When nations win wars, the defeats they may have suffered along the way tend to be swept under the carpet. However if our personal failures show rather more interesting things about our personalities than our successes then perhaps defeats should not just be the preserve of military historians.
Seventy-three years ago my father, the historian Robert Blake, was taken prisoner at one of these defeats, the Fall of Tobruk, on the 21st June 1942. This is the background against which my novel Far Away takes place.
It was one of the most severe set backs of the war for the Allies, ranking alongside the Fall of Singapore, (which had taken place during February of the same year), as an absolute catastrophe. The Axis forces captured 35,000 soldiers and a vast amount of fuel, rations, transport and equipment – 5000 tons of food, 2000 serviceable vehicles and 1400 tons of petrol. It was a huge victory for the Axis forces and the occasion when Rommel won his Field Marshal’s baton. Of the defeat Churchill was to say:
‘This was one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war. Not only were its military effects grievous, but it had affected the reputation of the British armies.’
Churchill even faced a motion of censure in the House of Commons in the following month. He won it easily enough: 475 votes to 25 but the fact that it had been mooted at all during a time of war shows the level of concern and anxiety.
The importance of Tobruk, a Libyan port on the Mediterranean, was that it gave the Axis forces a supply port much closer to the Lybian-Egyptian border than Tripoli (1500 km away) and Benghazi (1400 km away). Egypt was important because control of Egypt assured effective communication lines and important air and sea routes. The Suez Canal provided much shorter routes for moving troops and material between the European and Pacific theatres of war. It also gave access to the oil fields of the middle east.
So, what on earth had happened? After all, the previous year Tobruk had held out during a 241 day siege, which had eventually been relieved by Operation Crusader.
On August 5th Churchill arrived in Africa with General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, professional head of the British Army to ‘sense the atmosphere’. The conclusion they swiftly came to was:
- a drastic and immediate change was required to restore confidence in the High Command;
- this misfortune was not because of a lack of calibre of the men in the ranks who were described by Churchill as being “brave but baffled”.
On the 9th August a decision was reached; General Sir Claude Auchinleck was sacked as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East and replaced by General Sir Harold Alexander and Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery (“Monty”) was put in charge of the Eighth Army. Auchinleck hated Montgomery and tried to delay him taking command. The delay was only a matter of a few days but it was known that the Germans were planning another attack at the end of the month and so Montgomery ignored Auchinleck and took control immediately.
Montgomery was ebullient, self-confident and brilliant. You feel he would have had no difficulty in announcing himself Mourinho-style as the ‘Special One’.
This was one of his first orders to XXX Corps:
- All orders and instructions which refer to withdrawal from or thinning out of our present position are hereby cancelled;
- XXX Corps will defend the present FDLs (forward defensive lines) at all costs. There will be no withdrawal;
- The above intention is to be impressed on all ranks immediately.
He ordered that all contingency plans for retreat be destroyed. Essentially he was telling his men – fight or die.
On the way back to Britain, Churchill flew to Russia and a humiliating meeting with Stalin. Stalin harangued Churchill and Brooke demanding to know when the British were going to fight. The answer, presumably much to Churchill’s relief, came swiftly. On the 30th August the Battle of Alam Halfa commenced. Monty had been in post for approximately a fortnight. The Eighth Army smashed the assault and never lost another battle.
Unfortunately this was much too late for my father and the many men like him. He was to spend the next fifteen months incarcerated in an Italian POW camp before escaping in January 1944.
If you’re interested in reading more I’d highly recommend Adrian Stewart’s book The Early Battles of the Eighth Army: ‘Crusader’ to the Alamein Line 1941-1942.
What do you think of my assessment? Too unfair to Auchinleck? Too generous to Montgomery?
I’d be delighted if you left me a comment.