After Dunkirk, the major British effort against Germany was waged against Rommel’s Afrika Korps in Libya, Cyrenaica and Egypt. Winston Churchill had lavished many resources and a great deal of his time in building the Eighth Army into a weapon of some magnitude.
Yet in mid-1942 this army was in precipitate retreat. And in June 1942, humiliatingly when Churchill was in Washington, Tobruk, which had withstood a siege of some 8 months the year before, had fallen with hardly a shot fired. It was a a disaster second only to Singapore in February. Churchill determined to take action.
In August 1942 he flew to Cairo, accompanied by the CIGS (Chief of the Imperial General Staff) General Alan Brooke. They found the army baffled by its long retreat and the command rattled. Confidence in its chief, General Auchinleck and the man he had chosen to take over the army command (General Corbett) was zero. Changes had to be made.
The crucial role of Eighth Army Command
Churchill immediately offered the overall Middle Eastern Command to Brooke, who just as rapidly turned it down. He had no experience in desert warfare and considered his duty was to remain at Churchill’s side. There was a consensus that with Brooke out of the running the post should be offered to General Alexander, who was deemed to have done well in Burma.
The critical position was however the direct command of the Eighth Army. Here Montgomery had been mentioned by Churchill and supported by Brooke. But Churchill had by then met General Gott, a desert Corps Commander who had been in the Middle East since 1939.
The choice of Gott. Correct or not?
Churchill was immediately attracted to Gott. He had a winning personality, was greatly respected by the men and knew the desert well. He got the job. Potentially this was a disastrous choice.
Gott was an extreme apostle of mobility in desert warfare. He had been instrumental in breaking up the divisional structure of the Eighth army and dividing it into flying columns and brigade boxes. This dismantling had in fact enabled Rommel to inflict on the British one defeat after another. If the Afrika Korps attacked united its panzers could pick off these British columns and brigade groups (which were often separated by such distances that could provide no mutual support) one after the other. The Battle of Gazala, which saw the Eighth Army retreat into Egypt, had been spectacularly lost in this fashion in June and July.
But so far from seeing this as a disadvantage to Gott’s appointment, Churchill and perhaps more surprisingly, Brooke only saw advantage. Both men had in fact expressed exasperation at the British divisional structure in desert warfare and had advocated the very policy of decentralisation adopted by Gott and others that was an important factor in its defeat.
Gott then was the man slated to command an army his tactics had done so much to bring to the point of ruin. At this moment fate stepped in. The aircraft carrying Gott to Cairo to take up his command crashed. Gott survived the crash but as was typical of him, attempted to rescue others and in so doing lost his life. Montgomery, Churchill’s second choice, therefore took over the Eighth Army.
The Montgomery difference
In terms of generalship (and many other attributes as well) Montgomery was the opposite of Gott. He was not a particular advocate of mobility. He was also an arch-centraliser. There would be no more columns or brigade groups. The army would defend together and attack together. Control would be exercised by Montgomery in his headquarters and by no-one else. In addition, no risks would be run. No excursions would be made into enemy territory by small armoured forces. Everything would be done to prevent anything that looked like a reverse.
This was in fact the way Montgomery conducted almost all his battles. Alamein was to some extent nothing more than a repeat of the tactics used by the British army on the Western Front in 1918. There would be a colossal bombardment. Then the infantry would steal forward to make a hole for the armour. Then the armour would venture out but would not run any risks and unless accompanied by the infantry make no dashes at Rommel’s invariable screen of anti-tank guns. Any retreat by the enemy would be followed up cautiously.
The Montgomery advantage
This modus operandi was a very long way from what Churchill regarded as ideal generalship. He favoured dash, rapidity of movement, boldness. Montgomery offered him attrition and caution. But Montgomery offered something else. What he knew above all else was that if he kept his army together and his artillery concentrated, he must wear Rommel down.
No armoured force could withstand indefinitely massed gun fire. And once forced into retreat, providing the pursuing army remained concentrated, there would be no reverses. What lay at the end of Montgomery’s policy of attrition and caution was victory.
And so it was to prove. At Alamein, the Mareth Line, the invasion of Sicily, the slow advance in Italy and finally in Normandy, Montgomery stuck to his method. Churchill might lose patience with his general – he threatened intervention in the middle of Alamein and in Normandy – but in the end he stuck with him.
Are there any lessons in this episode for civil/military relations in a democracy? Certainly, politicians have every right to choose their generals. And they have a responsibility to provide those generals with the wherewithal to win. But in the end they must be prepared to allow those generals to fight the battle in a manner of their own choosing.
If war is too serious a matter to be left to the generals, battle is a matter too complex to be mastered by politicians.
Robin Prior is a professorial fellow at the University of Adelaide. He is the author or coauthor of 6 books on the two World Wars, including The Somme, Passchendaele, Gallipoli and When Britain Saved the West. His new book, ‘Conquer We Must’, is published by Yale University Press, available from 25 October 2022.
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