Sunday, May 2, 2010

Scoring the Generals

For my amusement I have begun assessing various generals according to their Personal, Operational and Command skills (using terms taken from the best half dozen theoreticians going back to Ancient China).
Personal Characteristics - Robustness, Character, Humanity, Spirit, Common Sense, Mentoring
Operational Characteristics - Planning, Logistics, Topography, Movement, Tactics, Combined Operations
Command Characteristics - Clarity of Orders, Strategy, Propaganda, Delegation, Relations with Allies/Media/Politicians, Geopolitical understanding.

Comparing the abilities of generals of different ranks and responsibilities is not easy. It is, for instance, only possible to assess the tactical skills of a desk warrior like Marshall by analysing his tactical suggestions to Eisenhower or the CCOS; while there is no other way than inference to analyse the geopolitical skills of the vast majority of division commanders who served in the larger army groups rather than in theatres of independent operation. A general might perform superbly commanding a division despite almost no Command abilities, as long as his Personal skills are sufficient – the New Zealander Freyburg might be a prime example. Whereas some very respected members of the various COS committees had dismal Personal skills – Admiral King springs to mind.

Perhaps the most efficient description of good generalship is actually taken from Oliver Werner’s book about admirals ‘Command at Sea’. His succinct description of the best quality of command is: “always it is taken for granted that the leader knows his business from top to bottom, and will not throw lives away” (italics added).

Examples of skills versus ranks….

One of the most interesting ways to compare this distinction, is to take a few officers and consider where their relative strengths and weaknesses worked for their countries. For the purpose of this exercise I will refer to my own national force, the Australian army, which was big enough to make a huge difference to the outcome of the war (deployed and/or fighting in most of the key campaigns in Britain, North Africa, Greece, the Middle East, Malaya, East Indies, Ceylon, Australia, New Guinea, the South West Pacific, and Borneo), while small enough to allow assessment of a few key characters.

It is relatively easy to name a few characters from the Australian army, and draw attention to their differing abilities. For our sample we will use generals Vasey, Herring, Lavarack and Blamey.

Major General George Alan Vasey was one of the most effective divisional commanders of the war, but had almost certainly reached the limit of his ability in that role. Despite being a rare full time professional soldier in a largely militia based army, he was a literally stunning example of Australian coloqualism in action. (Leaving more than one senior general temporarily speechless with his trademark greeting “How are you, you dear old bastard”). Vasey was an ideal brigadier, and an excellent divisional tactician. He was loved, indeed practically worshipped, by his men, and nearly worked himself to death in the process of leading his troops. His personal skills were outstanding, but his Operational skills were no more than average, while the less said of his Command skills the better.

Vasey had the great fortune to be a brigadier where his personal skills could be of greatest value, in the difficult retreats from Greece, from Crete, and in the operations in Syria. He was then recalled to Australia, and eventually did his best work leading the superb 7th division through much of the New Guinea campaign. Perhaps if the latter had involved more open terrain for maneouvre, his Operational limits may have been betrayed, but in the jungles he was an ideal commander, and he had the ‘fortune’ to die in harness before having the chance to attempt to lead a corps – a role he would probably not have enjoyed, and one very likely beyond his ability.

Lieutenant-General the Honourable Sir Edmund Herring by contrast was the ideal corps commander, and possibly had the ability to lead an army. Certainly his command in New Guinea, which started as a mere subset of his corps duties, quickly involved complexities forcing the official recognition that his corps role was the junior partner.

Herring, a militia officer, was probably the ideal Australian to command in a situation where difficult allies - and even the most friendly and co-operative officers working under MacArthur could not avoid being difficult to work with – had to be integrated into a smoothly functional team. His Personal skills were so relaxed as to give the impression of weakness of purpose – until he needed to reveal the steel determination underneath. His Operational skills, with the notable exception of combined operations, were perhaps weaker than was ideal for a corps commander: but they were more than compensated by his Command abilities. Particularly the relations and strategy components of his diverse theatre.

Yet the most commonly agreed point by both friend and enemy of Herring (and the splintered world of regular versus militia officer in the Australian army made factional fighting unhappily recurrent), was that he was ‘more comfortable’ under direction, than in independent command. As he himself was happy to point out, he was most comfortable and productive when he could drop in each evening on his boss General Blamey, and discuss progress and requirements. After Blamey moved his headquarters, and more particularly after another level of command was interposed between them, Herring was never as comfortable or productive. In fact he happily left the army in 1944 to take up a position as Supreme Court Judge (his interwar background had been much more as a barrister than a militia officer).

Herring probably could have made a good army commander in a tightly run theatre. He would have been uncomfortable with anything more.

