Was Philip Neame a bad General

Discussion in 'Higher Formations' started by Fatboy Coxy, Jan 16, 2021.

  1. Fatboy Coxy

    Fatboy Coxy Junior Member

    A six-year Royal Engineer Lieutenant before WWI, he won a VC in December 1941, was mentioned in dispatches twice, and won a DSO in January 1961. He moved into staff roles, and ended the war with the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel, he had a ‘good war’.

    The interwar period saw him in staff roles in British India, and he ended it as Commandant of the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich.

    He began the second world war as Deputy Chief of General Staff to the British Expeditionary Force, but only saw the phony war, leaving in Feb 1940 to take command of the 4th Indian Infantry Division in Egypt.

    In August 1940 he was made General Officer Commanding British Forces in Palestine and Trans-Jordan in the acting rank of lieutenant-general, missing Operation Compass in that December

    In February 1941 he was appointed General Officer Commanding & Military Governor of Cyrenaica. His HQ was fixed, in Benghazi, not mobile, as his force was expected to just guard the border, both the British and Italians exhausted from Operation Compass. All the veteran troops of his predecessor, Lt Gen Richard O’Conner were withdrawn back to Egypt, and he was given a very green and poor 2nd Armoured Div and the untried 9th Australian Division, which was short on transport.

    Military intelligence believed the Italians to be totally demoralised, and while aware of a small German presence being sent to bolster them, it was understood to be merely a blocking force, aimed at stiffening the Italian defence.

    Rommel was to be a complete surprise to the British, as well as to the German High Command, as he didn’t follow orders, and attacked in late March 1941. The British were routed, and only the Australians retreating to Tobruk and digging in to hold the port, stabilised the front. On the 6th April, while retreating to a new HQ site, Neame, along with Lt Gen O’ Conner, and Brigadier Combe, was captured by a German patrol.

    In captivity, in Italy, he made a number of escape attempts, but it was only after the Italian Armistice in September 1943, he was able to successfully escape. Both O’Conner and Combe were given commands again, O’Conner as CO of VIII Corps in Normandy, and Combe as CO 2nd Armd Bde in Italy. Neame was given no further active command. Did the stain of March/April 1941 mark him down as a bad general, was he in poor health, and couldn’t take an active command after his release in 1943, or was it something else?

    Fatboy Coxy
  2. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    What a load of rubbish!!!

    VC in Dec 1941, DSO in Jan 1961???? In December 41 he was in an Italian POW camp!

    What have you been smoking/drinking?

    Neame's HQ was not in Benghazi.

    Rommel was not a complete surprise.

    Neame made several inaccurate predictions about when Rommel would attack.

    Define the criteria against which a general is judged a "bad general". What is the benchmark?

    Rommel's first African offensive could have been better handled. Studying the documents identifies numerous poor decisions made at Neame's level (corps), Gambier-Parry's level (division) and Latham / Rimington's level (brigade). Combined they resulted in the embarrasing loss of Cyrenaica with little 'fight' to prevent it.

    Putting all the blame on Neame's shoulders would be unjust. Giving him a free pass because others made mistakes too would be similarly inappropriate.

    In March/April he made several bad decisions and employed the standard British officer routine of trying to blame others. Indeed, he even started to blame others before the shooting started.

    In my opinion he put up a rather poor show in March/April 1941 but was probably not much worse than the majority of his peers. He was out of his depth. But so were most of them.

    Edited to add.
    Even his Chief of Staff, (then) Brigadier Harding, felt he was not up for the job and shouldn't have been given it.
    Last edited: Jan 17, 2021
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  3. Chris C

    Chris C Canadian

    Maybe those dates (of his awards) were actually 1914 and 1916.
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  4. Fatboy Coxy

    Fatboy Coxy Junior Member

    ooooppps Yes, and I thought I proof read that. Can I claim dyslexia.

