Winston Churchill was a good butcher. He did not enjoy sending men to their deaths in war – in fact, his fear of WWI-scale casualties made him very sceptical about D-Day – but when it came to firing generals he deemed too timid, tired, or incompetent, he wielded the knife with relish. Was he right to do so?
Five of the leading British generals when Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 – Gort, Ironside, Dill, Wavell, and Auchinleck – were to become victims of the PM’s aggressive and impatient nature. Belligerent, domineering, and hyperactive as a personality, Churchill brought these characteristics to his conduct of the conflict, and commanders who incurred his imperious displeasure, either by a reluctance to take the offensive before they were ready, or by arguing against his more impractical or impetuous ideas, soon found themselves sidelined or summarily sacked.
As a former war correspondent and soldier himself, Churchill had a lifelong interest in military matters, even though he had never commanded more than a battalion – for six months in the trenches of WWI. His previous experience had been as a junior officer in colonial conflicts in India and Africa.
His critics felt that his military mind had fossilised during his Boer War time in South Africa, despite his championing of such war-winning new weapons as the tank. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister saw himself as a master of strategy, and holding the new post of Minister of Defence as well as PM, he was the dictator of Britain’s war effort. Few dared to oppose him.
In May 1940, Churchill inherited a country in deep crisis. The Norway Campaign – which he had initiated as First Lord of the Admiralty – had been a chaotic failure. The fiasco, however, had the unintended consequence of bringing him to power, for his pro-appeasement predecessor Neville Chamberlain was blamed for the disaster.
The moment Churchill took over, Hitler launched his surprise Blitzkrieg offensive against France and the Low Countries.
The man on the spot in France was the commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Viscount Gort. An aristocrat and a courageous soldier who had won a VC at Cambrai in WWI, Gort had been branded as ‘utterly brainless’ by Leslie Hore-Belisha, a reforming war minister whom Gort and other generals had successfully intrigued to replace early in the war.
Brainless or not, Gort had the sense to disobey Churchill when he was ordered to attack southwards in an attempt to link up with the French after the rampaging German armoured columns had split the Allied armies apart.
Instead, Gort ordered the BEF to retreat north towards Dunkirk, where he hoped to get at least some of them across the Channel to safety. As is now legend, almost the entire BEF, plus many French troops, were able to escape, with 340,000 men abandoning their equipment and scrambling aboard ‘little ships’ in a seemingly miraculous rescue, while the all-conquering Germans paused and watched.
But wars, as Churchill reminded the nation, ‘are not won by evacuations’. Though the rout was not his fault, Gort had to carry the can for the catastrophe. There could be no question of a general who had presided over such a debacle holding an important command again. Gort was sent to be Governor of Malta, where he did good work in preparing the island to withstand a long and gruelling siege.
Ironside and Dunkirk
Gort’s rival as Britain’s top soldier was the towering 6ft 4in head of the Army, the aptly named Edmund ‘Tiny’ Ironside, who had replaced him as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) on the day that war broke out.
By his own admission, Ironside was the wrong man for the job. A fighting soldier who preferred to lead from the front, Ironside had no patience for the interminable meetings with politicians and dull admin that being CIGS inevitably entailed.
Moreover, Ironside thought that he should have had Gort’s job leading the BEF, and the discord between the two men did not smooth efficiency in the desperate days of 1940.
Ironside was no fool. A gifted linguist who spoke seven languages, and a supporter of J F C ‘Boney’ Fuller’s advocacy of a fully mechanised Army between the wars, his leadership of the doomed British expedition against the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution had won the ferociously anti-communist Churchill’s admiration. Why, then, did he fall from grace?
Working alongside Churchill during the Norway Campaign and the Battle of France, Ironside had become exasperated by the PM’s constant mood swings, micro-managing, and interference in the smallest detail of operations. His objections to some of the wilder notions that poured from Churchill’s fertile mind soured the previously happy relationship between the two men.
