Churchill “Report on the War” (April )
Tickets to Churchill Downs' Spring Meet and Derby week events outside of Oaks and Derby go on sale on this Friday so get ready to. Reproduced in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, Vol I, Churchill .. Or will there spring from the very fires of conflict that reconciliation of the three .. I decline utterly to be impartial as between the fire brigade and the fire. .. ) on Gandhi's meeting with the Viceroy of India, quoted in Martin Gilbert, Prophet. behalf, Churchill would assure this junior minister when they met after- ward that southern Norway, and Britain would then spring on him – the seizure of Narvik 'One of the best regular brigades in the army will be wasting away, losing men by bully. But there's one person you'll never bully and that's me.' He left.
Both realized they were fighting a world conflict, one that required difficult strategic choices. Each had a powerful mind, with a proclivity for unorthodox solutions tempered by common sense. In part, the absence of entente between the two men was just bad luck and bad timing. Churchill was drawn inexorably to risk takers, men who led from the front, who burned to come to grips with the enemy.
Wavell approached his duties with the detached serenity of a career civil servant. He was, above all, a meticulous planner with talent for administrative detail, more attuned to the complexities of an operation than to its visionary possibilities. The British strategist and writer Sir Basil Liddell Hart believed that, at 58 inhis close friend Wavell was just too old for the job.
But it may have been that Wavell was a soldier faute de mieux: To be fair to Wavell, Churchill was not the easiest of bosses. They complained that their boss had no concept of the constraints that operational limitations imposed on his choices. Of no theater was this truer than in the Mediterranean, which boasted a selection of options rich enough to befuddle the most discerning strategist. For this reason, he drove his generals to act and then questioned, prodded, interfered, and second-guessed their decisions, often based on his cursory and imperfect reading of Ultra intercepts.
They, in turn, resented his energy, complained about his ignorance of military affairs, and stonewalled his projects. The warlord on a quest for the perpetual offensive, the commander in chief at the epicenter of vast armies and navies, found Wavell unimaginative and reluctant to grasp the importance of what to Churchill seemed a dangerous turn of events in Baghdad.
He also recognized, as Harold Raugh Jr. In truth, Wavell was not that man. The responsibility for a command that covered more than three million square miles from Cyprus to British Somaliland, from Iraq to Egypt, with barely ninety thousand men to garrison it, overwhelmed him. In Maythe Axis retained the strategic initiative. The British were in a reactive mode, and the prospect of shifting British troops to put down a rebellion in Iraq when Wavell was trying to clean the Italians out of Abyssinia and defend Crete would leave him seriously embarrassed in Egypt.
Wavell should not have been surprised that Churchill ordered a regime change in Baghdad at this critical period in the war. After all, as colonial secretary, Churchill had played midwife to the birth of the Kingdom of Iraq at the Cairo Conference. Why the British ever thought that the three million inhabitants of the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra could be welded into a nation is as mysterious now as then, since practically the only thing these entities shared was geographic contiguity.
It is possible that no three other Ottoman provinces offered such a confusion of ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity, tribal confederations and complex kinship identities, powerful families, sheiks, imams, religious orders, and holy cities as did those joined by British mandate to form Iraq. The discovery of oil in Persia in created the impetus for oil exploration in the Middle East. While British forces backed up to tremendous oil reserves, Axis oil from Ploesti in Romania had to run a gantlet of submarines, planes, and warships to arrive—if it arrived—in North Africa.
In this imperial context, oil served two functions: Istanbul, which viewed Mesopotamia as a frontier region, never treated the three Ottoman provinces as a single unit.
Militarily weak and beset by frequent rebellions there, the Ottomans had perfected the art of ruling through the manipulation of factionalism and rivalries among the various tribal, ethnic, and religious groups, and building clientele networks, a legacy that survived their departure. As no internal momentum to build national unity existed, the impetus had to come from outside. The British mandate was not destined to be rejected out of hand. Ottoman calls for a jihad against the invading infidels had fallen flat as the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force seized Basra in Apriltoiled into Baghdad in Marchand forced the surrender of Mosul in November They did so over the protests of Turkey, which argued that Mosul had never been part of Mesopotamia—only in did Mosul officially join the kingdom, in part to increase the percentage of Sunni Muslims.
