Chapter 12: Changes in the Organization and High Command
The Prime Minister, having made it very clear that he was dissatisfied with the Army’s use of its manpower in the Middle East, turned his attention to the Royal Air Force, which he thought was not achieving a high enough figure for serviceable aircraft. The Air Ministry, too, had had its doubts, and, as a result of the experience gained in France, had established a Chief Maintenance Officer at Middle East Headquarters in March 1941 to take off the shoulders of the Air Officer in charge of Administration all detailed questions of maintenance. The figures which continued to be given to the Prime Minister from time to time did nothing to remove his doubts, and on 30th April the Defence Committee expressed its belief that the repair organization in the Middle East did not seem able to cope with its many problems and difficulties.
At the beginning of May Air Chief Marshal Longmore was called to London for discussions on air matters generally. He complied with some reluctance, because of the crisis that had arisen at Habbaniya. On 9th May the Prime Minister instructed the Minister of State and the former Minister of Aircraft Production, Lord Beaverbrook, to send out a mission composed of members of that Ministry led by Air Vice-Marshal G. G. Dawson, with the task of investigating the whole organization for aircraft maintenance and of introducing methods which had proved successful in the United Kingdom. Although Air Vice-Marshal Dawson was not a representative of the Air Ministry, he seems to have been given to understand that he was free to comment and advise on air matters generally and did not hesitate to do so. Having travelled along the Takoradi route he arrived in Cairo early in June and made proposals for radical changes in the administrative organization. He himself would become Chief Maintenance and Supply Officer directly under the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief. A new Maintenance Group would control all the maintenance, repair, and salvage units and air stores parks; in fact, it would perform in the Middle East functions like those of the Maintenance Command and the Ministry of Aircraft Production in the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, in London, Air Chief Marshal Longmore, well satisfied with the outcome of the discussions on air matters and especially with
the prospect of receiving strong reinforcements of aircraft, was preparing to return to the Middle East. On 19th May he was suddenly told that he was not to go. Some days later it was announced that he would be succeeded as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Middle East, by his deputy, Air Marshal Tedder, and would himself become Inspector General of the Royal Air Force. This was a post of some importance but not comparable with the one he was leaving. The method of his removal gave him no chance of saying good-bye to his men or to his fellow Commanders-in-Chief with whom he had worked so closely, and it was particularly unfortunate that the public announcement coincided with the fall of Crete. Whether or not the idea was to break it to him gently, he was certainly taken by surprise.
Air Chief Marshal Longmore had been in command of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East for just a year. He had been appointed at the time when Italy seemed to be about to take the plunge, and he was faced with the prospect of soon having to fight a numerically stronger opponent who would have the added advantage of being within easy reach of his home bases. Most of the British aircraft in the Middle East were obsolete and there was an acute shortage of skilled airmen and of equipment of all kinds. Nevertheless Sir Arthur Longmore used his squadrons vigorously and aggressively from the start, a policy which had the success it deserved both in the Western Desert and in East Africa. He was under constant pressure from the other Services to give them more air support and he felt keenly his inability to meet their wishes. He thought it right to represent his situation frequently to London, where, during the early months of 1941, there was some disapproval of his clamorous appeals for more aircraft. More than once he had said that too much was being expected of his forces: the sudden offer of ten squadrons to Turkey was an instance, and one which he thought could not have sprung from a real understanding of the extent to which his forces were already stretched. He incurred the displeasure of the Prime Minister for appearing to doubt whether the utmost was being done to help him, and he was criticized for the apparently small numbers of aircraft fit to fly.
The replacement of Air Chief Marshal Longmore was the first change in the original triumvirate in the Middle East. He went the way of so many British Commanders whose mixed fortune it has been to find themselves in high command at the beginning of a major war. They have had to take the first shock and hold the position until the country has had time to build up the strength appropriate to its policy. Their share in the final victory must never be underrated.
