Was Philip Neame a bad General

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

  1. Trackfrower

    Trackfrower Member

    I have read it, but a long time ago.
    Ebay £7.50 for about 3 hours
  2. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    I've suggested before that you define how you want us to assess good from bad. There are many ways to look at it and without a clear understanding of how you want us to look at it, little real value will come from a discussion.

    You seem to be approaching this from the perspective that good and bad is assessed by looking at the way he was promoted from one post to another and using 'normal practice' in what he did as a yardstick. If everyone was doing it too, then he was 'good' at it.

    At the same time you want to focus on the 6 weeks he was GOC CYRCOM. A period of no promotions which seems a bit contradictory.

    To understand Neame's performance as GOC CYRCOM, I suggest you take a deep breath and do some really solid research, reading and analysis. The 'story' of the failure of CYRCOM and 2nd Armoured Division is not the simplistic narrative beholden by so many of a massive mismatch in forces and plucky Brits overrun by mighty panzers lead by a tactical genius.

    Nobody can say definitively what outcome would have occured if different choices had been made and/or different tactical deployments, but CYRCOM had sufficiant forces to effect a completely different outcome to that which occured in March and April. Rommel's success was a direct product of the decisions and actions taken by the British senior commanders. Change those decisions and maybe Rommel doesn't have the same success.

    The trickiest part of the analysis is trying to make up your mind to what extend Neame or any GOC could have offset some or all of incompetence in the senior commanders below him and how you evaluate the effect of Wavell's interference on 3 April. It is easy to shift blame onto Wavell for the added confusion he caused, but he only meddled because it was already a disasterous mess. If Neame had had a better grip, Wavell would have had no need to meddle at all.

    So, back to basics, how do you want us to evaluate good from bad in assessing Neame as a General?

    Are we to be evaluating his performance in lobbying for promotion, his ability to have a tidy desk as a staff officer, his ability to shape war winning doctrine and fighting methods on his students at Woolwich, his ability as principle ops officer of BEF to come up with a plan to hold off the Germans, his diplomatic skills as a military governor, his party hosting skills as a military governor, his ability to balance consuming looted wine and food amongst close collegues with coming down hard on looting by his own troops. And so on and on.

    And, even with a narrow focus on 24 March to 8 April, do we judge good from bad by analysing what he did achieve against what he could have achieved with the resources at hand, or do we judge good from bad on his ability to draft staff college appraisals of resource requirements in various threat scenarios and give a free pass to actual command skills if the actual resources to hand were not as lavish as those on the appraisal?
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  3. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    I bought it--despite the homemade dust jacket.

    Unfortunately, it has to make its way to East Asia via my family address in the UK, so I can't promise any information soon.
  4. Tom OBrien

    Tom OBrien Senior Member

    In your opinion, but certainly not that of either Neame, O'Connor or Wavell. After all, Wavell conceded that he had taken significant risks in Cyrenaica to send forces to Greece and went on to concede that he had been misled by Wilson to the extent which the terrain south of Benghazi would hinder a German advance and had not realised how fragile 3rd Armoured Brigade's motley collection of tanks would prove once they had to actually move.


  5. Fatboy Coxy

    Fatboy Coxy Junior Member

    I titled the post "Was Philip Neame a bad general" to which MarkN asked

    Apologies MarkN, I haven't answered this question.

    Asking was Philip Neame a bad general, would suggest an answer like yes or no would suffice, but that would be totally unfair to the man, and far too simplistic to be of any use to anyone. But as a post title I thought it was OK to introduce a discussion on him.

    So what does good, bad, indifferent mean? well I think you articulated the different things to consider quite well, and would expect everyone else here to be in general agreement with you.

    As human beings, the vast majority of us, and I'd include generals in that, will have good and bad characteristics, as well, in their case, a view of how to command based on their own training, experience and understanding of how best to use the resources they have to the best of their abilities. So I'm not expecting a definitive bad or good re Neame. We also have to consider what's happening to someone at a particular time, how that may have an effect on their performance, so a general in personal pain, like Wavell in Feb 1942, fell and broke two bones in his back, or exhausted like Cunningham taking over the 8th Army without rest, can have dips in their performance.

