Gibraltar Governor John Vereker (John Standish Surtees Prendergast), sixth Viscount Gort in the peerage of Ireland and first Viscount Gort in the peerage of the United Kingdom (1886-1946), army officer, was born at 24 Chesham Place, London, on 10 July 1886, the elder son of John Gage Prendergast Vereker, fifth Viscount Gort (1849-1902), and his wife, Eleanor (d. 1933), daughter and coheir of Robert Smith Surtees, novelist, of Hamsterley Hall, co. Durham. He was educated at Harrow School (c.1900-04), being a schoolboy there when he succeeded to the family honours in 1902, and attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst (1905-6). He was gazetted ensign in the Grenadier Guards in 1905. On 23 February 1911 Gort married his cousin, Corinna Katherine Medlicott Vereker (1891-1940); they had two sons and a daughter. The marriage ended in divorce in 1925.
First World War service
On the outbreak of war with Germany in August 1914, the month of his promotion to captain, Gort went to France as aide-de-camp to the commander of the 2nd division, Charles Carmichael Monro. In 1915 he was appointed GSO3 to the 1st corps, and later he became brigade major of the 4th (guards) brigade. He was present at the battles of Festubert and Loos. In July 1916 he was appointed GSO2 to the operations branch at general headquarters (GHQ). In January 1917 a special subsection of the operations branch was formed, with Gort as assistant to its chief, to work out details of the campaign for that year, which it was then hoped would include a landing from the sea behind the German front near Middelkerke. This was a landmark in staff organization: the conception of a planning staff without other duties was a novelty.
Gort was a competent staff officer, but his greatest gift was for leadership. In April 1917 he was appointed to command the 4th battalion, Grenadier Guards, shortly before the arduous offensive in Flanders. On the first day of that offensive, 31 July, in the battle of Pilckem Ridge, he was wounded, but, despite great pain, he remained until the captured ground had been consolidated. For his exploits on that occasion he received a bar to the DSO to which he had been appointed earlier in the year. He returned to lead his battalion in a later phase of the offensive. In November he was wounded again in the battle of Cambrai. In March 1918, now commanding the 1st battalion of his regiment, he played a part in stemming the German offensive at Arras. He was awarded a second bar to the DSO. Already he had acquired a reputation for the rarest gallantry, complete disregard of personal danger, and the power to keep alive in troops under his command a spirit of endeavour, untamed by loss and strain.
The great day of Gort’s early career was 27 September 1918. The occasion was an episode in the victorious British offensive, the passage of the Canal du Nord and storming of the Hindenburg line near the village of Flesquieres, in which he found himself temporarily in command of the 3rd guards brigade. The situation with which he was confronted was all too familiar: the brigade was to pass through and capture the third objective, but found that the second had not been fully attained. Gort first led his own battalion up under very heavy fire to its starting line. He was then wounded, but personally directed a tank against an obstacle holding up the advance. The brigade’s left flank was completely exposed, but he covered it with one of his battalions, the 1st Welsh Guards. Severely wounded for the second time, he struggled up from the stretcher on which he had been lying and continued to direct the attack. Later on he collapsed, but, recovering partially, he insisted on waiting until the success signals were seen. It was an extraordinary feat of physical courage and of will, for which he fittingly was awarded the VC. In the course of the war he was also awarded the MC and was eight times mentioned in dispatches.
Gort attended the Staff College, Camberley, on its reopening in 1919. In 1921, now a brevet lieutenant-colonel, he returned as instructor. He then reverted to regimental duty. In 1926 he became chief instructor at the senior officers’ school at Sheerness, and his promotion to the rank of colonel was antedated to January 1925. He went on to command the Grenadier Guards and regimental district in 1930, became director of military training in India in 1932, and in 1936 went to the Staff College for the third time, now as commandant.
Chief of the Imperial General Staff
The secretary of state for war, Leslie Hore-Belisha, wished to rejuvenate the higher appointments at the War Office. His eye fell upon Gort, who early in 1937 was still only fifty years of age. He was appointed military secretary to the secretary of state and later in the year chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS). He was promoted full general, skipping the intermediate rank of lieutenant-general. He was also appointed CB, and promoted KCB in 1938.
In early life Gort had acquired the ridiculous and inappropriate nickname Fat Boy, but he was later known familiarly as Jack. In what would now be termed his lifestyle he was austere and self-denying; indeed he seemed to delight in privations and expected others to do the same. On his appointment to the Staff College in 1936 one colonel remarked: ‘He will have all the beds made of concrete and hosed down with cold water nightly’ (Colville, 68). His suggestion that officers might use their leisure hours at Camberley learning to fly rather than following the drag hunt was not widely appreciated. He also had a schoolboy sense of fun which he never entirely outgrew. In his days as an instructor at the Staff College in the early 1920s he had been a ringleader in various rags, such as squirting hoses under the bedroom doors of those who retired too early on mess nights, and he was not above treating the war minister to similar horseplay in 1939.
