Posh Boys in Charge

Thought I might try a tabloid headline for maximum impact :)

Am pretty surprised no one in the mainstream media picked this one up.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North, Labour)
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what proportion of new recruits to the Army at (a) soldier and (b) officer level previously attended state school.

Andrew Robathan (South Leicestershire, Conservative)
The proportion of soldier recruits that had previously attended a state school is not held centrally and could be provided only at disproportionate cost.

Including the most recent intake of officer cadets to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in January 2013, 53.5% of the UK educated intake over the last 12 months came from state schools. While the remainder will have come from independent schools, it is possible that some will have attended a state school at an earlier point in their education.

Accepting issues of Army officers children following in their parents footsteps (not unusual) who will have benefited from CEA and therefore an independent school and no figures for non UK educated officer cadets.

A couple of points to consider;

  1. If the Army has the figures to hand for the educational background of its officers, why not other ranks
  2. About 5 to 7% of pupils in the UK attend independent schools yet represent just over 45% of the Sandhurst intake for the last year

I am not one for social engineering, preferential treatment or bemoaning the lack of social mobility in general but this seems disproportionate.

Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Does it matter as long as the leadership is effective?

Would also be interesting to see a breakdown by Regiment/Corps and even the same figures for the RAF and RN branches.


About The Author

Think Defence hopes to start sensible conversations about UK defence issues, no agenda or no campaign but there might be one or two posts on containers, bridges and mexeflotes!

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Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
January 30, 2013 11:33 pm

I am a Governor at a challenging state school with a TA Centre opposite – who have in the past been quite keen to get involved – when the question came up it would be fair to say that the Staff were not keen to facilitate this…

My Son is going private; his form Teacher is a lifelong Volunteer Reservist…

Completely anecdotal, wholly unrepresentative – but might have some bearing.

Not a Boffin
Not a Boffin
January 30, 2013 11:48 pm

At what point did those from “independent” schools (which I assume includes the remaining grammar schools) become “posh boys”?

What’s your point?

January 30, 2013 11:50 pm

Dont the toffs have a tradition to upkeep? One son for the family business/estate, one for the city, and one goes in the army?
Or an heir and a spare, with the spare going in the army?

Old money sees the army as a tradition and a proper career. New money would rather die than have a son in the army – it would be a failure to them.
Tony Blair loved sending people to war, can you imagine him sending his own sons?

Brian Black
Brian Black
January 31, 2013 12:37 am

And perhaps 20% of that 46.5% attending independent schools received some form of financial assistance – scholarships or bursaries. People have fewer children now; it’s not such an impossibility for two working parents from modest backgrounds to put a single kid into an independent school for a few years. It’s an incorrect assumption that all children out of the state system are chinless, titled heirs.
Probably the biggest influence on those numbers is the ethos of the schools and the families who send their kids to them. Children who get into independent schools -from whatever social background- will ultimately be better equipped to become officers, or managers, simply because of the positive attitudes towards education that surrounds them.

January 31, 2013 8:59 am

Speaking as someone who’s holidays involve driving only to relatives since the first of his two children started at private school, I’m rather annoyed at this silly cow. Surely she should be asking why the state schools, the ones she actually has some responsibility for, are not providing or encouraging their pupils to be able for a forces career?

Misdirection is the answer. She’s trying to distract everyone else by spouting a bit of class war. Punch back twice as hard: plenty of state schools failing to either educate their kids or doing their best to discourage service in the forces. Some in Kingston Upon Hull even, perhaps….

January 31, 2013 9:34 am


“Children who get into independent schools – from whatever social background – will ultimately be better equipped to become officers, or managers, simply because of the positive attitudes towards education that surrounds them.”

Well said.

In addition it’s important to remember that the fact that one went to an “independent” school is rarely one’s own choice – it would have been the choice of one’s parents. So those parents a) can afford it, and b) value the investment. It does not take a toff to do this. It fact it’s likely to be any high level professional that can see further than the end of his/her nose and see the “bigger picture”.

