Chapter 15: the Momentous Decisions of July and August 1942
WHILE the 8th Army and the Desert Air Force were engaging the enemy at El Alamein, the Prime Minister, President Roosevelt and their advisers had been hammering out decisions which were to shape the course of the war. The work had not been easy and Mr. Churchill has written of it: ‘During this month of July, when I was politically at my weakest and without a gleam of military success, I had to procure from the United States the decision which, for good or ill, dominated the next two years of the war. This was the abandonment of all plans for crossing the Channel in 1942 and the occupation of French North Africa in the autumn or winter by a large Anglo-American expedition.’1 After many exchanges of opinion and a visit to London by the President’s representatives, Mr. Hopkins, General Marshall and Admiral King, the final decisions were taken on 25th July. There was to be no cross-Channel expedition in 1942. Administrative preparations for the invasion of France (probably in 1943) were to continue, and ‘full steam ahead’ was ordered on the planning of an Allied landing in French North Africa to take place not later than 30th October 1942. This operation was named TORCH and will be described in Volume IV of this history.
It was obvious that these decisions would greatly affect, and would be affected by, the course of events in the Middle East, and during July Mr. Churchill gave his attention increasingly to that theatre. There were other reasons for this interest. Early in the month the outcome of the fighting in the Western Desert had been in doubt, to say the least, and public opinion in the United Kingdom (and indeed in America) was disturbed. Press reports from Cairo had seemed to be too optimistic and gave rise to doubts whether the High Command in the Middle East grasped the full seriousness of the situation. There was a feeling that with better generalship Rommel could have been defeated, and there were doubts whether the senior British commanders were up-to-date in their methods, especially of mechanized warfare. Nor was it felt that army/air co-operation had been as good
as it might be, and after three years of war we had apparently not matched the enemy in such vital weapons as tanks and anti-tank guns.
Apart from these important domestic matters, the question of Russian relations drew the Prime Minister’s thoughts eastward. He was anxious to meet Premier Stalin, and would have to perform the difficult tasks of explaining to him that there would be no second front in Europe in 1942 and of convincing him of the soundness of Anglo-American policy. It was very necessary to find out what were the Russian plans for the defence of the Caucasus front, which was vital to the Middle East and seemed to be in grave danger from the German advance in Southern Russia. Directly after the decisions of 25th July had been reached Mr. Churchill telegraphed to General Auchinleck an outline of the new policy, pointing out how TORCH would fit in with ACROBAT—the advance from Cyrenaica into Tripolitania. He added that the CIGS, General Sir Alan Brooke, was flying out to Cairo to explain the future plans.
Mr. Churchill was also thinking of visiting the Middle East himself. On 31st July came Premier Stalin’s invitation to Moscow. Early on 3rd August the Prime Minister left England in an American Liberator and reached Cairo with only one stop—at Gibraltar. General Brooke arrived the same day from Malta, where he had been visiting. General Wavell came from India and Field-Marshal Smuts from South Africa to join in the consultations.
All through the early summer of 1942 the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East had felt the need of authoritative strategical guidance. To them the conflicting requirements of the Desert and northern fronts were very real. Indeed the northern front had been an anxiety amidst all the vicissitudes of the year up to date. Threats to it might occur from a hostile advance on Syria and Iraq through Turkey, or on Persia from the Caucasus; there was also the danger of internal disorder in those unstable countries (Syria, Iraq and Persia), which might have serious consequences for our bases and supplies of oil. The difficulty was to estimate when these dangers might become acute, and to find the forces to meet them while continuing to sustain the Desert front. Such guidance as had come from London had so far been of little help. For instance in May the view at the War Office was that the threat to the northern front was unlikely to occur before the autumn of 1942, but the Russians would not disclose their dispositions or plans in that quarter. It was in fact lack of information about the Russians rather than about the Germans which made the situation so hard to judge. Early in June the CIGS told General Auchinleck that he considered the danger to the northern front was in no way lessened. The very same day Mr. Churchill told the Minister of State
that the best opinion in England did not expect the Germans to advance smoothly or rapidly into the Caucasus; that the Russians, though anxious, were in very good heart; and that the forces on either side seemed well matched. None of this did much to help the men on the spot to shoulder their hard, practical responsibility or to absolve them from it.