    And the relevance of why I ask is that, far from being a student of the North African Campaign, and I think I've displayed enough ignorance for people to already come to that conclusion, I do study the Malayan campaign of 1941/42 and the loss of Singapore. What relevance is that to Neame? well but for being catapulted into Cyrenaica in February 41, he might have been considered for Malaya in April 41 instead of Percival.
  6. Fatboy Coxy

    Fatboy Coxy Junior Member

    So I guess I'm looking at what skills he displayed, where his strengths were, and what he was poor at. Clearly lobbying was a strength to a degree, but did that bite him back later. After returning to the UK in 43/44, both O'Connor and Combe were given commands, both had displayed good performances commanding formations in combat. Neame only had a few weeks of that, maybe not enough to say either way really, although he oversaw a complete collapse. However, Brooke, who was giving out the jobs in 44, must have known of Neame, both before the war, and in the BEF for the six months he had there. Was a reputation made that soured Brookes view of Neame way back in 39/40?

    A second thing I question is Neame was a Royal Engineer, had he developed into a specialist in fortifications, should we have seen that, or was he captured before he could display those skills at Tobruk, did his chance to shine get snuffed out before he got it, by being captured?
  7. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Hello Tom,

    Ahhhh! But beware, the devil is in the detail.

    Neame's staff college appraisal of the forces he needed, Wavell and O'Connor's estimates, were based on having to deal with an offensive by a pair of German panzer divisions with supporting cast probably from mid-May onwards.

    Rommel did not advance and probe on 24 March or 31 March with anything like those forces, did he?

    I recall us discussing previously some notes on a document that you found at Kew where the author - and we suspect it to be Latham - claims Mersa el Brega could be held if only he had another infantry battalion and an artillery regiment. Whether that is a realistic assessment or pie in the sky thinking to shift blame is impossible to judge. Nevertheless, it is out there in discussions about the battle that a far different outcome could have resulted.

    Moreover, we do know now, with the wonder of hindsight is that:
    A) OKH had ordered Rommel to wait until 15.Pz-Div had concentrated and supplies built up before attacking - maybe at the end of May. Rommel went out on a precarious limb.
    B) Rommel's immediate boss, the Italian, was dead set against attacking in March and only acquiesed when it became apparent the British were legging it as fast as possible.
    C) Rommel himself only planned to test British mettle at Mersa el Brega and thus didn't organise any fuel or other supplies to take him much beyond there. Hence his 2 or 3 day delay before pushing on.

    Rommel's advance on 31 March was little more than a probe to test the British response.

    It was the response encountered that set the historical narritive we now know.

    In my opinion, a firmer response at Mersa el Brega would likely have caused Rommel's impetuosity to be reigned in and a pause until late May or later as per OKH orders.

    On tge otherhand, if a firm response at Mersa el Brega was not to be the strategic response, which is essentially Wavell's guidence after 16 March, why did Neame move 5RTR and other units forward to Mersa el Brega rather than leave just very flimsy outposts there?

    5RTR had 50 fit tanks at el Adem and lost 20 to the desert in the move forward. How would they have fared at Mechili, with 40+ tanks, alongside 3rd Indian Motor Brigade against the 8 panzers Rommel attacked it with? If not sent forward to Mechili but held back in Tobruk, how would Rommel's 11 fit panzers that made it there have fared against all 50 for his first assault? And so on.

    Whilst hindsight helps us see things with far greater clarity than those at the time, Neame's efforts should be assessed in context. For example, was moving 5RTR forward the right decision in the context known to him at the time? You do not need hindsight to know the desert wrecked tanks, 5RTR's were already distressed and would suffer moving forward. It is not an unreasonable planning assumption that the desert would wreck havoc on German panzers too. If withdraw was the strategy, which it was, let the German panzers knacker themseves across the desert then hit them rather than move yours forward and back so you have none left.

