Book Review – Corps Commanders: Five British and Canadian Generals at War, 1939-45

Douglas E. Delaney, Corps Commanders: Five British and Canadian Generals at War, 1939-45. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 17 maps. 16 pages B/W photographs. Hbk. 387 pp. £73.50.

Reviewed by Andrew Stewart, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, UK Defence Academy

Corps Commanders

This meticulously researched study of higher command during the Second World War confirms its author, a retired infantry officer who has now been a professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada for more than a decade, as one of Canada’s leading historians of this conflict. He has focussed on five wartime generals, three Canadian (Lieutenant-General E.L.M. Burns, Lieutenant-General Guy Simmonds and General Charles Foulkes), and two British (Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks and General Sir John Crocker), and their experiences of commanding corps-sized formation. At times their respective paths crossed, and on occasion they worked together closely as part of ‘the last great British Imperial army’ (p. 305), but this ‘collective biography’ does more than simply provide fascinating biographies of wartime generals. It also examines how the respective armies of the two countries evolved during the first part of the twentieth century and, in many respects, charts the establishment of the system that emerged to lead them.

Each of the ‘Corps Commanders’ is comprehensively and, often, compellingly scrutinised. Whilst each reader will draw their own conclusions, the lengthy chapter dedicated to Horrocks had the greatest resonance for this military educator. As with each of the principals, an opening thesis is posited proposing a central personality tenet that was essential to the individual’s professional development. In Horrocks’ case, the argument is that the British general was actually a consummate actor who employed a variety of skills he had learned throughout his career to instil confidence in the troops under his command. Here was a commander who was ‘a lifelong student of human behaviour’ (p. 16) and ‘understood the psychology of soldiers and what made them fight’ (p. 39). Consequently, he concluded that that ‘the soldier’s greatest enemy was loneliness’ (p. 59) and strove to keep his men occupied and informed. Poised waiting for the battle of Alam Halfa in August 1942 his personal memorandum sent out to his divisional commanders stressed that they should explain to their troops that ‘we have a good plan with every chance of success and provided that the men realise this they will fight with confidence and intelligence’ (p. 26). He believed that the ability of his senior officers, himself included, to inspire the forces they led, was the critical component to the successful restoration of the morale of the Eighth Army; an apparently beaten force only a few months before, the results of the fighting that followed would suggest that he was correct. As the chapter makes clear, Horrocks’ wartime style of command was a reflection of his observations of Major-General Bernard Montgomery, under who he first served during the latter part of the 1940 France campaign. During this, he had successfully conducted a fighting withdrawal and, aside from exposing his talent to Monty, it had proven a formative experience in terms of learning how to draw the most from soldiers facing defeat. The subsequent relationship between student and mentor permeates much of the remaining narrative and the over-riding conclusion reached by the author is that the only difference between the two is that Horrocks ‘was not confident all the time’ and, consequently, he drew upon his actor’s abilities ‘to keep his soldiers fighting’ (p. 58).

For a reader with even a peripheral knowledge of his career there would likely have been some expectation that the events of Operation MARKET GARDEN would feature prominently within the chapter. Here the author opts not to add to the already significant literature, indeed, there is less than one page provided within a chapter that is forty-nine pages in length. The rationale for this is a fair one in so much as it is a well-discussed battle. In terms of the relationship between Monty and ‘Jorrocks’ it could, however, have provided a valuable opportunity to test a number of the conclusions offered elsewhere. This was an operation which involved a flawed and hastily conceived plan that lacked any real rigour and relied both upon the shortcomings of the likely opponent and an unreasonably large degree of good fortune. The question could and indeed has been asked as to the degree to which XXX Corps’ failure – as remarkable as it was that they managed eventually to secure a position north of Nijmegen, they were nonetheless still forced to halt several miles short of their objective at Arnhem – reflect in any way on Horrocks and, if so, in what sense? For example, in reviewing his assessment of the plan it might have been possible to question in closer scrutiny the relationship with Monty that appears to have been so central to his wartime career. The year before he had questioned the initial proposals for what he believed would be an unwarranted, costly breakthrough battle to Tunis (pp. 36-37) and, in the process, angered his Army commander. Now, despite a plan that seemed to lack Monty’s customary level of details he appeared more sanguine. It is a well-trawled battle but, based upon this richly researched examination, there was perhaps an opportunity to provide a valuable addition to the literature considering the psychology of those most directly involved.

