12th May 2008
Major General Sir Alec Bishop was one of the most senior British officers in Germany after the war. I've recently read his unpublished memoirs Look back with Pleasure which he wrote in 1971, and which are held, together with other personal papers, in the archives of the Imperial War Museum.
General Bishop was posted to Germany in June 1945, one month after the end of the war, and left five and a half years later on New Year's Eve 1950, which makes him one of the longer serving senior officers. His first position was head of the 'Public Relations and Information Services Control' division of British Military Government, generally known by its acronym, PRISC. In 1946 he was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff to Sir Brian Robertson, then Deputy Military Governor, and from 1948 - 1950 he was Regional Commissioner for North Rhine Westphalia, by far the largest Land, or region, in the British Zone of Occupation.
His memoirs are easy to read with a wealth of interesting stories and anecdotes, which reinforce many of the themes I've written about in this blog. There are also a few surprises.
The first thing that surprised me was that nothing in his earlier life, as a career soldier, would appear to have prepared him for his role in Germany after the war, but it was a job he performed diligently and, apparently, with pleasure.
He was born in 1897, and so would have been 48 years old when he first went to Germany. In the preface to his memoirs, dated November 1971, he places himself firmly in the tradition of the British Empire:
"This book is about a life mostly spent in the service of the British Empire. Although it is fashionable at the present time to decry this period of our history, the author hopes that his story may make some contribution towards a better understanding of our successes and failures, and of the joys and sorrows which came our way."
At the age of 12 his father gave him a copy of Baden Powell's book Scouting for Boys and he wrote that this book "excited my imagination, and I set about forming a Boy Scout Patrol among the other village boys, making myself, of course, the Patrol Leader!"
His father had not served in the army, (except as a local volunteer during the First World War), but "most of my forbears on my Mother's side had been soldiers" dating back to the "Parliamentary Wars of the seventeenth century," and it was assumed that he too "would follow the profession of arms."
He gained a scholarship to Sandhurst in the autumn of 1914 and two years later was posted to Mesopotamia, (as Iraq was then known, at a time when it was still part of the Turkish empire), in charge of a company of 500 men. He wrote that the main reason the British were there was "to safeguard the supply of oil from the Persian oilfields."
In January 1917 he took part in the offensive which was to lead to the capture of Baghdad on 17th March. Shortly after he was lightly wounded in action, after a engagement in which the company commander was killed and he took over command. After three weeks in hospital he re-joined his regiment and again took over command of the company, still only 19 years old. By the end of the war, in November 1918, he had taken part in the defeat of the Turkish troops by the British army under General Allenby and fought his way through Palestine to Damascus.
Between the wars he spent some time in India and then became a staff officer in the Colonial Office in London, working for the Inspector General of the African Colonial Forces. During this time he travelled extensively in Africa, inspecting the troops, and summed up his time there as follows: "many of the people in Britain and in other countries who take a delight in condemning the period of British Colonial rule in Africa and Asia had no part in its creation and administration, nor did they experience the devotion and idealism of the British administrators. I feel no doubt that when an authoritative history of our Colonial Empire comes to be written, the part played by the British officials who administered it in establishing and maintaining law and order, in holding the interests of the people above all else and in educating and preparing them to run their own affairs in due course will become fully evident."
At the outbreak of the Second World War he was in Tanganyika, where he organised the arrest of German settlers, which was done in response to concerns they would "form themselves into commandos and take to the bush." He spent the rest of the war in various positions, both in Africa and as a staff officer at the War Office in London. For the last three months of the war, he was Deputy Director of the Political Warfare Executive, (PWE), deputising for the director, Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, who was ill at the time. Presumably it was this which led to him taking charge of Information Services in Germany. Apparently he had no choice in the matter, as his appointment was negotiated between his boss, Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, and Sir William Strang, political adviser to the Military Governor, Field Marshal Montgomery.
I've written elsewhere in this blog about the First Impressions of Germany after the war, of other British officers, diplomats, administrators and journalists. General Bishop writes in very similar terms:
Firstly shock at the scale of the devastation he found in Germany:
"It is very difficult for anyone who did not see the situation in Germany when the war came to an end to realise what it was like. The first impression was of the appalling destruction which had been caused by the Allies' bombing. Very few towns had escaped wide-spread destruction. In some of the Ruhr towns such as Duisburg, over eighty per cent of the buildings had been reduced to rubble, under which lay the bodies of thousands of casualties. Water mains and sewers were disrupted, the main railway and road bridges destroyed, and those who remained alive were sheltering in the cellars under the ruins. Even those factories and mines which had escaped destruction were closed. All normal movement and civilised living had been brought to a standstill. To add to the confusion, bands of released prisoners of war and displaced person who had been brought to Germany to provide labour for the factories and farms were roaming the countryside in search of food, and sometimes to pay off old scores. The machinery of Government and of Police at all levels had collapsed. The situation was summed up by Mr Ernest Bevin, then British Foreign Secretary, in a speech he made in the House of Commons in July, 1945 when he described Germany as 'without law, without a Constitution, without a single person with whom we could deal, without a singe institution to grapple with the situation."
Secondly, the unquestioned assumption that something had to be done about this, both to help the German people, and because this was in Britain's own self-interest, to prevent the spread of both disease, and communism.
(I wonder how general this fear of communism was immediately after the end of the war in May and June 1945, and to what extent General Bishop was projecting back accepted wisdom at the time he was writing his memoirs in 1971, after years of the Cold War).
"No one who saw this situation could doubt that drastic measures would have to be taken by the Occupying Forces to help the German people to deal with it. Without vigorous help and support it was inevitable that epidemics would spread throughout the country, endangering the health of the Occupying Forces and of the whole of Western Europe. It was also clear that unless the German people were helped to transform the conditions then existing into a situation which would provide a bearable if modest standard of living it would be impossible to prevent the spread of communism throughout the whole country."
Thirdly, how difficult he felt it was, for those who were not there in person, to understand what conditions in Germany at the end of the war were really like:
"In the light of the 'economic miracle' which subsequently occurred in Western Germany, the situation described above must seem to belong to an age of fantasy; it was however very real in 1945."
And, finally, the remarkable way in which, according to Major Bishop, the British army changed from fighting the enemy one day, to helping the same people with the task of reconstruction the next:
"Our mainstay in those early days was the British Army of occupation, which had so recently been devoting all its energies to the defeat and destruction of the enemy, and now turned with an equal enthusiasm from the destruction of war to the reconstruction of peace. Commanders and men alike worked with great energy and enthusiasm at every task of reconstruction which came to their hand."