Dismiss Notice
A reminder that, as is traditional around here, the forum will close for 20 minutes (11/11/19) around 1100, for Armistice Day.
~A

Who was the best British Commander?

Discussion in 'North Africa & the Med' started by Garreth Hughes, Apr 4, 2004.

?

The best Western Desert Force/Eighth Army Commander

  1. O'Connor

    64.6%
  2. Ritchie

    18.8%
  3. Cunningham

    2.1%
  4. Auchinleck

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  5. Montgom

    14.6%
  1. Garreth Hughes

    Garreth Hughes Junior Member

    Who do you think was the best British Commander in North Africa?

    1) O'Connor
    2) Cunningham
    3) Ritchie
    4) Auchinleck
    5) Montgomery

    I think that Lt-General O'Connor was the only British commander in the Western Desert who had a flare for armoured warfare in the German style. He used the 7th Armoured, 4th Indian and 6th Australian Divisions in an agressive way in a number of encircling moves, along the coast to complete the rout of the Italian 10th Army in Libya and Egypt (250,000 strong) between Dec 1940 and Feb 1941, and all this with only 30,000 British and Commonwealth at his desposal. It was a shame he was captured by the Germans near Derna only days after Rommels first offensive began. I would have liked to have seen if he could have matched the Desert Fox's tactics.
     
  2. Ali Hollington

    Ali Hollington Senior Member

    Monty is famous to many as the man who won El Alamein, however if my memory serves me correct much of the planning and logistics had been done or at least set in motion by his predecessor Harold Alexander.
    Not being too knowledgable on the subject I've always felt a bit sorry for him (Alexander), he had earlier in the war been given the task of holding Dunkirk, once it had got beyond anything but a fighting withdraw and had to deal first hand with the political war with the French.
    I haven't answered your question but thats my thoughts anyway!
    Ali
     
  3. Garreth Hughes

    Garreth Hughes Junior Member

    A couple of interesting points Ali, by the way, it is not widely known, but Montgomery was not Churchills first choice when he replaced Auchinleck during his August 42 visit to Eighth Army HQ. Originally he selected Gott, but his plane was shot down enroute to the middle-east and so Monty got the job. I wonder if El Alamein would have been such a sucess with Gott in charge!
     
  4. Thomas McCall

    Thomas McCall Senior Member

    I don't know a large amount on the subject but in the end Monty won at El Alamein and pushed Rommel and the Afrika Corps out of Libya and harried them all the way to Tunisia.

    Another General could have done this but in the end it was Monty who did the work.
     
  5. Charles Fair

    Charles Fair Junior Member

    My vote is for O'Connor. A briliant and largely forgotten achievement.

    Auchinleck arguably did a harder job than Monty i.e. stopping Rommel when he (Auk) was under resourced, lacked airpower etc.

    Monty could not have failed to win at 2nd El Alamein - by then the 8th had air superiority, a 5-1 superiority in tanks cf the Germans (Italian armoured div not included here), and was well supplied. Rommel was at the end of long supply lines and practically out of petrol.

    Moreover, was 2nd Alamein a necessary battle? Two weeks after, on 8 November, Operation Torch (the allied landings in Algeria and Morocco) began. This was 1,000 miles or so in Rommel's rear which was undefended, so in time Rommell would have had to retreat or be cut off. Had Monty waited another 3 weeks or so he would have been able to harry Rommels retreating forces from the air without having to fight a set piece battle through extensive minefields.

    Alamein was a political battle - it was the last great battle fought by the British Empire, as everything after was with the Americans - arguably needed to show the US and Soviets that we were pulling our weight, but was this worth the cost in British Empire lives? It is also an essential component of the Monty legend.

    Monty was much better at the set piece battle where he had fixed flanks with limited room for manoeuvre 2nd Alamein, Normandy. He received considerable flak from the senior air chiefs (Air Marshal Coningham) who believed he did not pursue Rommel as aggressively as he could have done after 2nd Alamein.

