Winston Churchill, Desert Warrior
Part Four: The North African Campaign.
There was so little time to rejoice at his appointment as Prime Minister on 10 May, 1940 with that same day being the fall of France to the Germans, a month later on 10 June Italy declaring war on Britain followed by the Battle of Britain on10 July. It must have seemed that the world was celebrating his appointment by promptly falling apart; it makes one wonder if Churchill was starting the dread the 10th of each month. Unlike so many other politicians of his day and especially those of our modern era Churchill was not simply a man of rhetoric but a man of action, more than capable of cashing the cheques his mouth had written in the pre-war era. At times his hubris may have led him to make decisions that would later be condemned by his critics but the time for hesitation was over. I am reminded of the old saying that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. Hitler was to find out, in time, that Churchill was the man to light that candle and when he did it was with a flame thrower.
I covered the Battle of Britain in last month’s entry of this series even though chronologically the North Africa Campaign started a full month earlier. This was done in an attempt to avoid appearing as if we were jumping around from one place to another and giving the story a bit better flow albeit at the risk of anachronism.
In earlier installments of this series we talked about Churchill’s fear of creating a static war like that of the Great War by attacking the Germans head to head somewhere in Europe. To use the word “fear” when speaking of Winston Churchill is unfair and, I believe, quite inaccurate. To decide that driving up a mountain road in winter may be too dangerous then waiting until spring, taking a safer route to achieve the same goal is not the action of a coward but the actions of a sane and calculating person. Churchill would later write of his feelings during the war as his only true fear was that of the U-boat menace. Churchill much preferred the re-invasion of Norway over the direct confrontation in Europe and held onto this argument even as the preparations of D-day were being prepared.
Of all the campaigns of the War perhaps the actions in the deserts of North Africa brought into the spot light of history the most notable and near-mythic personalities of the century. The names, Alexander, Auchinleck, Eisenhower, Patton, Rommel and Kesselring, to name just a few, would become household words from one end of the glob to another. The North Africa Campaign would perhaps be the beginning of Churchill being seen as one of the many rather than the main player in the war.
The declaration of war by Italy upon both France and Britain was not any great surprise considering her alliance with Germany and the German declaration or war. This was not the first aggressive act by Italy against a target in Africa as they had attacked Abyssinia (Ethiopia) on 3 October 1935. If you recall, earlier in this series, the League of Nations did nothing to assist Abyssinia and by May of 1936 Italy had virtually defeated the forces of Abyssinia and Emperor Haile Selassie went into exile, living at Fairfield House in Bath, England. He returned to the capital, Addis Ababa, as Emperor on 5 May, 1941 after the withdrawal of the Italian forces from Abyssinia.
Churchill was facing a great deal of pressure from the Soviets to undertake a second front in Europe at this time; a proposition that Churchill did not favour as we have made mention numerous times. He preferred smaller confrontations that brought much needed victories to bolster the British peoples’ resolve. Time and time again he fought against a second front in France, even after the entry of America into the war. His arguments ranged from not having enough landing craft to the lack of training of the allied troops in attacking a well defended “Fortress Europe”. Statistics show that there was more than enough landing craft in England at this time to support an invasion. While the argument of the allied troops being unprepared may be debatable the fact that by D-Day the German defences were much stronger is an undeniable reality. Churchill’s reluctance to launch an invasion against the Germans in Europe held D-day up for at least a year. One cannot but speculate the additional cost in life this hesitation cost the allies. In the resent past, here in the West, historians would have us think that Britain was alone against Germany at this time. I have somewhat even suggested this earlier in this series. The fact is that Britain had a potentially very powerful ally in the form of the Soviet Union. Churchill distrusted the Soviets and was in no hurry to commit troops to a second front, which did nothing to endure the West to Stalin. One of the tactics Churchill did support whole heartedly was the use of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) in clandestine raids within Europe. His idea was, to use his words, “set Europe ablaze”. Churchill was a proponent of learning from history and drew his ideas from his time spend fighting the Boers in South Africa. He noted the success of the Boer commando raids and wanted to employ the same tactics in Europe to disrupt the Germans and deny as much materials of war as possible through sabotage. While these operations did achieve in bringing in valuable intelligence as well as causing a good deal of mayhem critics have pointed out that the cost in lives through German reprisals was appalling. One of the greatest examples of the costs of these operations is the assignation of SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhardt Heydrich on 27 May 1942 by Czech SOE operatives. The assignation resulted in the extermination of 192 men, 50 women and 88 children from the Czech town of Lidice. Even given the balance sheets of war one has to ask whether the removal of one high ranking Nazi official was worth the cost; our generation is fortunate to have the luxury of such debates.
