I have a confession to make – this is a book that I actually started to write a few years ago, but was ‘warned off’ by a Regimental archive that I approached, who informed me that Richard Mead was already well advanced on writing a biography of General Browning. Therefore I have been eagerly awaiting this book for some time.
I’ve written before about the idisyncracies of the military biography. The problem is that the most critical sources – personal letters, diaries, recollections and memories etc – are controlled by the subjects family, who are very unlikely to make them available to a writer who is likely to show their nearest and dearest in anything other than a flattering light. Regiments can be even more protective of their old boys, especially a clan as tightly knit and exclusive as the Grenadier Guards. Therefore the military biography is hardly an objective project at the best of times. But when the subject is a controversial figure such as Browning, this is even more so the case.
On balance, Mead’s appraisal of Browning’s role in Market Garden appears apologetic. Most of the serious criticisms of Browning are rebuffed, while a few minor faults are admitted, almost as sacrificial lambs. I remain convinved that Browning was the most pivotal figure in the whole operation, who could have forced changes in the plan but did not, and who should have foreseen errors, but did not. Browning certainly did not protest about taking a grossly inadequate Corps HQ into battle, as he knew it was his last chance to see action in the Second World War. No serious military historian would argue that I Airborne Corps‘ presence in Holland was vitally necessary on the first day of the operation.
In the same manner, A Bridge Too Far‘s treatment of Browning is decried, but again, I still feel that the substance of the film is correct – Browning DID preside over a disaster. He did downplay dangerous intelligence, and did have his intelligence officer sent away on sick leave. These are not trivial accusations. Perhaps Dirk Bogarde did play Browning in a less than flattering light, but new evidence would suggest that the screenplay – and the influence of American interests – forced Bogarde into this portrayal, even against his own personal will. In any case, the main complaint is that Bogarde’s protrayal showed Browning to be vain and aloof. But, surely it’s not stretching the imagination to describe someone who designed their own extravagant uniforms as being vain? When the film was released a plethora of military figures protested, but this perhaps had more to do with military loyalty to a superior than anything else.
Where Mead really has succeeded is in ‘bookending’ Browning’s life. For too long military history has seen Browning’s life as starting in 1942 and ending in 1944 when he went to South East Asia, with what came before and after as an afterthought. His family background, his service in the First World War, his sporting activities, his regimental service between the wars and his time as Adjutant at Sandhurst all played a part in making Boy Browning the man that he was in September 1944. That he spent virtually all of his career with the Grenadier Guards – very much a closed and conservative environment – perhaps did not aid his work with others who were not part of the Brigade of Guards. He might have been a fighting soldier in 1918, but by 1939 had had a severely limited career that did not prepare him sufficiently for higher command.
In much the same manner his subsequent valuable service as Chief of Staff to Mountbatten in South East Asia, Military Secretary at the War Office, and then a key figure in the Royal Households should not be overlooked. In particular it seems that Browning was a very able administrator, particularly for the relatively young and inexperienced Mountbatten. Ironically, this kind of work was perhaps Browning’s strength, rather than active command. Perhaps it is indicative of the patronage system that pervaded the British Army that an officer singularly unsuited to active operations was allowed to reach such a position in the first place.
One aspect of Browning’s life that has very rarely been exposed is that of his mental and physical health, in particular in retirement. I have long seen glimpses of this, particularly in my own research, but it’s almost as if a veil of secrecy had been drawn over matters, so as not to portray any weakness on the part of Boy Browning. Not unlike the proverbial elephant in the room. He suffered from a lifelong stomach complaint (perhaps psychosomatic?), and not infrequent periods of exhaustion and stress. It’s probably unfortunate that somebody with such a stress threshold found themselves in command of the most high-profile failure of the Second World War.
After the War Browning developed something of a drinking problem which severely damaged his circulation, suffered from bouts of depression and at one point a serious nervous breakdown. On several occasions he was found with a revolver in his hand threatening to blow his own brains out. Browning’s relationship with his wife, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, is also examined. Both certainly had affairs, and du Maurier had liaisons with a number of women. Browning also seems to have had a difficult relationship with his children. These characterstics certainly co-align with wartime descriptions of him being nervy and highly strung, and cold and aloof. In some respects, it would be interesting to hear the thoughts of a psychologist on this evidence of a very strained life. Although we need to understand what part all of this played – if any – in his wartime actions, we should not think any less of the man purely that he suffered from personal problems.
Whilst the controversy is sure to rage on, at least Boy Browning’s life can now be seen in greater context. Whatever Historians might write about him, the focus on Browning’s life and career has for too long been far too narrow. I do not envy any Historian in the task of writing a military biography. Here Richard Mead has made the best effort that perhaps could be expected.
General ‘Boy’ is published by Pen and Sword