Something else to bear in mind is in which nation were these recruits educated – that affects cost and the potential social class of the parent.

January 31, 2013 9:42 am

I know of several state schools that can only be half-arsed to teach any forms of civics and have even banned cadet organisations (ACF, ATC, SCC, CCF) from recruiting let alone the full-time or reserve military; so the general trend would not surprise me.
However I’m curious where Blair’s academies (which can be in quite deprived areas) fit into this return – are they counted as state, because they continue to receive central funding; or are they counted as independent, as they are self-governing & outside of Local Education Authority control?

January 31, 2013 9:59 am

This will open up a can of worms not necessarily associated with the main theme of Think Defence. As a teacher of both independent and state schools, who has heavily involved in the CCF (Army and RN) and also went to Sandhurst, Cranwell & Dartmouth (albeit this as a CCF Officer) I may have an insight into this issue. It all boils down to what the aims of the differing education systems are. Independent schools by their nature and links to the CCF do tend to produce young people with the capacity to take on the demanding role of being an officer in today’s forces. It has been reduced dramatically as more state school students are accepted and the Forces are to be complimented on their efforts to open this field up.

There has also been a historical link up between independent schools and the services.

But the main issue is to do the education systems and what their end product is. At my last independent school it was all about producing well rounded young people with skills in a wide variety of areas not just academic. In the last state school I taught in, which set up its own CCF unit it’s main aims were academic performance and league tables and the proportion of students in the CCF compared to the school population was about 1/10th of that of the independent schools. So independent schools by their nature tend to produce more students with officer potential than their state school equivalents.

The cadet force units which are run outside school, should also be recognised by the work that they do with young people, but they follow a different syllabus to the CCF courses operated, and are set up to provide soldiers, sailors and airman for the Armed Services (no disrespect here).

I also was part of the RN Dartmouth Summer Camp and for a number of years was a Divisional Officer in charge of 30 cadets from all services, CCF, ACF, Sea Cadet and Scouts). So I have had the pleasure of working with all types of cadets and each bring their own unique capability and abilities to the table. I respect anyone in the cadet movement and there is a need for recognition of what they do.

Finally the percentage used is about right as this 5% of the school population do get most of the high scoring A Level results. Without the independent sector a lot of ‘difficult’ subjects like Science and Maths would be in real trouble today.

Finally it should not be about a debate between independent schools and state schools (that is for another forum) but getting the best young people to join these services and do their bit for the country. Britain has been accused in the past for having a poor ‘officer’ class, I would say that this is not true although you can always find poor officers wherever you go, but that is the same as poor teachers, poor soldiers etc. However, we have managed to produce some find leaders in the past and present, and I know that some of the students I have had the pleasure to teach and know are doing great things as leaders in the field.

Now I am prepared to be shot down in flames!

January 31, 2013 11:32 am

I imagine it’s also related to university intakes – A higher proportion of Private school students go onto university compared to their state school counterparts.

Many Private schools encourage the army as a legitimate career choice – as opposed to something you do for a few years if you cannot get anything else (case in point my nephew was actively told by his career teacher that he should set his aspirations higher than joining the army – suggesting he looked at media careers due to his art / drawing / computer skills and subjects he chose to study.)

Chris Werb
Chris Werb
January 31, 2013 11:51 am

I was born in 1965 on a council estate. My family didn’t have a car or a phone in the house and we never went on a holiday. However, I want our armed forces, and indeed our public services, manned by the best people we can get regardless of where they went to school. If 100% of our officers went to Eaton it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest. If I had my way, every state school would have a CCF.

January 31, 2013 12:50 pm

no simple explanations evidently but the stats are still pretty damning.

if it was all about independent schools producing better leadership candidates then wouldn’t one expect the proportion of more senior officers from independent schools to be largely even across the services ? In 2006 the NAO reported 42% of Army students on ACSC were from independent schools, against 30% for the Navy and 25% for the RAF. I doubt the gap has closed that much since then. Nine of the top ten most senior Army officers came from indepdendent schools. Over 60% of army bursaries and scholarships went to students in the independent sector.

has much changed since then ?