On 9th July, soon after Rommel’s attack at El Alamein had been repulsed, the Middle East Defence Committee asked for guidance from London. They pointed out that since Japan had entered the war large diversions of land and air forces from the Middle East to the Far East had caused great risks to be run on the northern front. In fact the Russians had been relied on to guard this approach to Egypt and the Persian Gulf, and now the new German offensive in Russia seemed to be gaining at least an initial success. Almost the whole of the battle-worthy forces in the Middle East were concentrated in the Desert and it would be impracticable to transfer them to the northern front at this moment. Nor was there much hope of doing so in the future, for if the battle in the Desert went badly there would be no forces to spare, and if it went well it would be necessary to exploit any success to the utmost with the object of regaining Cyrenaica. But the challenge of a German advance into Northern Persia might arise by mid-October, and the less likely one of a move through Anatolia into Syria and Iraq by mid-September. To meet these threats there were in Persia, Syria, and Iraq part of two infantry divisions, some weak Allied contingents and almost no air forces. The matter was therefore urgent. The deficiency in Iraq and Persia was one armoured division and either four or six infantry divisions, depending on whether the situation in the Desert would improve enough to allow of the 44th and 51st Divisions, now on their way to Egypt, being sent to the northern front. If the campaign in Russia went badly for the Russians, and if more troops for the Middle East could not be provided in time, a choice between two serious decisions would have to be made: whether to transfer forces from Egypt to the northern front, thus securing the Persian oilfields but losing Egypt, or to continue to put the defence of Egypt first, thus risking the loss of the Persian oilfields. ‘We have not got the forces to do both’, the telegram concluded, ‘and if we try to do both we may fail to achieve either. We request your guidance and instructions on this issue.’
The Chiefs of Staff were unable to reply to this enquiry until the discussions with the Americans on the policy for the conduct of the war had been concluded, for the issues raised by the Middle East were far-reaching. On 12th July, however, the Prime Minister sent his views to General Auchinleck. Only too well was it realized, he said, that the Japanese threat to India and the defeats in the Western Desert had stripped bare the Middle East’s northern front. It was
impossible to send six or even four divisions from England or America to reach the northern front by the end of October. The only solution was to defeat or destroy Rommel, thus enabling the forces in the Middle East to be regrouped. Meanwhile an extra division (the 56th) would be sent in August and yet another was being got ready; if the Russian southern front showed signs of breaking it might be possible to withdraw a British division from India. If General Auchinleck could not defeat Rommel, all would depend on the Russian front holding. There was no reason to assume that it would not. Even if it broke it was unlikely that any substantial enemy forces could operate in Persia as early as October, and the General Staff felt that the onset of winter in the Caucasus might postpone the threat until the spring of 1943. Mr. Churchill was confident that General Auchinleck would defeat Rommel; if this happened, and if the Russians prevented the Germans breaking into Persia or Syria in 1942, it would be time to consider a British advance into Tripolitania.
General Auchinleck replied that he took this to mean that the Prime Minister accepted the risk to the northern front, and hence to Iraq and the oil. Whether it was a justifiable risk he himself could not say. He would continue to apply all his available resources to destroying the Germans in the Desert as soon as possible. He had constantly in mind an advance into Tripolitania, remote as the prospect might seem.
When July ended with a stalemate in the Desert, and with no prospect of resuming the offensive until mid-September, the Commanders-in-Chief were still in a dilemma. They naturally wished to secure both the western and northern fronts, for which they estimated they needed two fresh armoured and five infantry divisions, some 18,000 extra vehicles, and a large number of aircraft. It seemed most unlikely that reinforcements on this scale could be provided and more unlikely still that there would be the ships to carry them. In this perplexity the Commanders-in-Chief attended a meeting held by Mr. Churchill soon after his arrival in Cairo, at which there were also present Field-Marshal Smuts, General Wavell, the CIGS, and the Minister of State, Mr. Casey.
At this meeting General Brooke presented and amplified the reply of the Chiefs of Staff to the queries raised by the Middle East Defence Committee on 9th July. The Chiefs of Staff considered that if everything went wholly in the enemy’s favour a force of between three and five divisions supported by two or three hundred aircraft might advance from Tabriz and Astara during October, and that its progress might be rapid until the snow fell in December. An advance through Turkey or a seaborne/airborne expedition against Cyprus or the Levant was unlikely. Nor were the Germans likely to send large reinforcements to Africa while their offensive in Russia continued. The
Chiefs of Staff believed that there was a reasonable chance of defeating Rommel in the near future, but unless he were cleared out of Tripolitania there was little hope of transferring large land forces from the Desert to the northern front; the air requirements in the Desert would remain large whatever happened. They had then considered the balance-sheet of the forces in the Middle East and, assuming that all the reinforcements allotted or likely to be allotted were sent to the northern front, concluded that the shortage there in November would be one and a half armoured and two infantry divisions; in January 1943 it would be one armoured brigade and two infantry divisions.2 Nevertheless the Chiefs of Staff felt that the available troops might just be able to hold German infiltration into North Persia this autumn and winter. In the air prospects seemed better, for it was probable that by 31st December the Middle East would have most of the 95 squadrons that it needed for all its commitments.
