By Jon Diamond

Lord John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort, Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France in 1940, and his chief of staff, General Henry Pownall, have both been forever associated with the British Army’s greatest continental defeat; namely, the retreat through Flanders and eventual evacuation from the harbor and beaches of Dunkirk in May and June, after being engaged with the invading German Wehrmacht for only three weeks.

Ironically, after Dunkirk, Gort became inspector general to the forces training in Great Britain prior to being sent to the island of Malta as governor general. Lt. Gen. Pownall subsequently became chief of ctaff to General Archibald Wavell at the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) command in early 1942 after just having taken command in Singapore a few days earlier.

Despite the debacle of Dunkirk and its mythic representation in the history of British arms, both Gort and Pownall had earlier in January 1940 won a decisive political victory over their civilian superior, the war minister, Leslie Hore-Belisha. At a time when Great Britain and her Western Allies and Dominions were engaged in an inactive, nonshooting conflict with Nazi Germany, the “Phony War,” the British war minister was waging a constant personal struggle against his military subordinates, who for both professional and personal reasons regarded him as unable to serve in this lofty capacity.

In personal diaries of some of the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) leaders, the odious tone of the establishment’s anti-Semitism as well as personal incompatibility with the BEF leadership seem to have led to the war minister’s resignation. Others have gone so far as to suggest an analogy between Hore-Belisha’s sacking and France’s Dreyfus affair after the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Nonetheless, the dismissal of the war minister of one of the chief Allied nations combating Nazi Germany barely four months after the outbreak of hostilities and prior to actual combat for the BEF in both Belgium and France has never been satisfactorily explained.

Isaac Leslie Hore-Belisha: Minister of Parliament

British War Minister Leslie Hore-Belisha (left).
Isaac Leslie Hore-Belisha (left).

Isaac Leslie Hore-Belisha was born in London in 1893. His father’s family members were Sephardic Jews driven from Spain during the Inquisition. In Manchester, Hore-Belisha’s ancestors established a cotton import firm. Hore-Belisha entered public school at Clifton in 1907. There, he entered Polack’s House, which was entirely made up of of Jewish students. His Clifton schoolmates observed that Hore-Belisha was quarrelsome and that good manners were not his strong suit. After Clifton, he was educated at Oxford, where he was president of the Oxford Union. He was a major in World War I, serving in the Royal Army Service Corps, and was invalided home after being in France, Flanders, and Salonika.

In 1923, he was both called to the Bar and became a member of Parliament (MP) from Devonport as a Liberal. From 1931-1932, he was parliamentary secretary for the Board of Trade, and from 1932-1934 he served as financial secretary to Neville Chamberlain at the Treasury. In 1934, Hore-Belisha became minister of transport and significantly reduced the number of road accidents with the introduction of a number of innovations including pedestrian crossings guarded by the now famous “Belisha beacons.” Three years later, upon Stanley Baldwin’s retirement, the new prime minister, Chamberlain, gave the War Office to Hore-Belisha.

The Innovative Hore-Belisha Against the Aristocratic Army

Hore-Belisha’s notable achievements at the War Office included improvements in other-rank terms and conditions of service as well as barracks and recruiting. This all went over well with the typical British Tommy. In the public’s view, Hore-Belisha ranked only after Eden, always the favorite, and Winston Churchill in popularity. Newspaper photographs and newsreels frequently showed him chatting with the troops or drinking beer in sergeants’ messes in an attempt to democratize the Army.

The war minister reformed the Army, and as war clouds were again gathering in Europe, Hore-Belisha doubled the size of the Territorial Army and introduced conscription. However, it was in the endeavor of Army reorganization and leadership that Hore-Belisha was sowing a bitter harvest. Specifically, by the late summer of 1937, in close collaboration with Basil Liddell Hart, the noted military correspondent, Hore-Belisha began a reduction in the number of strictly infantry units, particularly in the garrisons of India, to save funds for increased mechanization under the armor pioneer, Percy Hobart, among others. Specifically, when Hobart’s name was proposed by Hore-Belisha to lead the first home-based armored division, Field Marshall Sir Cyril Deverell, chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), argued that cavalry officers could not be asked to serve under an officer from the comparatively new mechanized branch; besides, it would not be possible for the wives of cavalry officers to call on the one tank commander qualified, because Hobart had been divorced years before.

