France had fallen. An army which held on for four years against the Germans in WW I, had capitulated in four weeks this time around.
Hitler and his allies now ruled most of Europe…with only one little island nation and its Prime Minister standing against them. German Army’s Panzer divisions had routed, encircled and almost decimated the combined French-British resistance. The embarrassing evacuation of British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk (350,000 men evacuated from France to UK) was one of the series of devastating losses that the British Army would suffer against the Germans for the next couple of years, before turning the tide at a small non-descript railway station in Egypt, EL Alamein. From July till October 1940, the Royal Air Force managed to defend this little island nation from a massive onslaught by the German Air force- the Luftwaffe.
Hitler wanted to bomb the British into submission. This phase was known as the ‘Battle of Britain’ and is considered to be both Britain’s and Churchill’s finest hour. But as the war progressed, some of Churchill’s decisions both tactical and strategic, gradually diminished the aura of a capable leader who stood up against tyranny. Let’s delve into some of those.
After WW I, huge number of casualties had resulted in a defensive mindset in most of the Allied Army commands. Close to 60000 British combatants had perished on the first day of the Battle of Somme in 1916…can you imagine…SIXTY thousand men in a single day of battle. Such high numbers had led to this belief among the general populace and even the military/civilian leadership of Britain that any such future conflict should be better avoided. Also, any fighting on the European mainland would be handled by the French army while the British focused more energy and money on strengthening their Navy and Air Force instead of the Army. Churchill was himself an Army officer during the first war. He was a hardcore imperialist and recognized the fact Britain’s power to be the world leader lay in her empire…the huge reserve of manpower and resources…India…Middle east…Australia…Canada. When he faced Hitler alone, Churchill knew that he would have to ensure that Britain’s links with its empire don’t get severed. He also knew that he would have to fight the Axis all across the British empire and not just on the British islands. That was the reason why, when facing an impending German landings on its beaches in the summer of 1940, Britain in an crazy sounding decision, shipped half of its Battle Tanks to Egypt. For Britain to survive, her empire had to be intact.
In June 1940, as soon as France fell, Benito Mussolini, the tinpot dictator of Italy, declared war on Britain. Italy had a powerful Navy and Libya was one of it’s colonies. This meant a serious threat to Britain’s supply lines through the Mediterranean. The Italians even launched an attack on Egypt but were firmly defeated by the British who started pushing Italians back from the Egyptian frontier, deeper into Libya. Churchill’s gamble of reinforcing Egypt had paid off. That’s when Hitler came to his inept partner’s aid and send Rommel, his ace General along with elite Panzer battalions under the name- Afrika corps.
After arriving in Feb 1941, Rommel started taking a heavy toll on the British, pushing them out of Libya and half way back through Egypt. Churchill was aghast…British garrisons and fortifications were surrendering to the German forces half their size. It was summer of 1942…Japan had entered the war and defeated the British at Singapore. British Army was getting beaten all across the Empire. Churchill needed one desperate win.
He will get that win at the Battle of El Alamein…a single building railway station, about 240 Kms west of Cairo.
Churchill had sacked the whole Military leadership in Egypt and brought in General Bernard Montgomery (Monty) as the Commander of British Army in Egypt, to take on Rommel.
Montgomery defeated Rommel at El Alamein in Nov 1942 and started pushing him back, west across Egypt and Libya. This victory also put in Churchill head the idea of Hitler’s soft underbelly…the Mediterranean. In 1942, Churchill didn’t want to take on Germany on the beaches of France…instead he wanted to get control of the Mediterranean, then Italy, Greece and other Axis controlled regions. One big reason for that was the average/poor quality of the middle and high level leadership in the British Army command. Britain had lost many high quality junior and mid level commanders in WW I itself and that fact was having its impact 25 years later. But, now Britain had an ally in the United States which was firmly in the war…it was Nov 1942.
Churchill’s idea of hitting at Hitler’s underbelly was also supported by the US president FDR in spite of his own commander’s advise to attack the European mainland instead of fighting around the Mediterranean. Soviet Union which was currently holding its own against the Germans was also pushing the Allies to open another front in Europe to release some pressure on them. All these factors resulted in Operation Torch…British and US forces landing in Algeria in 1942. FDR was tacitly supporting this operation as he wanted to turn the public opinion in the US which at that point of time was to leave Europe alone and focus more on fighting in the Pacific. FDR may have wanted some American blood to be shed by the Nazis, to change the public opinion in order to favor an all out American involvement in Europe.
The US army did taste a bitter defeat in Feb 1943 at the Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia.
Battle hardened Germans took a heavy toll on the Americans with 6500 killed in action and many wounded. But the onslaught from both the east and west flanks, forced the Germans to finally evacuate and rush back to Italy. The Soft underbelly strategy had been successful. The Mediterranean was now secured for the British Empire. But, this success now went to Churchill’s head and he became obsessed with the idea. The next step in fulfilling the soft underbelly approach would turn out be rather hard nut to crack.
Now, the Allies decided to invade the Italian mainland. The first mistake they made was to not study the geographical make up of Italy. They struck at the southern end of Italy. Then, instead of an expected cakewalk through German and Italian defenses, they were stuck in long drawn battle of attrition in the Apenine mountains which run north-south like the Spine of Italy.
One German general later commented on the Allied plan by suggesting that in the future, if someone wanted to conquer Italy, attack in the north instead of the southern coast.
Allied forces finally won a costly and long drawn out victory in Italy while pursuing the soft underbelly approach. Meanwhile, just to assuage the egos of US military leadership, the British did launch an invasion on the Nazi occupied island of Dieppe in 1942. This was an utter disaster and Churchill, despite the losses was inherently happy that his theory of not fighting Hitler in France was vindicated.
The grinding Italian campaign convinced the Allied commander and esp. the US that a direct assault on Nazi Europe was a better option than beating around the bush. Historians say that Operation Overlord or the Allied invasion of France in June 1944 didn’t have a 100% approval from Churchill who claimed that he was forced to agree to it under the pressure from President Roosvelt (US) and Stalin (USSR).
It would take close to an year for the Allied forces to finally claim victory over the Nazis in May, 1945.
Ref.: WW II documentary by David Reynolds.