Politics In Khaki
THE McNAUGHTON STORY
Here, for the first time, is the story behind General McNaughton’s resignation as Canadian army commander
COL. DICK MALONE
ONE of my most vivid recollections of the war is one that has nothing to do with gunfire, death, or the ebb and flow of battle lines. It’s the memory of the bleak Scottish coast to which Andy McNaughton came in June 1943 to say good-by to the First Division.
We were carrying out our final exercise before sailing to Sicily. We’d been up all night doing a rocky wind-swept landing from assault boats, and by 6 a.m. the Second Infantry Brigade had established a small command post ashore. It was raining and we were bitterly cold in the sharp wind. As brigade major I’d been trying unsuccessfully for half an hour to establish wireless contact with the British Marine Commando on our flank.
Suddenly, looking out through the mist I saw a lone figure trudging through the mud toward us. As he approached I was surprised to see that it was the Army Commander. The collar of his thin coat was turned up around his ears and his hands were thrust down into his pockets. He came to our little post and, disregarding my salute, sat down and asked how things were going.
Without the usual staff car with pennant flying, and not even accompanied by an ADC, Andy McNaughton had come to bid Godspeed to his eldest child. He had taken the First Division to England in the early days of the war and he had a tremendous affection for it. He had come to see if there wasn’t some last thing he could do to help before his boys set out to battle—without him. There were no formalities, no ballyhoo. This was a father’s visit, not an inspection by an Army commander.
In answer to his questions I explained our wireless problem, which might prove very serious on the assault. For nearly half an hour the General discussed the problem and offered suggestions. No man could have looked into General McNaughton’s piercing grey eyes and followed his helpful discussion that cold morning in Scotland, felt his firm handshake as he said good-by and wished us good luck and then trudged away again into the mist, without the sure knowledge that here was a terribly sincere man whose heart was truly with us.
Barely six months later McNaughton had lost the command not only of his favorite division but of his whole army.
As far as I am aware the full story behind General McNaughton’s retirement has never been published. For reasons of home and Army morale as well as national politics, only the more acceptable facts were released at the time and in the briefest possible form. The first announcements in December, 1943,
This article is an extract from Col. Malone’s forthcoming book, “Missing From The Record.”
merely stated that because of ill-health General McNaughton had asked to be relieved of his responsibilities.
These two facts were completely accurate. General McNaughton was a sick man at the time of his resignation and did ask, in writing, to be relieved.
This was not by any means the full story, however. Some weeks after this announcement the public was amazed when General McNaughton on his arrival back in Canada announced at a pi-ess conference that he never felt better in his life, and indicated he would have been quite capable of carrying on with his command if the
authorities had permitted it. Asked for further comment, the General angrily refused to supply details.
At McNaughton’s Request
jPkUE to pressure from the press and the public, the Opposition in the House of Commons pressed the Government for additional information. The reply from the Government was that it was not in the national interest to give out further information at that time, hut that a private committee from the opposition might examine the complete file on McNaughton’s retirement, in secrecy. The offer was accepted, and after the committee had checked through the record, the subject was dropped.
In actual fact General McNaughton’s retirement followed a decision made by the authorities that the General would
not make a successful army commander in the test of action. Their opinions were so strong on this point that despite the national, political and personal repercussions they knew his retirement would cause, they would not take a gamble of risking an entire army to his direction in the field.
This decision was arrived at in the early spring of 1943 and was communicated to General McNaughton some time before his actual retirement took place. At that time the General had not been
in good health for the better part of a year. While it was agreed that he should remain in command of the army until his successor had been decided upon, the matter was brought to a head when the General’s illness forced him to go to hospital. There is no questioning the General’s medical condition at this period. Complete examinations and reports were undertaken by a board of specialists and were officially recorded.
In the light of these reports, it was agreed that it would be best for both public and private reasons if illness were given as the full reason for McNaughton’s resignation. A further decision was that, as he was then in hospital, the resignation should be effected without further delay.
