Robert Laycock made a meteoric rise during the Second World War, being appointed in 1943, at the age of 36, the Chief of Combined Operations in succession to Lord Louis Mountbatten. As Richard Mead observes in his book, Commando General: The Life of Major General Sir Robert Laycock, KCMG, CB, DSO, Laycock’s rapid advancement from a captain at the start of the conflict to the highest echelon of the British military four years later was due to both his great abilities as well as having impressed two important patrons: Mountbatten and Winston Churchill.
Laycock was “born into a life of wealth and privilege” and after Eton and Sandhurst joined the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues). In 1940 he joined the newly formed commandos, first raising No. 8 Commando and later commanding Layforce in the Mediterranean. Ironically, as Mead notes, although Laycock joined the commandos to see action his “encounters with the enemy” would total just 24 days, in Crete, Libya, Sicily, and Salerno. Mead reviews Laycock’s controversial evacuation from Crete, about which Laycock himself always harbored doubts about whether he had done the right thing.
Churchill had known Laycock since the officer’s childhood and valued his abilities. Laycock’s relationship with the prime minister was probably further helped by his “tolerance” of Randolph Churchill in the commandos. In 1941, after the disbandment of Layforce and his return to England, Laycock was invited to spend the weekend at Chequers where he presented his case to the prime minister. Within days Churchill ordered the reconstitution of the commandos in the Middle East and Laycock’s return in the role of Director of Combined Operations. Churchill even intervened to order his return by air when he found Laycock was being sent back by a long sea journey. In 1943, Churchill turned to Laycock as Mountbatten’s replacement at Combined Operations, after being turned down by two admirals who he had first offered the position.
In 1947 Laycock left the army at the age of 40 and, with the exception of five years as Governor of Malta in the 1950s, retired. Mead writes that Laycock’s “post-war life was largely wasted” and that his “skills, experience, and connections […] could have been put to full-time use in any number of ways.” The decision to retire was, however, not unusual in Laycock’s “stratum of society.”
Mead, who has also written biographies of General Richard McCreery and General ‘Boy’ Browning, has produced in Commando General another fine study of a previously biographically neglected British general of the Second World War.