If, however, the Germans completely defeated the Russians and were determined to drive the British from the Middle East, a grave situation might arise during the spring of 1943. Against the effort that the enemy might then be expected to make from both directions, the Middle East would need a maximum of nine armoured and twenty-four infantry divisions, and it seemed certain that what could be provided would fall short of these figures by one and a half armoured and seven infantry divisions.
The Chiefs of Staff had then gone on to suggest a policy. In framing it they had been greatly influenced by a recent report by the Oil Control Board that if Abadan and Bahrein were lost nearly 131 million tons of oil a year would have to be found from American and other sources. To carry this oil about the world 270 tankers would have to be added to the existing Allied tanker fleet, and this could not be done. The loss of Abadan and Bahrein would therefore be ‘calamitous’, and might lead to a 20 per cent cut in our various activities. The Chiefs of Staff had concluded:
(a) The capture of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania is [the] best contribution to Middle East security, since it is doubtful if total requirements can otherwise be met, even at [the] expense of trans-Atlantic movement of American forces; you should therefore strain every effort towards defeating Rommel and exploiting your success to the limits of Italian Africa.
(b) A spreading of Middle East base installations by judicious thinning out from Egypt may well be advisable, and this is
for you to judge; much will depend on whether you are able to defeat Rommel. Should the worst arise, i.e., if we were unable to send you adequate forces and the Russian southern front broke, you must hold on to the Abadan area in the last resort—even at the risk of losing the Egyptian Delta. At present, however, we do not consider that circumstances in any way justify a large-scale withdrawal of forces and installations from Egypt, involving abandonment of that country.
We realise that whole Middle East position mainly depends on success against Rommel or [the] continued resistance of Russia. Neither can be prejudged ...’
The Prime Minister then spoke, explaining the recent discussions with the Americans and outlining the future course of Allied grand strategy. As for the Middle East, he thought that the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus and a neutral Turkey together formed a good shield for our northern flank, provided that the Russians held the Caucasus chain, with British air support if necessary. He was not yet prepared to divert anything from Egypt until a decision had been reached in the Western Desert. The battle there was of vital importance to the whole war, and it would be wrong to withdraw forces which could take part in it in order to prepare what could only be a weak defence in the north.
With this policy of first things first the meeting agreed, and the arguments for it were strengthened when, later in the month, the Prime Minister and General Brooke received from Premier Stalin and Marshal Voroshilov positive assurances that the Caucasus would be held. Before the meeting ended, however, General Auchinleck pointed to a practical difficulty, namely that the limiting factor was likely to be transport. The numbers of vehicles available and in sight were not enough to enable him to conduct a big offensive in the Desert and at the same time prepare a mobile defence in northern Persia, and he might find the threat from the Caucasus developing just as he was in the middle of his advance. No one at the meeting had anything to say about this possibility, and some other discussion followed. General Wavell described the risks he was running in India, and confirmed his interest in seeing the Germans prevented from approaching the Persian Gulf; this was why he had offered the 5th and 2nd Divisions. He asked what the chances were of a successful battle in the Western Desert, and General Auchinleck replied that for the time being the 8th Army was exhausted and that if he was to destroy the enemy—as he intended—he must wait until his reinforcements were ready, which would not be until mid-September. He would not commit himself to any date, but would of course seize any favourable opportunity for action. The Prime Minister then said that final decisions on policy
would be taken on his return from Moscow and that meanwhile nothing was to be done which would in any way detract from our effort in the Western Desert.
