Fundamentally, nothing is wrong with the British Army. In the last analysis an army consists of human beings and, within limits, its fortunes in war depend on the spirit and determination of the men who compose it. The rank and file, and the great bulk of the officers and noncommissioned officers of all ranks, are good material, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, and whenever they have been well led they have fought with the greatest fortitude and determination. Thus, to take only one example, a little-publicized battle was that fought on the Sittang River in the Burma campaign.
There the handful of British troops engaged fought under every disadvantage, including trying climatic conditions, with a bravery and tenacity worthy of the traditions of the most famous troops of the past. Yet stout hearts and patriotism do not alone make for victory, especially under modern conditions. It is as true of British troops as of any others that they can become demoralized, lose faith in themselves and their leaders and go to pieces.
This is even more true under modern conditions than of the campaigns of the past. A forced retreat today can more easily become a rout because of the devastating effects of the air arm and the difficulties of providing air cover for an army in full retreat. There is no time for the recovery of morale, the men become physically and mentally exhausted and are
apt to deteriorate into a rabble, and I repeat that this can happen in any army even with the best of discipline-in the true sense of the word-and complete faith in the leadership. It is more likely to happen when these conditions are lacking.
The British Army, apart from many individual acts of bravery, has not shown up well in this war. Wherever it has fought on the mainland of Europe, whether in France, Norway or Greece, it has been decisively defeated. The one exception was the brilliant combined operations leading to the capture of Narvik. Here Poles, Norwegians and French fought alongside the British, but the command and the staff work, both ashore and afloat, were British.
Britain’s Only Victories
If we leave out of account minor expeditions against the Vichy French, the British Army has two victories to its credit against the Italians. These were the well-planned and finely executed conquest of East Africa, and General Wavell’s first advance into Libya and the conquest of Cyrenaica. With these exceptions, against both the Japanese and the Germans, the British Army has only chronicled a dismal record of failures.
Yet the officers and men composing the British Army are of the same breed as the officers and men of the British Navy and Air Force. Though there have been bad strategical dispositions, such as those which led to the loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse off Singapore, the British Navy has proved itself efficient and resolute right from the beginning of the war. Its technical efficiency is far higher than in the last war. Its tradition of “No Surrender,” even in the face of hopeless odds, has been more gloriously maintained than ever before. The Royal Air Force combines high technical efficiency with skill and gallantry, and it has been more than a match for the Germans, Italians and Japanese right through this war. Why this difference?
Why is the prestige of the British Navy and Air Force so high and that of the British Army, to put it bluntly, so low? One short answer is that if pilots and their machines are not efficient they meet death in the air, whether in peace or war, while defects in personnel and materiel at sea lead to shipwreck even in peacetime. It would be an oversimplification to say that an army can be defective in training, materiel and system of command and nobody might notice its flaws until it meets the enemy.
The matter goes much deeper.
This is a people’s war, but the British Army is not yet a people’s army; it is becoming so, though the process is of necessity a slow one. It was I who first reminded my fellow countrymen that if General Rommel had had the good fortune to be born on the British side of the North Sea he would still be a sergeant; indeed, he would probably now be a retired sergeant, perhaps keeping a country inn.
It is true that in the past a certain number of rankers in the British Army have become generals. Today, in theory, all officers must pass through the ranks. Rommel is the aggressive, highly intelligent type who does not, as a rule, find favor either with the British sergeants or junior officers of a regiment. Unless he had been fortunate enough to serve in the British Army under the type of commanding officer who is always looking out for talent and pushing it forward (and such do exist), he might have got no further than the corporal’s rank of his present leader Hitler. It would be a miracle if he had been allowed to command the second most important army under the direction of the British War Office. Yet Rommel was a member of the German middle class, the son of a professor in Munich University, and entered the German army as a private in a technical corps.
In the World War of 1914-18, a large part of the British Army, especially at the beginning, were the territorials-part-time soldiers whose officers nevertheless gave up a great deal of time during the peace years to the study of the art of war. Only one territorial officer in the immense British Army of 1914-18 was ever allowed to command troops as a general in the field. Today there is in the British Army no officer above the rank of Brigadier commanding any sort of fighting formation who is not a member of the small professional officers’ corps of the prewar small regular army.
