HL Deb 02 April 1946 vol 140 cc473-7

My Lords, in the absence through indisposition of my noble friend the Leader of the House, I have been asked to make some reference to the grievous loss which this House has sustained in the death of Lord Gort, and to express on behalf of the Government our deep sympathy with those he has left behind. In a House so rich in great military commanders it would seem more fitting that one of them should be the first to speak of this dead hero, but the Government, speaking for the nation, claim the privilege of laying the first wreath upon a warrior's tomb. The ordinary people know little of ranks, honours, decorations and distinctions; but with unerring instinct they penetrate to the qualities that lie beneath, and in Lord Gort they perceived three great qualities, those of courage, fortitude and kindness. In this country we always put courage first, and certainly he had no peer in personal courage. But the official citation tells us little; it can only recount the deeds; it says nothing of the inward struggle of which the deeds are the fruit. Then fortitude, Lord Gort's name is associated with Dunkirk, from whose disastrous beaches it required a personal order to persuade him to return. Who so beset him round With dismal stories, Do but themselves confound. His strength the more is. It was on the moral triumph of Dunkirk that the military triumphs of the war were based. His kindness was well known, his constant solicitude and thought for his men. As an example of that, there is the sharing of his rations with the common soldier in starving Malta—the Commander-in-Chief known to all and passing among them with the mien of the Happy Lover. He revealed to us a great truth which is the foundation of all human society—that we are all one clay. These truths endure when, honours are forgotten; they console us in the moment of our sorrow. For him there is no sorrow, only gladness. This is the Happy Warrior, this is he That every man in arms should wish to be.


My Lords, I know that everyone on this side of the House will wish most sincerely to be associated with the moving tribute which the Secretary of State has paid to the memory of a great soldier. As the history of the war comes to be written, I think it will be more and more recognized how much this country and the Allied cause owes to Lord Gort. He was fated never to have a supreme independent command, but there can be no doubt that he was a supremely great leader of men. He proved that beyond a peradventure as a battalion commander in the first Great War. That was confirmed again and again in every command which he held in this last war. In France, up to the time of the retreat he was a: subordinate commander, loyally carrying, out a strategy of which he may at times have doubted the wisdom. He was not his own master until the long testing retreat, when, by his skill and courage, he extricated the British Army, and in so doing probably saved this country. I suppose history will rank that most difficult campaign with the Battle of Britain, as one of the two most critical operations, of the war; indeed, they were chapters of the same epic.

The subsequent course of the war must have brought him disappointment, but he never showed it. He filled successive appointments with selfless devotion to-duty, and with signal success—and they were vitally important. From the day he arrived in Gibraltar he set himself with tireless energy to create an impregnable fortress, and as he excavated and tunnelled those marvellous defences in the Rock, he built the airfield which owes so much to his foresight as well as to his energy—that great airfield which was to stand the liberating forces in such good stead in the North African campaign. Then he went from Gibraltar to Malta, where the same tireless energy and the inspiration of his courage and example did so much to hold the untenable. He was to its people the true and perfect Knight of Malta. When Malta was relieved, another hard task claimed him, Palestine, to which he gave his health as he had so often risked his life. There, by his sincerity, his wisdom, and his transparent fairness, he won, as few other men could have won, the respect and the confidence of Arab and of Jew. Characteristically, he carried on till failing health forced him to give up. So ends a life of service, of comradeship and of example. He was indeed, as the Secretary of State has said, in the very truest sense the Happy Warrior.


My Lords, Lord Gort was one of those men of strong and simple character who command universal confidence and who are enabled to show the greatest capacities for leadership. By his gallantry he won the Military Cross, the Distinguished Service Order with two bars, and, finally, the Victoria Cross. Whenever there was a specially hard task to be done, it was Lord Gort who was called upon to do it. Before the outbreak of the recent war, when danger was clearly looming close at hand, it was he who was made Chief of the Imperial General Staff with the task of reorganizing our Army. When war broke out, and a small British force was called upon to face overwhelming odds, it was he who was made its Commander-in-Chief. After Dunkirk, when it appeared that Gibraltar would be the object of a dangerous assault, Lord Gort was sent there to be the General Officer in command. When that danger seemed to have passed away, and it was Malta which was the key point of danger, he again was made its Governor and Commander-in-Chief.

As the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, has just said, when the war was over, and Palestine was perhaps the most difficult of all the immediate and urgent political problems that faced this country, he was sent there to be its High Commissioner. I can fully confirm from my close contacts with Palestine that he won universal esteem and confidence. I believe, so far as I know, no word of criticism of his administration was ever uttered, and his cruel illness deprived Palestine at a moment of crisis of a Government in which the whole country had the greatest confidence. He was a great soldier, a great servant of the country, and we mourn his loss and sympathize with those he has left behind.


My Lords, I think it would ill befit me as the only Field-Marshal in the House at this moment, and perhaps as one of the few men under whom Lord Gort has personally served, if I did not say a word in addition to what the noble Lords have already said. I knew him well. He was not only one of the bravest men I have met in my life but he was one of the most charming. He served under me in India, and I feel that is where his ill health began. He was Director of Military Training. In addition to his bravery he was a very, very able Staff officer indeed, and perhaps what was even more striking was that you never heard his name mentioned either by a man or a woman in India without the addition of "What a charming man." He was so personally charming. You cannot say he has been lucky in this war. He has had almost every difficult job thrown at his head. He has throughout taken those jobs without question and always done everything that could be done in those jobs and, I think you will agree, a little more besides.

Even when he went to command our troops in France he was one of those most unfortunate men, a British soldier who is put in command of British troops at the beginning of a war. He only had four divisions to deal with the Germans, who then counted their divisions by hundreds, and he had no armour to help him. He never lost heart. I went out to stay with him there. How he managed to get those troops away from Dunkirk will always be to me a complete mystery, but I am quite certain there was one reason for it, and that was his personal gallantry and the way he perpetually showed himself to his troops in the front line and everywhere else. They knew he was there and behind them the whole time. That is really the secret of his success with troops; they knew they could always depend on him. England is the poorer for his loss, and certainly we in the Army are very much the poorer for his loss, because we have not only lost a man almost romantically brave but the sort of man we can only think of as having the qualities of the perfect leader.


My Lords, I should like to associate myself with the tributes which have been paid to the memory of my old Chief, Lord Gort. Having had many opportunities of serving in close relationship under Lord Gort both in France and Malta I learned to appreciate to the full his unique character. On the beaches of Dunkirk he had resolved to fight with his troops to the last and he would have fulfilled that oft repeated wish had it not been for other calls of a special nature which were made on his services. On his arrival in Malta he brought new inspiration and new hope and it was his indomitable courage and his devotion to the Island and her sorely tried people that earned for him their everlasting gratitude. As has been stated, he was, on occasions, a disappointed man but he continued, after the fall of France and during a period of great personal bereavement and unhappiness, to carry out every task, however difficult, which he was called upon to discharge. In times of mortal peril and great danger he never wavered from his inflexible faith in final victory.

It is well that we should pause for a few moments to pay our respects to this great soldier whose qualities are certain to give him a permanent place in our history. We who knew him and loved him will always carry the memory of a God-fearing man, a true friend, a great Guardsman and a loyal and devoted servant to his King and country.

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