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'An hour marked by destiny is striking in the sky of our country; the hour of irrevocable decisions.'
In his first speech as Prime Minister, on 13 May 1940, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons, 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.' As he spoke, the British Expeditionary Force in France was in full retreat towards Dunkirk, its stubborn but forlorn rearguard action powerless to arrest the German advance. Only Hitler's bizarre and unexpected decision to call off the chase allowed the bulk of the BEF and the First French Army to reach the beaches at Dunkirk. The Führer's decision infuriated his army commanders and, especially his Chief of Staff, General Franz Halder, who noted bleakly, 'Now we must stand and watch countless thousands of the enemy get away to England right under our noses'.
On 26 May, with the panzer force only eighteen miles away from the port itself, the Royal Navy, supported by a flotilla of trawlers and other small craft, began a remarkable rescue operation. By 4 June — the day on which the Swastika was raised over Dunkirk — some 338,000 Allied troops had escaped across the Channel. The only consolation for the victors was the massive jumble of discarded tanks, guns, trucks and ammunition which littered the French landscape, a bleak testimony to a national humiliation that even the 'Dunkirk spirit' could not entirely obscure.
On the same day, acknowledging the 'colossal military disaster' of Dunkirk, Churchill roused the House of Commons with his second imperishable speech as Prime Minister, declaring, 'We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight on the hills; we shall never surrender'. However, for obvious reasons of national security he forbore to tell his parliamentary colleagues that in the week leading up to the evacuation at Dunkirk the War Cabinet had met in secret for five days in succession to explore the grim options facing the government. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, had argued in favour of negotiating terms with Hitler (initially via Italy's dictator, Benito Mussolini, who had yet to declare war on Britain). Churchill begged to differ but — mindful of the fact that he could not yet rely on the unequivocal support of his colleagues against a powerful alliance of appeasers ranged against him in parliament and beyond — even he did not entirely rule out the prospect of cutting a deal with the Führer.
Among a host of senior figures — not to mention many ordinary citizens — who believed that defeat was now all but inevitable, the Director of Military Intelligence, Major General Francis Davidson, told a BBC correspondent privately in the midst of the Dunkirk fiasco, 'We're finished. We've lost the army and we shall never have the strength to build another.' Faced by such a ground-swell of pessimism, Churchill had little choice but to tread with care. However, he eventually secured the support of key members of the War Cabinet (former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Labour leader Clement Attlee and Attlee's deputy, Arthur Greenwood), which gave him the authority to speak with such unequivocal defiance in the House on 4 June.
In the midst of this perilous turmoil, Churchill summoned General Archibald Wavell, the Middle East commander-in-chief, from Cairo to London. The Prime Minister was on the warpath. Filled with romantic memories of the Boer War — 'where we owned nothing beyond the fires of our own camps and bivouacs, whereas the Boers rode where they please all over the country' his purpose was to galvanise wavell to confront an Italian army which was mustering on the border with Egypt.
Wavell's responsibilities encompassed a huge triangular swathe of the Middle East and East Africa from Iran in the east to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in the south and Egypt in the west. The troops under his command were spread widely and thinly across this vast region, protecting the British Empire from all-comers but especially a resurgent Italy, whose ruler harboured imperial dreams to rival the imperial realities of the United Kingdom.
Churchill's commitment to sustaining a British Empire which still ruled most of the waves and covered two-fifths of the globe was unequivocal. His presumption was widely shared in the nation and endorsed by the overwhelming majority of his senior colleagues in government, parliament, the armed forces, and Whitehall, for whom the very identity of the United Kingdom was umbilically linked to the scores of colonies, dependencies, protectorates, and dominions around the world which were either ruled or controlled by Britain. The exploitation of these possessions and the global reach they afforded was almost universally thought to be vital to the prosperity and prestige of the nation. To harbour a dissident opinion was generally thought to be eccentric if not subversive. Moreover, without access to the raw materials, resources and manpower of the Empire, it would not have been possible for Britain to challenge the expanding hegemony of the Third Reich.
For these reasons, the protection of the Middle East was in Churchill's unyielding judgment second only in importance -and a close second at that — to the survival of the United Kingdom itself. Egypt, though nominally independent, was geographically and strategically at the heart of the Empire, linking Britain via a network of arteries to its possessions around the world, the 'fount of British military power in the Middle East' with its capital, Cairo, 'an epicentre of the British imperial world.'