The hierarchy of the British military reflected the nobility caste in England with its rules and snobbishness. Since these initial proposals to reorganize the Army met with so much opposition, Hore-Belisha became convinced that a wholesale replacement of the senior generals in the War Office must precede more constructive reforms. Hore-Belisha decided that Deverell must leave the War Office. Thus, the war minister began to directly antagonize Britain’s generals nearly two years before the onset of World War II. Furthermore, since Hore-Belisha orchestrated these changes with Basil Liddell Hart, a former Army captain, current military correspondent, and frequent critic of the Army who had numerous enemies in its hierarchy, a deepening of hostilities between the war minister and the Army’s leadership developed.

The Cabinet Clash Over Appeasement

First, Hore-Belisha replaced Deverell as CIGS with the recently appointed military secretary, Lord Gort, who was junior to many of the British generals. Deverell had refused to reduce the garrison in India and also typified the cavalry mind-set at the War Office. Lt. Gen. Sir Harry Knox, the adjutant general, and Lt. Gen. Sir Hugh Elles, the master general of the ordinance, were both replaced by younger and more flexible men. Thus, the upper echelon of the Army Council at the War Office was purged.

No one could dispute Lord Gort as a fighting general of boundless courage; however, Gort somewhat reluctantly became CIGS with General Sir Ronald Adam as his deputy. Pownall became Gort’s new director of military operations and intelligence at the War Office. This triumvirate of general officers now leading the War Office was to become obstructionist toward Hore-Belisha’s new proposals, suspecting, often correctly, that the plans originated with Liddell Hart. It is ironic that the close association between Hore-Belisha and Liddell Hart began to thaw in 1938 while the ire of the Army’s leadership was brewing up. Hore-Belisha was increasingly disappointed at the lack of reforming zeal shown by his new team of Gort, Adam, and Pownall, but knew that another purge was impossible following the recent dismissal of Deverell.

As the Munich Crisis, involving Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, unfolded in September 1938, Hore-Belisha began to defy and anger Chamberlain, his political leader and benefactor, by pressing for conscription and for a Ministry of Supply. He also abandoned the concept of “limited liability” to save funds for the other services and set plans in motion for a larger BEF should hostilities commence. These stances were at odds with Chamberlain’s efforts to minimize actions that would signify an aggressive posture to the Nazi regime and, thereby, negate the appeasement strategy that he had implemented until the invasion of Poland in 1939.

So, Hore-Belisha, who previously had delighted Chamberlain by “stirring the old dry bones” at the War Office and received the prime minister’s support, now clashed with him and his ardent pro-appeasement cabinet ministers. This cabinet struggle was to have grave consequences for Hore-Belisha.

“It is Time We Had a Better Chap in the War Office”

The most damaging rift between Hore-Belisha and Britain’s military leadership occurred with the outbreak of war in September 1939, and ultimately caused the war minister’s downfall. This occurred despite Hore-Belisha’s aggressive stance and vocal opposition to the Nazis. In October 1939, he enunciated British war aims on the BBC: “We are concerned with the frontiers of the human spirit … only the defeat of Nazi Germany can lighten the darkness which now shrouds our cities, and lighten the horizon for all Europe and the world.” Unfortunately, it was still Chamberlain’s policy, ably supported by his pro-appeasement sycophants in the cabinet, to avoid offending the Nazis although England and Germany were at war.

In September 1939, Hore-Belisha traveled to France to inspect the BEF’s defensive works. He appointed a team of military and civil engineers to make further technical inquiry and recommendations to strengthen the British Army’s dispositions. This seems to have incensed General Pownall, Gort’s chief of staff, who regarded it as odd that the war minister went to France to deal with strategic and tactical matters.

