Saturday, January 29, 2011

Rating Generals Cunningham, Ritchie and Percival

This companion article to my piece on rating Generals Fredendall, Dawley and Lucas, is a little bit more interesting, because the three most famous British generals to be sacked in World War Two are not universally written off as complete failures in the way that the American generals were.

In fact although General Percival went into captivity with his men and cannot be considered anything but a failure in battle, General Cunningham had been extremely successful before his sacking, and General Ritchie became even more successful after his sacking.

At the start of the First World War Arthur Percival, who worked in the city of London, volunteered for the army and was made an officer. He was athletic and hard-working, and very popular with his men. He served on the Western front as a lieutenant in the infantry, and worked his way through a number of field and staff positions, finishing in command of a battalion, and then from brief period a brigade. A highly decorated officer, he was efficient and beloved by his men, and was recommended to the Staff College. He volunteered to service in Russia, and went on to see action in Ireland, and staff jobs in Nigeria, and was a student and teacher at various military colleges.

He was noted during this time as an officer of great ability, and put on the fast track for promotion. Unfortunately his commander at Staff College during his stint as an instructor was General John Dill, a staff officer who, when he later became Chief of Imperial General Staff, was referred to by Churchill as “Dilly-Dally”. Dill was extremely impressed by Percival’s ability, military knowledge, good judgement and hard work, and Dill was to be the one who promoted him into the Army command of the exposed an endangered outpost of the Malayan peninsula just in time to face the Japanese onslaught. Dill might have benefited from taking the moderating opinion of the General Sir Ian Jacob who considered Percival to be a very pleasant man, highly intelligent and brave, but not “the man for a whirlwind”. General Alan Brooke, on hearing the news of Percival’s appointment, raged in his diary against the idea that any competent staff officer probably had what it took to be a good battle leader.

The kindest thing that can be said about Percival’s response when the whirlwind did descend on his command, was that he tried his best. In fact he was completely out of his depth, and one officer commented that he always looked as though he was waiting to the umpires to blow their whistles (when he hoped to get at least points for trying). He was too indecisive to take the opportunity to pre-empt the Japanese landings in Thailand (the way a Montgomery or a Patton certainly would have); he was unable to adapt to Japanese tactics; he was unable to inspire his troops; and he lacked the ability to control his fractious commanders (or the self-confidence to sack the sub standard Lewis Heath, or the impossible Australian Gordon Bennett, even after the Australian chief of staff suggested it to him). He was, frankly, a prime example of a general who had been promoted out of his depth.

But whether he was an inevitable failure is more questionable. He had served well and efficiently in combat commence in the First World War, and in staff duties between the wars. He had done very well as chief of staff to the British first Corps in France in 1940, to the point of being made the deputy CIGS for a while, and was showing potential as the commander of a division in a Britain facing German invasion. Perhaps if he had been given a chance to lead that division into combat under the command of a good Corps or Army Commander, he might have developed the ability to have led higher formations later in the war. It is quite possible to envision him as a contemporary of Generals Leese or Dempsey, or Hodges or Bradley. Unfortunately he was thrown unprepared into a situation beyond his experience, or his ability to adapt.

The blame for this lies squarely with Gen Dill, who had as pernicious an affect on British generalship as Gen Marshall was to have on American. There is a theme here of clever but ignorant staff officers (Marshall and Dill got on so well because they were both stuffy staff officer types) promoting people who have caught their attention to positions far beyond their actual abilities (or at least to beyond what their current experience levels justified). Just as Marshall, Dill repeatedly promoted staff officer types over actual combat leaders. Just as Marshall, Dill repeatedly let his fanciful ideas draw the army into impossible positions. (Dill was responsible for the ill-fated expedition to Greece, and Marshall repeatedly tried to start an invasion of France with inadequate numbers of ill trained, novice troops.)

