24th April 2009
The purpose of my research is to understand what British people aimed to achieve in occupied Germany after the Second World War. For the past year or so I’ve been looking at some of the senior army officers, notably Field Marshal Montgomery, who was Military Governor of the British Zone for the first year of the occupation, from May 1945 to the end of April 1946.
As I progress further with the research I’ll be looking at other groups of people: politicians, diplomats and administrators, the education advisers, young men, who were only 18 or 19 years old at the outbreak or war and who had no adult experience of anything else, and German speaking exiles, who returned to the country they had grown up in, as members of the occupying forces or as administrators in the Control Commission.
One theme which interests me is how army officers adjusted to their changed role after the fighting was over and the task of ‘winning the peace’ had begun. I’ve recently read the autobiography of General Sir Brian Horrocks, ‘A Full Life’, (first published in 1960 by William Collins; new edition published 1974 by Leo Cooper), which provides some insight into this, although he stayed in Germany for only a few months after the end of the war.
Horrocks was one of three Corps Commanders in the British 21st Army Group, who reported directly to Montgomery as Commander-in-Chief. With the rank of Lieutenant General (which is higher than Major General) the Corps Commanders were, in the early days of the occupation, the most important people in the Zone, equal if not senior in rank to the Deputy Military Governor, Sir Brian Robertson, with complete authority in their own areas of command.
According to his Wikipedia entry, Horrocks was one of Montgomery’s most successful generals, respected by both his British and American colleagues. He fought under Montgomery at the Battle of Alamein and in North Africa, and then again, as commander of 30 Corps, from the Battle of Normandy to the final defeat of the German armies and unconditional surrender in May 1945.
I’ve quoted some extracts from his autobiography below, which are interesting for a number of reasons: his background and experience as a POW in the First World War and in Russia and Germany afterwards, which must have influenced his outlook on life later, his descriptions of Montgomery, his reactions to the liberation of a concentration camp, and how he set about his task in Germany after the Second World War was over.
Brian Horrocks was born in India in 1895, but grew up and was educated in England. His father was a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps and he remembered holidays in Gibraltar as a young boy:
“I used to travel out by P. & O. every holidays from my preparatory school in Durham and the Gibraltar of those days was a small boy’s paradise, much more so than today, as we had free access to Spain. Life consisted of bathing, hunting with the Calpe hounds, cricket matches, race meetings and children’s parties – all great fun.”
In 1912 he went to Sandhurst to train as an officer in the army. At the outbreak of war in August 1914 he was sent to France, but was wounded and captured at the Battle of Ypres in October. He was just 19 years old at the time. He spent the rest of the war as a POW, despite numerous unsuccessful attempts to escape, one of which ended only yards from the Dutch border. As a POW he shared a room with 50 Russian officers and learnt Russian. As a result of this, he was sent to Russia in 1919 as part of the (unsuccessful) British efforts to help the White Russian armies defeat the Bolsheviks.
On returning from Russia he rejoined his regiment, now stationed in Germany, as part of the British occupation of the Rhineland after the First World War. He described his experiences as follows:
“When I returned to my regiment as a captain I was lucky, for the 1st Battalion The Middlesex Regiment then formed part of the British Army of the Rhine. For us in the occupation forces life in Cologne was very pleasant, because, owing to the chronic inflation of the German mark, we always had plenty of money, a most unusual experience for me.
It was all too easy. I opened an account for £10 sterling in a German bank and as each day the pound become worth more in German currency, all I had to do was to call and draw out the extra marks. Towards the end of this period we used to get the weekly pay for our companies in sacks. But the Germans suffered terribly. The more expensive bars were filled with fat profiteers and their hard-faced, brassy mistresses who drove round in huge cars and seemed to batten on the wretched, starving, professional classes. …
I don’t think anyone who has not witnessed at first hand the real horrors of inflation can understand what it means. I came away convinced that any sacrifice was worth while in order to avoid this economic cancer.”
In April 1921 he returned to the UK “for duty in connection with the coal strike.” He was then posted to Ireland during ‘the troubles’ “where our life consisted of searching for hidden arms, patrols, keeping a lookout for road-blocks and dealing with ambushes organised by the Sinn Feiners – a most unpleasant sort of warfare.” This was followed by a trip to Silesia in 1923 “to maintain law and order during a plebiscite” to determine whether the area should be remain part of Germany or be transferred to Poland.
