In the field

Nigel Hamilton

  • Washington Despatches, 1941-45: Weekly Political Reports from the British Embassy edited by H.G. Nicholas
    Weidenfeld, 700 pp, £20.00, August 1981, ISBN 0 297 77920 6
  • British Intelligence and the Second World War. Vol. II by F.H. Hinsley, E.E. Thomas, C.F.G. Ransom and R.C. Knight
    HMSO, 850 pp, £15.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 11 630934 2
  • Mars without Venus: A Study of Some Homosexual Generals by Frank Richardson
    William Blackwood, 188 pp, £5.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 85158 148 X
  • Soldiering on: An Unofficial Portrait of the British Army by Dennis Barker
    Deutsch, 236 pp, £8.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 233 97391 5
  • A Breed of Heroes by Alan Judd
    Hodder, 288 pp, £6.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 340 26334 2
  • War in Peace: An Analysis of Warfare Since 1945 edited by Robert Thompson
    Orbis, 312 pp, £9.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 85613 341 8

Some weeks ago Sir Isaiah Berlin gave a broadcast in which he described his first visit to the legendary Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in Moscow in 1945 – a visit cut short in its prime by the bellowing of Randolph Churchill in the courtyard outside, hotly pursued by the Russian Secret Police. Alas, such humorous anecdotes will not be found by Berlin devotees in his latest book, Washington Despatches. Berlin was actually on his way to Moscow as Press Attaché when he was dismissed by the British Ambassador, Sir Stafford Cripps, then greedily snapped up by our men in New York: by 1942 he had become a member of the Survey Section of the Embassy in Washington. Each week he drew up a political commentary for despatch to London, but any hopes of witnessing the formidable Berlin intellect at war in the corridors of US power will be disappointed. Although – a trifle immodestly – he claims in his Introduction that his material was considered by Denis Brogan in London to be ‘the Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinths of American politics’, it is hard to see Berlin as Theseus in these reports, which veer from matters of local American concern (labour troubles etc) to generalities so general one can only yawn one’s way through. The burning issues of America’s entry into the war, the loss of the Philippines, the disastrous first eight months of 1942, the whole question of the Second Front, the great conferences at Yalta and Tehran, the agonising questions of post-war Europe, of Palestine and – still so agonising today – of Poland, are dealt with summarily, drily, in no way memorably. Why should this gifted man have failed to deliver something more rewarding?

The answer is, of course, censorship. Not imposed – though that, too, possibly – so much as self-imposed. The FO in London – Berlin does not say so, but it can be inferred – knew that the Americans were reading the British Embassy signals: it therefore wanted nothing that burned, nothing contentious or embarrassing – above all, nothing personal. So, effectively restrained, Berlin penned his weekly school letter and gave it to the headmaster to read, revise and encypher. Professor Nicholas, the editor, fawns and bows, proclaims those despatches written in Berlin’s absence to be ‘school of Berlin’: but he cannot get away from the fact that, deprived of the right to portray personalities, express opinions, or be funny, Theseus puts up a pretty disappointing display against the American Minotaur.

Harold Nicolson had the right idea in steering the budding Berlin towards Moscow – which Berlin finally reached in 1945/6. But whether Sir George Weidenfeld has had the right idea in resurrecting his despatches, I doubt. No person, no issue is concentrated upon in depth, and the footnotes provide witless and inaccurate help (Desert Victory was not a film about O’Connor’s 1940-41 offensive, and Montgomery did not participate in ‘First’ Alamein in July 1942).

Harry Hinsley’s British Intelligence and the Second World War: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations, Volume II, is another impersonal work. He has the strange notion that in order to simulate ‘perfect’ reality he must exclude any mention of individuals. Pas de monstres, et pas de héros – Flaubert is quoted sadly out of context. Just imagine Emma Bovary reduced to the cypher GII(I) or DDMI(O)! Hinsley gives a brilliant, nameless account of the development of Intelligence organisation in England between 1941 and 1943, but then, instead of confining himself to the history of Intelligence-gathering between 1941 and 1943, he has elected to try and chart the influence of that Intelligence on the conduct of both strategy and operations in the field. I think this is a mistake. Hinsley is a fine historian (Professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge University) and was a distinguished wartime Naval cryptographer at Bletchley Park. But he has no feeling for, or even interest in, operations in the field, and his essay reads like a university exam paper rather than a work of military history. He has failed to interview the survivors from among those responsible for British Intelligence there, and his apologia for this strikes a very feeble note for a Cambridge professor who has been given unique freedom of access to Intelligence files, together with the assistance of no less than three researchers: ‘Some members of the wartime community may feel we might have made our consultation more extensive; we have confined it to points on which we needed to supplement or clarify the evidence of the surviving archives.’

