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.


  1. Very well written with refreshing objectivity.

  2. But he fought Italians, the made-to-order patsies of WWII. Anybody, but anybody, could have beaten them, as long as the Italians didn't surrender first. Ranking a general according to his exploits against an enemy like the Italians is absurd. Montgomery and Patton at least fought Germans. Wavell shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath with them.

    1. Dear ignorant,

      Wavell fought the Germans in the Western Desert, Greece, Crete, and effectively blocked them in Iraq (where their 'advisers' were flying in), and Syria. His command also fought the Luftwaffe throughout the Med and in trying to keep Malta going. In these battles he lost in Greece and Crete, won in Iraq and Syria, and came out about 50/50 in North Africa and the Med - both naval and air campaigns (not bad considering the limitations of his resources).

      His resources at the start were comparatively inferior to those Percival or MacArthur had for their great defeats, and certainly vastly inferior to anything Montgomery or Patton had by the time the Allies had established complete domination of sea and air, and massive superiority in resources for their armies.

  3. Hi Nigel

    While in the main i agree with the basic thrust of your argument, which if i read you correctly is that Wavell was an incompetent General, i feel that you have not gone anywhere near far enough. My research over the past ten years has revealed that certainly in the Middle East Wavell's generalship was so incompetent that it almost cost Britain the war.

    1. Dear Norman,

      I don't think Wavell was incompetent, but I don't think he was great either.

      His main fault was to not deal well with politicians, particularly not saying NO to Eden over Greece. (Though I do think he should have finished off Libya before going for East Africa, even before Greece, but that possibly unfairly presupposes he could know how close the Italians came to collapse in Libya.)

      I do think he was better than many who had a far far easier set of circumstances, and who have got away with being called great largely because they had overwhelming superiority and never faced opponents who had areal chance to expose their weaknesses.

      To be specific, he was better than Eisenhower or MacArthur as a theatre commander, and better than Gort, Anderson, Bradley or Clarke as an army commander. (Whether he would have been better than Dill or Marshall as a COS is impossible to say.)

      His mistakes were more disastrous, because his circumstances were SO much harder than the minnows who swanned through later, that I think it is too easy to judge him too hard.

      Having said all that, I wish Brooke had been there, rather than him. But am probably grateful he was there rather than Dill or Gort or Ironside. He was probably a better choice than Auchinlek too.

    2. Hi Nigel

      Thanks for your thoughts on Wavell and his military abilities I accept that you do not claim that he was incompetent but you do say, in your own words, ‘he was not great either’ and I can fully agree with you there. I, as I think I intimated, do, in fact, consider him extremely incompetent and I might add lazy preoccupied with his own personal pass times, at the expense of attending to military matters, and, as you say, could not, and indeed would not, unless it suited him, as in the case of his relationship with Eden, deal well with politicians, in particular Churchill, who, it is beyond doubt, he disliked intensely.
      In regard to your remarks about Wavell finishing off the Italians in Libya before sending troops to East Africa, this, of course, would have made absolute military sense. Indeed it was military madness to break off a successful attack just when total victory was in his grasp. Wavell, by taking 4 Indian Division away from O’Connor, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
      As for him not allowing O’Connor to finish off the Italians in Libya because he did not know how close the Italians were from collapse this is completely untrue. Wavell knew full well how weak the Italians were. His intelligence gathering agencies had all indicated, before Operation Compass even started, that the Italians were badly led, had few modern weapons, and had low moral. Once Operation Compass started it was abundantly clear from the start that the Italians were in an even worse state than had been predicted. Their weapons were, in virtually every regard, inferior to their British equivalents. Italian tanks, for example, were so bad that they became known as iron coffins. In contrast the British Matilda tank was almost impervious to Italian guns. Had the plans drawn up between the navy and O’Connor for swift advancement of the army along the Libyan coast using ships to carry forward men and bulk supplies once the ports had been captured, then there is little doubt that O’Connor could have been in Tripoli in as little as two weeks and the war in North Africa would have been over.

