Field Marshall Sir John Dill commanded a corps in France during the phoney war, and was then recalled to be assistant CIGS (Chief of Imperial General Staff) just before the German Blitzkreig. He took over as CIGS after Dunkirk, and spent a turbulent year and a half as Churchill’s senior army adviser during the period of the war when Britain and her Commonwealth and Empire had no other allies, and Britain herself was facing invasion. Later he became the head of the British delegation to the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCOS) in Washington, until his death from illness later in the war. He was one of the most important figures in Allied policy making from mid 1940 to 1944, and no major decision during that period was made without his input.
Dill was greatly admired by many in the British army, and even such luminaries as his successor General Alan Brooke considered him to have one of the best minds in the business. His contribution to Allied co-ordination was unsurpassed, and he became the foundation that made the CCOS work reasonably well during 1942 and 1943. (I would argue that it was fairly dysfunctional by 1944, and almost completely unable to agree on anything of moment by 1945.) He was respected, even loved by the American Chiefs of Staff, who were the pallbearers at his funeral. Marshall was shocked by his death, and never communicated as well with his allies, or even his fellow American Chiefs of Staff, after the loss of Dill’s influence as a linchpin to the co-operative process. (He was also the secret supplier to Marshall of copies of Roosevelt’s communications with Churchill, information that was usually a surprise – often an unpalatable one - to Marshall and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff.)
He was a scholar, a gentleman, a great mind, a huge contributor to Allied victory, and a generally impressive human being. But he was not a particularly great general.
Between the wars he had been a brilliant staff officer, but that rarely makes for a good battlefield leader. Between the wars he had been a superlative head of the Staff College, and an excellent mentor of future generals, but he was considerably less successful as a mentor of his field commanders after he became CIGS. Between the wars he had proven a good judge of talented officers, but as CIGS he repeatedly appointed officers who were not the best candidates available. Before the war he had been considered and excellent strategist, but as CIGS he made some of the worst strategic mistakes of the war. As a communicator and negotiator with allies he was quite excellent, but he was less successful at communicating with his own government, and hopeless with Churchill in particular. In short, he failed in many of his most important tasks of a general, and particularly of a head of the army.
Dill was a frontline commander, but only during the Phoney war. He never got the chance to lead his corps into battle, and never held another active command thereafter. We cannot be sure that he would have been a poor battlefield leader, but we can point to the general negativity of his overall approach as a corps commander, and compare him un-favourably to more active and positive leaders of the time. Despite him commanding the cream of the professional British divisions in 1st corps, his training and exercises regime looks less impressive compared to that of Brooke’s 2nd corps. It is probable that he would have been a calm leader in a crisis, and a good planner. It is less likely that he would have been quick to react to crisis, and frankly hard to imagine that he could be inspiring to his troops. Much as fellow generals loved him for his private qualities, the average soldier would have found him mild, cerebral, and ultimately remote… hardly an inspirational leader.
As CIGS he failed to master either his army, or his relationship with his political masters. Both aspects can possibly be fairly described using Churchill’s description of him as ‘Dill-Dally’. He took over from the clearly unsuited General Ironside at the time of Dunkirk, but although he was clearly intellectually superior, he was to prove not greatly superior as a leader. He was perhaps lucky that his main field commanders, the redoubtable Brooke as CIC home (read anti-invasion) forces, and the impressive Wavell in the Middle East: were hardly needful of his assistance. However it is notable that he had not chosen them himself, and that he failed to smooth their communications with Churchill. The generals he did choose for higher command were possibly not so impressive. He was the one who chose Percival for Malaya for instance, on the completely incorrect premise that a good staff officer would cover the deficiencies of inadequate troops.
The most dire of his inputs to the war effort however, was probably the decision to abandon the successful campaign in North Africa in favour of a disastrous mission to Greece. Admittedly Churchill had been a keen advocate before sending Dill and Eden to look at the situation on the ground, but Churchill’s final communications insisted that the risk should not be taken unless it was clearly going to be effective. The Greek leadership and generals were definitely against the idea, but an unfortunate death at the top level allowed Dill and Eden to carry the new Greek leader with them in their excitement, and the fateful decision was made.
Theoretically the idea of commitment to supporting an ally fighting against the Axis was a noble cause. There is certainly an argument that abandoning yet another ally without attempting to help them would not help the war effort and the attitude of prospective future allies. However the simple fact of the situation is that the North African campaign had destroyed much of the Italian army, and certainly undermined the will of the remainder to resist. Brooke wrote scornfully in his diary about failing to finish one job before rushing off to another. Just imagine if North Africa had been cleared in 1941 rather than 1943? Would Singapore have fallen? Would Italy have dropped out of the war in 1942? Would the clearing of Mediterranean shipping routes – saving millions of tons of shipping via the longer routes around Africa - have vastly sped the war? Would the invasion of France have happened in 1943? Would the combined Anglo-American fleet, not needed in the Med, and now operating from Singapore, have defeated the Japanese navy in 1943 or 1944? Would the war have been over quicker and less painfully? (Another sample by-product is that Rommel had landed in Libya with only a single battalion of German troops at the time that the British were planning their final conquest… Rommel a POW in 1941!) Aren’t ‘what if’s’ fun?
