Three Cheers for General Wavell

It is about time that someone starting beating the drum in honor of Earl and Field Marshall Archibald Percival Wavell, a British General in World War II.

I was excited a month or so ago to see that the University of Oklahoma Press was publishing a book on General Archibald Wavell.  For some reason, when I told others about this new book on General Wavell, they did not seem to share my excitement.

General Wavell has not been treated justly or adequately in history.  That is one of the contentions of the book, titled Wavell in the Middle East, 1939-1941: A Study in Generalship by Harold E. Raugh.  I must admit that I, too,  am guilty of the neglect of this World War II general.

I first learned of Wavell when I was a student in high school in the early 1970s.  I was reading quite a bit about World War II, after having suddenly become aware that history was not a miserable class you took in school, but rather a whole world of fascination and wonder.  Much of what I read concerned the Desert Campaigns or North African Theater of the war.

Wavell was an early figure the desert war and in my reading about it.  In a sense, he played an opening role and then dashed off the stage to make room for the important figures.  I had a sense that he had done some quite remarkable things as a general.  But World War II history studies were dominated by such figures as the German General Rommel, the British General Bernard Montgomery, and the American General George Patton.  British studies on the war are dominated by the role of Winston Churchill, and, as it happened, Churchill and Wavell did not work together well.

It was in the early 1970s when the movie Patton came out.  Movies create and enhance historical interest, but don’t do much for the actual facts and historical figures.  Wavell faded from the story of World War II in my mind.  As it turned out, that is generally what happened to him overall.

This book sets out to be a corrective.  There is a part of World War II that can basically be described the Allied road to victory.  From El Alamein to Stalingrad to the American landings in North Africa, the war turned from one of Axis triumphs to Allied victories.  Especially after 1942, the story drastically turns to  one of increasing Allied successes and decreasing Axis control of events.

Simply (which corresponds with simplistically), World War II went like this:  From the early to mid-1930s, no actual world war was occuring, but Germany, Italy, and Japan (and Soviet Russia, to be honest) were increasing territories and venturing into military conquests.

World War II then actually began on September 1, 1939 when Germany attacked Poland.  (I am sure that millions of Chinese would have been irked and puzzled at learning on that day that war “began.”)

From 1939 up through early 1942, the war was an almost unbroken string of Axis (German, Italian, and Japanese) triumphs.  The attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent land grab by the Japanese that captured the Philippines, Singapore, and other areas all signaled the virtual end of Axis successes.  Indeed, the German offensive that reached within sight of the spires of Moscow’s older sites was beginning to turn into a major German defeat.

While the war wasn’t won by the Allies from 1939 to 1942, it wasn’t lost either.  And “Allies” during much of that time basically meant the various contingents of the British Empire.  They (British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, New Zealand, and other colonial posts) defended the skies over Britain against the waves of Luftwaffe bombers, the seas of the world against German u-boats, and Africa and the Middle East.

Enter here  General Achibald Wavell, Commander in Chief, Middle East.  Wavell played a key role in preventing Britain from losing Africa and the Middle East.  One can only shudder to think of Axis occupation of Cairo, Baghdad, and Jerusalem.  (As unfortunate as events have been in the Middle East since 1945, it all could have been worse. For one thing, there would have been no Jewish state, for there would have been no Jewish people.)

General Wavell, on the right, and General O’Connor. The North African desert was not only hot, it was often cold.

Wavell, who had prior experience in the Middle East and North Africa during World War I, cobbled together an army with few resources.  Logistics, that is, supplies, were a nightmare.  The weaponry was obsolete.  World War II tanks and weapons at the beginning of the war were far from the images we have of Sherman or Tiger tanks at the end of the war.  The area that Wavell was in charge of was vast–some 2,000 by 1,700 miles.  The prime British effort was directed either toward helping to defend France (which resulted in a major loss of equipment) or toward defending the British Isles.

Picture hearty English chaps, accompanied by Scotsmen, Aussies, Indians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and Canadians.  They are stationed in Africa, probably Egypt.  A jaunty bunch they were, donning their khaki shorts and maintaining tea time.  Those fellows saved Western Civilization.  They recaptured Ethiopia from the Italians and took some other Italian holdings.  Then they completely trounced the Italian army in Libya.

If Italy had been able to maintain and increase its African holdings, if the Axis powers could have gotten hold of the Suez Canal,  if the French and British protectorates in the Middle East had been able to snuggle up close with the Nazi, the Axis would have won World War II.

Instead, Britain’s necessary diversion of scant resources to the Mediterranean and Middle East resulted in Hitler’s loss of a viable ally in Italy. And it made it necessary for him to divert his own abundant resources to that campaign.  North Africa became a slow drain on German successes.  The Middle East was moved off the board as a likely gain for the Axis powers.  The all consuming Russian campaign was denied some vital German men and material.  Even with France out of the picture, with Britain too overtaxed to even think of invading, Germany had gotten herself in yet another two front war.

Without denying the praises due to General Montgomery’s later victory at El Alamein or the American and British conquest of North Africa, or the stalwarts who defended Malta island against the Germans and Italians, the seeds of victory were sown by Achibald Wavell.

Let me lift a few salient points from the Introduction in the book.  Raugh writes, “Field Marshal Earl Wavell bore a mantle of responsibility greater than that of any other British general, with the possible exception of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, in the early years of World War II.”

During his time in command, he was engaged in some eight different major campaigns, in which at least three were going on at the same time.  Again that involved a vast area, with five different campaigns being waged at one time.

Not all of Wavell’s actions were victorious.  The efforts to save Greece from the Nazis resulted in a defeat and a less successful Dunkirk-like evacuation.  But great leaders are risk-takers, and some risks are failures.

Raugh says that Wavell’s accomplishments rank him as a general who was “the most farsighted and able of all the British Army commanders of the Second World War.”  That is no easy task for a historian to show.

Wavell in the Middle East, 1939-1941 is sub-titled “A Study in Generalship.”  This is a scholarly examination of Wavell’s generalship. There is much more of interest in the man than just those 3 years.  Wavell was a true scholar and literary man.  He edited and contributed to a collection of poetry titled Other Men’s Flowers: An Anthology of Poetry.  He also wrote on historical and military matters.  And he was a dedicated Christian.  But the emphasis of Dr. Raugh’s book is on those key years and events where Wavell demonstrated a flair and genius for true leadership.

General Wavell made the cover of Time magazine.

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