Ironside was sent to France at the height of the battle to ensure that Gort carried out Churchill’s order to attack south. Once there, though, after seeing first-hand the French demoralisation, he agreed with Gort’s assessment that the BEF’s only hope of survival was to beat a retreat north to Dunkirk, and literally began to throw his considerable weight about. He grabbed one startled French general by his tunic buttons, and ordered another into action, alienating Britain’s ally.
Ironside and Home Defence
The testy CIGS was actually pleased to be replaced by his deputy Sir John Dill on his return to Britain. Churchill sugared the pill by giving Ironside command of Britain’s Home Defences – a job much more to Tiny’s liking.
The new position, though more congenial, was next door to impossible: Ironside was tasked with preparing for an imminently expected German invasion with an Army that had left its artillery, armour, and transport behind at Dunkirk.
Within a month, Ironside had come up with a comprehensive defence plan, relying – he had no other choice – on ingenuity and improvisation.
He proposed a thin ‘crust’ of defenders and obstacles like concrete pillboxes along the southern English coast to slow and break up an invasion. Inland, ‘choke points’ would be manned by the newly formed Home Guard, armed with Molotov cocktails and reinforced by a mobile reserve mounting guns on vehicles known as ‘Ironsides’ in lieu of tanks. Finally, as a last ditch, there would be a succession of defence lines along natural features like rivers and hills.
The Ironside plan came in for severe criticism for its amateurism from civil servants and younger generals like Montgomery; and when one of them – Alan Brooke – bent Churchill’s ear, Ironside was speedily removed (in late July). He was replaced as Home Defence C-in-C by Brooke himself.
Again, Churchill softened the blow. He promoted the old warrior to field marshal. Tiny took his forced retirement with dignity. Brooke achieved the unique feat of frequently criticising Churchill to his face without suffering the usual consequences. He retained the PM’s complete confidence, remaining at his side until the war’s end. The same could not be said of the new CIGS, Sir John Dill.
Churchill had hastily approved Dill’s promotion to CIGS in May 1940 without knowing the man, but it rapidly became apparent that their views and characters were fundamentally incompatible.
Within weeks, Churchill was complaining that Dill ‘strikes me as very tired, disheartened, and over-impressed with the might of Nazi Germany’. Churchill liked to carouse with his chosen cronies, and he judged the austere Ulsterman as ‘unclubbable’, or, in his damning words, not ‘a man with whom it is agreeable to dine’. For someone who had to spend hours with the PM daily, this was a fatal handicap.
Churchill scornfully called the CIGS ‘Dilly-Dally’ and constantly charged him with a pessimism that came close to defeatism. Dill replied that he was merely being realistic about the weakness of Britain’s military position in 1940.
Rather than responding verbally to the PM, he wrote lengthy memos pointing out that it was folly to send troops to the Middle East while Britain was still threatened with invasion.
Churchill rarely changed his mind once he had formed a first impression, and his animosity was unabated. He even refused Dill a week’s leave to go on honeymoon after his second marriage, offering him one day off instead. (They eventually compromised on three days.) Despite the hostility, Dill considered Churchill irreplaceable, and by the autumn of 1941 it was clear that he was the one who had to go.
Churchill’s favourite tactic when dealing with unwanted colleagues was to exile them. He had sent his appeasing political rivals Lord Halifax and Sir Samuel Hoare as ambassadors to the US and Spain respectively, and he intended a similar fate for Dill – humiliating him by making him Governor of distant Bombay (Mumbai).
Dill’s enforced ‘retirement’ was scheduled for Christmas Day 1941 – his 60th birthday. Then, on 7 December, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Churchill had achieved the object he had been striving for since becoming PM: the USA was in the war. Dill’s departure was postponed.
The Prime Minister lost no time in hastening to Washington to consult with President Roosevelt, and he was forced to take his main military man with him: none other than the despised Dill.
There, unexpectedly, the dull desk soldier branded by Churchill as unimaginative and obstructive, blossomed into one of the chief architects of Allied strategy. A great favourite with the Americans, Dill stayed on in Washington as permanent head of Britain’s military mission to the US. By a supreme irony, he became Churchill’s chief representative in the States. He was replaced as CIGS by the PM’s new favourite, Alan Brooke.