By contrast General Sir John Lavarack was a purely professional soldier. Unlike the majority of Australia’s top comanders, who came through the part time Militia officer system (less modern ‘reserve’ units, and closer to the older American model of state based ‘well ordered militia’ or perhaps to the even older British ‘trained bands’); Lavarack went through the entire interwar period as a professional soldier, completing all the important imperial staff courses, and holding many of the top staff positions in the Australian military forces.

It is a surprise to most foreigners to realise that Australian divisions and corps were rarely commanded by professional soldiers. The militia officers were all decorated veterans of the great war, and all spent considerable periods interwar in militia training and staff exercises. However they all held other permanent jobs as civil servants, police officials, barristers, engineers and the like. The division, and jealousy, between militia and professional officers was one of the banes of Australia’s wartime command performance. Nonetheless the decision to staff Australia’s expeditionary forces with militia commanders and professional chiefs of staff had a certain logic. The professional officers had done the staff courses and were highly experienced organisers. The militia commanders were the ones who had spent their careers working with the troops.

Lavarack is perhaps the clearest example of the problems of the crossover. Undoubtedly one of the finest professional officers, he went to the Middle-East as Chief of Staff to the commander of the Australian 6th division (the later Field Marshall Sir Thomas Blamey). Despite this, Lavarack managed to appear at many crucial points as a field commander.

After Rommel’s first shocking attack broke the weak British forces in Libya, it was Lavarack who – as temporary commander of the Australian troops not deployed to the ill fated Greek campaign – took responsibility for rounding up and organising the grab bag of troops which later fought the memorable siege of Tobruk. After Japan’s stunning attack in the Far East, it was Lavarack who was designated the Australian corps commander to command the divisions being rushed back from the Middle East. Initially it was his brief to take over the position in Malaya. By the time of his arrival the discussion was the defence of Java. His conclusion was that the East Indies were already a lost cause, and that the troops would be better placed in Australia. At which point Lavarack was appointed commander of 1st Australian Army, the pivotal concentration of divisions deployed to defend Australia’s north-eastern frontiers against the ever nearing possibility of Japanese invasion.

Lavarack never actually commanded troops in battle during the Second World War. So we cannot tell whether he was really up to the job or not. In fact every Australian division, or corps, or later army, that did actually see combat, was commanded by a militia officer. And yet it is telling that Lavarack was the man called on to assess and re-organise the situation each time it was felt that a steady hand was urgently needed. It is interesting to speculate whether he would have been the automatic selection for the New Guinea Corps had it been realised that the Japanese had neither the intention, or the logistic resources, to invade Australia. However with the new and inexperienced Australian government in panicked meltdown, it is clear that he was chosen for the key command position.

What we can say about Lavarack, is that he always came through. As Chief of Staff to Australian forces in the Middles East he was excellent. As the field commander who reacted swiftly and competently to the crisis at Tobruk he was inspiring. As the corps commander designated for the forces to be deployed against the Japanese in Malaya or Java, he was calm; considered; and not afraid to present findings, and insist on redeployments, which he must have known would cause a political storm between the Allied governments. As an army commander in Australia, his influence on a stretched and flustered defense force was as invaluable as on a weak and fearful government. In fact it is no exaggeration to say that his total effect on Australia’s military strength, planning, deployment, and operations, during the war was second to none.

Yet what we cannot say about Lavarack was how good he was in battle. All the evidence suggests he would at least have been calm, and quite able to analyse situations and deal with events smoothly and efficiently. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Lavarack was never close enough to combat command to more than inhale the aroma.

It is my belief that Lavarack could have been good. Very good. He had the experience of command. He had the experience of failure and defeat. He had the experience of coping with disaster and overcoming the odds. There is no doubt that he would have made a better divisional commander than Gordon-Bennett (discussed in a later post); or a better corps commander that Herring (discussed above). He certainly had the potential to be one of the best army commanders of the war. But he never led troops in combat, and all we can really say is that he was a man of great if somewhat unproven potential.

Which brings us to the later Field Marshall Sir Thomas Blamey. Certainly Australia’s most controversial soldier.

Blamey was appointed Divisional commander of the first division sent to the Middle East, and soon after Corps commander when a second division arrived, despite the fact that it was almost universally accepted that his Operational skills were out of date (he had spent most of the Great War as a staff officer, and most of the interwar period as a Police Commissioner). Nonetheless the Australian government had divined – possibly correctly – that he was the best choice to deal with the role of an independent force commander within the British Commonwealth coalition. This was despite the fact that Blamey’s Personal abilities were none too outstanding. He was vain, often petty, a notorious thrower of drunken parties, and had had to resign from the position of Commissioner of Victorian Police when caught out telling lies (admittedly lies designed to protect the reputation of the police – if that helps in any way). So in effect the Australian government was valuing his political skills over either his personal or military abilities.

