Sunday, 13 June 2021

Book Review - Operation Victory by Francis de Guingand

 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.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Friday, 28 May 2021

Book Review - The Jugurthine War / The Conspiracy of Cataline by Sallust

 The Jugurthine War / The Conspiracy of Cataline by Sallust, translated with an introduction by S.A. Handford

Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963 (read copy a 1983 printing)     ISBN 0140441328

I really enjoyed this book - I had of course read some of Cicero's speeches against Cataline, when struggling with my Latin studies many years ago, but I have until now never read Sallust, and, in this translation by S.A. Handford he gives the reader a very vibrant and opinionated account of both the war against Jugurtha (112-106 BC), and the Cataline conspiracy.

Gaius Sallustius Crispus was a supporter of the plebian parties against the nobility and the Senate in Rome, and this bias comes across in both works (it seems that despite his championing of the lower classes, Sallust was not above enriching himself when he had the chance - as governor of Numidia his oppression and greed gave him not only enough money to build the Gardens of Sallust, but, very nearly a condemnation from the Senate, only avoided through the patronage of Caesar). At the end of his career in public life, Sallust retired to become an author. The two works under review are the only ones we have of his in their entirety, as well as fragments of his history of Rome.

As Governor of Numidia, Sallust would have been in a good position to discover details of the war between Rome and Jugurtha, and he provides the reader with a rollicking story of battles, intrigue, and betrayal. While Jugurtha is clearly the enemy in this book, Sallust has little good to say about the Roman elite and senatorial class. In fact the first section of this work is an extended harangue against the Roman governing class, their cupidity and corruption, and how the hard-won peace that they had gained after the defeat of Carthage  was wasted.

Sallust writes the Jugurthine War as a kind of morality tale: when Jugurtha, the illegitimate son of King Micipsa, arranged to have his two co-heirs of the kingdom killed, he aroused the enmity of Rome (who was an ally of Micipsa while he was alive). Jugurtha had been led to believe that the Senate was infinitely corruptible, so he endeavoured to bribe his way to exoneration. Here Sallust again, through the Thucidian trope of placing this thoughts in the mouths of historical actors (in this case Metellus), describes the descent of Rome from probity to corruption - in the speech Metellus shames the Senate, and stirs the plebs, so that an army is sent from Rome to Numidia to defeat Jugurtha.

Jugurtha however, is a wily opponent. By the use of his considerable wealth, and clever guerrilla-style tactics, he leads Metellus a merry dance across the deserts of North Africa. Meanwhile, in the Roman camp, Marius - Metellus' second-in-command - desired the top job, and stirred up Rome against Metellus' failure to win the war.

The war, however, was being won. Marius gains control of the armies just as the tide was turning against Jugurtha, who, in his paranoia, had started turning against his friends and allies until finally he was betrayed.

Sallust is fast-paced yet pithy in his writing, and had interesting things to say about leadership and warfare - he put the following into the mouth of Metellus "You [Jugurtha] have now a splendid opportunity... of concluding a friendly alliance, which will be preferable to war. In spite of your confidence in your strength you should not throw away a certainty for an uncertainty. It is always easy to begin fighting, but the man who starts may find it exceedingly hard to stop; for while anyone - even a coward - can open hostilities, only the victor can decide when they shall cease." Quite.

The Cataline Conspiracy tells the story of the second Catilinarian Conspiracy, and is a story of a lust for power gone bad. Cataline had once been a servant of the Roman republic, fighting alongside Pompey and Cicero in the Social War, although his personal character was under a cloud, thought to have murdered his first wife, and to have committed adultery with a Vestal Virgin (he was acquitted in court of the adultery charge, although there is a belief he bribed the court to achieve that outcome).

When he was passed over for election to Consul, he determined to gather together like-minded souls and overthrow the Republic. Sallust's version of the story shows Cataline bringing the lowest types under his umbrella, with promises of debts forgiven, booty, plunder, positions and power. Unfortunately for Cataline and his fellow conspirators, he is found out, and while Cataline escapes Rome to meet up with his troops, his fellow conspirators led by Lentulus are captured and imprisoned. The centrepiece of Sallust's work are the speeches in the Senate of Caesar and Cato, where Caesar puts the case for the banishment of the prisoners, and Cato for their execution. It is interesting to read that Sallust had good things to say about both of these men, who were to become deadly enemies not too many years after the events here described.

Before I picked up this text, I knew nothing of the Jugurthine War, and only the outline of the Catalinarian Conspiracy. Not only do I now know more, I have been highly entertained on the way. Recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell