Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Rating General Lord Gort

Lord Gort has gone down in history as the man who was defeated when France fell in 1940. At least that is one perspective. The alternative is that he was the man with the courage to face the fact that France was going under and there was nothing that could be done, and to decide that it was vital to save Britain's army so the war against Hitler could go on. That is another view. In fact both viewpoints are correct, and both are unfair.

Lord Gort did very well in the First World War, and came out with multiple decorations and a great deal of respect in the army. Despite his relative youth he progressed steadily through the interwar period, and was well thought off. Then there was no reason why he would not have become one of the great Allied commanders of the Second World War, except that he suffered the disaster to his career of being promoted too far and too fast.

When the appointment of a chief of Imperial General staff was being made a few months before the start of the war, the leading candidates in were generals Wavell (who went on to great things as commander-in-chief of the Middle East) and Dill (who went on to be chief Imperial General staff, and to serve on the combined Chiefs of staff in Washington). Both were clearly more suitable to the role than Gort, who was far too young and inexperienced and to take up such a position. But the politicians at a time wanted a bright shiny face to impress the public, and weren't too concerned if there weren't too many brains behind it. In fact it may have suited their purposes not to have anybody who would argue with them in the role. So Gort was promoted over the heads of many seniors, and forced into a position for which he was unsuitable and uncomfortable.

His solution was to do what he's predecessors had done in the First World War and decamp with the British Expeditionary Force as soon as war started, leaving the position of Chief Imperial General staff to somebody else... anybody else. As a result the commander of the army, soon to become army group, of British national forces in alliance with the French, was described by his subordinates in the corps and army commands as " the ideal man to command a division". His juniors were appalled that his attitude to the French was that of the helpful subordinate, rather than that of a genuine ally looking after his nation's interests. More than one of them implied that his attitude was that of an overgrown puppy, rather than of a proper British bulldog.

It is interesting that General Alan Brooke (a later chief of Imperial General staff) was soon to comment in his diaries about the enormous damage had been done to many men's careers by overly fast promotion. In particular he refers to Gort, who, had he started the war in his proper role as a divisional commander, and being been slowly introduced to the experience of being a Corps Commander, may well have made a good army commander several years later: had his chances not being destroyed by being put in the wrong place at the wrong time. Brooke was even more scathing in the case of General Neil Ritchie, who Aukinleck had thrown from a position of chief of staff into an impossible Army command over people far his senior in North Africa in 1942. When the inevitable happened, and Ritchie had to be withdrawn, Brooke was furious and that his chances had been so damaged, and announced his plans to rehabilitate him as a divisional commander and groom him for his proper role with a corps later on. (Ritchie commanded an army corps from the D-Day in until victory in Germany, and did so so successfully in that they army command thereafter would have been quite sensible.)

Gort's failures in relationship to the French and to his strategic role as their ally, were more than counterbalanced by the bravery of his decision to take the necessary steps to save his national command when it became obvious that there was no alternative. He did this despite the fact that it was in direct opposition to the perspective of his Prime Minister Churchill, who did not have a clear understanding of the facts. Gort may not have been the best general, but he was more than capable of interpreting what he was facing, and more than dedicated enough to do what was necessary despite what he perceived to be the likely costs and his allies and to him personally. He had what the Americans would call true grit.

Unfortunately, despite the knowledge by Brooke and others that what had happened was not his fault, it really was not possible to rehabilitate him as an army commander. He could not be sent back to experience a division, as the political situation of the World War made in such a confession absolutely impossible. But this did not stop even those who had considered him a complete failure as an Allied Commander from recognizing the strength of his personality, and the value of his leadership. So instead, he was made Governor of some of Britain's most vulnerable possessions, at exactly the time when they needed strong and resolute leadership.

First he went to to Gibraltar, at the time that it was most under threat from potential cooperation between the Spanish and the Germans to attack it. His resolute personality could not have been bettered as he involved himself intensively in the preparation of what was decidedly a military command. The troops and naval personnel under his control, and the role that they had to fill, was almost exactly the sort of requirement that was appropriate for the "ideal man to command a division".

His next assignment was even more important. Malta suffered the second great siege in her history during the middle years of the Second World War, and no better men could have been found to provide a calm and inspiring leadership and for her survival. The much larger range of military units under his command, together with the increased administrative duties on the island, were a significant increase on the requirements of his previous command. Had Brooke sought out equivalency to the command of an army corps, he could not have found a more challenging alternative than Malta in 1942. In fact Gort was going through exactly the sort of grooming that might well have suited him to command an army for the invasion of France in 1944... except that it was all too late. Effectively his active military career had been undermined.

His final assignment of the war was to be Governor of Palestine. Again, this was a significantly more difficult task, as Palestine was facing insurrection and competition between Jewish and and Palestinian groups. Again, it would take a very impressive personality to be able to impose his authority on the disparate players, and to impress on to the point where cooperation might be achievable. Again, he was probably the right man to the job. Again, it simply goes to show that his failings years earlier were the faults of those who had pushed him too far too fast, not the faults of his own personality.

However it was not to be. By this stage he was a very sick man, circumstances only made worse by his insistence during the dark days of the siege of Malta to go on the lowest level of subsistence rations of the common people despite his incredibly high workload. He was an inspiration to all as he cycled endlessly around the island to raise morale and to organise the defences, but his declining physical state eventually overcame even his great willpower. He died before he could have any great effect on Palestine.

Gort fully deserves to be treated with disdain for his command of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. He was not a good enough general to hold this position. However it would be wrong to suggest that he couldn't be a good enough general. The reason he failed was that others had thrown him into a situation for which he was not yet ready. Had his career been properly run, it is entirely possible that he would have been exactly such a general several years later. As it was, Churchill considered recalling him to active operations in Burma later in the war, which perhaps he could have revealed his real abilities as a more mature Army Corps or Army Commander.

