Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

An Interview With McNaughton

August 1 1941

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

An Interview With McNaughton

August 1 1941

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER


An Interview With McNaughton

ON AN ICY Tuesday evening in June I set out to drive to the headquarters of Lieut.-General A. G. L. McNaughton somewhere in England. The talk, that we had arranged, had taken on an unusual character which perhaps merits a word of explanation.

That hard taskmaster Napier Moore, Editor of Macleans Magazine, had cabled asking if I would make General McNaughton the subject of one of my London Letters. Since the whims of editors are other men’s ultimatums I wrote to the General suggesting that we meet. With great courtesy he called me on the telephone and arranged that on the following Tuesday we should have a talk at his headquarters.

But in the interval something happened which neither of us had foreseen. We were on the eve of the debate on the Battle of Crete and the whole country was seething with resentment against yet another withdrawal. Writing my regular feature in the Sunday Graphic I put forward a plan which was to arouse very wide interest. It was that an Empire Directorate for war strategy should be created consisting of: Prime Minister Churchill, Field-Marshal Smuts, Premier of South Africa, Premier R. G. Menzies of Australia, and Lieut.-General McNaughton of Canada.

It was on the following Tuesday as I have already described in Macleans that I cairied the idea a step forward on the floor of the House and, as soon as the debate was over, left for McNaughton’s headquarters.

Absence of sign posts do not make motoring easy in England and I was nearly an hour late in reaching the lovely country house used by the officer commanding the Canadian Corps. A smart young Canadian sentry from London, Ontario, regarded me with that imperturbability which sentries all possess but when the door was opened there was a most cordial greeting from the General’s A.D.C., young Captain Lord Duncannon, the son of Earl Bessborough the former Governor-General at Ottawa.

Duncannon is tall and handsome having inherited some of the good looks of his mother. He is efficient in spite of an attractive suggestion of vagueness which is deceptive. Having unfrozen myself by the fireside for a minute or two (these English summers are hard on coal reserves) I was taken upstairs into the General’s room.

It was what one would expect of McNaughton. Instead of the inner sanctum of a super brass hat it was like an architect’s drafting room. There were two elongated long-legged stand-up tables covered with blueprints and mysterious plans. It is true that there was an easy chair in the room but one felt instinctively that the General never sat down in it and that one should not break the code by doing more than recline on the arm of the chair.

My suspicions were correct. For the next hour the General took up tactical positions from behind one of the draftsman’s tables and then the other.

Once he enfiladed me from the fireplace and as there was no fire, in it one realized that it was a purely tactical move.

McNaughton looks almost exactly the same as he did when he was a boy. As I never knew him as a boy nor have ever seen any pictures of him when young this statement may seem to be doubtful evidence. But just as you can often tell when meeting a lad that he looks like his mother so you can see the boy McNaughton in McNaughton the man.

His hair has never been parted or if it has it soon ctruggled back to its spiky independence. In fact it

is his hair, now streaked with grey, that is the most characteristic thing about his appearance. It comes in a stubborn fringe over his forehead like stubble in a field after harvest and looks as if for two cents it might come further. His mustache is—just a mustache. No guardsman's downy growth, no twirls or Kaiser uplift. Just a mustache with no design or signs of cultivation. His eyebrows have a slightly Mephistophelean effect but his eyes have the twinkle of a philosopher. He rarely smiles but when he does it is genuine and has the quality of a chuckle.

His voice is a good Canadian baritone, sensible and forthright. As for his weight I imagine that it has not altered a pound in ten years. His whole appearance has that lean, rugged look of one descended from Highlanders with strong purpose and bony knees.

“How did you get on in the House?” he asked. “Your speech was on the six o’clock news.”

On one of his tables was a pile of marked newspapers with the Sunday Graphic among them.

“I hope that my plan did not embarrass you,” I said. He took up a position behind a table and surveyed me at a distance. “It’s made things difficult for me here,” he said. Then he almost smiled. “It was very flattering that you should suggest me for such a post.”

“Would you take it?”

He moved to the other table. “I’ve got a man’s job here. The only place we can lose the war is in these Islands and l Iitler knows that as well as we do. If he wants a decision he’s got to come here. This is where the Canadian troops are going to play their part.”

With Racks to Atlantic

THAT OPENED up a delicate line of thought. So far the Canadian Divisions have not fought save in a mad adventure when they were sent to France in an eleventh-hour attempt to keep the French on their feet. In that nightmare engagement which was all manoeuvre and little fighting the Canadians were scattered over a thousand miles.

“They just sent them any place,” said the General, “and I didn’t know where. But never again. I want to know where every one of my men is. The boys were very angry at having to come back. Their blood was up.”

He spoke with an almost professorial detachment as if he were saying that they had all developed temperatures of 101. But behind it one felt the fierce sense of frustration after months of training and waiting.

“But aren’t you worried about the political repercussions in New Zealand and Australia since their troops are constantly fighting while your men remain in England? Couldn’t you send one battalion to the Middle East as a gesture to the other Dominions?”

He moved to the fireplace and his mustache seemed to bristle slightly. “Modern warfare,” he said, “requires such co-ordination that it’s just not possible to detach one section and send it away. We’ve even got our own Air Force now and every section of the Corps is being taught the interdependence of each branch on the other. This is a war of supplies and Canada is our base. The Corps must fight with its back to the Atlantic where its supplies come from. It’s not i>olitics I am thinking of but tactics.”