Another criticism of the SOE was that it kept competent military leaders from leading their troops in the field due to their preoccupation with sabotage. While the above two examples may be fuel for debate as they are based on personal observation and conclusions the one cold hard fact is that not one of the sixty-six German divisions stationed in France on D-Day was committed to internal security. [John Keegan, Churchill (London: Weidenfeld and Nicoloson), 2002 pg. 128]. Keegan goes on to state that things in Southern Europe were much worse. “Greece and Yugoslavia were ravaged by reprisals and by the civil wars that resistance provoked ...The consequences of encouraging resistance in Yugoslavia and Greece were socially and politically disastrous; they persist to this day.” [Ibid.]
Another discussion that was directly linked to the North Africa Campaign was the disastrous Dieppe raid, 19 August 1942. For over half a century the facts about the raid on Dieppe were kept from the public. Speculation as to the purpose ranged from the reasonable to the realm of those who find conspiracy in everything from the cause of the death of Tutankhamen to the truth about the Moon Landing. Resent evidence has shown that this was a “pinch raid”, that is to say a raid to steal something, in this case the German Enigma machine. The British had been making some progress in breaking the enemy code when the Germans decided to add an additional rotor wheel which made all of the work by British decoders nearly useless.
Captured intelligence revealed that the German U-boats were poised to enter into the Mediterranean. Rommel was about to begin his second offensive (21 January 1942) and the threat of the U-boats was considerable to the supply of the Allied troops in North Africa. While the raid was unsuccessful it would seem that the true nature of the “pinch raid” was as unclear to the Germans as it was to the British and Canadians who took part in it; at least this allowed the British code breakers to continue on deciphering the Enigma machine, working in secret.
We are getting ahead of the story so we’ll back up a bit. The war in North Africa went quite well for the British troops and the Italians soon found that taking on the British Empire was going to be no where as easy as their Abyssinian Campaign of 1935. The North Africa Campaign started on 10 June 1940 and nine months later, by 7 February 1941, what was left of the Italian 10th Army had surrendered. Churchill favoured smaller campaigns that would return positive results and, as we have discussed, took the attention away from a landing on the European continent. Campaigns, even successful ones, all have one thing in common; men and materiel wear out and need replacing. Even though this was not taking place the British were on the verge of victory. A victory in North Africa at this time would have prevented the commander of the newly formed German Afrika Korps, Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel, from even landing. Unfortunately Churchill snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by his next tactical decision based on political obligation to Greece.
Italy and Greece were at war with one another since Italy invaded Greece on 28 October 1940. At first the Greek Army held the Italians at bay; that is until Italy requested assistance from her ally Germany. Churchill has been criticized for his decision of 9 February, 1941, to pull experienced troops out of North Africa in order to strengthen the Greek defence of their country from the combined forces of Italy and Germany. This decision greatly weakened the British presence in North Africa and while the men transferred to Greece were replaced by fresh troops, these new troops were not battle hardened such as were the men they were replacing. This decision on the part of Churchill, despite his generals’ protests, not only allowed the Italians to receive much needed reinforcements set the victory in North Africa back by two years; with the loss of countless more lives. In addition to this the number of troops transferred to the Greek conflict was insufficient to prevent the inevitable defeat of Greece and then Crete.