Mr. Churchill could now devote himself to the main purpose of his visit to the Middle East—an examination of how the war was being conducted there. He had been from the first very favourably impressed by General Auchinleck. In the autumn of 1941, when the General had withstood—wrongly, in the Prime Minister’s opinion—all pressure to launch an early offensive, Mr. Churchill had been struck by his ‘unquestioned abilities, his powers of exposition, his high, dignified, and commanding personality’.3 He had strongly approved of General Auchinleck’s conduct at the crisis of CRUSADER and had assured him of his confidence on several occasions during the recent campaign. On the other hand he had been displeased by the leisurely plans for the summer of 1942 and by General Auchinleck’s rejection of the suggestion that he should take personal command of the 8th Army in May.4 Mr. Churchill had also had doubts about the conduct of the most recent fighting, and was displeased by General Auchinleck’s estimate that he would be unable to resume the offensive before the middle of September.
Mr. Churchill and the CIGS now carried out a brisk programme of interviews and inspections in Cairo and the Western Desert. They met many senior army and air officers, including in particular General Gott, and visited the Australian and South African Divisions. On 6th August Mr. Churchill discussed his impressions with General Smuts, Mr. Casey and General Brooke. He concluded, and his advisers agreed, that a drastic and immediate change should be made to impart a new and vigorous impulse to the Army and restore confidence in the High Command. A new start and vehement action were needed to animate the vast but baffled and somewhat unhinged organization. General Auchinleck should be appointed to command the land forces in Persia and Iraq, which would be separated from the Middle East. The choice of the new commanders was soon made. Mr. Churchill at first wished General Brooke to become Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, but gave up the idea because General Brooke, who was sorely tempted to accept, felt it his duty to remain as CIGS. The Chiefs of Staff’s machine was working smoothly and he thought that a change of CIGS and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff’s Committee at such a critical time might be extremely unsettling. The choice then fell on General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, commander-designate of the British land forces in TORCH, and Lieut.-
General B. L. Montgomery was selected to replace him. Lieut.-General Gott was to command the 8th Army.5
The War Cabinet, to whom these suggestions were submitted for approval, did not welcome the idea of dividing the Middle East into two Commands, for reasons which will be referred to presently. In any case they thought that the appointment suggested for General Auchinleck would convey the impression that a Command was being created in order to let him down lightly. He would be unlikely to retain confidence in himself or to inspire it in others if he were transferred to a reduced, though important, position.
Mr. Churchill then took up the cudgels for General Auchinleck in whom, as the head of an army with a single and direct purpose, he said he had complete confidence. General Auchinleck had shown high-minded qualities of character and resolution; he had restored the battle of Sidi Rezegh and only recently had stemmed the retreat at El Alamein. If he had taken command of the 8th Army when he, Mr. Churchill, urged him to, we might have won the Gazala battle. The need of making an abrupt change in the Command against Rommel was the sole reason for the present proposals, and General Alexander ought not to be embarrassed with remote cares at a moment when all our fortunes turned upon the speedy and decisive defeat of Rommel. Mr. Churchill could not advise that General Auchinleck should be cast aside as unfit to render any further services. General Wavell had not lost his reputation when he was removed from the Middle East; nor would General Auchinleck. The nation would admire the array of distinguished commanders—Alexander, Wavell and Auchinleck—facing their responsibilities on the vast front which extended from Cairo to Calcutta.
Before the War Cabinet’s agreement had been received chance dictated a further change. On 7th August the Bombay aircraft in which General Gott had taken passage to Cairo on leave (unknown to Air Headquarters, Western Desert) was forced down by two German fighters and then destroyed on the ground. Among the killed was General Gott. His death was deeply felt throughout the Army, where he was greatly liked and respected for his frank, courteous and unruffled manner, his easy natural leadership and his personal courage. He had had more experience of the Desert than any other commander, having served there almost without a break from the beginning, through good times and bad. Indeed, he is known to have felt that he had been there almost too long, and himself believed that fresh blood was required. Although he was ready to do whatever was required of
him he would have welcomed a change. It may therefore be doubted whether he would have been the man to breathe new life into the 8th Army, but it was sad to think of an eventual victory in the desert without him there to share in it.
To succeed him the CIGS recommended Lieut.-General Montgomery, and this was approved in spite of the great embarrassment caused by having to present the Americans with a second change of commanders of the British component of TORCH. On 8th August Mr. Churchill informed General Auchinleck of the decisions, and offered him the new Persia and Iraq Command. General Auchinleck felt unable to accept the post, which he believed to be strategically unsound and unworkable, but was given a few days to think it over. General Alexander arrived in Cairo the same day and formally assumed command in the Middle East on 15th August. Lieut.-General Montgomery took over the 8th Army, and Lieut.-General B. G. Horrocks the 13th Corps. General Alexander chose as his Chief of General Staff Major-General R. L. McCreery, who had been head of the Armoured Fighting Vehicles branch at GHQ and had served on General Alexander’s staff before.