Had General Alan Brooke arrived as CIGS a few months earlier, the Malayan campaign would have been in the hands of a tried battle commander like Montgomery or Alexander. The end result may have been the same, but there can be no doubt that the process would have been very different. (In fact Japanese accounts of the campaign make it clear that the operation was on a logistical knife edge which might well have been pushed the other way by a remotely competent opposition.)

By contrast, in General Cunningham, who broke down in the face of an aggressive counter-attack by Rommel’s Africa Corps, had previously been a very successful army commander.

Cunningham was the same age as Percival, but had been a professional soldier from the start. His Great War career was solid, though not nearly as impressive as Percival’s, and his interwar progress was less spectacular. However his appointment as General Officer Commanding East Africa in 1940 gave him the opportunity to lead a successful campaign of conquest into Italian East Africa. His widely dispersed columns started from different ends of the Abyssinia, and successfully overwhelmed a much larger Italian forces (in a very similar fashion to what the Japanese would achieve in Malaya). He appeared to be the ideal commander to take over the army in North Africa after Rommel made his appearance and captured the previous commanding general. But in fact his carefully prepared counter-attack was not well handled, and he literally broke down in the face of Rommel’s aggressive and successful tactics.

There are two complimentary possibilities to explain why Cunningham failed so badly after having succeeded so well. The first is simply that a successful frontier general, quite competent to campaign in the slow paced old colonial manner against the unimpressive Italians, was not prepared to face a blitzkrieg by German combat veterans commanded by a freak of nature such as Rommel. And despite having previously commanded an Army successfully, he did not have the experience with modern mechanised warfare to deal with the new circumstances.

The second, and more important reason, may simply be that the poor man was exhausted. There are many records of fine generals becoming tired, dispirited, lethargic, and unresponsive, if they had been in constant command of forces in combat for too long. The simple truth of the matter is that even the best generals gain great benefit from a few months of rest and relaxation every now and then. General Wavell was a far better man and leader than was evident during the Battle of Malaya, but he had been in constant stress for over two years. He was the wrong man to supervise the desperate circumstances of Malaya at that time. Cunningham had the same problem in Noth Africa.

Alan Brooke had been unhappy with the idea of Cunningham going straight from one command to another without a rest (he would have preferred Wilson, who had recent experience facing a German blitzkreig in Greece), but had reluctantly accepterd the preferences of the theatre commander on the spot General Auchinleck. As a result, when Cunningham broke down and had to be replaced, Brooke was happy to bring him back for rest and recuperation, and then to give him a training command in England. (Note that the distinction here. Marshall put people into training commands who all other American front-line generals considered absolute failures. Brooke accepted that an exhausted man who had previously been a success, was probably capable of learning from his failures, and might make an even better training command as a result. This perspective may be reinforced by noting that Brooke was to sack many training generals in the next few years, but he kept active, and promoted, Cunningham.)

General Neil Ritchie is an even more fascinating example. Ritchie was a decade younger than the other two, and frankly did not belong in command of the army in 1941. But he was thrown temporarily into that position by Gen Auchinleck, and then made permanent despite the misgivings of all concerned, including himself.

Ritchie who had been a professional soldier, and had served well during the First World War, earning decorations, but being too young to achieve high rank. He had followed a fairly normal division between field and staff posts between the war, and had impressed Alan Brooke with his ability. Brooke was to become his patron, in the same way that Dill had been Percival’s. But there was a real difference in approach.

Alan Brook had been very impressed with Richie’s performance as his chief of staff at first Corps in France in 1940, but recognized his inexperience. Ritchie was briefly given command of the division in England in 1940, but then returned to is most valuable role, as chief of staff to Aukinlek in the Middle East. Brooke’s normal practice would have been to give him a year or so in this appointment, then put him back in charge of the division in the field under an experienced Corps Commander. When Brook discovered that Aukinlek had instead thrown Ritchie in to be the commander of the army, he was horrified. He felt that Ritchie was not ready to such a position, and that he would be ruined if too much was asked of him too quickly. In fact when he failed and had to be replaced, Brook immediately brought him home and spent two years rebuilding him as a commander of a Division and then of a Corps, before sending him back into action in France and Germany. Ritchie’s success as the Corps Commander at this time makes an interesting statement about the importance of experience, training, and careful nurturing of senior officers.

