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'Churchill's Generals' is a collection of shortish but detailed essays by different historians about the most important British generals who served under Winston Churchill during World War 2. Each essay is roughly about twenty pages long and sketches out the background of each man and their previous commands and experiences before finishing with their contribution to the Second World War. The battles, tactics and their relationship with the Prime Minister. Each chapter also includes a chronology of the figure under discussion.
The book is an interesting and educational guide to the commanders, both famous and lesser known, who guided the fortunes of the British and Commonwealth forces during the war. Because there are different authors involved in the writing of this book there is no overall tone although most of the profiles are relatively warm and well balanced, with an assesment of each man's strengths and weaknesses.
If there is a theme that runs through these seperate pieces of writing it is one of luck and timing. Most of the generals involved were clever and competent but some were luckier than others. British Generals at the start of the war suffered from a lack of modern equipment and a fully mobolised army and were further hindered by an impatient PM who wanted military victories immediately. Generals who joined the war in key commands as the material resources and fortunes of the campaign were increasing were luckier.
IRONSIDE by Brian Bond
Field-Marshal Edmund Ironside is the subject of the first essay. Ironside was nearly sixty when World War 2 broke out. After sketching out the details of his early career (he served in the 'South African War' of 1899 and the first World War) this essay focuses on his his brief stint as Chief of the Imperial staff 1939-1940 (CIGS - the highest ranking position in the British Army). The essay portrays a man who admirably spoke out agaisnt the lack of preparation for war in 1939 - even if it made him unpopular in some quarters, but one who suffered from strategic shortcomings which stopped him from playing a major role throughout the conflict. Ironside was demoted to C-C Home Forces although I learnt from the essay that he was glad of this and set about instigating the first concrete plans to defend Britain from a seabourne invasion. The corridors of power however were never quite convinced by his grasp on strategy with the author here suggesting the formidable and influential Alanbrooke wasn't much of a fan in particular. Ironside was 'retired' in 1941. I found this essay educational because I had no idea who he was until I read this.
GORT by Brian Bond
Like Ironside, Field Marshal John Gort is painted by Brian Bond as a man who paid the price for Britain's poor start to the war and general lack of preparedness. Gort too became CIGS in 1937 but the essay suggests that he lacked the brains for the job and could never see the broad picture, his almost clinical obsession with detail a strong theme in this piece. Bond writes that 'He is inclined to agree that Gort was promoted above his mental ceiling'. Gort became Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1939 but the vague command structure and eventual chaos did him no favours. Although other officers - most notably Montgomery - were critical of him the essay does suggest a loyal and brave soldier who wanted to stay with his men at Dunkirk when he was ordered to evacuate. The debacle might have finished most men but Gort restored his reputation by serving as Governor of Gibraltar and then Malta where his fortitude impressed those who he had to protect and give aid to.
DILL by Alex Danchev
Alex Danchev was the author of two books about the Anglo-American alliance during the War. For this reason his essay is of particular interest because Field-Marshal John Dill, who I'm sure hardly anyone in Britain today has heard of, played a crucial role in the war. This warm and affectionate essay goes through Dill's military career and explains how as CIGS he established the need to stand up to Churchill and fight the army's corner. Dill was loathed by Churchill and removed to America as part of a vague 'Joint Staff Mission' as a British Government representative in Washington. To the suprise of everyone Dill forged a close relationship with the United State's highest ranking soldier; General George C Marshall. Danchev explains how Dill played a vital role in the alliance, sitting in on Joint Chiefs Of Staff meetings and becoming a crucial bridge between Marshall and his British counterpart Alanbrooke. Marshall and Alanbrooke couldn't stand each other and their relationship was often testy but they both loved Dill who was 'the finest soldier and greatest gentleman I have ever known' according to Marshall. That Dill (who died in 1944) accomplished this last crucial duty for his country despite the tragic death of his wife in 1940 and his own ill health makes the story all the more remarkable.
WAVELL by Ian Beckett
Field-Marshal Archibald 'Archie' Wavell is an interesting subject for an essay. He is described by Beckett as an intellectual man who was more interested in art and poetry than soldiering. "A heavy butcher's bill is not evidence of good tactics" was a famous quote of Wavell. Beckett notes that he had little time for small-talk and often exasperated his fellow officers and subordinates with his famous silences. His relationship with Churchill is described as lukewarm. As Commander in Chief Middle-East Wavell was faced with a vast command area, insufficient resources, tanks with mechanical problems, the diversion of troops to Greece and last but not least the emergence of Rommel and modern German weapons. Beckett is sympathetic to Wavell who comes across as an astute, brainy man forced to fight 'a poor man's war'. The essay moves on to discuss Wavell's tenure as Commander-In Chief-India and his contribution to the Burma campaign. Wavell is credited in the essay with coming up with the idea of sending for Orde Wingate to conduct Special Forces operations agaisnt the Japanese. The piece ends by disscussing his difficult role as Viceroy Of India in a transitional period.
