Tag Archives: Military history of Britain

Donald Dean VC edited by Terry Crowdy

Donald Dean‘s story is a quite remarkable one. Spanning two world wars, and the small matter of Britain’s highest honour for bravery, there can’t be many tales out there quite like this.

What I really like as well, is that Dean’s memoirs have such an easily-readable manner, which is no doubt down to his affable yet modest nature. Joining the Artists Rifles on the outbreak of war (he was underage), Dean was soon identified as an officer candidate and commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Queens Royal West Kent Regiment. Promoted to Captain by 1917, he was severely wounded in an action at Passchendaele, where he led a Platoon in defending an outpost for days against a vastly superior enemy. Modestly, he makes virtually no mention in his memoirs of his VC.

Dean was recalled to service immediately prior to the start of the Second World War, when the British Army was expanding after the Munich Crisis. Dean was originally given command of a Battalion of the Buffs, in the process raising several more Battalions. Upon the outbreak of war, however, his divisional commander removed him from command, with the explanation that he did not want his division to be commanded by territorials. Even First World War veterans with the VC. Unfortunately I have not been able to trace the Major-General in question.

Passed over for command in his Regiment, Dean was transferred to take command units in the Pioneer Corps. Historically the Army’s Navvies, and possibly the least glamorous unit in the army, the Pioneers performed valuable yet unsung physical labour. Taking part in the withdrawal to Dunkirk, Dean’s units of Pioneers held together firm on the perimeter of Boulogne while unmentioned units of the Guards fell back, commandeering their own ships in the process. Dean was strongly warned never to mention the fiasco. That a man who had been adjudged as an ‘amateur’ when it came to commanding an infantry unit led a Pioneer unit in a rearguard action should not be lost on the reader. The Pioneer Corps was traditionally a dumping ground for men who were deemed not clever enough or fit enough for the rest of the Army, and unwanted officers such as Dean, but as so often in British military history the Pioneers punched well above their expectations.

After returning from Dunkirk Dean and his Pioneers defended a section of the British coastline, before he left to take command of the Pioneer element of one of the least known operations in the Second World War – the invasion of Madagascar. Held by the Vichy French, a British task force secured the island as a safety measure against capture by the Japanese. Once ashore on Madagascar, Dean had an extremely complicated task in leading a rag-tag labour force, including natives and other various contingents. Commanding such diverse units must have called upon leadership and people skills in spades. Dean was not averse to taking matters into his own hands, and at one point was censured by a senior commander for ‘wanton destruction of civilian property’ for using metal railings to form an improvised roadway!

After Madagascar Dean was transferred to command Pioneer forces in Italy. There once again Dean was in command of a polyglot collection of men, including British, Canadian, South African, Polish, native Africans and Italians to name but a few. By the end of the war he had acquired the monicker ‘Dogsbody Dean’ for his ability to deal with any awkward situation, and for handling any task given to him. Not a bad record at all for someone deemed not good enough to command an infantry Battalion in 1939. We can only wonder what the Army missed out on thanks to that ridiculous decision.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dean’s remarkable story – there cannot be many others like it. He gives some valuable insights into leadership in war, and some very useful anecdotes about the human experience of war.

Donald Dean VC is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, victoria cross, western front, World War One, World War Two

Zulu: Queen Victoria’s Most Famous Little War by W.B. Bartlett

I’m reading another book at the moment about Winston Churchill, and the author writes at one point that after 1945 Churchill was harking for the long peace that he knew during the latter years of the Victorian era, in the early years of his life. Which is rather strange, as Churchill himself charged at Omdurman and was a war correspondent in the Boer War.

The ‘golden’ age of the British Empire was hallmarked by a lengthy peace between the European powers (save the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War), which is a very British way of seeing things, pulling up the draw bridge an’ all that. But at the same time, the British Empire brought about a plethora of small wars on virtually every continent. I’m always amazed by the huge range of wars that redcoats and native contingents found themselves fighting, particularly on the North West Frontier and in Africa.

Perhaps the most famous of these ‘little wars’ was that fought with the Zulu Empire in South Africa 1879. Here W.B. Bartlett has given this well-known but oft-misunderstood war a measured and scholarly treatment. Firstly, perceptions of the war have inevitably been tinted by the battle fought at Rorkes Drift, as immortalised in the 1946 film Zulu. The Zulu Impi descended on Rorkes Drift after inflicting a humiliting defeat on a British column at Isandlwana, another battle that is well known. But these two battles overshadow the rest of the war to the extent that the final outcome is little known.

The war seems to have begun in a typically British manner – no-one could point out precisely why the British wanted to advance into Zululand. In hindsight, it seems to have been a classic case of what I think of as ‘Empire creep’ – once one realm was captured, eyes instantly turned to that next door, even if there was nothing to capture and it was only a case of securing the frontier of land already held. There was no specific reason for the British to fight the Zulus, making the war somewhat un-necessary in any case.

The British commander was General John Thesiger, who during the campaign inherited the title of Lord Chelmsford. A controversial character, his legacy has been shaped by the humiliation at Isandlwana. The war began with several British columns advancing into Zululand, and in hindsight it appears that they were woefully underprepared and underestimated the Zulus. There was no intelligence to speak of, and the Natal Native Contingent were unreliable. This is a typically British military trait – starting a war with as little resources as possible, unprepared, and trying to get away with using as few British troops as possible. After the debacle at Isandlwana the Army was shaken out of its comfort zone, and eventually defeated the Zulus and captured King Cetshwayo.

The battle at Rorkes Drift is a curious incident in British military history. Undoubtedly a very brave action fought against overwhelming odds, it is important to remember that the South Wales Borderers were armed with Martini-Henry Rifles and were behind improvised but strong fortifications. Whilst it was a brave action, did it warrant such a large number of Victoria Crosses? It has to be said, that Rorkes Drift was probably used as a publicity coup to deflect attention from the terrible news of Isandlwana. Which as a shame, as it was still a brave fight none the less.

Another interesting story to come from the Zulu War is that of the death of the French Prince Imperial. A great-nephew of Napoleon and son of the Exiled French Emperor Louis Napoleon, the Prince Imperial begged to be allowed to go to South Africa to take part in the war in some capacity. That it was not his war in the first place and that he had no conceivable use was of no consequence, somehow he managed to pull enough strings to be allowed to go to a war that was not his. He was killed in the process. Although his death became something of a cause celebre, modern historians mostly agree that he should not have been there in the first place.

This is a balanced and refreshing take on what is a well-known but oft-understood war, two traits that often go hand in hand. By not concentrating overly on Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift, Bartlett reminds us that the war was much wider than we might realise, thanks to Hollywood.

Zulu: Queen Victoria’s Most Famous Little War is published by The History Press

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Empire History, victoria cross