Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Desert Generals - Corelli Barnett

Welcome to 2014. Unless you were across the Date Line, in which case you've been in 2014 for a day already. Don't get smug about it.

The Desert Generals is more specifically about the five British generals who commanded the 8th Army during it's battles in North Africa. It starts with Richard O'Connor, and ends with Montgomery. In between, Barnett details the ups and downs the military faced, the strengths and weaknesses of the various commanders, and the changes some of them tried to effect on how their forces were structured.

That last one ends up being key, because the British largely kept their armor and infantry separate, under different sub-commanders. Meaning it was very difficult to coordinate their movements in a battle. They might be ordered to advance together, but there was no guarantee they would do so. Which became a problem as they transitioned from fighting the Italians, to facing the Rommel-led Nazis.

Barnett writes very well. He's certainly very good at turning a phrase, and he's knows it. You could question whether he editorializes too much, or whether his biases show too strongly. He's clearly quite the fan of both O'Connor and Auchinleck, but is pretty light with the criticism of both Alan Cunningham and Neil Ritchie, neither of whom had great success. He acknowledges their failures and weaknesses - Cunningham had never commanded so many troops, had never fought in the desert or with tanks, and had to learn all this while preparing an offensive in two months - but presents them in such a way that evokes the sympathy of the reader. They were either struggling against a stacked deck of circumstances, or their own limitations*, and did the best they could.

He was considerably less forgiving towards Montgomery, and especially Winston Churchill. Some of that could simply be iconoclasm being a better way to make a name for one's self, but again, Barnett argues it persuasively. Churchill comes off as a meddling politician with no appreciation for what's actually happening on the battlefield, as he's to concerned with things of possible propaganda value, but limited strategic use. On a couple of occasions, he basically guts the 8th Army to divert their forces to some other, ultimately futile battlefield. The decision to try and aid Greece, especially, was a poor choice, because O'Connor had the chance to take Tripoli before Rommel could arrive with German troops. I imagine if the Germans had to invade North Africa, rather than simply land, get ready, and then head for the British lines, they would have found the going more difficult.

Montgomery comes off as the sort of guy everyone in an office would hate. Arrogant, rude to everyone else in ways he would never tolerate being treated, stealing other people's ideas and claiming them for himself, but getting away with all of it because he sucks up to the only guy that matters (Chruchill). Some of that was brought up by Peter Caddick-Adams in his Parallel Lives book I reviewed last June, but Caddick-Adams was more forgiving. Barnett doesn't focus much on the areas where Montgomery excelled, such as logistics, focusing more on his poor handling of the Second Battle of Alamein. It certainly doesn't look good that he couldn't crush a force with tank strength perhaps one-sixth of his own, and what's more, didn't seem terribly interested in trying.

That's something hardly unique to Montgomery. Barnett brings up repeatedly that the British seemed to lack the drive that would enable them to strike quickly. O'Connor had some success with it, and Auchinleck tried it implement it, but in most cases, British forces move slowly, gradually increasing pressure on the enemy, rather than hitting them sharply and smashing them. This caution seems to have been ingrained by training, where the British were taught to reach an objective, then wait for new orders, rather than taking initiative. Which does seem like a good way not to overreach, or outrun supply lines, but also means a lot of missed opportunities to finish off what remained of Rommel's forces.

'They had been bred to provide leadership; they prized bravery and resolution over any kind of cleverness and expertise; and they were to fight their way out of catastrophe, as had their country in 1940, by treating facts as less real than willpower.'

* At one stage he describes Ritchie as unable to, 'think or act at Rommel's speed, or even to imagine Rommel's speed. Grappling with that tempestuous commander, Ritchie, with his stolid British virtues was as baffled as a two-dimensional being in a three-dimensional world.'


SallyP said...

Am I a bad person for being a Rommel fan?

CalvinPitt said...

I doubt it. I find myself admiring him too. Intellectually I know it's good he loses, because he's helping Nazis (whether he believes in their ideals or not).

Emotionally, it's hard not to be impressed with his style and how well he does in the desert, considering the vast numerical edge Monty has on him. Even the Brits had a lot of admiration for his abilities (which is one of the things Barnett thinks saves Rommel. Monty psyches himself out, worried about a counter-punch from Rommel if he purses too hard, at a time when Rommel's down to about 30 tanks). Rooting for Montgomery feels a bit like rooting for the New York Yankees. Of course he wins, he has the most resources.