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During World War II no one was more critical of British generals than Winston Churchill. As early as April 1941, when discussing the possible loss of Egypt, he asserted, “[General Sir Arhibald] Wavell has 400,000 men. If they lose Egypt, blood will flow. I will have firing parties to shoot the generals.” Over the next four years Admirals and air marshals often experienced his cutting comments, but British generals had to contend with even sharper, deeper cuts. Even more severe blows came in Churchill's post-war commentary.
Amidst this litany of disapproval, Raymond Callahan asks, “How valid were Churchill's criticisms of his generals?” To answer the question he skillfully revisits the issues of Churchill's expectations and the army's performance in the world war, and he offers a refreshing and convincing defense of the British army and its generals.
Callahan begins his well-written analysis by looking at Churchill's and the British army's backgrounds. He argues the famous war leader remained a prisoner of his own experiences in World War I and never completely understood modern warfare. He especially did not understand the complexity and importance of logistics, particularly its effect on strategy, and he tended to favor highly decorated combat veterans over “less charismatic” but more thoughtful leaders.
As for the British army, it suffered from egregious shortcomings at the beginning of the war. Dominated by veterans of World War I who preferred firepower over maneuver, it favored carefully controlled operations. The army also never had enough men. Other weaknesses pertained to British leaders favoring a “top-down” command system and their “cherishing individual quirks and oddities” because of the army's emphasis on the regimental system. This was “the instrument,” Callahan notes, with which Churchill had to work when he became prime minister in May 1940.
As Callahan examines the major British campaigns of World War II, he describes the tensions that came from the very different responsibilities faced by Churchill and his generals and the very different skills they had for dealing with their responsibilities. At the same time Callahan explains how the British Army transformed itself during the war and gives Churchill only modest credit for this transformation. By May 1944, in Operation Diadem in Italy, the British army, he says, had transformed itself “into a highly effective fighting force."
Callahan's story thus is as much about the transformation of the British Army as it is about the relationship between political and military leaders. His analysis reminds us that transformation of an army requires technological and doctrinal improvements but it also requires political leaders who understand the challenges faced by their military leaders. 400 pages • 6 1/8" x 9 1/4" • 11 photos
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