    Monty was vain, egotistical, arrogant, and a great self publicist, which got up the nose of practically every senior allied commander he worked with - BUT his great strength was in building up the morale of the 8th Army and convincing it that it could beat Rommel. He had the drive to get things done which I think the more affable Auk failed to do because he was too 'nice' to impose his will on junior commanders. Monty wasnt shy at sacking people that he thought were not up to the job e.g. 30 Corps and 7 Armd Div (I think these were Bushnell and Erskine) after the failure at Villers Bocage in mid June 1944.

    Monty is a fascinating and complex character who has accrued a considerable mythology, and I still cant make up my mind as to whether he is hugely overrated or a good general.

    Corelli Barnetts the Desert Generals (see the 2nd revised ed c 1983) is pretty good on this subject. FM Lord Carvers recent book which does a lot to restore Ritchies reputation which was battered by Monty (I think in Monty's memoirs) but Ritchie was too much the gentleman to argue back.
     
  6. Garreth Hughes

    Garreth Hughes Junior Member

    Originally posted by Charles Fair@Apr 5 2004, 10:28 PM
    Moreover, was 2nd Alamein a necessary battle? Two weeks after, on 8 November, Operation Torch (the allied landings in Algeria and Morocco) began. This was 1,000 miles or so in Rommel's rear which was undefended, so in time Rommell would have had to retreat or be cut off. Had Monty waited another 3 weeks or so he would have been able to harry Rommels retreating forces from the air without having to fight a set piece battle through extensive minefields.
    Im not convinced that Rommel would have been forced to retreat just because of the Torch Landings. As was seen the German and Italian forces held the Anglo-American landings in Tunisia with little difficulty from November 42 through to March 43. I think that had El Alamein been delayed or put off then Rommel would probably chosen to retreat to the Egyption Border to shorten his supply lines and lengthen 8th Army's. He may well have then dug in his Italian and German Infantry divisions along the border as he had done in Mid 41. This would probably forced Monty to conduct a drive around the exposed southern flank of the line where Rommel would have been able to used German Armoured tactics to the full, reducing the chances of a Major British victory, chances are that Monty would still have won in the end like Operation Crusader Nov 41, but that his forces would have suffered more casulaties and then been more open to serious German counter-attacks as they advanced and the Gemans withdrew, which wasnt really the case after El Alamein due to the overwhelming defeat inflicted on Rommel.

    Im also wondering how the Germans might have responded if they had a secure flank at Rommels end. As this would have left the Torch forces isolated from the help which 8th Army's real life advance gave them, in not allowing the Germans chance to regroup and deliver a repost. The Germans may well have poured more troops into North Africa and routed the Anglo-American landings, although this is all hypothetical. o_O
     
  7. Garreth Hughes

    Garreth Hughes Junior Member

    By the way, Monty has 75% and O'Connor 25% of the vote so far. Could do with getting some more votes in. So if you have already done so, please register your vote soon. ;)
     
  8. Ali Hollington

    Ali Hollington Senior Member

    Monty is a interesting character; I've got both Nigel Hamiltons autobiography and Monty's own version of events in my "to read" pile, but Auk has to get my vote, as already mentioned he held the tide, at a time when this wasn't a certainty.
    Ali
     
  9. David Seymour

    David Seymour Senior Member

    May I recommend John Baynes, The Forgotten Victor - General Sir Richard O' Connor KT, GCB, DSO, MC, London, 1989. An excellent work for anyone who wants to learn of the achievements of Richard O' Connor.
    Regards,
    David
     
    Chris C likes this.
  10. David Seymour

    David Seymour Senior Member

    For a sympathetic treatment of Auchinleck read Philip Warner, Auchinleck - The Lonely Soldier, 1981.

    "Auchinleck's last message to his exhausted but once more steadfast troops [i.e. Eighth Army] ended: ' I know you will continue in the same fine spirit and determination to win under your new commander [Montgomery]. I wish you luck and a speedy and complete victory.'

    The Eighth Army would indeed give freely of the first, and achieve, in time, the second; in the process, however, the man who had made it possible would be all but forgotten." Warner, p.167

    Regards,
    David
     
  11. Friedrich H

    Friedrich H Senior Member

    Hello, guys! Glad to be back! ;) Quite an interesting thread this one!