In keeping with this arrangement General McNaughton wrote to the Government from the hospital asking to be relieved of his command, stating that the condition of his health made it impossible to carry on.
MOST Canadians will recall how McNaughton became almost a symbol for the Canadian Army after war was declared. Undoubtedly he was Canada’s leading militarist at the time, and was recognized as an expert scientist in military research. He was gifted with a personality which made him the natural leader around whom to mobilize an army.
In line with the great publicity drive at the start of the war to make the country war - conscious, it was only natural that McNaughton should be built up into a great national figure. His picture appeared on magazine covers both in Canada and the United States, and page after page was written lauding his great ability. Every move he made was recorded in public print. The public was hungry for a national hero and with a quiet little man—instead of a Roosevelt or Churchill for Prime Minister, it followed that McNaughton should completely dominate the scene in Canada during the early war years.
There are two important factors to consider when judging what you read here. First: His dream
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^ of a complete army, for the first time in Canada’s history, although also approved by the military chiefs in ! Ottawa, was bitterly opposed at various times in the Cabinet. Some government experts forecast that should our army encounter a protracted period of heavy casualties in the field, as was experienced by Canada in the war of 1914-18, our available manpower would never be able to maintain such a large force and some units would have to be broken down to supply reinforcements to others. So great was McNaughton’s following in Canada, in the early years of the war, however, that he was able to develop his own plans regardless of government caution.
(As it turned out, Canada did manage barely to scrape through to the end of the war with a complete army in the field. How close we came to failure is now a matter of recordbrought to light by the conscription issue in the final months of the war.)
There are those who can rightly point out that during the two years of waiting in England, Canada was wise to build the framework of an entire army rather than merely to pile up thousands of reinforcements in depots, against the invasion of Europe.
! The morale of troops in proper field ; units was much better than in depots I and holding camps during the wait.
I Certainly, if Canada had not supplied I an Army formation, with its head¡ quarters staffs and ancillary troops, a ! greater load would have fallen on j other Allied countries. At the same i time, it is fair to say that this was a I gamble from Canada’s standpoint at ¡ a time when nobody could accurately
forecast what course the war would take.
From the standpoint of national prestige, Canada undoubtedly gained much through being able to field a complete army. Just the same she was very lucky that her army did not have to face another three months of heavy fighting. In that event there is no doubt that units would have had to be broken down in the field for lack of reinforcements.
The second point is that McNaughton at first bitterly opposed the use of any part of his army except on a full army basis. He had organized and
trained his force to fight and operate as a complete army, and all his efforts were designed with a view to the second-front assault into Europe. He described his army as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Berlin.”
The suggestion was made that part of the Canadian force be employed in the North African campaign, but General McNaughton would not consider it. The North African campaign was not a difficult one and would have provided an excellent opportunity for some of the Canadian units to get battle training.
Defense Minister Ralston was opposed to McNaughton’s policy of not sending portions of the army to other theatres for experience. It was felt that McNaughton apparently had set his heart on commanding a victorious army on the march into Germany.
Here again, however, McNaughton was able to force his wishes on the government due to his tremendous personal following in Canada. But Ralston was plagued with the thought that when the second front was opened the war might collapse in a few months, and Canada would be left with an army which had spent four years in a defensive role, training in England, and then had only seen a few months of action. As he put it, our force would go down in history as merely an army of occupation.
Spartan: A Fiasco
On another j>oint Ralston was completely right. We were promoting officers to one senior command after another (many of them permanent force officers in peacetime still hanging on from after the last war). None of them were getting a chance to command in action; we were placing them in positions of great responsibility without any real knowledge of their abilities. Similarly, none of our younger officers were being given a chance to show their stuff, nor were any prospective commanders being developed.
As a result of these considerations, Ralston obtained Cabinet approval to tell the British Government that it was imperative that Canadian troops be used in active operations somewhere before 1943 was out. In due course the First Division was earmarked for the assault in Sicily. That McNaughton resented this breaking up of his command can be easily appreciated.