The trouble is that their account of operations is based on the now outdated Official Histories, or on books like Liddell Hart’s History of the Second World War which were published before the headquarters’ War Diaries were released from the confines of the statutory 30-year ruling. What emerges is a sort of cryptographer’s dream of the war in the field – a fantasy which is lucid and nicely narrated, but which bears absolutely no relation to operational reality. This is true of the account of RAF operations, of Naval operations, and of the soldiers’ battles. Captain Broome of the ill-fated Convoy PQ 17 has recently written to the Times to protest about Admiralty myopia: had he been allowed to choose, Broome would have avoided the Tirpitz squadron by concealing his convoy in banks of fog rather than scattering it to merciless piecemeal destruction. Broome’s protest must be respected since he so evidently cares about men’s lives, and knows the operational context in which command decisions have to be made.

Professor Hinsley’s operational disability leads him into a gaffe. Dropping his pas de monstres mask, he sets out to disparage Montgomery for his conduct of the Desert campaign of Eighth Army from August 1942. He considers Auchinleck’s July operations at Alamein to be ‘his last and greatest victory’, and then, without bothering to consult the operational War Diaries, proceeds to spin out the John Connell-Correlli Barnett myth that Montgomery’s only contribution to the Desert arena was an incomprehensible uplift in morale. Monty’s plan for the defence of Alam Halfa, he declares, was inherited from Auchinleck: he neglects to mention that Auchinleck’s only plan for Alam Halfa involved a fantastic 15-mile withdrawal by the Second New Zealand Infantry Division in the middle of the battle, together with another series of unco-ordinated armoured attacks that might well have lost Egypt, given Rommel Cairo, Alexandria and the Suez Canal, and led to the starvation of Malta, and the cancellation of Allied landings in French North Africa.

In his desire not to name names (Monty’s apart) or to enter the field, Hinsley misses one of the cardinal moments of Ultra’s war. Arriving at Eighth Army headquarters on the morning of 13 August 1942, Montgomery had listened to the recitation of Auchinleck’s plans with incredulity, had taken command then and there, scrapped all Auchinleck’s operational instructions, and by evening ordered up further units from the Delta. The plans for infantry withdrawal and armoured counter-attack were set aside. There would be no question of retreat, as envisaged in endless contingency plans ordered personally by Auchinleck: if Eighth Army could not hold Alam Halfa, then it did not deserve to fight another day. This was a very courageous decision to make, and there are still those – like Nigel Nicolson – who hold that it was too great a risk to take at such a critical moment. One can imagine, therefore, Montgomery’s relief when, four days after giving out his new orders for Alam Halfa, Ultra provided conclusive evidence that Rommel would, indeed, attempt the outflanking manoeuvre towards Alam Halfa. This evidence, given to him by Major Bill Williams, then G2 (Intelligence) at Army Headquarters, began that unique relationship between the 54-year-old Army Commander and the 29-year-old Intelligence officer – a relationship which went right through the war to the surrender of German forces in Northern Europe at Lüneberg. Yet one may search the 765 pages of Professor Hinsley’s text without encountering Sir Edgar Williams’s name.