Auchinleck’s decision to make Ritchie an army commander was ridiculous. As a relatively junior Major General with no command experience in modern combat, he was thrown into over the heads of several very senior and very experienced lieutenant generals who were to be his corps commanders. Although he was later to turn out to be a good leader, he lacked the prestige to convince his division and corps commanders that he knew what he was doing, and they all treated him as just a cipher for all Auchinleck. Realistically though, this is exactly what he was, and he knew it as well as they did. Auchinleck was simply trying to double up his duties as theatre commander with those of being the supervisor/hand holder to a deputy army commander. He tried to do both, failed at both, and had to sack Ritchie to cover the inevitable results. Within a few months he too would be sacked.

These then are the great failures of British generalship during the Second World War. One was promoted from his comfort zone as a staff officer to a position beyond him, through the ignorance and stupidity of his superiors. He was to finish the war as a prisoner of war. Another was what Montgomery would call “a good plain cook”, but was thrown already exhausted into a situation for which he needed a little more experience. He finished a succesful trainer. The third was almost ruined by the capricious winds of a superior, but was carefully salvaged and rebuilt into an effective officer through a sensible approach by a competent superior. He finished as an excellent combat leader.

The common theme here is less the men themselves, and more the roles of their superiors. Percival failed even more spectacularly than Fredendall, but the difference was that Percival was an excellent staff officer, whereas Fredendall was an incompetent buffoon. Both failed because the men who assigned them to their roles did not have the ability to recognize the limitations of their characters.

Cunningham failed despite his previous experience, because he was too exhausted to cope with the situation he was thrown into. It will always be questionable whether, had he been fit and fresh, he would have been able to cope, or whether his inexperience at armoured warfare would have required more preparation. It was a failure of imagination by those who appointed him, that they could not recognize the need for rest and recuperation to keep leaders fit for command.

And Ritchie just had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and under the wrong man.

The key point to be made from these examples is that even the best men need to be carefully shaped into their rolls as competent battlefield leaders. The vast majority of Western Allied generals during the Second World War had little chance to develop their skills before being thrown into a situation for which they were often not ready. The fault was usually that of their superiors, particularly those who lacked the ability to assess the real capabilities of the men they were promoting in an objective fashion. (However it must be pointed out that sometimes the higher ups had little choice. Democracies almost always go to war ill-prepared, and those in charge often have to assign the best fits they can. Throughout the war Brooke lamented that he did not have enough good leaders, but that he could not find better alternatives.)

Good generals do not spring magically out of the ground. They have to be nurtured. This requires not only an opportunity for slow and well supported development, but also the fortune of having a superior officer who knows which people are best suited to what sort of development. Ideally there will also be an opportunity to give them the time they will need to be ready.

Of the six genreals in these two posts, Fredendall and Percival were poor choices, Dawley and Lucas were inadequately prepared, Cunningham got belated support, but only Ritchie – a decade younger than the others - got the development he really needed.

So much for the myth of a general being born and not made,


  1. Percival turned out not to be a good choice, but his previous experience in Malaya Command and detailed knowledge of the local situation must have made him look good on paper.
    In many ways, much was out of his control. Brooke-Popham made the call on any early action against the incoming Japanese convoys, and in Thailand, and he too was constrained by not so clear instructions from home, at least that's how I've read it. And the battle plan- with thinly spread forces protecting northern airfields- was long agreed before Percival assumed command. Besides, Percival's battle was lost for him in the first three days - by the RAF and RN. They were both out of it by 10 December.
    The side point that more competent leadership might have pushed the Far East operation the other way, quoting the Japanese logistic shortfalls, misses a critical aspect in my view. The Japanese so dominated the air and sea from 10 December that no number of divisions or no level of leadership could have achieved much after then.
    I believe this point is overlooked by many historians who tend to focus almost exclusively on British land forces, especially in the final defence of Singapore.
    I think it's a bit unfair to lump Dill with Greece too. My knowledge is limited here, but wasn't Wavell the senior General responsible? and didn't Churchill's foreign secretary (Eden was it?) get his hands dirty here?

