Monday, September 23, 2019

A new phase of history

‘The war is coming nearer and nearer to us and it makes one think all the more. We are living in a new phase of history the course of which no man can foresee. Nobody believed that we should be engaged in war, certainly not in a death struggle so soon. We made no preparations, even for war industry to be developed, and we cannot now catch up. It is too late. The year may see us beaten, but it cannot bring us to the defeat of Germany, unless it is by economic means.’ This is from the diaries of Sir Edmund Ironside, a British army general veteran of both world wars, who died 60 years ago today. His diaries, which are extremely readable, provide a fascinating glimpse of British decision-making in the run-up to the Second World War, and during its first years.

Ironside was born in Edinburgh in 1880 into a military family, though his father died soon after his birth. Subsequently, his widowed mother took him often to the Continent, where he developed an ability for learning languages. He was educated in St Andrews, then at Tonbridge School in Kent before being admitted to the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He was a tall, strong man and excelled at sports, acquiring the nickname Tiny. 

Ironside was commissioned into the army as a second lieutenant with the Royal Artillery in mid-1899, being despatched soon after to South Africa, where he fought throughout the Second Boer War. He undertook some intelligence work at the time, and his escapades led to claims that was the model for Richard Hannay, a character in the novels of John Buchan. Subsequent postings took him to India and back to South Africa, and saw him rising to Brigade-Major by 1909. He entered the Staff College, Camberley, in 1912, but his course was cut short by the onset of what would become the First World War. He fought in the battles of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele in 1917 and the following year, as acting colonel, he commanded a machine gun corps on the Somme, subsequently assuming command of the 99th Infantry Brigade. In 1915, he marred Mariot Ysobel Cheyne; their first child was born in 1917, their second in 1924.

Following the war, Ironside travelled to northern Russia as chief of general staff of the abortive Allied expeditionary force charged with countering the Bolshevik revolution. After serving as a military aide to Admiral Horthy in Hungary and as commandant of Camberley Staff College, Ironside spent time in India, was promoted to general, and in 1936 took over Eastern Command, Home Forces. Perceiving the onset of war sooner rather than later, he consistently urged the need to strength the country’s military capabilities. In 1938-1939, he served as Governor of Gibraltar. With the start of the Second World War, he was appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) - a position he didn’t covet - and adopted a policy of strong defence in France, planning to send 20 British divisions. He also planned to send three divisions to strategic Norway, but the German army arrived first. In late May 1940, he advised Prime Minister Churchill that on a visit to France he had detected 
a sense of defeatism among the generals there, and he advised that British forces in France should be evacuated. Churchill agreed to put him in charge of the home army in Britain, a position he much preferred to CIGS.

However, Ironside’s plans for home defence soon ran up against much criticism, and within months Churchill had relieved him of his position. Six weeks later, in retirement, he was appointed a field marshal, the army’s highest rank. He was raised to the peerage in the New Year Honours as ‘Baron Ironside of Archangel and of Ironside in the County of Aberdeen’, and retired to Morley Old Hall in Norfolk with his family. He died on 22 September 1959. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Find a Grave, The Peerage, or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required). Some pages of Ironside: The Authorised Biography of Field Marshal Lord Ironside (by his son, Edmund) can also be read online at Googlebooks or Amazon.

Ironside started keeping a diary in his 20s (‘since his subaltern days’, say Roderick Macleod and Denis Kelly, the editors of the first published collection of his diaries), and he did so, as he said himself, ’to refresh and correct his recollection of the past’. The Ironside Diaries 1937-1940 was published by Constable in 1962, and came about partly at the initiative of Macleod (who had been Ironside’s Military Assistant when he, Ironside, was CIGS). Ironside had forbidden publication of his diaries, but when Macleod sought his help for writing a history of the 1937-1940 period, Ironside relented, giving him carte blanche to quote from them. Ironside died before Macleod’s text was fully ready for publication, and subsequently it was decided that publishing a selection of Ironside’s diaries ‘would be of far more interest to the general public than any account based on the inevitable hindsight and second-thoughts of twenty years after’. 

