Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rating General Wavell

Archibald Wavell is probably the most difficult general of the Second World War to give a fair rating. His achievements against the odds are almost as astonishing as his failures to deliver anything final. He was undoubtedly a great man, and some of his actions argue that he was a great general. But those flaws...

His achievements are well known. He used O'Connor's tiny Western Desert force to blitzkreig an Italian army ten times its own size, and send them scurrying back in ignominy. He then conquored an equally large force in Italian East Africa with a classic double pincer, while cleaning up various other minor problems in Palestine, Iraq, Vichy Syria, etc. He ran 9 major campaigns in a little over two years, most of them successful, despite an appalling inferiority in men and materiel.
However his failings are equally well known. He let the Italians in Libya off the hook when they were defeated, allowing them to recover while he concentrated on Italian East Africa. The Italo/German counter-attack took him completely by surprise. he was talked into vainglory in Greece despite his doubts, and put the British war effort back two years by losing many crack troops and much vital equipment in a 'forlorn hope'. It was to take years of hard slogging to retrieve the position lost by these decisions.

Almost as bad, when Churchill despatched him to 'sit under a pagoda tree' in India, he found himself caught up in the maelstrom of the Japanese blitzkreig through the American, British and Dutch possessions in Asia. Here he once again badly underestimated his enemy, and his direct interference amongst the commanders in the field of battle (whether undermining Percival without sacking him, or supporting Bennett without recognising him as a hopeless windbag, or imposing Hutton into a field command - Burma - he was not suitable for), had consequences that only avoiding being disastrous themselves because the situation was already so bad that they became mere icing on the cake.

On the success side, it is no small consideration to wonder which other general could have done what he did with so few resources. His victories in North Africa and East Africa and the Middle East were run on a shoestring that would have given Montgomery hives, and Eisenhower fits. (MacArthur would have thrown a tantrum and refused to even have tried without better resources.) None of the successful Allied generals of later in the war came anywhere near achieving what he did with so few resources, and arguably none of them could have. (Though I note that O'Connor was the one who actually did the heavy lifting, and may well have been able to repeat the exercise later...)

On the other hand his mistakes are dire. The decision to take advantage of some passing transport to remove the crack 4th Indian division from O'Connor's successful advance and send them to East Africa was a classic example of undermining a winning hand. Even after the Australian 6th division almost made up the weight, by continuing the pursuit well into Libya, he felt the need to undermine the effort again by looking at Greece. When Rommel arrived in Libya he had only a recconnassaince battalion to try and stop the British advance. Had Wavell let them finish the job, Libya would have fallen in 1941! (And possibly Rommel spent the rest of the war in a POW camp). Had the 4th Indian been still present, or the Australian 7th been heading there instead of to Greece, it would have been a certainty.

Greece was an even worse mistake. Certainly Churchill had been enthusiastic, and certainly there was a moral advantage to helping anyone willing to stand up to Hitler. But Wavell had a duty to, as Brooke put it, finish one job before starting another. Particularly jobs won with so much blood. His succumbing to Eden and Dill's overenthusiasm (despite Churchill's last minute words of caution), was hardly the stuff of inspiring legends.

A standout intellectual general, Wavell had delivered a series of lectures entitled 'Generals and Generalship' during the 1930's which had been avidly consumed by international officer training schools. (It is notable that while Wavell had a book if poems beside his bed during the North African campaigns, Rommel kept a translated copy of Wavell's book beside his.)

Wavell was one of three possible choices for Chief of Imperial General Staff (CIGS) in 1938, and, to the minds of men who later held the post like Dill and Brooke, he was undoubtedly the stand out. Unfortunately a smart-arse politicians did what they do best, and appointed an attractive looking junior as a PR exercise (excusing Lord Gort's obvious limits with the idea that his deputy Adam would be able to do the thinking for him). The decision to send Wavell to the Middle East instead was thereafter considered either a godsend (at least until 1941), or a mistake (thereafter).

Would Wavell have made a better CIGS? than Gort? Definitely. Certainly he was unlikely to run off to the excitement of being commander of the BEF and taking most of the the War Office with him. He would almost certainly have appointed either Dill or more likely the bilingual and French raised Brooke to run the BEF, and the army and nation would have been much better off.

