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.

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