He also took part in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, competing in the Modern Pentathlon. In those days the modern pentathlon had a strong military association, as it was, according to Horrocks, “based on the conception of a courier carrying dispatches though a hostile country” who needs to ride a horse, run on foot, swim, fence and shoot with a pistol.
At the start of the Second World War in 1939, Horrocks joined the British Expeditionary Force in France as a major, commanding a machine-gun battalion. He described his first meeting with the divisional commander, General Montgomery:
“I hadn’t been there two hours when I was told that the divisional commander, General Montgomery, was in his car on the road and wanted to see me. Monty had obviously come up at once to cast an eye over his new divisional machine-gun commander. This was my first meeting with him, apart from once in Egypt. I saw a small, alert figure with piercing eyes sitting in the back of his car - the man under whom I was to fight all my battles during the war, and who was to have more influence on my life than anyone before or since.
I knew him well by reputation. He was probably the most discussed general in the British Army before the war, and – except with those who had served under him – not a popular figure…. He was known to be ruthlessly efficient, but somewhat of a showman. I had been told sympathetically that I wouldn’t last long under his command, and to be honest, I would rather have served under any other divisional commander.”
Later in the book he described another meeting with Montgomery, in 1947 after the war was over and he was based in Chester:
“The highlight was a visit from Monty. I had not realised how popular he was with all and sundry. It was almost like a Royal tour, with people lining the route – and he loved every minute of it. Just before his departure for Liverpool, where he was to catch his train back to London, the mayor of Birkenhead rang me up to say that over 1,000 people were waiting for him on the near side of the Mersey tunnel. A small platform had been erected and he hoped that the field-marshal would be prepared to say a few words to the crowd. This was quite unexpected so, as we drove along, I did my best to brief him on the role which Birkenhead had played during the war. I spoke most of the time to his back as he was continuously leaning out of the window and waving to the crowds while he murmured ‘Yes, yes Jorrocks – three battleships constructed – I have got that. Yes go on.’ We arrived, and he then made a sparkling speech which delighted everybody without mentioning a single word of what I had told him during the journey.”
After defeat in France and evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, Horrocks returned to England. In 1942 he went with Montgomery to Egypt and played an important role in the series of victories which led to the German army being driven out of Africa. His army career was interrupted in 1943, when he was seriously wounded in Tunisia in an attack by an aeroplane. He was out of action until July 1944, when he re-joined the army as commander of 30 Corps in the Battle of Normandy.
Towards the end of the war, he played a large part in the fighting which forced the German army back across the Rhine. I’ve written before on this blog about the horror many soldiers felt at the destruction caused by war; to themselves, their enemies and to innocent civilians. Horrocks described ordering the destruction of the town of Kleve, during the Battle of the Reichswald:
“One thing, during this preparatory stage, caused me almost more worry than anything else; the handling of the immense air resources which were to support us. General Crerar told me that in addition to the whole of the 2nd Tactical Air Force the heavies from Bomber Command were also available. And he put this question to me: ‘Do you want the town of Cleve taken out?’ By ‘taking out’ he meant, of course, totally destroyed.
This is the sort of problem with which a general in war is constantly faced, and from which there is no escape. Cleve was a lovely, historical Rhineland town. Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fifth wife came from there. No doubt a lot of civilians, particularly women and children, were still living there. I hated the thought of its being ‘taken out’. All the same, if we were to break out of this bottle-neck and sweep down into the German plain beyond it was going to be a race between the 15th Scottish Division and the German reserves for the hinge, and all the German reserves would have to pass through Cleve. If I could delay them by bombing, it might make all the different to the battle. And after all the lives of my own troops must come first. So I said ‘Yes’.
But I can assure you that I did not enjoy the sight of those bombers flying over my head on the night before we attacked. Generals, of course, should not have imagination. I reckon I had a bit too much.”
This “horrible battle” lasted a month. “We took 16,800 German prisoners and it was estimated that the total enemy casualties was about 75,000 as against 15,634 suffered by us. Our losses seemed very high at the time, but this was unquestionably the grimmest battle in which I took part during the last war and I kept reminding myself that during the battle of the Somme in the 1914-18 war there were 50,000 casualties during the first morning.”
After crossing the Rhine, he led the force which captured the city of Bremen:
“It was in Bremen that I realised for the first time just what the Germans must have suffered as the result of our bombing. It was a shambles; there didn’t seem to be a single house intact in this huge seaport.”