When Dill died of aplastic anaemia in November 1944, larded with American decorations and awards, he was given the high honour of burial in Arlington National military cemetery – the only British general so revered. Dill’s switchback career – from the butt of Churchillian derision to a key figure in Allied war strategy – proves that, like Dill’s friend George Marshall, soldiers can win renown from behind a desk as well as on the battlefield.
Writing in August 1940 to Archibald Wavell, commander of the far-flung Middle Eastern theatre, Dill offered his advice on how to handle the difficult PM: ‘Talk to him, Archie… no one would deny that you have had unbearable provocation. But he is our Prime Minister. He carries an almost incredible burden. It is true that you can be replaced. He cannot. You must go to Chequers.’
In urging Wavell to reconsider his refusal of an invitation to visit Churchill at the PM’s official country home, Dill was wasting his breath. There could be no meeting of minds or personalities between Wavell, the most withdrawn and taciturn general in the Army, and the unstoppably voluble and volatile Prime Minister.
Wavell, who had lost an eye in WWI, was one of the Army’s most intellectual soldiers, even finding the time to edit an anthology of his favourite poetry.
But Wavell, though brave, thoughtful, and unflappable, often gave the impression that he was bored by war. His famed taciturnity sometimes shaded into inarticulateness, and Churchill soon decided that he too was ripe for the chop. But as he reached for the axe, Churchill’s hand was stayed by news of a victory – the first of the war, albeit against an inferior foe – in the deserts of North Africa.
Holding the Middle East – Egypt in particular – was the key to Churchill’s survival strategy early in the war. Not only was it rich in oil, but if the Germans and their Italian allies reached the Suez Canal, Britain’s links with its Empire in India and the Far East would be severed. This vast and vital region – stretching from the Italian colony Libya in the west to Iraq in the east, and including the Balkans in the north down to the Sudan in the south – was held by a laughably tiny Allied army under Wavell’s Cairo-based command.
The British desert blitzkrieg
Wavell’s forces were bewilderingly multinational, including Indians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Poles, Czechs, and Free French. After Italy entered the war in June 1940, the huge Italian 10th Army, some five times larger than the Allied 36,000, invaded Egypt from Libya.
After advancing 60 miles, the Italians halted and dug in. In December, Wavell authorised what was first intended to be merely a five-day raid, codenamed Operation Compass, on the Italian positions by his Western Defence Force, under the bold and brilliant General Richard O’Connor.
The results of the ‘raid’ were spectacular. The Italians collapsed, and position after position fell to O’Connor’s fast-moving force. The Italians were chased out of Egypt and deep into Libya after Wavell agreed to extend the operation. The ports of Tobruk and Benghazi were captured, and the 10th Army was cut off and capitulated.
After ten weeks, 138,000 Italians trooped into captivity in endless lines, and hundreds of guns, tanks, and warplanes were taken – all for the loss of fewer than 2,000 Allied casualties.
Then, when O’Connor was on the brink of capturing the Libyan capital Tripoli, it was Churchill who called a halt. The Germans had invaded the Balkans, occupied Yugoslavia, and attacked Greece. Churchill took the fatal decision to strip Wavell’s command of troops in a doomed attempt to stem the German advance.
Wavell resisted the decision but had to agree. The result was disaster. In a reprise of Dunkirk the year before, the Allies were forced to evacuate first Greece, and then Crete after the island was attacked by German airborne forces.
Meanwhile, Hitler had decided to prop up his faltering Italian ally. He rushed a crack new force, the Afrika Korps, to Libya under one of his best generals, the daring and dashing tactician Erwin Rommel.
The ‘Desert Fox’ did not hang about: in April 1941, he launched a counter-attack on Wavell’s depleted forces that swiftly retook all the territory seized in Operation Compass, except for Tobruk, which was besieged.