    3. Hi again

      Now turning to your comments on Wavell’s relationship with Eden, and your claim that it was Wavell who could not say “no” to Eden over Greece; indicating that it was Eden who had pressed Wavell to undertake the totally ludicrous expedition to Greece, well I have to say this is not supported, at all, by the historical record. It was, in fact, Wavell who persuaded Eden that it was a good idea to go to Greece. Wavell’s motives for wanting to go to Greece are unclear but it is more than likely that he was trying to panda to Churchill who had been very keen for the British, for perfectly sound reasons, to get back onto the Continent. However, even from London Churchill could see that such an undertaking would be risky and had sent Eden specifically to make sure that any help given to the Greeks would not turn into a fiasco like the Norwegian campaign had. Indeed Churchill cabled Eden and told him that unless he was certain that the venture was going to be successful he was to call it off. Unfortunately, because by now Wavell and Eden were firm friends, Eden did not press Wavell to demonstrate to him that he had the wherewithal to make the expedition a success. Consequently, as we now know, it failed with disastrous results for the British war effort.
      Taken together these two mistakes completely altered the course of the war for the British and set back any prospect of victory in the desert which was obviously needed before operations elsewhere could be under taken. Had Wavell concentrated on his primary objectives and defeated the Italians in North Africa, then defeated them in East Africa, he could then have sent a creditable force to Greece. He would have had available, in spring 1941, at least five combat hardened infantry divisions, one armoured division and an armoured brigade all with a proper establishment of artillery and transport. Perhaps enough with Greek support to have held the Germans?
      In regard to the wider war, no matter how things turned out in Greece, if Wavell had defeated the Italians in Africa there would have been no war in the desert. British forces which fought in Africa would have been available for service in the Far East. Singapore and Hong Kong might never have been attacked and the war with Japan, if it happened at all, would have been appreciably shorter. The ridiculous and senseless decisions Wavell made in 1940/41, and these were Wavell’s decisions and no one else’s, had a huge and adverse impact on the British war effort and caused the war with Germany to be fought for much longer than was necessary. Wavell was an incompetent general of the highest magnitude and no amount of excuses will change this sad fact.

    4. To be honest, I agree with most of that. But I still think you are being a bit hard on Wavell. 'Ridiculous and Senseless' might be unjust.

      Sending 4th Indian to East Africa was possibly sensible considering the conflicting demands on him (though I would have preferred finishing Libya first). He did have 6th Australian to continue the offensive, and it was only as this continued that it became clear it could have gone all the way (much to the surprise of many).

      O'Connor's COS arrived back at ME HQ with plans to finish Libya only to find the North Africa maps on the walls replaced with Greece. That was the first they really knew about new priorities.

      Now on a tactical, or strategic level, this was the wrong choice, but on a geo-political level, it may have been correct.

      1. Britain entered the war to uphold a guarantee to not just Poland, but Greece, Yugoslavia, Rumania, and a bunch of others. People understood that troops could not be got to Poland in time. They were less understanding about not helping Finland against the Russian. Not making an effort to help Greece might have been the nail in the coffin for the neutrals, and could have seen really vital neutrals like Turkey and Spain give up on the Allies. Wavell understood this concept as Brooke and perhaps Auchinlek might have, but as lesser lights like Alexander and Montgomery would probably not. He may well have been right on Geo-political ground?

      2. Morality. Ditto. Britain perhaps had moral obligations to help those that asked. (Pity the sensible Metaxas died and the request did come.)

      3. Barbarossa. Although it was not part of the plan, the byproduct of the Balkan campaign was to perhaps fatally weaken Barbarossa, and perhaps save Russia from defeat. Wavell gets no direct credit for this, but the fact that the campaign did have geopolitical consequences beyond those anticipated still suggests that geopolitical considerations cannot be written off completely in preference to tactical considerations.

      This is part of my whole problem with rating generals. Montgomery would never have made teh 'go to Greece' decision, but Montgomery's ceiling was below theatre commander.

      Brooke would probably have chosen differently, but Brooke misunderstood the geopolitical implications of choosing the Pacific 'assistant' role rather than the reconquor Malaya 'middle way', and did not support Churchill's superior understanding that wars are fought for political reasons then.

      Wavell may have had too good an academic understanding of what wars are fought for and why to be effective as a ruthless theatre commander, but may have been a better geopolitician than Brooke or Eisenhower or Marshall.

      I think he choose wrong, but I do not underestimate the complexity of the issues he was trying to balance.

