Churchill shakes things up in the desert

Winston Churchill, with Sir Alan Brooke, giving his famous V-for-Victory sign while being driven past a line of troops in Tel-el-Kebir, 9 August 1942. The vehicle is a Morris-Commercial 8cwt truck

At the highest levels of the British government there had been growing consternation at the progress of the war in the Middle East. Now Winston Churchill flew out with the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, to shake things up.

The commander of the 8th Army, Ritchie, had been relieved of his command at the beginning of July when Rommel had broken through. The overall Commander Middle East, Sir Claude Auchinleck, had then taken direct charge of the 8th Army himself. He had successfully established a new line of defence at El Alamein. However British counter-attacks since then had achieved little. Churchill had decided that he wanted a new Middle East Commander as well as a new 8th Army commander. There was considerable argument between Brooke and Churchill over these appointments.

Winston Churchill touring tank units at Tel-el-Kebir, 9 August 1942. A Grant tank can be seen in the background.

On the 6th of August Churchill had prevailed and decided to appoint Alexander as Middle East Commander and Gott as commander of the 8th Army. Brooke was an admirer of Gott but thought that he was too tired, having been out in the desert for too long, and that a fresh injection of energy and ideas was needed.

Portrait of Lieutenant General Gott, 7th Armoured Division, in the Western Desert. On the 6th August 1942 Churchill decided to appoint him commander of the whole 8th Army – he was summoned back to Cairo immediately. Gott took a transport plane back from the front line on the 7th.

However the matter was not completely settled:

Just as I was starting for home for dinner I received the news that Gott had been killed this afternoon being shot down whilst flying back from Burg el Arab. A very hard blow coming on top of all the planning we had been doing. He was one of our linkpins! I do feel sorry for Mrs Gott.

After dinner PM, Smuts I had conference as to how the matter should be settled. Had some difficulty. PM rather in favour of Wilson. However Smuts assisted me and telegram now been sent off to Cabinet ordering Montgomery out to take command 8th Army. I hope we get Alexander and Montgomery out soon so that I may settle details of Corps Commanders and Chiefs of Staff with them.

See Alanbrooke War Diaries 1939-1945: Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke

And so fate intervened. Montgomery, who had until this time been based in Britain. He had served under Brooke at the beginning of the war in France – his talent had been recognised by the one man who mattered, despite his various idiosyncracies.

Winston Churchill with Field Marshal Smuts and behind, Sir Arthur Tedder (left) and Sir Alan Brooke, at the British Embassy in Cairo, 5 August 1942.

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