Soldier’s Soldier

Brian Bond

  • Auchinleck: The Lonely Soldier by Philip Warner
    Buchan and Enright, 288 pp, £10.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 907675 00 X
  • Das Reich: Resistance and the March of the 2nd SS Panzer Division through France, June 1944 by Max Hastings
    Joseph, 264 pp, £9.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 7181 2074 4

Field-Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, who died in Marrakesh in March 1981 aged 96, retained to the end a touching faith that History would eventually vindicate him in the controversial aspects of his career. Almost alone among the Army commanders who survived the war, he took no part in the post-war battle of the memoirs, nor indeed was he particularly willing to disclose his private sentiments to interviewers. This reticence derived from a dignified, stoical disposition and if there was an underlying bitterness it was extremely well concealed. History, however, is made by historians and, in the short run at any rate, cannot be relied upon to provide totally objective judgments. Field-Marshal Montgomery, despite his low opinion of academics, was well aware that the muse can be overpowered and seduced. In his Memoirs and self-adulatory campaign narratives, Montgomery enhanced his own undeniably great achievements by denigrating Auchinleck’s generalship and by exaggerating the poor condition of the Eighth Army when he assumed command in August 1942. Montgomery’s version of the take-over from Auchinleck and the transformation that rapidly followed has, in broad terms, recently received a powerful boost from Nigel Hamilton’s lengthy coverage of these events, buttressed by the recollections of numerous participants.

The Auk, however, has always had his own champions: notably, his two previous biographers, John Connell and Roger Parkinson, and Correlli Barnett, who, in The Desert Generals (1960), went so far as to describe Montgomery’s Alamein as ‘an unnecessary battle’. Now Philip Warner has attempted a reassessment of Auchinleck’s career in the light of newly-available sources, including revelations of the significant part played by Ultra intelligence in the later stages of the North African campaigns.

Colonel John Auchinleck died when Claude was only eight, leaving his mother a hard struggle to bring up the family. One compensation was that, as the son of a deceased officer, Claude was able to enter Wellington College as a Foundationer for the modest fee of £12 per annum. Though undistinguished there either as a scholar or as an athlete, Claude won the lucrative Derby Gift for ‘industry and good conduct’. Weakness in mathematics precluded a career in the Royal Artillery (his father’s regiment), and given his lack of private means, it was essential that he pass into Sandhurst sufficiently high on the list to obtain a commission in the Indian Army. That year there were 45 vacancies and he was placed 45th.

The Auk loved army life in India and worked hard at his profession. He became proficient in several Indian languages, qualified at the Staff College, Quetta, and attended the first course of the newly-founded Imperial Defence College in London in 1927-28. But it was as a combat leader rather than a staff officer that he excelled. He saw action against the Turks on the Suez Canal in February 1915, and subsequently experienced some of the worst fighting conditions of the war in Mesopotamia. In 1935 he directed the Mohmand operations on the North-West Frontier with the rank of major-general. This steady, if unspectacular progress is reflected in the pace of Mr Warner’s book, which by page 80 reaches the climax of its subject’s career, with his appointment as Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East in June 1941.

Before that, however, the Auk had briefly held command at Narvik in the ‘ramshackle’ Norwegian campaign in May and June 1940. No laurels were to be won by the soldiers in this mismanaged operation, but Auchinleck’s forthright report did not endear him to the War Cabinet. He compared the British troops unfavourably with the French, and used words like ‘callow’ and ‘effeminate’ to describe their poor performance. A minor incident which may have had far-reaching consequences was Auchinleck’s sacking of the CO of the 1st Scots Guards, Lt-Col Trappes-Lomax, for abandoning a hopeless position contrary to orders. Auchinleck had been ignorant of the state of the snow-covered ground and may have reflected that he had dealt too harshly with a brave and intelligent officer. As a consequence, he may later have been too lenient to less-deserving subordinates.

Mr Warner covers the Auk’s desert campaigns with broad brush-strokes rather than providing yet another blow-by-blow account. He stresses the British inferiority in weapons, training and tactics and admits that the Auk was not always wise in his choice of subordinates. Nevertheless the first phase of ‘Crusader’ was a significant reverse for Rommel; while the first battle of Alamein in July 1942, deliberately contrived by Auchinleck in a strong defensive position, was a genuine victory even if it left both sides exhausted. As Rommel testified, ‘although the British losses ... had been higher than ours, yet the price to Auchinleck had not been excessive, for the thing that had mattered to him was to halt our advance, and that, unfortunately, he had done.’ While avoiding polemics, this account shows that Montgomery was unjust to the Auk in creating the impression that the latter had been bent on a retreat up the Nile, and also in exaggerating the low state of morale when he took over. To what extent Montgomery altered existing plans is debatable, but what is undeniable is that Auchinleck intended to counter-attack several weeks before Montgomery actually did so. Montgomery was indeed fortunate to take over when the balance of material was tilting markedly in his favour. Moreover, as the second volume of British Intelligence in the Second World War has demonstrated in detail, Ultra was now providing an almost perfect picture of the enemy’s shortages, dispositions and plans.

More interesting than this long-running controversy is Mr Warner’s discussion of the Auk’s relations with Churchill. The Prime Minister nagged and goaded him to undertake a premature offensive, as he had done Wavell, making insufficient allowance for the special problems of desert warfare. The Auk, ignoring the advice of Dill and Ismay, coolly explained why these demands could not be met. Most unwisely, in the spring of 1942, he refused to return to London to discuss the matter, implying that he had more important business to hand. Though in later televised interviews the Auk seemed fully aware of the pressures on Churchill, at the time he neglected to ‘pamper’ him or keep him reasonably happy. Montgomery proved far more adept in the art of political management. There was perhaps a deeper cause of the Auk’s lack of rapport with Churchill: namely, his overriding concern for the security of India, even, if necessary, at the expense of the Middle East. As he plainly put it, ‘I believe that we can still hold India without the Middle East but that we cannot hold the Middle East without India.’