On 10th August Mr. Churchill gave General Alexander a directive, written in his own hand on a sheet of Embassy notepaper, and initialled also by General Brooke:
‘1. Your prime and main duty will be to take or destroy at the earliest opportunity the German-Italian Army commanded by Field-Marshal Rommel together with all its supplies and establishments in Egypt and Libya.
2. You will discharge or cause to be discharged such other duties as pertain to your Command without prejudice to the task described in paragraph 1 which must be considered paramount in His Majesty’s interests.’
General Alexander’s first concern was with the morale of the 8th Army. He found the troops resolute, but puzzled by retreats which they had not understood. ‘A more serious cause of discouragement was the knowledge that our defeat had been due in part to inferiority of equipment: there is nothing so sure to cause lack of confidence.’ Mr. Churchill had expressed the opinion a week earlier that wherever the fault for the present serious situation might lie, it was certainly not with the troops and only to a minor extent with their equipment. But the references in this volume to the performance of British and German tanks and anti-tank guns, particularly in Appendix 8, show that in several respects the British equipments in 1941 and the first half of 1942 were not the equal of the German.
General Alexander made it known that there was to be no more
withdrawal, and that the basic formation would be the division, which was not to be split up into detachments except temporarily for a definite task. General Montgomery, thinking on similar lines, set to work at once to inspire confidence and enthusiasm in his Army. His address to the officers of Army Headquarters made a tremendous impact, of which word soon spread. The defence of Egypt lay at El Alamein, he said, and if the 8th Army could not stay there alive it would stay there dead. There would be no more backward looks. The hard times were over; ample reinforcements were at hand, and if Rommel chose to attack so much the better. Meanwhile they would begin to plan the campaign that would ‘hit Rommel and his army for six right out of Africa’. This campaign would not begin until everything was completely ready. He asked for confidence and faith that everything he said would come to pass. All this and more was put over with a Cromwellian fervour, and the effect was electric. By a strenuous programme of tours and visits, with the objects of seeing and being seen and heard, of getting to know and becoming known, the new Commander strove to impress his personality upon his whole Army. He certainly succeeded.
One of General Montgomery’s first acts was to concentrate his whole Headquarters at Burg el Arab, where it would be in close touch at all levels with Air Vice-Marshal Coningham’s Headquarters. This was a visible sign of the determination to tighten and strengthen the links which had bound the 8th Army and the Desert Air Force, but had worked loose during the disasters of June. Now the two Services were to work in double harness, and, as will be seen, in their first big test—at Alam el Halfa—their mutual confidence was to be renewed in an unmistakable manner.
On 21st August Mr. Churchill, who on his return from Moscow had spent two days with the 8th Army, sent his impressions to the War Cabinet in a long telegram.
‘A complete change of atmosphere has taken place ... the highest alacrity and activity prevails ... the roads are busy with the forward movement of troops, tanks and guns ... our army will eagerly meet the enemy should he attack and I am satisfied that we have lively, confident, resolute men in command working together as an admirable team under leaders of the highest military quality.’6
All this was true, for, although there had been no lack of activity and energy before, it was now that a renewed, strong sense of purpose made itself widely felt. Officers and men who had borne the burden and heat of the disasters of June and the hard slogging of July felt
braced and invigorated. Particularly encouraging were the signs of growing strength for all to see, and in this respect the new commanders were fortunate, for they came upon the scene just as the balance was swinging decidedly in the British favour.
The flow of equipment and stores of all kinds had been well maintained throughout the year in spite of diversions to the Far East, as the following figures show.
From the United Kingdom
|1942||Guns||Tanks||Vehicles||Ammunition and various stores (tons)|
From North America
|1942||No. of ships||Tanks||Vehicles|
In view of the large numbers of tanks it is of interest to note that on 15th March 194.2 there were 1,383 tanks of all kinds in the Middle East, of which 746 were in workshops.
Of the supplies dealt with by the Royal Army Service Corps during the summer of 1942, to per cent. came from the United Kingdom, 30 per cent. from Canada and the United States, and 60 per cent. ‘ from India and elsewhere.
The numbers of men arriving in WS convoys from the United Kingdom between January and August, both inclusive, were as follows:
|Land Forces, in formations, miscellaneous units, reinforcements and drafts.||149,800||including the 8th Armoured, 44th and 51st Divisions.|
|Royal Air Force||32,400|
|Royal Navy||9,800||excluding those carried in HM ships.|
In addition, about 32,400 had come from India, mostly as reinforcements.