In promoting Gort to the highest appointment in the army, Hore-Belisha hoped he had chosen a man who would supply the drive for pushing through overdue reforms, and that his character would appeal to the troops and enhance the service’s reputation with the public. Sir Ronald Adam as his deputy would supply the brains and adroitness necessary in the chiefs of staff committee and the committee of imperial defence. Sir John Kennedy’s opinion, that ‘in the war office this fine fighting soldier was like a fish out of water’ (Kennedy, 5), may be too severe, but it soon became apparent that Gort was not ideally suited to the position of CIGS. One of Gort’s salient characteristics throughout his life was an obsession with detail, sometimes to the exclusion or neglect of the broader picture. Nevertheless, he became CIGS at a time when the energetic and ambitious Hore-Belisha was bringing army reform to the forefront of British politics, and he played an important part in the great improvements that were accomplished before the outbreak of war. His most important achievement was to get the army’s continental commitment recognized by the government (finally achieved in February 1939)-with the resultant rush to get its equipment, weapons, and transport modernized-and part of the Territorial Army earmarked for development as its eventual reserve. Though he remained ignorant of the French army’s weaknesses, Gort was convinced that Germany was Britain’s most likely enemy, that the field force must be ready for dispatch to France, and that the pre-1939 plan to send only two divisions was a completely inadequate contribution to an alliance.
Quite apart from the blighting of individual careers, it was a tragedy for the British army that Gort and Hore-Belisha proved unable to work amicably together; indeed for several months before the outbreak of war Hore-Belisha and his chief military adviser were barely on speaking terms and saw as little of each other as possible. To judge by the diaries of Sir H. R. Pownall and Sir W. E. Ironside, all the fault was on Hore-Belisha’s side, but Gort’s biographer corrects this impression, pointing out that the CIGS offered his political chief no affection or understanding and little credit for his many admirable reforms. A less formal CIGS, capable of overlooking or even laughing at the war minister’s irritating mannerisms and methods, might have gained the latter’s confidence and achieved a working relationship.
Commander-in-chief of the field force, 1939-1940
The government’s omission to appoint a commander-in-chief of the field force before the declaration of war on 3 September 1939 caused ill feeling and confusion among the three possible choices (Sir J. G. Dill, Ironside, and the least likely candidate, Gort). Whether or not Gort pressed for the appointment of commander-in-chief is uncertain, but he was evidently delighted to escape from Hore-Belisha and the War Office, where he was succeeded by Ironside. Gort, like H. A. Alexander, made no secret of the fact that he enjoyed the excitement of war. ‘Here we go again, marching to war’ was his first remark on reaching the Staff College to form his headquarters, and he added, ‘I can’t expect everybody to be as thrilled as I am’.
Gort’s position in the allied command structure was a curious one. His headquarters had liaison with General M.-G. Gamelin’s (general headquarters), but he was not under Gamelin’s orders. The British field force was included in the First Army group under General Billotte but-initially at any rate-Gort was to receive his orders from General Alphonse Georges, French commander of the armies on the north-eastern front. Like his predecessor Sir John French in 1914, Gort was granted the right to appeal to his own government should he consider that French orders (or, as it turned out, lack of them) might endanger his troops. The two original corps commanders, Dill and Sir Alan Brooke, expressed criticisms of the field force’s equipment, tactics, and training, feeling that Gort was too complacent and too obsessed with detail. In their turn Gort and Pownall, his chief of staff, suspected the corps commanders of ‘bellyaching’ and defeatism. Too much of Gort’s time was taken up with ceremonial visits to the French and in entertaining a stream of distinguished visitors at general headquarters, but in any case he believed in delegating a large measure of responsibility for training to his subordinates. Montgomery made some sharp criticisms of Gort’s leadership in his Memoirs, but allowed that he had an impossible task in running a great headquarters as well as exercising direct command over the fighting and administrative forces. The plan was for Gort to appoint two army commanders under him when four corps were assembled, but only three were in place by May 1940.
On a substantial operational issue, Gort was unhappy about Gamelin’s proposal to abandon the frontier defences and advance into Belgium to the line of the River Dyle (Plan D) in the event of a German attack. Gort, Pownall, and Ironside were all present at Vincennes on 9 November when Gamelin explained his plans and the safeguards against being surprised in the open, and none of them objected. Gort suppressed his reservations in the interests of allied unity: he was under French direction and would advance when told to without reference to his government. In retrospect this acquiescence in an extremely risky plan was to be widely criticized as a dereliction of duty.
