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?