Earlier in the book, while describing his experience as a POW in the First World War, he had spoken of the ‘great respect’ front line soldiers had for those on the other side:
“I have always regarded the forward area of the battlefield as the most exclusive club in the world, inhabited by the cream of the nation’s manhood – the men who actually do the fighting. Comparatively few in number, they have little feeling of hatred for the enemy – rather the reverse.”
This was reinforced by his experience in North Africa:
“There was an odd atmosphere about this desert war: never has there been less hate between the opposing sides: that is between the Germans and ourselves. Owing to the constant ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ both armies lived alternately on each other’s rations and used quite a quantity of each other’s captured equipment.”
But at the end of the war, he was present at the liberation of Sandbostel concentration camp, and this made him change his opinion:
“Up to now I had been fighting this war without any particular hatred for the enemy but just short of Bremen we uncovered one of those horror camps which are now common knowledge, but which at that time came as a great shock. I saw a ghastly picture when I entered with General Allan Adair, the commander of the Guards Armoured Division. The floor of the first large hut was strewn with emaciated figures clad in most horrible striped pyjamas. Many of them were too weak to walk but they managed to heave themselves up and gave us a pathetic cheer. Most of them had some form of chronic dysentery and the stench was so frightful that I disgraced myself by being sick in a corner. It was difficult to believe that most of these hardly human creatures had once been educated civilised people.
I was so angry that I ordered the burgomasters of all the surrounding towns and villages each to supply a quota of German women to clean up the camp and look after these unfortunate prisoners, who were dying daily at an alarming rate. When the women arrived we expected some indication of horror or remorse when they saw what their fellow-countrymen had been doing. Not a bit of it. I never saw a tear or heard one expression of pity from any of them. I also brought one of our own hospitals into the camp and when I found some of our sisters looking very distressed I apologised for having given them such an unpleasant task. ‘Goodness me,’ they said, ‘it’s not that. We are only worried because we can do so little for the poor things – many of them have gone too far.’ A somewhat different approach to the problem by the woman of two countries.”
He received the surrender of German forces in his area:
“I had often wondered how the war would end. When it came it could hardly have been more of an anti-climax. I happened to be sitting in the military equivalent of the smallest room when I heard a voice on the wireless saying ‘All hostilities will cease at 0800 hours tomorrow morning 5th May.’
It was a wonderful moment – the sense of relief was extraordinary; for the first time for five years I would no longer be responsible for other men’s lives. The surrender on our front took place at 1430 hours on 5th May when the German general commanding the Corps Ems and his chief of staff arrived at our headquarters. Elaborate arrangement had been made for their reception. Our military police, looking very smart escorted them to a table in the centre of the room; all round the outside was a ring of interested staff officers and other ranks of 30 Corps.
When all was ready I came in and seated myself all alone opposite the two Germans. After issuing my orders for the surrender I finished with these words, ‘These orders must be obeyed scrupulously. I warn you we shall have no mercy if they are not. Having seen one of your horror camps my whole attitude towards Germany has changed.’
The chief of staff jumped up and said, ‘The army had nothing to do with these camps.’ ‘Sit down,’ I replied, ‘there were German soldiers on sentry duty outside and you cannot escape responsibility. The world will never forgive Germany for those camps.’”
But once the war was over, another “considerable mental switch” was required:
“During those first few days after the German capitulation we all felt as though an immense weight had been lifted from our shoulders; but this wonderful carefree atmosphere did not last for long. We were faced by the many intricate problems involved in the resuscitation of a stricken Germany. Having spent the last six years doing our best to destroy the German Reich, almost overnight we had to go into reverse gear and start building her up again. This required a considerable mental switch.”
“There is something terribly depressing about a country defeated in war, even though that country has been your enemy, and the utter destruction of Germany was almost awesome. It didn’t seem possible that towns like Hanover and Bremen could ever rise again from the shambles in which the bulk of the hollow-eyed and shabby population eked out a troglodyte existence underneath the ruins of their houses.
Things were better in the country districts, but what struck me most was the complete absence of able-bodied men or even or youths – there were just a few old men, some cripples, and that was all. The farms were all run by women. How appalling were the casualties suffered by the Germans was brought home to me forcibly when I first attended morning service in the small village church of Eystrop where I lived. The Germans commemorate their war dead by means of evergreen wreaths – dozens and dozens of them. In a similar church in the United Kingdom I would not expect to see more than eight to ten names on the local war memorial. The Germans certainly started the last war, but only those who saw the conditions during the first few months immediately after the war ended can know how much they suffered.”