ALANBROOKE by David Fraser
Alanbrooke was CIGS from 1941 to 1946, and a man who played a vital role in the Second World War. Alanbrooke is described by Fraser as the greatest chief the British Army has ever had and a man who destiny chose to be at the right place at the right time when Britain was 'in fearful peril'. Alanbrooke is portrayed here as a selfless man who could always see the broad strategic picture and one who bravely fought his corner agaisnt Churchill and the US Chiefs Of Staff when he had to. He was more suited to a field command than pratically all of his generals but realised it was crucial for him to stay at the heart of things close to Churchill. The Brooke/Churchill relationship comes across as very love/hate in this essay. They rowed and disagreed but respected each other and together formed a formidable partnership.
ALEXANDER by Brian Holden Reid
Field- Marshal Harold Alexander, or 'Alex' a favourite of Churchill according to Reid, rose to become the Supreme Allied Commander of the Mediterranean after other distinguished and powerful posts. Alexander comes across in this chapter as a perfect gentleman who ruffled no feathers even during the sometimes fractious alliance between the US and Britain. The essay begins with a story about him jumping out of a jeep looking more like a filmstar than a general to greet a young soldier on a hill. They are being shelled but the unflappable Alexander is more concerned about the toothache the young soldier is suffering from. Post war books have suggested Alexander wasn't that clever (Alanbrooke was not a huge admirer of his tactical grasp) but this piece seeks to examine that in a more sympathetic way and does so. He is portrayed as an excellent diplomat and some of his notable victories, such as his outwitting of General von Vietinghoff at the battle of the Argenta Gap are highlighted.
AUCHINLECK by Phillip Warner
Field-Marshal Claude Auchinleck (known as 'The Auk') was a famous and capable general who eventually lost favour with an impatient Churchill. He is portrayed as a general who was forced, like Wavell, to attempt impossible tasks at a difficult time in the war. Warner describes how Auchinleck had finally managed to check Rommel (as C-C Middle-East Auchinleck actually put himself in charge of the Eighth Army) but was a victim of Churchill's lack of patience. Churchil decided Auchinleck was timid and that was that. Warner's essay defends Auchinleck from some of these charges and later criticism from Montgomery. Warner's theme is that Auchinleck was as good a general as almost anyone around but lacked Montgomery's ability to create publicity. Interestingly, he suggests Auchinleck would have been a better choice to command 21st Army group after D-Day because he would have worked with the Americans more smoothly than Montgomery did.
MONTGOMERY by Michael Carver
Field-Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, or 'Monty' as he was often called, was the most famous British General of the Second World War. After delving into his background and attention to detail, how his reputation as an excellent trainer of soldiers and ability to run exercises moved him through the ranks this essay moves onto his time in the desert where he won his most famous victory at the battle of El Alamein. Montgomery's arrival is described as 'electric'. He took over command before he was authorised to do so and terminated all of Eighth Army's existing strategic plans without even reading them! The general tone of the author towards his subject is a little cool here though. He repeats the common criticisms that Montgomery was sometimes tactless and vain when conducting the war in Europe alongside the Americans and discusses the strategic differences between Montgomery and Eisenhower that rumbled on so long it cost them their friendship when Montgomery brought it up again in his memoirs.
WILSON by Michael Dewar
Field Marshall Henry Maitland Wilson (known as 'Jumbo' because of his girth) is given a symptahetic and warm write up by Michael Dewar. Wilson was Commander of the Tenth Army in Iraq in 1942 and later C-C Middle-East and Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean. He is described as 'the right man for difficult, if unspectacular problems' and is praised as a good diplomat rather than outstanding field commander and a man who worked well with other nations. He was one of Churchill's favourites.
O'CONNOR by Barrie Pitt
General Richard O'Connor was a dashing offensive commander who gave Britain her first spectacular victories of the war. Pitt explains how as commander of Western Desert Force in 1940 O'Connor advanced over 500 miles and took over 130,000 Italian prisoners with only a tiny force at his disposal. He was unfortunately captured by an Axis patrol sent out by Rommel and spent much of the war in a POW camp. In this essay Pitt pays tribute to O'Connor and describes what a blow it was for Britain to lose such a capable general so early in the war.
