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Great Contemporaries: Archibald Wavell, Man of Silences (Part 2)
Wavell: continued from Part 1…
Operation “Battleaxe,” the Wavell offensive against Rommel in June 1941, interested Churchill for several reasons. The run of defeats in the desert and Middle East had produced political unrest at home. After Crete he had faced—and won, overwhelmingly—a vote of confidence, but the message was clear. A victory was needed. Then Churchill had intervened in the routing of the convoy carrying tank reinforcements to Wavell. Against Admiralty advice he sent it through the Mediterranean rather than the slower, safer Cape of Good Hope route. His gamble paid off. Only one ship of the “Tiger” convoy was lost. The Prime Minister felt that he had given Wavell the tools; now Wavell had to finish the job. He didn’t.
German skill in combined arms warfare still exceeded that of the British, and Rommel was a very skillful tactician. Despite several days of hard fighting, “Battleaxe” failed to relieve the besieged Australians in Tobruk or damage Rommel’s forces. Meanwhile the British sustained considerable tank casualties, mostly through mechanical breakdowns. This was a chronic problem with British tanks at this stage of the war.
In retrospect, the failure of “Battleaxe” is not surprising. But at the time it was the last straw for Churchill, who had always had reservations about Wavell. The PM badly needed a battlefield success—not over the discredited Italians but over the Germans. British diplomacy and domestic morale, not to mention the stability of his coalition, alike needed the tonic of victory. Wavell had failed to provide it. Churchill felt that Wavell was tired (Wavell, later, agreed that he was). The Prime Minister identified a successor who seemed to have the drive Wavell no longer exhibited. And so a switch was made. Claude Auchinleck flew into Cairo.
Wavell now left for Delhi to “sit under the pagoda tree”—Churchill’s colorful, if rather inaccurate, description for the Commander-in-Chief, India. Wavell’s request for home leave was denied. The PM believed Wavell’s presence might become the focus of (or a catspaw for) critiques of his government’s military setbacks. This he wished to avoid—again not unreasonably at the time, however it may look in retrospect. Thus, in the words of Australian war correspondent Alan Moorehead, “one of the great men of the war” left Africa.
How does it all look now, in long retrospect? Wavell’s ability was undeniable, his legendary laconic calmness in the face of disaster the perfect temperament for the situation he faced in 1940-41 (if not for impressing Churchill). He was at his best in 1940, juggling scanty resources against multiple demands. Once his successes had drawn the Germans into the theater however, he was confronted with challenges. They exceeded not his abilities, but the capacity of the forces under his command.
Much of the British Army’s material was inferior, its grasp of combined arms tactics still weak. In particular, ground-air cooperation was far from what it needed to be. At this stage of the war the British were still learning. What Montgomery did in late 1942 was simply not possible eighteen months earlier.
Wavell never tried to develop rapport with the Minister of Defense (Churchill) that Harold Alexander later enjoyed. But above all, the situation compelled Churchill to demand from Wavell more than his available forces were able to deliver. There is an element of tragic inevitability in Wavell’s dismissal. “War is an option of difficulties” said General James Wolfe in the 18th century. Wavell in Cairo might well be the perfect exemplar of Wolfe’s dictum.
“Under the pagoda tree”
Wavell’s Middle East command is the best-known chapter of his wartime story, but the next phase is equally significant. Churchill thought of the India command as a rest for Wavell. Hardly. One of the results of the fall of France was a decision to order open-ended expansion of the Indian Army, long the strategic reserve of the British Empire in the East. This took place in an equipment-starved environment not remedied until 1943-44. All the problems of this expansion were now Wavell’s.
Then the Japanese attack in December 1941, put him in command of a sprawling theater, even more poorly resourced than the Middle East had been in 1940 and held by newly raised, incompletely equipped and not fully trained Indian Army divisions. On top of that came the first Anglo-American “summit” of the war: the Arcadia Conference in Washington in December-January 1941-42. For southeast Asia the Americans foisted on the British the war’s first integrated theater command, ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian). George Marshall, the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff, suggested Wavell as the war’s first allied supreme commander. (He expected that a debacle loomed and did not want American fingerprints on it.) Churchill felt compelled to accept the poisoned chalice.
“I’ve heard of holding the baby, but this is twins,” was Wavell’s typically laconic reaction. He lacked parity with Japan on sea, land and air. He lacked even the communications to control his sprawling command (Burma to New Guinea). Inevitably, in a month he was back in Delhi, facing the Japanese in Burma on India’s doorstep. Here he made a major mistake. It led to Churchill’s second disappointment with him, and Wavell’s second removal from theater command.
Incredibly, despite having faced the stunning Japanese offensive sweep in the war’s first six months, Wavell underestimated the enemy. He felt they would not fight effectively on the defensive! He admitted this in a casual aside during a round of golf after the war. His huge mistake interacted fatally with an urgent political necessity for Churchill.
Japan’s conquest of Burma had cost the Americans their supply line to China. They wanted it reopened. This meant that the British had to reconquer at least north Burma or face repercussions in alliance politics. The Indian Army was not ready, but Churchill’s need to satisfy the American obsession with China, and Wavell’s groundless optimism about the ease of offensive action against the Japanese, combined to launch in late 1942 the first Arakan campaign, the worst- managed British offensive operation of the war.