During the organizing period in
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England, General McNaughton had frequently been at outs with the British War Office. Not that this was a bad thing in itself; frequently it was the result of his fighting for Canadian interests. But as his prestige and authority in Canada increased, the British War Office found him increasingly difficult to deal with, and among the British officials he alienated was Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
The event which finally queered General McNaughton with the War Office came during an army manoeuvre called “Exercise Spartan.” It was an exercise on an extremely large scale, and its purpose was to test whether our forces would be able to maintain a high rate of advance after a fast retreating enemy, such as was anticipated on the Continent once a breakthrough out of the original beachhead had been achieved.
Two large armies were detailed for the exercise, which took place in the early spring of 1943. The Canadian Army, with one infantry corps and one armored corps as the pursuers, was to take on a British Army under a British genera if* The British Army, after the first few days of the exercise, would withdraw with all speed to the north, while the Canadian Army would endeavor to keep contact, at the same time developing its own lines of supplies and communications. The British press jumped to the conclusion that this was also to be a test between the two commanders to determine which should have command during the invasion.
The results of the exercise were carefully kept from the Canadian public at the time, but it can now be told that the exercise was a complete fiasco from the command standpoint. After the first few days the Canadian supply system broke down. Tanks and vehicles were halted through lack of petrol.
The armored corps got itself hopelessly tangled up on the narrow English roads (due to commanders’ failure to realize it was impossible to change the axis of advance once such a huge formation had been committed) and was stretched out over nearly 100 square miles of country.
Although the infantry acquitted itself reasonably well, there were periods when even the Army Commander had no idea where his armor was, nor in fact where Corps PI.Q. was located.
The official report on the exercise made such bad reading that the British War Office only ventured to send an abridged report to Canada. But from this point forward the War Office was decided that McNaughton would not make a success as a field commander. This War Office view was not realized in Canada until some months later.
One unfortunate aspect of the exercise had been that many English newspaper correspondents had been present through the show and had pretty accurately sized up the situation. The night the exercise closed I happened to be passing through London on my way back from a combined operations course in Scotland. As I frequently did when in London, I I dropped into Canada House to say j hello to my friend Cam Moodie, Canada’s press attache in London.
While we were chatting in his office old “Uncle” Jim Bone, London editor of the Manchester Guardian, telephoned. During the war Jim had been one of the best friends Canada had on Fleet Street. Jim was terribly upset over the early reports on Exercise Spartan. When he heard I was with ]
Cam, he said he must see me immediately.
Unaware of the Spartan developments I argued that I was on duty and had to catch a train back to Eastbourne in half an hour. Jim insisted that the matter was most urgent, so I agreed to take a taxi over to his office immediately.
On my arrival Bone told me the correspondents had arrived back in town from the exercise an hour or so before. Between now and the morning editions they would be writing their stories stories that, from what Jim could learn, would give Canada’s army a terrible black eye. Their criticism of McNaughton was extremely sharp and damaging.
I had been divorced from army public relations work for nearly two years, and I pointed out to Jim that there was little I could do about the matter. Furthermore, any steps I took couldn’t be official, and they would likely be resented by our own hierarchy and get me into serious trouble.
Jim brushed my protests aside and persuaded me to go around and see some of the reporters. A group would be having a late supper together in a nearby pub, he said, and 1 would be able to talk to them there. The Guardian’s own reporter came in at that moment and 1 got some of the details from him. It was pretty bad all right, it would make terrible reading for Canada.
Accompanied by Jim, therefore, we visited the pub and joined a few of the reporters at supper. During the meal my opportunity came. I took a line something as follows:
First, the precise purpose of such exercises was to discover weaknesses, otherwise they would be useless. As a result, all the new developments were given a tryout. Even the authorities
didn’t expect everything to go well— they were attempting to learn and correct errors.
