I have had a few negative, in fact disbelieving, comments about the deployments of Allied divisions in 1942. In particular, when I commented that there were more British divisions on the Persian frontier in 1942 than in either the Western Desert or Burmese frontier armies, I was practically accused of fantasising.
This brings up a very interesting issue about how military histories and even statistic books fail to give adequate information. Even otherwise good books like John Ellis’ World War Two Data Book, give misleading information when it comes to the use of Allied divisions. American divisions are simply listed as ‘overseas’ without an expalanation of whether they were in combat or sitting in a garrison, whereas British divisions are ony listed when actually in combat, not when in an overseas garrison.
Now this could be a matter of some confusion. Technically the United States garrison in Peurto Rico was ‘overseas’, even though it was never in danger of fighting, whereas the garrison in the Aleutian islands was ‘at home’, even though it was effectively on the front line (not that it ever did any serious fighting). For contrast the British divisions in the UK were in serious danger of a major battle in 1940 and 1941 even though they were home, whereas the garrisons in West Africa and the Carribean were never in danger of serious fighting. You would have to say however that the garrisons of Malta and Gibralter were pretty important, even though the Axis never actually mounted any of the many attacks they planned. (In fact I think that speaks for itself about the value of garrison troops to the war effort doesn’t it?)
A better example though is the issue of the British 8th, 9th, 10th, and 14th armies. The 8th fought in the Western desert, so all its units are listed ‘in combat’ for their deployments. Fair enough. The 9th defended Cyprus and Syria against further German attack of the type that had captured Crete, and prepared to reinforce Turkey should that country be attacked like Greece, or voluntarily join the war. It’s units are only listed ‘in combat’ for the brief period they fought the Vichy French. The 10th Army in Persia (Iraq and Iran mainly), is not listed in combat except for the very brief operation when Iraq attempted to join the German side. Yet this army was the biggest army in the field in 1942, and was desperately preparing to defend the middle eastern oil reserves should the Germans succeed at Stalingrad and continue their planned offensive past the Baku oil fields in southern Russia. (The 11th and 12th armies were India command units, and were never in danger of real combat, but they had to prepare for a possible invasion from the North or the East for exactly the same reason that Australia had to prepare for a possible invasion… Just because it is almost impossible, doesn’t mean someone might not try it!... And if you don’t prepare at all, it might even succeed… The same concepts that applied to American garrisons in Iceland and British in Northern Ireland and West Africa.) 14th Army of course fought on the Burmese frontier (though it was not called 14th Army until 1943).
With retrospect it is possible to write off the efforts of 9th and 10th armies as irrelevant to winning the war, but clearly that is not how it was seen at the time. Crete had been lost to paratroop attack, so Cyprus had to be garrisoned and prepared. Vichy Syria had let German aircraft transit to the Iraqi revolt, so both had to be occupied. If no troops had been deployed, then the likelihood of Germany occupying all three without opposition was very high (particularly if the Vichy and Iraqi’s invited them to.) Given the speed and skill with which the Germans occupied Tunisia without an invitation and in the face of serious Allied efforts, pretending that forces deployed in these areas were irrelevant to the war effort is spurious.
The threat of Russia collapsing was also a serious concept in both 1941 and 1942, and there is no point pretending that Allied efforts to cope with such a collapse were irrelevant to the war effort. Many bad historians have suggested that the vast quantities of supplies the Allies shipped to Russia were not vital, but this is also dubious. The Americans were effectively feeding much of Russia for much of the war, and the Russians were as grateful for British fighters and tanks as they were for British made army clothing and millions of pairs of boots. The advances by Russian forces later in the war were made possible by American trucks convoyed to Russia by British warships in Allied cargo ships.
The early success of the German 1942 campaign in southern Russia was terrifying to the Allies. Possibly only the stupidity of Hitler in insisting on wasting one of his best offensive armies in street fighting at Stalingrad saved the Russians. Even then German units came within site of the Baku oilfields before being recalled to the mess behind them. The Western Allies took the threat so seriously that more resources were pumped into the 10th Army in Persia in 1942 than into 8th and (what would be) 14th armies combined. At the height of the Japanese advance into Burma, India was sending twice as many divisions north as it was east. (The Indian Armies 6th, 8th and 10th Infantry divisions, its 31st Indian Armoured Division, and the 10th Indian Motorised Brigade were all in or on their way to Iraq and Iran even as the 2 division Burma army was retreating towards the Indian border!) And the best units too. The main flaw with the Indian 17th division rushed to Burma in 1942 was that it was given inexperienced Indian brigades when much tougher Ghurkha units were available. But India command felt the Ghurkha’s were more vital on the possible German front than in Burma).