Thus it was that the Dawson proposals for reorganizing the system of aircraft maintenance were presented not to Air Chief Marshal Longmore but to Air Marshal Tedder, who informed the Air Ministry
that he wished to adopt them. The Air Ministry, however, while agreeing with the need for a Maintenance Group, considered that its place in the organization should be in accordance with the well-established principle of placing the Chief Maintenance Officer under the Air Officer in charge of Administration, who alone ought to be responsible to the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief for the control and coordination of the administrative services. Air Marshal Tedder was therefore asked to reconsider the proposals, but he maintained that his Command could not fairly be compared with a Home Command of the Royal Air Force, which had the backing of the Air Ministry, the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the aircraft industry, and a separate Maintenance Command. The remedy was unorthodox, but the circumstances were unusual and in the end Air Marshal Tedder got his way. As will be seen later the new organization had its growing pains, but the fact remains that the proportion of serviceable aircraft of operational types showed an encouraging increase in the following autumn.
After the controversy in the early part of 1941 about fighting troops versus rearward services in the army, the Prime Minister had given much thought to the best way of lightening the burden of administration falling on General Wavell’s shoulders, seeing that he had to conduct no less than four different campaigns at once and had much quasi-political and diplomatic business to attend to. The opening of the Red Sea to United States shipping in April 1941 and the bulk and importance of the supplies that were to be sent from America to the Middle East brought the matter to a head, for it was clearly reasonable to insist that the arrangements for dealing with these supplies, without which the war in the Middle East could not be conducted at its needful scale, should be as good as possible. ‘It would be disastrous’, wrote Mr. Churchill, ‘if large accumulations of American supplies arrived without efficient measures for their reception and without large scale planning for the future. Besides this it will be necessary that considerable numbers of American engineers and mechanics should come for the servicing and repair of their own types of aircraft, tanks, and transport.’
On 19th May General Sir Robert Haining, the Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was, at the Prime Minister’s direction, appointed ‘Intendant-General of the Army of the Middle East.’ No such post existed in the Middle East or anywhere else, so there was no precedent to follow in framing his duties. These were evidently not clearly understood by all the authorities interested, for on 21st May General Haining received instructions from the Chief of the Imperial General Staff telling him to go to the Middle East and examine the
military administration in the Command, in order to make recommendations for its improvement, and on the 30th he received new instructions, this time from the Secretary of State for War, telling him to relieve General Wavell of some of his administrative responsibilities. He was first to perfect the organization for repairing and maintaining the serviceability of mechanical vehicles of all kinds; secondly, he was to ensure that manpower in the rearward services was economically used and that the highest number of tactical fighting units was formed. But this did not reflect the Prime Minister’s intention accurately, for in conveying to General Wavell the news of the new appointment, Mr. Churchill explained that the Intendant-General was to be set up under his (Wavell’s) authority, that his staff was largely to be drawn from the existing staffs in the Middle East, and that he would have a powerful and growing civilian element with which to undertake many of the duties which at home were performed by the War Office and Ministry of Supply. His duties would include ‘the supervision and control of rearward administrative services’, but his first duty was to make an examination on the spot and to report within a fortnight how these general instructions might be implemented and more precisely defined.
From this General Haining was at least able to deduce that his mission was intended to be at first merely exploratory. Accompanied by some of his civilian experts, and followed by others, he reached Cairo on 9th June. What with the aftermath of Crete, the siege of Tobruk, the preparations for BATTLEAXE, and the current campaign in Syria, the staffs had plenty to do without undergoing a searching inquisition, but General Haining nevertheless managed to obtain his information and make his report at the end of the fortnight. Before sending it he obtained the agreement in principle of the three Commanders-in-Chief and the Ambassador.
The paramount factors, in his opinion, were that the British forces in Egypt were on the territory of a sovereign state which was not at war with Germany, and whose Government controlled the railways and to a great extent the ports. Labour was one of great difficulties, for although there was plenty of it for use in the ports and base depots, the Egyptian Government would only allow their army labour companies to be raised for use in Egypt itself. Labour units for general service had therefore to be raised and imported from India and Cyprus, and in future from East and South Africa also. Egyptian civil labour was apt to panic, so that until sufficient uniformed labour was available the working of the ports was likely to be interrupted under air attack. Should the Egyptians become generally uncooperative there would be very great difficulty in unloading vessels and in clearing the cargoes. This would affect not only the Army and Air Force but also the Navy and the Ministry of War Transport. It should
be realized also that the Army was responsible for a number of activities on behalf of all three Services, such as the feeding of the civil population in several surrounding territories.
