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,