    My choice was Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, because I think he was the real creator of the victorious British VIII Army. He took Rommel's momentum away at the 1st Battle of El Alamein and managed to stop and defeat him in adverse circumstances. He also fortified El Alamein's position.

    Monty and O'Connor would have been my second and third choices. Monty because he was a meticulous, simplictic and good planner. He had also a very good perception of reality and strategical situations. O'Connor was a tactical genious, as was Rommel. But I think his name has been forgotten because of his unfortunate capture by Count Von Schwerin's reconnaisence forces. :rolleyes:

    Ali, I have to tell you that one of my favourite British commanders is without a doubt, Field Marshal Sir harold Alexander. He was brave, cold-minded and a very good strategist and leader —one just have to remember that he was the youngest brigadier of the British Army, the last general to leave Dunkirk, the one that shortened the line and prevented the annihilation of his forces in Burma and the commander in chief of the Mediterranean. His main flaw, in my view was that Alexander didn't give orders, but suggestions and had a very weak character when dealing with his subordinates. If Alexander would have had the nerve to make Mark Clark obbey him or even better, replace him during the Italian campaign, the war in Italy might have been very different.


    A couple of interesting points Ali, by the way, it is not widely known, but Montgomery was not Churchills first choice when he replaced Auchinleck during his August 42 visit to Eighth Army HQ. Originally he selected Gott, but his plane was shot down enroute to the middle-east and so Monty got the job. I wonder if El Alamein would have been such a sucess with Gott in charge!

    Also, Churchill wanted to replace Monty as soon as he knew that Monty was not going to go to offensibe nowhen soon. :eek:

    Monty could not have failed to win at 2nd El Alamein - by then the 8th had air superiority, a 5-1 superiority in tanks cf the Germans (Italian armoured div not included here), and was well supplied. Rommel was at the end of long supply lines and practically out of petrol.

    Or simply, and most importantly. Because by this time the battle of Malta had been won by the British. With Malta in the middle, Rommel's defeat was sure. And the guilty of it was no other than Rommel himself.

    Moreover, was 2nd Alamein a necessary battle? Two weeks after, on 8 November, Operation Torch (the allied landings in Algeria and Morocco) began. This was 1,000 miles or so in Rommel's rear which was undefended, so in time Rommell would have had to retreat or be cut off.

    Not necessarily, since in less than a month, the German V Panzer Army started landing and taking positions in Tunisia and the Allies then failed to take advantage of their momentum and advance as quickly as possible into German ill-defended positions.

    it was the last great battle fought by the British Empire

    Not quite. What about Kohima-Imphal and the re-conquest of Burma?

    did not pursue Rommel as aggressively as he could have done after 2nd Alamein.

    Heavy rains slowed the British VIII Army down. And Rommel's forces were everything but defeated. Rommel's master retreat from Egypt and Libya caused a lot of problems and casualties to the British, slowing them down too. Monty saw this and that's why he didn't want to gamble and chase Rommel, who, even if leaking his wounds, was still very dangerous.

    Monty is a fascinating and complex character who has accrued a considerable mythology, and I still cant make up my mind as to whether he is hugely overrated or a good general.

    Or as Corelli-Barnett says: "Monty was not a great military genious as were Nelson and Malborough, but he was a very good battlefield commander and tactician as Wellington and Plumer".

    Im not convinced that Rommel would have been forced to retreat just because of the Torch Landings. As was seen the German and Italian forces held the Anglo-American landings in Tunisia with little difficulty from November 42 through to March 43. I think that had El Alamein been delayed or put off then Rommel would probably chosen to retreat to the Egyption Border to shorten his supply lines and lengthen 8th Army's. He may well have then dug in his Italian and German Infantry divisions along the border as he had done in Mid 41. This would probably forced Monty to conduct a drive around the exposed southern flank of the line where Rommel would have been able to used German Armoured tactics to the full, reducing the chances of a Major British victory, chances are that Monty would still have won in the end like Operation Crusader Nov 41, but that his forces would have suffered more casulaties and then been more open to serious German counter-attacks as they advanced and the Gemans withdrew, which wasnt really the case after El Alamein due to the overwhelming defeat inflicted on Rommel.