  2. Leadership was definitely a problem, Putting a staff officer in an executive position inMalaya was a bad move. But there is little doubt that someone who approached things differently would have done better.

    Montgomery for instance (who Brooke might have sent had he become CIGS 3 or 4 months earlier), would have expelled wives and put troops on a war footing, sacked incompetent officers, vastly increased training, completely restructured deployments, and completely ignored Brooke-Pophams indecisiveness at the crucial points. He would not have refused to build defence lines as bad for morale, and he would have happily attacked into Thailand to pre-empt a Japanese invasion. Nor would he have kept retreating in bafflement. he would have changed tactics and adapted.

    True, not even the best general might have saved the situation, but assuming overwhelming sea and air power is drawing a long bow. The RN managed to get every convoy into Singapore without losing a single ship, which does not say much for good use of Japanese airpower. Nor are there lack of examples of good troops - Australian at Tobruk, Russian at Leningrad, or German on the defensive practically anywhere - being incapable of mounting a strong defence despite overwhelming enemy air and sea superiority.

    I still maintain that troops effectiveness follows the old principe "the moral is to the physical as three to one', and that inspiring leadership achieved many many impossible things during the war. It really does count.

  3. Nigel, I think you talk up Montgomery a little too much here, while overlooking the problems Percival faced. Prior to the start of Hostilities with Japan, Percival was faced with a complex civil administration which could be judged at best as unhelpful and misguided, a senior commander (Brooke-Popham) who was clearly a political appointment, and a very poorly staffed headquarters. So when we critise him for failing to impliment better training, we forget there was no real co-ordination of training. And most units (Indian) needed NCO and basic training, large formation training was not yet possible. Percival planned to begin Battalion and Brigade training in January 42 I believe, along with working with artillery, something else he hadn't been able to do (a lot of artillery arrived late Nov 41)

    Whether Montgomery would have allowed the debacle that was operation Matador to play out as it did, and how quickly he might have discarded the notion of defending all the airfields, must be of debate, we assume he would enjoy the confidence of his superiors, who wouldn't insist on second guessing him, something else Percival suffered with Wavell (as did Symth in Burma with Hutton).

    However having offered some defence of Percival, I will offer critisim of him. He also second guessed his commanders, both Murray-Lyon and Heath wanted to withdraw the 11th Indian Div from Jitra, Percivals insistance on remaining causing more confusion and loss. He also failed to concentrate his forces. Even if the 22nd Indian Brigade ramained in Kuantan, the 8th Indian Brigade having retreated from Kota Bharu, then sat in central Malaya kicking its heels. It could have easily been redeployed to Kampar, allowing the retreating 11th Indian Div to rest behind it.

    I also take issue with your assessment of General Heath. I'd agree his role in Matador, especially the late start of Krocol, under the command of Murray-Lyon needs examaining, but he continually called it right about concentrating, and the need to withdraw the exhausted troops, only for Percival to override him.

    And finally not enough is said about the superb generalship of Yamashita, who lead the best equipped and trained Japanese army ever fielded.

    I think your comments on Brookes management of his generals is spot on and helps explain the human side of being a general well.

    Fatboy Coxy

  4. The Malayan campaign is one of the best examples of the last war about the effects of training and leadership. On both sides.

    Yamashita managed to overcome much harder odds than most people recognise because he had experienced troops with competent leaders, despite all his problems.

    The Japanese battle reports make the shoe string nature of the operation much clearer, and show a marked similarity to shoe string successes like those of O'Connor and Rommel. They also make clear the failures of land/sea/air co-ordination that bedivelled operations by yamashita and O'Connor and Rommel. Never attribute to stunning success any aura of inevitability...