On the other hand his greatest failing was his inability to communicate with the politicians. He had written extensively on the importance of good communications between pollies and generals, and it had been a key part of his famous lectures, but he was not able to live up to it in the field. Brooke repeatedly appealed to him to talk to Churchill, or write chatty letters, but Wavell did not fit that mold. (It might just have been Churchill I suppose, a notoriously difficult character. But the point of Wavell's writings was the need to get on with any political leader.)

In retrospect if Wavell had been CIGS in 1938 - 1941, and had stood down for Brooke thereafter, the result might have been better for all. Particularly if Wavell had then been assigned a post that ideally suited his skills, such as co-ordination with the Soviets. (One of the several languages he spoke was Russian, and he had done extensive travel and research in Russia. He was one of the few men in the war who stood up to Stalin and made passionate speeches at Russian dinners that even Stalin applauded.)

But speculation aside, Wavell must be judged on what he actually achieved, and here he is certainly the most difficult assessment of the Second World War.

He did what few others could have done in the vital points in the lean years. Tick. But undid much of it through bad communication with the politicians. Cross. ( I am including Greece in this category). He was a disaster in ABDA, but was possibly too exhausted and sick to be blamed for that. (A sign of superiors making the wrong assignments at the wrong time.) Then he blotted his copybook further by letting the retreating Burma Army be treated with contempt by Eastern command... or perhaps by not paying adequate attention to be aware of what was going on. And by disastrous attempts at offensives by the Eastern Command later. (So even the common soldier, who had worshipped him in the early years, suffered in the latter.)

Perhaps this was not his fault. Brooke felt before Wavell's sacking that he was exhausted and needed several months rest at home. Certainly he had held a crucial position through more stress just in Middle East command longer than any other Allied general held for the whole war. Unfortunately Churchill did not want him in London, available to stir up unrest in parliament, and sent him to what he hoped would be a quiet zone just in time to face, and fail, new threats. Even then, his failure there was probably more from being assigned to a post in charge of an area of which he new nothing, more than it was to inadequate resources. (After all, he had achieved miracles with inadequate resources when given time to prepare and in an area he knew reasonably well.)

So was Wavell a goood general, or a bad one?

He was certainly better than many who got more credit for doing far easier jobs later. He had better understanding of strategy than Dill or Marshall (but not better than Brooke or MacArthur); better grasp of theater command than Eisenhower or Alexander (but not Nimitz or Brooke), and better leadership of troops than Bradley or Anderson (but not Montgomery or Truscott). So in practical terms he was one of the best all round generals of the war, which means he may well have shone in the roles that Dill or Marshall or Eisenhower or Alexander or Bradley or Anderson received undeserved credit for.

His faults largely came down to being too deferential to his political superiors, and to being misused by them. Which in the end means that his superiors were at fault for asking the impossible too many times, and never giving him a break with adequate guidance or support.

Wavell had the potential to be, and in many ways was, one of the best generals on any side during the war. But he was asked to do what very few others could have attempted, and thus weaknesses of character that most of his contemporaries in simpler roles could hide eventually came out. Brooke, who did seem to understand his strengths and weaknesses, did his best to help him once he became CIGS, but too late.

In the final analysis, Wavell deserves to be ranked as a very good general. Like all of them he had failings, but these only became a problem when he was used and abused by his superiors. In fact I would write off all his problems in the Far East, where he was ignorant and exhausted (and later injured), and concentrate on the two mistakes that do reflect badly on him. Not finishing a defeated enemy in Libya, and letting his desire to please the politicians divert his attentions to Greece despite the obvious risks.

The second was the fault of his superiors (particularly Eden and Dill, but Churchill included), and he should get some consideration for letting his repeated demands that generals bow to the politicians undermine his judgement. Unforgiveable, but perhaps understandable.

But the lack of resolve that did not finish the defeated enemy in the Libyan campaign before starting two other campaigns can't be written off as the result of outside pressure. This was his mistake, and largely his alone. It is impossible to imagine Brooke or Montgomery or Patton or Truscott making such a mistake. This, and this alone drops him from the ranks of top generals.

Considering what he did achieve, this is a harsh judgement. Particularly considering that so many other generals later in the war had much easier paths to being considered 'great'. (Montgomery and Patton included.) But nonetheless the key to moving from what Montgomery called 'a good plain cook', to genuine greatness: must include the killer instinct, and a ruthless will to pursue it. Wavell, the brilliant academic and passionate poet, was just too much of a gentleman (in both senses) to cross the line.