World War II, Volume 3, The Tide Turns

A Churchill whose dispute with Auchinleck about the progress of operations in the North African theatre was eventually to cost the latter his command. A German crew inaction with apiece of heavy artillery. Such artillery together with minefields, formed the backbone of the major defensive positions from which Rommel launched his armoured outflanking movements. CHAPTER 62 Crisis in the Desert If the insolent passage through the Straits of Dover by Vice-Admiral Ciliaxs squad­ron provoked such an outburst of discon­tent in Britain it was also because, coming only three days before the fall of Singapore it had followed on the defeat as unexpected as it was remark­ able of the 8th Army in North Africa. This latter had brought the Axis forces from the El Agheila M arada line to aline G azala-B ir Hakeim. And what would British opinion have made of it all if it had also been informed of the enormous successes of Admiral Donitz between Cape Sable in Nova Scotia and the Mississippi delta? Under the influence of the pessimism caused by this succession of bad news, some put it about in the corridors of the House of Commons that it was time that Winston Churchills duties were reduced merely to those of Prime Minister and that the Ministry of Defence should be entrusted to another person such as Anthony Eden. In his memoirs Churchill makes no mention of this intrigue and as can well be imagined those responsible for it took good care not to boast about it. Churchill had his own very personal way of illustrating his theories as is shown by this story he told about the effect of surprise which could all too often be decisive during the course of a battle: "I have often tried to set down the strategic truths I have comprehended in the form of simple anecdotes. One of them is the celebrated tale of the man who gave the powder to the bear. He mixed the powder with the greatest care making sure that not only the ingredients but the proportions were absolutely correct. He rolled it up in a large paper spill and was about to blow it down the bears throat. But the bear blew first.” These intrigues against the Prime Mini­ster are however revealed to us in Sir Arthur B ryants "presentation” of Lord Alanbrookes war note-books. Sir A rthur’s reputation as a scrupulous and independ­ent historian is well known. To the great good fortune of Britain and the Commonwealth and therefore to the nations who were their allies this scheme was nipped in the bud had it succeeded it would probably have caused a series of political crises. In fact one can hardly imagine the Prime Minister confining himself to the figurehead role envisaged for him convinced ashe was that he incarnated that sense of strategy which had amounted to genius in his ancestor John Churchill Duke of Marlborough. He could not have failed to interest him­self in the conduct of operations and his Minister of Defence would never have tolerated the daily intrusion of the Prime Minister in his sphere of responsibilities. Further conflicts would have been in­evitable. On the other hand when the two great warring coalitions were balanced on the knife-edge of destiny Britain and the United Nations would have been without the drive of the man whose part in the Allies final victories Sir Arthur Bryant has defined by saying: "When it came to the political direction of w a r-to seeing and expressing its broad fundamental truths in terms that men and nations could understand and translate into actio n-th e Prime Minister had no equal.” Trouble in North Africa However that might beat the beginning of this year of 1942 British strategy in the Middle East most disastrously reflected the increasing menace of events in the Far East. We have seen how when it reached the Cape the 18th Division originally intend­ed for General Auchinleck was redirected to Singapore where it arrived justin time to be swallowed up in the capitulation of February 15. The 5th Division was also diverted from the Eastern Mediterranean theatre and split up into brigades some to be used against Diego-Suarez (Operation "Ironclad”) and others in Burma. In addition to these failed expectations, G.H.Q. Cairo also had taken away from it, on orders from London 150 tanks and three divisions: the 70th which had defended Tobruk and was sent to Ceylon, and the 6th and 7th Australian which as we have seen were sent home at the 842
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