Eighty years ago, Churchill sacks a great general whom he dislikes and indulges a scheming minister

 


 The German advance into the Soviet Union continued at breakneck pace, encountering practically no serious opposition. Stalin issued orders for counter-offensives which bore no resemblance to anything possible under the military situation of the moment, but gave him a pretext to shoot generals for failing to carry out the attacks. The German 2nd and 3rd Panzer groups met near Minsk and captured the city. This completed the encirclement of vast Soviet forces. The 3rd and 10th Armies were destroyed and massive losses were inflicted on three more. A snapshot estimate awarded the Germans over 300,000 Soviet prisoners and the capture of 3,300 tanks and 1,800 artillery pieces. The Red Air Force had been caught on the ground in the initial strikes and practically ceased to function.

Churchill took a gentler but still brutal approach to his generals. He had never seen eye-to-eye with Wavell and mistook his inarticulacy for stupidity or hostility. He gave him no credit for his bold triumphs over the Italians at the start of the year and failed to appreciate how the array of tasks facing the British in the Middle East simply exceeded their resources. Churchill was especially resentful at the failure of Battleaxe, the counter attack on Rommel's forces  in which he had invested such excessive hopes. Wavell was sacked and replaced by Claude Auchinleck the C-in-C India whose resolute action to suppress the Golden Square uprising in Iraq had won his favourable attention. To soften the blow and in a concession to Wavell's undimmed reputation amongst his colleagues, he was appointed to replace Auchinleck in India.

More positively, one of the more competent Cabinet Ministers, Oliver Lyttleton who was a late entrant to politics after a successful business career, was sent to Cairo as resident minister. This acknowledged that the political complexities of such a sprawling and varied theatre of operations and the impracticality of leaving the military men on the ground with the responsibility of taking decisions outside their sphere of understanding.

After the briefest of spells without a portfolio, Lord Beaverbrook was appointed as minister of supply. It was a broader and theoretically more important job than Minister of Aircraft production which Beaverbrook had relinquished. He replaced Andrew Rae Duncan, another minister turned administrator, but in practice Duncan remained the government’s industrial supremo. Apart from a colourless rhetorical showing, there had been no reason to fault his performance. His (as it turned out) temporary demotion served to provide Beaverbrook with an apparently more substantial platform for his own ambitions, but Beaverbrook had no taste for administrative minutiae and in his new job he could not claim to be undoing the damage and neglect of the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments. But for Churchill's indulgent affection, Beaverbrook had no claim on any post.

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