By the end of 1941 Churchill had lost faith in ‘Dilly-Dally’ and replaced him with Brooke, who was to be a much more impressive CIGS. Unfortunately Pearl Harbour happened almost immediately, and Brooke managed to save Dill from exile to India by convincing Churchill to use him as Britain’s representative to the Americans.
Many have been impressed by Dill as the linchpin of the CCOS, and he certainly did a spectacular job of herding such disparate elements as Brooke, Marshall, King, Pound, Churchill and Roosevelt, in approximately the same direction. But I would not go so far as to use the hackneyed phrase “no one else could have done it” which is so loosely applied to many generals who were clearly not uniquely gifted. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that Brooke probably regretted his suggestion of Dill as soon as he realized the implications.
Churchill and Dill agreed to a CCOS, which would be based in Washington. Brooke was scathing, and described this as “selling our birthright”. The fact that Dill, through his own efforts, more or less made it work, for a while, is not enough to call the result a success. (When I was studying my MBA I liked to quote from the CCOS records as an example of how NOT to run a planning committee.) Any discussion of the efforts of the CCOS concentrates on the endless battles over policy. Any assessment of the results admits to half-baked compromises. Any objective analysis should note that by 1944 the process had broken down to the point where separate wars were being run in different theatres with little regard to common strategy. (The Pacific was an American War. The South Pacific was MacArthurs baby – even his Australian hosts were not getting any say. India/Burma was all British. China was just a mess. The Mediterranean was pretty much a British game – even the US general Clarke realized he needed British support to buck his American superiors. In France Eisenhower was supposed to be an Allied commander, but by late 1944 he was ignoring anyone but Marshall, and a dying Roosevelt enabled Marshall to ignore his British ‘allies’.) Ultimately the CCOS was not a pretty sight. Ultimately the half-baked post war ‘peace’, with Eastern Europe behind an Iron Curtain and China and Burma on their way to Communist takeover, with endless other wars in Asia and the Middle East ahead, was a result of this approach.
As another ‘what if’, let us look at the alternative to Dill in America. The most likely candidate to be Churchill’s (and therefore the British Chiefs of Staffs’) representative to Roosevelt and the American Joint Chiefs would have been Admiral Mountbatten. A similarly charming and incisive deal-maker. Just as impressive to the Americans, but far more junior to the British. As head of mission, he would have been brilliant, but certainly that mission would not have been considered a CCOS. As a linchpin between the two nations he would have achieved quite different results to those of Dill, but probably not inferior ones. In fact, in the game of politics Mountbatten was head, shoulders, knees and toes above Dill. He could, and did, wrap Churchill and Roosevelt, and Marshall and even King, around his little finger during the course of the war. It is fascinating to imagine how the world would have looked had Churchill chosen his preferred candidate for such a role, instead of reluctantly accepting Brooke’s insistence on using Dill. (It is fascinating to wonder if Brooke later wistfully considered the same thing?)
I would go so far as to suggest that Dill’s greatest failure was on the CCOS. Certainly he was the linchpin that held it together as long as it more or less functioned, and certainly his death pretty much ended its effectiveness. But without his initial input and availability, it would probably not have been attempted in that form. Without his constant toil, different solutions would have had to be found. Without his compromises, less frustrations would have been felt by both sides. Without his narrow focus, a more broadly based strategy might have been possible. Instead of the ultimate in Chateau-Generalship from the back-seat barrackers in Washington, each front would have had a specific goal agreed between the allies, with specific tasks assigned and a specific Allied Chief of Staff put in charge. Without Dill muddying the waters, the Allies might have had to agree a proper strategy. Debates would have been resolved, rather than drag on for year after year until all trust had been lost, and until all willingness to co-operate completely vanished. (Consider Eisenhower’s attitude to the British demand to save Prague, Wavell’s attitude to American pressure over Indian independence, or King’s attitude to anyone not USN in the Pacific.)
Dill was an impressive person, of great integrity, and with great commitment. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he worked himself to death trying to make the CCOS work. Unfortunately it might be fair to say that he killed himself feeding the cuckoo that was disrupting the nest. Within a few months all his efforts seemed as ashes to world strategy and agreement between the Allies. (Within months King refused to talk to anyone, and Admiral Cunningham - British naval representative - had to resort to calling a full meeting of the CCOS just to get into his presence. Soon after that, with Roosevelt dying, even a full meeting was not reaching agreement over points of dispute, and Marshall was telling Eisenhower to ignore all input from any of the other ‘Allies’.)
Dill never had a chance to demonstrate his battlefield abilities, but that may have been a good thing. He never impressed as CIGS, and almost certainly deserved being sacked for the disasters of North Africa, Greece, and Malaya, which he put in train. He gave his all into attempting to make something workable of a fundamentally flawed CCOS, and left behind a mortally wounded hybrid. The total input of this brave and noble man into the Allied war effort was possibly almost completely negative, even after he became just a cog in the Allied machine. When he was an executive himself, as CIGS, he failed dismally.