by Michael Arnold
(Havertown, Pennsilvania, Casemate)
Hardcover: 304 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
What is going on here?
Michael Arnold has done a hatchet job on Britain’s three most prominent military leaders of World War II, detailing their sometimes disastrous mistakes and shortcomings. The three are Winston Churchill, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and Admiral Louis Mountbatten.
This makes for the sort of can’t-look-away magnetism exerted by car crashes and trainwrecks, but also raises the question of whether Arnold has compiled such a collection of accusations for any reason beyond the mere horrified entertainment of his readers.
After all, it is not as though he has produced anything new.
Arnold claims that all three “were men of huge egos with massive personal ambitions and who had little or no time for anyone else”, but that “all emerged from World War II with glittering reputations”, and therefore “the truth may come as a shock”.
In fact, just about anyone familiar with 20th-century history will have been long familiar with most of the charges which Arnold levels at his three targets.
Let us summarise them in turn.
Churchill is given credit for rallying the nation with his oratory at the outbreak of the war, but condemned for the quasi-dictatorial methods which he used, in his dual capacity as prime minister and defence minister, to ignorantly meddle in military affairs.
He promoted cranks such as Wingate, and incompetents such as Montgomery and Mountbatten, while dismissing sound but unspectacular generals such as Dill, Wavell and Auchinleck.
Arnold, with references back to the 1915 Dardanelles fiasco, draws particular attention to Churchill’s insistence on untenable campaigns such as Narvik, Greece, the Dodacanese and Anzio, and to his neglect of the defence of Singapore.
Exhibit number two, Montgomery, was a general with very humdrum military ability, but a genius for self-publicisation and self-rationalisation, who was installed as head of the Eighth Army by Churchill to fight the unnecessary and unlosable Second Battle of Alamein, at a time when Britain desperately needed a victory.
As it was, Montgomery dithered, failed to pursue and crush Rommel, and has never been accorded any respect by German military commentators.
His lack of professional capacity was further exposed by his lacklustre performances in Sicily and mainland Italy, and his mishandling of the Caen, Antwerp and Market Garden operations after D-Day.
During these years he exhibited his character defects by his mean-spirited and dishonest comments on both his predecessors in the Middle East, and also on his British subordinates and American allies in Europe.
And last, Admiral Louis Mountbatten, a second cousin of King George VI and another shameless self-promoter.
As a naval officer prior to 1939, and during the early years of the war itself, Mountbatten was responsible for serious damage, with accompanying heavy death tolls, to several ships under his command.
According to Arnold, these mishaps were due to his lack of seamanship, tactical nous, common sense and responsibility.
In 1941, at the age of only 41, he was appointed director of Combined Operations, and presided over the pointless, chaotic and humiliating 1942 Dieppe Raid, which produced a huge number of British and Canadian deaths.
The next year he was put in charge of South-East Asia Command (SEAC), a position which he used in 1945 to mount an unresisted “invasion” of Malaya after the Japanese surrender, with extensive loss of vehicles and supplies, along with possibly hundreds (the figures have still not been released) of casualties.
Moving beyond World War II, Arnold also details the mishandling, in his new role as Viceroy, of India’s transition to independence in 1947, an incredibly complex responsibility which he pushed through as quickly as possible in order to return to the Navy and pursue his career.
In the ‘positives’ column
As a counter-story, or subtext, to the central narrative of his three villains, Arnold conducts a running defence of his various heroes.
These heroes include: U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose deferral to America’s military chiefs is contrasted with Churchill’s bullying of his British counterparts; General George Patton, whose dashing and instinctive generalship outshone Montgomery’s; and Admiral Chester Nimitz, a wiser and greater admiral than Mountbatten.
Among his favoured British military leaders are Slim, Wavell, Auchinleck, Cunningham (Andrew the sailor, not Alan the soldier) and Dorman-Smith, the last having a whole chapter devoted to him.
Arnold blames General Dorman-Smith’s fate on the conservatism, mediocrity, and emphasis on social conformity which he claims dominated the pre-war British Army.
While he pursues this allegation at some length, it does not seem relevant to his central theme: Churchill, Montgomery and Mountbatten’s misadventures. In fact, he is far better at chronicling their rise to power and their subsequent misuse of it, than he is in explaining how and why it happened.
Churchill became prime minister faute de mieux and was determined, faced with old age, finally to achieve the fame that his ambition had always craved, an ambition born of an unhappy childhood.
General Alan Brooke, as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, did his best to rein in Churchill’s crazier schemes, but Arnold is not prepared to give him too much credit, because Brooke was also a Montgomery man.
Montgomery, a ruthless, dishonest, devious, disloyal egomaniac, also had an unhappy childhood, and might well have suffered from some clinically certifiable personality disorder.
Arnold talks about “the underlying psychiatric condition from which it now seems certain that Montgomery suffered”, and there have been recent suggestions that he was somewhere on the Asperger’s Syndrome spectrum.
On the other hand, Arnold doesn’t help his case by claiming that Montgomery’s lack of height contributed to an “inferiority complex”.
It is suggested that the reason for Mountbatten’s successful World War II career was his royal connections, which guaranteed that his mistakes were consistently rationalised or overlooked.
Arnold labels him a psychopath, as evidenced by his “lack of empathy or remorse, and behaviour that is callous, selfish, dishonest, impulsive, irresponsible and often superficially charming”.
Perhaps so, but it could well be argued that mental health and a stable personality are by no means essential components of military brilliance and success. For example, a psychiatrist could probably have had a field day with George Patton, whom Arnold admires.
There is a whiff of “bee-in-the-bonnetry” to Hollow Heroes. Arnold is clearly not out to write balanced history, but to prosecute a case, and evidence is not assessed dispassionately but used, ignored or slanted according to its relevance to his brief.
Most of the rest of us probably take the attitude that war is a fog, that Britain and the Commonwealth muddled through as well as might have been expected, and that if in calm retrospect it is obvious that there were some mistakes and character deficiencies on the part of her military leaders, well, these things were perhaps unavoidable under the pressure of events at the time.
Arnold forces us, in the interests of truth, to focus a little more intensely than we might like, on a few of the more uncomfortable of these facts.