As prime minister during the Second World War, Winston Churchill dealt with dozens of British army generals, including such famous officers as Wavell, Dill, Brooke, Alexander, and Montgomery as well as many less prominent generals. This post is the first of a series of reviews of recent biographies of lesser known British generals who served under Churchill during the war.
Strafer Desert General: The Life and Killing of Lieutenant General William Gott, CB, CBE, DSO, MC by N.S. Nash is a biography of the British general Winston Churchill favoured over Bernard Montgomery to assume command of the 8th Army at the critical moment in 1942.
Having served in the First World War, where he was wounded, decorated, and captured – making two unsuccessful escape attempts – Gott was a 41-year old major in 1938. He, however, made a “meteoric rise” during the Second World War, advancing to the rank of Lieutenant-General and being designated commander of the 8th Army. Gott’s reputation had been made as a desert general in the two years of fighting in the Western Desert campaign from 1940 to 1942, successively commanding a support group, armoured division, and corps. He was a legendary officer within the 8th Army.
In August 1942, after the defeat at Gazala and retreat to the Alamein line, Churchill and Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, arrived in Egypt to review the situation. Both men decided a change of command was needed, with the prime minister supporting Gott as the new commander of the 8th Army and the CIGS, instead, arguing for Montgomery to come out to Egypt. Brooke’s objection was that Gott was exhausted after two years in the desert, while Churchill concluded that was not an issue after he met Gott for the first time on August 5, 1942. Doubts about his physical condition aside, Brooke thought very highly of Gott and quickly agreed to his appointment.
Nash considers Churchill’s support of Gott as a “whim” and reflects the prime minister’s attraction to heroes which the general was most definitely. Indeed, Churchill’s support for Gott can be questioned. While the most experienced of the desert generals who possessed the confidence of his subordinates, Gott’s record in the campaign was mixed. As a senior officer he bore some responsibly for the command by committee atmosphere at the top of the 8th Army; the failure to coordinate infantry, armour, and artillery; and specifically for the failed attack by the 23rd Armoured Brigade on July 22, 1942. With his “powers of leadership” and “charismatic personality” Gott’s ceiling may have been as a brigade or division commander.
Montgomery, in contrast to Gott, was a thorough professional soldier and dedicated student of his profession with a character that, regardless of other flaws, was ruthless and determined. Brooke’s choice for the 8th Army was called upon in the end as Gott was killed on August 7, 1942, his aircraft having been shot down by German fighters. He had been flying the same route from the desert to Cairo that Churchill had taken two days earlier, likewise unescorted by Royal Air Force fighters. Nash writes that the official line that Gott’s death was “just bad luck” as he was shot down by a stray German fighter is wrong and that he was targeted after an intercept of British communications. The deliberate “assassination” of a senior general was not unprecedented during the war as the British sent a squad to try to kill Rommel and the Americans successfully conducted a military operation to eliminate Isoroku Yamamoto.
Nash unfairly claims that Churchill and Brooke displayed “ill-concealed relief” at Gott’s death which permitted Montgomery to take command of the army in the desert. While Churchill may have quickly concluded that Montgomery was Gott’s superior as a military commander, it is too much to say that the prime minister was not genuinely grieved by the general’s death.