As the British administration took shape, the majority Shiite Muslims, historically aloof from an Ottoman government that they believed to be doctrinally repulsive and politically illegitimate, as well as Assyrians, Kurds, Turkomans, Christians, Jews, Yazidi, and Sabaeans, were passed over as potential collaborators in building the state of Iraq, in favor of Sunni Arabs.
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The rationale was that although Sunnis constituted only twenty percent of the population of Iraq, they represent a majority in the Arab world. Besides, the Shiites, nursing grievances dating from the seventh century and suspect as proxy subjects of Persia, traditionally boycotted government, preferring to assemble around their own shrines and imams.
These decisions generated a formula for sectarian rule and strife that, by the summer ofhad produced open revolt among the Shiites and briefly in some Sunni regions such as Fallujah. Troops imported from India smothered an uncoordinated rebellion, fueled mainly by local issues, by October Nevertheless, the rebellion allowed regional and minority groups to advance claims of a founding role in the Iraqi state.
While defeated militarily, their social, economic, and religious networks remained intact, and they had acquired in the process a deep resentment of the Sunni political rule from Baghdad. In fact, it was the British who founded the Iraqi state, determined its boundaries, defined its institutions, and selected its leadership, a fact that even independence would not change. Most were of modest origins, saw the army as a vehicle for exerting influence in a state in which they would otherwise be outsiders, and had bought into the Young Turk vision— one plagiarized from the French—that national modernization, unity, and sovereignty were best forged and secured by a large conscript force.
They immediately locked horns with British administrators who opposed conscription as an Ottoman concept beyond the means of the fledgling Iraqi state, one likely to provoke violent opposition from Shiites and Kurds.
The lucky monarch chosen in Cairo by Churchill to reign over this counterfeit nation was the thirty-six-year-old Hashemite Amir Faisal. Faisal was selected over his more popular brother Abdullah, chosen instead to rule Transjordan, largely because he came highly recommended by T. However, few Iraqis had even heard of him and fewer still understood why this import from the Arabian Peninsula should be appointed to rule them.
An astute man, Faisal managed to earn a degree of legitimacy by co-opting individuals and groups into the Iraqi state through patronage, and by protesting British-imposed limits on Iraqi sovereignty, especially in financial, foreign policy, and security matters. Faisal also reaped much of the credit when, inLondon ended its mandate, making Iraq the first of the former Turkish colonies in the Middle East to gain independence.
Sovereignty did not curtail the British presence in Iraq, however. British companies remained prominent, foremost among them the Iraq Petroleum Co.
These rich resources came on stream in London retained the option to move troops through Iraq as they traveled between India and Palestine and the Suez Canal. It also undertook to provide internal security, especially to protect the vital pipelines that ran from the Mosul and Kirkuk oil fields of northern Iraq to Haifa on the Mediterranean coast.
Caught up in this mood, in Churchill had caused more than a few eyebrows to arch in Cairo when he waived the opportunity to post British garrisons in Iraq, thereby sparing the Exchequer twenty-five million pounds in annual occupation costs. They and their servant-pampered wives took tea at four and gathered at the club for sundowners soon after. The British boasted that they had liberated Mesopotamia from the Turks, endowed it with civilizing institutions, watched over its security, and contributed to its economic development.
Nevertheless, little could be done to rein in the military in a monarchy utterly dependent on the army to keep order in a country where tribesmen were better armed than the central state. Ghazi curried favor with the military by staking an Iraqi claim to Kuwait, allowing them to push through their conscription project, and introducing military training into a revamped education system that emphasized the virtues of discipline and obedience within a context of pan-Arab nationalism.
Iraq simply could not evolve a secular ideology that would minimize sectarian identities accentuated by struggles among communitarian leaders to access the levers of power and patronage in Baghdad. The military crushed both the Assyrian rebellion and those of the tribes inactions that it leveraged to assert its indispensability to the survival of the state.
Fromno Iraqi prime minister governed without the consent of the military. Rashid Ali replaced him. He was hardly in power when the British discovered that the Iraqi army was training a unit of Palestinians and Iraqis to fight for the grand mufti of Jerusalem. On the night of March 31—April 1,tipped off that army units were preparing to surround the palace, the regent Abd al-Ilah escaped across the Tigris in a motorboat and made his way to the RAF base at Habbaniya.
But in the spring ofChurchill was beyond temporizing. He had chosen to make a major military commitment to the eastern Mediterranean, against the advice of his service chiefs, and was determined to see it through. For his part, the commander in chief Middle East argued that London should accept a Turkish offer to mediate the crisis.
