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Book Review: Raising Churchill's Army

This log-overdue study of the British Army in the Second World War debunks a number of long-standing myths and incidentally attempts the rehabilitation of one of its most famous commanders.


General B. L. Montgomery
(picture taken in 1944)

David French's new book Raising Churchill's Army broadly covers the entire war in Europe and the Middle East. He discusses British doctrine between the wars at length and shows how the British Army attempted to digest the lessons of the Great War and avert the costly mistakes that had been made. He does not shy away from highlighting defects in its doctrine, training and equipment. However, he also forcefully notes that the British Army did fight and win against its German opponent and explains how this was done.

French demonstrates that British doctrine became something of a mess between the wars, resulting in a doctrine that required equipment that the Army did not have and which did not adequately incorporate the lessons of the war or create a combined arms doctrine. Battle drills were ignored, the British doctrine writers relying on improvisation (always a bad idea). The British Army's greatest problem in the Great War, it's lack of uniformity and consistency - in other words, quality - was replicated in the Second World War, by the same mechanism devolving responsibility to the corps commanders.

With regard to equipment, the British Army had an excellent field gun in the 25 pounder but the 5.5 inch howitzer was late in being delivered while other artillery pieces were of First World War vintage. The 2 pounder antitank gun was fine in its day but its replacement by the 6 pounder (and later the superb 17 pounder) was slow. British tanks never really kept up with their German counterparts and the British infantry battalion had inferior firepower to its German counterpart, resulting in British commanders being forced to call on air and artillery support. In doing so, however, they were not reverting to First World War tactics but were making best use of what they had.

These tactics required a lot of ammunition and was made possible by the British logistics system which, although continually criticised by Winston Churchill for wasting manpower, consistently out-performed the German (and American) systems and ran so well that it is usually ignored.

French debunks a number of myths about the British Army. Quality of officers was not so much the result, as is often alleged, of the British "class system" but of a systemic failure to properly train the ones that it had.

One of the sidelights is the rehabilitation of Field Marshal Montgomery. When he died in 1976 he was hailed as the last of the British war-hero generals in the traditional of Marlborough, Wellesley and Kitchener, which, indeed, he was. But his military reputation had long since been on the wane. part of this was criticism of his generalship originating from the United States from the 1940s and 50s. In this there was debate over the Montgomery's handling of the campaigns in Northwest Europe. The particularly sore point was the Battle of the Bulge in 1944-45, in which General Eisenhower gave command of to American armies to Montgomery for the duration of the crisis.

Then in 1960, Correlli Barnett's The Desert Generals appeared in the UK. This book contains strong criticism of the British Army, its tactics and its leadership. Barnett strongly criticised Montgomery, whom he held as an inferior general to General Auchinleck, the man he replaced as commander of the Eighth Army in 1942. The campaign to rehabilitate Auchinleck never went anywhere and French strongly criticises the man's tactics. Other aspects of Auchinleck, particularly his choice of subordinates and his inability to get along with the Australians and Americans have never been defended.

In recent times though, American historians have become less partisan and more willing to take on criticism of the US Army and in recent times have changed their tune over his role and his merits. Now, French holds him up as the very model of the British general, who wielded his forces with considerable tactical skill.

French disagrees with Barnett on many issues. He points out for example, that the failure to use the British 3.7 inch AA gun in the ground role in the manner that the German used their famous 88mm Flak, which Barnett cites as a typical failure of imagination, as related to technical factors and a shortage of antiaircraft artillery.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the subject. I hope that there will be some follow on here, with more books examining British doctrine, training, tactics, logistics and generalship.

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