Hinsley’s cryptographer’s approach plays right into the hands of indolent, armchair critics who, without the least understanding of operational warfare, airily pontificate about what this or that general could or should have done. Having briefly chronicled Eighth Army’s disastrous performance against Rommel in 1941/2, Professor Hinsley embarks on a campaign to discredit Montgomery for his victories at Alam Halfa and Alamein, the reconquest of Egypt and Libya, the taking of Tripoli and the battles of Medenine, Mareth, Wadi Akarit. He hammers away at Montgomery’s caution and failure to cut off the enemy – for instance, at Benghazi, two weeks and seven hundred miles after Alamein, in November 1942. A hundred and fifty pages earlier he has told us how, in Operation Crusader, Eighth Army got its forward forces ‘severely punished’ in attempting to attack with inadequate forces: but without, apparently, bothering to check in the War Diaries the forces available to Montgomery beyond Tobruk, he condemns him for not doing the same again. He would have found there that, apart from Fourth Light Armoured Brigade, which took the vital Martuba airfields on 15 November (and thus saved Malta from starvation), Eighth Army could only support one division beyond Tobruk. This was Harding’s Seventh Armoured – of whose 47 medium tanks not even five were considered capable of making the 350-mile trans-desert journey to Benghazi, so worn out had they become. Hinsley repeats the same nonsense at Agheila, Buerat, Tripoli and into Tunisia. Again and again he forgets his pas de monstres masquerade to bash the one British general who not only insisted on a first-class Intelligence team but integrated it into the most professional army/air headquarters ever to operate on the Allied side.

I first heard – through secret Intelligence – that Hinsley was out for Monty’s scalp about two years ago, and protested in vain when he kindly showed me his Desert Campaign proofs last winter. I beg him, if he insists on trying to calculate the influence of Intelligence on operations, to start interviewing the surviving officers responsible for Ultra in the field; to drop his attack on Montgomery and develop an interest in the true relationship between the Army Commanders and their Intelligence staffs. To do otherwise would be to encourage a kind of modern Maginot-mindedness – a belief that brilliant cryptography will alone win wars, regardless of operational reality.

Having said this, I am delighted to report on a little book by an author who is not afraid to look at personalities, and to look at them in depth. Nor does he lack a sense of balance or humour. I consider Mars without Venus: A Study of Some Homosexual Generals one of the most interesting books I have read this year. General Richardson was a decorated Army doctor (DSO and OBE). He writes with such intelligence, conversational elegance and compassion that his remark, in his Acknowledgments, that he is only an amateur author, seems absurd. His book is a joy to read, and stimulating beyond all expectation. Its account of T.E. Lawrence (only a colonel, but a general to the Arabs) is the finest brief investigation of that tortured soul I have come across. Richardson eschews the Deraa sodomy theory (in which Lawrence is thought by some to have been sexually abused by the Turkish Bey and to have suffered endless remorse afterwards) in favour of a more profound analysis. Lawrence’s manically religious, cane-wielding mother and undersized genitals are, in Richardson’s view, chiefly responsible for his homosexual, sado-masochistic make-up. For Richardson, homosexuality is a form of infantilism, of stunted psychological – and even physical – growth, and he wisely points out the relationship between this and such men’s fantasies of success, fame and power in an adult world – the Army. Not unnaturally, he cites the case of Hitler, revealing that the popular ditty about Hitler possessing only one in his armoury was literally ‘right on the ball’, since examination of the Führer’s incompletely incinerated corpse threw up no trace of the ‘left testicle ... either in the scrotum or the spermatic cord inside the inguinal canal or in the small pelvis’.

This is heady stuff, and to someone recently engaged in recording the life of Field-Marshal Montgomery opens up a mine of insight, comparison and sheer speculative fun. There are descriptions in Richardson’s psychoanalysis of Alexander, Napoleon and Lawrence that constantly invite comparison with the parenthood, behaviour and personality of Montgomery. Of Alexander, Richardson writes: ‘Throughout his life he was capable of acts of kindness, magnanimity to some of his enemies and great generosity to his friends. But increasing megalomania and jealous mistrust of any whose fame might compete with his own brought out a cruel streak in his nature.’ I’m sure this could equally be said of Monty. Alexander liquidated his ‘wise and faithful’ Chief of Staff Parmenio, and Monty turned against his brilliant Chief of Staff Sir Francis de Guingand. Alexander the Great was adored by his soldiers – as was Frederick the Great. Both, in Richardson’s view, took to soldiering as a sublimation of homosexual instincts to ‘develop those qualities which the unconscious mind associates with masculinity’. Nor is Montgomery the only great modern leader whose sexuality one is compelled to think of in reading this book. Napoleon’s fat, feminine shape made me suddenly think of Winston Churchill, who loved to wear silk drawers (according to his daughter Mary) and possessed to his dying day the skin and cherubic shape of a Rubens lady – as did Mao Tse-tung.