    5. Hi Nigel

      In response to your supposition that going to go to Greece might, “on a geo-political level”, have been correct I should like to offer the following observations. With regard to Rumania and Spain they were both already pro German and going to help Greece did not win them over to the Allied cause and I can find no evidence that anyone at the time, or indeed since, thought it would. Turkey and Yugoslavia were both broadly supportive of the British cause but did not base their support on guarantees of military assistance given to Greece in earlier years. Their rulers supported the British cause because they were both fundamentally opposed to the Nazi regime and were fearful of what German/Italian subjection would mean for them and their peoples. So from a geo-political point of view the British not helping Greece would have made no difference to the respective positions of the neutrals. Those nations who supported Britain, like Turkey, would, and did, remain on side, Yugoslavia was of course crushed and so its support became irrelevant, and countries like Spain and Rumania would, and did, remain in the German camp.

    6. With reference to the Balkan campaign, and the British deployment to Greece forcing Hitler to invade Greece and in so doing delaying the German attack on Russia by six weeks, and thereby, so the theory goes, leaving the Germans short of Moscow by the time winter set in, and so the theory continues then causing the Germans to subsequently lose the war, this has been proved not to be the case so many times that I am surprised you even mentioned it. I will not go into all the reasons why British involvement in Greece was irrelevant to when Hitler invaded Russia or why his forces failed to take Moscow but I would point out that Hitler had decided to knock out Yugoslavia and Greece long before the British deployment as he wanted to secure his Bulgarian/Rumanian border from interference while he invaded Russia. Hitler was going to invade Greece and crush Yugoslavia regardless of any action Wavell might or might not take.
      Moreover, the troops Hitler sent to invade Greece were not taken away from the forces about to invade Russia they were a separate force. The German attack on Greece did not delay their invasion of Russia by one day never mind six weeks. Nor had the troops in Greece been made available for operations in Russia would the progress of the German Army have been any faster. Russian resistance, the shear distances to be travelled and problems of resupply, not to mention Hitler’s erratic behaviour, all contributed to slowing the German advance not invading Greece.
      However, while British involvement in Greece would have had no effect on the timing of German operations in Russia or their progress, as I mentioned in my previous response, British involvement in Greece could have been very worrying for the Germans and very beneficial to the allied war effort. Had Wavell allowed O’Connor to take Tripoli and knock the Italians out in Libya in December 1940, as he undoubtedly could, and should, have done, then allied forces in sufficient numbers, suitably equipped and armed, could have been sent to Greece in March 1941 with a real chance of halting the German thrust through the Balkans in April. There was nothing strategically or tactically wrong in going to help Greece, in fact, a successful intervention by the Allies in Greece would, almost certainly, have been very beneficial to British war aims.
      Had the move to Greece been made in March then proper logistical support arrangements could have been made to receive and support a substantial allied military commitment. This could quite easily have been on a scale of perhaps five infantry divisions’ one armoured division an armoured brigade group and perhaps forty fighter and bomber squadrons all with supporting arms. Such a force, added to the Greek forces already defending the predicted attack routes, would have been a totally different proposition for the German attackers to overcome. Troop concentrations of this magnitude would have had a reasonable chance of halting, if not defeating, the German thrusts into Greece.
      The consequences of defeating the German advance would undoubtedly have had a very influential effect on the attitude of the neutrals. It might have saved Yugoslavia from its brutal subjection, and definitely would have brought her into the war on the allied side, it may even have inclined Turkey to join the allied war effort. As to what effect a successful defence of Greece might have brought in the longer run we may see that Crete would not have been lost many allied ships would not have been sunk and millions of tons of irreplaceable weapons and stores would not have been gifted to the Germans and lost to the allied cause.
      Wavell had the opportunity to swing the balance of the war into the allies favour in 1940/41 and massively improve British standing with potential allies and cause serious concern in the corridors of power of her enemies. However, because of his earlier failings and his then ridiculous decision to go to Greece half cocked he seriously set back British war objectives.