Lord Gort stands at the center of a group of officers along with War Minister Leslie Hore-Belisha, who was fired soon after this photo was taken. General Bernard Montgomery, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, stands at right.
Lord Gort stands at the center of a group of officers along with War Minister Leslie Hore-Belisha, who was fired soon after this photo was taken. General Bernard Montgomery, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, stands at right.

Hore-Belisha thought it was his prerogative to visit the BEF’s fortifications because he had to fight for the Army’s plans and budget in Parliament. Also, if disaster occurred, it would be the war minister’s head that would roll. After a second visit to France to meet with Gort and Pownall in November 1939, Hore-Belisha criticized the rate at which concrete pillboxes were being built. This so outraged the generals that they enlisted the support of the upper crust of power in England in an attempt to oust him. Pownall even traveled back to England after this second Hore-Belisha visit to express the “virtues and failings of Hore-Belisha” at the War Office.

Some historians assert that Pownall convinced King George VI and other powerful government leaders, including General William Edward Ironside, the CIGS, who replaced Gort when the latter assumed command of the BEF in France. Upon returning from a meeting with Gort and Pownall in France, Ironside was concerned about the rage he found in the BEF leadership and stated, “It is time we had a better chap in the War Office.”

The Choice Between Hore-Belisha and the BEF Leadership

After receiving many reports from the BEF leadership that there was resentment toward Hore-Belisha, the king went to France in December 1939 to meet with Gort and Pownall among others. The king became convinced that Hore-Belisha would have to be replaced and had actually asked Pownall who should be the new war minister. Almost two weeks later, Chamberlain went to France to meet with the same BEF leadership. Gort told the prime minister that the BEF did not have confidence in the war minister.

Hore-Belisha’s days were numbered as 1940 began. Next to Churchill, the war minister was the most vigorous in prosecuting the war, even though no actual fighting occurred. However, friction between Hore-Belisha and the War Office had grown to such an extent that, in Chamberlain’s view, it was impeding the development of Britain’s war effort, especially in France. Hore-Belisha had expressed lack of confidence in the commander in chief of the BEF, Lord Gort.

After Chamberlain visited Gort’s headquarters on December 15, 1939, and listened to Gort’s account of the deficiencies of equipment in the BEF, he realized that no confidence existed between the senior British officers in France and their minister. Amid the rumors circulating during the debate to sack Hore-Belisha in January 1940, it was made clear that the choice before Chamberlain lay between the dismissal of Hore-Belisha and a request from Gort and the two corps commanders (Lt. Gen. Sir Alan Brooke being one of them) to be relieved of their appointments.

After conferences between Chamberlain and Hore-Belisha in the latter part of December, the prime minister decided to replace Hore-Belisha with Oliver Stanley, the son of the Earl of Derby. On January 4, 1940, Chamberlain summoned Hore-Belisha to the cabinet room, and informed him that he was to leave the War Office. Chamberlain wanted to offer him the Ministry of Information, but Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, objected to the appointment because it would have a “bad effect among the neutrals … because HB is a Jew”.

The “Pillbox Affair”

Ultimately, the now deposed war minister was offered the presidency of the Board of Trade, but Hore-Belisha rejected this position and withdrew to the back benches. Thus ended the sacking of the war minister just four months after the commencement of hostilities with Germany and prior to any land action on the Continent or in Scandinavia seemingly based on the number and speed of construction of pillboxes, the “Pillbox Affair,” in northern France.

According to General Freddie DeGuignand, Hore-Belisha’s military secretary (and later to be Montgomery’s ubiquitous chief of staff), the war minister was trying to be helpful rather than critical of the BEF leadership. Gort, Pownall, and Maj. Gen. R.P. Pakenham-Walsh, a subordinate of Gort’s, resented any criticism at all since they believed they were doing their best in adverse conditions, which the war minister had totally failed to grasp.