At the end of the day it’s to conclude anything but that the Posh Boys are in charge and are broadly happy with the situation.

On the counter argument of course one could argue whether it matters at all ? I have always thought that the idea of the Army having to reflect 100% the population it represents was an easy soundbite rather than operational necessity. Having said that I don’t think a top management team formed through a Chap-ocracy and Capbadge mafia has necessarily served the Army very well of late

Alan Garner
Alan Garner
January 31, 2013 1:40 pm

On the argument put forward that independent schools necessarily provide better officer class recruits because of “a more positive attitude to education” etc…

Well, I’m definitely no socialist revolutionary but I do think this has been dis proven.

The one time in British history where the army promoted from the ranks, purely on merit, ignoring educational background, and social standing, it came up with Cromwell’s new model army, one of, if not the most effective field army in our history.

On the other hand WW1, I’d expect, had a near 100% privately educated to state officer ratio. Where the officer class performed woefully.

20 years later the private school educated likes of Von Manstein, Model, and Paulus were consistently outperformed by the peasant’s sons Rokossovsky, Chuikov, Vatutin, etc…

Of course there will be lots of examples the other way. But the fact is that there is no evidence to suggest that an army that recruits it’s officers from private schools or from a particular class is any more effective than one that recruits and promotes purely on merit. If anything an argument can be made that the latter is more effective.

steve taylor
January 31, 2013 1:46 pm

My old ex-SCC unit drew most of its members from 2 very large council estates in a city noted for its low wages and over the last 3 to 4 decades poor social fabric. None of the kids in my ten years or more involved ever went on to become an officer in either the RN or Army. But we did have two lads who went on to become barrister and a GP. The first came from an upper working class home; the latter from a council estate. I will qualify that with from a nice area and upper working class too. From that I conclude if they had both chosen the forces (and knowing them) that they would have made good officers. My exposure to the office class of both the RN and Army would lead me to believe that neither go out of their way to employ idiots. (With the exception of one brigadier, but that’s another story!) The sad fact is the sink council house estates of the UK aren’t filled with potential admirals or generals, or for that matter Einsteins or Newtons, just waiting for the right education or social system to draw it out. Rather like some exotic organic compound in a rain forest that can cure cancer. That those with potential do rise and enter the professional classes does perhaps indicate that the system with have in terms of social mobility does work.

January 31, 2013 1:48 pm

The RAF and RN have always been far more technical then the Army – they have traditionally had different priorities than Army when it looks for its Officers. They require certain skills or abilities that the Army does not. This makes them inherently more of a meritocracy than the Army.

It would be interesting to see the breakdown in of State/Independent School background by rank. As others have suggested, I think the proportion of senior ranks would skew more heavily towards individuals from Independent school backgrounds.

It would also be interesting to see the breakdown for the different Regiments and Corps. I imagine the the more technical units are more representative, whereas as certain regiments (*cough* Household Division *cough*) are definitely more skewed towards individuals from certain schools and backgrounds.

Over 50% from state schools is a definite sign of progress. I expect this number to continue to rise, but I would suspect that it won’t ever match the general split of State/Independent school background in the general population. I think more of an issue is the proportion of servicemen from different racial and/or cultural backgrounds.

The armed forces have come a long way in terms of diversity. They certainly seem to do a better job than our political parties.

steve taylor
January 31, 2013 2:06 pm

Hasn’t it been argued that one of the reasons for our decline was too many of the “officer class” were killed in WW1?

We live in an age where HM Queen’s grandson and boys and girls from council estates go to fight the wars started by the middle classes. Where was Tony Blair’s Euan when the SHTF in Afghanistan? In Washington DC……

January 31, 2013 2:35 pm

@Alan Garner: A classic nonsense rears its head. The mass British Armies of the First and Second World Wars were highly egalitarian, with a very large number of junior officers from non-public school backgrounds commissioned from the ranks. Think on, if you have an army in the millions, a few hundred thousand public school types are *not* going to be sufficient to provide 20+ officers per major unit, especially when one takes into account the alarmingly high casualty rate among junior officers.