“Monty laid down the priorities as 1) food and (2) housing; he then, as always, gave us a free hand to look after our own districts until such time as proper military government could take over from us. It was a fascinating task. I found myself to all intents and purposes the benevolent (I hope) dictator of an area about the size of Wales. At my morning conference, instead of considering fire plans and laying down military objectives, we discussed such problems as food, coal, communications, press and so on. I soon discovered the merits of a dictatorship. I could really get things done quickly. One day in the late autumn a staff officer reported than the output of coal was dropping every week in our corps district. That was very serious with winter approaching. The reason, I was informed, was that the miners lacked clothes. I immediately ordered a levy to be carried our in certain nearby towns to provide adequate clothing for the miners, and sure enough a few weeks later the graph showing coal production began to rise. I smiled when I thought of what would happen in dear old democratic Britain if the Cabinet ordered clothes to be removed compulsorily from Cardiff, shall we say, to clothe the miners in the Welsh valleys.”
“To start with a great deal of this work had to be carried out by British troops and quite naturally this caused resentment. I remember being asked by an intelligent sapper corporal, ‘Why should I now have to work hard and repair bridges for the so-and-so Germans who have caused so much misery to the world.’ As he was obviously voicing the doubts of many others, I collected the company together and explained to the best of my ability that the war was now over, so Germany must take her place again as a European state. Many of the people were on the verge of starvation and if food couldn’t be moved freely into the towns they would die that winter. And this would cause great bitterness. Furthermore it was essential for our own British economy to start trading again with Germany and we would never be able to do this until communications had been repaired. Whether I convinced them or not I have no idea, but they went back to work at once without any further questions.”
“The British soldier has often been described as our best ambassador and this is particularly so if he forms part of an army of occupation because one of the most difficult things in the world is to occupy a foreign country and yet remain friendly with its people. If left to himself the British soldier will soon be on the best of terms with the local population. Unfortunately this time he was not left to himself and all sorts of regulations about non-fraternisation with the German population were issued. No doubt there were good reasons for this policy but it caused endless trouble at our level. What happened was that our troops were prevented from getting to know the ordinary, decent families in an open and normal way, and were driven to consorting on the sly with the lowest types of German women.”
“In spite of the non-fraternisation rule I was determined somehow or other to make our occupation as palatable as possible for the local inhabitants. This may sound sloppy, but I had experienced the difficulties of occupying Germany after the First World War. I knew very well that nobody will ever keep the Germans down for long because they belong to a very rare species which actually likes work. I also understood the menace of Communism better than most – thanks to my time in Russia. So, without claiming any particularly brilliant foresight, it seemed to me that the Germans were the sort of people whom it would be better to have on our side than against us. I therefore ordered all units in my corps to do everything they could to help the German children. Nobody could blame them for the last war, and they had obviously had a bad time. Some of the children had never even seen chocolates in their lives. Units were told to open special youth clubs, and camps in the summer, and organise sports, etc.”
He gave a tea party for 150 German children, but “unfortunately the party was also attended by some reporters from the British Press … inexperienced, callow, young men who were concerned mainly with getting an angle to their stories … It soon become obvious they were hostile” and the next day headlines appeared in the press “British General Gives Tea Party for German Children”. He received “an enormous number of letters in which the kindest comment was “that I had obviously gone mad.’”
“These were of little consequence, but unfortunately owing to all the adverse criticism I was ordered to cease my activities with the German children at once. Orders had to be obeyed but I still feel that this was a serious mistake. Instead of mixing with the civilian population on a friendly basis we were driven back into ourselves and when I returned to Germany some three years later to take over the appointment of commander-in-chief, I found that the B.A.O.R. was an army of occupation in the true sense of the word, living quite apart from the German people.”
He was appointed commander-in-chief of the British Army of the Rhine in 1948, but before taking up the post, had another operation on his stomach, his seventh after being wounded in North Africa:
“Very unwisely I went out to Germany before I had completely recovered and then followed the most unhappy period of my life. I arrived to command B.A.O.R. just when things were getting more and more difficult with the Russians.”
He had to resign from the army, but continued to live an active and varied life. In 1949 he was appointed gentleman usher of the Black Rod in parliament and fourteen years later became a director of Bovis, the construction company. He also presented a series of TV programmes ‘Men in Battle’ which at its peak, had eight and a half million viewers. Brian Horrocks died in 1985.