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General ‘Boy’: The Life of Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Browning by Richard Mead

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

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For Queen and Country

I’ve just been watching this pretty interesting documentary on BBC iplayer. It follows the Grenadier Guards as they prepare for the annual Trooping the Colour Ceremony. The Grenadier Guards took centre stage in the parade only weeks after returning from Afghanistan, a tour of duty in which they suffered a number of fatalities, including their Regimental Sergeant Major. There are two ways to look on this – firstly, it shows how resilient and professional the Guards are, but secondly, also how hard stretched they are in having to Troop the Colour so soon after returning from a hard tour.

I’ve always thought – patriotism aside – that no-one does ceremony quite like the British armed forces, and the Guards are the best in the business. But in the hard pressed and cash strapped modern environment is there a role for public duties? Whilst their shouldn’t be any sacred cows in the Armed Forces, we should not underestimate how important the Household Division is to tourism and Britain’s image. Their professionalism shines throughout, both in public duties and on operations. The Sergeant-Majors are terrifying, and the London Garrison Sergeant Major is the closest thing to God in the British Army.

How in the modern climate can the Army adapt to ensure that ceremonies such as Trooping the Colour still take place? Firstly, it might have to look beyond it being just a Guards event. Although the Guards at the Royal palaces are usually Foot Guards, occasionally other Regiments take a turn – why not use the same policy with trooping the colour? Long gone is the time when the Guards were THE elite of the British Army – nowadays the whole Army is an elite in its own right, with some regiments such as the Paras and the Rifles have their own elite status. It would also relieve the pressure on the Guards Regiments. Might it not make a better showcase for the Army to show different Regiments in this way, particularly with the lack of a broader event such as the old Royal Tournament?

Just a thought…

Click here to watch the Documentary on BBC iplayer

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Pompey’s WW1 Guardsmen – A to C

Between 1914 and 1918 four men from Portsmouth with surnames from A to C were killed serving with the Foot Guards Regiments.

The Guards Regiments were considered to be elite of the British Army’s infantry. The Guards had no territorial battalions and no ‘Kitchener Battalions’ of the New Army. They did eventually expand and raise new battalions of their own, taking in duration-only volunteers and conscripts. These were however very much proper Guards Battalions, and maintained the pre-war standards of efficiency.

Englishmen normally joined either the Grenadier Guards, or the Coldstream Guards if they happened to come from a county on the route that the forefathers of that regiment marched fromn Coldstream to London. Although in wartime these conventions were less strictly enforced, most Portsmouth Guardsmen seem to have been Grenadiers.

The Guards Division fought in the first battle of Passchendaele. Lance Corporal G.A. Bignell, from Copnor, was killed on 9 October 1917. He was serving with the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, who at the time were part of the Guards Division. He is buried in Artillery Wood Cemetery, Belgium.

The Guards suffered heavily during the Battle of Cambrai. Private Harry Bower, 31 and from Hertford Street, Portsmouth, was killed on 27 November 1917. He was serving with the 3rd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. They were also part of the Guards Division. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Cambrai Memorial, France. Private James Chant, of the 4th Battalion of the Grenadier Guards, was killed on 1 December 1917. They were part of the Guards Division. He is also remembered on the Cambrai Memorial.

Private Robert Arnold, 20 and from Newcome Road, Fratton, was serving with the 2nd Battalion, Grenadier Guards when he was killed on 27 August 1918. They were also part of the Guards Division. He is buried in Mory Abbey Cemetery, France. Tragically this was during the last battle of the Somme, just months before the end of the war.

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Pompey’s WW2 Guardsmen

Guards

Seven men from Portsmouth died whilst serving with the Foot Guards Regiments between 1939 and 1947. They were all serving with the two English Guards Regiments – the Grenadier Guards or the Coldstream Guards.

Guardsmen have always have a vaunted place in British Army culture, regarded as steadfast and well known for their public duties in London as bodyguards to the Sovereign. Prior to the Second World War Guards recruits had to be at least 5 foot 10 inches tall, and initially enlisted for at least seven years.

Guardsman David Lyons, 32 and from North End, was serving with the 3rd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. He died on 13 October 1940 and is buried in Enghien, Belgium. That he is buried in Belgium and died later in 1940 would suggest that he was probably taken prisoner during the battles in Belgium and France in the summer of 1940. Perhaps he had been too seriously wounded to be moved to a camp in Germany.

Guardsman Gilbert Gregory, from North End, died on 2 April 1941 and is buried in Kingston Cemetery. He was serving with the Grenadier Guards. Lance Corporal George Hawkins, 30 and from Southsea, was serving with the 6th Battalion of the Coldstream Guards when he died on 2 November 1941. He is buried in Kingston Cemetery.

Guardsman Harry Davies, 32, was serving with the 5th Battalion of the Grenadier Guards when he was killed in Tunisia on 27 April 1943, during the closing stages of the war in North Africa. He is buried in Massicault War Cemetery, Tunisia.

A Guards Armoured Division took part in the libration of Europe from D-Day onwards, and saw heavy fighting in France, Belgium, Holland and finally Germany. Guardsman Clarence Bull, 24 and from Fratton, was serving with the 5th Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, a motorized infantry unit, when he was killed on 21 July 1944. This was the day after Operation Goodwood had been halted. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Bayeux Memorial. Guardsman Henry Davis, 20 and from Stamshaw, was killed on 11 August 1944. He is buried in St Charles de Percy War Cemetery, and had been serving with the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards – another motorized infantry unit.

A Sherman of the Grenadier Guards crossing Nijmegen Bridge

A Sherman of the Grenadier Guards crossing Nijmegen Bridge

The Guards Armoured Division provided the spearhead for Operation Market Garden. Sergeant Robert Wakeford, 31, was killed on 20 September 1944 and is buried in Jonkerbos War Cemetery, Holland. He was a member of the 2nd Battalion, Grenadier Guards, an armoured unit that was at that point fighting hard around Nijmegen.

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