The final rift with Hore-Belisha resulted directly from the minister’s visit to the field force in mid-November. It seems unlikely that Gort himself intrigued against the war minister, but he had a trusted ‘hatchet man’ in Pownall and must have been broadly aware of his clandestine efforts. But, in contrast to Pownall, who rejoiced, Gort was surprised at Hore-Belisha’s resignation in January 1940 and seemed upset that he might be suspected of causing it. The problem which most urgently affected Gort in April and early May was his precise place in the allied chain of command. Uncertainties remained until the Germans invaded Belgium in the early hours of 10 May and the allies responded to the plea for assistance by implementing Plan D.
Commanding in the field, 1940-1941
Given Gort’s temperament and thirst for action, his choice between the roles of a commander-in-chief at headquarters and a field commander actually fighting the battle from forward positions was a foregone conclusion. Taking Pownall and other senior staff officers with him, Gort immediately left general headquarters for a command post at Wahagnies, near Lille. The separation of the commander-in-chief from his GHQ for the critical phase of the campaign proved to be an administrative disaster because communications between the shifting command post and GHQ broke down almost completely. All reports of German movements, for example, were sent to the operations section remaining at GHQ but it was often impossible to pass the information to the command post. Montgomery later reflected that the distribution of staff duties between GHQ and the command post was amateur and lacking the professional touch. The verdict of the official historian was equally severe.
On 12 May General Billotte was appointed to co-ordinate the movements of the first group of armies (including the British and Belgian forces), but in the succeeding critical days he conspicuously failed to do so as the allies first advanced to the Dyle line and then retreated to the Franco-Belgian frontier while the German Panzer columns drove westward behind them to the channel coast.
British anxieties increased on 19 May when the Panzer advance severed the field force’s line of communications with its bases in the Biscay ports. Pownall twice telephoned an uncomprehending War Office to warn that a retreat to the channel ports might be unavoidable. Unfortunately for Gort, Churchill and the war cabinet were seriously out of touch with fast-moving events and on the following day (20 May) the CIGS, Ironside, arrived at GHQ bringing orders that Gort was to march south-west towards Amiens to re-establish contact with the main French armies south of the narrow Panzer corridor. The CIGS was quickly persuaded that such a move was impossible.
On 21 May Gort ordered a small-scale counter-attack south of Arras to hold up the German advance. French participation in this operation was minimal but for a few hours it made encouraging progress even against SS units and Rommel’s 7th Panzer division. Here was a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been had Gamelin retained a central reserve. Two days later Gort was obliged to withdraw the Arras garrison to prevent it from being cut off, but the French generals, notably Blanchard, interpreted this as an attempt to sabotage the counter-offensive which Gamelin-and now his successor Maxime Weygand-were planning to cut the Panzer corridor by a combined drive from north and south. Despite his waning faith in the French high command, Gort was still prepared to make two British divisions (5th and 50th) available for the northern counter-attack, but in view of the increasing pressure on his (and even more the Belgians’) eastward-facing front he felt more and more convinced that the main effort must come from south of the corridor. In view of contemporary and subsequent French criticisms that Gort never seriously contemplated joining in a counter-attack, it is worth noting that Major-General Alan Brooke was dismayed at Gort’s slowness to recognize the threat to his eastern flank where a Belgian collapse was imminent.
On the evening of 25 May Gort did heed Brooke’s warning, moved the two available divisions to the threatened sector and, without consulting the French and in defiance of a war cabinet order, unilaterally cancelled his part in the projected counter-offensive. This was Gort’s most critical decision during the campaign-perhaps in his whole career-and it was desperately uncongenial to him, the loyal ally and combative general par excellence. Had the French forces south of the Panzer corridor along the Somme been advancing, as was claimed at the time, Gort would have been charged with ruining the only hope of an allied counter-attack, but they were not. If any criticism may be levelled against Gort it is that he remained loyal for too long to the ineffectual French high command.
Recall, Gibraltar, and Malta
Gort had made up his mind to stay with his troops at Dunkirk to face death or capture but Churchill ordered him to return to England and he did so on 1 June. He never entirely forgave this order, believing that he was being widely criticized for deserting his post for which the prime minister was to blame. This suspicion that he was being made a scapegoat was accentuated by an enforced delay in publishing his dispatches. He probably was justified in feeling that Dill and Brooke were cool, if not actually hostile, towards him since they left him to fret on the sidelines with the largely honorary appointment of inspector-general of training.
