Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, 96, a commander-in-chief of British forces in the Middle East and India during World War II, died Monday at his home in Marrakech, Morrocco. He had influenza.
The field marshal, who had lived in Marrakech since 1967, was appointed to the Middle East command by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in June 1941. He succeeded Gen. Sir Archibald Wavell, a brilliant soldier and administrator who had fallen into disfavor with Churchhill. (Like Auchinleck, Wavell later became a field marshal). During the 13 months that he commanded in the Middle East, Auchinleck, then a general, had almost continuous disagreements with the prime minister.
The prime minister pressed for an immediate offensive against the German and Italian forces of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Auchinleck insisted on a period of preparation for the British 8th Army, the major formation under his command. In November 1941, he launched Operation Cursader. When it faltered, Auchinleck, with Churchill's blessing, intervened personally. (The direct command of the 8th Army was in the hands of a subordinate general).
The first six months of 1942 were a dark time for the British and Commonwealth troops in the Western Desert. In June 1942, their strong point at Tobruk fell. Two days later, Auchinleck, who was known in the army as "The Auk," asked his superiors in London "seriously to consider the advisability of retaining me in my command."
But with Rommel across the Egyptian frontier, the general took personal command of the 8th Army and in the next weeks stabilized the front 60 miles west of Alexandria at Alamein. The official British history of the war states: "In retrospect, the vital importance of the July (1942) fighting stands out clearly, and to Gen. Auchinleck belongs the credit for turning retreat into counterattack."
Other comentators have credited Auchinleck with laying the groundwork for the first of the spectacular victories that lay in the 8th Army's future.
Nonetheless, Churchill wished a change of command. Auchinleck was succeeded by two future field marshals, Gen. Sir Harold Alexander as commander-in-chief of the Middle East and Gen. Sir Bernard Law Montgomery as commander of the 8th Army. Montgomery led the army to victory at Alamein in the autumn of 1942.
In 1943, Auchinleck was commander-in-chief of British forces in India, the post he had held before being appointed to the Middle East command. He was promoted to field marshal in 1946. In 1947, with the approaching partition of India and Pakistan, he was made supreme commander in both countries. Through a joint defense council, he helped establish separate armed forces for both. At the moment that India and Pakistan became independent members of the British Commonwealth, he gave up his last command retired.
Claude John Eyre Auchinleck was born on June 21, 1884, the son of a colonel in the Royal Artillery. He graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, England, and was posted to India, where, as an officer in the Indian Army, he spent most of his career.
He fought against the Turks during World War I and won rapid promotion after the war. Early in World War II, he was called to England and held several important posts there. In April 1940, he commanded the unsuccessful British effort to establish a base at Narvik, Norway. He said the experience impressed upon his the importance of airpower and of training and equipment suitable to the terrain. Late in 1940, he returned to India as commander-in-chief.
Field Marshal Auchinleck was divorced and had no children.