I further pointed out that never before had such a large armored formation been deployed at one time for manoeuvres in England. Undoubtedly we had much to learn in this respect, but why be critical of these constructive efforts?
Apparently Jim’s efforts and my remarks took effect, for when the morning editions came out not a single word of criticism against the Canadian Army or General McNaughton was carried in any paper. In every case the stories dealt purely with the technical developments of the exercise. They indicated that parts of the plan had misfired but no direct charges were made.
Possibly it might have been better for all concerned in the long run if the hard facts had been given to the public at that time, but I think not.
Although completely unaware of these developments, the Canadian Government was beginning to worry about its army commander. General McNaughton was reaching the point where he no longer referred even major decisions back to Canada or respected the views of the Minister of National Defense.
Although rumors had been current for some time among the troops overseas that McNaughton had his eye on the Prime Minister’s post in Canada, there is no evidence to support this. But it can be understood that the Government, at that time still mobilizing the country for war under the pressure of heavy criticism from all directions, was only too willing to give way to each of McNaughton’s demands for increased authority.
Well before this, in 1941 and 1942, there had been several points at issue
between Ralston and McNaughton on which Ralston had had to give way.
It irked Ralston that the General, a servant of the Government which Ralston represented, no longer felt it necessary to answer to him or to parliament for some of his actions or the activities of the Canadian Army.
One of the most important moves in this direction came during one of McNaughton’s visits back to Canada, early in 1942. He demanded in writing certain further extensions of his authority which Ralston was not in favor of granting. In the possibility that McNaughton might rock the political picture if he was turned down, Ralston was again forced to give ground—this time at the insistence of Prime Minister King.
On this same trip to Canada, General McNaughton was reported to have privately criticized the Governmentand Colonel Ralston. It is understandable that his remarks should be regarded in some quarters as an act of disloyalty.
It was not until one of the Allied conferences in Washington — about May, 1943, l believe—that there was any exchange of views between the British War Office and the Canadian Government on the subject of McNaughton as a Commander. It was there, almost by accident, that Sir Alan Brooke happened to ask one of the Canadian delegates how General McNaughton was regarded in Canada. His companion asked what was the British view, and there was a complete exchange of opinions on the matter.
The British felt General McNaughton should be removed. The senior British Command was not prepared to accept McNaughton as commander of an army which was to operate under 21st Army Group, and which would conceivably involve British and other Allied troops.
While Ralston had experienced numerous clashes with McNaughton and there had been strong personal friction earlier between them, Ralston had finally threshed out with McNaughton their differences and wanted McNaughton to remain in command.
For one thing it was regarded as imperative that a Canadian officer should command the Canadian Army, and at the time it was not known where a suitable replacement could be found. In the remote event that the War Office view of General McNaughton might change during the next few months, Ralston decided to take no immediate action.
In November, 1943, it was necessary for Colonel Ralston to visit England again. He discussed the matter with the Canadian Chief of Staff in London, the late General Kenneth Stuart, and the question was formally taken up again with the British War Office.
Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, stated that the views of the British Command had not changed and that General McNaughton would have to be removed. General Padget, who was then slated for command in the second front, also insisted that McNaughton would not be acceptable as a field commander.
As the British put it, McNaughton always appeared to be playing with bridges and conducting other experiments. While this researeh^^A necessary and valuable, they fo^^^a he should have been employing his time with the problems of tactics and immediate problem of landing his troops on the Continent.
On hearing this, Ralston explained that McNaughton’s removal would be I j a hard blow in Canada, and that until I now he had been hopeful the General ! would be acceptable since there was no immediate successor in sight. ¡
I Ralston was surprised to learn that the senior British commanders had ¡ not already acquainted McNaughton with their opinion. Apparently they had deeded to leave this unpleasant I job to Ralston.
The personal difficulties between Ralston and McNaughton having been patched up, Ralston strongly disliked having to take on the job of hilling the General of the decision personally. But after a night of thought, Ralston went directly to McNaughton and placed (lie facts before him.