    Even if I agree with this. There's something everyone is leaving aside; the strategical key to victory in the Mediterranean: Malta. With Malta in the way, the attrition warfare of logistics couldn't have been won by the Axis at all. 2nd Alamein or not, half of Rommel's supplies ended in the bottom of the Mediterranean thanks to the RAF and RN based in Malta.
     
  12. angie999

    angie999 Very Senior Member

    O'Connor was, of course, an excellent commander and continued to do well as a corps commander after he had escaped from captivity.

    It is difficult to compare him with the 8th Army commanders, because he only commanded the Western Desert Force (later XIII corps) and not an army size formation. However, there is no questioning his achievements against the Italian 10th Army, poorly led and equipped though they were.
     
  13. Edward_N_Kelly

    Edward_N_Kelly Junior Member

    A little analysis if I might:

    O'Connor

    Used his troops aggressively against overwhelming odds (at least on paper) but what has normally been characterised as a mass of very poor troops. I think the Italians were hard done by – they were lead poorly but they certainly did not always give up easily. He did not face a “quality” enemy until Normandy after his release and then it was just not the desert.

    The forgotten factor – Wavell. O’Connor would not have gotten far if Wavell had not encouraged, supported and provided the maximum wherewithal to conduct the offensive. He, as the nearest to a “theatre commander” and was faced with foes to the west and south (Italians), to the north (uncertain Vichy French in Syria/Lebanon) and still having to consider an unfriendly USSR – no one was certain which way they would go), restive groups in Egypt, Palestine (Jewish and Arab), Iraq. And then to cap it off along comes Greece……..

    Ritchie

    Picked by Aukinleck and junior to everyone he commanded. Somewhat diffident in character. Not likely to inspire a lot of confidence in subordinates (and went “missing” at a couple of very crucial junctures (“Crusader” and during retreat from Gazala)). He needed someone to always be at his shoulder (the “Auk”).

    Learnt from his experience as a capable Corps commander later in the War.

    Cunningham

    Another of Auchinleck's picks. Fought the Italians and eventually beat them in Ethiopia. Failed in a larger and more complex Western Desert battles.

    Aukinleck

    Was a good “theatre commander” who managed to clear up the Middle East and secure it for the Allies (getting rid of Vichy and separatists in Iraq and Egypt). Appears to have had a serious problem with picking subordinates (Ritchie and Cunningham) and came under the influence of Dorman-Smith (and I have not made up my mind about him).

    Appears to have been an inspirational and excellent field commander (when Ritchie went missing he was the one forced to take over). Succeeded at First Alamein. Predicted and prepared Alam Halfa for Monty.

    Montgomery

    Egotistical, vain and almost as good a self-propagandist as Macarthur. Was a master of the set piece or logical battle until “Market Garden”when an attempt at something out of the ordinary (for him) came unstuck through poor planning (lack of coup de main on the Arnhem bridge, landing grounds too far away) and lack of resources (troop lift capacity some of which was wasted on “Boy” Browning’s Corps HQ which was not needed).

    Others that have been missed

    Wavell – set the scene for later commanders. Put in an impossible position by Churchill and the “Greece thing”.

    Alexander – I note that, while Alan Brooke liked him and was a friend, he did not rate him highly as an independent commander nor as an Allied Commander (Italian Theatre was seen as going backwards under his command).

    Gott – hate to say it but it was almost a fortuitous accident that he was killed (going back into a shot down aircraft to retrieve something left behind while it was being strafed). He was tired and worn out by constant fighting without adequate rest. No knowing how he might have reacted. Was a proponent of the “Jock” columns which would have ensured the destruction of the Eighth Army whereas the “Auk” ensured that they were discredited and concentration of force was to be the norm from First Alamein onwards.