    And so on.
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  8. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    I fear you have fallen foul of two common errors: starting with the answer you want and fitting evidence to that predetermined point; and, conflating separate ideas.

    First, your words come across to me as being that you have a start point that Neane was indeed a good general who was unfortunate to be asked to go toe to toe with a tactical genius with superior forces. Hence why you query whether Brooke's attitude was based on some earlier "sour" judgement.

    Similarly, you seem to be working on the assumption that several postings in a short period of time are an indication of him being 'good' at lobbying. He lobbied to be posted as Chief of Staff and ended up as deputy to an officer junior to him in seniority. How does that translate as 'good' lobbying skills? He wanted out and lobbied for a comfy posting in the UK and instead got a scratch Indian division in the desert. How does that translate as 'good' lobbying skills?

    Secondly, are you sure you are even assessing him as a 'general'? His first posting as a general was in the mid-30s as Chief of Staff to an Indian command. I have not the slightest idea whether he did that job well or poorly. Do you? But here's the problem, are you assessing his performance as a staff officer or as a general?

    He was then posted as Commandant RMA Woolwich. Did he do a good job there? I have no idea. Do you? But are you assessing his performance as an educator, as an administrator or as a general?

    Do you assess his time with the BEF as a staff officer or as a general?

    And so on.

    Your question was about whether Neame was a good general but you seem to want to defend his abilities as an officer, as a man and as an administrator. All worthy of discussion but of little help in understanding his performance as a general.
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  9. Tom OBrien

    Tom OBrien Senior Member

    Some extracts from Brooke's diaries (p.6):

    10 October 1939
    Did a reconnaissance of the front during this morning, and in the afternoon met Neame (the DCGS from GHQ) to discuss the employment of the 4th Res[erve] Division. I was not much edified by arguments put forward, I feel that it is a pity that GHQ was not kept smaller until such time as the BEF expanded beyond two corps. At present we suffer from 'too many cooks'.

    14 November 1939
    [...] In the afternoon Neame came round and I discussed with him the difficulties connected with the moves they are asking us to carry out in the event of an invasion of Holland.

    31 January 1940
    [...] Neame came to tea to say goodbye before taking up command of a division in Egypt. Wilts succeeds him as DCGS and should be broader minded and better for the job.

    Next entry is:

    30 December 1943
    [...] In afternoon had interviews with Philip Neame just back after escaping from Italian Prisoner's Camp. He was very interesting and praised the Italians for the assistance they had given him.

    Then last entry:

    17 March 1944
    [...] In afternoon I tried to comfort Neame as to the lack of jobs for him.


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  10. Tom OBrien

    Tom OBrien Senior Member

    You may be right, but personally I doubt anything at this stage would have reigned in Rommel's impetuosity. :D

    It may be that the rather catastrophic outcome of this first clash with Rommel actually avoided an even greater defeat a couple of months later. I don't think Rommel actually captured a huge number of prisoners in this first round, did he?


  11. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    You may be right on the former; we'll never know.

    On the latter, I wholeheartedly agree. Whilst the OKH 'plan' was to attack with 2 divisions only as far as Agedabia, no doubt Rommel would have pushed on. The extent to which he pushed on would be limited only by his logistics - as it historically was - but with a proper build up, I suspect Tobruk may well have fallen and 2 German divisions find themselves at Sollum raring to go rather than a battlegroup called Herff playing defensive. And, as you point out, perhaps the loss of considerably more British troops in Cyrenaica.

    I think Wavell and London should consider themselves very lucky to have had the far from genius Rommel face them.

    Changing tack to post-failure. Neame wrote his report immediatly after capture. He then passed it on for safe keeping with a British chap called Wadsworth who seemed to have some degree of free movement in and around Italy at the time. He posted it to him from the camp with a cover note. That cover note begins:
    One would have thought a general, one who was until recently Commandant of RMA Woolwich, would be keen to write a report of events for both historical as well educational purposes. Perhaps as part of a lessons learned exercise. But no, it was written so he could clear his reputation which somehow he already knew was sinking fast. How could he have known that?