    Apologies, yes it was 1914 and 1916
  5. Fatboy Coxy

    Fatboy Coxy Junior Member

    Neame took over both the roles GOC and Military Governor of Cyrenaica from Lt Gen Wilson, on the 28 February 1941. Wilson had only just taken the role's on the 5th of Feb, both newly formed. The Military Governor was based in Benghazi, The HQ for the GOC Cyrenaica was at Barce, now called Marj, although I don't know what the HQ was formed from. Lt Gen O'Connor's HQ, XIII Corps, formerly 'The Western Desert Force' was disbanded. As I understood it, Neame was taking a role that was primarily to organise and run an administration to replace the Italian Civil one. He'd been GOC of British Forces in Palestine and Trans Jordon, a not dissimilar role, and would have done a fine job. I thought he was based at Benghazi, once Rommel attacked, he would have used Barce HQ to control his troops.

    Re the quote of Harding, that he was not up to the job, I'm guessing that was made after Rommel had attacked, and everything went downhill from there. And I guess, that's the crux of my question, how bad was his generalship in that six week period

  6. Trackfrower

    Trackfrower Member

    Agree mostly with MarkN

    Spelling mistake........... O'Connor
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  7. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    HQ CYRCOM was Rear HQ XIII Corps renamed.

    And what where Neame's achievements in Palestine that inspires you with such confidence?

    Harding said he "begged" and "beseeched" Wavell to replace Neame because "we didn't really have any faith in Philip Neame". This occured when Wavell visited Neame, at his HQ in Barce, on 16 March.

    However, Harding was speaking after many years and he may have conflated it with Wavell's visit to the same HQ in Barce on 3 April.

    Which 6 week period?

    The Germans began to move the British lines back on 24 March. Neame was captured on 6 April. That's 13 days, not 6 weeks.

    If you're after his command skills before the German advance, this is what Wavell wrote after the 16 March visit:
    I found Neame pessimistic and asking for all kinds or reinforcements which I hadn't got. And his tactical dispositions were just crazy...
    I came back anxious and depressed from the visit but there was nothing much I could do about it... I had forebodings and my confidence in Neame was shaken.
    Last edited: Jan 17, 2021
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  8. Fatboy Coxy

    Fatboy Coxy Junior Member

    Thanks MarkN, for such detail, clearly there's a lot I didn't know, I appreciate your replies

    This being one of them.

    This was in reference to him taking on the Military Governor role, something not dissimilar to Palatine, and he would have had some experience, as opposed to someomne takin it on who was quite virginal.

    You alluded to the idea he should have been aware of the danger of attack before 24 March. The 6 week period was the entire amount of time he was in command.

    Yes, this is good evidence of a general either out of depth, or totally inexperienced, although pretty much all generals want more troops.

    Supports Wavell, but your right to question whether he wasn't just jumping on the bandwagon.

    Taking command of the 4th Indian from Deputy Chief of General Staff to the British Expeditionary Force seems to me to be something most ambitious general would want to take, however

    Taking the Palestine role was taking a promotion. Does an ambitious General take that? or was he being kicked upstairs?

    If Neame's skills, or the damage limitation of kicking him upstairs makes sense in giving him the Palestine job, then when Wilson is sent to Greece, and the XIII Corps is downgraded to a static HQ, combined with a Military Governor role, he's an OK choice. Its only when they realise this is not a quiet theatre, when Rommel, against his own sides ideas on what to do, starts showing his brilliance that Wavell then questions what he has in Command. All a bit late then. And as you say

    I don't know if he was bad, inexperienced, stupid, or just in the wrong time at the wrong place, that's why I'm asking questions, to tease a little more light onto his career.

    Fatboy Coxy
    Last edited: Jan 20, 2021
  9. Trackfrower

    Trackfrower Member

    I think someone wrote his memoirs
  10. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    I don't understand your thought process. Are you suggesting that merely being in a position for 6 months means that you have now become good at it? Surely the judgement 'good' should be based upon what he achieved not upon his mere presence. Your original comment was that you believe he would have done a fine job. On what basis?

    I originally asked you to define the parameters on how to judge 'good' from 'bad'. You haven't responded to that so I, and others, can only speculate randomly.

    Neame's repeated request for troops that he knew were not available is, I propose, an indication of his attempt to get his excuses in before failure has even occured. Something along the lines of: Not my fault we failed, l asked for troops which were necessary for success, they didn't come. Blame XYZ not me!