    Bereford-Pierse - he commanded WD force from O'Connor's capture to the arrival of Cunninham. Competent but did not like serving under Ritchie and so was relieved at his request.

    Overall

    I think an O'Connor/Wavell or O'Connor/Auk would have proved to be a most interesting combination against Rommel BUT with a Second Alamein style Eighth Army. O'Connor was used to war on a shoestring, It took two years for the British to change from tactics forced by shoestring induced habits (ie to attack in concentrated force rather than dispersed packets inviting destruction in detail), to those of concentration of force and firepower (which had been advocated in doctrine and practiced in the "100 days" of 1918) and which worked from First Alamein onwards.

    Edward.
     

    Attached Files:

  14. Edward_N_Kelly

    Edward_N_Kelly Junior Member

    A little quiz for you !

    Who actually commanded Western Desrt Force between the capture of O'Connor and the decision to appoint Bereford-Pierse ? Hint - it was not a British Officer.

    Why was he replaced ?

    Edward
     
  15. BeppoSapone

    BeppoSapone Senior Member

    Originally posted by Edward_N_Kelly@Jul 13 2004, 02:57 AM


    Gott – hate to say it but it was almost a fortuitous accident that he was killed (going back into a shot down aircraft to retrieve something left behind while it was being strafed).
    Edward

    Is that really the case? I read that Gott went back to help others out of the plane. Of course, as my source is the KRRC Chronicle, it could just be wartime "spin" - "Straffer" Gott was a Rifleman.
     
  16. morse1001

    morse1001 Very Senior Member

    the problem with the British commanders in North Africa before Monty’s arrival, was that they had to fight a war on three fronts

    the first was the actual war against the Germans. The second was the war against Whitehall and the third was a political war with Downing street.

    However, under the Auk, Britain despite losing at Gazala did manage to put the Africa Corp under intense pressure.


    "There is a rather tragically ironical footnote to all this from the German side. " We were very much impressed and very much disturbed by the way you attacked us all through July," said General Bayerlein. " You very nearly succeeded in breaking through our position several times between the l0th and the 26th. If you could have continued to attack for only a couple of days more you would have done so. July 26th was the decisive day. We then had no ammunition at all for our heavy artillery and Rommel had determined to withdraw to the frontier if the attack was resumed."

    Young Desmond, Rommel, Collins, P165


    As for the Gott/monty controversy

    "Lt-Gen. Sir lan Jacob, at that time a colonel serving on Churchill's staff, summarised the situation as he saw it in his diary:

    The Prime Minister had found a disturbing state of affairs in the Army in the Middle East. It had received a severe beating in a battle [Gazala] which everybody thought it should have won. The Army was bewildered and was no longer a coherent fighting machine. Some striking change was therefore required to offer a stimulus to the troops. On the other hand the Prime Minister had a great opinion of General Auchinleck and was most averse to the idea that his services should be lost to the state. He felt that if General Auchinleck had been freed from the responsibility of the Levant-Caspian Front and had been able to concentrate on the Western Desert he could have taken command when the battle broke out instead of waiting till the situation was desperate. This might well have turned the scale and given us victory instead of defeat. The Prime Minister was therefore determined that the best possible fighting soldier should be placed in command in the Middle East and that he should have nothing to think of except the battle against Rommel, which he would personally conduct.."!
    Warner, Phillip., Auchinleck – The Lonely Soldier, Sphere, PP 208-9


    :ph34r: :ph34r:
     
  17. Edward_N_Kelly

    Edward_N_Kelly Junior Member

    Originally posted by BeppoSapone+Jul 13 2004, 09:08 AM-->(BeppoSapone @ Jul 13 2004, 09:08 AM)</div><div class='quotemain'> <!--QuoteBegin-Edward_N_Kelly@Jul 13 2004, 02:57 AM


    Gott – hate to say it but it was almost a fortuitous accident that he was killed (going back into a shot down aircraft to retrieve something left behind while it was being strafed).
    Edward

    Is that really the case? I read that Gott went back to help others out of the plane. Of course, as my source is the KRRC Chronicle, it could just be wartime "spin" - "Straffer" Gott was a Rifleman. [/b]Beppo

    It may well have been to help others out (I did that one from memory) but I think I also read at the saem time that it was considered suicidial to have done it with the German aircraft still around.

