In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
I once read, or was told, the following piece of wisdom. ‘The man who never made a mistake, never made anything.’ When I worked for Mobil, a delightful young Seychelloise called Giselle, asked me if she could borrow this pearl, and change ‘man’ to ‘woman,’ when she booked me to Genoa when I wanted to go to Geneva. But then, she was very young and probably did not know the rules. I have found that women rarely do other than follow the maxim, ‘never explain, never apologise.’ They do make mistakes, but usually manage to find a man to blame.
My biggest mistake was perpetrated by me about seven years ago, and I would like to tell you about it. I would like to, but I can’t, as the pain is still too vivid, the wounds too raw to probe. One day, maybe.
So I will do something where subjectivity and sensitivity are not required. I will cheat, and tell you about other peoples’ mistakes, which is always more refreshing. And, to avoid cross-examination and possible litigation, I will pick on the dead. So, here we go, with great military mistakes. There have been many, but I will restrict myself to three, related, in Miss World style, in reverse order.
In third place, we have Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt in 1967. He decided that as Egypt had had two good hidings in 1948 and 1956 it was time for a victory over the hated Israelis. He blockaded the Israeli Red Sea port of Eilat and moved tens of thousands of troops to the Israeli border. He persuaded Jordan and Syria to mobilise and do the same and received more men from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, plus verbal support from the usual crowd of Arab nations. Nasser was banking on the USA, heavily engaged in Vietnam, not becoming involved. Daily the stream of Arab propaganda spewed out from Cairo radio, threatening to liquidate the hated Zionists and throw them into the sea. To the outside world little Israel looked like a tiny lamb surrounded by salivating wolves. The British and American Intelligence services knew differently. The lamb struck first.
On day one the Air Forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria were destroyed, mostly on the ground. and Israeli armour poured into the Sinai Desert, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. East Jerusalem and the Old City were taken on Day Three and very soon Israeli soldiers dipped their toes in the river Jordan and the Suez Canal. They also prayed at Judaism’s holiest place, the Wailing Wall, having first removed a urinal built against the Wall by the Jordanians. It was all over in six matchless days. Yitzhak Rabin, Chief of the Israeli Staff, and later twice Israeli Prime Minister was asked how long the training had taken. “Nineteen years” was the curt reply, a reference to the 1948 War at the time of his nation’s difficult birth.
Number two on our all time greats is the Emperor Napoleon. He won many battles but had a fatal flaw of losing those that mattered. In June 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia in expectation of an easy victory. The Russians had other ideas. They retreated before the French, stretching the enemy’s supply lines. They burned Moscow and the French entered a smoking empty ruin. The Russians declined to fight and finally Napoleon, his starving men wearing summer uniforms, began their long retreat through the bitter Russian winter, harassed on all sides by the Tsar’s armies. The Emperor went in with 600,000 men and came out with 50,000.
Bonaparte also dismissed advice from his generals before Waterloo about Wellington and the British infantry. To Marshal Soult and General Foy he said, “You are frightened of the English because they beat you in Spain. I tell you the English are poor soldiers and Wellington is only a Sepoy general. Beating them will be no more trouble than having breakfast.” It proved to be a meal Napoleon could not digest, and it cost him his throne. He was by no means the first, or last, Frenchman to misjudge the neighbours across the Channel.
But number one on our list has just got to be Adolf Hitler. We must never forget that Hitler was democratically elected and then became a dictator, perhaps like others you can think of. In 1941, Nazi Germany controlled Europe from the North Cape in Norway to the tip of the Italian boot, plus large tracts of North Africa held by their vassal, Vichy France. The USA, isolationist and disinclined to involve itself in a European war, was, as usual, planning to arrive late, if at all. Britain and the British Empire remained fighting, but only in North Africa. Hitler remarked that he “will wring England’s neck, like a chicken.” Mr Churchill responded “Some chicken, some neck.” Perhaps Adolf was planning to have chicken for breakfast.
Hitler made many mistakes, but two are worth mentioning. He declared war on the United Sates just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He capped that by invading Russia in June 1941. Hitler, failing to read his history books, went in on 22nd June, Napoleon having waited two days longer. The result was the same, though it took longer in the case of the little corporal. Germany was utterly defeated in May 1945, and nine out of every ten German military deaths occurred on the Russian front. The World then changed forever.
I do feel better talking of other people’s mistakes; they make mine seem insignificant, if no less
Written by BM