General (later Field Marshall) Sir Claude Auchinleck (see the link for a comprehensive career outline) is one of the most interesting generals of the Second World War. Many of his devotees would claim he is one of the most under-rated. But he is an excellent example of why it is difficult to assume that just because a general is good at one level, he can also be good at another. In fact he is the classic example of a general who excelled at two widely separate levels of command, while failing miserably at the intermediate levels.
Auchinleck followed the classic route to high command of British generals. Military family; graduated into Indian Army just before the Great War; fought through the war in difficult and challenging roles; came out highly respected, held staff appointments and studied and later taught at Staff Colleges; received his first important independent command in the late thirties, etc. The main difference being that his Great War experience was in the wildly fluctuating campaigns in modern Iraq, with their vastly different highs and lows to anything experienced in trench warfare. He started and finished the war involved in mobile warfare, even if he fought trench campaigns in the middle.
In World War Two he had the unique distinction of being the only Indian Army officer called to England to command an entirely British corps. He led it in the brief campaign in Norway without having a chance to demonstrate much that was either good or bad in the way of his own abilities. He then commanded a corps, and later an entire ‘Command’ in Southern England during the Nazi invasion scare, before returning to India to become CIC.
His energetic reaction to the Iraqi crisis brought him to the attention of Churchill just as Wavell was demonstrating increased exhaustion in the Middle East command, and the decision to swap the two commanders is another example of Churchill’s flying by the seat of his pants approach. (And another example of the poor influence that General Dill had on developments during his tenure as CIGS – the abandonment of the victorious campaign in North Africa, the disaster of the Greek campaign, the foolish appointment of Percival to the vital Malayan command, and this decision - all being standouts. But Dill will be another post.)
Auchinleck did some brilliant work in the North African campaign. Foremost amongst his efforts was that he twice fought Rommel’s army to a standstill, despite each time taking over what looked like a defeated army at the last minute to achieve such stunning results. Indeed his Tactical ability during Crusader and First Alamein is the foundation for the claims that he was an extraordinary battlefield general. In that sense at least, his supporters are right to think that he stood well above the vast majority of more famous Allied commanders from later in the war. Certainly men like Marshall and Dill, Eisenhower and Wavell, Bradley and Alexander, Clarke and Cunningham, etc: didn’t have more than a fraction of his battlefield sense. He was certainly one of the pre-eminent army commanders of the war. Rommel himself despaired of outmanoeuvring or outfighting someone of his ability, even after having stripped his predecessors in those battles of their numerical superiority. Auchinleck was the embodiment of Robustness, Character, Humanity and Spirit. His Topography, Movement, Tactics and Combined Operations were apparently superior even to Rommel’s. He was unarguably a first class battlefield general.
Unfortunately it was not his job to be a battlefield general. He was in the Middle East to be the commander in chief, not to fight in the field. More importantly, the only reason he had to take over the army in the field twice, was because the men he had appointed to command it had failed… twice. General Cunningham, despite having demonstrated ability in the East African campaign against the Italians in Ethiopia, proved himself exhausted during Operation Crusader, and had to be replaced when he effectively had a mental collapse. Possibly Auchinleck could not have expected such a collapse, but it does reveal a poor choice … regardless of the reason.
The successor Auchinlek appointed to command the Western Desert army - after winning the battle himself - was a relatively junior staff officer with no battlefield command experience of large formations. He was actually inferior in rank to his corps commanders. Ritchie was not a bad general, just a bad appointment at this particular time. Certainly Auchinleck did not help him with the lack of Clarity of his instructions. (In fact the CIGS, Alanbrooke, was furious at how Auchinleck ‘damaged’ Ritchie’s progression, and brought him home after his sacking to learn the corps command position properly. He was later to serve in the invasion of France and Germany as a very good corps commander.) Ritchie’s inexperience and lack of control of his sub-commanders made him fairly easy pickings for Rommel’s next attack. Again Auchinlek stepped in – almost too late – to save the day. But again a bad choice had been revealed.
Some argue that Auchinleck, as an Indian army officer, simply knew too little about his British army contemporaries. This is dubious. The truth is that he was attracted to positive sounding ideas men regardless of the sense of their ideas. His staff officers include Dorman-Smith and Corbett, both of whom fizzed with ideas, and both of whom were considered completely unsound (if not actually insane) by most of their contemporaries. Poor Delegation. The problem was he stayed loyal to people even after they had proved they needed replacing, and apparently relied on his own abilities to save the situation if required. Poor Command technique. Perhaps that might have been better if he was a more involved Mentor of those he was working with, but repeated failures suggest that this was not one of his strengths either.
In addition his attraction to new experimental ideas meant that he was constantly undermining the advances made by his troops in training and technique by splitting them into ‘Jock columns’ to stir the enemy up. Undoubtedly the jock columns worked, but perhaps in the same way that Wingate’s Chindits worked later, with too much effort, and far too much cost to regular units, while achieving marginal results against the enemy. Poor Common-Sense?
Sacking Auchinlek as CIC Middle East was one of Churchill’s better decisions. (As was finally dividing the vast Middle Eastern theatre into a North African and a Persia/Iraq command to face different German threat axis.) But appointing him to return as CIC India a year later was an even better decision.
The key element to Auchinleck was that he was respected, even loved, by most who knew him. The Indian army as a whole trusted him completely, and would work for him better than for probably anyone else. Even Indian politicians respected him immensely, which is why it is possibly unfortunate that Wavell was left as Viceroy struggling with the independence issues, when Auchinleck might have done so much better in controlling the disparate personalities in Indian politics.
The fascinating thing is that Auchinleck was successful as a battlefield general, but only because he was unsuccessful as a theatre commander. By contrast he was also fabulously successful as CIC of the Indian army, and probably would have been at least as successful at a higher level.
So was he a successful general?
The answer of course is both Yes and No. He was a brilliant general, who failed his duties at the crucial moment. His Command weaknesses caused him to make decisions which lengthened the war in the Middle East, and the fact that his Operational strengths allowed him to recover at least part of the situation does not reverse this decision. He failed in his appointed task at his appointed level.
Perhaps Auchinleck is an example of what Alanbrooke meant when he said that it was unfortunate that too many generals had been pushed too far too fast, and had suffered the consequences? Perhaps Auchinleck would have benefitted from a slower maturity under someone like Brooke, and could have developed his undoubted brilliance into an actual ability at higher command in the field. Perhaps he could have taken control of Burma and fought with his usual brilliance – and charmed the Chinese and Americans with his usual brilliance (Stilwell liked him… Stillwell?) Perhaps he would have been even better than Slim. His admirers think he would have been even better commanding D-Day than Montgomery or Eisenhower. Perhaps… We will never know.
All that we can say is that Auchinleck could have been one of the greatest Allied generals of the war, if he had been given other roles. Unfortunately his personality was not suited to making the best of the roles he was given. So we must judge him by what he actually did. Which means that the most important assessment we can make of him is to rank him as a failure as a theatre commander.
Such a decision seems unjust. ‘The Auk’ was truly a very great man. Declaring him a failure seems unforgiveable. As Churchill said when he had to sack him, “like shooting a magnificent stag”.