John Vereker, sixth Viscount Gort, 1886-1946

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John Vereker, sixth Viscount Gort, was a British soldier best known for his period in command of the B.E.F. in 1939-1940, which ended with the evacuation from Dunkirk.

His full name was John Standish Surtees Prendergast Vereker, sixth Viscount Gort in the Irish Peerage, but he was normally refered to as Lord Gort.

He attended Sandhurst in 1905-6, gaining an appointment to the Grenadier Guards in 1905. By the start of the First World War, he had reached the rank of captain.

In August 1914 he was appointed aide-de-camp to the commander of I corps, Sir Douglas Haig. During the war he rose steadily through the ranks, serving in a mix of staff and field posts. In 1915 he was appointed General Staff Officer, 3rd grade (GSO3) to I corps, and brigade-major of the 4th (Guards) Brigade. During the year he was present at the battles of Festubert, 15-27 May 1915, and of Loos, 25 September-14 October 1915. His next move was in July 1916, when he was appointed GSO2 to the operations branch of general headquarters. He remained at headquarters until April 1917, proving himself to be a capable staff office, known for his obsession with detail. In January 1917 he became assistant to the chief of a new sub-section of the operations branch, dedicated to planning the campaign of 1917. This was one of the first times that the British Army had created a dedicated planning staff, but its efforts were not rewarded. The mutiny in the French army meant that the ambitious Allied plans for the year had to be abandoned and the British were sucked into a series of battles partly designed to prevent the Germans taking advantage of the mutiny.

Lord Gort after Dunkirk
Lord Gort after Dunkirk

Gort’s time as a staff officer ended in April 1917, when he was appointed to command the 4th battalion of the Grenadier Guards. On the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres (31 July 1917), he led his battalion in the attack on Pilckem Ridge. Here he displayed his disregard for personal risk, winning a bar to the DSO for remaining with his men after he was badly wounded. He was back in the field in time to be wounded again during the battle of Cambrai, and again in time to take part in repulsing the first of Ludendorff’s first great offensives of 1918, the Second Battle of the Somme.

Gort won his Victoria Cross on the first day of the Battle of Cambrai-St. Quentin, 27 September-9 October 1918. At the time he was temporarily in command of the 3rd Guards Brigade, which had the job of capturing the third line of objectives in the attack on the Canal du Nord. Unfortunately the second objective was not entirely in Allied hands, and so Gort was forced to lead his men to their starting point under heavy German fire. Once again he was wounded, but remained with his men to take command of the attack itself. He was then wounded for a second time, but refused to leave the front, and left his stretcher to direct the battle. Later on he collapsed as a result of his wounds, but refused to leave until he knew the third objective had been seized.

After the war Lord Gort had a varied career. In 1919 he attended the Staff College at Camberley, returning as an instructor in 1921. After a spell with his regiment he became chief instructor at the senior officer’s school at Sheerness in 1926, at which point he was promoted to colonel. In 1930 he was promoted to command the Grenadier Guards, in 1932 he became director of military training in India, and in 1936 he returned to the Staff Collage again, as commandant.

In the following year Lord Gort began the sudden and somewhat unexpected rise that would end with his appointment to command the B.E.F. Early in the year he was appointed military secretary to the secretary of state for war, Leslie Hore-Belisha, who was looking for a younger officer to revitalise the high command. This was followed later in the year by promotion to the most important post in the army, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. He was appointed above hundreds of more senior men, and to support this move was also promoted two grade, to full General.

Gort and Hore-Belisha did not get on, and by the middle of 1939 were barely on speaking terms. Gort was not an ideal CIGS – he was chosen for his drive and his reputation for bravery, not for his political abilities, and he appears to have made little effort to get on with Hore-Belisha, who did have a tendency to irritate senior officers. This was a shame, for Hore-Belisha was responsible for a great deal of improvement in the condition of the British Army, and like Gort was convinced that a war with Germany was coming. Lord Gort’s most significant achievement as CIGS was to get the government to confirm that the army would be sent to Europe if a war broke out, and to increase the planned size of the expeditionary force.

At the start of the Second World War there were three candidates for the post of commander-in-chief of the B.E.F. – Gort, Sir John Dill and General Ironside. Much to his delight Gort was chosen – possibly at least in part because it took him away from Hore-Belisha and the war office, but also because he enjoyed the excitement of war.

Lord Gort found himself in an awkward position in France. He liaised directly with General Gamelin, the French commander-in-chief, took his orders directly from General Georges, the commander of the armies of the north-east, while the BEF was part of General Billotte’s First Army group, but Billotte had not authority over it. Lord Gort also had the right to appeal to his government if he believed his orders would unduly endanger his troops. This was all very well in the slow moving battles of 1914, but in 1940 events would take place far too rapidly for this to be of any real use. In any case the plan that was put into place in May 1940 had been agreed during 1939, and had the support of the British government (although the British Chiefs of Staff were less certain).

On 10 May the German attack finally began, and Plan D was put into action. The B.E.F. advanced east, to a line on the Dyle, while Lord Gort himself abandoned his headquarters and moved forward to a new field headquarters near Lille. This was entirely in character, reflecting his desire to be near the action, but was a mistake, making communications between the army, HQ and Gort’s command post a major problem.