If these figures seem to be very high, a reason is that an underdeveloped region which becomes an important theatre of war becomes also a bottomless pit. Setting up the bases and armed forces in the Middle East was like gradually transplanting a complete modern society with all its complicated needs. Almost every activity known in ordinary life was being carried out there by someone in uniform. There was therefore a constant demand for men to fill the establishments of many sorts of units, some newly created, and others of longer standing which had been reduced by various causes. Since November 1941 the Army alone had suffered nearly 102,000 casualties in battle.7 Sickness too was a steady drain, although by no means a heavy one thanks to the progressive skill of the medical services in applying their science to a host of problems under the conditions of war.8
Some reorganization and a great deal of training were needed in the 8th Army, but the tactical situation demanded first that much work should be done to strengthen the defensive positions. Not until after the battle of Alam el Halfa (described in the next chapter) was it possible for General Montgomery to introduce a programme of rigorous training to prepare the army for the offensive which was to drive the enemy from Egypt and Libya.
The Royal Air Force had its problems too, though it was spared an upheaval among its High Commanders. As with the Army, its real
period of rest, reorganization and training was to come after the battle of Adam el Halfa; until then there was very little opportunity for any of these. Indeed August brought with it some new problems: for example, how to balance the requirement of providing fighter cover for the 8th Army with that of defending the base areas in Egypt, now so close to the enemy’s growing air forces. It was known that German and Italian parachute troops had arrived in the forward area during July, and gliders had been seen at Tobruk. The possibility of airborne landings on airfields and vulnerable points could not be disregarded. Steps were therefore taken to stiffen the anti-aircraft and ground defences, and all the Hurricane squadrons in the Desert Air Force were given training in night fighting, to supplement No. 73 Squadron which had already specialized in night operations.
The retreat to the El Alamein line had thrown the Air Force back on itself, and created a need for many more airfields. This was met partly by enlarging existing sites but principally by developing new ones—fifteen around Amiriya and along the Alexandria-Cairo road, for example. The work was done by the Royal Engineers, under the direction of the Chief Engineer, Aerodromes, on a policy laid down by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief. In spite of some difficult terrain, unreliable native labour, and scarcity of suitable machinery, these new landing-grounds were provided at remarkable speed. Looking ahead, the Army had to organize and equip airfield construction units whose task it would be to provide the Desert Air Force with landing-grounds during a long and rapid advance.
The increasing participation of the United States in the Middle Eastern war was a development of the highest importance. In September 1941 President Roosevelt had directed the Secretary of War to furnish lend-lease aid to the Middle East. In November 1941 two missions were set up—one in Cairo, the United States Military North African Mission, under Major-General Russell L. Maxwell, and one in Baghdad, the United States Military Iranian Mission, under Brigadier General Raymond A. Wheeler. The main work of these missions was to direct constructional and industrial projects to be carried out by American firms, whose methods were on the admirable and sweeping American scale.
When, in December 1941, the United States entered the war, the British hoped that the American Missions might merge into a single organization to deal with all aspects of the war in the Middle East. After much discussion, however, the two Missions remained, with the tasks of keeping in touch with the appropriate military commanders, routeing lend-lease material, and training men in the use and maintenance of American equipment. More precisely, General Maxwell
concerned himself with the establishment in Eritrea of a large plant for erecting bomber aircraft, with taking over and developing the port of Massawa, and with other projects. General Wheeler was at first mainly interested in the development of ports, roads and railways in Iraq, but in April 1942 his mission was instructed to concentrate on expanding the route for supplying Russia through Persia.9
As early as February 5942 the Americans decided to militarize their undertakings in North Africa and Persia, but this plan became whittled down by the competing demands of preparing for operations in Europe in 5943. In June 1942 a new command was set up—the ‘United States Army Forces in Middle East’. General Maxwell was appointed Commanding General and became a member of the Middle East War Council.10 The new command took over the North African Mission, and later the Iranian Mission also, which in August became the US Persian Gulf Service Command.
