Generals Wavell and Auchinleck, and the Lost Art of Going Quietly

Generals Wavell and Auchinleck, and the Lost Art of Going Quietly

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 2012 as “Churchill, Oba­ma and the Sack­ing of Gen­er­als.” The reliev­ing of Gen­er­al Stan­ley McChrys­tal, then news, has since lapsed into obscu­ri­ty, so the piece is repub­lished with­out those comparisons.

Churchill on sacking generals

“It is dif­fi­cult to remove a bad Gen­er­al at the height of a cam­paign; it is atro­cious to remove a good Gen­er­al.” —WSC, 6 Novem­ber 1942 

A read­er asked how Churchill’s fir­ing of two pop­u­lar gen­er­als in 1941-42 com­pared to the sack­ing of Dou­glas MacArthur, the Kore­an War com­man­der, by Pres­i­dent Tru­man in 1951. There is no comparison.

Churchill’s gen­er­als, Archibald Wavell and Claude Auchin­leck, were removed in the hope of more vig­or­ous oper­a­tions against Irwin Rommel’s Afri­ka Korps. More­over, the British gen­er­als con­tin­ued their careers and hon­or­able ser­vice. MacArthur was relieved for insub­or­di­na­tion to the civil­ian author­i­ty. Though briefly moot­ed as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, he nev­er served again. “They start­ed rais­ing mon­ey to buy him a Cadil­lac,” Har­ry Tru­man cracked. “He nev­er got that car.” (MacArthur might have replied as did Mrs. Robert Taft, who said, “I’m just mild about Harry.”)

Archibald Wavell

Archibald Wavell (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Gen­er­al Wavell (1883-1950) was relieved of the British Mid­dle East Com­mand on 21 June 1941. In effect, he changed places with Gen­er­al Claude Auchin­leck, becom­ing Com­man­der-in-Chief India and, two years lat­er, India’s Viceroy.

Churchill wrote that Wavell “received the deci­sion with poise and dig­ni­ty…. On read­ing my mes­sage he said, ‘The Prime Min­is­ter is quite right. There ought to be a new eye and a new hand in this the­atre.’ In regard to the new com­mand he placed him­self entire­ly at the dis­pos­al of His Majesty’s Gov­ern­ment.” [1] Ear­li­er, Churchill had expressed an opin­ion of Wavell that nev­er wavered: “A mas­ter of war, sage, painstak­ing, dar­ing and tire­less.” [2]

Wavell remained in the Army until 1943, when he became Viceroy of India. His first and most impor­tant action was to take steps to relieve the Ben­gal Famine. There he served until 1947.

Claude Auchinleck

Claude Auchin­leck (Impe­r­i­al War Muse­um, Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Gen­er­al Auchin­leck, known as “The Auk” (1884-1981), lost his Mid­dle East Com­mand on 8 August 1942. Churchill offered him the Iraq and Per­sia Com­mand. Auchin­leck declined, believ­ing it was wrong to sep­a­rate those from the Mid­dle East. He returned to India, and when Wavell became Viceroy he reas­sumed com­mand of the Indi­an Army. He retired in 1947 after forty-three years of dis­tin­guished service.

The Auk had won the First Bat­tle of Alamein in July 1942. His plans to fin­ish Rom­mel were in place when he was relieved. Nev­er­the­less, Churchill wrote, he “received the stroke with sol­dier­ly dig­ni­ty.” [3]

“It was a ter­ri­ble thing to have to do,” WSC added lat­er. “He took it like a gen­tle­man. But it was a ter­ri­ble thing. It is dif­fi­cult to remove a bad Gen­er­al at the height of a cam­paign; it is atro­cious to remove a good Gen­er­al. We must use Auchin­leck again. We can­not afford to lose such a man from the fight­ing line.” [4] Churchill—safe in his own skin and utter­ly dis­dain­ing opin­ion polls—could con­fi­dent­ly say such a thing.

The lost art of leaving quietly

The two relieved gen­er­als placed them­selves at the government’s dis­pos­al. They left their com­mands pro­fess­ing esteem for their civil­ian chiefs, and vice-ver­sa. They retired years lat­er after illus­tri­ous careers.

Leav­ing qui­et­ly was what you did in those bygone days. Lord Hal­i­fax in 1940 pro­posed nego­ti­a­tions with Hitler; reject­ed by the War Cab­i­net, he did not offer inter­views to air his griev­ances. Nor would such an act of pub­lic dis­loy­al­ty have occurred to him. George Mar­shall, a great man, had many dis­agree­ments with his civil­ian chiefs. Offered a mil­lion dol­lars for his mem­oirs, he declined, say­ing, “I have already been ade­quate­ly com­pen­sat­ed for my services.”


[1] Win­ston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1950), 310.

[2] Robert Rhodes James, ed., Win­ston S. Churchill: His Com­plete Speech­es 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowk­er, 1974) VI: 6346.

[3] Win­ston S. Churchill, The Hinge of Fate (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1951), 422.

[4] Harold Nicol­son Diary, 6 Novem­ber 1942, in Nigel Nicol­son, ed., Harold Nicol­son: Diaries and Let­ters, vol. II 1945-67 (Lon­don: Collins, 1967), 259.

[5] World Asso­ci­a­tion of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies, 24 June 2010.

Further reading

“On Good News from Gen­er­als: Churchill’s Expe­ri­ence and Meth­ods,” 2021.

“Win­ston Churchill’s Three Best War Books,” 2020.

Ray­mond Calla­han, “Great Con­tem­po­raries: Wavell, Man of Silences,” 2021.

Ray­mond Calla­han, “Great Con­tem­po­raries: Auchin­leck, Sol­dier of the Raj,” 2021.

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