The same month, a pro-Axis Iraqi nationalist politician Rashid Ali seized power in a coup in Baghdad. The overstretched Wavell could not immediately spare any troops to reverse the coup, so the job fell to Claude Auchinleck, C-in-C of Britain’s Indian Army.
Auchinleck acted decisively, rushing troops to Basra and neutralising the threat. Wavell finally sent a force to lift the Iraqi siege of an RAF base outside Baghdad, and Rashid Ali fled to Berlin.
Troubles come in threes, and the crisis in Iraq had opened yet another front for Wavell’s hard-pressed command. The Luftwaffe had landed planes in Syria to support Rashid Ali’s coup, where they had been welcomed by the Vichy French who controlled the colony. This compelled Wavell to invade Syria, using Free French and other Allied forces, and stretching his own limited resources to breaking-point.
Ignoring this, Churchill continued to urge him to take rapid offensive action against Rommel. At last Wavell’s patience snapped: ‘You must trust my judgement,’ he told the PM, ‘…or relieve me of my command.’ Churchill took the latter option.
Impressed by Auchinleck’s prompt action in combatting Rashid Ali, Churchill decided that he and Wavell should swap jobs. ‘The Auk’ was sent to Cairo in July to relieve Wavell.
He found that a good start had been made in moulding the 8th Army into a force capable of stopping Rommel. But Churchill was an old man in a hurry. Since becoming PM a year before, despite his defiant radio rhetoric, he had presided over a string of defeats at enemy hands, broken only by the Battle of Britain and the easy win over the Italians. He desperately needed a desert victory over the Germans.
Auchinleck soon discovered, as Gort, Ironside, and Wavell had before him, that Churchill was a backseat driver eager to seize the wheel. Almost daily the badgering messages flooded in to Cairo from the PM: when was the Auk going to attack Rommel? Why hadn’t he done so already? Surely he had enough tanks and guns to make a move? To his credit, Auchinleck refused to be rushed.
Claude Auchinleck was already well used to Churchill’s bullying and browbeating. Although he had spent most of his military career in India, he had been summoned to Britain in 1940 and given the unenviable task of sorting out the chaos that was Churchill’s Norway Campaign. Auchinleck’s cool judgement that the only option was evacuation did not go down well with the new PM, but the latter had recognised reality and reluctantly complied.
The Auk was ‘rewarded’ by being given command of the southern sector of England – the area that would be in the front line of the expected German invasion. Auchinleck clashed with his deputy Montgomery over the correct tactics to adopt to repel the landings. The more junior commander later recalled that they did not see eye to eye on anything, but their major disagreement was the same that would later divide Rundstedt and Rommel over D-Day.
The Auk, like Rommel, believed that an invasion should be met and crushed on the beaches before the enemy could get ashore. Monty, like Rundstedt, thought that the defenders should be kept inland and then attack with concentrated force once it became clear where the invading spearhead was heading. Fortunately for Britain, the issue was never put to the test.
Auk and Chink
Auchinleck was sent back to his beloved India and next saw action when he put down Rashid Ali’s coup. His first task on arriving in Cairo was to complete Wavell’s consolidation of the command, fusing it into a united force, ready to take on Rommel.
He took his time to prepare, but, by late November 1941, with his forces numerically equal to the enemy, he was ready, and launched Operation Crusader, a tank-led offensive to throw the Axis out of Egypt.
The offensive succeeded. After hard tank battles, the siege of Tobruk was raised and the Axis forces appeared to be on the back foot.
But Rommel was no Graziani – the incompetent Italian commander so comprehensively thrashed in 1940. In January 1942, the Desert Fox launched a surprise counter-attack dubbed ‘the dash to the wire’, designed to disrupt the Allied rear echelons.
Again, Auchinleck acted decisively to stem the Axis advance. He dismissed his field commander, Alan Cunningham, and stabilised the defences at Gazala, using a system of ‘boxes’ – a modern equivalent of Wellington’s squares at Waterloo.
One of the Auk’s strengths was his openness to new ideas, such as his support for the Long Range Desert Group – forerunners of the SAS – who wrought havoc behind the Axis lines by shooting up airfields, destroying many enemy planes.
