British cowardliness and high desertions: an unwillingness to fight?

british prsioners
British prisoners on their way to Italian internment camps

Source: Courage and Cowardice in the North African Campaign: The Eighth Army and Defeat in the Summer of 1942, War in History, 2013, 20(1) 99–122 by Dr Jonathan Fennell

Dr Jonathan Fennell of King College, London has written a very insightful article about the poor combat performance of the British 8th Army in the summer of 1942. Accusations of cowardice and lack of courage were bandied about in the upper echelons of the British high command and war cabinet. Of course, any hint of cowardliness was hushed up and kept from the general public.

According to Dr Fennell, the situation of cowardliness and low morale among the rank and file of the British soldier and infantryman leading to an unwillingness to fight and a distinct tendency to surrender,  that General Auchinleck, “with the unanimous agreement of his army commanders, forwarded to the War Office a recommendation for the reintroduction of the death penalty for ‘desertion in the field’ and for ‘misbehaving in the face of the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice’.”

The situation was so bad, that Auchinleck could not wait for a reply from the War Office to his request that he issued a general order to his senior officers that they were to ‘take the strongest possible action against any individual of whatever rank who refused to conform to orders. If necessary, in order to stop panic, there must be no hesitation in resorting to extreme measures, such as shooting an individual who cannot otherwise be stopped’.”

To back up his request for the death penalty, Auchinleck provided further statistics to support his argument, reporting that: 

 “63 absentees had been apprehended at Matruh in a single day during the ‘Knightsbridge’ fighting along the Gazala line in June 1942. During the 27 days of battle ending on 13 July 1942, 907 absentees had been reported to the Corps of Military Police, of whom 430 were subsequently apprehended. The total number of unapprehended British and colonial absentees was still 1,728 at the time of Auchinleck’s writing. The average monthly number of soldiers sentenced for desertion in the five months from February to June 1942 was 34. There were over 120 soldiers awaiting trial by courts martial in Cairo, and in one high-category unit (it is apparent that this was the Guards Brigade) 18 cases of desertion in the face of the enemy had been reported during the recent fighting.”

Obviously, something was terribly wrong with the British 8th Army in the summer of 1942. Auchinleck and his commanders were desperate to stop the hemorrhaging of his army as the rate of desertion and tendency to surrender rather than fight was so bad, “that it posed a direct risk to operations.” Furthermore, the level of those “missing in action” (MIA) was also unacceptably high for the British. For example, according to Dr Fennell, “these statistics showed an alarming ratio of ‘missing’ to overall casualties. Between the beginning of Rommel’s offensive at the end of May and late July, Eighth Army lost 1,700 killed and 6,000 wounded, but had 57,000 categorized as missing, ‘of whom the great majority must be assumed to be prisoners of war’,” far surpassing even the Italians:

“Both General Sir Ronald Adam, the adjutant general of the British army, and Sir P.J. Grigg, the secretary of state for war, agreed with this assessment. They accepted that these figures showed that the British soldier was ‘inclined to surrender rather than to fight it out’, and therefore agreed to reopen the death penalty issue as demanded by Auchinleck. The Army Council similarly concluded that ‘the capitulation at Singapore, the fall of Tobruk and the large proportion of unwounded prisoners in the operations in Cyrenaica [the Western Desert], are pointers to a condition existing in the Army which does not appear to accord with its old traditions’.”

Finally, Dr Fennell asserts that whether the attacking enemy was a German or Italian division, the effects were the same on the British soldiery and infantrymen of the 8th Army.

To conclude, Dr Fennell’s article makes it abundantly clear that the allegations of cowardice at their Italian opponents, was a conscious effort by British propaganda to hide the fact that in reality, it was the British who acted and behaved with more cowardliness on the battlefield, far surpassing the Italians and Germans. It is also significant and very revealing that the Italians suffered far fewer desertions than  the British throughout the entire war, especially in the North African theater but also including other theaters of operation such as Greece, East Africa and the Mediterranean.