MIRACLE OF DELIVERANCE – Gibraltar was General’s reward for Dunkirk retreat

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Gibraltar must have seemed like a dream posting after the hell of Dunkirk but General Gort was a soldier of action and he accepted the new position with reluctance rather than desire.

This summer’s hit war movie Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan, has brought a renewed interest in the evacuation of Dunkirk, a humiliating defeat, which thanks to the Royal Navy and hundreds of small boat owners was transformed into what Winston Churchill called the “miracle of deliverance”. General Gort was a key architect of that miracle but he receives no credit in the new movie.

The British Expeditionary Force was sent to help the French stem the advance of the German Army which had swiftly overpowered Poland and was amassing troops and armour along the Belgian/French frontier. Alas, the poorly equipped and trained British and French were no match for the Germans and their ‘Blitzkreig’ tactics spearheaded by formidable Panzer tank divisions. The Allies were soon pushed back to the coast of northwest France and were preparing for a questionable counter-attack, when the B.E.F. Commander-in-Chief, and future Governor of Gibraltar, General John Lord Gort, made the most vital decision of his military career.

Edmund Ironside

Keeping to his reputation as a front-line officer, Gort established his headquarters at Arras in the heart of the battle zone. It was there that he received General Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Ironside had been Governor of Gibraltar from 12th August 1938 until 1st July 1939 and had expected to be made C.I.C of the B.E.F. only to be superseded by Gort.

Ironside duly presented Gort with the order from the War Cabinet that insisted that the 250,000 remaining men of the B.E.F. should march south to Amiens, attacking all enemy forces encountered on the way and take up station to the left of the French Army.

In his book Man of Valour (Collins 1972), J. R. Colville wrote: “Gort viewed the situation quite differently. Seven of his nine divisions were holding the line of the Scheldt (in Olde English it means shallow), where a full-scale German attack was imminent. How was he, with neither ammunition nor food in plentiful supply, to disengage on his front and, while fighting a rearguard action against the strong German forces which would pursue him across the Scheldt, do battle with the armoured divisions blocking his retreat? And what of the French and Belgian armies on his flank, neither of them, he already felt sure, in no position to make a fighting get away? It was, he told Ironside, an order that as commander-in-chief he found impracticable to obey.”

So, at 6:30 pm on Thursday, 25th of May 1940, the biggest decision of the war to date fell to the proud and brave* (See note) General Gort, born 10th July 1886 as John Standish Surtees Pendergast Vereker. Colville wrote that Gort “outnumbered and outgunned but not outwitted… saved the whole British Expeditionary Force from death and captivity.”

Lord Gort VC and No.2 Commando senior officers

As mentioned above, Gort is left out of the the 2017 version of Dunkirk, not out of malice but because in his directing, Nolan pays little heed to events away from the battle and instead concentrates on the feelings and actions of the fighters and the evacuees. Nolan’s film is a kind of trilogy where he brings together the fates of a soldier, an RAF pilot and a civilian boat owner. Dunkirk is a short film by modern standards, one hour and 47 minutes, and it gets you involved immediately and is so fast paced it grips your attention from start to finish.

I saw Nolan’s Dunkirk on an IMAX big screen, which with the larger than life visuals and clear, loud sound served the movie well. The 1958 Dunkirk I watched on my computer, and although there were some interesting similarities with Dunkirk 2017, there were considerable differences and this time General Gort receives meaningful treatment.

The 1958 Dunkirk, directed by Leslie Norman, was filmed in black and white and starred John Mills, Richard Attenborough and Brendan Lee. The movie centres around Corporal ‘Tubby’ Binns, played by Mills, leading a small group of men separated form their unit. Attenborough and Lee play civilian boat owners who volunteer their boats and manage to persuade the Naval officer in charge to let them sail their craft to the evacuation site. This is a more traditional war movie with segments from newsreels, bursts of patriotism (Bud (Flanagan and Chesney Allen sing We’re Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line), interaction with loved ones and representations of life on the home front with film of Ramsgate, London and the Thames.

The scenes concerning Gort take place in his headquarters at Arras and show him making the decision to evacuate the troops via Dunkirk. Included in the dialogue is Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who was head of Royal Navy operations for the evacuation. Gort is played by the solidly built, balding Cyril Raymond (1899 – 1973) who was a good physical match. Raymond was usually cast as the dependable, professional man but he also played the cuckolded husband of Celia Johnson in the classic romantic war film Brief Encounter (1946).

Churchill talking to Lord Gort, in a French chateau in 1939 ahead of Dunkirk

Was Operation Dynamo, named for the dynamo room in the Dover Cliffs that served as evacuation headquarters, a success or failure? Churchill had hoped that 30,000 troops could be rescued but under the leadership of General Gort and Admiral Ramsay 338,226 were evacuated (198,229 British, 139,997 French, Polish & Belgian). Many were saved by the bravery of the troops left behind, facing certain death or capture, to fight a delaying action. By comparison, the bombing and strafing of exposed soldiers on the beaches, graphically portrayed in both movies, claimed 3,500 lives. Another 1,000 French civilians died in Dunkirk itself.

