The Battle for Egypt
THE DANGERS OF UNBRIDLED CRITICISM
By WINSTON CHURCHILL, Prime Minister of Great Britain
Most Important Passages of Speech in House of Commons, July 2, 1942
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 614-619.
THIS long debate has now reached its final stage. What a remarkable example it has been of the unbridled freedom of our parliamentary institutions in time of war!
Everything that can be thought of or raked up has been used to weaken confidences in the Government; has been used to prove that the Ministers are incompetent and to weaken their confidence in themselves; to make the army distrust the backing it is getting from the civil power; to make workmen lose confidence in the weapons they are striving so hard to make.
To represent the Government as a set of nonentities over whom the Prime Minister towers and then to undermine him in his own heart and, if possible, before the eyes of the nation—all this has poured out by cables and radio to all parts of the world to the distress of all our friends and the delight of all our foes.
I am in favor of this freedom which no other country would use or dare to use in times of mortal peril such as those through which we are passing, but the story must not end there, and I make now my appeal to the House of Commons to make sure that it does not end there.
Free Statement Difficult
Although I have done my best—my utmost—to prepare a full and considered statement for the House, I must confess I have found it very difficult. Even during the bitter animosity of the diatribe of Mr. Aneurin Bevan, with all its careful and calculated hostility, I have found it very difficult to concentrate my thoughts on this debate and withdraw it from the tremendous and most difficult battle now raging in Egypt. At any moment we may receive news of grave importance. But Mr. Hore-Belisha, who has just addressed us, has devoted a large part of his speech not to this immediate campaign and struggle in Egypt but to the offensive started in Libya nearly eight months ago.
He has, as did the mover of the vote of censure, accused me of making misstatements in saying that for the first time our men met the Germans on equal terms in the matter of modern weapons.
This offensive was not our failure. Our army took 40,000 prisoners. They drove the enemy back 400 miles. They took a great fortified position on which he had rested so long; they drove into the very edge of Cyrenaica and it was only when his tanks had been reduced to seventy or perhaps eighty that by a brilliant tactical resurgence the German general set in motion a series of events which led to a retirement to a point 150 miles more to the west than our offensive had started from.
Ten thousand Germans were captured in that fight. I was not prepared to regard that action as other than highly creditable and highly profitable to the army of the Western Desert.
I do not understand why this point should be made now, when in all conscience there are newer and far graver matters that fill our minds. The military misfortunes of the last fortnight in Cyrenaica and in Egypt completely transform the situation; not only in this area, but throughout the Mediterranean. We have lost upward of 50,000 men, and by far the larger number of them are prisoners, and in spite of a great deal of organized demolition, large quantities of stores have fallen into the enemy's hands.
Evil Effects Yet to Be Seen
Rommel has advanced nearly 400 miles through the desert and is now approaching the fertile Valley of the Nile. The evil effect of these events in Turkey, Spain and Free French Africa has yet to be measured. We are in the presence of a recession of our hopes and prospects in the East as great as any since the fall of France.
If there is any one who wishes to prophesy disasters to the full and they can paint the picture in darker colors they are free to do so.
A painful feature of the fall of Tobruk was its suddenness, with its garrison of 25,000 men in a single day. It was utterly unexpected not only by the public but by the War Cabinet and even by the General Staffs.
It was also unexpected by General Auchinleck and the High Command of the Middle East. On the night before its capture, we received a telegram from General Auchinleck that the garrison was adequate and the defenses in good order and that ninety days' supplies were available for the troops.
It was hoped they could hold the very strong frontier positions which had been built by the Germans and made by ourselves from Halfaya Pass. General Auchinleck expected to maintain this position until powerful reinforcements would arrive to enable him to launch a counteroffensive. The question whether Tobruk should have been held or not was disputable; it was one of those questions which is easier to decide after the event. Only those on the spothad full knowledge of approaching reinforcements which the enemy had available.
The decision to hold Tobruk and the disposition made for the purpose was taken by General Auchinleck, but I should like to say we in the War Cabinet and our professional advisers thoroughly agreed with General Auchinleck beforehand and although in tactical matters the Commander in Chief in any war theatre is supreme and his decision is final, we consider that if he was wrong, we were wrong, too, and I am very ready, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, to take my full share of the responsibility.