General Haining’s conclusion was that the root of the administrative problem was not within the Army or peculiar to it. It lay in the relationship between the Royal Navy, the Army, the Royal Air Force, and the British Government departments, with each other and with the Egyptian Government. Consequently the solution could not be confined to the Army, but would have to take account of certain of the administrative activities of the other services and of the civil authorities. If the Intendant-General was to carry out the executive duties given in his instructions he would require powers over all the elements concerned, although he could leave the execution of day-to-day administration in the hands of the Commanders-in-Chief. General Haining added that if his proposals were accepted he would like to bring his exploratory period to an end and take on his executive functions. To this he received no answer, for at this moment the question of his status became bound up with a bigger issue.
It was nearly a year since General Wavell had suggested, in the complex and uncertain situation in the Middle East which followed the collapse of France, that a body should be set up under a Cabinet Minister, situated nearer to its work than London, to perform duties delegated to it by the War Cabinet without having constantly to refer home. This suggestion was not accepted, and General Wavell withdrew it, proposing instead that a Ministerial Committee in London should be given the task of keeping Middle East affairs continually under review. This alternative was adopted, and no more was heard of the larger scheme until on 18th April 1941 the three Commanders-in-Chief made a strong appeal to the Chiefs of Staff for some authority to be established in the Middle East to deal with the political aspect of issues which affected more than one department or territory, and to coordinate and control the diplomatic and administrative representatives of all departments of the British Government in much the same way as the Commanders-in-Chief themselves dealt with their various local Commanders. They had been impressed by the saving of time achieved when the Foreign Secretary had been present in the Middle East with powers to act without reference home. It was of great importance to avoid delays and uncertainties over the many current major issues in the Middle East and to compete effectively with the ‘subversive offensive’ being undertaken by the Axis powers in the Arabic speaking countries. The coup d’état in Iraq had pointed to the danger very clearly.
The Chiefs of Staff were impressed at once by this suggestion, in
which they saw obvious advantages, but, instead of pressing it strongly on the ground that the Commanders-in-Chief should not be handicapped by delays in reaching decisions on political issues affecting strategy, they took the more discreet line of treating the issues as political rather than military, and passed the proposal to the War Cabinet for examination by the Ministers concerned, adding that they agreed with it in principle. Nothing happened for two months, during which time the arguments in favour of acting on the Commanders-in-Chief’s suggestion were greatly strengthened by the turn of events in Iraq and Syria. On 24th June, as has been related, General Haining’s report made it clear that in a more limited field it was essential to achieve coordination not only between the Services but with the various British Government departments and with the Government of Egypt. Previous to this, on 7th June, Mr. Churchill’s son, Mr. Randolph Churchill, MP, who was serving in the Middle East, had sent a telegram to the Prime Minister through the Ambassador in Cairo urging that a member of the War Cabinet should be sent out to give day-to-day political and strategic direction. Among his tasks would be to coordinate supply and to direct censorship, intelligence and propaganda.
On 28th June Mr. Oliver Lyttelton, President of the Board of Trade, was appointed Minister of State in the Middle East. His instructions from the Prime Minister showed that the Commanders-in-Chief had got all they asked for and more. Broadly, he was to represent the War Cabinet on the spot. His prime duty was to relieve the Commanders-in-Chief of all extraneous burdens and to settle promptly, in accordance with the policy of His Majesty’s Government, many questions affecting several departments or authorities which hitherto had required reference home. Examples of the extraneous matters were: relations with the Free French; propaganda and subversive warfare; finance and economic warfare. He was to give the Commanders-in-Chief the political guidance that had hitherto not been available locally. He was also to supervise the activities of the Intendant-General, including those locally connected with supplies of all kinds from the United States of America. On the political and diplomatic side he was to coordinate so far as was necessary the policy of His Majesty’s representatives in Egypt, the Sudan, Cyprus, Palestine and Transjordan, Iraq, Ethiopia, British Somaliland, and the occupied territories of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, and, when occupied, Syria. For operational purposes Iraq was to remain under the Government of India. Aden was added to the list in August, and the Yemen in September.