Was this an unforgivable blunder on the part of Churchill, or was there more to the decision than whim, which seems to be the suggestion by many historians less supportive of Churchill than this author. What is conveniently overlooked by Churchill’s critics is the Declaration of 1939 that in the event of a threat to the independence of Greece or Romania that the British would take all actions possible to come to their defence. It must be remembered that at this time America was being “romanced” by Churchill to enter the war on the allied side. Even though it was a moral decision that had to be made to defend Romania and Greece it would not have bode well in the view of the United States had Britain simply turned her back on these allies in need. It may have also led the public to believe that Britain had returned to the Chamberlain era of looking only to her own immediate needs (the avoidance of another war) at the expense of those with whom she had claimed alliance. The failure of Italy to take Greece in a timely manner and the need for German intervention may have had far reaching consequences in the German plans for the invasion of Russia. Hitler blamed the failure of Operation Barbarossa on the delays for that campaign due to Italy’s failure to conquer Greece without the aid of German troops. [Kershaw, Ian, 2007, Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World 1940-1941, pg. 178]
With Greece and Romania now firmly in German hands one would assume the writing on the wall of history would be a portent of doom for the British in North Africa. However like most graffiti on any wall promising, “For a good time call Betty”, often proves erroneous, history would once again record that famous Churchillian luck that I am so fond of mentioning. Code breaking of the German transmissions had experienced a breakthrough and now the Allies could monitor the movements of supply transport in the Mediterranean. It has been estimated that up to 60% of Axis shipping was destroyed due to the breaking of their code. [Kingsly, Sir Harry “The Influence of ULTRA in the Second World War”]
To make things worse for the Germans the Allies, under the command of General Eisenhower, landed in Morocco and Algeria on 8 November 1942. This opened up what the Germans have been taught to be avoided at all costs, a second front.
The lack of supply, the strengthened allied forces, new materiel plus the requirement of fighting on two fronts spelled doom for the Afrika Korps and victory for the allies, and Churchill, of course. It should be mentioned that as of 22 June 1941 (almost a year and a half before the fall of North Africa) German military planning had turned its attention from North Africa to Russia.
I think we need to take a minute to look at the decision by Hitler to commence operation Barbarossa even though history books point out that his generals advised against it, much as Churchill’s generals advised against the British involvement in Greece at the possible expense of North Africa. Churchill based his decision on ethics, but what about Hitler and his decision to invade Russia and open up that dreaded second front. Part of the problem stems for history written just after the Second World War where any suggestion to the contrary regarding Hitler being a megalomaniac, a raving monster incapable of making sound decisions was frowned upon. This would be much like making a statement, soon after 911, that the attack on the World Trade Centre involved incredible planning and co-ordination. This type of statement, no matter how little actual praise was intended toward the instigators would be met with distain by a shocked and disillusioned public; much as is any suggestion of intellect being involved in the decision to invade Russia in 1941.
In 1940 a war broke out between Finland and the Soviet Union called the Winter War (a subject for a later article) in which it appeared that small Finland had held out against the Goliath, Russia. While basically true in the beginning the exploits of the Finnish military certainly were partially a matter of myth generated by the media and the free world’s need to believe it was so. The free world was not the only ones watching what was unfolding in Finland; Hitler was also following this conflict with great interest. He came to the conclusion that Russia was so ill prepared that a small well armed, trained and dedicated army could stop the Russian juggernaut in its tracks. If Finland could do this then Russia had no chance against Germany’s war machine. [Speer, Albert, Inside the Third Reich, New York, 1970, pg. 169]
While it was true that Hitler’s generals advised against a second front and cited Napoleon’s mistake, however, they were basing their advice on information that was 130 years old while Hitler was basing his decisions on information (albeit erroneous) that was most current.
It wasn’t just Hitler who noticed the Finnish/Soviet war of 1940; Joseph Stalin also showed interest in it and the reasons his troops faired so poorly, at least at the onset of the war. His analysis of the conflict led him to revamp the strategy and reporting structure of the Red Army. Lessons from the Winter War may have attributed to later Soviet successes that assured their victories from Stalingrad to Berlin.