The honorable member for Kidderminister [Sir John Wardlaw Milne] asks where the order for the capitulation of Tobruk came from. Did it come from the battlefield or from Cairo, or from London, or from Washington?
What strange world of thought he must live in if he imagines I sent from Washington the order for the capitulation of Tobruk. The decision was taken, to the best of my knowledge, by the commander of the fortress and certainly it was most unexpected to the higher command in the Middle East.
Outlook Had Seemed Favorable
When I left this country for the United States on the night of June 17, the feeling which I had and which was fully shared by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was that the struggle in the Western Desert had entered upon a wearing-down phase, or long battle of exhaustion similar to that which took place in the Autumn, and although I was disappointed that we had not been able to make a counter-stroke after the enemy's first onslaught had been, I will not say repulsed, but rebuffed, and largely broken—that was a situation with which we had no reason to be discontented.
Our resources were much larger than those of the enemy and so were our approaching reinforcements. This desert warfare proceeds among much confusion and interruption of communications and it was only gradually that very grievous and disproportionate losses which our armor sustained in the fighting around and south of Knightsbridge became apparent.
Here I will make a short digression on to a somewhat less serious plane. Complaint has been made that the newspapers have been full of information of a very rosy character.
Some members referred to that in the debate and that the government have declared themselves less fully informed than the newspapers. Surely this is very natural while a battle of this kind is going on. There has never been in this war a battle where so much liberty has been given to war correspondents. They have been allowed to roam all over the battlefield; to take their chance of being killed and send home very full messages, almost whenever they can reach a telegraph office. This is what the press has always asked for and this is what they got.
These war correspondents moving about amid the troops and sharing their perils have also shared their hopes and been inspired by their buoyant spirit.
They have sympathized with the fighting men whose deeds they have been recording and no doubt are being extremely anxious not to write anything which would spread discouragement or add to their burden.
Certainly I do not want generals in close battle—and these desert battles are close, prolonged and often peculiarly indeterminate—I do not want them to burden themselves by writing full stories about matters on which, in the nature of things, the home government has no decision to give and is not called upon to give any decision.
After all, there is nothing we can do about it here while it is going on, or only at very rare intervals. Thus the government is in fact more accurately but less fully or colorfully informed than newspapers. That is the explanation why it is not proposed to make any change in this procedure.
When on the morning of Sunday, the twenty-first, I went into the President's room, I was very greatly shocked to be confronted with the report that Tobruk had fallen. I found it difficult to believe, but a few minutes later my own telegram forwarded from London arrived.
I hope the House will realize what a bitter pang this was to me. What made it worse was being on an important mission in the country of one of our great Allies.
In the days that followed there were distorted accounts of feeling in Britain and in the Commons. The House can have no idea how its proceedings are represented across the ocean. Questions are asked, comments are made by individual members or by independents who represent no organized group of political power, which are cabled verbatim and often are honestly taken to be the opinion of Parliament.
Gossip echoes from the smoking room, talks in Fleet Street are worked up into serious articles seeming to represent that the whole basis of British political life is shaken or is tottering. A flood of speculation is let loose. Thus I read streamer headlines like this: "Commons demand Churchill return to face accusers," or "Churchill returns to supreme political crisis."
Such an atmosphere is naturally injurious to a British representative engaged in negotiating great matters of state upon which the larger issues of the war depend.
That these rumors, coming from home, did not prejudice the work I had to do was due solely to the fact that our American press are not fair-weather friends. They never expected this war would be short or easy or that its course would not be chequered by lamentable misfortunes. On the contrary, I will admit, the bonds of comradeship between us were actually strengthened.
All the same I must say I do not think any public man on such a mission from this country ever seems to be barracked from his homeland in his absence—unintentionally, I can well believe—to the extent that befell me while I was on this visit to the United States.
And only my unshakable confidence in ties which bind me to the mass of the British people upheld me through those days of trial. I naturally explained to my host that those who were voluble in Parliament in no way represent the House of Commons.