Mr. Lyttelton arrived in Cairo on 5th July and at once set up a War Council under his own chairmanship. The permanent members were the three Commanders-in-Chief, the Intendant-General, the Ambassador to Egypt, and, when available, the Prime Minister of
South Africa, the Ambassador to Iraq, the High Commissioner to Palestine and the Governors of Cyprus and Aden. A representative of the Government of India became a member shortly afterwards. At the suggestion of the Commanders-in-Chief a Defence Committee, consisting of the Minister of State and themselves, was set up as a sub-committee of the War Council, so that action could be concerted between the Services on many technical and military problems without reference to the War Council. In addition, the Commanders-in-Chief continued to meet together regularly, with their senior staff officers, to settle details of operational and administrative matters.
In the fields of subversive activities and propaganda the Minister of State reported that he had found a state of chaos. He secured the amalgamation of the various agencies concerned and himself undertook the task of ensuring that open and secret propaganda and subversive activities were coordinated with the strategical policy and plans of the Commanders-in-Chief. He also brought the censorship and information services under the same head as propaganda. He set up a special sub-committee of the War Council in October to consider problems connected with American aid.
The presence in the Middle East of a Minister of Cabinet rank was fully justified by results. Indeed, seven months later, when Mr. Lyttelton was called home to become Minister of Production, the Commanders-in-Chief recorded their opinion that a high-level link with His Majesty’s Government was still indispensable; the Minister’s political guidance had been invaluable, and he had relieved them of burdens with which they could not have coped in addition to attending to their primary duties as Commanders-in-Chief. The Office of the Minister of State had become a focus for the coordination of the views of all authorities, military and civil, in the Middle East, and they sincerely hoped that no change in the system was intended.
General Haining had been trying hard to increase his own usefulness, but having been placed under the direction of the newly created Minister of State he could obviously not try to effect any major changes until Mr. Lyttelton had decided how the Intendant-General was to be used. On 10th July the Minister of State laid down, with the agreement of the three Commanders-in-Chief, that the Intendant-General was to direct the rearward organizations for the administration of shipping, ports, railways and roads; to coordinate the provision of supplies to the Middle East; to supervise the maintenance, repair and servicing of vehicles; to collaborate with the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm in their repair work in order to ensure the economical use of resources; and to advise on the economical use of manpower in rearward zones and the need for any general reorganization of the Army administrative staff and services. General Haining tried to translate these instructions into an agreed procedure, which at once
gave the impression that some of the Army’s administrative staff and heads of services were being asked to serve two masters. A working arrangement of a sort was agreed upon, but it was not at all what the Prime Minister had intended when he first decided to create an Intendant-General. The next move was in October, when the War Office announced the appointment of a Principal Administrative Staff Officer to the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East. This meant that instead of having two senior administrative staff officers—one for the Adjutant General’s affairs and one for the Quarter-Master General’s—the Commander-in-Chief would have only one, who would have the same financial powers as himself.
At the same time General Haining’s position was again defined, and this time he was relieved of all duties ‘in the Army sphere proper’ and was made responsible solely to the Minister of State. He was to coordinate such inter-Service matters as the Minister might direct. In these circumstances it is not surprising that before long the Minister of State supported General Haining’s view that the appointment of Intendant-General was superfluous, and at the end of the year it was abolished.
Although he never performed the executive functions for which he was originally intended, General Haining and his experts were able to help the staffs in a number of ways. For example, the Ministry of War Transport’s representative received the strong support of the Intendant-General in his action to improve the system of berthing and discharging ships, a matter in which several Egyptian departments as well as the three Services were concerned, and which was of the greatest importance because of the shortage of shipping and the need to hasten the turn-round. General Haining’s team also gave advice on the long-term development of the existing ports and on the construction of new ones. They did much to coordinate the work of the military and civil supply agencies in the Middle East with that of the Ministry of War Transport and the Eastern Group Supply Council in India. They also surveyed all the installations engaged in the maintenance, servicing, and repair of vehicles and made recommendations to all three Services, and General Haining was instrumental in securing the appointment of Controller of Mechanical Engineering Resources to coordinate all Army and Royal Air Force vehicle workshops.