On his removal from the Middle East command, Auchinleck characteristically refused a lesser command in Persia-Iraq on the grounds that it would be unfair to the troops to be saddled with a ‘failed general’. After nearly a year of idleness in India, he was restored to the post of C-in-C when Wavell became Viceroy. In the last two years of the war, although deprived of all operational responsibility, he made an important contribution to the victory in Burma. After the war, he strove vainly to preserve a united Indian Army both for its own sake and to avoid a breakdown of order if Partition were to be enforced. In the event, Mr Warner puts the death toll at four million. Chronology goes haywire at this point and several events in 1947 are wrongly assigned to 1948. Auchinleck was offered and refused a peerage because he felt it would be associated with the dismemberment of the Indian Army.

This biography is curiously arranged, in that only in the last two chapters are we offered much information on Auchinleck’s post-war reflections (in two recorded interviews with David Dimbleby), and assessments and anecdotes from a variety of admirers ranging from generals to an ex-batman. It is a pity that this material was not woven into the text in the appropriate places. Sadly it must be admitted that the Auk did not give much away, even under David Dimbleby’s relentless questioning, and there is not a single informal, chatty letter from him in the whole book. Thus he remains the shy, austere and ‘lonely soldier’ of the subtitle: indeed, he epitomised the soldier ‘wedded to his profession’ and one can easily imagine why his marriage broke up in the course of the Second World War. The Auk, like his great Indian Army contemporary Bill Slim, was a ‘soldier’s soldier’, too much of a gentleman and too compassionate, perhaps, to succeed in the very highest posts, but undeniably one of the ablest British field commanders of the Second World War.

Auchinleck, an honourable soldier of the old school, was fortunate not to be involved in the terrible events in France in June 1944 most readably reconstructed by Max Hastings. On D-Day the notorious 2nd SS Panzer (Das Reich) Division, filled with fanatical Nazis and brutalised by its recent experiences on the Eastern Front, was resting at Montauban some 450 miles from the Channel coast. Even allowing for delays due to the intensive Allied bombings of communications, British Intelligence calculated that the Division would concentrate in the forward area by D + 3. In fact, the Division only trickled into the rear areas of the battle zone between 15 and 30 June and did not fight as a unit until 10 July. What had caused this unexpected delay in the arrival, at a critical time, of one of the Wehrmacht’s most formidable divisions?

Max Hastings has expertly pieced together the story, partly from surviving documents but also relying heavily on the recollections of the participants. There are three main parties in the drama: the soldiers of Das Reich, the Maquis and the British SOE agents and SAS detachments. London and SHAEF head-quarters were rightly sceptical about relying on the French Resistance at the time of ‘Overlord’ because, although numerically impressive, it was bitterly divided between Communist and non-Communist factions, and many of its members were more concerned with evading forced labour service than fighting Germans. Not surprisingly, the Resistance tended to be strongest in the mountainous areas of central and southern France which were not of much strategic value to the Germans, but fortunately for the Allies German policy was to maintain control everywhere by ruthless reprisals. Demolitions and small-scale harassing attacks would have caused Das Reich some irritation and delay in its journey northward, but it was the deliberate dispersion on retaliatory missions provoked by the Maquis that mainly accounted for the inordinate amount of time wasted.

The first major diversion occurred at Tulle. Here the Communist FTP, in defiance of orders from London, attempted to take over the town on 7 June. Few of the Maquis concerned were experienced in the use of firearms or possessed any tactical sense. They were speedily routed and put to flight and Tulle paid the price in the form of 99 citizens indiscriminately hung on lampposts. Far worse was to happen at Oradour, where Major Dickmann, enraged by the abduction of a comrade, destroyed the whole village. Over six hundred civilians died, many of them women and children deliberately burned to death in a church. The perpetrators of this atrocity showed no remorse at the time and those who survived the war were surprised at the fuss. As one SS officer remarked, ‘in our circle ... it was nothing.

The Maquis, aided and abetted by SOE agents, made a significant contribution to the success of ‘Overlord’ by goading the Germans to divert eight divisions on these reprisal missions. Hit-and-run raids on railway lines and fuel dumps brought the best results: the Resistance suffered heavily whenever it took on regular German units. Max Hastings illustrates this point by describing in detail the disaster that befell a group of about one hundred SAS troops and Maquis at Verriers (Operation ‘Bulbasket’). This SAS detachment, less accomplished than its post-war successors, was armed only with pistols, and made the elementary mistake of staying in the same hideout for over a week. Mr Hastings points out that the Germans were within their rights to execute maquisards and SOE agents; and, further, that their dreadful reprisals actually worked, in that after Oradour few Frenchmen were willing to interfere with the progress of Das Reich and those who did were highly unpopular with their countrymen. Nevertheless the Division’s Commander, Lammerding, later admitted that Dickmann, by then conveniently dead, had gone too far at Oradour: his action was a crime.

This story may come as a shock to readers imbued with simplistic notions of the heroic exploits of the Resistance and SOE. Only occasionally, as in quoting the alleged remarks of Sergeant Kurz to Private Schneid, and in an uncritical reference to gratuitous acts of violence by SAS soldiers, does Mr Hastings incline to overdo it: for the most part, he tells a dramatic story with a historian’s restraint and sense of perspective.