The C-in-C, Middle East left Cairo to arrive in London on 8 August 1940. Churchill was in abrasive mood, Wavell was on the defensive. The two men were very different in character and temperament: where the Prime Minister was emotional, volatile and loquacious, Wavell was cool, measured, and taciturn. The soldier was also gifted with a richly complex intellect that contrasted sharply with the impetuous certainties by which the politician was guided. To complicate their relationship further, Churchill was prone to distrust and despise generals and Wavell was, in the words of his biographer, 'suspicious of politicians and thought politics too serious a matter to be left in their hands'. Their attitudes to warfare were also deeply at odds. Churchill was a romantic who had a zest for battle and conquest. Wavell, on the other hand, judged all wars to be 'deplorably dull and inefficiently run'; nor could he see any reason why the human race, 'so inefficient in matters of peace, should suddenly become efficient in time of war'.
Not surprisingly, their first encounter was very far from being a meeting of minds. Though Churchill acknowledged that the Middle East Command 'comprised an extraordinary amalgam of military, political, diplomatic and administrative problems', he could not restrain himself from telling Wavell that the forces at his disposal were either deployed in the wrong places or — effectively — standing at ease a long way behind the front when they should have been eagerly preparing to repel the enemy on the Libyan border. If Wavell had been so minded, he could have pointed out that up until recently he had been forbidden to put his 36,000 troops in Egypt on a war footing for fear of provoking the 100,000-strong Italian army to launch a pre-emptive strike on Cairo: Wavell's conventional caution was grounded in military common sense.
Though Wavell's loyalty to his political masters was never in question, his disdain for the Prime Minister's conceptual grasp of military strategy was ill concealed — not so much by what he said but by his failure to say almost anything at all. From the general's perspective, Churchill was both overly inclined to meddle in matters of operational detail that he did not understand, and unwilling to grasp the scale and complexity of the challenges facing him on the many other fronts under his command. Only later did he allow himself the indulgence of the barbed reflection that 'Winston's tactical ideas had to some extent crystallised at the South African [Boer] war.'
It was an uncomfortable encounter which Churchill described as 'a prolonged hard fight against the woolly theme of being safe everywhere', in the course of which, he boasted, 'I put my case in black and white.' Wavell did not yield easily, and on at least one occasion, by his own account, 'succeeded in convincing' Churchill that he was wrong, or rather, 'I convinced him that I wouldn't do it.' Eventually however, the general was wrestled into compliance and was issued accordingly with a lengthy and detailed 'General Directive' drawn up by the Imperial General Staff at the Prime Minister's behest and approved by the War Cabinet. Afterwards, Wavell reflected, 'I am pretty sure that he [Churchill] considered my replacement by someone who was more likely to share his ideas, but could not find any good reason to do so. Winston has always disliked me personally.' There is no evidence that the feeling was other than mutual: a disaffection which boded ill for what was to become a crucially important relationship.
In the two months following Italy's declaration of war on 10 June, small units of Wavell's Western Desert Force had engaged in a series of hit-and-run raids against Italian outposts on and behind the Libyan border, destroying tanks and taking prisoners in skirmishes that harassed the enemy but inflicting insignificant damage on either of the two Italian divisions mustering on the Libyan side of the frontier, But now much more was required. On 16 August Wavell was formally instructed 'to assemble and deploy the largest possible army upon and towards the western frontier' to confront 'a major invasion of Egypt from Libya All political and administrative considerations must be set in proper subordination to this.' Duly chastised, Wavell returned to Cairo to oversee the rapid redeployment of his troops from other parts of the Middle East Command to prepare for the coming clash in the Western Desert.
The British Prime Minister was not to know that, so far from being poised to invade Egypt, the Italian army in North Africa was profoundly reluctant to leave the comparative security of its Libyan colony. This lack of resolve infuriated the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, who was driven by a demonic urge to conquer the Middle East. On the same day that he declared war on Britain, Il Duce had appointed himself 'Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces in the Field'. That evening he stood resplendently on his balcony overlooking the Piazza Venezia in Rome while below him in the square a large crowd dutifully cheered him on as he issued his clarion call to war.