I notice it was stipulated that I should not be allowed to refer in any way, in the statement I am making about Libya, to the results of my mission to the United States.
I must make it clear that I accept no fetters upon me except the rules of order and the public interest, I have, however, a worthier reason for not speaking about my late American missions further than the public statement agreed on between the President and myself. Here is the reason: Our conversations were concerned almost entirely with nothing but the movement of ships, guns, troops, aircraft and measures to be taken to combat losses at sea and replacement, and more than replacement, of sunken tonnage.
Here I will turn aside to meet the complaint that the Minister of Defense was at Washington when the disaster of Tobruk occurred. Well, Washington was the very place where he should be. It was there where most of the future business of the war was being transacted, not only in a general sense but in regard to particular matters in passing.
Almost everything I arranged in the United States with the President and his officers is secret and must be kept from the enemy and I have therefore nothing to tell about it except this: that the two great English-speaking nations were never closer together.
Never was there a more earnest desire between allies to engage the enemy and never was there a more hearty resolve to run all risks, to make all sacrifices, to wage this hard war with vigor and to carry it to a successful conclusion. That assurance at least I can give the House.
I hope there will be no aspersions cast on the United States shipbuilding program. We are making considerable efforts at shipbuilding ourselves. We could only increase our output at the expense of other indispensable munitions and supplies. But the United States is building now, in the present time, about four times as much gross tonnage as we are building and I am assured she will range between eight and ten times as much as we are building in the calendar year 1943.
Ship losses have been heavy lately and the bulk has been upon the eastern shores of America. Utmost measures have been taken to curtail those losses and I do not doubt they will be substantially reduced as the mass of escort vessels now under construction come into service and as the convoy system and other methods of defense come into full and effective operation.
These measures combined with the great shipbuilding efforts of the United States and the British Empire should result in a substantial gain in tonnage at the end of 1943 over and above that we now possess.
This we shall owe largely to the prodigious exertions of the Government and people of the United States who share with us, and fully and freely according to our respective needs and duties, in this as in all other parts of our war program. I have not trespassed very much upon the United States aspect although it is a most vital sphere, and I return to the desert and the Nile.
One of the most painful parts in this battle has been that in its opening stages we were defeated under conditions which gave good and reasonable expectations of success. During the whole of Spring we had been desirous that the army of the Western Desert should begin an offensive against the enemy. The re-gathering and reinforcement of our army was considered to be a necessary reason for our delay but of course that delay helped the enemy also.
At the end of March and during the whole of April he concentrated a very powerful air force in Sicily and delivered a tremendous attack upon Malta, of which the House was made aware at the time by me. This attack exposed the heroic garrison and inhabitants of Malta to an ordeal of extreme severity. For several weeks hundreds of German and Italian aircraft—it is estimated there were more than 600, of which a great majority were German-streamed over in endless waves in the hope of overpowering the defenses of the island fortress.
There had never been any case in this war of a successful defense against superior air power being made by aircraft which have only two or three airfields to work from. Malta is the first exception. At one time they were worn down to no more than a dozen fighters. Yet, aided by their powerful batteries, by ingenuity of defense and by the fortitude of the people, they maintained unbroken resistance.
We continued to reinforce them from the Western Mediterranean as well as from Egypt by repeated operations of difficulty and hazard, and maintained a continuous stream of Spitfire aircraft in order to keep them alive in spite of enormous wastage not only in the air but also in the limited airfields on the ground.
As part of this, hundreds of fighter aircraft have been flown in from aircraft carriers by the Royal Navy and we were assisted by the United States, whose carrier Wasp rendered notable service on more than one occasion, enabling me to send a message of thanks: "Who says a Wasp cannot sting twice?" By all these exertions Malta lived throughthis prodigious and prolonged bombardment until at last at the beginning of May the bulk of the German aircraft, already weakened by most serious losses, had to be withdrawn for the belated German offensive on the Russian front.
Enemy Received Lots of Supplies
The enemy did not get Malta but they got a lot of stuff across to Africa; and, remember, it takes four months to send a weapon around the Cape and perhaps a week or even less across the Mediterranean—provided it gets across.
