Wavell, Field Marshal Sir Archibald, 1883-1950

Wavell was a highly respected and brilliant General who had the misfortune of being consistently sent to impossible situations, yet always acquitted himself well. In July 1939 he was appointed Commander in Chief of the Middle East and North Africa, a territory which also covered the Eastern Mediterranean and East Africa. The Italian Tenth Army invaded Egypt on 13 September 1940 and had penetrated over 60 miles inside the border within the week. Wavell with his Western Desert Force, though heavily outnumbered and undersupplied, managed to drive the Italians out of Egypt by 4 January 1941 and to recapture Tobruk on 22 January. His 6th Australian Division captured Benghazi on 6 February by which time the Allies controlled all of Cyrenaica and had taken 110,000 prisoners. This was the only Allied victory in the Middle East until El Alamein. In February Wavell followed up his Egyptian victory with a series of offensives in East Africa which led to the Italian surrender of Addis Ababa on 6 April. Unfortunately in February Wavell had to send the main part of his troops to Greece. They arrived there too late to be of any use and in the meantime ROMMEL had invaded and outmaneuvered the one infantry and one armored division which Wavell had kept to defend Cyrenaica. By 11 April, Rommel was on the Egyptian border.

By July 1941 CHURCHILL who had little confidence in Wavell and was tired of his inability to launch an offensive against Rommel, transferred him to the post of Commander in Chief in India. In November 1941 the Japanese began their invasions of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Wavell was made Allied Supreme Commander of the joint American— British—Dutch—Australian Command but was unable to prevent the Japanese victories, largely through lack of sufficient air power and lack of support from Churchill. He therefore resigned shortly after in February 1942.

Wavell then returned to India to prepare an offensive against Burma. This began in December 1942 with an advance through Arakan but achieved no breakthrough partly because of Wavell’s reliance on a strategy of frontal assault. In January 1943 he was made a Field Marshal and in June of that year Churchill, still doubtful of his military capability, gave him the purely political post of Viceroy of India. In this capacity Wavell was closely concerned with the internal political and economic problems of India, in particular with the Bengal famine.

Wavell had suffered many disadvantages in his career: Churchill’s dislike, lack of adequate supplies and military machinery and impossible assignments, nonetheless he was much loved by his men and associates. Rommel’s tribute was that he always kept a copy of Wavell’s book Generals and Generalship with him.

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