Here, for interest, are the figures of suggested deployments for June and December 1942, as listed by the new Combined Chiefs of Staff in March and April 1942. (I got these from the microfilm files at Australian Defence Forces Academy when I was studying at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU some 20 years ago, but have not been able to find them as an on-line release. If anyone knows of such a release I would be delighted to hear of it.)
Middle East and Malta:
5 Commonwealth armoured divisions in June, rising to 7 in December. (2 Commonwealth Independent Armd Bdes counting as a division equivalent.)
13 Commonwealth infantry divisions in June, rising to 19 in December (includes Free Poles, Greeks, etc). (Plus 26 Miscellaneous battalions for both.)
Total of 18 divisions in June and 26 in December.
India, Burma and Ceylon:
2.5 British Armoured divisions in June, rising to 4 in December.
12 British Infantry Divisions in June, rising to 17 in December. (Plus 152 miscellaneous battalions rising to 172. Mostly internal security or training.)
Total of 14.5 active divisions in June, rising to 21 in December.
2 US infantry divisions June and December.
1.5 Commonwealth armoured divisions in June, rising to 2.5 in December. (Includes British armoured division if necessary.)
11 Commonwealth infantry divisions.
Total of 14.5 divisions in June, rising to 15.5 in December. (Japan could never have raised more than 3 or 4 for an invasion, and lacked the shipping to move even that many.)
1 US armoured division in June, rising to 3 in December.
1 US infantry division in June rising to 4 in December.
11.5 Commonwealth Armoured divisions in June, and 11 in December.
33 Commonwealth infantry divisions in June, and 31 in December. (Plus 132 miscellaneous battalions and 1.5 million Home Guard rising to 1.8 million.)
Total of 46.5 divisions in June, and 49 in December. (Plus Home Guard and static or training battalions.)
Africa and Gibraltar:
8 Commonwealth infantry divisions in June rising to 9 in December. (Plus 11 miscellaneous battalions.)
(Note that this does not include troops in New Zealand or South Africa or other places considered unlikely to be threatened, and more than it included troops in Hawaii or the Falklands.)
Air Forces (allowing for expected wastage)…
Middle East and Malta:
Commonwealth - 700+ bombers and 700+ fighters in June, rising to 750+ and 930+ in December.
India – Burma – Ceylon:
US – 30 bombers and 160 fighters June and December.
Commonwealth – 320+ bombers and 200+ fighters in June, rising to 780+ and 300+ in December.
Total 350+ bombers and 360+ fighters in June, rising to 800+ and 480+ in December.
US – 200+ bombers and 320+ fighters (including aircraft for one Australian group) in June and December.
Commonwealth – 300+ bombers and 126 fighters in June, rising to 350+ and 126 in December.
500+ bombers and 445+ fighters in June, rising to 550+ and 445+ in December.
US – 220+ bombers and 400+ fighters in June, rising to 1300+ and 1000+ in December.
Commonwealth – 1600+ bombers and 2100+ fighters in June, rising to 2550+ bombers and 2400 fighters in December.
Total of 1820+ bombers and 2500+ fighters in June, rising to 3850+ bombers and 3400 fighters in December.
Now we can comment a few things here.
First, these figures are not fantasy, or guesses, they are the official CCOS documents released 50 years after the war. (And thus much more detailed than the information usually available earlier, where historians – and even many senior field commanders writing memoirs – often had to sift through telegrams and reports to assemble often inaccurate or incomplete lists.)
Second, of the 18 divisions in the Middle East in June, and 26 planned for December, only 7 (in June) and 10 (in December) were for 8th Army (and even that would push supply limits across the Western desert, as Rommel expereienced all too often). The rest were to face the Germans from the north… and it was worring whether they would be enough. (Though the German supply difficulties for an advance across the Turkish mountains or vast open spaces of Southern Russia made it unlikely that forces substantially larger than Rommels Panzer Army could be sent so far even if Russia collapsed).
But if you read any of the major histories, you will get the impression that the 8th army was the only active British force in the Middle East.
Third, that almost none of the December estimates were fullfilled. But this is not (as some of my interogators have implied/stated), because this was impossible. It was because changed circumstances led to changed deployments. The extra divisions for Persia were reduced after Stalingrad made them unnecessary. The American divisions destined to defend Britain if Russia collapsed went to invade North Africa instead. (Don’t believe the invasion of Europe in 1942 concept, that was really fantasy unless Germany unexpectedly collapsed.) The British Armoured division destined to defend Australia joined 8th armies pursuit of Rommel after Coral Sea and Midway made Australia secure. Some of the Commonwealths UK based divisions destined for India went to North Africa instead after the Japanese advance faltered and other troops could be released from Persia.