It seems Hore-Belisha’s particular problem was that he inaccurately presented the facts of the pillbox construction to the Army Council, discussed the matter in cabinet after Ironside had left, sent a verbal reprimand to Gort through a subordinate office (Pakenham-Walsh), and dispatched the CIGS to inspect the defenses on the authority of the War Cabinet. Perhaps, the most galling to the GHQ in Northern France was Hore-Belisha’s mistaken impression that the French were setting an example in the construction of pillboxes and could serve as a model for the British.

Was Religion the Real Factor in Hore-Belisha’s Dismissal?

Did the handling of the dismissal of Lesley Hore-Belisha bear any analogy to France’s Dreyfus affair after the calamitous Franco-Prussian War? There is evidence to suggest that some of the British generals, notably Gort’s chief of staff, Pownall, had made up their minds on the outbreak of war that for the Army’s sake Hore-Belisha would have to go from the War Office.

When Hore-Belisha resigned his office in January 1940, the reaction of the popular press reflected the frenetic suspicion of the time that somebody, somewhere, was conspiring against democracy. Among the wilder assertions were that Hore-Belisha had been fired at the instigation of British friends of the Nazis, because he was a Jew; that he was the victim of high society intrigue to replace him with Oliver Stanley, son of the Earl of Derby; and that the brass was determined to get rid of him so that they could set up a military dictatorship. It is not too difficult to imagine what the reaction would have been if the king’s part in the affair had become known.

It cannot be ignored that the war minister’s religion played some role in his dismissal. Some months after his requested resignation, Hore-Belisha was asked why he had been dismissed. “Jewboy!” he replied. There is also a clear trail of remarks that constitute ethnic slurs. Pownall commented about the relationship between Lord Gort and Hore-Belisha, “The ultimate fact is that they could never get on—you couldn’t expect two such utterly different people to do so—a great gentleman and an obscure, shallow-brained charlatan, political Jewboy.” Gort’s nickname for the War Minister was “Horeb Elisha.”

In May 1937, General Ironside noted in his diary, “We are at our lowest ebb in the Army and the Jew may resuscitate us.” Some have speculated that Hore-Belisha’s ostentatious pushiness provoked the comment, “of course he’s Jewish.” However, the provocative behavior, not the religion, was probably the real cause of the prejudice against Hore-Belisha.

Lord John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort (left), commander of the BEF in France, confers with his chief of staff, General Henry Pownall at British Army headquarters in 1939.
Lord John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort (left), commander of the BEF in France, confers with his chief of staff, General Henry Pownall at British Army headquarters in 1939.

There were other, more pragmatic and non-religious reasons to explain Hore-Belisha’s dismissal. He was prone to failing to consult the Army leadership about important reforms, such as doubling of the Territorial Army. His association with Liddell Hart was troublesome. Hore-Belisha stirred fear in the GHQ in France, thinking that he intended to replace some of its senior officers from Gort downward.

Gort and Pownall resented Hore-Belisha’s style of making high-level appointments without consulting them. Perhaps, Pownall in his diary summed up the ill-will toward Hore-Belisha: “He has an amazing conceit, thinking himself in the direct line of descent with Cardwell and Haldane in matters of Army organization. He knows nothing about it … and he doesn’t seem to listen and he will not read what is put before him. Impossible to educate, thinking he knows when he doesn’t know, impatient, subject to a lot of outside influence, ambitious, an advertiser and self-seeker—what can we do with him?”

Ultimately, Chamberlain and his Cabinet bear a large responsibility for failing to support Hore-Belisha in his disagreements with the generals and arriving at a more appropriate conclusion, especially during wartime. Fortunately for the king’s generals and the British throne, the man who was accused of being too publicity minded retired to the back benches and did not make a major press issue of his sacking. This was important because in five short months, Great Britain would be fighting for its life as the remnants of the BEF were evacuated from the harbor and beaches of Dunkirk.

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