How and Why Britain failed on a Strategic Level – 1940-1491

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I have found that even among WW2 fans, many people don't know a lot about the time between the Fall of France and Pearl Harbor. I think that this is a extremely interesting and strategically vital time for the war. I will show what happened and then end with some point on what the problem was.

Lets first give a quick overview of the situation after the Fall of France. Italy has joined the war and is getting very active. Britain has to defend the sky and water around Britain against German planes and invasion plans. At the same time a huge force of Italians threatens multiple of their colonies. The Italians invaded Egypt , Somaliland and were threading others. The Italians also had a large and modern Navy in the Med and a Red Sea Flotilla. The Number were very clearly on the Italian side.

Churchill and others did not want to see Egypt fall to Italy and they took away forces and tanks form home defense to have a viable force for middle eastern command. General Wavell formulated a plan to mount a large scale raid against these Italian forces. Without going into to much detail the raid was such a success that the General on the ground quickly turned the raid into a full offensive. In what can only be described as 'Blitzkrieg' the British forces freed Egypt and conquered Cyrenaica (2 Months, 959.83 km or 596.41 mi or Coastline). However at this point (9 February 1941) in time the attack was halted, all forces were pulled back and redeployed, mostly to Greece.

Now lets examine this decisions.

Situation on the Ground:

First lets see if this would have been a viable alternative for the Brits. After a lot of study, I would say that continuing Operation Compass would have been possible.

  • The Italians had not shown much resistance and their moral had fallen further and further.

  • Troupe Moral was extremely high

  • Lots of equipment had been captured, vehicles, petrol, guns and so on

  • The Navy was capable of supply, and maybe even leapfrogging ("I don't know the reason. I know it was not due to any navel shortcomings." – Admiral Cunningham)

  • Africa Corps had barley started to arrive

  • General O'Conner who was commander at the Front was confident

There are both studies from that time, and since. Most agree that this could and should have been done.

Strategy

From a high level strategic point of view (with knowledge of hindsight) we know that every effort should have been made to secure North Africa. North Africa was one of the major strategic objective in CIGS Alan Brooke plans, he and Churchill convinced FDR to overrule Marshall pull the Americans into the Mediterranean Theater. Any chance to gain such a objective with very limited troupes in early 1941 would have been a huge victory.

Advantages of winning North Africa:

  • Truly secure flank for Middle East

  • North African Ports are a great help with opening the Med for shipping (about 1'000'000 tons saved per month)

  • North African cost helps Air Force to Bomb Italy

  • Starting point for invasion of Italy

  • Positive effect on French North Africa (and French Syria)

  • Positive effect on Middle Eastern Countries

  • Positive effect on Spain

  • Forces Axis to defend long coastlines

  • The advantage seems overwhelming, however Alan Brooke was not yet CIGS and these strategic plans were not really officially adopted yet.

The question then is what was the strategy at the time? This is a hard question to answer. Churchill was not one for such long term military thinking, long term he thought about politics (alliance with the US). General John Dill had not formulated and strategic plan so far as I know. The earlier plans had involved France.

Churchill and it seems everybody in London was focus on 'the Balkan Front'. The hope was to unify Balkan countries and Turkey with a backbone of British troupes. Their they could fight Germany in a favorable front. While this plan seems nice it has multiple problems.

  • Very few forces available, ongoing North and East Africa Campaign needs to be slowed or stopped

  • Balkan countries are not known for working together

  • Greece was already fighting and in a bad position

  • Bringing Turkey into a the war was a hope, and not very likely

  • Luftwaffe could make supply lines into Greece very costly

  • Germany was dominate on land

  • Retreat is extremely difficult, danger of another Dunkirk

It is unclear how this Balkan front would lead to victory. Starting an Offensive towards Germany from their is hardly a good option. The Germans had little strategic objectives in the Balkans and could simply go on the defensive. Helping Greece would be value but from a military point of view, as well as form a political point of view (US relation).

Verdict

I belief that a lack of overall strategy to win was missing. Instead of a clear plan for winning, they thought in terms of surviving and then using favorable situations to their advantage. This leads to the problem that you follow many 'good to have' objectives, but end up not achieving most of them.

  • Lightly defended (essentially undefended) North Africa overrun

  • Half baked Greek Campaign on the way home as soon as they had taken up position

  • Crete exposed and far to easily lost

  • Instead of reassuring Turkey, showing them your failure

  • Clear signal to Middle Eastern countries and colonies that you can not stand up to German Forces

  • Huge amount of equipment lost (again)

  • Defense of Middle East takes away from Far East resources

  • East Africa Campaign slowed down (Red Sea not open for American Shipping)

Final Words

All their objectives were valuable, with proper prioritization most of them could have been achieved. World war 2 would have played completely differently. It is often forgotten that opening up the Mediterranean gave the allies about 1'000'000 tons of shipping a month. Achieving this 2 years earlier would of had a gigantic impact. Their is more to say on the impact, but that starts to be to speculative.

Sources:

Wavell in the Middle East, 1939-1941 A study in Generalship

A Path to Victory

Alan Brooke War Diaries

Source: reddit post


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