Profuse Axis propaganda extolling Rashid Ali gave the impression that the new Iraqi prime minister had coordinated his coup with Berlin and Rome. On the orders of the chiefs of staff, on April 10 Delhi diverted a brigade group originally destined for Malaya to Basra, the vanguard of the 10th Indian Division.
On April 16 the British ambassador newly arrived in Baghdad, Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, informed Rashid Ali that Britain intended to avail itself of the provisions of the treaty allowing passage of British forces through Iraq. That declaration of intent preceded by a day the arrival in Basra of the 20th Indian Brigade, the 3rd Field Regiment Royal Artillery, and the headquarters of the 10th Indian Division.
On April 29, British dependents were flown from Baghdad to Habbaniya. Rashid Ali preferred to avoid a showdown with the British until he could solidify Axis support, but he now concluded that time was no longer on his side. Consequently, on April 30 he issued a declaration forbidding further British troops from arriving in Basra.
That night, the embassy informed the command at Habbaniya that troops were marching with artillery westward from Baghdad. In the short term, however, it was unclear who had preempted whom. Beyond the Euphrates, a treeless desert stretched to the horizon. Overlooked by a plateau between one hundred and two hundred feet high, its defenses consisted of a seven-mile-long iron fence guarded by a constabulary of twelve hundred largely Assyrian levies, regarded as disloyal by Iraqi nationalists, backed by a fleet of armored cars, all under the command of a British lieutenant colonel.
But even this was limited by the abilities of half-trained students piloting a heterogeneous fleet of seventy-eight mostly obsolete biplane trainers— Hawker Audaxes, Fairey Gordons, Airspeed Oxfords, Gloster Gladiators, Hawker Harts, and one Bristol Blenheim I bomber.
Organized into four squadrons, some of these planes were hastily rigged to carry bombloads as small as twenty pounds, hardly more than air-dropped grenades.
Let me tell you about that call. You will remember how, in November, the Italian dictator fell upon the unoffending Greeks and without reason and without warning invaded their country, and how the Greek nation, reviving their classic frame, hurled his armies back at the double-quick.
Meanwhile, Hitler, who had been creeping and worming his way steadily forward, doping and poisoning and pinioning one after the other, Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria, suddenly made it clear that he would come to the rescue of his fellow-criminal.
The lack of unity among the Balkan States had enabled him to build up a mighty army in their midst. While nearly all the Greek troops were busy beating the Italians the tremendous German military machine suddenly towered up on their other frontier.
In their mortal peril the Greeks turned to us for succour. Strained as were our resources we could not say them nay. By solemn guarantee, given before the war, Great Britain had promised them her help. They declared they would fight for their native soil even if neither of their neighbours made common cause with them and even if we left them to their fate.
But we could not do that. There are rules against that kind of thing and to break those rules would be fatal to the honour of the British Empire, without which we could neither hope nor deserve to win this hard war. Military defeat or miscalculation can be remedied. The fortunes of war are fickle and changing. But an act of shame would deprive us of the respect which we now enjoy throughout the world and thus would sap the vitals of' our strength.
During the last year we have gained by our bearing and conduct a potent hold upon the sentiments of the people of the United States. Never, never in our long history have we been held in such admiration and regard across the Atlantic Ocean.
In that Great Republic, now in much travail and stress of soul, it is customary to use all the many valid, solid arguments about American interests and American safety which depend on the destruction of Hitler and his foul gang and even fouler doctrine.
But, in the long run-believe me for I know-the action of the United States will be dictated not by methodical calculations of profit and loss but by moral sentiment and by that gleaming flash of resolve which lifts the hearts of men and nations and springs from the spiritual foundation of human life itself. We, for our part, were, of course, bound to harken to the Greek appeal to the utmost limit of our strength.
We put the case to the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand and their Governments, without in any way ignoring the hazards, told us that they felt the same as we did. So an important part of the mobile portion of the Army of the Nile was sent to Greece in fulfillment of our pledge. It happened that the divisions available and best suited to this task were from New Zealand and Australia and that only about half the troops who took part in this dangerous expedition came from the mother country.
I see the German propaganda is trying to make bad blood between us and Australia by making out that we have used them to do what we would not have asked of the British Army. I shall leave it to Australia to deal with that taunt. Let us see what has happened. We knew, of course, that the forces we could send to Greece would not by themselves alone be sufficient to stem the German tide of invasion. But there was a very real hope that the neighbours of Greece would, by our intervention, be drawn to stand in the line together with her while time remained.
