HC Deb 01 April 1946 vol 421 cc832-6
The Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee)

The House will have learned, with deepest regret, of the death of Field-Marshal Lord Gort, that distinguished soldier, who, in the darkest period of the war, bore with unflinching courage a burden of responsibility such as seldom, if ever, has fallen on a Commander-in-Chief. At the outbreak of the first world war, Lord Gort was only a young captain. Before that war had ended, he had commanded, with great distinction, the First Battalion of the Grenadier Guards, was several times wounded, and had constantly displayed the greatest gallantry, earning many decorations for his valour, including the highest of all, the Victoria Cross. In 1932, he became Director of Military Training in India, and he returned to this country, in 1936, to become Commandant of the Staff College. In the winter of 1937, he was appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

On the outbreak of war, he was called to the Command of the British Expeditionary Force in France. He had to play his part as commander of a small Army under the French higher command, and he was not responsible for the higher strategy of the campaign. Through that trying period of inactivity, in the winter of 1939–40, he devoted himself to bringing up his forces to a high degree of efficiency, and to strengthening the British section of the Allied line. I recall very well staying at his headquarters, in January, 1940, and being struck by his intense solicitude for the welfare of his men—one of his most, endearing characteristics. When the German break-through took place, his little Army was left in the air, and he had to conduct the most difficult operation of all, a retreat in the face of vastly superior forces. His every attempt to restore the Allied line of resistance failed, and he was forced to take to the Channel ports. Throughout this time of disaster, his courage and calm were an inspiration to all. After the most glorious fighting retreat in history, the Army, and perhaps civilisation, was saved. He wished to remain with his Army until the last man had left Dunkirk, and it was only on the direct orders of the Government that he left after the forces had been reduced to the size of a smaller command. His Majesty's Government, knowing that he would not leave voluntarily, left him no personal discretion in the matter. Subsequently he was appointed Inspector-General, and he devoted himself to this work with his customary assurance and industry during that period in which our new Armies were being built up.

In May, 1941, he was appointed Governor and Commander-in-Chief at Gibraltar, a critical outpost position, which through his efforts was greatly strengthened. A year later, he was transferred to an even more critical position in Malta. The worst period of the bombing was then over, but Malta still had great trials to bear. Retention of the Island was an essential part of the whole of our strategy in the Mediterranean, and, although bombing had failed to bring her to her knees, there was a great danger that Malta might starve. How great this danger was, was shown by the exceptional effort made, in June and August, 1942, to bring oil and food to Malta, but only a few ships of those convoys got through. But, under the firm and steady hand of Lord Gort, Malta was saved. During all this time, Lord Gort was an inspiration, not only to the troops, but to the civilian population. He made it his duty constantly to go round the Island on bicycle and on foot, in order to get to know all its inhabitants, and, by his own order, he and his staff had exactly the same rations as a private soldier.

Next, and unhappily his last post in the service of the country, was that of High Commissioner of Palestine and Transjordan, which he assumed in October, 1944. Here again, he carried the country through a difficult period with remarkable success. Here again, he made it his business to know the common man and his view, and when he had finally to retire because of the illness from which he died, Arab and Jew, alike, paid tribute to his work and regretted his departure. We mourn the loss of a great soldier who has spent his life in the service of the State. It is yet too early to assess the place he will hold in history, but there can be no doubt that it will be an honoured place. We, who remain, should benefit from the example of physical and moral courage, of selfless devotion to duty and of tireless industry which he set. I am sure that I shall be expressing the views of the whole House, in conveying our deepest sympathy with his. relatives.

Mr. Eden

My hon. and right hon. Friends on this side of the House wish to associate themselves with the tribute, sincere and deeply felt, which the Prime Minister has just expressed to Lord Gort and to his family. My right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) has asked me to say how much he regrets that he cannot be here, to pay his own tribute to one who, in anxious and exacting days, was ever ready to undertake the harshest duties which could be imposed upon a commander. Today, we think of Lord Gort's individual feats of courage and gallantry, which are deservedly renowned, and we recall those deeds with reverence and admiration. He was, indeed, the bravest of the brave. I think it is not only, or even mainly, on that account that this House or the nation would pay tribute today. It is rather to the personification of the Army he led in France and in Flanders, the Army which did all, and more than all, that duty could call upon them to do. Lord Gort, at all times in his life, whether in France or in Flanders, whether in Malta or in Palestine, gave all he had with all his strength and with an intensity which eventually told, even upon his vibrant constitution. I well remember, as no doubt does the Prime Minister, the Cabinet meeting at which Lord Gort gave us his account of the events which led up to Dunkirk. His quiet, soldierly, competent, vet compelling phrases, told us of events of which we could not then foresee the end.

Then, I recall Malta, and Lord Gort's arrival there when the Island had already endured more than 2,000 air raids, and when we could not tell whether its maintenance was a physical possibility. I remember his taking over command there from that doughty and imperturbable warrior, General Dobbie. At Malta, he was the inspiration of the defenders. He shared every hardship that fell upon the besieged. The dominant anxiety of those days, as the House may know, was lest the suffering of the civil population of the Island, through want of the bare necessities of life, should become so acute that military defence could no longer be continued. It was characteristic of Lord Gort that he had intended in this calamitous eventuality, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford had approved that intention, to make a descent, with the largest forces he could make available, upon the nearest enemy territory. Thus the heroic garrison's last act, like its first, would have been to inflict the greatest possible loss upon the foe. Happily, these extreme decisions were never called for. It is, today, in association with the brave men whom Lord Gort led that we think of him. He would wish it so, and so would they. No commander, however distinguished his record, could ask a finer epitaph than to be loved and mourned by those alongside whom he fought in battle. Such is Lord Gort's fame today; such will be his undying place in history.

Mr. Clement Davies

My colleagues and I desire to be associated with the tribute which has been paid to the memory of Lord Gort. Lord Gort possessed many outstanding qualities. He was a great soldier, a fine and inspiring leader, and he not only commanded the respect but won the affection of all who served under him. We, of this generation, will remember with pride and affection his superb courage, physical and moral, and history will recall that he was at his finest in our hour of deepest peril. We desire, also, to extend to all his relatives our deepest sympathy, and to assure them that this House and the country mourn the passing of a great and truly noble man.

General Sir George Jeffreys

As one who was associated very closely with Lord Gort during a great part of his service, may I be allowed to add my tribute to those which have been so eloquently paid to him by the Prime Minister and other right hon. and hon. Members? We have all known very brave men; we have all known very able men; and we have all known very hard-working men; but I, at least, have never known a man who corn bined all those qualities in his own person in the same degree as did Lord Gort. When, to those qualities, are added a most exceptional sense of duty and great personal charm and geniality, that gives, I think, some measure of the loss which has been sustained by the Army and by the nation in the death of Lord Gort. I would only say one more word: I believe that history will record that one of the very greatest architects of victory was Lord Gort, when he took that great decision, and put it into effect, of bringing away the British Army at the time of Dunkirk. If that Army had not come back to England, it is difficult to see how this country could ever have recovered.

Sir Ronald Ross

When the House is paying its tribute to a great Irishman who was a fighter with few equals and no superiors, I think it is appropriate that I,' representing as I do Irishmen from another part of Ireland, should join in this tribute to a great man. I have nothing to add to the tribute already paid except to say that Lord Gort's unequalled gallantry and selfless performance of his duties have always had the admiration of all Irishmen of all creeds and classes, and his death will be mourned.