General Richardson’s concern with homosexuality stems from a passionate desire to lessen the guilt and unhappiness which have traditionally accompanied the sublimation of homosexual instincts. This aspect of his book strikes me as pious and naive. Would chats with the MO about possibly repressed fears of organ inferiority have made his warriors better men, let alone better leaders? I doubt it – and I find his account of Frederick the Great’s experiences at the hands of his father much more illuminating than the study of organ inferiority.

Who are the heirs of Marlborough, Wellington, Kitchener, Haig, Montgomery – and Private Crimp? What is the British Army like today? Dennis Barker has been given the freedom of the service, at home and abroad, but instead of beginning at the beginning (recruitment of officers and men) and taking us through selection, training, service and philosophy, he has employed all the artistry of a provincial newspaper hack, kicking off with his own eye-witness accounts of the Army in Ireland, Belize, Hong Kong, Germany and West Berlin – reportage that is unremittingly superficial, uninspired and hollow. This is to be regretted because, on page 98, he finally goes back to the starting post, and his report on selection for Sandhurst and Other Ranks is informative journalism at its best. We are taken behind the scenes at Leighton House and St George’s Barracks, and an interesting tapestry begins to be woven. Who applies? Who gets chosen? What happens then? How different is it from the ‘old days’? Unfortunately Barker lapses back into anarchy thereafter, with more brief and superficial glances at promotion, women, part-timers, politics, ceremonial, and a five-page conclusion remarkable for its third-rate thoughts. Mr Barker writes abysmally and his attempt to give the book ‘greater timelessness’ by identifying interviewees by their rank alone does not succeed. The British Army of 1981 deserves better than this.

How about a novel, then, set in Northern Ireland and written by a discharged officer? This could be interesting, and is. We’ve heard the politicians; we’ve heard the TV reporters; we’ve had Dennis Barker’s frightened little squint at life on patrol and in the barracks: now let’s hear from the veteran himself. Alan Judd’s A Breed of Heroes begins a little hesitantly, as befits a first novel, but it is my belief that it will become a minor classic of its kind. In his six-page (!) self-congratulatory Preface, Dennis Barker describes a peculiarly irritating ‘Clicking Colonel’ in Whitehall who ‘came really close to the caricature so beloved of those who distrust and lampoon the Military’. Well, I can only suggest that Mr Barker read Alan Judd’s novel if he wishes to discover what makes such a Colonel click – for outside of Evelyn Waugh I know of no caricature better observed or more moving, in spite of the comedy, than Colonel Cowrie, the memorable CO of No 1 Army Assault Commando (Airborne) during the battalion’s four-month stint in Northern Ireland. Feared, resented, even hated by his subordinate officers, Gowrie commands his troops with a Victorian high-handedness and moralism to which no one else aspires. His views are odiously right-wing, his discipline tyrannical, and he has to be kept as far away from ‘the Press’ as possible. But when a small Catholic boy is blown up by a discarded bomber’s bomb, it breaks the Colonel’s heart – for the boy’s parents and neighbours do not lift a finger to help the child, and even try to stop the Army saving his life.

This nadir in human inhumanity is the climax of the novel. The Colonel becomes withdrawn, loses his reason, and ends up shooting an unarmed IRA teenager in an uncontrollable fit of revenge. Mr Judd’s portrait of the Colonel and of life in a British Army unit in Northern Ireland owes much to Waugh, but it is a vivid, beautifully balanced novel in its own right, and has more chance of ‘timelessness’ than a hundred ‘non-fiction’ appraisals.

Since Sandhurst trains the cadet-officers who go to Northern Ireland, it is interesting to see what their teachers teach. Six of the eight authors responsible for the encyclopedia War in Peace are Sandhurst lecturers, and although the book is very thin on political/religious/ethnic backgrounds to the many campaigns it covers, it is edited by Sir Robert Thompson and is a first-class military hand book, with brilliant maps and a wealth of illuminating photographs, and of facts and figures. From Korea to Afghanistan, from Indo-China to the latest Gulf War, its brief analytical essays give the gory but true military background to the so-called peace we live in.