How nearly that came off will be known some day.
Winston Churchill: “Report on the War”
The tragedy of Yugoslavia has been that these brave people had a government who hoped to purchase an ignoble immunity by submission to the Nazi rule. But, when at last the people of Yugoslavia found out where they were being taken and rose in one spontaneous surge of revolt, they saved the soul and future of their country, but it was already too late to save its territory. They had no time to mobilize their armies. They were struck down by the ruthless and highly mechanized Hun before they could even bring their armies into the field.
Great disasters have occurred in the Balkans. Yugoslavia has been beaten down. Only in the mountains can she continue her resistance. The Greeks have been overwhelmed. Their victorious Albanian Army has been cut off and forced to surrender and it has been left to the Anzacs and their British comrades to fight their way back to the sea, leaving their mark on all who hindered them.
I turn aside from the stony path we have to tread to indulge a moment of lighter relief. I dare say you have read in the newspapers that by a special proclamation the Italian dictator has congratulated the Italian Army in Albania on the glorious laurels they have gained by their victory over the Greeks.
Here, surely, is the world record in the domain of the ridiculous and the contemptible. This whipped jackal, Mussolini, who to save his own skin has made all Italy a vassal state of Hitler's Empire, comes frisking up at the side of the German tiger with yelpings not only of appetite-that could be understood-but even of triumph.
Different things strike different people in different ways but I am sure there are a great many millions in the British Empire and in the United States who will find a new object in life in making sure that, when we come to the final reckoning, this absurd impostor will be abandoned to public justice and universal scorn. While these grievous events were taking place in the Balkan Peninsula and in Greece our forces in Libya have sustained a vexatious and damaging defeat.
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The Germans advanced sooner and in greater strength than we or our generals expected. The bulk of our armoured troops, which had played such a decisive part in beating the Italians, had to be re-fitted, and the single armoured brigade which had been judged sufficient to hold the frontier until about the middle of May was worsted and its vehicles largely destroyed by a somewhat stronger German armoured force.
Our infantry, which did not exceed one division had to fall back upon the very large Imperial Armies that have been assembled and can be nourished and maintained in the fertile Delta of the Nile. Tobruk-the fortress of Tobruk-which flanks any German advance on Egypt, we hold strongly. There we have repulsed many attacks, causing the enemy heavy losses and taking many prisoners.
That is how the matters stand in Libya and on the Egyptian front. We must now expect the war in the Mediterranean, on the sea, in the desert and above all in the air to become very fierce, varied and widespread. We have cleaned the Italians out of Cyrenaica and it now lies with us to purge that province of the Germans. That will be a harder task and we cannot expect to do it at once. You know I never try to make out that defeats are victories.
I have never underrated the German as a warrior. Indeed, I told you a month ago that the swift, unbroken course of victories which we had gained over the Italians could not possibly continue and that misfortunes must be expected. There is only one thing certain about war, that it is full of disappointments and also of mistakes.
It remains to be seen, however, whether it is the Germans who have made the mistake in trampling down the Balkan States and in making a river of blood and hate between themselves and the Greek and Yugoslav peoples. It remains also to be seen whether they have made a mistake in their attempt to invade Egypt with the forces and means of supply which they have now got. Taught by experience, I make it a rule not to prophesy about battles which have yet to be fought. This, however, I will venture to say: That is only a personal opinion and I can well understand there may be different views.
It is certain that fresh dangers besides those which threaten Egypt may come upon us in the Mediterranean. The war may spread to Spain and Morocco. It may spread eastward to Turkey and Russia. The Germans may lay their hands for a time upon the granaries of the Ukraine and the oil wells of the Caucasus.
They may dominate the Black Sea; they may dominate the Caspian, who can tell? We shall do our best to meet them and fight them wherever they go. But there is one thing which is certain; there is one thing which rises out of the vast welter which is sure and solid and which no one in his senses can mistake: In order to win this war he must either conquer this island by invasion or he must cut the ocean lifeline which joins us to the United States.
Let us look into these alternatives if you will bear with me for a few minutes longer. When I spoke to you early in February many people believed the Nazi boastings that the invasion of Britain was about to begin.
Now it has not begun yet, and with every week that passes we grow stronger on the sea, in the air and in the number, quality, training and equipment of the great armies that now guard our island.