Every night, the editors explain, Ironside ‘wrote a page and sometimes several pages in his clear and characteristically bold hand, in brown, leather covered, foolscap-sized volumes, each about half-an-inch thick’. They chose their selection from 12 volumes with some 850,000 words. A decade later, Leo Cooper published a second volume of Ironside’s diary extracts with the title High Road to Comman: the Diaries of Major-General Sir Edmund Ironside 1920-22 (as edited by his son, Edmund).

The following extracts are taken from The Ironside Diaries 1937-1940.

26 September 1937
‘About 12 o’clock about 20 cars came up the road. In the leading one, an enormous open grey six-wheeler, sat the Führer in light brown - almost biscuit colour - with a cap with a brown leather peak. On his right was Mussolini in his greyish field kit, almost a light blue. His great black face and big jaw stuck out fiercely. Then he raised his hand in a Fascist salute as did Hitler with his. The German seems less theatrical. Mussolini gave one the impression of trying to look fierce. He stalked up the hill with the Führer almost hurrying beside him. Neither of them big men in size. . . .

The air attack and the tank attack was then launched with a lot of popping and banging. Rows and rows of them coming in waves . . . It showed what a force Germany has created in such a short time, even though it is at the moment in many ways an experimental one. They still require a long time to perfect this great instrument of theirs.

Just after the attack commenced Goering came up in Air Force uniform and walked up the hill. A youngish but immensely fat man, with simply enormous legs. A fair unlined face, and a few longish hairs hanging down under his cap. I should say that his life is not a very good one, for he panted badly coming up the hill and was obviously distressed. He was surrounded by a small band of his party, all frightfully enthusiastic at being in the train of so great a man.

After the attack had been going along for nearly an hour, we, the British delegation, were ushered up towards the tent and introduced to the Führer. He came walking down to us in his long coat and I was at once struck by his vacuous-looking grin - one can hardly call it a smile - and his watery, weak-looking eye. . . Reichenau told Hitler that I could speak German, and I chatted for a minute with him in German. He complimented me and told me I spoke it like a German.

The man struck me not at all. His voice was soft and his German of the south. He made no more impression on me than would have a somewhat mild professor whom I rather suspected of having a drop too much on occasions.

I must say that I was disappointed. The man must have the stuff in him, but he didn’t make any impression upon me. Then, a minute later, Goering came gracefully as an elephant down to us . . . I thought Goering a nasty creature . . . a harsh and domineering voice.

One almost wishes that our rulers could have seen this show. They would have been impressed by the pace at which these people are working, by their obvious earnestness, their sincerity. The more I look at it the more do I think that they will pull off what they are after. The French want us to join with them in an offensive the minute that Germany turns eastwards and attacks her [i. e. France’s] allies there. Can their Army carry out an offensive? I should much doubt if the French soldiers will fight an offensive battle in support of any Ally so far away. . . An offensive against Germany from the West must penetrate very deeply and would be a question of an enormous invading force. It would mean something that France couldn’t, in my opinion, sustain for a minute.

C.I.G.S. worrying himself about little details instead of thinking of the big things. . . Manoeuvres are definitely off.’

27 August 1939
‘Down to Chartwell for lunch yesterday. . . Winston was full of Georges, whom he had seen over in France. I found that he had become very French in his outlook and had a wonderful opinion of the whole thing he saw. He had General Spears with him. The burden of his song was that we must have a great Army in France, that we couldn’t depend upon the French to do our effort for us. That we must get twenty Divisions by Christmas. I told him that we had no such plans in being. He showed me how the French were going to attack Italy and how they held the high ground round the Mont Cenis and looked down upon the Italians below them. I told him that the French had told him far more than they had told our General Staff, that I had been unable, as C.-in-C. designate, to get any clear plan out of things. Winston said that we were trying to get as much control in the conduct of affairs as if we had an Army of one and a half millions. This we couldn’t have. . . I rang up Macleod and he had been to the War Office where they said that news was difficult to get through, but as far as could be ascertained no big movement of the Germans had taken place. They expected them to begin tomorrow.’

6 April 1940
‘A very quiet War Cabinet, and my Instructions to the people who may have to act in Norway if the German reacts [to the mine-laying operation] went through without a comment.