It was, however, a clumsy way of getting these things done. The intention behind the appointment, which was to help the Commander-in-Chief, had been excellent, but there seems to have been some confusion between the idea of lightening his administrative burden as much as possible and that of relieving him of responsibility. Military plans in the Middle East depended so much upon what was logistically possible that the responsibility for decisions on administrative matters
could not safely be removed from the person responsible for decisions on operations. There were many practical ways of helping the Commander-in-Chief in the sphere of administration, but to try to relieve him of an integral part of his responsibility was not one of them. The creation of the Principal Administrative Staff Officer gave the Commander-in-Chief a measure of help with his own affairs and was a logical step in keeping with the vast growth of his forces, while the Minister of State was able to coordinate, as necessary, the work of all the Services and departments. Between these two new authorities the Intendant-General was inevitably squeezed out.
Although it was General Wavell who first suggested the appointment of a resident minister in the Middle East, and although it was largely on his account that the post was eventually created, he did not remain to reap the benefits. By the time the Prime Minister was convinced that too much was being asked of the Commanders-in-Chief, and in particular of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, General Wavell was showing signs of being a tired man—as well he might. The loss of his French allies and the great disparity in numbers between his own modest forces and those of Marshal Graziani and the Duke of Aosta had been enough to make any Commander-in-Chief anxious, though what worried General Wavell much more was the progressive dispersion of his troops over so many fronts. He bore a large share of the responsibility for the decision to face the Germans in Greece, a decision which he was convinced, and remained convinced, was right, and he never sheltered behind anyone, either soldier or politician, in connexion with it. The extent to which the land defence of Cyrenaica was weakened in order to provide forces for Greece was entirely his affair and he readily accepted the full blame for the loss of nearly all the gains made in his own first successful offensive. This disaster affected him deeply, and when it was followed by the unsuccessful encounters in Greece and Crete he began to be more critical of the many demands that were being made of the forces under his command. He disagreed with the wish of the Chiefs of Staff that his troops should be sent to intervene in Iraq, and had to be given a direct order. It was over Syria that the presence of a Minister of State might have been particularly valuable and it was partly owing to political issues that General Wavell felt his own position to be impossible and asked to be relieved of his command if his views were not accepted. The matter was not taken up directly, but the incident had its effect. A month later came the disappointing failure of BATTLEAXE. The Prime Minister, who had never had full confidence in General Wavell, then decided that a fresh eye and an untrained hand were needed in the Middle East, a view with which General Wavell himself agreed.
The choice fell upon General Sir Claude Auchinleck, who had commanded for a time the expedition to Norway in 1940, had held the important Southern Command in England, and was now Commander-in-Chief in India. On 1st July General Auchinleck arrived in Cairo and on the 5th he took over the command. General Wavell replaced him as Commander-in-Chief, India, as a temporary war time appointment.
It is outside the scope of this volume to consider the whole question of the central conduct of the war, but these changes in the Triumvirate, after Admiral Cunningham, General Wavell, and Air Chief Marshal Longmore had made the joint system work all through a feverish year, offer an opportunity to enlarge upon one aspect of the relations between the Commanders-in-Chief and the Prime Minster, who was also Minister of Defence.
It is possible to picture a Minister of Defence content to deal only with the high policy for the conduct of the war and to leave the details to his subordinates. This was not Mr. Churchill’s way, although all formal orders and instructions to the Commanders-in-Chief did go out through, or from, the Chiefs of Staff. Mr. Churchill was accustomed to interest himself not only in what was to be done, but also—in great detail—in how it was to be done.1 He liked to deal direct with individuals, especially those who were conducting any enterprise. He liked to forge strong links by personal meetings. He could do this with Commanders in England, and his conversations with them, as with colleagues, officials, and many other individuals, did much to satisfy his eager mind. With the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East, however, he had usually to be content with exchanging telegrams, but even this method left no doubt that there was a vigorous central direction of the war.