CUNNINGHAM, RITCHIE and LEESE by Michael Craster
This chapter condenses together three men who commanded the famous Eighth Army at different points during the war and gives a brief but interesting profile of each of them. Crastor explains that the Eigth Army will forever be associated with Montgomery - the dominant British commander of the war. His strong personality and historic victory at El Alamein has cast a shadow over the men who held the same post. Cunningham was relieved of his post by Auchinleck and Ritchie was relieved of his command by the same man again, both eventually a victim of Rommel's success. Leese followed his mentor Montgomery as Eighth Army boss in Italy when Monty took charge of the D-Day landings. The sketch on Leese contrasts his emergence as a young, dashing rising star under Monty to his eventual end when he was promoted C-C Land Forces South East Asia and ended up trying to sack General Slim. When Alanbrooke got wind of this he decided that Leese should be relieved of his command instead.
HORROCKS by Alan Shepperd
Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks became a famous and respected Corps commander under Montgomery both in the desert and Europe. This chapter provides a good rough guide to his life and career with particular reference to the battle of the Reichswald Forest, which was, according to Horrocks the greatest and most difficult encounter of his career.
HOBART by Kenneth Macksey
Major-General Percy Hobart is probably not very well known today but during the war, with the support of new CIGS Alanbrooke, he was an innovater in the field of armoured warfare. Macksey tells us in this essay how Hobart's ideas led to the design of amphibious vehicles that were used to tackle obstacles in the D-Day landings.
PERCIVAL by Keith Simpson
Lieutenant-General AE Percival became infamous as the man who surrended to the Japanese at Singapore - the biggest humiliation in British military history. Simpson explains how he was never forgiven for this. The chapter is mostly a fascinating insight into what actually happened. Simpson paints a picture of Percival as a man put into a hopeless position but also one who didn't help matters with his lack of authority over subordinates and an inability to make decisions.
WINGATE by John W Gordon
Major-General Orde Wingate is described as the 'strangest' of Churchill's generals. He served in the Sudan Defence Force in 1928 and led an expedition to search for a 'lost oasis' in the Libyan Desert in 1932. In 1941 he led a guerilla campaign agaisnt the Italians in Eithopia and later attempted suicide. This essay touches on his background and then gives a very thorough account of his 'Chindit' Special Forces operations agaisnt the Japanese in Burma and asseses how important they were in the context of the War before giving an overall judgement on Wingate's qualities, strengths and weaknesses.
SLIM by Duncan Anderson
Duncan Anderson gives an interesting and detailed account of Field-Marshal William Slim. He writes about Slim's low profile despite all he achieved as commander of the 14th Army in Burma and how the men who fought in that campaign told the real story and made him famous. Churchill assumed that Mountbatten did everything but finally came to agree with the praise for Slim. Anderson puts forward the view that Slim was in the same class as Guderian and Patton as an offensive general and relates a funny story where Slim and Churchill were discussing the upcoming General Election and Slim casually announced that none of his army would be voting for him.
CARTON DE WIART and SPEARS by GD Sheffield
Lietenant-General Adrian Carton De Wiart and Major-General Louis Spears are both given a brief overview in the same chapter, the final one in the book. De Wiart was shot down by the Italians and captured but later escaped from the same camp as General O'Connor. He was later Churchill's personal representative to Chiang Kai-shek. Spears was a former MP who became Head of British mission to General de Gaulle.
On the whole this is an interesting and very factual book. Because the profiles are not too long you have the option to dip in and read a particular one rather than feel compelled to read the book straight through as a whole. The accounts of battles, tactics and relationships with other officers are always interesting and none of the writing is too 'showy'. The style of the book is quite matter of fact and precise and readable.
It goes without saying that you'll need to have an interest in history or World War 2 to truly enjoy the book and find it interesting. My main quiblle would be the lack of chapter on General Miles Dempsey, the commander of the Second British Army after D-Day, but overall 'Churchill's Generals' is an interesting and educational book.
Churchill's reputation as Prime Minister during the Second World War fluctuated according to the successes and failures of his generals. Most of them were household names, and often heroes, during the war years. All of them were prey to the intolerance, interference, irascibility - and the inspiration - of the man who wanted to be both the general in the field and the presiding strategic genius. He sacked his warlords ruthlessly, yet in the end he came to be served by perhaps the greatest generals this country has ever produced. Includes chapters on Wavell, Ironside, Ritchie, Auchinleck, Montgomery, Alexander, Percival, Wingate, Slim and Carton de Wiart. Note: The Publisher regrets that the biographical note for Gary Sheffield is incorrect in the book. Please refer to the Orion website (www.orionbooks.co.uk) for the correct version.