    All 'good' officers and managers do it. But that judgement 'good' is based upon the idea from someone's cv who has hopped from one job to another, often being promoted in the process, whilst others are left to pick up the pieces of the mess left behind or get blamed for the 'good' officer or manager's failures.

    Personally, that sort of political chicanery I put into the 'bad' column.

    No, l do not suggest Harding jumped on the bandwagon. Harding, as Chief of Staff, XIII Corps, was in charge of Neame's headquarters. In effect his no.2. I would suggest the background to Wavell's low opinion of Neame was based upon Harding's daily dealings with him.

    However what?

    Neame, seems to have been rather good at office politics. Thought he was going to be Chief of Staff of BEF but ended up the Chief of Staff's deputy! He was not a happy bunny and spend a great deal of effort lobbying for a transfer out of the position and back to a position in the WO more to his liking.

    He got the first half of his wish, but not the second. As, instead of a cosy number in London, he got a scratch Indian division in the desert. So ambitious was he to lead a division in battle, he wangled his way into another rear area posting before the fighting started. The night life of Jerusalem, whilst not being up to London standards, was far more appealing than life under canvas in the desert.

    Wavell had a very limited pool of senior officers to choose from. Neame got the job because there was probably no other option available and because he lobbied for it.

    Don't know where you are going with this.

    Neame got moved to Cyrenaica for the same reason he ended up in Jerusalem: Wavell had a vacancy to fill and a shortlist of, probably 3, for the job. 2 of the candidates were better qualified but the need for them in other posts was more pressing.

    Also, despite his reservations, Wavell was given a very positive character reference by O'Connor. Although, in hindsight, that could have been a devious move on his behalf. ;)

    First task is to define the parameters on how to judge good from bad.

    There were a number of very good senior officers in the Middle East who never got a sniff of the top jobs and saw a succession of inferiors come in and then depart after failure. The reason they didn't even get considered for the top job was because of their uniform. It wasn't British!
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  11. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake All over the place....

    Neame was unlucky to have been put in a difficult position at a difficult time in the war. He was the wrong man to face Rommel ina field command. He was a brave junior officer and career staff officer put in a field command of a corps sized force. His service had not included command of a major unit nor any field formation except a six month spell with 4th Indian division before hostilities started with Italy in 1940.

    Maybe I am biased as his son Nigel was the 2IC of the regiment in which I served in the 1980s. Another son Philip commanded a company at the Battle of Goose Green and was one of the men who won that battle. .

    I have a suspicion that Richard O'Conner's sons or nephews also served in the 1980s., Neil and Rory O'Conner were both artillery officers, but I can't find any detail of O'Conner's family.
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  12. TTH

    TTH Senior Member

    I can report that Leslie Morshead (GOC 9th Aust Div) was unhappy with Neame from an early stage. I can't recall how he felt about Neame's combat decisions, but the two squabbled about admin matters and in particular about the state of discipline in 9th Australian Division. Morshead was quite defensive on this subject. He was a strict disciplinarian himself but despite his best efforts he was never able to mold the division's discipline to meet his high standards. This made him especially sensitive to British criticism. Neame griped about reports of looting by the Australians, and despite Morshead's protestations it does appear as if Neame had a point.
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  13. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    There seems to have been the notion at the time - of long standing - that if you were good enough to be offered command of a battalion, you would lead it well. If you could lead a battalion well, you could lead a brigade well. And so on up to an army. All you needed was a good reference at the beginning and, preferrably but not essential, psc after your name.

    All well and good in peacetime. Command failure was almost unheard of. As long as one didn't commit too many faux pas in the mess and avoided a social black ball, all was well. The latter was what did for Hobart on the eve of war, not his ability to command.

    The only other way to be caught out was to be - and l'll use your word - unlucky to have the misfortune of having to command in a real battle. Far too often, that became an immediate block on future promotion as general after general was found wanting.

    Neame was indeed unlucky in that respect. Many others of his generation avoided having to command in battle and retired with reputations perfectly intact.

    As l wrote above, the failure of CYRCOM and 2nd Armoured Division was not entirely of his making. But if one isolates his decisions and actions and analyses them, you will quickly see that he was not up to the job. His Chief of Staff thought it before the shooting started, his boss felt it too. But he was just one name on a long list who were not up to the job.