Now with North Africa in Allied hands Churchill convinced the political and military leaders to invade Sicily and then Italy, the “soft under belly of Europe”. The one thing I quickly found out as a young man interviewing Italian Campaign veterans, for my own interest, was that you never mentioned the “soft under belly of Europe” to them, lest you were assaulted with a long lecture filled with colourful and abusive metaphors. The implications of that phrase was, to the veterans’ point of view, that the Italian Campaign was something much easier than it actually was.
This is the last installment in this series on Winston Churchill and I do hope that I presented his story during these troubled times in a fair manner. It is my opinion that the Italian Campaign, D-Day Invasion, the Conquest of Europe and the Japanese conflict are all too large to deal with within an article about one particular leader. I also feel that from the onset of WWII until the entrance of the Americans the war was mainly a British and Commonwealth show with Winston Churchill at the forefront of events. After North Africa it became an international affair with Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union all making decisions rather than everything being in the hands on one leader.
We’ve taken a look at the man, Winston Churchill, and his decisions from the years leading up to the Second World War and through to the North African Campaign and made mention of his less than successful Balkans Campaign of World War One. All in all I find it difficult to hang the blame entirely on Churchill for the Gallipoli disaster simply because a decision was made and executed, then found lacking. This is a matter of record. Also a matter of record is that the British and colonial Generals and leaders involved continued with the campaign for an additional eight months after Churchill was removed from his position of Lord of the Admiralty. Some blame must be attributed to those who continued with the disaster once it had been deemed that success was impossible. True, Churchill was the First Lord of the Admiralty during the plan to “force the Straights” of the Dardanelles, however the plan was devised by Churchill AND Kitchener. This was to be a naval action as no land forces were available for a landing. The attack on 15 February, 1915 failed, as we all know. As to the landings at Gallipoli are concerned, the plan was devised by General Sir Ivan Hamilton and Vice Admiral Sir John de’Robeck in March, 1915 and approved by Kitchener. Churchill offered his support. It should be noted that no one in authority objected to this plan. It could very well be argued that Churchill was in favour of the plan based the approval by that military genius, Kitchener. To criticize Churchill for making decisions of a military nature against the advice of his generals then turn around and criticize him when he did take their advice, albeit a mistake, shows a certain degree of obscurantism on the part of his critics.
We’ve read where Churchill’s actions actually delayed the D-Day invasion at least for a year. The result being that the Germans were better prepared by the time of the invasion than they would have been a year earlier. Well, to that I would say, “Bravo for perfect hindsight’, which is a wonderful tool for criticising those who had an impossible job to do in a world gone mad. In the interpretation of history we need to be mindful not to fall into the trap of “presentism”; that is to say looking at events from the past through the eyes of the present and judging those events by today’s values and concepts.
We can lay blame for the bombing of German cities, for whatever purpose, on “Bomber” Harris or Winston Churchill. However, true to western propaganda, we are left with the impression that Britain was completely alone at the beginning of the war; which is not completely true. The first bombing raid on Berlin by the British was 25 August 1940; however by 8 August 1941 the Soviet Union had also joined in the bombing of Berlin. Regardless of one’s opinion of the bombing of German cities it was not Britain alone involved in these attacks. As many veterans have reminded me, “It was war!”
The one point I would like to leave you with is this. After the fall of France and in spite of many of the British public and political leaders, who were suggesting capitulation, it was Winton Churchill who rallied England to stand and fight. Had Hitler not been stopped at the English Channel what was to be the combined military might of the British, her Commonwealth and the United States would not have had the staging point provided by the United Kingdom to launch the D-Day invasion. With no second front to worry him Hitler would have been free to attack Russia with the full might of the German armed forces. The prospect of such a scenario is most sobering indeed. Churchill stopped Hitler at the channel and that fact alone may have saved the world.
Thank you for bearing with me over the past few months and thank you for all of your constructive comments, they are always greatly appreciated.