Sunday, May 30, 2010

A lack of boats

‘I can hardly believe that I have succeeded in pulling the 4 divisions out of the mess we were in, with allies giving way on all flanks.’ This is Alan Brooke, one of Britain’s foremost military commanders and strategists, writing in his diary 70 years ago today in the midst of the famous May-June 1940 Dunkirk evacuation.

Alan Brooke, was born in France in 1883 into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family with a strong military background. He studied at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and then joined the British Army. He served in Ireland, India and then on the Western Front during the First World War, during which he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel.

Brooke married twice, each marriage producing one son and one daughter. His first wife, Jane Richardson who he married in 1914, died in 1925 in a car accident. He married Benita Lees in 1929. Between the wars, Brooke lectured at Camberley Military College and the Imperial Defense College. In 1937 he was given the command of Britain’s first Mobile Division and the following year he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-General and became head of the Territorial Anti-Aircraft Corps.

In August 1939, Brooke was appointed head of Southern Command; and, on the outbreak of the war, he went to France as a member of the British Expeditionary Force (commander of II Corps, which included the 3rd Division led by the then Major-General Bernard Montgomery) under the overall command of General John Gort.

When the German offensive began, Wikipedia explains, Brooke distinguished himself in the handling of the British forces in the retreat to Dunkirk: ‘In late May 1940 the Corps held the major German attack on the Ypres-Comine Canal but then found its left flank exposed by the capitulation of the Belgian army. Brooke swiftly ordered 3rd Division to switch from the Corps’ right flank to cover the gap. This was accomplished in a complicated night-time manoeuvre. Pushing more troops north to counter the threat to the embarking troops at Dunkirk from German units advancing along the coast, II Corps retreated to Dunkirk where on 29 May Brooke was ordered to return to England, leaving the Corps in Montgomery’s hands.’

Brooke returned to Britain and in July 1940 was appointed commander of the Home Forces, and then, despite disagreements with Winston Churchill about military strategy, to Chief of Imperial Staff in December 1941, effectively making him the head of the army. As the war progressed, Brooke gradually became Churchill’s most important military adviser. Indeed, when offered command of the British troops in the Middle East, in 1942, he turned the posting down because he believed it necessary to stay close to Churchill to stop him making any major military mistakes.

Later in the war, when he no longer felt the need to stay by Churchill’s side, Brooke expected to be made head of the Allied invasion of Western Europe, but the job went to the American Dwight D Eisenhower, leaving Brooke bitterly disappointed. Brooke was promoted to Field Marshal in 1944 and was created Baron Alanbrooke of Brookeborough in 1945. After retiring from the British Army he became a director of several companies, President of the Zoological Society, and Vice-President of the RSPB. He died in 1963.

Throughout the war, Brooke kept a detailed diary. Although not intended for publication, he changed his mind about this, apparently, because he felt he (and other chiefs of staff) had been given too little credit in Churchill’s memoirs. Brooke’s diaries were first edited by Arthur Bryant as a history of the war in two volumes: The Turn of the Tide published by Doubleday in 1957, and Triumph in the West by Collins in 1959. An uncensored version - War Diaries 1939-1945 - appeared in 2001 published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (edited by Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman). Much of this latter book is available for view at Googlebooks, and a few pages can be read at Amazon.

Here is part of one entry (taken from War Diaries 1939-1945) dated 70 years ago today, in the middle of the Dunkirk Evacuation.

30 May 1940
‘. . . I can hardly believe that I have succeeded in pulling the 4 divisions out of the mess we were in, with allies giving way on all flanks. Now remains the task of embarking which will be a difficult one. Went to see how embarkation was proceeding and found the whole thing at a standstill owing to a lack of boats!! Went to see Gort and got little satisfaction. Then found Sykes telephone to sec of 1st Sea Lord, returned to Gort to get him to telephone to 1st Sea Lord to press for marines, more ships and boats. Arranged for Monty to take over Corps, Anderson to replace him [3rd Division], and Horrocks to replace Anderson [11 Infantry Brigade]. Visited all Div Commanders to say goodbye. . .

Went down to beach at 7:15pm, was carried out to open boat, and with Ronnie Stanyforth and Barney Charlesworth we paddled out to the destroyer and got aboard. There I found Adam, to my great joy. We have been waiting till 10pm before starting, rather nerve wracking as the Germans are continually flying round and being shot at, and after seeing the ease with which a few bombs can sink a destroyer, it is an unpleasant feeling.

Later: We never started until 12:15am, at 3am we were brought up short with a crash. I felt certain that we had hit a mine or been torpedoed. But she remained on an even keel and after some shuffling about proceeded on slowly. I heard later from the commander that he had 3 routes to select from, one was under gun fire from the coast, one had had a submarine and mines reported in it, and the other was very shallow at low water. He chose the latter and hit the bottom, damaging a propeller slightly. Finally arrived at Dover at 7:15am. Wonderful feeling of peace after the last 3 weeks!’

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