tools. There were, of course, a number of private firms in Alexandria, and they were used to the full, but their ship-repairing facilities were poor, their machinery was obsolete and in bad condition, and their ability to carry out structural repairs was limited.16 But by improvisation and with the use of machine tools provided by the Army, supplemented later by captures from the enemy, difficulties were largely overcome, so that vessels could be taken in hand for conversions, refits, and repair of damage received in action.
The Gun Mounting Depot was another important branch of dockyard activity which grew to an unexpected extent. The maintenance of the armament and fire-control instruments of ships demanded no little ingenuity, especially in the early days; for example, if new gun-barrels were not available, barrels had to be taken from damaged ships. Much was done, too, to improve the inadequate anti-aircraft armament in H.M. ships, before the Oerlikon guns became available, by mounting Italian guns captured by the Army.
It was, of course, unfortunate that so much had to be concentrated at Alexandria, but it was only possible for minor ports, such as Haifa and Port Said, to relieve this congestion in some small degree. A few destroyers and submarines could be taken in hand for boiler cleaning and refit at Port Said, but it was not until very much later that facilities, mostly supplied by the Army, were available at Haifa for this purpose. The oil refinery at Haifa began production in June 1940, and soon became the principal source for the supply of oil fuel to the fleet, but it was liable to air attack from the Dodecanese, and an, air raid in July destroyed one tank and damaged others. The Commander-in-Chief represented to the Admiralty that with only one heavy anti-aircraft battery and no fighter aircraft or up-to-date warning system it would only be a matter of time before the refinery was put out of action. Fortunately the Italians did not persist with their attacks. Haifa had also been earmarked as the principal mine depot for the fleet, and this—with the Army’s help—it eventually became. But rather than store mines in such a vulnerable spot the Commander-in-Chief decided to keep his mine
carriers in the Canal area until Haifa should be reasonably safe from air attack.
Broadly speaking, then, in spite of some satisfactory features. there was much in the base situation to cause Admiral Cunningham grave concern. There seemed little likelihood that the deepening of the Great Pass, for which he had pressed, would ever be achieved; the repair organization was a sketchy improvisation; the lack of an adequate reserve of 6-inch and anti-aircraft ammunition was a constant anxiety. Worse still, the defences of Alexandria, especially against air attacks inspired little confidence. Yet upon the safety-of the floating dock virtually depended the ability of the fleet to operate; if the dock was destroyed the effect upon our whole position in the Middle East would be incalculable. That these difficulties and dangers were successfully overcome was due to ingenuity and enterprise in making full use of the facilities available, to good luck, to the ready co-operation of Egyptian officials at Alexandria, animated by the Director-General of the Ports and Lights Administration (a retired Rear-Admiral, Sir Gerard Wells), and to the help of the other Services.