'Blackshirts of the Revolution and of the Legions, men and women of Italy and of the Empire,' he declared, 'An hour marked by destiny is striking in the sky of our country; the hour of irrevocable decisions. We are entering the lists against the plutocratic and reactionary democracies of the West, who have always hindered the advance and often plotted against the very existence of the Italian people And we will conquer People of Italy, to arms! Show your courage, your tenacity and your worth.' Aside from the fascist diehards in the Piazza, this faintly ludicrous call to arms found little favour with the Italian people. Instead of a mass display of support for their leader's bellicose meanderings, the writer Christopher Hibbert, who was present at the time, noted that 'an atmosphere of gloom hung over the dreadfully quiet city'.
Mussolini — who had already appointed himself 'Duce of Fascism and Founder of the Empire' — believed that Italy's natural right to be a great imperial power had been thwarted by Britain's control of the Mediterranean, which he regarded as an Italian lake, the 'fourth shore' of which was North Africa. In the middle of May, Churchill had written to Mussolini in the remote hope of keeping Italy out of the conflict. 'Is it too late', he had inquired, 'to stop a river of blood from flowing between the British and Italian peoples?' Mussolini's resentful rejection of the Prime Minister's overture at least had the virtue of candour. In 1935, he protested, Britain had led the call for sanctions (in the form of an arms embargo) during the Abyssinian crisis, when Italy, as he put it, was merely 'engaged in securing for herself a small space in the African sun'. Nor was that all. 'May I remind you', he added 'of the real and actual state of servitude in which Italy finds herself in her own sea.' The belief that the Mediterranean was not only Italy's maritime backyard but a legitimate possession was no less sincere for being utterly bizarre.
His vision of the twentieth-century Roman Empire not only encompassed the Mediterranean but much of the Middle East and Africa as well. Libya — which had been an Italian colony since 1912 when it was ceded to Rome by the Ottoman Empire — was to be the springboard from which to drive the British from the entire region. The conquest of Egypt would be the first step towards the realisation of that dream. Il Duce was consumed by a vaulting ambition which far exceeded his reach. Vanity and bombast were his hallmarks. 'War alone brings up to their highest tension all human energies and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it,' he had once declared in a flush of fascist passion.
But, though his grasp of military strategy was haphazard at best, he was not without cunning. Under the Pact of Steel, which he had co-signed with Hitler on 22 May 1939, each side agreed to come 'immediately' to the aid of the other if either were involved in 'hostilities', but Mussolini had refrained from declaring war against Britain until — following the debacle of Dunkirk — he judged that Hitler would soon reign supreme in all Europe. Convincing himself that hostilities would end within three months, he informed his Chief of General Staff, Pietro Badoglio, that he only needed 'a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought' and lay claim to a fair share of the spoils. The most propitious means of achieving this objective was to engage the British on the battlefield in the Western Desert, and thus to establish himself as a serious military ally rather than the Führer's clowning cheerleader.
To this end, he demanded that Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, the commander-in-chief of the Italian forces in North Africa, be instructed to launch an early invasion of Egypt. But Graziani at once revealed a stubborn reluctance to mount any kind of aggressive action against the British. On 3 August Mussolini's Foreign Minister and son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano, made a caustic note in his diary to the effect that, 'principally because of the heat', the much-decorated commander — whose penchant for bloody reprisals in Abyssinia had earned him the sobriquet 'The Butcher of Ethiopia' — was unwilling to mount any offensive until the following spring.
Summoned back to Rome to explain himself, Graziani told Ciano on 8 August that 'the attack on Egypt was a very serious undertaking' for which 'our present preparations are far from perfect'. The marshal was understating the case: the poorly trained and ill-equipped men under his command were almost entirely unfit to wage war. Though on paper they far exceeded in strength the modest forces available to Wavell, his warning that premature action against the British would 'inevitably develop into a rapid and total disaster' was prescient. When Graziani insisted that he 'would rather not attack at all, or, at any rate, not for two or three months' Mussolini was incensed. Believing that the Nazi invasion of Britain was 'very imminent', he despatched a telegram on 19 August instructing him to invade Egypt 'as soon as a German patrol lands in England'. But — confirming that a victor's place at the conference table was dearer to him than outright conquest — he added, 'there are to be no territorial objectives I am only asking you to attack the British forces facing you'.
Excerpted from Destiny in the Desert by Jonathan Dimbleby. Copyright © 2012 Jonathan Dimbleby. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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