On 28th June 5942 the ‘US Army Middle East Air Force’ came into existence with Major-General Lewis H. Brereton as its first Commanding General. It has been related how, directly after the fall of Tobruk in June, President Roosevelt came to the rescue with offers of equipment, notably tanks and self-propelled guns.11 At the same time the Americans decided that instead of supplying aircraft to build up squadrons of the RAF in the Middle East they would establish complete formations and units of their own. This change of policy made Air Chief Marshal Tedder anxious lest it should cause the flow of American types of aircraft to the RAF to cease, or at any rate to fall behind the programme, while the American squadrons were becoming established and acclimatized. By the middle of July eleven RAF fighter squadrons were at half strength, and two of these together with five others were still equipped with Hurricane Is or Tomahawks; a further nine squadrons had no operational aircraft at all.12 Tedder was told to expect zoo Kittyhawks in July and comparable numbers during the next few months, Baltimores at the rate of 60 a month, and various other aircraft. At the end of July the intake of Hurricanes and Kittyhawks had not made up for the losses, while the newly arrived Kittyhawk IIs with Merlin engines were being issued
to the USAAF squadrons, which had yet to train up to desert standards. The problem of integrating an inexperienced air force with a seasoned one had arisen at a rather precarious time. The process began slowly with the introduction of American fighter section leaders into squadrons of the Desert Air Force, with whom they went out on operational flights to be ‘blooded’, later to be followed by entire squadrons. Thus, until the American squadrons were ready, the position looked better on paper than it was in practice.
On 11th August Tedder was told that it had been decided to limit the RAF strength in the Middle East to 65 squadrons and that the USAAF would provide 24, making a total combined strength of 89 squadrons. In theory this meant that there was no longer any need to equip several of the unarmed RAF squadrons, but there still remained the problem of replacing obsolescent aircraft with newer types.13 For example, of 513 Kittyhawks expected during the period April to August only 251 had arrived, and at the end of August there were no more than 58 fit to fight.
It has been mentioned that when Mr. Churchill announced his idea of setting up a new Army Command in Persia and Iraq the War Cabinet did not at first agree. After the rebellion in Iraq in June 1941 control of the land forces in that country and in Persia had been transferred to the Commander-in-Chief, India, for the reasons given on pages 128-9. The Chiefs of Staff had intended, however, to give it back to the Middle East if the Germans looked like moving through Southern Caucasia. In January 1942 the Middle East did in fact assume control, but for a different reason, namely that General Wavell in India was fully occupied in facing the new threat from the Japanese. Now, in August 1942, the Prime Minister was so much impressed by the need for the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, to devote all his energies to defeating Rommel that he wanted to free him from responsibility for Persia and Iraq. With India looking east and Cairo looking west the solution seemed to be to create a third command to deal with the intermediate, or northern, front.
General Auchinleck opposed the idea, for he had always thought that the land and air forces in Persia and Iraq should be under the same command as those in the Middle East. The War Cabinet felt that the arguments in favour of a unified command were even stronger than they had been in January, owing to the threat to the Caucasus. The Chiefs of Staff studied the problem anew, and on 14th August reported that the plan would introduce many complications but no insurmountable difficulties. London would inevitably be drawn in to settle many questions, such as, for example, those of competing claims
for shipping space. The Minister of State would have to retain Persia and Iraq in his field of action. Contacts with Turkey should remain in the hands of the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, who would have to take account of the interests of the new Command. The Middle East Joint Planning Staff could serve both Commands. As regards the air, the Chiefs of Staff saw no reason to alter their view that there must be a single Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief over the whole area, who would allot air forces to an ‘Air Officer Commanding Persia and Iraq’ and delegate control of them to him. The entire RAF organization in the Middle East had been based on the strategic mobility and flexibility of air forces, and control of every aspect of operations, maintenance and supply was therefore centred in Air Headquarters, Middle East. The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief alone was in a position to ensure that the available resources were most suitably and economically used, and to work the machinery which had been devised for the purpose.
The War Cabinet had telegraphed to say that they still had misgivings about the Prime Minister’s plan, but that as he was on the spot with General Smuts and the CIGS, who both agreed with it, they were prepared to agree also. Mr. Churchill presided over a meeting in Cairo on 18th August to thrash the matter out, and after hearing various views he ruled on 21st August that the Persia and Iraq Command (‘PAIC’) was to be set up at once.14 General Auchinleck having finally refused the appointment, General Sir Maitland Wilson, from the 9th Army in Syria, was to take command immediately.15 The decision was based upon circumstances rather than logic. It clearly indicated a wish to relieve General Alexander of some of the distractions from which General Auchinleck had suffered, although with Syria remaining in the Middle East Command there might still be a ‘northern front’. The real easing of the burden on the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, was the appointment of a commander of known energy and ability for the 8th Army. In August 1943 General Auchinleck became Commander-in-Chief, India, for the second time, succeeding General Wavell who was appointed Viceroy of India.
