Every club in the bag

Michael Howard

  • The Chiefs: The Story of the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff by Bill Jackson and Dwin Bramall
    Brassey, 508 pp, £29.95, April 1992, ISBN 0 08 040370 0

Although most people, however reluctantly, take some interest in war, precious few bother their heads about organising for war in peacetime. It is a subject, like dental care, both dull and mildly repellent. Until the beginning of this century, few Englishmen thought it necessary at all. The Navy, so it was hoped, would defend our shores (probably against the French) and the Army would police, and where necessary extend, the Empire. Both Services went their own ways to general public approval, so long as they made minimal demands on the taxpayer. Then the humiliations suffered by the Army in the Boer War, and the near-simultaneous naval threat from Germany, made it clear that in the 20th century national defence would require more sustained attention than during the 19th, and that it was now too serious a matter to be left to the generals. But how it should be handled, and who should handle it, has been a matter of bitter contention, both in war and in peace-time, from that day to this.

Now we have two generals writing a big book about it. With trained military skill they camouflage their identity on the dust-jacket: Bill Jackson and Dwin Bramall they call themselves, for all the world as if they were just reporters on the sunday Times. Then on the title-page they unmask their batteries, and we find that we are actually in the hands of General Sir William Jackson, GBE KCB MC MA, and Field Marshal Lord Bramall KG GCB OBE MC JP (JP indeed!). No artillery comes heavier than that. The title is also a little misleading: our generals tell the story, not just of ‘the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff’, as they claim, but of higher defence organisation as a whole, which necessarily extends beyond the uniformed heads of the Armed Forces to include politicians and, increasingly, civil servants. Indeed, the story they have to tell could almost be summarised as that of the battles fought by heads of the Armed Services trying to defend their turf against the civilians, and usually losing.

Almost, but not quite. The reason the civilians have usually won is that for most of their existence the Chiefs of Staff have been engaged in acrimonious internecine conflict among themselves, and their inability to reach agreed decisions meant that their political masters had to make up their minds for them. It all began when at the beginning of the century A.J. Balfour tried to create at least a framework for the making of a common defence policy by setting up the Committee for Imperial Defence. The Navy ignored it, and went ahead with plans for a war against Germany so totally at variance with those of the Army that the issue had to be settled by the politicians in Cabinet (in favour of the Army).

When war came, the two Services went their separate ways: ways which so exasperated the political leadership that in 1917 Lloyd George intervened to change them, compelling the Navy to introduce convoys before the country starved, and the Army to suspend its offensives in Flanders before it bled to death. All that remained of Balfour’s grandiose Committee of Imperial Defence was its secretary Maurice Hankey, indispensable and ubiquitous, with a secretariat that attempted to impose some order on the conduct of the war and to persuade naval, military and political leaders at least to talk to each other.

After the war the C1D was revived, and two new factors led to a further step. The first was the creation of a third service, the Royal Air force; the second, economic stringency on an entirely new scale. Some form of communication, if not co-operation, between the Services was clearly essential if their slender share of a shrinking national cake was to be divided rationally between them. The idea of a common Ministry of Defence was mooted, only to be dismissed as impracticable. The Service Chiefs hated and continued to hate it. Whereas they could control their civil servants in the Admiralty, the War Office and the new Air Ministry, and rely on them to fight their corner against the Treasury, a Ministry of Defence, they shrewdly judged, would simply be Treasury control under a different name. Hankey, anxious not to see his influence diminished, persuaded the politicians that Service affairs were far too complex to be mastered by any single minister, and no political leader was prepared to grasp the nettle – neither inexperieitccd Labour nor conservative Conservatives. Instead a Committee of the Chiefs of Staff was set up in 1926 as a sub-committee of the CID, and the Chiefs were solemnly instructed by the Prime Minister, that ‘all considerations concerning a single Service’ should be ‘subordinated to the main object of National and Imperial Defence which the three Services have in common’. What a hope.

