Pen & Sword, £30
A child of the Raj born in 1883, Wavell had a conventional upper-class education at Winchester and Sandhurst; he spent a year attached to the Russian army, and fought in his native India and the Boer War. A Staff Captain in 1914, he lost an eye – but gained a Military Cross – at Ypres in 1915. Between the wars, Wavell proceeded up the ranks in a zig-zag fashion, once forced to go down in rank, and twice spending periods of unemployment on half pay.
His mixed fortunes reflected the serious neglect suffered by the Armed Forces in what passed for peacetime, but was really only an interval between wars – and could stand as an object lesson to Government in our own day as it implements damaging military cuts.
In 1935, Wavell found his feet combatting an Arab insurgency in British-ruled Palestine, and thereafter progressed rapidly up the ladder. By 1940, he was a full General commanding the vital Middle East theatre, sitting astride embattled Britain’s communications with India and the Far East.
His greatest military triumph came early when his miniscule and ill-equipped forces smashed the numerically superior Italians in Libya and drove them out of the Horn of Africa. The whole of North Africa was his for the taking when he was forced by Churchill to divert scarce men and resources to the futile attempt at saving Greece and Crete from the German invaders.
By the time the defeated troops returned to North Africa, the Germans had a formidable foothold there, too, in the shape of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. But the Desert Fox proved a less daunting foe than the one Wavell faced in Downing Street.
The voluble, mercurial Churchill was the polar opposite of taciturn, immobile Wavell, and their dislike was mutual. Churchill’s distrust had been kindled by Wavell’s reluctance to go into Greece. The fact that he was proved right rankled, and when Wavell seemed similarly slow to invade Iraq and put down a pro-Nazi coup, Churchill seized his opportunity to make him swap jobs with Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief in India.
Once again, Wavell did wonders with few men and resources, and once again he irritated Churchill by correctly predicting the fall of Singapore. The Prime Minister interpreted Wavell’s cold military realism as pessimism, and his calmness as inertia; and finally got rid of him by kicking him upstairs to be India’s Viceroy. An old India hand, Wavell proved an unexpected success in this role; but his attempts to bring the sub-continent’s squabbling politicians together was frustrated (again) by Churchill, who opposed Indian independence. When Wavell handed over to Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, and retired, it must have been with some relief. In a display of petty meanness Churchill refused to attend his funeral in 1950.
Victoria Scholfield, herself an old India hand and a rare woman in the male-dominated field of military history, has done Wavell proud in a fine and full biography (first published in 2006 and now handsomely re-issued) that pays due attention to his happy family life and the sensitive poetry-loving man behind the gruff and silent facade. He may not have had the dazzle and ego of Monty or Mountbatten, but Wavell was a far finer and sounder man in the mould of his rival and replacement Auchinleck.
And to cross Churchill in World War Two was a very brave thing to do.
Review by Nigel Jones