As a student of history, I have often noted that in times of warfare, the actions of the military are too often influenced by the politicians of the time. Often, those politicians have little or limited military knowledge, limited local intelligence or an understanding of how the situation actually is on the battle field, but always believe that they know better.
So it was in 1941 when General Archibald Wavell, the C-in-C Middle East, was overly influenced by Winston Churchill in London, to commit to dubious military actions, as part of the North Africa campaign against Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
In February, Wavell was ordered to halt his advance into Libya and to send troops to Greece where the Germans and Italians were attacking. He disagreed with this decision and told Churchill so, but still followed his orders. The result was an unmitigated disaster. The Germans were given the opportunity to reinforce the Italians in North Africa with the Afrika Korps resulting in the weakened Western Desert Force being pushed all the way back to the border of Libya and Egypt, and leaving Tobruk under siege. In Greece, General Wilson’s Force W could not set up an adequate defence on the Greek mainland and was forced to withdraw to Crete, suffering 15,000 casualties and leaving behind their heavy equipment and artillery. Crete was subsequently attacked by German airborne forces on 20th May 1941 and as in Greece, the British and Commonwealth troops were forced once more to evacuate.
Events in Greece led an Axis faction to take over the government of Iraq. Wavell, hard pressed on other fronts, was unwilling to commit precious resources to Iraq and so General Claude Auchinleck’s India Command sent troops to Basra. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, saw Iraq as vital to Britain’s strategic interests and in early May, under heavy pressure from London, Wavell agreed to send a division-sized force across the desert from Palestine to relieve the besieged British air base at Habbaniya and to assume overall control of troops in Iraq. By the end of May, Quinan’s forces in Iraq had captured Baghdad and the Anglo-Iraqi War had ended with troops in Iraq once more reverting to the overall control of GHQ in Delhi. However, Churchill had been unimpressed by Wavell’s reluctance to act.
Wavell sent a force to invade Syria and the Lebanon but hopes of a quick victory faded as the Vichy French put up a resolute defence. However, Churchill was determined to relieve Wavell and after the failure in mid June of Operation Battleaxe which was intended to relieve Tobruk, Churchill told General Wavell on 20 June that he was to be replaced by General Auchinleck, whose performance during the Iraq crisis had impressed Churchill. General Erwin Rommel had high regard for Wavell, despite Wavell being beaten at Tobruk. It is said that Rommel carried a copy of Wavell’s book “Generals and Generalship” throughout the North Africa campaign.
By the end of the war, Wavell had been promoted to the rank of Field Marshal, he had led British forces to victory over the Italians in western Egypt and eastern Libya during Operation Compass in December 1940, then to be defeated by the German army in the Western Desert in April 1941. He was made Earl Wavell in 1947. Wavell died in 1950 following complications of abdominal surgery, and is buried in Winchester.
Churchill did not attend his state funeral.
I have never understood why politicians think they know more than professional career soldiers when it comes to prosecuting a military action. This is not the first time that decisions made by Churchill resulted in delayed and costly military outcomes.
However, it not just Churchill who failed to heed the advice of their military General staff. History is littered by politicians who chose to ignore the prudent advice of their military leaders.