That is where our generals’ story really begins, and they tell it very well. They have done a lot of research, and they write not only about what they know but often about whom they know. Both worked in the secretariat of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, and Bramall himself climbed to the top of the slippery pole, becoming not only Chief of the General Staff (effectively head of the Army) but Chief of the Defence Staff, a supremo role that the Services did their best to abort and, having failed to do that, to castrate. Their intimate knowledge of their subject is evident in a passage describing how the system actually worked:

Each Chief would arrive bowed down with copious written briefs, all flagged up with alphabetical tags to give him easy access to key papers, facts and figures. Thus armed, he was expected to fight his corner and achieve what the various echelons of his department judged to be in the best interests of his Service and, ipso facto, of the country as well ... However much a Chief believed in his own personal ideas, he would always be afraid of letting his Service down by overlooking some crucial factor, by compromising too soon, or by failing to master his brief and just returning to his staff empty-handed. For most of the time sheer pressure of work compelled the top men to accept their briefs without too much questioning and ordering their briefers back to the drawing-board.

Even indifferent Chiefs were thus compelled to be aggressive for fear of letting down their side, and our authors are very frank about the number who were indifferent. The Army in particular has had a penchant for producing ‘good fighting soldiers’ who were quite out of their depth in Whitehall, starting with their first member the Earl of Cavan – described by the waspish Henry Wilson as ‘ignorant, pompous, vain and narrow, but a nice man and a fine fighting soldier’. But Cavan’s colleagues were the formidable Beatty for the Navy and the even more formidable Trenchard for the RAF, and the conflict between these two mastodons paralysed defence policy-making for nearly a decade. When in due course Beatty gave way to the very able Chatfield, and Trenchard to more emollient, if hardly less doctrinaire successors, matters went no more smoothly. When re-armament began in 1935 the Navy saw the threat from Japan as its highest priority, the Army was crippled by its imperial commitments, but neither was prepared to see the RAF enjoy primacy in planning for a war against Germany. Priorities were ultimately determined by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who happened to be Neville Chamberlain. The lion’s share went to the RAF to ‘deter’ Hitler, enough for the Navy to show the flag at Singapore, and the Army was confined to Home and Imperial Defence. The priorities were rational enough, but unworkable. History was to be repeated two decades later in 1957, when Duncan Sandys as Ministcr for Defence gave nuclear weapons an overriding priority and abolished National Service; and a quartet of a century after that, when John Nott wrote off ‘out of area’ commitments, and slashed back the Navy on the eve of the Falklands affair. But the greatest civilian despot of them all was Winston Churchill, who, having observed the disastrous fumblings of the First World War at first hand, imposed his own dominance in the Second, and reported, of his experience with the Chiefs of Staff; ‘you assemble in conclave the most gallant of soldiers, the most audacious sailor and the most intrepid airman and what do you get? The sum of their fears!’ Able though the Chiefs of Staff were, it was Churchill who actually ran the war.

Attlee was no Churchill, but he did inherit from him a vestigial Ministry of Defence. But the Chiefs were united in their determination to keep ‘the Centre’ impotent and, like Merovingian barons, continued fighting their own private wars – wars which, in the Forties, consisted very largely of Montgomery against the rest. This did not matter so long as they had plenty of men and money to dispose of, which, thanks to the Cold War, they had. A common statement at the time, as 1 myself remember, was that our troops had to be equipped with ‘every club in the bag’. But in the Fifties the men and money ran out, and so did the patience of the political leaders. Labour had been too ignorant, and Conservatives too tolerant, to intervene, but Macmillan had both the expertise and the will to do something about it. The Suez debacle gave him his chance, in this as in so much else. He appointed as Minister of Defence the formidable hatchet-man Duncan Sandys. The Chiefs had to stop fighting each other and concentrate on defending themselves against the assault from the Centre, and the fun really began.

The Chiefs argued, and still argue, that power should go with responsibility. As heads of then respective Services, they had ultimate responsibility for the lives of their men, which could not be devolved onto any civilian. Further, the task of each of the Services was unique: soldiers could not command naval forces, nor airmen direct armies. The argument was, in fact, fundamentally flawed. In World War Two General Eisenhower did control fleets, and in Italy Kesselring, the German Air Force general, very capably commanded armies. Any kind of administrative centralisation was resisted on the grounds that it would destroy Service autonomy and morale, putting everyone into a ‘mud-coloured uniform’; and an ill-judged attempt by the Canadians to do just that (purple taking the place of mud) provided them with plausible arguments. Particularly did they resist the creation of any kind of uniformed supremo, a Chief of Defence Staff; and when such a post was forced down their throats, they ensured that the wretched man should have only a minimal staff, should have to draw all his information from the individual Services, and act only as the spokesman of the collective Chiefs.

