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‘A very fine Commander’: the memoirs of Sir Horatius Murray (edited by John Donovan)

‘your memoirs, Nap? Who on earth do you think would want to read them?’

So said Field Marshal Montgomery, when General Horatius Murray suggested writing his recollections of a lifetimes service. Indeed, military memoirs can be very hit or miss, usually the latter. Especially when written by a family member or close friend. I’ve got to be honest, I wasn’t too excited about reading this book – the memoirs of a General I had never heard of. But in actual fact, Horatius Murray’s memoirs made for a very interesting read, giving a great insight into the career of a pre-war officer, mid-level command in the Second World War, and then post-war command in Korea, Scottish Command and NATO’s Northern Command in Scandinavia.

You would expect somebody called Horatius to have served in the Guards, a dashing Cavalry Regiment or perhaps the Rifles. In fact Murray came from a relatively modest family, and only just manged to afford to go to Sandhurst. Although he performed well there, without sufficient private means he was forced to join a relatively unglamorous unit, the Cameronian Rifles. It shows the differing pace of soldiering in peace and war that from when he was commissioned in 1923 it took Murray until 1938 to become a Major, yet by 1944 he was an acting Major-General. Some of his early years as an officer were spent serving in Egypt, India and China. Interestingly, he also spent several months on attachment with the Germany Army only a couple of years before the Second World War broke out.

Horatius Murray commanded a Gordon Highlanders Battalion at El Alamein, where he was seriously wounded, then recovered in time to resume command in the final days of the Tunisian Campaign. He was then given command of a Brigade in the invasion of Sicily. In late 1943 the 51st Highland Division returned to Britain to take part in Operation Overlord. A follow up Division, the Highlanders landed in Normandy on 7 June 1944. In Normandy the Division performed rather poorly, in Murray’s opinion due to poor leadership and a lack of serious training. At one point Murray refused an order from the Divisional Commander, Major General Bullen-Smith, that he thought was needless and would waste mens lives. The Corps Commander ruled in Murray’s favour, recommended Bullen-Smith’s sacking, which Monty confirmed soon after. This undoubtedly showed great moral courage on Murray’s part. Shortly after landing in Normandy Murray was transferred to Italy to take command of 6th Armoured Division, which he led until the end of the war.

After the war he served as commander of the 1st Division, Director of Personnel at the War Office and commanded the 50th (Northumbrian) Division, a territorial unit based in Catterick. After leaving that post he was selected to command the Commonwealth Division in Korea. Although this came in 1953 after the ceasefire, Murray still commanded British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand troops in peacekeeping. Murray seems to have been a very modest General, to the point of not even mentioning in his memoirs his DSO and other brave acts – his Nephew added notes in when editing. He seems to have had no airs nor graces. Indeed, when he left command of the 50th Division based at Catterick, the local newspaper reported that he had given the camp a soldiers touch.

Also included are some very revealing ancedotes about King George VI, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Monty, Eisenhower, Bernard Freyberg VC and Maxwell Taylor. I cannot recall many other books that I picked up with such disinterest, yet finished with such an insight. I enjoyed reading them immsensely.

‘A very fine Commander’ is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two