Remember also that a great number of these Spitfires, if not involved in the very severe fight in Malta, would have been available to strengthen our Spitfire forces in the battle that has been proceeding. Thus it may well be that we were relatively no better off in the middle of May than we had been in March or April.
However, the armies drew up in the desert in the middle of May with about 100,000 a side. We had 100,000 men and the enemy 90,000, of which 50,000 were Germans.
We had superiority in the number of tanks—I am coming to the question of quality later—of perhaps 7 to 5. We had superiority in artillery of nearly 8 to 5. Included in our artillery were several regiments with the latest form of gun, a Howitzer which throws a 55-pound shell 20,000 yards.
There are other artillery weapons of which I cannot speak which were also available. It is not true therefore, as I have seen stated, that we had to face the 50-pounder guns of the enemy only with the 25-pounder. The 25-pounder, many say, is one of the finest guns in Europe and a perfectly new weapon which had only begun to flow out since the war began. It is true the enemy, by the tactical use he made of his 88-millimeter anti-aircraft gun, converting them to a different purpose, and with his anti-tank weapons, gained a decided advantage, but this became apparent only as the battle proceeded.
Our army enjoyed throughout the battle, and enjoys today, superiority in the air. Dive bombers of the enemy played a prominent part at Bir Hacheim and Tobruk, but it is not true that they could be regarded as decisive or even as a massive factor in this battle. Lastly, we had better and shorter lines of communication than the enemy, our railway being operated beyond Fort Capuzzo and a separate line of communications running by sea to the well-supplied base and depot of Tobruk.
Enemy Struck First
W e were therefore entitled to feel confident in the result of an offensive undertaken by us, and this would have been undertaken in the early days of June if the enemy had not struck first.
When these preparations for an offensive became plainly visible it was decided, and I think rightly, to await the attack on our fortified positions and then deliver a counter-stroke in the greatest possible strength.
The forces assembled on both sides would have represented, in any other theatre, four or five times their strength. Such was the position May 26 when Rommel made his first onslaught. It is not possible to give any final accounts of the battle.
The Free French about Bir Hacheim, who held on bravely, were faced with a struggle which surged for eight or nine days and finally it was decided to withdraw. Here no doubt, was the turning point in the battle. Whether anything could have been done we cannot tell.
Our [tank] recovery process had worked well. Both sides lost proportionately, and perhaps ours were greater. We expected to lose more, as we had more tanks.
On the thirteenth there came a change. We had about 300 tanks in action. By nightfall no more than 70 remained,and this happened without any corresponding loss having been inflicted on the enemy. I do not know what actually happened in fighting on that day.
It is for the House to decide whether these facts resulted from faulty direction of the war, for which I take responsibility, or whether they resulted from the terrible hazards of battle and the unforeseeable accidents of battle.
With this disproportionate destruction of our armored strength, Rommel became decisively the stronger. His advance enabled him to repair his wounded tanks, while our wounded tanks were lost to us. Among the evil consequences which followed from this was that the South African division had to be withdrawn from Gazala, and they went on to Tobruk and further east, and our Fiftieth British Division extricated itself by proceeding 120 miles on the southern flank of the enemy.
Tobruk went after a single day of fighting, and this entailed withdrawal from the Solum-Halfaya line to Matruh, and 120 miles of desert was thus placed between the Eighth Army and its foe. Most authorities imagined that ten days or a fortnight would be gained by this. However, on June 26 Rommel presented himself with his armored and motorized forces in front of this new position. Battle was joined on the twenty-seventh along the whole line, and for the first time our whole army, which had been reinforced, had been engaged altogether at one time.
I am not in position to tell the House about reinforcements reaching our army, or approaching them, except that they are very considerable. After the lecture read to me by Hore-Belisha it is perhaps wrong of me to say we will hold Egypt, but I will go so far as to say we do not regard the struggle as in any way decided.