    7. Turning now to your thought that sending 4 Indian Div to East Africa might possibly have been “sensible considering the conflicting demands on him” I would ask; what demands? There was no chance of the Italians in East Africa attacking any British possessions in the region. Their force of over 30,000 well armed men had almost been beaten by a handful of allied troops poorly equipped and with virtually no artillery support in British Somaliland in August 1940. The Italians knew, and Wavell knew as he was reading their intelligence, that the Italian Army in East Africa was in no position, in December 1940, to attack anyone. So that front was not making any demand on him. Moreover, the allied forces already in East Africa were more than sufficient to hold the important towns even if the Italians somehow did manage to make an attack. Furthermore, as you say, he did have 6 Australian Div to send to East Africa if he really did have trouble with the Italians.
      In Libya he had no enemy left to make demands on him. The Italians were completely beaten indeed the Dagenham Girl Pipers could have probably taken Tripoli in December 1940. The Greeks at this time were not only not asking for British help they were in fact actively refusing it as they thought a token force might well incline Hitler to attack them even sooner than he did. There was no problem in Syria or Iraq they had just witnessed a virtuoso performance by O’Connor in the Western Desert and were not about to mess with such a formidable enemy. They in fact only rebelled for want of a better word later when they saw how weak and ineffectual Wavell’s forces were. Lastly Dorman-Smith, O’Connor’s COS did indeed go to Wavell’s HQ, sent by O’Connor in desperation after Beda Fomm, as he had heard nothing from Wavell for weeks and wanted to know what he should do next. It was only after this visit that O’Connor realised that his advance to Tripoli was over. Consequently it is not difficult to suggest that sending 4 Indian to East Africa, when victory was in sight in the Western Desert, and no other demand were being placed on Wavell, was both senseless and ridiculous.

  4. Having been interested in Field-Marshal Wavell for many, many years, I almost flew off the treadmill at the gym this morning, so intent was I in focusing on your fascinating blog via smartphone instead of watching my footing. I found myself both learning and generally agreeing with Nigel Davies' analysis (so much incisive & interesting ground), and the subsequent discussion was also excellent. One reason I admire Wavell was touched in at the end of Nigel's piece -- that he was a gentleman. I would expand that to use the term 'honorable.' One of his most famous quotes was something to the effect of "a big butcher's bill" (needless British casualties) was not acceptable in defying Churchill over an issue that escapes me. Nigel noted that his soldiers worshipped him, especially at the beginning. That made me remember a brief chat I had as a young tourist walking into Chelsea Royal Hospital in 1981. I happened to sit next to a pensioner and struck up a brief conversation. He had served in the Middle East so, naturally, I asked him about Wavell and what the men thought of him. He looked at me and just said, "Loved him." I still can recall his northern accent and that he made a point of meeting my eye when he emphasized that sentiment. Your 'Rethinking History' blog is great, and I look forward to reading more! Thank you -- David Dearborn, Connecticut USA

  5. Hi David

    Wavell was in command in the Middle East, as you probably know, for just under two years. In that time there is little doubt that the majority of the troops who came under his command liked or even loved him. He was frequently referred to as “our Archie” or “good old Archie”. However, this was not because he was a good General or because he took a great interest in his troops and their welfare. Wavell was liked by the rank and file because all the time he was in command in the Middle East they were having a great time. Although work on the base set up in the Middle East was being made throughout Wavell’s time in command it was only being done on a piece time basis. No one, in fact, was working very hard there was no weekend working UK public holidays were observed and very few people work more than six hours per day.
    Likewise although thousands of troops were arriving in the Middle East most were not being incorporated into fighting divisions but were instead living life as though on a piece time assignment. There was little or no higher training being done as there were very few complete divisions with which to train. The only even near complete division was 7th Armoured Division and although the men of this unit did train regularly they were the exception not the rule. There was no Corps organisation and certainly no Army organisation until operation Compass came about so pre Compass, December 1940, no Army manoeuvres could be undertaken.
    As for him being a gentleman and honourable it is also difficult, in a general sense, to bestow on him these honours. He had very few close friends; however, the people he did take on as friends were treated very well. If he liked you, or he thought you might be useful to him like Eden, then he would be the perfect gentleman and would appear completely honourable. However, Wavell could, and often was, very manipulative. He literally stole ides from subordinates and would often claim success for projects if they went well and quickly distance him self from other projects if they went wrong.
    Wavell was a complex man he was an academic very much tied up in his own world and although not a bad man in many ways he turned out to be a very bad combat general. Although, as you say, in the beginning of his command his men loved his style of command and when asked if he was a good general I am sure they would say “we loved him”. But if you had asked men from units who had been chased out their positions at Mersa el Brega or besieged at Tobruk taken prisoner in Greece or un ceremonially thrown out of Crete then I doubt you would have got the same response.