The short-lived advance saw the B.E.F. reach positions east of Brussels, before the German breakthrough at Sedan forced the entire northern group of Allies armies to retreat back to their starting point. The real crisis began to develop on 19 May. On this day the advancing Germans cut the main lines of communication between the B.E.F. and French Headquarters, while at the same time General Weygand replaced General Gamelan as commander-in-chief of the French armies. Gamelan’s last order had been for a joint counter-attack, from the north and south of the German corridor, but two crucial days were wasted, before Weygand adopted essentially the same plan. This left Lord Gort essentially without orders from the French, but the war cabinet was in favour of an attack to the south, and so on 21 May he ordered a counter-attack at Arras, which achieved a limited amount of success, but without significant French support.

Retreat to Dunkirk, Evening of 25 May 1940
Retreat to Dunkirk, Evening of 25 May 1940

Ever since the lines of communication had been severed on 19 May, Lord Gort had held in mind the possibility that he would need to retreat to the coast. By 25 May the only port still available for an evacuation was Dunkirk, and there was a real danger that the narrow corridor leading back to the coast would be severed. The eastern flank of the corridor was defended by the B.E.F. and the Belgian army, and by the evening of 25 May it looked like the Belgians might be about to crumble. The final Belgian surrender would not take place for another three days, but on the evening of 25 May Lord Gort decided to pull back to the coast, and moved two divisions out of Arras to reinforce his exposed flank.

This was the most crucial decision Lord Gort was to make during the entire campaign. Several days of hard fighting would follow, but by the end of 28 May most of the B.E.F. had reached the defended perimeter at Dunkirk, from where over 300,000 men would eventually be evacuated (Operation Dynamo)

At the start of the evacuation Lord Gort had been determined to remain with his army at Dunkirk and risk being captured, but Churchill decided that the capture of the commander-in-chief of the B.E.F, would be too big a propaganda coup for the Nazis, and so Gort was ordered to return to Britain once enough men had been evacuated to allow a corps commander to take over. On 31 May that moment came, and Lord Gort (with General Alan Brooke) returned to Britain, reaching Dover on 1 June.

In the aftermath of the fall of France, every aspect of the brief campaign was subjected to intense analysis, and just about every aspect of Lord Gort’s performance was criticized, often in entirely contradictory ways. He was criticized for his willingness to follow the French “Plan D”, the advance into Belgium, without using his right to appeal to the British government, but that plan had been approved by the Chamberlain government during 1939, while on the morning of 10 May London was distracted by the fall of Chamberlain and the eventual appointment of Churchill as his replacement. This was not the time to be changing plans.

He was then criticized by the French for his decision to pull out of Arras, and for his sub-ordinates for not making that decision quickly enough. The French argument was that Lord Gort’s move ended any change of success for the Weygand plan, which would have involved counterattacks from both sides of the German corridor, but by the time he made that decision a week had passed without any French counterattack. At the time the French claimed that their attack was actually under way on 25 May, but this was simply not the case. In contrast Brooke that Gort had ignored his warnings about an imminent Belgian collapse, dangerously exposing the British left flank. Again, this attack is hardly justified – when Brooke gave his first warnings Gort was under direct orders to attack in the opposite direction.

After the evacuation from Dunkirk, Lord Gort remained commander-in-chief of the B.E.F., but it was decided to delay his return to France while the new B.E.F. could be made large enough to justify his presence. In the meantime General Alan Brooke was given command of the troops still in France. This plan came to nothing, for in the first half of June the Germans began the second phase of their offensive in the west and the new B.E.F. soon had to be evacuated (Operation Aerial), and the post of commander-in-chief of the B.E.F. lapsed.

For a short time Lord Gort believed that he was being made a scapegoat for the failures in France, and an appointment as inspector-general of training did little to disprove this view, but in fact Churchill still held him in high regard. A first step came in April 1941, when Gort was appointed governor of Gibraltar. In peacetime this was normally the final post in a career, but in the circumstances of 1941 this was a genuinely important posting. There was a real danger that the Germans would attack Gibraltar through Spain. During his time on Gibraltar Gort significantly improved the defences of the rock, and had the air strip extended, something that would become of real value during Operation Torch.

In May 1942 he was moved from Gibraltar to Malta. Again, in peace time this would have been a demotion, but in 1942 Malta was in the front line, under constant air attack and threatened with invasion, while at the same time it could be used as a base for attacks on Rommel’s supply convoys. Lord Gort remained on Malta for one year. Once again his attention to detail was invaluable, helping to maintain the island even during the hardest days of the siege, while his famous courage became an inspiration to the defenders of the island. He was promoted to field marshal for his performance on Malta.

Lord Gort’s final appointment was as high commissioner and commander-in-chief in Palestine (1944-5), but by now he was terminally ill, and was forced to return to Britain before he could make any real impact in this post. On 31 March 1946 he died of liver cancer in Guy’s Hospital.

Lord Gort’s reputation suffered after the war. His early death meant that he did not produce an auto-biography, while many of his sub-ordinates of 1940 wrote critical accounts of his handling of the B.E.F. in 1940. Some of this criticism is clearly unfounded, particularly that relating to his decision to advance into Belgium in May 1940, while his decision to retreat to the coast saved the B.E.F. from near-certain destruction. 

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (19 February 2008), John Vereker, sixth Viscount Gort, 1886-1946 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_lord_gort.html

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