In April 1941 Gort was made governor of Gibraltar. The appointment-usually a terminal one for senior officers-irked him, but there, at least, his passion for detail could be legitimately indulged, for example in getting the Rock’s cavernous defences deepened and the air strip extended. In fact Churchill had not forgotten him or written him off. In November 1941 the prime minister toyed with the amazing idea of re-installing him as CIGS in place of the exhausted Dill, who was being posted to Washington; and in March 1942 he flirted with the notion-until dissuaded by Brooke-of appointing Gort to succeed Auchinleck in the Middle East command.
The change when it came (in May 1942, and for exactly one year) was less exalted but still important, namely governor of beleaguered Malta. The island was under relentless air attacks which had pounded the docks to rubble and blocked the harbour with sunken ships. An amphibious attack from nearby Sicily seemed imminent. Yet, with Rommel’s final offensive about to begin, it was vital that Malta hold out as the base for attacks on axis convoys. Shortly after his arrival Gort helped to secure the safe arrival of a consignment of sixty Spitfires; then, by concentrating all available firepower Gort saved the supply ship Welshman by bringing down all the Stukas which attacked it. And, not least impressive, Gort supervised the distribution of scarce food and water supplies so successfully that at the height of the crisis 200,000 people were receiving rations each day. But Gort’s outstanding achievement was to impress on the islanders his own indomitable fortitude and cheerfulness in adversity. He became immensely popular. Indeed the defence of Malta may be considered Gort’s outstanding achievement. His reward was a belated promotion to field marshal.
Final appointment and assessment
In 1944-5 Gort was briefly high commissioner and commander-in-chief in Palestine. When informed that his predecessor had been fired upon he characteristically remarked that it looked like being fun; but in reality he was terminally ill with cancer of the liver, and he had only just begun to gain the respect of both Arabs and Jews, and to reduce terrorist activities, when he was forced to return home. Apart from his daughter’s happy marriage to a fellow grenadier and winner of the VC, William Sidney (later Lord de L’Isle and Dudley), Gort’s private life had been unhappy; his marriage had failed; his elder daughter had died young; his only son had committed suicide in 1941; and at the end of his life he had no home of his own. Just before his death in Guy’s Hospital on 31 March 1946, he was awarded an English viscountcy, but this was a doubtful asset since he had no heir and was too ill to take his seat in the House of Lords. He was buried at Penshurst Place, Kent.
Gort’s early death and the absence of substantial private papers meant that-like Dill’s-his reputation suffered an eclipse during the post-war ‘battle of the memoirs’ in which his severe critic, Montgomery, was so prominent. But Gort’s positive qualities emerged strongly with the publication in 1972 of Chief of Staff, vol. 1, the diaries of his staunch admirer Pownall, and in the same year he was the subject of Colville’s admirable-and on the whole admiring-biography (Man of Valour). In character he was upright and honourable, regulating his conduct by a strict code. Although not intelligent above the average of his peers, and surely promoted too early above his ceiling, Gort had qualities of steadfastness, resolution, courage, and loyalty which merit the appellation ‘great British soldier’.
Sources J. R. Colville, Man of valour: Field Marshal Lord Gort VC (1972) + Chief of staff: the diaries of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Pownall, ed. B. Bond, 1 (1972) + B. Bond, ‘General Lord Gort’, Churchill’s generals, ed. J. Keegan (1991), 34-50 + R. J. Minney, The private papers of Hore-Belisha (1960) + B. Bond, France and Belgium, 1939-1940 (1975) + L. F. Ellis, The war in France and Flanders, 1939-1940 (1953) + Burke, Peerage (1959) + b. cert. + m. cert. + d. cert. + J. Kennedy, The business of war: the war narrative of Major-General Sir John Kennedy, ed. B. Fergusson (1957), 5 + CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1946) + private information (2012) [J. P. Lethbridge]
Archives NRA, papers + TNA: PRO, corresp. relating to Malta and Palestine, CO 967/88-94 | CAC Cam., corresp. with Leslie Hore-Belisha + CUL, corresp. with Samuel Hoare + King’s Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart + NRA, priv. coll., letters to Colonel Dalrymple-Hamilton FILM BFINA, documentary footage + BFINA, news footage
Likenesses W. Stoneman, two photographs, 1939, NPG · photograph, c.1939, Hult. Arch. · H. Carr, oils, c.1940, Cavalry and Guards Club, London · R. G. Eves, two oil paintings, 1940, IWM [see illus.] · E. Seago, oils, 1940, IWM · O. Birley, portrait, Cavalry and Guards Club, London · H. Carr, portrait, White’s Club, London · Tom Tit [J. Rosciweski], pen-and-ink caricature, IWM
Wealth at death £173,236 0s. 7d.: probate, 19 Oct 1946, CGPLA Eng. & Wales