It collapsed in a debacle in the spring of 1943. The Japanese proved immovable on defense; their counterattack collapsed the ill-prepared Indian units in a rout. Churchill, at the end of his patience with India Command (“a welter of lassitude and inefficiency”), recalled Wavell for “consultations.” It was the end of his military career—and the prelude to another promotion. As he left India, however, he left behind a second major misjudgment to bedevil his successors.
Early in 1942 Wavell brought Orde Wingate to India, hoping to use his talent for irregular warfare against the Japanese. He gave Wingate several battalions to train in his “Long Range Penetration” (LRP) mystique, and allowed him to launch a raid into Burma in early 1943. It was a showy, expensive failure. Wingate did minor damage and lost a third of his force. The survivors returned to India as the Arakan offensive collapsed and his sponsor, Wavell, was recalled.
PR men in Delhi, desperate for even a gleam of good news, “wrote up” Wingate. He then saw that his report, convincing unless you knew what really happened, reached Churchill by back channels. Wingate was summoned home to meet Churchill who decided, rather impulsively, that his LRP tactics would reconquer Burma, satisfying the Americans. Thus Wingate remained to complicate matters in 1943-44, for the man who would lead the India Army to the reconquest of Burma in 1944-45: Bill Slim.
Replaced as C-in-C, India by Auchinleck, who’d replaced him in Cairo, Wavell seemed bound for retirement. Yet once again he became the Prime Minister’s solution to a problem. The Viceroyalty of India was vacant. No British politician of the first rank would touch the job. Churchill turned to Wavell, whose sense of duty led him to accept.
Viceroy of India: Bengal Famine
With a field marshal’s baton and peerage, Wavell became the penultimate ruler of the Raj. Here he did as good a job as any British figure could have done, as Britain’s long involvement with India wound down.
His predecessor, Lord Linlithgow, was a mediocre Scots peer given the job in the mid-1930s because he was considered “a safe pair of hands.” An unimaginative placeholder at best, his term of office was extended due to the war emergency. By 1943 he was played out. Confronted by the enormous tragedy of the Bengal Famine, he had never managed to visit the stricken province. Wavell immediately did, and promptly ordered in the Indian Army to handle emergency food distribution. (One Indian officer in Bengal recorded in his memoirs that the jawans, the rank-and-file Indian soldiers, were enraged to find full grain warehouses in the midst of starvation, as local merchants withheld grain from the market in the interest of selling at a premium. Some soldiers took matters into their own hands, smashing open the storehouses.)
It has become fashionable to blame Churchill for the Famine. This, of course, is nonsense. The factors that combined to produce the disaster were out of Churchill’s control. And the man he had appointed Viceroy dramatically improved the situation, saving many lives. Wavell also proved to be a tireless advocate with the War Cabinet in London for increased grain shipments to India. The grain was found and, despite a desperately tight global shipping situation, delivered to India.
Wavell also made a cold-eyed assessment of the Indian political situation. The leaders of the Congress Party had been in interment since Gandhi’s abortive “Quit India” revolt the previous year. The Muslim League was growing monthly in strength and militancy. Partition was becoming more likely with independence, which everyone knew was coming. In 1944-46, Wavell made the last serious British-led effort to avert it. It failed but not for want of determined effort by the Viceroy.
At war’s end Wavell returned to London to discuss Indian affairs with Attlee’s new Labour government. He paid a courtesy call on Churchill, now out of office and living, temporarily, in a hotel. Afterwards Churchill escorted the Viceroy to the elevator. As the doors closed Churchill asked Wavell “keep a bit of India.” No one could do that, but Wavell was trying for an orderly exit, the Raj’s only attainable goal left. It was a reprise of the difference in perspective between London and Cairo in 1940-41. Churchill believed any obstacle could be surmounted; Wavell prepared for the worst. Both traits served Britain well.
Faithful but unfortunate
What then is the bottom line on the Indian phase of Wavell’s World War II military career? Wavell could not have stopped the Japanese in 1941-42. His only option was to do what he could to forestall utter defeat. He was wrong about the opportunities for offensive action in Burma in 1942-43—the Indian Army was not ready. (Just before leaving the commander-in-chief’s position, recognizing that, he set in motion an inquiry into what needed to be done to fix the problems, an inquiry started reforms that produced the great Indian Army which General Slim led in 1944-45.)
Churchill also had no choice in pushing for the rapid reconquest of Burma. The politics of the Anglo-American alliance always made it and the war in Europe the priority. The war in Burma, viewed from Wavell’s perspective and even more from Churchill’s, illustrates the truth of something Field Marshal Lord Kitchener said to a much younger Winston Churchill early in the First World War: We make war not as we wish but as we can.
Perhaps, however, future historians may find that Wavell’s years as Viceroy—coping with famine and trying to create an orderly exit from empire—were every bit as impressive as anything he did in uniform
Dr. Callahan is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Delaware and a leading scholar of the Indian Army in the two World Wars. He taught at the University for 38 years and was director of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program, where an annual student prize bears his name. He is the author of Churchill and His Generals (2007) and Churchill: Retreat from Empire (1997)