But one of his weaknesses – as seen by Brooke and Churchill from London – was his poor judgement in appointing his friends as subordinates. The Auk’s Svengali, in their eyes, was his acting Chief-of-Staff, Eric ‘Chink’ Dorman-Smith, an eccentric friend of Ernest Hemingway, whose brain was buzzing with fresh schemes and novel methods of warfare.
However, Chink’s arrogant contempt for those less clever than he made him extremely unpopular with fellow officers, and therefore a hindrance rather than a help to his chief.
Another desert reverse
In May 1942, having received reinforcements, Rommel was ready for another advance. He broke through the Gazala defences and recaptured Tobruk.
Another of Auchinleck’s misguided appointments had been replacing Cunningham with the inexperienced Neil Ritchie as field commander of the 8th Army. Ritchie, who had never before headed more than a brigade, was no match for Rommel.
But the Auk was at his best in a crisis. Sacking Ritchie, he sped to the front line and took personal command of the battle. By the end of July, he had again managed to reconstruct a defence line, anchored on an Egyptian railway halt called El Alamein. Rommel had outrun his supply-lines and, faced with determined resistance, his attack had ground to a halt.
But there was no disguising the fact that the Auk had suffered a strategic defeat. All the gains of the previous two years – Cyrenaica, the eastern half of Libya, and with it the vital port of Tobruk, had been lost, and Rommel stood within 60 miles of Alexandria. Exhausted, Auchinleck wrote to Brooke offering to resign.
Churchill had already decided that another general had failed. Before making a final decision, he flew to Cairo in August, determined to see the situation for himself.
Rather than schmooze the comfort- loving PM in the Egyptian capital, Auchinleck treated Churchill to basic rations in his fly-blown forward desert command-post. He endeavoured to explain that it would be several weeks before the 8th Army could resume offensive action against Rommel, as it needed time to build up an overwhelming advantage in numbers and equipment. Supported by Brooke, the PM’s mind was made up: a wholesale change of the guard was required.
He fired the Auk and Chink, and appointed a personal favourite, Harold Alexander, as the new C-in-C of the Middle East. Against Brooke’s advice, he chose as the new 8th Army commander a general, William ‘Strafer’ Gott, who was already in the desert and was in fact as exhausted as the Auk and reluctant to take on fresh responsibility.
Fate decided that he would not have to do so. Flying to take up his command in a lumbering transport plane, the ‘Strafer’ was himself strafed by a German fighter and killed. On Brooke’s advice, the vacant job went to Auchinleck’s old rival, Bernard Montgomery.
Auchinleck accepted his dismissal with dignity. He declined Churchill’s compensatory offer of a new command in Iran, and retired to his beloved India, where he would eventually play a valuable role in supporting Bill Slim’s victorious campaign to liberate Burma from the Japanese.
The rest, as they say, is history. Ironically, Monty waited at least as long as Auchinleck had planned to do before overwhelming the outnumbered Axis in the Second Battle of El Alamein launched in October 1942.
Churchill’s claim that there were no victories before Alamein and no defeats after it was a typical piece of Winstonian hyperbole. But there is little doubt that it represented a turning-point, not only in the ding-dong desert war, but in the Second World War as a whole.
Montgomery had a large slice of what Napoleon demanded of his generals – luck. He was the right man at the right time, and, as a master of PR, crafted the right image to take advantage of circumstances. His later military career in Normandy and at Arnhem, and his insufferable egotism, prove that he was no better a general than his less lucky predecessors; but he happened to be fresh and ready when they were burned-out and tired and fit to be fired.
Churchill – as even one of his victims, Dill, recognised – was indispensable as an inspirational figurehead at the darkest point of the war. The generals he disparaged and dismissed were often right to resist the pressure he put them under, but he too may well have been correct in ruthlessly shunting them aside when their time had come and gone. •
Nigel Jones is a historian and journalist. He has published eight books and is currently writing his ninth – a study of sex, spying, and surveillance in Nazi Germany.