Such, then, were the circumstances of General Auchinleck’s removal from the post of Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, after he had held it for just over a year. Like General Wavell he had known success and failure, and like him he left to make way for a fresh eye and an unstrained hand. He had had several clashes of opinion with the Prime Minister, yet no one was more generous in praise of his qualities than Mr. Churchill himself. In spite of the disasters that had befallen his Army he had retained to a remarkable degree its admiration and high
regard. When he left, the prevailing sentiment was: ‘There goes a fine man; all the same, it will not hurt us to have a change.’ Perhaps it was felt that he was not a lucky general—it was Napoleon who placed luck among the necessary attributes of a general—and who would not rather serve under a lucky one?
His relations with General Ritchie have already been commented on;16 it may well be that he asked too much of that loyal, energetic, but inexperienced commander. His own personal interventions in the battle met with wide approval, but his attempts while the fight was on to improvise organizations and tactical methods lessened the confidence of many of his commanders in his judgement. It showed that he had the enterprise and courage to try out new ideas, but there were some who thought him too easy of approach and ready to listen to advice from too many people.
In all the stir of the Prime Minister’s visit it was perhaps natural that thoughts should dwell more upon the future than upon the past, more upon the blow that was in store for the Axis forces than upon the mauling they had already received. In retrospect the vital importance of the July fighting stands out clearly, and to General Auchinleck belongs the credit for turning retreat into counter-attack. His forecast of mid-September as the earliest date by which the Army could be ready for an ‘all out’ offensive may not have been popular in London, but it was realistic and reasonable. In the event, this offensive began on 23rd October, and its success should not be allowed to overshadow the earlier achievements of those who made it possible.
The month of August saw the British gathering strength, with their supply position assured and their High Command reorganized on promising lines. On the Axis side things were very different. There the flow of reinforcements and supplies was unsatisfactory and was causing friction between the Germans and the Italians, while some rather ineffective changes in the system of command were being made.
In July Field-Marshal Rommel had frequent cause to complain about the administrative situation. Early in August he informed OKW that the supplies reaching the front only met the daily needs; nothing was left over to go towards reserves. He repeated his constant complaint that the Italians took for themselves too great a share of the valuable cargo-space. Above all, he wanted more German troops.
In fact there appear to have been in Italy enough men, vehicles, stores, and supplies to meet many of the German and Italian requirements. The trouble was to get all these things to the front in the right order and proportions. Apart from the dangers of British attack by sea and air there were many obstacles to overcome. For example, there
were not enough Italian escort vessels (mainly for want of fuel) or coastal cargo ships; the capacity of Tobruk, Bardia and Matruh to handle cargo was too small; load-carrying vehicles were too few and many were threatened with breakdown because of the shortage of spare parts. Moreover, the coastal road was in bad repair and the desert railway was scarcely working.
In Rommel’s opinion the Italians were mismanaging the lines of communication. Only in Rome could this be put right. There the German representative who dealt with Comando Supremo in matters concerning the movement of men, stores, and supplies to Africa was the Military Attaché, General von Rintelen, who, Rommel thought, had not enough status or drive to look after German interests properly. He would have liked to see this responsibility given to Kesselring.
Cavallero realized that something must be done to improve matters but felt that the Germans were interfering too much in Italian affairs. Early in August he obtained the Duce’s agreement to a reorganization of the command in North Africa. From 16th August the German-Italian Army under Rommel was to become directly responsible to Comando Supremo for operations. Bastico, now promoted to Marshal, was thus cut out of the chain of command, which suggests that Cavallero thought that Comando Supremo would be more successful in dealing with Rommel than Bastico had been. As a link between Comando Supremo and the Panzerarmee a Delegation from the former (‘Delease’) was to be set up in Africa under General Barbasetti di Prun. The Panzerarmee was to deal with this Delegation over non-operational matters, and was to attach to it German army and air force representatives. In outline the duties of the Delegation were as follows: to arrange for the supply of the Italian forces fighting in Egypt; to co-ordinate Italian and German administrative traffic of every kind; to control the lines of communication area as defined by Comando Supremo from time to time; to command and administer Italian troops in transit to and from the front. It had also certain responsibilities for the defence of the lines of communication and for the discipline of Italian troops.
In fact the new organization took a long time to get into its stride, and in consequence did not produce results in time to be of much use.