    Brooke got to see a copy of the narrative in February 1944 after which he agreed to meet with Neame - which you mentionned above.
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  12. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    So, his performance as a staff officer with the BEF was less than stellar. Was that because he was generally a less than steller staff officer or because his heart was not in the job given the context of initially wanting his boss' job and then finding himself deputy to somebody of lower seniority?

    Or perhaps Brooke just had the wrong impression completely based upon some prior sour experience.
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  13. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    I found accounts of this in several books on the shelf, but this was the fullest treatment. Apologies for the free-hand photography and the reluctance to bend spines for a superior image.

    I have some sympathy with the suggestion that we may not be looking at 'a bad general', in the sense of his being unsuited to the demands of the rank, but rather an officer given an extremely difficult task who worsened his poor odds with some poor decisions. You may reach a different conclusion from the following:

    SmartSelect_20210123-183053_Gallery.jpg SmartSelect_20210123-183148_Gallery.jpg SmartSelect_20210123-183212_Gallery.jpg
    SmartSelect_20210123-204231_Gallery.jpg SmartSelect_20210123-183239_Gallery.jpg SmartSelect_20210123-183308_Gallery.jpg SmartSelect_20210123-183332_Gallery.jpg SmartSelect_20210123-183354_Gallery.jpg
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2021
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  14. Tom OBrien

    Tom OBrien Senior Member

    Or perhaps because he was a senior officer in a dysfunctional headquarters with a very brave but less than stellar commander at the BEF level?

    I expect some of Brooke's frustration with Gort's command methods and decisions were also poured out onto the messenger in this case. Rather than have a stand-up row with his titular boss, Brooke may well have contented himself with pointing out the weakness in the plans coming out of GHQ to Gort's staff.

    To be fair, nothing in Neame's career seems to have prepared him for the position he was put in. But I guess it would have been difficult to spare any of the up and coming Corps commanders from the UK at the time (perhaps one who had impressed during the campaign in France?). It would certainly not have been easy to get them out to the Middle East in time to make a difference.


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  15. Fatboy Coxy

    Fatboy Coxy Junior Member

    An absolute steal, well done, best I can see on the web is about £60!
  16. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Hello Tom,

    Personally, I don't read anything of great import in Brooke's diary entries for the BEF period that you posted above. Most inoxious. Certainly not the sort of thing to carry a grudge about for 4 years with the gravity of global matters then in place.

    I certainly do not feel those snippets give us any true sense of Neame's qualities as a person or as an officer nor his ability to do staff work. At best, all they do is confirm he was just not so outstanding as to shine.

    Wavell had a very short list of candidates for all the top jobs. Individuals tended to get moved around because they were the only one available or the next in line. Unlike London where promotions and postings at that level tended to be based on personal connections.

    Who were Wavell's options for GOC CYRCOM? His initial choice was simply to swop O'Connor with Wilson. The only other 3* in his command were Cunningham, Platt and Neame. Or promote somebody up from 2*. He had at least 3 others who had the right experience and military credentials, but they weren't British.

    Then along comes Greece. That takes away Wilson and the three non-British. Does it make sense to take Platt or Cunningham away from their ongoing operations? No. So now Wavell is down to the option of Neame or a recuperating from sickness O'Connor or promote a 2* of which the only logical candidate at that moment was his own CoS Smith.

    Neame was not handed the job because of his experience or credentials but because he was the only one available.

    I suspect he was tempted to get Marshall-Cornwall to do it, but despite being in the region, he was on a special mission on WO duty.

    Whilst the obvious logic is to fly someone out from the UK, that does not seem to be the way they did things. At least not after Cunningham was sent out. Who took over as GOC WDF after the loss of Cyrenaica? Beresford-Pierse. Wavell now had to promote a 2* and he chose the only one available. A 2* who was Brigadier CRA less than 12 months earlier. After Beresford-Pierse, it was Godwin-Austin. Another 2* promoted who was conveniently available. He was senior to Beresford-Pierse but had not been available a few months earlier.