Not only is the British Army still organized on a class basis, but in practice it is dominated by a clique within a class. In the Spanish Civil War, Malcolm Dunbar rose to be chief of staff of the International Brigade, and by his brilliant tactics won the battle of the Ebro. He proved himself a great leader and a brilliant tactician. He joined the British Army at the outbreak of the present war and is still a corporal in the tank corps.
In Control of the Army
That is this clique within a class which controls the British Army, and which was strong enough to resist the attempts at democratization by Hore- Belisha when he was War Minister, and which is fighting a strong rear-guard action against every worth-while innovation now.
Before 1914 the landed gentry were an important element in the British social system. They formed a kind of untitled aristocracy and secured most of the best positions in the machinery of state, and particularly in the army and diplomacy. The first World War, with the heavy taxation and especially the death duties, led to the breaking up of the estates of these British junkers, and their influence in the English countryside has now much diminished. But they managed to keep the small regular prewar army as their close preserve.
Intensely conservative, allergic to all change and innovation, they always train the army under their control for the next war in the methods learned in the war before. In the Crimean War, in the last century, there were bitter complaints that the British Army insisted on the methods of the Peninsular War against Napoleon. In the South African War they began with the close-order drill and technique of the Crimean War. In the first World War the South African veterans pinned their faith to rifle and shrapnel shells, ignoring the machine-gun and barbed-wire lessons of the Russo-Japanese War of a decade before.
In the second World War, in happy comradeship with the French General Staff, from whom they caught the Maginot-Line disease, they thought they could settle down to the old-fashioned trench fighting of 1918.
The Fight Against Progress
In the first World War this hierarchy fought hard against the innovation of the tank, and this great British military invention was finally forced upon them by the Admiralty War Staff. After the Armistice they were still unconverted to the new methods. The few British officers who visualized what the next war would be like were treated worse than the French General Staff dealt with De Gaulle.
De Gaulle, at any rate, had a command in the field, but his British prototypes were refused active employment. We saw the results in France and in Libya. Far from understanding modern mechanized warfare, they regarded the tank merely as a supporting arm for the infantry. It was the same story with antitank guns, heavy mobile artillery and air co-operation.
Worse still, there was a premium in the years between the wars on what we called “safe” men, conventional, dull, destitute of ideas, giving no trouble to their superiors. These were promoted, and, although some of them are good leaders in the field, it is unfortunately true that only one British general, with the necessary mental equipment plus the other qualities required of a great leader-Wavell-has so far managed to win through to high position against the obstruction of the government clique. And Wavell in action was not sufficient of a “yes” man to suit either the British Prime Minister or his military advisers, and, having had his advice disregarded over the Greek episode, was relegated to what was then the backwater of the Indian Command.
The result is what might be expected. The British Army has been expanded from a force of 150,000 regulars and 600,000 territorials into a regular army of 3,500,000. But the key positions are still held by men drawn from a very narrow circle. Their influence permeates right through to all ranks. These leaders are brave, public-spirited and mean well. But they have not yet grasped either the technique or the nature of the present war. Brought up in the imperialist school, serving at least half their periods of regimental service in India or colonial garrisons, out of touch with the main currents of popular feeling and opinion, they have been quite incapable either in Whitehall or on the battle front of understanding a modern totalitarian war.
It had never occurred to them that Malaya and Burma could only be defended against the Japanese hordes by their own native hordes, drilled, organized and equipped for war. They could not bring themselves until too late to accept the help of the Chinese armies for the defense of Hong Kong, Singapore and Burma, and they cannot bring themselves now to accept the help of the great masses of the Indian people. The army itself, despite its diverse character, is in its organization and discipline still run on the old idea that the rank and file are drawn from the labouring class and their officers from a governing class of born and hereditary leaders.