Gort was never a great general, but he was certainly not a bad one either. The worst of his failings were not of his making, and the best aspects of his character revealed flashes of the potential to be one of the most reliable (if not one of the most skilful) generals of the Second World War. Possibly the most useful way to define his place in the ranks of generals, would be to point out that - apart from his senior unit commanders in 1940 - almost everybody who served under him was very impressed with him, and very loyal to him. To his men, he was a good general. How many generals can say that?

8 comments:

  1. Liddell Hart about King Leopold III
    Although the British military establishment has never publicly acknowledged that King Leopold III and his army, by their prolonged resistance, saved the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in may 1940, the world famous military expert Liddell Hart saw no reason for such reticence.
    In 1960, delivering a lecture to students and faculty at King College, Liddell Hart bluntly declared:
    “The British army at Dunkirk was saved from destruction by King Leopold III of the Belgians”.
    Captain Liddell Hart said that Sir Arthur Bryant’s claim that “the saving of the BEF was mainly duetoLord Alan Brooke” did not stand up to examination.
    Hart went on to say: “The unfortunate Belgian Army absorbed the weight of the German frontal attack from the north. By the time the Belgian front had turned, the BEF had slipped out of reach and were nearing Dunkirk”.
    Liddell Hart went further to say: “ If King Leopold III had left Belgium on May 25th , as his ministers and Churchill had urged him to do so, the Belgian army would have surrendered immediately, instead of fighting on until early morning of May 28th.
    IF SO, THE BRITISH WOULD HAVE HAD VERY LITTLE CHANCE OF ESCAPING ENCIRCLEMENT, SO THAT IT COULD VERY REASONABLY BE CLAIMED THAT THEY WERE SAVED BY KING LEOPOLD III, WHO THEN WAS VIOLENTLY ABUSED BY BRITAIN AND FRANCE “

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  2. Militarily that is correct, but it brings up the interesting point about political and moral responsibility.

    King Leopold felt that he had an obligation to stay with his men when they surrendered (pity MacArthur and Gordon-Bennett were not so noble), and I tend to agree that this is the correct course of action for a general who has not been able to extract at least a significant percentage of his men (even through no fault of his own - though the two above mentioned could not claim this excuse).

    In fact it is arguable that it is the only decent thing for any general to do.

    However the situation becomes more complicated when the Commander in Chief is also the Head of State.

    A general is assigned by his government to manage his men. A head of state may also be the Commander in Chief, but their responsibility goes well beyond the men fighting under their assigned generals. A Head of State has a responsibility to the whole nation, the body politic, and all the people. They do not have the luxury of only thinking about the immediate task, they have to look to the total responsibility.

    History is replete with examples of incompetent leaders who have lost control of the situation trying to take command of the only concrete thing they can see to do (usually a suicidal last stand to allow others to escape), and trusting that bad Hollywood scriptwriters will portray their nobility at the end. But in fact in the Hollywood versions this is always the story of the despised and failed leader rediscovering within their inadequacies a hint of the backbone they once had, and hanging around to face the music their own incompetence has largely contributed to.

    In fact a head of state who thinks it is nobler to go into captivity with his/her soldiers than to continue fighting for their nation in whatever way they can is indulging in a bit of a cop-out. King Leopold's nieghbour Queen Wilhelmina (despite later being described by Churchill as the 'only real man' among the governments in exile) more sensibly didn't let the pretty uniforms confuse her into thinking that she could or should run the military herself. When her assigned generals said it was over, she acted as a head of state, and moved to London to keep fighting for her nation. As did Haakon of Norway.

    King Leopold should have done the same. Although there is a certain romance to his decision not to, there is no practical excuse for abandoning your post as head of state to play soldiers instead (particularly against the advice of his government).

    In fact if he was going to stay, he should have left the military part completely and become a Petain style head of state collaborator in an attempt to run a subservient government which might mitigate things for his citizens. (It wouldn't have worked with the Nazi's, as Petain and Quisling and King Christian of Denmark and the rest discovered, but it might have been excusable to try it at the time.)

    It is possible to suggest that he was subconsciously accepting both the inadequacy of his character, and the guilt over his complicity in the policies that had led to the situation, in his decision to do the Hollywood ending. But realistically it is not clear that he ever acknowledged his own faults in these ways.

    I might be overstating the case by going that far, and I certainly have not studied Leopold enough to characterise him specifically: but his political acts in ignoring his government before surrender, and denying it's legitimacy later, leave no good opinion on that front.

    Nonetheless, the underlying point is clear. He acted like a an honorable general, but he did not act like a head of state.

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  3. I don't like MacArthur but he was ordered out of the PI by F.D.R.!

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  4. An interesting article and perspective about someone I have always admired. My Grandfather was killed at Dunkirk, but without Gort's decision at the crucial moment, many more would have died too.

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  5. An interesting article and perspective about someone I have always admired. My Grandfather was killed at Dunkirk, but without Gort's decision at the crucial moment, many more would have died too.

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  6. Gort saved the BEF, by extension Great Britain, and planted the seed of Hitler's ultimate destruction.

    He was a hero.

    Not every hero wins great victory.

    Gort saved the BEF, allowing the allies to live to fight another day.

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  8. I recently saw a piece about how the French were the real heroes of Dunkirk, with 4 divisions holding back 7 German divisions for four days. Some of the German commanders said they were astonished by the incredibly brave resistance of the French under hopeless odds.

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