Aid by New Zealand
Although I am not mentioning the reinforcements, there is one reinforcement that has come in close contact with the enemy already, which he knows. That is the New Zealand Division. The New Zealand Government, although it was in potential danger of invasion, authorized the fullest use being made of its troops, and had not withdrawn or weakened them in any way. The New Zealand forces have acquitted themselves in a manner equal to their former records. They are fighting hard.
Although the army in Libya have so far been overpowered and driven back, I must make it clear that this was not due to any conscious or willing grudging of forces in men and material. Of course, the emergence of the Japanese into the war led to the removal of Australian forces to defend their own homeland, and very rightly. In fact, it was I who suggested they should consider themselves open to return, having regard to the danger of their own country.
Extreme demands had been made on our forces in all theatres of the war, but in the last two years we had sent from this country and from the empire, and to a lesser extent from the United States, 950,000 men, 4,500 tanks, 6,000 aircraft, nearly 5,000 pieces of artillery, 50,000 machine guns and over 100,000 mechanical vehicles.
For more than a year, until Hitler attacked Russia, the threat of invasion hung over us, imminent, potential and mortal. There was no time to make improvements at the expense of supplies. We had to concentrate on numbers —quantity instead of quality. This was a major decision in which I think there can be no doubt that we were rightly guided. We had to make thousands of armored vehicles.
I have been asked to speak about dive bombers and transport aircraft. Of course you cannot judge whether we should have had dive bombers by any date without also considering what we should have given up if we had had them.
Most of the air marshals I have met, leading men in theair force, think lowly of dive bombers and persist in their opinion. They are entitled to respect for their opinion because it was from the same source that the eight-gun fighter was designed which destroyed so many hundreds of dive bombers in the Battle of Britain.
The dive bomber against ships at sea appears to me to be a still more dangerous weapon. I say that because that is my own opinion on the matter, but as to transport aircraft I wish indeed we had a thousand transport aircraft, but if we had built a thousand unarmed transport aircraft it would have come off our already far from adequate bomber force.
Bomber Attacks on Germany
I know there is a tendency to deride and disparage the bomber effort against Germany. I think it is a grave mistake because there is no doubt that this bomber offensive against Germany is one of the most powerful means we have of carrying on offensive war against her.
This attack is not going to get weaker but is going to get continually stronger until, in my view, it will play a perfectly definite part in taking the strain off our Russian ally and in reducing building and construction of submarines and other weapons of war.
To return to the main argument that is before the House, I will willingly accept—indeed, I am bound to accept— what the honorable Lord has called constitutional responsibility for everything that has happened and I consider that I discharged that responsibility by not interfering with the technical handling of armies in contact with the enemy. But before the battle began I urged General Auchinleck to take command himself because I was sure nothing was going to happen in the vast area of the Middle East in the next month or so comparable in importance to the fighting of this battle in the Western Desert, and I thought he was the man to handle the business. He gave me various good reasons for not doing so and General Ritchie fought the battle,
I cannot pretend to form a judgment upon what has happened in this battle. I like the commanders on land and sea and in the air to feel that between them and all forms of public criticism the Government stands like a bulkhead. They ought to have a fair chance and more than one chance. Men make mistakes and learn from their mistakes. Men may have bad luck and their luck may change.
We will not get generals to run risks unless they feel they have behind them a strong government. They will not run risks unless they feel they need not look over their shoulder or wonder what has happened at home, unless they feel they can concentrate their gaze upon the enemy; and you will not, I may add, get a government to run risks unless it feels that it has behind it a loyal, solid majority.
Assurance Given to Auchinleck
General Auchinleck is now in direct command of the battle, which is raging with great intensity. We have assured this general of our confidence and I believe it will be found that that confidence has not been misplaced.
I cannot tell the House and enemy what reinforcements are at hand or are approaching or when they will arrive. I have never made any predictions except things like saying that Singapore would be held. What a fool and a knave I should have been to say it would fall!
I have stuck hard to my blood, toil, tears and sweat—to which I have added muddles and mismanagements—and that I must admit is what, to some extent, we have got out of it. I will say nothing about the future, except to invite the House and nation to face with courage whatever it may unfold.
