Thursday, 10 September 2015

Wavell in the Middle East, 1939-1941: A Study in Generalship - Harold E. Raugh, Jr

This review was published in Army History magazine.

Title: Wavell in the Middle East, 1939-1941: A Study in Generalship

Author: Harold E. Raugh, Jr.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4305-7
Pages: 323
Photos//Maps: 29 b/w//12
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press 

 This book, a reprint of the original hardcover edition printed in the UK in 1993, is a detailed analysis of the effectiveness of the command of Field-Marshal Archie Wavell during his time as Commander in Chief of the Middle East, 1939-1941. This period saw an intensity and breadth of operations unique to the Second World War in that Wavell was tasked not only with the planning and execution of regional military operations (at one time overseeing seven concurrent operations/campaigns geographically vast distances apart) but additionally with a lead role in the political forum as a key representative of His Majesty's Government in the region. Each of these hats would have been daunting in and of themselves; taken together they were a burden that would severely strain any commander. Added to this has to be the pressure exerted almost daily by Churchill in his desire to provide 'helpful' motivation, the difficult (almost impossible) relationship that existed between them from a personality perspective, the expectations and desperation of the British people and Empire wracked by the continuous successes of the German military, the need to placate the various governments of the Imperial forces that he employed and the operational challenge of facing one of Germany's greatest field commanders, Field Marshal Rommel. 

I particularly enjoyed Raugh's approach to his subject. Despite the fact that he must incorporate descriptions of campaigns in Syria, Greece, Crete, Iraq, East Africa and North Africa he avoids the greatest pitfall potentiality associated with a work of this nature by ensuring that he keeps his narrative firmly focussed upon Wavell as a man and Commander and does not stray into a study of his campaigns (except as a means of highlighting Wavell's strengths and weaknesses in command role). Given the intensity and scope of the period this is no easy feat. 

The author undertakes a structured approach to his subject, building, through detailed examination of his developmental years, a comprehensive image of the personality and character of Wavell. In an evaluation of this nature, I believe this to be indispensable as it builds for the reader a deep appreciation of how the man came to be and why he ultimately responded the way that he did in later years. Additionally, it creates an understanding of the environment within which Wavell the commander developed and the reputation that he had with his peers and colleagues (and of course, his opinion of them).   

An evaluation of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses as a commander requires that there be a criteria established against which the author may measure his subject. In this case Raugh has utilized the scale developed by Norman Dixon in his work "On Psychology of Military Incompetence".  Measured against these criteria Wavell is evaluated as being, not without flaws, but easily a superb commander. Of specific note was his ability to recognize and incorporate new and cutting edge technologies into his planning such as aircraft for reconnaissance and transport and the creation of special forces such as the Long Range Desert Patrol (which acted as a massive force multiplier for the Allies during a time of significant resource constraint). During the interwar period, Wavell recognized the potential of armoured warfare as well as the critical importance of effective logistics and administration in the successful outcome of large scale operations. Additionally, he was a prolific writer and reader and was not averse to adopting the suggestions of subordinates (in some cases many grades below him) thereby building in them a deep self-confidence and a fierce loyalty.  

Finally, as Raugh points out, his central concern above all else, was the well-being of his soldiers. Consistently throughout the narrative, Raugh presents firsthand accounts from privates to Generals, recounting tales of their deep and abiding respect and trust in Wavell as both a Commander and tactician. This manifested itself in his soldiers never losing faith in him despite the repeated setbacks in Greece, Crete and later, North Africa. This extended to his never undermining his political masters (despite the reciprocation of this on their part), nor seeking glory or political favour for himself. Raugh makes great use of primary source material in order to build this picture of Wavell, the man and commander (both being indispensable facets of the whole). 

There are two areas of concern that I would raise with this work, none of which however, are sufficient to significantly undermine the overall superb quality of this evaluation but are worthy of note. The first relates to the quality of the publication itself; while the overall book is well presented, I always take umbrage when the photographs are printed on the cheap such that they look like poor newspaper reproductions. Secondly, while Raugh has shown himself to be a sterling historian, he includes in his narrative the standard blanket observations about senior leadership in the First World War as being out of touch with the realities of Western Front conditions and afraid to venture forward. This is as tiresome as it is false but, in fairness, he is not alone in reinforcing this paradigm.  

Wavell was a commander of the highest order in terms of capability, insight, morality and humility. This stands in stark contrast to some of the better known Allied commanders of the war such as Patton, Montgomery or DeGaulle. While there is no doubting their dedication or capability, theirs was a leadership and success of plenty. It is perhaps a greater legacy to say that Wavell's success at holding the line was all the more significant as it came during the period of the war when the Allies were on their heels and desperate for good news. His was a leadership that truly tested the mettle of a commander: leadership under extreme adversity.  

Raugh's study is balanced, fair and extremely readable. This book holds many key lessons for the leader of the future and it is a testament to the quality of Raugh's work that the successes and failures of Wavell are presented in such a way as to be still as relevant today as they were seventy years ago. Wavell, on whom history has not maintained the light that he merits, deserves no less (although, it must be stated, he would not complain). Very highly recommended for all elements and leadership levels.

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