The Hope of the British Army
Even now it is easier for a young man of no marked ability who belongs to the right class to be commissioned and get subsequent promotion than for a brilliant natural leader of working class origin to gain advancement. But matters are improving. The framework is there. The British Army has a great asset in its faithful non-commissioned officers, the sergeants and corporals. They are the true representatives of the old British yeoman class. It has been gradually realized that the mechanically minded man who understands machines and the handling of them is likely to make a better officer, assuming the other qualities, than the half-educated product of the British public-school system.
Power is slipping from the hands of a decadent section of the British ruling class. Its privileges are going with the loss of its power. The disappearance of class privilege will enable the genius of the British race to manifest itself on the field of battle. The need for this relief is all the more urgent as the shape of things to come in the technique of warfare begins to unfold itself. The panzer division, with close air co operation, is not the last word in military development. An even faster tempo of the battlefield will be achieved by the ever greater use of air transport. We see the beginning of this development already, on the Russian front and in North Africa. Whole divisions, with their artillery, mortars, light tanks and supplies, will be transported by air. The air-borne attack on Crete will be enlarged and multiplied as a method. The tactical possibilities for a modern military genius will be immense.
The United Nations, with their greater potential production of aircraft and their greater reserves of pilots to fly them, are favorably situated to take advantage of this new technique of the flying army and to wrest again the initiative from the Wehrmacht.
And obviously, such a damning article, however relevant, should be eligible for brickbats. Below is the official brickbat thrown at it from the exalted heights of the House of Lords on 01 Oct 1942 –
Lord Lovat had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty’s Government, whether the censor passed for publication an article purporting to be by the Lord Strabolgi and entitled “What’s wrong with the British Army?” which is stated to have been cabled from London and appears in Collier’s magazine dated 22nd August, 1942; and also move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have raised this question because I feel that a blow has been dealt in the United States against the faith that they may possess in our Generals and in our competence as a fighting race. The article entitled “What’s wrong with the British Army?” is not of itself of vast importance, and I add to what publicity it has already received only because I regard it as a point of view expressed at home and abroad far too frequently to-day. The publication is a random and ill-reasoned piece of journalism. Nobody can call it constructive. It is an article which is confused. I venture to say that it is perhaps best described by picturing the noble Lord who wrote it mounted on a variety of political hobby horses careering, “a Knight or Peer errant his pen between his teeth across a full page of Collier’s magazine.”
Still, from the confusion there emerge two objectionable facts, the first of style, the second of matter. The first of style. It is this. The article is over-burdened with sentences which lend themselves to be quoted out of their context and used with little or no distortion as British-made ammunition for the enemy’s propaganda guns. I will quote an example: The British Army has only chronicled a dismal record of failures. Its leaders are brave, public-spirited men, but they have not grasped either the technique or the nature of the present war. Brought up in the Imperialist school, out of touch with the common current of popular feeling and opinion, they have been quite incapable either in Whitehall or on the battle front of understanding a modern totalitarian war. Surely the noble Lord was aware when he penned these resounding phrases of the danger which they would cause at the other end. Surely the Censorship, versed one hopes in the art of propaganda, realized the danger when this offensive literature-I cannot call it more than that-was cabled across the Atlantic Ocean.
The article says that “the British Army … has not shown up well in this war.” If the Daily Worker had published similar remarks they would have caused a sensation in this country. Published in the name of the noble Lord, who is both a Peer and a recent Lieut Commander in the Royal Navy, they have been taken more or else as accepted facts. I should just like to read an extract from a speech made by the Minister of Information as recently as March 26, 1942, in the House of Commons. Speaking of the Censorship he said: The rules, I regret to say, proved not altogether adequate for the protection of certain essential interests of this country abroad, where on several occasions the true position here has been gravely misrepresented, and stories emanating from London have been published which could only foment ill-feeling between ourselves and our Allies or neutral countries. In future censors will be empowered to exercise a stricter control with a view to stopping any Press message calculated to create ill-feeling between the United Nations.… I think that that extract from a recent speech more or less speaks for itself. I can only suggest that the Minister of Information is either wasting his time or else he is sadly out of contact with public feeling on the question of the Censorship in this country to-day. Bloomsbury seems to be drawing rapidly nearer to Fleet Street.
