Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 36
David Coombes, Morshead: hero of Tobruk and El Alamein, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2001, xii + 308 pp., illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index, rrp $50
Reviewed by: MARK JOHNSTON, Scotch College, Melbourne
The need for a substantial biography of Lieutenant General Sir Leslie Morshead has been met by David Coombes' Morshead: hero of Tobruk and El Alamein. Though the book has some jarring faults, it also has real merit. All readers will appreciate the enormous research on which it is based. Coombes has unearthed a great deal of wonderful material, and has used a very diverse range of sources, including Morshead's own diaries and papers, interviews, and numerous archives. All this allows unprecedented insight into the character of this rather private general. The only disappointment in this area is Coombes' failure to search British archives for material on Morshead's campaigns in the Middle East. Nevertheless, on most aspects of Morshead's career, Coombes has amassed evidence from several perspectives.
Indeed, the detail threatens at times to be overwhelming, and readers will need considerable stamina to get through to the end of Morshead's postwar career. Morshead's life intersected with most of the great events of Australian military history in the first half of the twentieth century: Gallipoli, the Western Front, the interwar problems of shortages and permanent/citizen soldier rivalries, the raising of the Second AIF, the war in the Middle East, and war in the Pacific. He consorted with military and civil giants: Monash, Blamey, and Macarthur, as well as Churchill, Menzies and Curtin.
The complex and developing character who met these people and circumstances emerges strongly here as ambitious, preoccupied with discipline, courageous, hard-working, conservative (to the point of twice being willing to join rightwing paramilitary organisations), and of course as an exceptional tactician.
One says "of course" about his tactics, and in a sense the litmus test of the book is its success in examining and analysing Morshead's skill as a soldier. In a book subtitled "hero of Tobruk and El Alamein" one would expect Morshead's work in these battles especially, and on the battlefield generally, to be scrutinised in detail. Strangely, this is not the case.
Coombes has found illuminating quotations concerning every one of Morshead's military campaigns, from Gallipoli to Balikpapan, and presents vividly the way Morshead felt at various points during these operations. However, he has not grappled sufficiently with what Morshead actually did. Thus, after a fascinating chapter on Morshead's early life, the chapter on Gallipoli is not clear enough about Morshead's actions on the day of the landing. Though Morshead was second-in-command of a company of the 2nd Battalion, it sounds throughout as if he was leading the company, and indeed as if he had a major role in the day's events. The account of Morshead's actions at Lone Pine on 7 August (which Coombes incorrectly presents as 6 August) suggests that Morshead acted in virtual isolation, rather than as part of a battalion. Coombes does mention an incident in which Morshead ordered his men to shoot surrendering Turks during this action, but leaves out Bean's reference to a protest made by a younger officer.
The material on Morshead's role on the Western Front, as CO of the 33rd Battalion, is good, but contains some other disquieting interpretations. He presents Morshead as naïve about the use of cavalry, based on Morshead's enthusiastic praise for the help his men received from British cavalry at Villers-Bretonneux. However, Coombes ignores Bean's evidence that Morshead also refused as folly a young cavalry officer's plea to be allowed to charge in the same action. An incident in which a shell hit the staff of one company of the 35th Battalion is turned by Coombes into a shell "obliterating" the battalion! Coombes also presents the unlikely spectacle of Morshead, as CO, leading his battalion in attacks on enemy machine-gun posts, and capturing a German battalion commander. One of Coombes' themes is that Morshead "led from the front", even as a corps commander, and although Morshead was very courageous, this notion is sometimes exaggerated here.
Although his book is far from being hagiographic, when Coombes talks about Morshead's role in Tobruk and at El Alamein he is insufficiently critical. The great crisis of 1 May in Tobruk, when German attacks came closest to overrunning the fortress, reads here more as a signal victory than the very near-run-thing it was. If this is a slight distortion, a bigger one is Coombes' failure to mention the counterattack the 2/48th Battalion was ordered to make to recapture the lost ground on 1 May: a venture which Lieutenant Colonel Windeyer bluntly but unavailingly told Morshead was impossible. Though Coombes quotes Alec Hill to the effect that a 3 May counterattack asked too much, he clearly believes, with Lawton Glassop, that in the early stages "everything went as Morshead planned." This sounds a little like the Montgomery school of history writing. Morshead clearly did a superb job in Tobruk, but Coombes' account is not sufficiently analytical. He does not recognise that one of the main themes of Morshead's siege was his desire to regain the lost ground in the Salient. The attempt of 17 May is not even mentioned, and the one on 3 August does not emerge as the bloody fiasco it was. Victor Windeyer's comment that Morshead was "a bit 'last war' in his unwillingness to yield ground" is not mentioned, and was surely directed at this Salient obsession.
Coombes makes grand claims for the importance of the siege of Tobruk. He says that had Rommel captured it quickly he would have been in a position to capture the Suez Canal. Coombes does not substantiate this sweeping assertion by presenting figures about how many men and tanks the British had in Egypt at various times in 1941, or how many the Axis forces had for achieving this huge task.
The level of analysis is not high for Alamein, either. The fighting there began in July 1942, which Morshead later described as his worst month of fighting in the entire war. Yet Coombes devotes very little space to these operations. For example, 10 and 11 July, when the Australians won and held the crucial Trig 33 ridge (not mentioned in the book), are discussed in a few inadequate lines. This chapter is, unaccountably, not based on the sort of rich primary sources in evidence elsewhere. His account of the great October battle at Alamein is also disappointing. It covers less than six pages and is based largely on Gavin Long's one-volume summary of the official history. The account is superficial, and contains some errors. The worst of these is misrepresenting Morshead's report to Blamey on the progress of SUPERCHARGE on 2 November as a report on an Australian operation on 1 November. Coombes asserts that "the battle's most significant feature [was] the audacious leadership of most Eighth Army commanders, especially Morshead." Few if any other historians would agree with this conclusion on the "dogfight" that was Alamein.
Coombes is right to assert that the Australians have not received sufficient credit for their contribution to the great British victory at Alamein, but again he goes too far. He argues that "As at Tobruk, Morshead had outsmarted the premier German general, Erwin Rommel, while his 9th Australian Division had taken on, and outfought, Deutsche-Italiener [sic] Panzerarmee." This sounds as if one division had outfought an entire army.
There are also omissions, errors and exaggerations in the sections of the book that deal with Morshead's career as a corps commander in the South-West Pacific Area. Coombes refers to Morshead's concern with anti-malarial precautions before the 1943 New Guinea campaign, but makes no reference to the malaria epidemic that subsequently struck the divisions during that campaign. Although Morshead made a valuable contribution to the planning and direction of operations on the Huon Peninsula, Coombes probably overestimates his role in the Australian successes.
Of Borneo, Coombes says Morshead's "tactical conduct of the Tarakan, Brunei and Balikpapan battles were [sic] beyond criticism". Yet as is clear elsewhere in the book, Morshead had little role in the conduct of these operations once the troops had landed.
In short, the lack of detailed exploration of Morshead's command leaves one suspecting the conclusions Coombes draws about Morshead as a general. The analysis is weakest where Morshead was strongest, so there is still room for a thorough investigation of Morshead's leadership at Tobruk and Alamein. In such a detailed book it is a pity Coombes could not have told us more about how Morshead lived and worked on campaign: for example, how he ate and slept, and whether he was a quick and independent decision maker.
For all these criticisms, every reader of this book will learn a great deal about Morshead's fascinating character and multifaceted career.