Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Labor Day 2006

Over the Labor Day weekend, which was rainy for most of Sunday and Monday, I took the opportunity to read a book given to me as a Christmas gift: The Desert Generals by Correlli Barnett.

The book is an excellent read as it details the strain of leadership of 6 generals, 5 British and 1 German, who commanded armies in the Libyan desert between 1940 - 1943 when the desert campaigns effectively ended with the retreat of Field Marshall Rommel's Afrika Korps and Panzer Armee just before the landing of a large American expeditionary force near Tripoli.

Several themes prevail in the book:
1. The ill effects (i.e. - increased loss of life, materielle, and time to achieve objectives) when politicians directed military manuveurs for political gain - a tactic used by both Hitler and Churchill (Why am I not surprised? And BTW, this suggests that the current class of political leaders would do well to study history and learn well the lessons to avoid future repetition).

2. The slow adaptation of the British army to World War II battlefield techniques and the delay in learning how to appropriately utilize armour (i.e. - tanks) and the underlying social and political basis for this with the result that there were no "tank men" in command so the commanding generals of the 8th Army had to "learn" from their subordinates and some, including Montgomery, had a very hard time doing it with significant waste of life and tanks in the process.

3. The change of leadership on the field was typically for political reasons, and typically with poor results. The corellary to this was that the ability to identify generals with the ability to not only command but develop imaginative strategies were few: one of the best, Gen. O'Connor, was captured in the first campaign by Lt. Gen. Rommel and spent the rest of the war in a concentration camp.

4. General Montgomery's prima donna-like behavior in Europe which gave C-in-C, Gen. Eisenhower fits later in the war was already in full bloom when he was taken from training the home guard in England and given command of the 8th Army in the desert. That said, he led the way for the military leaders of today who must not only fight the enemy but also fight the battle for the public's opinion in the public media. In that sense he made a contribution that could be seen as positive. As opposed to failing to credit the originators of the plans for the 2nd Battle of El Alamein (i.e. - Auchinleck & Dorman-Smith, his chief of staff), nearly losing the battle despite huge lopsided advantages in men, tanks, artillary as well as having complete control of the air AND with Rommel hamstrung by lack of fuel and ammunition due to Hitler's failure to provision his troops.

5. Field Marshall Rommel's retreat against overwhelming odds is a tale worth the telling in even greater detail as his 30 tanks held off more than 20 times that number while an orderly escape was effected, taking time to completely destroy the harbor at Tripoli. Granted, Gen. Montgomery's failure to aggressively pursue when pursuit was called for was a significant contributing factor. Nonetheless, Rommel's force came close to defeating Montgomery at El Alamein despite coming off his sickbed with an infected liver and a stomach ulcer to lead "his men."

6. The great army generals were great because they were leaders - they were on the field and their men knew that they were leading from personal knowledge of the battlefield conditions - and they fought accordingly (e.g. - O'Connor, Auchinleck, Rommel).


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