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  • Gort’s Longest Hour August 21, 2015

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    Lord Gort

    Long before Tolstoy ruined War and Peace with his reflections on the role of great men in history humans sat down and debated the ability of individuals to influence events. Beach is a bit of a heretic in this. He believes passionately that men and women not ‘impersonal forces’ (whatever the hell they are) make history. He has just been struck that often those who do the influencing are not those at the very peak of the pyramid, but those immediately below being crushed under the weight of the golden key stone. Take Lord Gort… Lord Gort is almost entirely forgotten today and yet this brave, bumbling (see photograph), anal and often ineffective British general took the single most important British decision of the Second World War, a decision that, somewhat against the odds, Gort got right. As said decision allowed Britain to continue fighting through 1940 and 1941 until ‘the cousins’, with some prodding from Japan, entered the war, it might be argued he made the most important decision of the war, period.

    In October 1939 Lord Gort was made commander of the British Expeditionary Force, almost all of Britain’s European army, some 300,000 men based in France to defend Britain’s most important continental ally. His equivalent in the First World War had been Lord Haig, a man of quite different caliber. Gort was deferential to French commanders and took orders from the French cabinet. The WW2 BEF became, under Gort, in fact, a kind of French army corp. Gort allowed the, in retrospect, disastrous decision for the BEF to enter Belgium to meet the Germans rushing south; a strategy that the French would also have cause to regret. He sat tight as the Germans sent their panzers crashing through the French army and towards the sea with their sickle cut, the Sichelschnitt.

    Gort found himself in an unenviable position. The bulk of the BEF was holding the line towards the French coast with the French general Giraud and his divisions. The choice was a simple one. Fight on with the French and risk being rolled up by the Wehrmacht or run for the sea and risk being rolled up by the Wehrmacht. With our greater knowledge, today, of the extent of the French collapse, it is obvious that the second choice was the better one, at least for the UK. But the British and the French, both the military and the political classes could simply not believe what was happening: to be fair much of the German leadership was astounded as well. The French army had been the most highly rated in the world before the outbreak of war. Churchill particularly, who had only come into office two weeks before was adamant that Gort and his men must fight south, break the German lines and form up with the French again.

    The Germans had reached the sea by the 20 May and from that point on the British were surrounded on three sides by the Germans and by the sea to the north. 22 May Gort, who had largely (and perhaps in some cases deliberately) lost touch with the French command led an attack on the German lines at Arras: an attack that is sometimes argued to have been the most successful Allied effort of the Battle for France. That would be a reasonable judgement if and only if the moderate British success at Arras was one of the reasons Hitler called his notorious Halt order. If that is the case then Gort’s order to attack on 22 May should rate as the second most important decision of the war.

    However, the most important moment in Gort’s life came on the afternoon of 25 May. The morning after (26) was to begin with a modest British attack to the south to meet the French coming north. Churchill had sent definite orders that Gort was to take up that attack (even though by this point he had few operational tanks and it would have involved sending infantry against panzers). But by 25 Gort  reached a personal crisis. Intelligence brought in (captured by some resourceful Tommies who’d walked into a German car with an officer and briefcase) showed that the Germans were about to attack in force from Belgium; Gort also had ceased to believe in French promises. He either followed orders and kept his rendezvous with the French and pushed south; or he pushed north to counter the German attack, moving conveniently against the last of the Channel ports to remain in Allied hands, Dunkirk. Gort, at 5.00 pm that day went into his office to mull things over and an hour later he had decided to send reinforcements north. Many historians have noted that it is almost incredible that Gort took this long to make what should have been an obvious decision. But Gort was disobeying a direct order from the British executive and abandoning the French: he also had a long memory of crises in the First World War where the Allies had got through by the skin of their teeth, by fighting hard not by running for home.

    Gort is not a particularly popular general among historians: he was a myopic bulldog, following orders and showing himself too trusting of the French. One of the few people to praise Gort for his decision was his biographer J.R.Colville.

    Perhaps as the Last Post [at Gort’s funeral in 1946] sounded, a few of those present may have reflected that if in May, 1940, Gort had taken the easy road of obedience to orders which he felt in his heart were wrong, there might have been no Stalingrad or Alamein and the breaking of the Axis might have long remained a daydream in the imagination of a captive Europe and a helpless America.

    Gort was extremely pessimistic that any but a fraction of the BEF could get home, and he was right to be. But because of uncharacteristic German mistakes 340,000 British, French and Belgian troops were carried over to Britain from 26 May to 3 June.

    There is something rather pleasing about the fact that the three most important individuals in Britain’s war effort were: a pathologically unimaginative general; an air commodore who spent much of his time in the spirit world; and a Prime Minister who believed he was being guided by a personal daemon. No sane job interviewer would have given any of them a second interview let alone a contract, and yet without them the sickle cut and much that came afterwards would have been a guillotine…

    24 Aug 2015: Stephen D writes in ‘Maybe not too late to correct minor error in your post on Gort. His counterpart in WWI as the first commander of the BEF was John French, not Douglas Haig (whose name you have misspelt). I would agree that both were very different from Gort: French a brilliant cavalry commander in South Africa, but unequal to the strain of command in a European war; Haig of a very different calibre from either (not sure if you been that as praise or otherwise: I would rate Haig quite highly). You do mention that Gort was brave. Indeed: VC as battalion commander, DSO with two bars …’ Thanks and apologies to Haig!