The other British commander examined in this study, one perhaps not as well known to the popular writers of the Second World War, was not one of Monty’s men. Nonetheless, when the now post-war Field Marshal eventually decided it was time to retire as Chief of the Imperial Staff he proposed that he should be his replacement. Reading the opening paragraph of General Sir John Crocker’s chapter, the description of him as ‘The Quiet Gentleman’ seems an eminently reasoned one even with the daunting list of accomplishments that resulted from his long and successful military career. His Great War record – a Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order – was exemplary and, following a brief post-war spell as a civilian before re-enlisting as an infantry officer, the author charts how he secured a transfer to the nascent Royal Tank Corps and went on to become a driving force in its development. His relationship with Percy Hobart appears to have been critical to making the organisation work, a considerable achievement for which he has not received adequate recognition. He also formed a close professional relationship with the then Major-General Alan Brooke who handpicked him to act as his GSO1 for what was still termed the ‘Mobile Division’ (in reality, 1st Armoured Division). As the author notes, ‘Crocker’s close association with a future CIGS on the rise helped his career immensely, as Brooke would later be instrumental in arranging appointments to higher command’ (p. 128). This was, however, patronage based on performance and merit as, once more, was most obviously demonstrated during the 1940 France campaign (pp. 128-129). These few weeks proved formative and allowed Crocker to gain a practical awareness and understanding of the previously conceptual study he had made on the modern business of war. He used this knowledge to great effect taking the lead in building up two corps level formations, first XI Corps and then IX Corps, which he himself would lead to North Africa. A particularly interesting section (pp. 133-137) relates to the controversial battle of Fondouk in April 1943 during the Tunisian campaign and corrects any lingering analysis of Crocker’s role. The vast majority of the chapter inevitably is focussed on the Battle for Normandy and the North-West Europe campaign in which he, as commander of I Corps, was central to events. In terms of the Battle of Normandy and the liberation campaign that followed, the author provides an important contribution to what is already known and confirms Crocker to have been one of Britain’s most capable and effective senior military commanders.

For those interested in the Second World War and the role of the higher commander, whether British or Canadian, this is a highly recommended addition to any existing library. Although this review has not referred to them, the chapters on the Canadian commanders are just as compelling as those that focus on their British counterparts, strongly researched, insightful and well-articulated concise biographies. The former, understandably, take up the majority of what is an extremely well-produced volume, one which benefits from numerous maps and photographs. Field Marshal Montgomery had written at the war’s end, ‘One of the first responsibilities of a C-in-C in the field is to create what I would call ‘atmosphere’, and in that atmosphere his staff: his subordinate commanders and his troops will live, and work, and fight. His armies must know what he wants; they must know the basic fundamentals of his policy and must be given firm guidance and a clear ‘lead’. Inspiration and guidance must come from above and must permeate throughout the force’ (21st Army Group, ‘High Command in War’, June 1945). This excellent study, whether it is in the interesting and useful introduction and conclusion, or in the chapters proper, helps provide a better understanding of what this guidance actually meant.

Citation: Andrew Stewart, ‘Review of Douglas E. Delaney, Corps Commanders: Five British and Canadian Generals at War, 1939-45’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 5 July 2013

You can download a copy of the review here.

N.B. This book has now been published in paperback with a RRP of £24.50. Details can be found here.

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4 responses to “Book Review – Corps Commanders: Five British and Canadian Generals at War, 1939-45

  1. Pingback: British Armoured Divisions and their Commanders, 1939-1945 - Pen and Swords Books 4396·

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