Operation Victory by Major-General Sir Francis de Guingand K.B.E., C.B., D.S.O. Chief of Staff, Eighth Army, 1942-43, Chief of Staff, 21st Army Group, 1944-45
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947 (book read was fifth impression, 1949)
We all remember the saying that "behind every great man is a great woman". This book, by Montgomery's Chief of Staff, leads me to re-work the saying to state "behind every great General is a great Chief of Staff". De Guingand's book is not just a re-telling of the battles and campaigns he fought with Montgomery, the Eighth Army and the 21st Army Group, but is also an insight into what it takes to get armies equipped and in place to achieve those victories, and an evaluation of some of the personalities of the leadership of the Western Allies through defeat onward to victory.
Operation Victory is not really an autobiography - de Guingand does refer to his earlier military career in a chapter devoted to Montgomery, who was instrumental in getting de Guingand into the Staff College at Camberley - as the book begins with de Guingand's appointment as Military Assistant to Leslie Hore-Belisha, who was Secretary of State for War at the outbreak of World War II. De Guingand provides an insight into Hore-Belisha's personality, and a different view of the controversy that lead to his downfall: a case of misunderstanding, long-held grudges and preciousness by the military leading to the downfall of someone who, while trying to do what was right, did not have the diplomatic skills to achieve outcomes without friction.
Leaving the service of the Secretary of State after Hore-Belisha was dismissed, de Guingand ended up in the Middle East, firstly at the staff college at Haifa and then in the planning section in Cairo, going on to head up Military Intelligence for a time before moving onto the staff of the Eighth Army when Auchinleck was in charge. These were hard times for the British, with little equipment, few men and lots of territory to defend. De Guingand discusses the yo-yo-ing advances and retreats in the Western Desert, explaining that it was supply, rather than any particular military prowess, that was the cause of such movement. One side advanced until their supply-line became too stretched to be able to supply material in the amounts needed, while at the same time the other side was getting closer to its bases and therefore could be resupplied more quickly and efficiently. The British also suffered at this time owing to their great inferiority in armour - the early British tanks were no match for the German Panzers.
While he liked Auchinleck, de Guingand thought that he was too easily swayed by others, which led to confusion in planning, and he was too quick to agree with his political masters when they wanted the army to do something, which brings us to the Greek Campaign. De Guingand, from a military point of view, explains that he thought the excursion to Greece was pretty much doomed to fail, and was a poorly thought-out political action, rather than any real attempt to foil an Axis invasion. While he does his job, it seems to de Guingand that the terrible earthquake he survived while in Greece portended what in fact came to be - the fairly quick defeat of the Allied troops in that country. Crete he sees as a continuation of that defeat, although for those who have read Antony Beevor's book on that battle may have a different view of General Freyberg's abilities than does de Guingand.
In 1942, when the yo-yo left the Eighth Army at Alamein, a new character came onto the scene - Bernard Montgomery. Although de Guingand knew Montgomery quite well as they had crossed paths in the service between the wars, he describes his first meeting with the General - at a cross-roads outside Alexandria - in dramatic terms and was told by Montgomery "as you know, I will be making some changes shortly. If you happen to be one of them I will see that you get something good." De Guingand had expected to be let go by Montgomery, so this statement did not come as a surprise. Montgomery never mentioned it again, and the two stayed together until the end of the War.
In his description of the fighting in the Western Desert, de Guingand focusses on two things, which were the two most important from his point of view: supply, and co-operation with the Desert Air Force. Both of these activities were starting from a low base in Africa, and de Guingand, through his own drive, and through the selection of talented junior officers, had by the end of the campaign a very smoothly operating logistics branch, and had achieved a whole-of-force battle arrangement, with the Army and RAF closely co-operating to ensure victory. This arrangement continued into Sicily, and the Italian campaign.
Some of the most interesting parts of Operation Victory for me are when de Guingand discusses his view on the campaign plans that were devised at Supreme Headquarters, Montgomery's changes to the plans, and the discussions that occurred before a final agreement was reached. Sometimes he agreed with Montgomery, and sometimes he didn't. They were both in agreement that the initial plan for the invasion of Sicily was on too broad a front, but de Guigand disagreed with the British landings in the toe of Italy, feeling that it would have been more effective to land further up and cut off the Axis forces to the South. The Eighth Army found the going in Italy much harder than in the desert, with flanking opportunities limited by the geography, and the weather playing a much greater part in planning and execution of battles.
De Guingand left the Eighth Army along with Montgomery to begin the planning for the invasion of France. This was a huge logistical problem, which de Guingand describes well. Not only gathering the troops and training them, but working out what they needed, and as importantly when they needed it. This planning had to be undertaken without knowing for sure what the logistical arrangements could be: not knowing how many ports would be available to shipping and when they'd become available, likewise with airfields. Once ashore and advancing, the requirements of each army often meant that what may be desirable tactically had to wait until supply caught up with what was happening on the ground.
De Guingand downplays the disagreements between the high commanders, and has much praise for Eisenhower and Bedell Smith's handling of the invasion force. De Guingand disagreed with Montgomery's narrow thrust policy of invading the Ruhr, agreeing with Eisenhower and his broad thrust strategy. As de Guingand points out, there was no guarantee that a narrow thrust would bring about the surrender of Germany, and there was much risk in such a thrust actually being defeated. He does however see the thrust to Arnhem as a worthwhile attack - he never thought (as Montgomery did) that it would end the war more quickly, but it did drive a dagger into the German forces west of the Rhine, and made the push to that river easier.
Towards the end, de Guingand met with Seyss-Inquart to organise humanitarian aid to the Dutch people, and to try and organise a surrender of German forces in Holland. While agreeing to the aid drops, Seyss-Inquart would not surrender. It was moot however, as it was not long before Germany collapsed, and de Guingand, from organising logistics for armies, was organising logistics for displaced peoples, German prisoners-of-war, and released Allied prisoners.
Operation Victory is a fascinating insight into the workings of some of the great Allied armies of World War II, from the technical and personal point of view. There are interesting portraits of many of the great leaders of that time, and I can see why it was a bestseller when it was published. Worth a look.