In August 1940 Mr. Churchill met General Wavell for the first time, having felt the need to discuss affairs in the Western Desert with the Commander-in-Chief himself. Although he was favourably impressed in many ways, it was not the sort of meeting where General Wavell’s inability to talk easily and persuasively could pass unnoticed. Mr. Churchill was disappointed by his exposition of the circumstances and difficulties in the various theatres of the Middle East: General Wavell did not convey a sense of mental vigour and the resolve to overcome obstacles. Instead, he gave an impression of a lack of concentration upon the decisive point. Mr. Eden and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir John Dill, were greatly disturbed by this judgement, which was so different from their own, and hoped that any
lack of confidence in General Wavell would not last much longer. Mr. Churchill has written that ‘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.’2 Thus it is quite clear that at this early stage Mr. Churchill had doubts about the fitness of General Wavell for his important post. General Wavell naturally sensed something of this, and as soon as he returned to Cairo he received the Prime Minister’s General Directive which did nothing to set his mind at rest, for the Directive contained suggestions for altering the dispositions of his forces. It also caused the other Commanders-in-Chief some surprise and concern for it contained much with which they did not agree.3
Mr. Churchill addressed many personal messages to the Commanders-in-Chief on many subjects. No one would question the right of the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence to send any messages he liked. And when the holder of the office was a statesman of unrivalled experience in world affairs who had held nearly every ministerial appointment and was, moreover, known to be a keen student of war, his messages could not fail to excite interest and command attention. Many of them were very welcome, especially the encouraging and warm-hearted telegrams wishing good luck and promising support whatever happened. Telegrams like these do much to save Commanders from worrying about the rightness of what they have decided to do and enable them to concentrate upon doing it. Congratulations upon a success, too, were always prompt and generous. An example of another helpful type of message was an informative telegram to Admiral Cunningham explaining why it would be possible to part with a battleship from the Atlantic; he could not know the latest developments in Anglo-American naval cooperation in the Atlantic, which were then outlined.
Not all the telegrams were like this. There was a large number, much less welcome, of which all but a few were addressed to General Wavell. Although they were typical of Mr. Churchill’s normal methods, these telegrams contained so many enquiries and suggestions about matters of detail well within the province of a Commander-in-Chief, that to General Wavell, who was already conscious of a lack of confidence in himself, they were irritating and, in his opinion, needless. Those nearest to him in his work had little doubt that the tiredness he showed in the late spring of 1941 was not entirely caused by the stresses and strains of campaigning, nor by his many heavy
responsibilities, but was aggravated by the feeling that he did not enjoy the full confidence of the Prime Minster.
The other Commanders-in-Chief received far fewer personal telegrams, and these were mainly cordial. Some, however, seemed to them in the midst of all their cares and labours to be less than generous. They were particularly hurt by what seemed to them to be an idea that the Middle East Command was lacking in energy, foresight, and the determination to overcome difficulties. It was indeed fortunate that this was not so.
Under General Wavell’s command the Army in the Middle East had known both success and failure, and his officers and men had trusted and respected him through bad times as well as good. They greatly admired his moral and physical courage, the calmness and fortitude with which he took the shocks of war as they came, his manifest sincerity and his deep knowledge of war. It was his habit to see for himself whenever possible, and a visit from the Commander-in-Chief was not a visitation but a tonic. His powerful mind, broadened by the range and variety of his reading, had a strong liking for the unorthodox, and this appealed greatly to men’s imagination. But while he was devising stratagems to deceive the enemy, his common sense and his attention to the hard realities of military movement and administration never deserted him; if he made or approved a plan it would often be imaginative and always be practical. His silences inspired many anecdotes, but though he disliked talking for talking’s sake his meaning was always plain to a Service audience. Few Commanders could express themselves so clearly on paper or write a more lucid order or telegram.
He was essentially a soldier’s soldier, and takes an assured place as one of the great commanders in military history.