  6. Thank you, Norman..your post is exactly why this blog is such a find for me--breathing new life into these events and perspectives. I appreciate the time and insights. Yes, I've often thought that Wavell's career path was maybe less satisfactory to him and others than it turned out to be. Maybe that's part of his appeal -- that an intellectual at heart could be so influential and monumental as a soldier, from the Allenby days to 1943, good, bad or indifferent. He definitely was a player, a force, for a while. He may have been born five or ten years too early, and his taciturn nature certainly did not help him. But part of my thought about Wavell as a man of honor spills over to his viceregal term, where he tried to mitigate the Bengal famine against London indifference and tried to bring the Indian political factions together at the Simla conference; the latter being more political pragmatism, but this was a good man, on balance. Didn't he hurt himself with Churchill by standing up against gratutitous waste of manpower? If his troops revered him at first because they had an easy time of it hanging around the Middle East theatre, hmm, well, maybe. I appreciate the thesis and the backup you present. I can't help but suspect, however, that there was something a bit more primal going on -- maybe his success with O'Connor that they all were aware of, as well as his loss of an eye in WWI, etc., as evidence of personal courage then they were going to face the music soon, regardless of easy street for a while. Maybe they knew that he did stand up for them, notwithstanding the Greek problem. And whether Wavell was a 'combat' general at all is an interesting question, given the nature of C-in-C Middle East and the ABDA command. Looking forward to reading the blog section on Auchinleck, another somewhat enigmatic figure!

  7. Dear David and Norman,

    One of the problems with judging Wavell was that he wasn't a combat general, he was a theatre commander. The first really.

    In fact he commanded the biggest and most complex theatre of all, at one stage with troops fighting, or facing combat, against: Italians in East Africa; Italians and Germans in North Africa: Germans in Greece and Crete - and potentially Turkey and Cyprus; French and Germans in Syria; locals and Germans in Iraq and Iran; and potentially Germans coming down through Russia in Iraq and other places. He faced several threats of several types on multiple fronts across a larger area than the entire Eastern Front between the Russians and Germans… and with a fraction of the resources.

    No matter what we think of whether he choose the best options at various times, the fundamental thing was that he held his command. When France collapsed he held the vital points in the Mediterranean. When Greece collapsed, he held the vital points in the Middle East. When Malaya and the Philippines collapsed, he arrived too late, and too ignorant to achieve much, but nonetheless he held the vital points in the Indian Ocean.

    He was rarely given a winning hand, but he held.

    By contrast many later generals were given far better hands to play, and still made mistakes.

    I do not think he was the best available. But he was so much better than so many others. We should be grateful that it was him who held, rather than some other equally famous names who we can have less confidence in. Specifically: Gamelin, Gort, Dill, Auchinlek, Alexander, Montgomery, Marshall, Clarke, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton, etc.

    All of them would almost certainly have been more out of their depth in Wavell's early role, and would have achieved less.

  8. Read Wavell in the Middle East, 1939-1941: A Study in Generalship, by Harold E. Raugh, Jr. (London: Brassey's, 1993; reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

  9. The Author needs to rethink his story. General Wavell was ordered by Prime Minister Churchill to send troops to Greece, against Wavell's better judgement, the misadventure was not his idea. Check the facts. Whatever the outcome, Greece delayed the huge Nazi operation Barbarossa and was instrumental in preventing the swift defeat of Soviet Russia. Hitler failed as did Napoleon.

    1. Churchill sent Eden and Dill to meet with Metaxas.
      Churchill wanted to be supportive, and told them to do a deal, if possible, but also sent an 'opt out' suggestion if things seemed to risky.
      Metaxas said they were, and refused assistance... then died.
      His successor wanted intervention.
      It was the wrong move, and Metaxas had told Eden it was wrong, and yet Eden went ahead. That's Eden's fault, and Churchill probably accepted that, given that the military expert agreed.
      Wavell - the military expert - should have said if he thought it was a bad idea. He did in fact know it was a bad idea, but felt it wasn't his place to say so! The fact that he couldn't communicate with his political bosses was his problem, and his fault.
      I suggest you read his 'Generals and Generalship' lectures, published in 1938, and see if you think he lived up to his own principles of clear and effective communication with his political leaders.

      The effect on North Africa, and extending the war against Italy by years, was disastrous.

      On the issue of the effect of slowing down the invasion of Greece, I agree with you. Check this post.
      but that is completely irrelevant to whether Wavell did the right thing at the time.

  10. Wavell is my great-grandfather. Lovely to read about him here