The War Surveyed
THE greatest difficulty from which we suffer at present is that of realising the true gravity of the situation and yet giving full weight to the encouraging way in which we are meeting very long odds. Fighting has broken out in Crete, as it was certain to do, and it has taken the form which an initial movement against the island most favoured. A sea- borne invasion could not fail to be unpromising Unless some kind of a foothold could first be established. Invasion from the air, by parachutists and air-borne troops, a daring pis aller, offers advantages if it can be made in sufficient force. It causes confusion and encourages the troops to disperse to many points, when it is above all necessary to know where the invader has attacked in strength and there deal with him in force. This method has already had much more success in the war than was at first recognised, still less admitted. and it seems to have achieved some success in Crete. By the time these words appear the position may have been cleared up ; but from the stubbornness with which the parachutists held their ground in Holland we are bound to realise that until the last invader has been rounded up there is no security.
Crete represents two different values. Lying upon the Mediterranean communications, it provides us with an air and naval base, a sally-port for operations against the Greek main- land or against the transport which uses the great highway to the Near East. Its loss would be an undoubted blow to us ; but it would not seriously affect our position in this theatre of the war, except in so far as it improved the enemy's. For him it is of immense importance to clear this obstinate, defiant flagstaff out of the way. It is for this reason that it was from the first evident that he would waste no time before attacking, and he has chosen the method best adapted to the situation. He added the infamy of sending his troops in New Zealand uniforms. The Germans are now attempting to evade the consequences of this further challenge to the prescriptions of law and custom by suggesting that their parachutists, like the desert troops in Egypt, have recently been provided with new khaki uniforms that may be slightly similar to those of the New Zealanders ; but, apart from the fact that the photographs of the prisoners taken in Egypt look as if they had been fitted out by a theatrical-costume provider, the New Zealand troops in Crete presumably know their own uniform.
This constitutes a problem ; but the more interesting aspect of the attempted invasion of Crete is its possible role as a rehearsal for the invasion of this country. It is this that will cause the General Staff to regard it with the closest attention. Hess appears to have invaded Scotland with considerable ease, and it is still not perfectly clear when the Home Guard really come into action. The one certain way to deal with para- chutists' and air-borne troops' invasion is to strike at every centre at the first instant, before they have the chance to organise a position. These are storm-troops ; and, once in possession of a defensible position, they will resist ejection with almost incredible fierceness. We must hope that no strong body secures a hold in Crete. The present attack is merely the first stage. General Freyberg is fighting very resolutely and though his force is small it is well-found.
A somewhat similar role is being played by Tobruk. This small stronghold is also a thorn in the side of the enemy. The problem of supply is particularly difficult in this sector of the front. If General Wavell had not had the assistance of the Navy it is impossible to imagine how he could have provisioned his advance. Now, with the temperature in its most tropical mood, it must be almost torture to exist on the small quantities of water which even the British communications could provide.
The Germans have nothing but precarious lines of communica- tion to depend upon and it was for this reason that they repeatedly attacked Tobruk. At length they succeeded in securing part of the outer perimeter and, although the small salient must be costly to retain, it would be better reduced than allowed to remain as a focus for renewed thrust against the port. This gives the explanation of the recent operations of the Imperial troops. Their counter-attack was designed to recover the sector of the outer defences and although they have not been completely successful they have recovered most of the ground, at heavy loss to the enemy.
About Sollum and Capuzzo lies one of the most bitterly contested areas in the African front, and there the British operations have been much more successful. This small cock- pit has changed hands many times. When General Wavell was at his weakest and Graziani at his strongest there was a period during which Capuzzo was a sort of no-man's-land. The Italians technically held it ; but they could make no use of it. It was much the same later on with Sollum, which we hold. It was evacuated by the Egyptians at the outbreak of the war, and left unoccupied by us. We could not have held it under the incessant fire of the Italian guns, and, recognising this, General Wavell left it to be the sport of their artillery. It has changed hands again and it is at present apparently behind our front, though once more, presumably, unoccupied. But it is the opera- tion which threw the Germans back across the frontier that gives it its present interest, since the covering forces captured 500 German prisoners, a balance, so it seems, of 400 on what the Germans claim as a result of the exchanges.
But this ranks as small beer against the surrender of Amba Alagi, though it suggests the brisk and confident manner in which the latest threat to the Canal is being dealt with. The Duke of Aosta's capitulation sets the seal to a most brilliant episode. If, as seems likely, organised operations in Abyssinia are at an end, it has to be admitted that rarely if ever has so remarkable a campaign taken place. The size of the territory and the distances covered in so short a time, with such small resources, have no parallel in military history. If it had not been for amazing speed of movement it is impossible that the Italian force at Amba Alagi could have been rounded up and compelled to surrender so easily. The ground in many places was our most bitter enemy, and the turn of the season the most powerful of the enemy's allies. But neither the terrain nor the season could save even so resolute a commander as the Duke of Aosta. At Amba Alagi he had settled upon a position that has figured in every campaign in Abyssinia since the time of Napier. Its natural strength and its situation astride the main road from the North to the capital made it a necessary halting- place ; but just as the unfortunate Tosselli came to grief there so also did the Duke of Aosta, the difference being that the former held the position on the mistaken interpretation of an order, and the latter was allowed no choice by the two Briti.3h columns. Keren and Amba Alagi will long remain in the memory ; and it will not be forgotten that if the latter fell to converging attack the former was reduced very largely by the extraordinary valour of the Indian troops.
If these were all the operations in this theatre of the war we should be entitled to congratulate ourselves on the skill and will shown in coping with threats that have been so widely advertised. Unfortunately they are not, though they share with the movements farther east in being essentially no more than curtain-raisers to a drama of which we know nothing except that it will be grim. The position in Irak has been allowed to remain unresolved, and the Germans have naturally seized the opportunity to pour trouble on the oiled waters. It may be suggested that nothing very terrible has taken place ; and, indeed, we should be compelled to admit that no vital damage has been done us in Irak. But the use of Syria as a stepp.ng- stone cannot be considered a minor matter ; and if the Irak outbreak had been completely cleared up at once Syria would not have appeared upon the horizon, at least at present It seems impossible to read the situation as anything but a prelude, and we can at least draw comfort from the fact that we are preventing the curtain rising on the main drama by our stand at Crete and Tobruk. But the question arises where is the next blow of the enemy to fall? Marshal Main men- tioned Africa as a place where Vichy-France and Germany are to collaborate ; and that opens new possibilities of danger for General Wavell. But he has now half a million men, and a fair proportion of them have had the hard training of actual operations either in North or in East Africa. If he does not fear a serious attack from the west and, if he is determined to leave the situation as it is at present, is his intelligence service quite ignorant of the direction from which the graver blow is to 'fall? It is not sound strategy to wait upon the enemy if his attack can be anticipated and the position be turned against him.
There is, in fine, something inexplicable in the present posi- tion in the Near East. General Wilson stands in Palestine with a considerable force at his disposal, -and the enemy has no serious foothold in any place that would threaten our northern flank. There are, however, places like Syria where even small footholds may be dangerous. Is some motive of policy pro- hibiting a counter-blow?