Blamey had the fortune to only once command as a corps leader in action, where he was separately reported as having either handled the withdrawal from Greece competently; or, by his enemies, of suffering a partial collapse under the pressure. His reputation was not helped when he saved a seat on an evacuation flight for his son, and this was the final straw which caused an irreparable split with his BGS (who he later sacked as a corps commander in New Guinea under controversial circumstances). He was thereafter appointed as deputy CIC Middle East under Wavell and then Auchinleck, where he performed quite well in representing his countries interests in difficult circumstances – including insisting on the withdrawal of the 9th division from Tobruk when it was becoming tired.

When recalled to Australia to be CIC Australian army, and then CIC land forces for the SWP under MacArthur, he was again being chosen for his political skills. The new Labor government had no real understanding of military affairs (Prime Minister Curtin later admitting that “in my ignorance of military affairs I believed that the CIC of the army should be at the front”), but knew that good relations in coalition warfare were vital. They therefore overlooked more traditional, and able, generals like Lavarack – a professional soldier who had been Chief of Army Staff in the late thirties and a successful corps commander in the Middle East and army commander in Australia: and Robertson – another professional who led a brigade in the Middle East, a Division in Australia, a Corps in the South West Pacific, and then the Biritsh Commonwealth Occupation forces in Japan and Korea after the war. The professional soldiers were left with the troops, while the amateur was appointed to the political roles.

Blamey made the mistake of effectively attempting to be both Army COS, which entailed responsibilities in the Australian rear areas like Melbourne and Sydney; and army CIC, which required him to be at forward headquarters in Brisbane. His lot was made more difficult by his assigned role as CIC ground forces for the SWP area, a role which MacArthur never had any intention of letting him fill. (MacArthur specifically requested senior American generals to outrank the - lets face it – far more experienced Australian ones, and then insisted on maintaining direct control of American ‘task forces’ anyway).

There is little doubt that Blamey was probably better for the position of CIC ground forces than any other Australian general. He had the experience and the ability to play MacArthurs game. Thus the fact that his Operational abilities were below par was not nearly as important as the fact that his Command abilities were mostly, mostly, up to the weight of the job.

However his Personal qualities here let him down. He attempted to control too much because he believed it was in his, and everyone else’s best interests: not because it actually was. Split between his rear area and operational duties, he was easily out-manouvred, and eventually sidelined, by a MacArthur who had anyway achieved a frankly ridiculous control of the ignorant and incompetent Australian Labor government. Blamey was forced to spend months in New Guinea, not because he believed he had a role there, or that the generals there were in any way incapable: but simply because MacArthur had convinced Curtin’s government to push him out on a limb. As Blamey commented to one of his officers “Canberra has lost it.”

In the end Blamey was completely frozen out of most of his roles by MacArthur, and only did more damage to his cause by belatedly trying to arrange to switch the Australian forces back to British control for combined operations in the East Indies. He had come to realise that MacArthur would have no Australian forces in his all American shows anyway, but the Curtin government had effectively replaced the input of their entire military hierarchy by the simple expedient of letting MacArthur ‘advise’ them of everything they should be doing.

So Blamey can be regarded as a man whose proper role was at the higher end of the generals spectrum. He was not suited to divisional command, and his corps and army command roles were not convincing. He was at his best as deputy commander of coalition forces, whether in the British coalition in the Middle East, or the American/Australian one in SWP. In fact it was only his personal weaknesses and fear of competition that allowed him to undermine this role by attempting to control the entire Australian army, and it’s rear areas, at the same time. Had he been willing to leave this function to a more suitable officer like the real COS Sturdee, he could have concentrated on the function he was actually best suited for. There is no doubt that he had great success in co-ordinating operations in the New Guinea campaigns, and in getting a functional co-operation between Australian and American forces. Although it is unlikely that a man like MacArthur would ever have let him really take control of land forces in the area, and the Australian Labor government was putty in MacArthurs hands, it is largely his own personal weaknesses which prevented him from being in a position to try.

Perhaps one of the professional generals like Lavarack ro Rowell might have had a better chance at guiding the government, but it seems doubtful. Certainly they might have divided duties more effectively, but that might just have played further into MacArthurs hands. Certainly other generals might have done better in teh field, but would any have done better than Blamy in the political situation? Unlikely. He had already been deputy commander of teh Middle East, and acting CIC when Auchinleck was away in London, and was the most knowledgeable about politics and international relations that Australia had available. This does not make him a good general, just the best of bad choices.