An even more formidable adversary than Sandys, however, was lurking in the wings – Lord Mountbatten of Burma, no less. Mountbatten had already been a super-supremo during the war and enjoyed the experience. He had then reverted to humble rank in the Navy, but had graduated to the top of the Service as First Sea Lord. He was now the Buggins whose turn it was to become Chief of Defence Staff, and he was determined to make the job mean something. His colleagues were equally determined that it should not, so the battle-lines were again drawn. But Mountbatten outgunned them. He pulled every string in sight, and a lot out of sight: in Parliament, Downing Street, the Palace and the press. Thanks to his remorseless activity (‘Dicky, you’re so crooked that if you swallowed a nail you’d shit a corkscrew,’ an exasperated colleague complained), the separate Service ministries were abolished and a unified ministry created with the head of the three Services co-located with the Secretary of State in a single huge drab building in Whitehall. The Chiefs were able to limit the damage by ensuring that Mountbatten’s own powers were not significantly increased, and his successors were careful to remain strictly within their briefs, but a new and yet more dangerous adversary now loomed: the Centre.

Even during the period of his greatest weakness, the minister had had a central staff with co-ordinating functions: pathetically weak when compared with the teams in the Service ministries, but enough to service and advise a strong minister like Duncan Sandys. Now the Permanent Under-Secretary became a force to be reckoned with, controlling as he did all the civil servants throughout the three Services. The Armed Forces might retain their autonomy, but the civil servants with whom they worked – without whom they could not work – owed their loyalty to the Centre. Equally important, in times of increasingly complex equipment, was the post of Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry, especially when it was held by so influential and politically astute a figure as Solly Zuckerman. The PUS and the CSA now constituted with the Chief of Defence Staff a trinity of advisers to the Minister, in which the CDS was by no means necessarily the most important member.

This was the system that Denis Healey found when he because Secretary of State in 1964, and it suited him admirably. He had his own strong and well-informed ideas about defence policy, and did not need a powerful uniformed supremo to second-guess them. For advice on nuclear policy, a field into which the Armed Forces were always reluctant to enter, he turned to Zuckerman and to the young men in the PUS’s secretariat: figures like Frank Cooper and Michael Quinlan, who were themselves to become powerful Permanent Secretaries in the course of time. Financial stringency meant that the high-spending Services once more had to turn their fire on one another, and the Navy and the RAF battled, with a desperation reminiscent of the days of Beatty and Trenchard, over which was to bear the main responsibility for maintaining Britain’s role East of Suez. The issue, as our Generals sardonically define it, was almost academic: ‘could the RAF, using American F111s, which had not yet flown, let alone been bought, support the Army in operations East of Suez, using island airfields, which had not yet been built in the Indian Ocean, more cheaply than the Navy using carriers, which the country was unlikely to be able to afford anyway?’

Mercifully the matter was resolved by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as it had been in the days of Neville Chamberlain: the country could not afford a role Fast of Suez at all. But in spite of shrunken commitments, costs continued to escalate throughout the Seventies, until another hatchet-man. John Nott, was sent in by another impatient prime minister to sort things out à la Sandys, with results we all remember.

The Nott experience left bitter memories, especially in the Navy, but was not entirely negative. It enabled a far more subtle CDS than Mountbatten, Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, to persuade his colleagues that unless they hung together they would continue to be picked off separately. A strong military centre was needed if they were to stand up to the politicians and the civil servants. Since then the position of the CDS has been steadily enhanced, and the Chiefs of Staff have increasingly been downgraded to the role of managers of their Services. The process was speeded by the advent of Michael Heseltine, another ambitious politician anxious to make his mark in a hurry, who pushed through managerial reforms that further centralised functional responsibilities. Finally, Service independence received what was virtually its coup de grâce with the appointment as CDS of an officer. General Sir Richard Vincent, who had never been head of his own Service at all.

On the whole the Chiefs have accepted their downgrading with a good grace. They are not fools. The Services themselves take great care to groom for stardom individuals who will do them credit in Whitehall, in Westminster and in the country as a whole. Each shudderingly remembers black spots on its record which it is determined not to repeat. Bramall himself served as a staff officer to Mountbatten and learned then, not only what needed to be done, but how not to do it. He was fortunate enough to be CGS at the time of the Falklands conflict, when apparently the system worked very well. But real war must have come as something of a relief after the endless bickering and in-fighting in the corridors of Whitehall; and that is still the prospect that confronts the unfortunate Chiefs into the indefinite future.