Halifax reported that the Ministers had a difficult time handing in their Notes [telling the Norwegian and Swedish Governments that the Allies were about to lay mines] in Stockholm and Oslo. The old Swede remarked: “Then our two countries are very near to war.” What that meant I don’t know.’

7 April 1940
‘I cannot think that we have a War Cabinet fit to compete with Hitler. Its decisions are so slow and cumbersome. We still refer the smallest thing to a Committee. Halifax is much too good a man to compete with a lot of knaves. The Prime Minister is hopelessly unmilitary. . .  Winston becomes a sort of Chairman of the Co-ordination Committee. We shall have more strength there if he can be kept upon the proper lines. But the whole show is ponderous and clumsy.’

15 May 1940
‘This morning at 8 a.m., just as I was talking to Gort, the P.M. rang up and told me that he had been talking to Reynaud [on the telephone], who was thoroughly demoralized. He had said that the battle was lost. The road to Paris was open. Couldn’t we send more troops? Winston told him to keep calm, that these incidents happened in a war. We have no extra demands from Gamelin or Georges, both of whom were calm, though they both considered the situation serious. I told him this. Apparently the French are giving back at Namur and may bend back to Charleroi, still keeping a hold on us at Wavre. I shouldn’t be at all surprised if the line was back again upon the French frontier before long.

The Germans are using mechanized troops with very few infantry columns. The German tanks are very good and I think that there can be no doubt that the French have been caught unawares and that they have not fought well. That happened in the last war. Drastic steps had to be taken to put things right.

Winston told Reynaud that even if the French gave in we should fight on alone. He was quite calm and very firm.

Italy now seems certain to come in against us. Very soon too. . . Winston has asked the President of the U.S.A. to become nonbelligerent and to supply us out of stock - with forty destroyers amongst other things.

Then the Cabinet decided unanimously to bomb the Ruhr. It starts to-night. An announcement in the papers that the aerodromes of Holland would soon be completely in the hands of the Nazis and England would soon feel the weight of the bombing on her own body. We shall have had a start anyway. One never saw the necessity for courage and determination more [than] at this moment. It will be interesting seeing how the various people react. . . We at least have a Cabinet with some courage now.

I never saw anything so light up as the faces of the R.A.F. when they heard that they were to be allowed to bomb the oil-refineries in the Ruhr. It did one good to see it. They have built their big bombers for this work and they have been keyed up for the work ever since the war began. Now they have got the chance. I am wondering what the result in the way of reprisals is going to be. Shall we get it as soon as to-morrow night in return? It may be a diversion from the bombing in France. They may be too employed there to turn off from their targets.

The war is coming nearer and nearer to us and it makes one think all the more. We are living in a new phase of history the course of which no man can foresee. Nobody believed that we should be engaged in war, certainly not in a death struggle so soon. We made no preparations, even for war industry to be developed, and we cannot now catch up. It is too late. The year may see us beaten, but it cannot bring us to the defeat of Germany, unless it is by economic means.

I have a sort of feeling in the back of my head that if Italy comes in, and this seems pretty certain, she will be the Achilles heel of the Axis. . .’

31 May 1940
‘Apparently, people are pleased to hear of 75% of the men from the B.E.F. coming back with their rifles. In all the rush of trying to get down to the boats, the tendency to throw off all weight is irresistible. I can only hope that we are taking heavy toll of the Germans. With all the bombing going on we ought to be killing a good number. It will all take them time to reorganize and get going again. I also wonder if the French are fighting, too, to get away. I see that the C.-in-C. of the First Army has been captured somewhere near Steenvoorde. . .

Fifth Column reports coming in from everywhere. A man with an arm-band on and a swastika pulled up near an important aerodrome in the Southern Command. Important telegraph poles marked, suspicious men moving at night all over the country. We have the right of search and I have put piquets on all over the place to-night. Perhaps we shall catch some swine.

At 4.30 p.m. I went up to see the King and found him in very good form. He told me that two of the Corps Commanders, Adam and Brooke, were off and that Gort was coming off to-night. That they had 160,000 men odd off. He said that hoped to get off the remainder to-night. Some 11,000 French had come off. I told him how things were going, that we were short and that equipment was wanting everywhere.’

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