Overall, the British Expedition sent to defend France was a comprehensive failure. The B.E.F. suffered 68,000 casualties and abandoned 65,000 vehicles, 2,500 artillery guns and 68,000 tons of ammunition. A total of 445 tanks were destroyed or captured. The Navy lost six destroyers, five minesweepers, eight transports and two hundred lesser craft.

In the 1958 Dunkirk film the Brendan Lee character complains, “What a shambles we’ve made of this whole rotten affair”. In the 2017 version, surviving troops, embarrassed at turning tail, are surprised to be greeted warmly back home.

Gort found himself both a hero and a goat and without a command. Churchill was steadfast in his support. Colville wrote: “The Prime Minister did not forget Gort, nor did he ever speak ill of him or denigrate his achievements; but there was no command available and events were moving too fast for much time or thought at 10 Downing Street to be devoted to the worries of an unemployed general.”

British High Commissioner Lord Gort accompanied by Mayor Avraham Krinitzi on a visit to Ramat Gan, 1945.

The War Cabinet sat silent but there were whispers in private clubs and backbiting senior officers made scathing remarks. General Noel Mason-Macfarlane openly voiced his contempt and General Alan Brooke sneeringly referred to Gort as the “lance-corporal”. Even prominent civilians like George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells spoke out against the general.

To add to his suffering, in February 1941, Gort’s only surviving son Sandy, a Lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards, crashed a motorcycle and suffered a concussion. A few days later, he blew his brains out.  Another son Joceyln had died in infancy. Gort’s only other child was a daughter, Jacqueline (1914-1962).

At this point, Gort would have accepted any appointment that took him back near the firing line but Churchill, after consultation with Colonial Secretary Lord Moyne and Captain Margesson of the War Office, offered him the Governorship of Gibraltar. It was made clear to Gort that this did not signal the end of his military career.

In his heart Gort didn’t believe them and considered himself to be in disgrace – a colonial governorship, with a direct command of only three battalions, was the last thing he wanted. He considered the posting a “Face-saving way of pensioning him off”, but he was determined to make the most of it.

On 7th May 1941, General Sir Clive Liddell, who resented being replaced, made way for Gort at Gibraltar’s famous Governor’s residence the Convent. Liddell had done his best to strengthen the defences of Gibraltar but Gort was determined to make the Rock impregnable. Colville wrote:

“In particular he turned his mind to the inadequacy of the airstrip. He was sure that sooner or later an attack would be mounted against the Axis Powers through the Mediterranean. In that event no mere airstrip, but a landing ground capable of receiving fleets of heavy bombers and transports would be almost as important as the navy base itself.”

The British Government, concerned that any improvements would upset the Spanish, did not share Gort’s enthusiasm. But one of Gort’s strong points was that he got on well with the Spanish and with their approval, he went ahead with the airport expansion. Using the soil excavated by the Canadians, who were busy burrowing miles of tunnels into the great limestone edifice, the runway was extended onto land reclaimed from the sea.

At Gibralar, Gort, now 55, maintained his ‘fighting’ fitness and in February 1942, proudly stated, “I got round our storm-troop course in the allotted time, up and down the Rock, climbing rope ladders, etc. and at the end charging and clambering over a 7’6” concrete wall”.

The General’s embracement of stoicism extended to his guests, and visitors were subjected to fast-paced tours of the Gibraltar defences followed by hours of standing through lengthy discussions in unheated (at Gort’s insistence) rooms.

Despite, or possibly because of, his rigorous lifestyle, Gort was soon worn out and it was decided “…a successor was required to invigorate the defenders and sustain the courage of the population”. A year to the day of his arrival, 7th May 1942, General Lord Gort was taken away by flying boat and replaced as Governor by one of his more high-ranking detractors General Mason-MacFarlane.

When he was sufficiently recovered, Gort was appointed Governor of Malta which at the time of his arrival was under constant siege from the bombing of the Luftwaffe. Gort’s attention to detail paid off mightily at Malta and his changes to procedures, such as speeding up refueling times for Spitfires and the strategic placement of anti-aircraft guns, helped save the island. For his efforts, he was promoted to Field Marshall.

Gort’s final posting was as High Commissioner of Palestine but by now, he was terminally ill and was forced to return to Britain. On 31st March 1946, he died of liver cancer at Guy’s Hospital, London. Whatever else can be said of him, for better or worse, his decision to retreat to, and evacuate from Dunkirk saved the lives of thousands of soldiers.

words | Reg Reynolds