McNaughton accepted the decision like a soldier. He changed his stand completely. He approached the British War Office and discussed his situation with them.
It can be understood that the British may not have been as frank and blunt in their statements to him as they were in their discussion with Ralston. Regardless of his grounds after this War Office meeting, General McNaughton then charged that Colonel Ralston and General Stuart had been deliberately making contacts behind his back with the purpose of undermining his prestige with the British authorities. His charges were transmitted to Canada, along with his claim that it was Ralston who was trying to have him removed and not the British Command, at all.
The decision of the British command of course, had been sent to Ottawa several days before this. The confusion caused by such contradictory statements placed Colonel Ralston in an extremely embarrassing position.
As McNaughton apparently was not content to accept Ralston’s statement, the British authorities were approached to clear matters directly with McNaughton, so that there might be no further misunderstanding of their view. It was arranged that a witness should be present during the meeting between General McNaughton and the British military chiefs. At this meeting McNaughton was told clearly the same things that had been told earlier to Ralston.
The General accepted the inevitable and recommended General Crerar as his successor. While Crerar was gaining experience in Italy, and until a firm decision could be made, it was agreed that McNaughton would continue in command in England; this was also recommended by General Stuart, the Canadian Chief of Staff in London.
Because his personal relations with McNaughton were far from happy, at times, Field Marshal Montgomery has often been accused of using his influence for McNaughton’s removal. Actually Monty had nothing to do with McNaughton’s retirement, and the suggestion that he had, disturbed him greatly.
Once McNaughton was gone, Monty did, however, take an active interest in the selection of his successor, and went to considerable trouble to arrange a meeting with Prime Minister King for that very purpose. Although I was no longer on Monty’s personal staff—
I had returned from Italy to head the Canadian Army’s public relations section for the invasion of Normandy—I drew the job of intermediary.
A few days after my return to England, I received a message that Montgomery wanted to see me. I presented myself at his headquarters and found him in an affable mood. He was full of enthusiasm over the coming show and, as was frequently the case when he sent for me, the visit was half over before I discovered the reason for his invitation. He discussed a
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variety of subjects first, enquired after my health and so forth. Finally, as though the thought had just occurred to him, he said: “I hear your Prime Minister is coming over—what sort of a chap is he?”
After 1 had given Monty a brief sketch of Mr. King, be said, “I suppose he will want to visit the Canadian troops when he is over—Will they boo him again? I am rather afraid they will.” This reference was to the incident which had occurred a year and a half earlier when the Prime Minister, on a visit to England, had inspected a formation of Canadians and had been booed on the parade ground by the men. “Well I should like to meet Mr. King
“Well I should like to meet Mr. King 'sometime,” Monty said. “But I don’t suppose that would be possible. Being an army man and answerable through the War Office to our own government, 1 could hardly ask for such a meeting. I am not very popular at the War Office, you know, and they don’t like soldiers dealing direct with politicians any way— it would be resented. Still, if Mr. King wished to see me they could hardly turn down such a request from him, could they?”
This was of course my cue—-and obviously the reason for my visit. I said that a meeting could likely be arranged.
Just as I was about to take my leave, Monty tossed a newspaper clipping across the desk to me.
“What do you make of that?” he asked.
It was an article from a Canadian paper suggesting that General McNaughton had been fired as a direct result of difficulties with Monty, and that Monty had insisted on his removal.
“It is a complete lie, of course,” Monty said. “I had no hand in the business whatever. In fact his resignation came as a surprise to me, when I was out in Italy. This is very mischievous. They are raising quite a rumpus over the McNaughton business in Canada and a false article like this can do me a lot of harm with the Canadian public.”
A few days after my visit I tipped off Canada House, through Cam Moodie, that it would be a thought it the Prime Minister on his arrival asked for a meeting with Monty, and the visit was arranged, it