Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Book Review - Corps Commander by Brian Horrocks

Corps Commander by Sir Brian Horrocks with Eversley Belfield and Major-General H. Essame

Published in 1977 by Sidgwick & Jackson         ISBN 0283983205

Brian Horrocks was a Lt. General of the British Army in World War Two, probably best known as the commander of XXX Corps during the airborne operation "Market Garden", made famous by the film A Bridge too Far (based on the 1974 book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan - Edward Fox played the role of Horrocks in the film).

Horrocks had already written an autobiography (A Full Life) before he came to write the work under review, as well as several smaller pieces and some editorial work.

Corps Commander is not really an autobiography, and not really a campaign history, although it has elements of both.  Horrocks' original intention was to tell the story of XXX Corps from the time of the landing in Normandy until the end of the war. As he states in the introduction, he realised quite quickly that this wouldn't do, as it would give the book far too narrow a focus, and the one thing he wanted for this work was to by "understood by a wide public". So he teamed up with the other authors to produce a work that covers the Allied campaign across North West France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and finally crossing the Rhine and entering Germany proper.

Horrocks' has an easy style of writing, but as is always the case in works of this type, it can be hard to follow the intricacies of battle descriptions, although the maps provided in the text do help the reader keep track of who was doing what when.

What does come out from this book is the speed of events, the (initially surprising, but understandable) lack of proper equipment, and the actual amount of equipment required (1.5 million gallons of fuel just to get the men and equipment up to the start point of the battle for the Rhine bridgehead). The horrendous losses of human life is also something that Horrocks dwells on, especially the high price many Canadian units paid in killed and wounded throughout the campaign.

Horrocks had never really recovered from the wounds he'd received earlier in the war in the Western Desert, and suffered periodic bouts of fever throughout the campaign, something he was initially worried about until Montgomery put his fears to rest and allowed him time to recover. The role of the Corps Commander is one of using units to achieve goals, so the units under Horrocks command were always changing depending on the task Montgomery wanted him to undertake at any particular time. While there were some constants, such as the 43rd Wessex Division, at stages throughout the campaign he had various English, Canadian and U.S. units serving under his command.

Horrocks treats each phase of the campaign in a chronological fashion, emphasising what he thought was important. So while there is detail on Market Garden for instance, he goes into as much detail describing the capture of Antwerp and other northern ports, and the final thrust over the Rhine.

He goes into some detail on what went wrong too - the failures of intelligence which cruelled the chances of Market Garden in September 1944, the failure to close the Falaise Pocket after D-Day, which was simply a case of not enough men vs. a strong enemy, and the failure to clear the Scheldt Estuary after taking Antwerp, rendering the port useless for a time. Horrocks puts the last failure down entirely to his own lack of nous in realising that simply liberating the city was not enough, he should have cut off the bottom of the estuarine peninsula in the same battle. This failure cost thousands of Canadian lives later in the war when they were sent in to clear the area, well after the Germans had fortified the whole area.

This is a terrible admission for Horrocks to make, but it is not in fact the thing that gave him nightmares long after the war. That was the decision he took to ask the RAF to destroy the town of Cleve, which was an important road junction he had to "take out" in his battle to get to the Rhine.

Horrocks is much harder on himself than on anyone else in the book - he rarely has bad things to say about any other leaders - her certainly had a lot of respect for Montgomery, and although he brings up the criticisms that were made of the Field Marshal, he is quick to defend him. He likewise has an understanding of the pressures Eisenhower laboured under, and his book does in fact sit where he sat as a Corps Commander, with a focus on the tactical grind of war, but with an eye occasionally cast over his shoulder to look at and discuss the wider strategy of the Allies.

He saves his best praise mostly for the men at the front line, singling out particular acts of bravery, and bemoaning the "blimps" in the rear that fail to adequately recognise such bravery in a timely or effective manner. There is a fine vignette in the book where he describes his embarrassment in talking to a corporal who had taken part in 7 battles and had no medals, vs. his chest full of ribbons for "being out the back". (Horrocks sells himself a little short here - he won the Military Cross in WWI for bravery in captivity).

This book is probably more for the serious student of World War Two - there are better books of a more general nature which give a broader history of the Western Front after D-Day, and there are other works which give a picture of what it was like to be in the front line - but Corps Commander is a well written work that gives some insight into the thinking and activities of the leaders that were on the interface between grand strategy and the grunt work of defeating the enemy day by day.

Corps Commander is no longer in print - you might be able to pick up a copy from a local second-hand bookshop, or a website such as Alibris or Abebooks, or try your local library.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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