Similarly aircraft were redeployed. Half the American units for Britain went to North Africa. Most of the Commonwealth units for Persia went to the Middle East or India. Planes destined for the last ditch defence of Australia if necessary were sent to the Russians for their 1943 campaigns once Australia was safe.
All these were sensible redeployments to fit changing circumstances. In fact continuing to send troops or aircraft to Australia or Persia in late 1942 would have been about as useless as sending the planned 1943 reinforcements to North Africa after Italy surrendered!
My point here is that it is absolutely pointless looking at individual campaigns without considering the overall flow of the World War. Did Britain have enough tanks and aircraft to save Singapore in 1941? Yes. Was it possible to move them to Singapore if other commitments had been given lower priority? Probably. Was it more important to save Russia? Yes. Did Britain have more divisions waiting in the 10th Army ‘in case’ the Russians collapsed than in both 8th and 14th Armies? Yes. Was this a waste of resources? Only in hindsight. Did the troops in 9th Army sit on their arses for two years? Yes. Did it stop the Germans from invading Cyprus, Syria and Iraq? Almost certainly. Did the troops garrisoning Malta and Gibraltar do as much to help win the war as those fighting in Guadalcanal? Probably more. (Guadalcanal, like Singapore, could be lost without the Allies losing the war, whereas the loss of Gibraltar might have been fatal. The resulting collapse of the Allied position in the Mediterranean might have meant the loss of Middle Eastern oil. The combining of the German and Italian fleets might have forced the Royal Navy to abandon the Indian Ocean to the Japanese. The new U-boat bases might have won the Battle of the Atlantic. A link up of German and Japanese forces in the Middle East might have been possible…) Gibraltar was far far more vital than the Phillipines or Singapore or Guadalcanal to the Allied war effort.
I get a little tired of people suggesting that because planned reinforcements never arrrived, they were mythological. No, they were usually re-deployed. Britain and America could both easily have sent extra aircraft to the defence of Australia in 1943, but Australia was not remotely threatened in 1943. Those aircraft fought in the Pacific, in Burma, in the Mediterranean, and even in Russia, instead. They were not fantasy, they were diverted from redundant defence to renewal of offense. That is a sign that things are going well!
A re-emphasis here. The Western Allies, as is seen from the figures above, had dozens of spare divisions available. (In fact the figures above don’t even mention troops stuck in the continental US!) What they lacked was transport to move them and their supplies around. Given the circumstances, they made the best deployments they could. Losing the Phillipines and Guam (and Wake and parts of the Aleutians), and Singapore and Burma (and the Solomons and parts of Borneo and New Guinea), was a minor and necessary cost in winning the World War. Anyone in possession of the overview would be hard put not to agree, however reluctantly, with Churchill’s post-war assessment that all the disasters experienced along the way were minor inconveniences compared to the correct decisions on priorities made in 1941 and 1942.
And a point on ‘quality’ for those who continue to think that much of the problem was low quality or badly equipped troops. Japanese troops in 1944 and German troops in 1945 were desperately short of supplies, but that did not make them bad troops. American troops at the Battle of the Bulge had an embarrassing luxury of supplies (don’t you love the film making such a fuss over fresh cream in cakes flown in from America!), but that did not make them good troops. The American 1st Armoured division at Kasserine did not collapse because they were bad troops. In fact they were good professional troops with excellent supplies and equipment. They were just inexperienced men facing combat vets (and badly led). The same thing goes for the British 18th and Australian 8th divisions at Singapore. The American 32nd Infantry division in New Guinea, and the 36th at Cassino were bad troops that failed terribly at first, but (unlike the Indian 9th and 11th divisions in Malaya) were lucky enough not to face a serious attack themselves until they built up skill and became better troops. (That is a bit unfair, several Indian battalions in Malaya held, retreated, and even counter-attacked successfully as told, and never broke.) The quality of the troops has more to do with the skill of their leaders and their gradual development of experience in combat than with fanciful armchair strategists dismissal of ‘bad troops’ here versus ‘good troops’ there.
For myself I believe that if Dill had pushed a little harder on Far Eastern reinforcements in 1941, and appointed some better leaders, then Malaya and Singapore might not have fallen (or not so fast). But this is idle conjecture from someone not tied down with the stresses of fighting for survival over half the globe. It is possibly unreasonable to expect so much from mere human beings. The more fascinating question remains why the US, with the luxury of being at peace and not already fighting on three continents and four oceans like the British Commonwealth, was unable to make any better effort in the Phillipines?
Please, please, before making more comments about non- existent forces, bad troops, fantasy reinforcements, or any other misconceptions from reading pre 30/50 year rule ‘official histories’, or single focus campaign histories, try and get some real sense of what was really available, and how and why it was deployed or re-deployed depending on circumstances.
The results are not only suprising, but give a much better insight into why Churchill (and Roosevelt) made the decisions they did.