    Percival's failure to get results was bad enough (though I acknowledge his problems), but his failure to accept the offers of his superiors was suicidal. When the Australian Chief of Staff offered to replace gordon-Bennett, the correct answer for a sensible and confident leader was 'yes please'.

    Perhaps I am drawing a long bow at thinking that a Montgomery or a Patton might have made enough of a difference, but they certainly would have made a difference. Patton, as was seen in North Africa, would have made an enormous difference even if parachuted in after the attack, not least to sacking incompetents and inspiring the troops.

    Montgomery would probably have been even better given time to prepare. Consider his actions in his new command during the Battle of Britain, or even in his actions in Belgium, and you get a very interesting picture.

    Yamashita and his officers were pretty clear that they were lucky not to face competence, let alone brilliance.

    1. You make a good point on the training of the Allied soldiers, British, Indian, Malay, Australian. Due to the control the European planters had on the Malay region Percival complains about obstruction to the use of the central and northern Malay areas for garrison and training activities. It appeared that the local British Governor was also not willing to upset the planters and therefore too few troops had any serious jungle training. This was a shared responsibility so it is not justified to place all the blame on Percival.

      In Churchill's six part chronicle of the war he does make the point that President Roosevelt had said that the US Pacific fleet would help protect Malaysia from any Japanese land invasion, once the Singapore port defenses had been established. In addition I was told by my father, who worked in the Admiralty in WWII, that the defense of Singapore was firstly a navy matter - as was the usual approach as it was cheaper to have a first rate navy able to mobilise to any part of the world at short notice rather than have standing armies all over the globe - and as Churchill comments soldiers standing around soon get to be bored and lose their edge and create trouble for the local population and commanders

      So the plan was to send a RN battle group complete with aircraft carrier to Malaya to defend the coast and attack any troop ships - which unprotected would have been siting ducks. Trouble was that the official photographer at Singapore was a Japanese spy as were some of the signal clerks in the Singapore Army HQ Battle Box, therefore the Japanese knew what was coming and could plan ahead. Unfortunately for the Allies, the US Pacific fleet was put out of action at Pearl Harbour and the RN aircraft carrier ran aground leaving the two battleships without air cover.

      You are correct in saying that the Japanese commanders were lucky to achieve what they did. I think the Allies were for the most part not at that point in time up to speed with the ferocity and determination of the Japanese army. It is said that the Japanese army soldiers coming into Malaya would fight to the last bullet. and were well trained in jungle warfare. The Allies come across as doing too little too late. It took 14th Army to get back at the Japanese army and defeat it in Burma..

      The point is that 14th Army had supplies to fall back on, in India. Percival ran out of supplies, short of ammo, food and water. He found his own commanders were not prepared to stand and fight and apart from a couple of tough regiments most of the soldiers would not fight either, when push came to shove. My view is that the army should have pulled out the troops from Singapore and regrouped in India. Churchill considered this but the Australian PM of the time refused to permit this, as Singapore was considered the front line for the defence of Australia - per Churchill's chronicle.

      History is like an air crash. If the pilots are no longer around to tell it from their side, its easy to blame them, but when the crash is examined from all sides it often becomes clear that the root cause is elsewhere.

    2. Dear John,

      I agree with most of your comments. In particular the British were largely screwed in Malaya when even the US Philippines fleet did not come to Malaya as promised, let alone the Pacific fleet.

      You should note however that another 4 months would have seen enough British land, sea and air reinforcements in Malaya to have more than met suggested defence needs. At which point it really would have come down to the skills of experienced Japanese troops versus the the flexibility and endurance of inexperienced Allied troops… and their commanders.

      I still think a better Allied leader would have made a big difference.