So the fact that none of these generals was an ‘ideal’ general, cannot be said to undermine the fact that each of them was in fact ia good candidate for a particular role. Vasey was one of the most successful, and certainly popular, divisional commanders of the war – in any army. But he was probably at his ceiling, and incapable of assuming much higher command. Herring was probably the best possible choice to command the New Guinea area and overcome the difficulties of assembling disparate troops in a functional co-alition. The praises of all American officers – even MacArthur – speak loudly in his favour. But he was not ready or willing to assume higher command. Lavarck showed potential in every area he participated, but was never tested in any of them, so he is simply a great unknown. Blamey was, in practical terms, inadequate as a divisional commander, and possible even poorer as a corps commander. Yet he was the only realistic choice to command as a deputy commander or land forces in a coalition. Despite his weaknesses, his particular strengths gave him a unique value to his army and his country.

This then is the problem with attempting a statistical analysis of generals. Different generals require different strengths for different roles. A general who might be completely unsuitable in one scenario, or at one rank, might be an ideal candidate in, or at, another. At best we can use a statistical analysis for is to give some guidelines for comparison. Thereafter we have to assess each general specifically by the role they were given.


  1. An interesting post but I can see more than a few factual errors.

    1. Whilst Blamey's first post was GOC 6th Division, other AIF divisions were already being formed (and therefore Blamey promoted to the nascent 1st Aust Corp before the 6th had embarked. As a Lt General (who took a voluntary step down to Maj Gen), Laverack was several ranks too senior to be a mere divisional GSO1 (a Colonel's posting). He was the first commander of the 7th Division.

    2 It was Sydney Rowell who was the chief of staff (Brigadier General Staff) of the 1st Corps whilst.

    3. Laverack DID exercise active field command during the Syrian cmapaign; firstly as GOC 7th Division and later as GOC 1st Aust Corps after Jumbo Wilson's attempts to exercise operational command from the King David Hotel in Jerusalem proved totally unworkable. Laverack was essentially the senior ground commander and the consensus is that under very difficult circumstances (both re command arrangements; terrain and logistics) he performed commendably well and demonstrated an ability to think on his feet. Sadly, a long term poor relationship with Blamey saw him sidelined when his talents could have been put to more productive use in NG.

    4."every division, corps or later army, that did actually see combat, was commanded by a militia officer." That one definitely requires clarification !! It's already contradicted in your article with George Vasey commanding 7th Div !

    Of the AIF Divisions, 6th was commanded in action by 2 militia officers (Mackay & Stevens) and one regular (Robertson). 7th by 3 regulars (Laverack, Vasey & Milford) and one militia (Allen). 8th horrendously by one militia (Bennett). 9th by two militia (one being ex-regular)in the overrated Morshead and Wootten.

    Of the other divisions to serve in combat Milne Bay force was commanded by a regular (Clowes), 3rd by a militia officer (Savige) and a regular (Bridgeford), 5th by a regular (Milford) and militia officers Ramsay

    Ist Corp was only ever an operational unit in the ME where both Blamey and Laverack exercised operational control. The NG command was essentially a corps size command where it was commanded firstly by a regular (Rowell) and later by Herring and Mackay (militia). 2ND Corps was later in control firstly under Morshead (militia) then later by Berryman (regular) then the comically overpromoted Savige. Ist Army WAS the overall operational command for all overseas forces during the final year under the command of a regular officer Sturdee (the former CGS).

    Vasey does post a curious question as to how he may've performed in more senior postings. He certainly have found his metier as a divisional commander and may not have relished the more remote control of corps command. He was however also an experienced and accomplished staff officer; serving as AAG&QMG then GSO1 of 6th Div in Nth Africa then as DCGS before his NG combat commands.

    1. Dear Comonwombat

      Fair points.

      I under-rate Lavaracks importance in Syria in particular (though I still think his main role in Libya was to give executive instructions as interim army commander, and leave most combat decisions to his next effective Divisional commander).

      Still I am exaggerating his lack of combat experience and not giving him enough credit, more to make a point than to be complete. (In fact all those reviewed here could have a lot more said about them if I was doing a proper analysis and not a short and highly styalised commentary on leadership styles.)

      I also note that the line about 'all divisions and corps' fighting under Militia officers is badly phrased. Apologies for that. I certainly shouldn't have implied it was only under militia and that professionals never had control of combat units, (only that in Australian service amateurs had surprising dominance of unit control).

      I picked those samples of 'proven' divisional, 'reached ceiling at' corps, 'unrealised' talent, and 'deeply flawed' higher commander, for reasons of making a point, not of being comprehensive and fair to them.

      I hope others find the point stimulating too.