    A good friend of mine was in 2 PARA and at Goose Green and spoke very highly of him.
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  14. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    I've read similar elsewhere regarding British troops. It was a good while ago but l think it was from within his own HQ.

    I guess Neame was struggling to strike a balance between enforcing law & order (as the military governor) and building a firm relationship with his own subordinates and troops (as military commander).
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  15. Tom OBrien

    Tom OBrien Senior Member

    I think that's fair. It's difficult to know how Neame prepared himself for high command as I haven't seen much written about him. Did he contribute to the inter-war British army intellectual debate? Did he train himself and his troops in the light of changes in technology and military doctrine? I dunno - maybe he sat in India between the wars and tried not to think about the blood and waste of the trenches, or maybe he sat up each night translating articles from German military journals to keep abreast of Guderian's latest panzer scheme. Who knows?

    I'm not sure that's fair though. "How many troops do you need to defend Cyrenaica, Philip?" "More than I've got, sir". Seems like a sensible military appreciation to me.

    He was in good company there. :D


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  16. Trackfrower

    Trackfrower Member

    1947 Book - Playing With Strife Autobiography Of A Soldier Sir Philip Neame

    That is the book.

    Most of the VIP officers were put in a special POW camp in Italy
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  17. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    There are ways to ask for troops, and there are ways of asking for troops to deflect responsibility.

    Neame repeatedly asked for more troops and each time was told the cupboard was bare but would get whatever could be found. It started with a face-to-face requests, progressed to signals and then ended up with an official written demand. Why keep asking when you know the answer?

    And the official written demand, sent on 20 March, was for:
    - one complete armoured division fully equipped with 6 Cruiser Regt with over 300 Cruiser tanks and 50 a/c
    - two infantry divisions one of which fully motorized
    - full scale of arty, atk guns, hvy and lt AA
    - additional air and naval support
    etc etc etc

    This was 3 days after Wavell & Dill (and Eden?) had visited him in Barce and fully explained to him what was available, when it was likely to be available, and why nothing else was going to ever be available.
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  18. Fatboy Coxy

    Fatboy Coxy Junior Member

    OK so Neame made a point of documenting the fact he didn't feel he had enough troops. No doubt that wasn't the gentlemanly thing to do, and must have displeased Wavell immensely, but, if you view his progression of commands from the start of the war, with as indicated, him 'lobbying' for posts, you could conclude the man was ambitious, and whats wrong with that, plenty of other generals did it too! If you now put that ambitious officer into a command that he thinks doesn't have the resources needed to do the job, he will want to cover his backside, as it were, and going on record is a way to do that. It does have to be balanced with the damage it does to the relationship he has with his senior officer, Wavell, but maybe that's an acceptable price to Neame.

    We do know, looking at what happened after Rommel attacked, as well as reports before, as to how bad Cyrenaica Command was, with tank tracks needed replacement, a very poor logistical supply line, the Australian 9th lacking transport etc, so he was right in stating the forces he had weren't up to the job, if things kicked off again. Writing that on the 20th March, is only a few days away from the attack, and maybe a good indication of how he didn't like how things were developing at the front, without realising just had bad it would get.

    Also, I don't know how willing he was in taking this command, yes it was a higher profile role, better for his career, but it came on the back of him being chosen as a second best to Wilson, also a Lt Gen, in taking command of the forces in Greece. Wilson was, I believe, his senior, but didn't he get the Greek job after some lobbying from an old mate, Eden. Given the politics that clearly go around with giving officers, command roles, Neame may had thought he had a chance of Greece, and/or was a bit miffed at being Wilson's replacement.in Cyrenaica. He could have come to feel that he was in danger of being asked to hold the baby, put his career in danger, while others saved their careers.

    Fatboy Coxy
  19. Fatboy Coxy

    Fatboy Coxy Junior Member

    Thank you Trackfrower, has anybody read this book, how much insight does it give on his thoughts on the politics of the Army, and the situation he found in Cyrenaica?

    Fatboy Coxy
  20. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    I have Michael Carver's biography of Harding of Petherton, which covers this.
    If I get time, I'll upload the relevant section.

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