More serious is the matter and manner of attack made by the noble Lord on our military leadership. What is the essence of this attack? Stripped of political adornment, it is more or less this-our military defeats are due to lack of faith in our Generals; there is no faith in our Generals because they are bad Generals, and they are bad Generals because they are professional soldiers. Bunkum! Apprenticeship in a technical trade then appears to be a waste of time. Tell that to the A.E.U. Lord Strabolgi alleges that our professional soldiers are drawn from a clique, from what he terms a clique of British Junkers, from a class within a class. I quote again: To-day there is in the British Army no officer above the rank of Brigadier commanding any sort of fighting formation who is not a member of the small professional Officers’ Corps of the pre-war Regular Army. More democratic in the eyes of the writer is the German method of promotion of von Brauchwitsch, von Kleist, von Runstedt, von Manstein, von Bock, von Leeb and von Keitel. Of all the vons and Freiherrs of the German General Staff there is not a mention. Why?
Yet Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel has been produced by the noble Lord as a white rabbit is produced by a conjuror out of his pocket, to confuse the issue. Clearly the noble Lord has not taken sufficient trouble to check up his facts about Field-Marshal Rommel. When I speak to the House I take the trouble to go fairly carefully into details beforehand. It is my duty as a soldier, even in a junior capacity, to know something about my opponent and I have taken the trouble to find out that the suggestion made by Lord Strabolgi about Rommel being a type of man who would never have got on in a British regiment, a man who would have quarrelled with his sergeants and junior officers, is altogether false. I should like to ask my noble friend why he says that Rommel is an aggressive type of man who would have remained a corporal or a sergeant in the British Army? I venture to suggest that I have had more recent contacts than the noble Lord with the German Forces, and I can assure him that their discipline is every bit as good as ours. As soon as that discipline goes, the German Army will go just in the same way as the French collapsed because of no discipline.
I should like to tell the House some more facts about Field-Marshal Rommel. Rommel’s father was an officer. That is something that is not generally known. His father, it is true, subsequently became a schoolmaster, but after the outbreak of the last war he returned to the German Army and commanded a fairly considerable depot during the whole of the war. These facts have been carefully left out in this argument. Rommel himself is now said to be the most successful professional soldier in the German Army. He joined it at the age of eighteen in 1910, served through the last war as a subaltern, and was not promoted to the rank of Captain until after the war in 1918. From then on he has continued to succeed, working his way slowly through the arduous process that eventually brings a man to the top and makes him a Field-Marshal. He has now thirty-two years of uninterrupted service in the German Army behind him. Reading Collier’s magazine one would assume that after a whiff of grapeshot he was given a baton. That is very far from being the case. I should like to ram that point home.
Perhaps, by “democratic Army,” the noble Lord means a political Army. What else does he mean? I suggest that he changes his tune or his conclusions will be regarded as a prelude to class warfare. I should like him to come down one day and make sense out of some of his views to my Commandos. I have the honour to command men representing 58 British regiments. They are men in whom there is simple faith-they have no politics. Theirs is the faith which made our forebears feared and respected on every foreign battlefield on which they fought. If any tub-thumping politician came round to these men to raise any question about their leaders there would be only one answer-the nearest horse trough. But if the prickings of this free-lance are more irritating than dangerous, the sentiment which inspired them is not. It is the sentiment of an irresponsible politician making cheap capital out of men in His Majesty’s Forces who are unable, except through an unworthy mouthpiece like myself, to make suitable reply. It is the mocking of men who have given their lives for their country. It is the ridiculing of His Majesty’s Forces for lack of experience, when that experience, and, I may add, arms and equipment also, were denied them by the parsimony of peace-time Governments-Governments which said: “Peace at any price.” It is an inexcusable attempt to mix politics with soldiering. This is a free country, my Lords. If Lord Strabolgi wishes to slander the British Army he may do so here in safety, but to send his defamations across the Atlantic Ocean and have them circulated through the length and breadth of the United States is an unworthy act that has brought upon him the contempt of his fellow-countrymen. I beg to move for Papers.