That seemed final. It would have taken courage to reopen the subject again. So taking a walk myself to one of the tables I asked him why Hitler did not invade England after Dunkirk.

“I’m damned if I know,” he answered. “We were about the only formed unit in a position to fight and what could we have done? Look—” We gathered together at a huge map of England. "Here was our area,” he said with a sweep of the hand. “From here to the sea. Well, would you believe it? The Regional Commissioners had earmarked the best of the main roads for the evacuation of civilians from the coast. Even after Holland and France the r lesson had not been learned. As for us moving up to fight we would have had to monkey about all t. over the place trying to get there. And then to make it still more difficult they were erecting cement blockades on the roads. I got a lot of them removed all right.”

Whereupon McNaughton distinctly and audibly chuckled. With all that in his favor Hitler had held his hand! The grim joke was on the enemy.

I began to see why the British Government had seriously considered placing the whole of the defense of Britain under this distinguished and unusual Canadian soldier. One imagines that it was only political considerations that prevented it.

(Twelve lines censored here.)

I don’t think even he would claim however to be unbiased about his own soldiers. Take these

Conlinued on page 33

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statements made that evening in the course of our conversation.

“Canadian lorry drivers drive faster than the others and have only half as many accidents. Our blood pressure is lower I guess.”

“The Canadians aren’t bored with training. They know they have a big fight coming and are keen as mustard to make themselves ready.”

I am not in a position to doubt either of these statements but long experience of human nature suggests that this is a fond parent dwelling upon the virtues rather than the failings of his children.

And then he spoke of a man whose path in recent years has not been strewn with the roses of idolatry.

“When I took over command of the Canadians,” he said, “I did so on one condition—no political appointments.

And I must say that Mackenzie King has absolutely kept his word.”

No political appointments . . .

Shades of 1914-1918! But the world was younger then.

“How do you regard Hitler’s position?” This question took the General towards a map of Europe. “He’s sprawling all over the place,” he growled. “He’s spreading his armies of occupation pretty thin. It’s confoundedly difficult to keep an army of occupation up to scratch for a dozen reasons. It was hard enough when we went to the Rhineland after the last war where the people were friendly. The occupation business must give Hitler a bad headache.”

“And when will the war end?”

“I don’t know,” said the General. “My job is to try and make my unit absolutely efficient to play its part. We’re doing it. We have our own staff college now, our own research departments, and we’re at it night and day.”

Character Like a Rock

"DROM HITLER to romance. “Are many of your Canadians marrying over here?”

He nodded. “And they’re getting mighty good girls to take back to Canada.” “Isn’t it hard on the Canadian girls?” His whole face softened. He was no longer soldier or the scientist but a man with a wife and family.

“It is hard on them,” he said simply. One last question. “How would you like working with Smuts, Churchill and Menzies on an Empire Directorate?”

He thought for a moment before answering. “I am afraid I would be a troublesome fellow. You see I have my own unit

here and I’m used to being in command. I think this is my place.”

So we said goodby and he went off to have dinner with his wife at their little house along the road while I went downstairs to the mess where, in company with some new and old friends (among Canadians the transition is swift) we celebrated the birth of Bums or the death of Hitler or the English summer—or something.

We don’t produce anything much better in Canada than this Scottish Canadian who commands the Dominion’s expeditionary force. The highest achievement of man is the building of character and McNaughton has a character like a rock.

Three things he possesses—originality of mind, great scientific ability and a strong practical common sense. He has made a deep impression over here among those whom he has met, and even the public, who has never seen him, realize instinctively that he is a man of outstanding character and ability.

He is not a lord of language or a voluptuary of words. I would hazard the guess that music would mean little to him. He is essentially a pioneer seeking to open up new paths of practical service to humanity. He is a dreamer but a practical one. He will never write a poem that will move a nation to tears or frenzy but he will harness the devilish secrets of science to man’s benefit.

Already he is thinking of the Canada that will emerge from the war. When he was head of the National Research Council a million dollars a year was spent. Now, and he tells it with fierce pride, the sum has directly increased some fifteen times.

He declares that there will be no muddle as was the case after the last war when the transition from war industry to peace was a wasteful and heartbreak business. “We shall have a planned industry and a planned economy.”

He sees Canada leaping ahead in the years to come and he intends to play his part if he survives the war. Inevitably one asks what place Canada will find for him when peace comes.

He has the ability and personality to lead the nation politically but I doubt if he has the gifts of the politician. Democracies are still ruled by public opinion and the politician alone knows its pace and its moods.

But as a minister of post-war reconstruction it would seem that here is the very man. He has never played party

politics and would be acceptable to any government at Ottawa. He is too big to be allowed to sink into the obscurity of a military reputation.

Before that, however, he has a score to settle with Adolf Hitler. With your sons and his own (two of the General’s boys are in the Royal Canadian Air Force and one in the Gunners) he faces the most evil and most highly organized menace that has ever confronted civilization. With all the hatred of the born builder he confronts the man who has destruction in his very soul.

When the hour comes McNaughton will not fail Canada or humanity.