I now invite the House to take a wider survey. Since Japan attacked us six months ago in the Far East we havesuffered heavy losses there. A peace-loving nation like the United States, confined by two great oceans, naturally takes time to bring its gigantic force to bear.
I have never shared the view that this would be a short war or that it would end in 1942. It is far more likely to be a long war. There is no reason to suppose that it will stop when the final result has become obvious. The Battle of Gettysburg proclaimed the ultimate victory of the North, but far more blood was shed after Gettysburg than before.
At the same time, in spite of our losses in Asia, in spite of our defeats in Libya, in spite of increased sinkings off the American coast, I affirm with confidence that the general strength and prospects of the United Nations have greatly improved since the turn-year when I last visited the President of the United States.
The outstanding feature is, of course, the steady resistance of Russia to the invaders of her soil. I make no forecast of the future. All I know is that the Russians have surprised Hitler before and I believe they will surprise him again, and anyhow, whatever happens, they will fight to death or victory. This is a great cardinal fact at this time.
Growth of Air Power Rapid
The second great cardinal fact is the growth of air power on the side of the Allies. That growth is proceeding with immense rapidity. Hitler made a contract with the demon of the air, but the contract ran out before the job was done and the demon has taken on an engagement with a rival firm.
For the last six months our convoys to the East have grown. Every month about 50,000 men with the best equipment we can make have pierced through the U-boats and hostile aircraft which beset these islands and rounded the Cape of Good Hope. That this could be done so far without loss constitutes an achievement prodigious and unexampled in history.
When the Japanese came into the Bay of Bengal at the beginning of April with five carriers we were caused great anxiety, but the five are now at the bottom of the sea, and the Japanese, whose resources are strictly and rigidly limited, have now begun to count their capital units on their fingers and toes.
These splendid American achievements have not received the attention they deserve in these islands. Superb acts of devotion were performed by American airmen. From some of their successful attacks on Japanese aircraft carriers only one aircraft returned out of ten. In others the loss was more than half, but the work was done and the balance of naval power in the Pacific has been definitely altered in our favor.
This relieved, at any rate for some months to come, the position in Australia and the Indian theatres and enabled important forces to be directed upon Egypt.
The struggle of Egypt is gradually approaching its full intensity. The battle is now in the balance and it is an action of highest consequence. We have one object and one only, the destruction of the enemy armies and armored powers, and this grips and rivets our resolve.
Important Aid on Way
Important aid is on the way to Malta from Britain and the United States. A hard struggle lies before the armies of the Nile. It remains for those of us at home to encourage and cheer their commander by every means in our power.
If democracy and parliamentary institutions are to triumph in this war it is absolutely necessary that the governments resting upon them shall be able to act and dare, that servants of the Crown and Parliament shall not be harassed
by the nagging and snarling of disappointed men, that enemy propaganda shall not be fed needlessly out of our own hands and that our own reputation shall not be disparaged and undermined throughout the world; that on the contrary the will of the whole House shall be made manifest upon important occasions, that not only those who speak but those who watch and listen and judge shall also count as a factor in the world of affairs.
After all, we are still fighting for our lives and for causes dearer than life itself.
Much harm was done abroad by the two days of debate in May. Only hostile speeches are reported abroad and much play is made of them by enemy propaganda. Nearly all my work has been done in writing, and a complete record exists of all the directions I have given, inquiries I have made and telegrams I have drafted. I shall be perfectly content to be judged by them. The setting down of this vote of censure by members ofall parties is a considerable event. Do not let the House underrate the gravity of what has been done. Now that it has been trumpeted all round the world to our disparagement, and every nation, friend or foe, is waiting to see what is the true resolve and conviction of the House of Commons, it must go forward to the end.
All over the world—throughout the United States, as I can testify, away in Russia, far away in China, throughout every subjected country—our friends are waiting now to know whether there is a strong, solid government in Britain and whether national leadership is challenged or not.
Every vote counts. If those who assail us are reduced to contemptible proportions, if the vote of censure on the national government is converted to censure upon its authors, then make no mistake—a cheer will go up from every friend of Britain and every servant of our cause and the knell of disappointment will ring in the ears of the tyrants we are striving to overthrow.