1940-42 The Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century: “THE BARTHOLOMEW COMMITTEE: AN OPPORTUNITY LOST?”

This is the second in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 

PHIL McCARTY

After the conclusion of Operation Dynamo on 3 June 1940, the War Office reacted quickly to form a committee to look into the reasons for the defeat in France and any changes which could be made quickly in the face of the threat of invasion.   Although expectations had been exceeded in terms of the number of men rescued from the Continent, losses of heavy equipment necessary to defend the British mainland had been particularly severe. The forming of the Committee took place in the knowledge that 150,000 British troops remained in France, south of the Somme. Sir Alan Brooke, returned to France only a few days after escaping with orders to co-ordinate a defence. He quickly realised that this was a lost cause and urged a second evacuation – meaning he would be unavailable to testify.

Sir George Bartholomew, recently retired as General Officer Commanding Northern Command, was appointed to chair the committee.   On paper his credentials were good; a former Commandant of the Imperial Defence College, Chief of the General Staff (India) and Director of Military Intelligence – some considered him one of the best minds on the General Staff. Others were less convinced, thinking of him as a typical conservative with a profound dislike of the Royal Air Force.   Three other senior members of the Committee had served in France.   Thirty seven officers gave evidence while the committee was in session, a mixture of senior BEF personnel down to battalion commanders – and a sole representative of the RAF.   The Committee sat for six days, taking evidence only on four.  An initial draft was ready in early July; after a General Staff conference in late July and discussion by the Army Council in September,   its findings were eventually published in October, belying the initial haste spurred by fear of invasion.

The committee made a number of recommendations for urgent change in the Army, including increased mechanisation of artillery, reconnaissance and liaison elements, improved artillery provision and co-ordination of air support. It also proposed making the operational “building block” of the Army the Brigade, or independent Brigade Group. However, many of its findings were gradually watered down as the draft passed through the bureaucracy; Sir John Dill, the CIGS, also gave Lord Gort, the former CinC of the BEF (who did not give evidence) a categorical reassurance that the report would not result in fundamental change in the structure of the Army.

Some of the recommendations were impeded by loss of equipment in France. In particular for purposes of defence against invasion, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns were in short supply thus making proposals for increased and reorganised provision of them at Division and Brigade level somewhat moot. This also meant that weapons that were obsolescent or which had underperformed were kept in production both to make up losses and to postpone the disruption to supply and training which would be caused by retooling and issue to the Army at a time of high threat.

Although the British soldier was held to be the equal of the German, the report criticised steadfastness in defence, tactical shortcomings and issues of discipline. Command and communications were considered extremely rigid. Despite the 1935 Field Service Regulations stating that orders should not be excessively prescriptive and should not prevent subordinate commanders from carrying out their mission in the face of better local knowledge or on their own initiative, experience in France showed that some senior commanders still insisted on the following of written orders, despite the fast pace of operations outstripping the ability to transmit them. There are many examples in the literature of orders to hold positions when they had fallen, or been surrendered long since. Command rigidity was criticised by senior witnesses. The report highlighted shortcomings in discipline and “fighting spirit”; however, rather than propose innovative solutions it concluded that these problems could be solved by more close order drill and time on the range.

One of the successes of the campaign was the use of “carriers” – small, fast tracked vehicles.   Until the battle of France these had been viewed predominantly as tractors or logistic vehicles; the report recommended their wider use across the Army, and their fitting with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons as standard. Although this latter point was not completely adopted, the wider use of such vehicles – which had impressed the Germans – was one of the successful recommendations from the report.

The other primary recommendation was the operational building block of the Army should now be the Brigade, and the independent Brigade Group, rather than the Division. Reorganisation of divisional assets to allow Brigades to have organic artillery, anti-tank, anti-aircraft and reconnaissance support was proposed, but equipment shortages and the delay in introducing better weapons led to these ideals being diluted. Experience in home exercises in 1941-42 highlighted flaws in the concept where equipment was inadequate either in numbers or performance and the Division returned to prominence; however early success of the concept in the Western Desert against inferior opposition led to later failures against the Germans.

The need for quick and achievable change driven by the threat of invasion makes some of the curtailing of the Bartholomew report’s proposals excusable to some extent. However, the opportunity genuinely to innovate in other areas was lost due to equipment shortages and a lack of willingness to review concepts of command. Change would come eventually, but more gradually than may have been the case had senior officers not watered down the committee’s recommendations as it passed through the War Office bureaucracy.

Image: British anti-aircraft guns lie abandoned at Dunkirk in 1940, via wikimedia commons.

 

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