    When then needed an army commander, the only British general with that level was Wilson. But he was busy elsewhere so they had to promote a 3*. Three options: Platt, Cunningham or the newly minted Godwin-Austin. I discount Pope who was expected but not yet arrived. Cunningham became GOC 8th Army.

    When Cunningham was removed who were the options to replace him? Wilson was still busy, Platt seems never to have been considered and both Godwin-Austin and Norrie had only just been made 3*. Auchinleck decided to take over himself then later jump his 2* CoS up to a 4* post.

    It's running a big war on small war thinking.
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  17. Tom OBrien

    Tom OBrien Senior Member

    Yes, quite agree. The only thing I noted was that according to David Fraser's biography of Alanbrooke (pp.58-59), Brooke and Neame knew each other from being instructors together at the Staff College in 1923. Amongst their fellow instructors appear to have been Gort, Adam, Thorne, Paget, Anderson, Riddell-Webster, Montgomery and Fuller. Quite an interesting bunch.

    You've said that before. :D

    I'd agree, but also suggest that it is 'running a big war by those belonging to a small army which has been absorbed in small war thinking'. Almost as bad as running a little war with an army previously absorbed in big war thinking, such as possibly the American Army in Vietnam and the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.


  18. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Ahhhh! Now that's the sort of scenario where a real grudge could be born and fester for the next two decades. :D

    As have others. There's even a decent book on the subject. The relevant chapter for the interwar period was written by David French.

    I can't disagree with any of that.

    Back to your earlier point regarding Brooke's opining of GHQ BEF being too big and cluttered at such an early stage. It's an observation in direct contrast to the last minute lashing together of assorted officers to make a corps HQ. Again little > big war issues.

    9 May 1940, GHQ BEF directly commands 3 corps HQs (I,II,III) with a total of 10 infantry divisions under command - albeit 1 dislocated. There are another 3 infantry divisions on labour duties under HQ LoC and 1 Armd Div about to arrive.

    The plan was that when the BEF reached 12 divisions in size, a pair of army HQs would be created with 4 corps HQs below them - each corps commanding 3 divisions. As the BEF grew further, a 5th then a 6th Corps HQ would come into play.

    This change in organization was planned to occur in late June / early July despite, arguably, 13 already deployed. Yet in May, they still had made no effort to set up the two army HQs and IV Corps (Auchinlech) only partly organized had been diverted to ovesee the Norway fiasco.

    Why the tardiness?

    Even before the last troops were back from France, there was a flowering of new Corps HQs in England. It's a bit of a mystery why those very same HQs couldn't have been forming before May ready to filter across the Channel at the appropriate time.

    What were they waiting for? If the Hun had not attacked when he did, there would have been a need for 2 army HQs and 2 new corps HQs to be up and running almost simultaneously at the end of June. Perhaps one of the corps HQs could be based around Auchinlech original IV Corps.

    Very strange.
  19. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Opportunities for aspiring field commanders to practise their skills at corps level were few and far between before the war. No doubt one of the reasons why there was a dearth of capable and competent higher commanders to choose from.

    I found this by chance while reading up for another topic.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    So, immediately prior to the start of the war, July 1939, Neame was "specially brought in" to try his hand at commanding a corps over a 4-day period. Albeit a skeleton exercise, I believe this was the most ambitious (command level-wise) conducted that year.

    Interesting that Neame was handpicked to play the corps commander. Interesting that just a few weeks later, when they needed corps commanders to command corps in the BEF, he wasn't chosen. Indeed, after staff jobs, he was next sent to command a scratch Indian Division in Egypt.

    I wonder whether his performace in the exercise had something to do with his subsequent postings.
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  20. Andreas

    Andreas Working on two books

    It's a really complex story and I dig into it here:


    Fully agree with Mark that Empire forces standing up, rather than chugging down LAXATIVE, is one of the big what-ifs of desert war history.

    All the best

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