    Edward
     
  18. morse1001

    morse1001 Very Senior Member

    It may well have been to help others out (I did that one from memory) but I think I also read at the saem time that it was considered suicidial to have done it with the German aircraft still around

    Gott was known for his personal bravery and given the circumstances, he was doing what most people would have done in the same circumstances.

    :ph34r: :ph34r:
     
  19. BeppoSapone

    BeppoSapone Senior Member

    Originally posted by Edward_N_Kelly+Jul 15 2004, 03:50 AM-->(Edward_N_Kelly @ Jul 15 2004, 03:50 AM)</div><div class='quotemain'> Originally posted by BeppoSapone@Jul 13 2004, 09:08 AM
    <!--QuoteBegin-Edward_N_Kelly@Jul 13 2004, 02:57 AM


    Gott – hate to say it but it was almost a fortuitous accident that he was killed (going back into a shot down aircraft to retrieve something left behind while it was being strafed).
    Edward

    Is that really the case? I read that Gott went back to help others out of the plane. Of course, as my source is the KRRC Chronicle, it could just be wartime "spin" - "Straffer" Gott was a Rifleman. Beppo

    It may well have been to help others out (I did that one from memory) but I think I also read at the saem time that it was considered suicidial to have done it with the German aircraft still around.

    Edward [/b]Edward

    Actually, you could well be right. It could be that Gott was killed going back into a the downed aircraft to retrieve something left behind. I read that he was rescuing people, but this could just be wartime "spin". I thought you could have read a post-war account?

    The reason I do not quite trust the wartime issues of the "KRRC Chronicle" that I have is because they got the exact details of his death "wrong" at first. This is from his obit. in the 1942 chronicle.

    ......"He was about to get Command of the 8th Army when his death occurred. He was flying to Cairo for a few days' leave, the first since January, after meeting the Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill, in the desert. He was in his usual great spirits. The 'plane was a large bomber. There had been an air battle over the Delta and two ME 109s had pulled out of the dog-fight and were making fast for home when they saw "Strafer's" 'plane. It was raked from end to end. The pilot was badly wounded and managed to land the machine. Five others escaped, the remainder, including "Strafer" being killed. How cruel fate can be. So passed away at the age of 44 a very great Englishman".......

    No mention of strafing on the ground and rather more than a suggestion that all the dead were killed in the air. The rescuing someone piece came from a correction printed later in the war.

    Regards
     
  20. Edward_N_Kelly

    Edward_N_Kelly Junior Member

    Originally posted by morse1001@Jul 15 2004, 10:18 AM
    It may well have been to help others out (I did that one from memory) but I think I also read at the saem time that it was considered suicidial to have done it with the German aircraft still around

    Gott was known for his personal bravery and given the circumstances, he was doing what most people would have done in the same circumstances.

    :ph34r: :ph34r:There is stupidity and there is bravery. In some cases they are mistaken for each other (read the "factual" accounts of Harry Paget Flashmen to see what I mean :D ).

    In the case of Gott we don't know what was going through his mind at that time but some of the factors may be:

    - inherent bravery (he had been awarded decorations)

    - preoccupation ("unconscious act")

    - sheer fatigue (this was commented on by observers that met him just prior to his death)

    - shock (the combat in the air, forced landing is not calculated to be very settling on anyones nerves)

    - sense of duty (to help others still in aircraft or retrieve critical secret information)

    Be that as it may, he is not worth a "cold pie" if he is severely injured or killed doing something that was possibly not worth the risk (the modern "science" of "risk assessment").

    In all probability he acted from instinct rather than any logical thought process but the result was to deprive the Eighth Army of it commander.

    The real question is whether he was suited to the command of the Eighth Army. Alan Brooke thought he was fatigued and required rest before he did anything more.

    Edward
     

Share This Page