    3. Percival was described as a "chinless wonder" by someone who was very close to & familiar with his history both in Malaya and (prior to his being appointed to that sorry mess), is a good example of the "establishment" protecting its own. How the writer could have even attempted to come up with such an unjustified excuse for Percival's failure in even the most elementary tenets of warfare, is beyond belief.
      Ritchie is a further example. In the Time Life series on the African campaign Ritchie is described as a handsome man, well-connected, and looking every inch the soldier. He was also ineffective and failed the basic test of action when he should have acted. He dilly dallied for two days, allowing Rommel to rebuild his forces, when if Richie had acted there is every reason to believe that Rommel should have been stopped there. Auchinleck's failure to remove him previously when it was obvious he was incapable of decisive action, is just another example of why English generals don't have a good record of achievement.
      His later record is one which is simply no excuse for his having made such a mess of things in North Africa. He was after all in his forties by then, there are many examples of younger men succeeding in high command, the excuse of age and lack of experience simply won't wash. He was a dud from the start - a show pony, who could only strut around, but when the crucial test came failed to perform. But always the "establishment" will protect it's own. No doubt Ritchie's family were also well connected and the estalishment closed around him to protect him.

    4. Hi 'Anonymous' (sounds like Matt's reflexive Anglophobia, but may be someone else...)

      Percival did look like a chinless wonder, and in Malaya acted like one. He wasn't actually, if you look at his WW1 and interwar efforts, but he certainly fell apart when promoted way out of his depth.

      Ritchie was definitely the wrong man to put in in North Africa. Everyone - particularly Ritchie - says so. But his achievements as a Corps commander in France are at least as good as those of a dozen other Allied corps commanders, and certainly not near the bottom... (In fact the best direct comparison with Ritchie's failure in North Africa is Hodges failure in France...)

      And no, when Brooke was in charge your connections counted for nothing compared to your competence... unlike Marshall...

  5. I just finished reading J.G. Farrell's "The Singapore Grip", which is a novel about December 1, 1941 to February 15, 1942 in Malaya. Farrell depicts Percival as a brave and good man, who feels peculiarly unlucky and suffers a vast and humiliating defeat. In addition to the grounding of the RN aircraft carrier and subsequent sinking of the dreadnaughts, Brooke-Popham's failure to seize the defensible ground just over the Thai border, and the incompetence of subordinates like Bennett, Farrell emphasizes how selfish the British planters and business class in Malaya were. He depicts them as concerned only with their profits, right to the end, unwilling to make any sacrifices for a military they expect to defend their interests successfully. The Malaya this class created by importing cheap labor from China and Tamil lands in India lacked any cohesive ideals. Confronted with Japanese inspired by the idea of their national destiny and love of the Emperor, the Australian and Indian troops fight bravely, but perhaps without the conviction necessary under the circumstances. Farrell is above any narrow political agenda, but one might conclude that the British Empire was not then providing reason enough to its subject peoples and troops to defend it in a near thing like that campaign. It's a marvelous novel, sardonic, beautiful and unforgettable.

    1. Dear Will,

      actually, as a research assistant on some books about Australian POW's, I did a fair amount of reading of diaries and reports by junior Australians. As a result I have some quibbles with the Australians 'fighting bravely'... the idea of lions led by donkeys (Australian donkeys as well as British ones) seems attractive, but in reality the Australian troops did not perform well... certainly not as well as a number of Indian battalions.

      But I would note that badly led troops always collapse in the face of a Blitzkreig... regardless of whether they are Indians fighting in Malaya, or Poles, French, Yugoslavs, Russians, etc, etc, fighting to save their own lands and villages. So I find the 'not providing enough reason' argument equally flawed.

      In fact some of the more experienced Indian and particularly Chindit battalions in Malaya and Burma were just as terrifying fighters as usual, regardless of such implied lack of 'reason enough'.

      I realise many so called historians like this fiction as much as your novelist... but the fact that the Australian troops gave up and got drunk at the end was more to do with leadership than 'what they were fighting for'. See Tobruk...