As to independent schools being over-represented in the officer corps, possibly. Why would that be? Are the proportions of independent school pupils attending AOSB similar to the proportions of same passing – i.e. is it a case of not enough non-“posh boys” going for commissions in the first place, or is there an institutional bias toward same?

I know that I spent 22 years in the Regular Army and was never commissioned and I don’t suppose I ever wasted even a millisecond wondering where any of my officers went to school. There were plenty of other, more immediate things about them that were far more important – and generally, in all that time, even when things got noisy, or even fluffy, they were every bit as professional and competent as the men they had the honour to command.

Alan Garner
Alan Garner
January 31, 2013 2:50 pm

Hasn’t it been argued that one of the reasons for our decline was too many of the “officer class” were killed in WW1?

Maybe in the officer’s mess!

Unfortunately, in some cases, the claret swigging rosy faced general issuing orders from a château 20 miles behind the lines while giving more of a shit about his own reputation than the lives of his men, is all too true.

The consensus of opinion on the main failures of WW1 was lack of delegation of command from general’s behind the lines to commanders on the ground. The fact that more British generals died that French or German was, in my opinion, more to do with a residual chivalric ethos left over from the height of empire rather than generals leading by example. That in itself is an advert for a more meritocratic army to me.

January 31, 2013 2:56 pm

I could make a couple of points. Firstly, as the Army has got smaller, service in it is very much a minority interest, and this will tend to skew entrants to those who already have a connection via family..which says those posh boys

Secondly, I have today dropped off my 10 year old at a private school for an interview. All over reception were posters of boys lugging a log through a very large pool of muddy water looking tired, with “Leadership course for year 11” on them. I’ve never seen anything like this at a state school…….

January 31, 2013 3:11 pm

My experience as a serving RN junior officer has been of far more State educated officers than private. I’m not sure that I can see a correlation between where they were educated and how they/we perform. I suspect that there isn’t. I don’t know about the RAF, or the Army, but the RN is still very much officered by the state educated, middle class, suburban dwelling young men (and women now), that it has been since WWII.



January 31, 2013 3:16 pm


Bang on.

Poverty of asparation is a major problem with many state schools.

My daughters school is in the top 200 in the country, state or private, (and remember many of the private, and state schoolson that list are selective, my daughters is not).

The big difference between it and the local shit street yob factories*? The staff drive the kids like RSM’s to strive for the best they can do be it Oxbridge or industry, etc.

*Schools like I went to, a Secondry Modern:- I got the school prize! That tells you all your need to know about it I got the F**king school prize! I think it was for walking upright and learning to use a knife and fork:- and not on the kid sitting next to me.

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
January 31, 2013 3:23 pm

@AG – Whilst the jury remains out, this popular view of WWI has been subject to considerable revision in recent years – with studies focussing on everything from casualties amongst British Generals “leading from the front” which you quote – to the overall military efficiency achieved by the British Army by 1918 – by which time some historians believe it was the best in the world, and certainly the only one capable of sustained offensive action on the Western Front.

The more balanced view is that the reality of industrial warfare threw all those involved into some disarray as to how to proceed – terrible mistakes were made on all sides with horrible consequences – but in the end the British Army pretty much won the war…

Not that any of this is relevant to meritocracy in HMAF today, which I believe most people here would support…the more compelling issue to me is the numbers of anecdotes (starting with my own) that suggest that many State System Teachers dislike the idea of soldiering as a career and discourage people from pursuing it.

Just a couple more anecdotes – in the primary sector staffs tend to be overwhelmingly female, to the extent that people do worry a good deal about male role models for boys especially in tough areas. However when the possibility of encouraging retired NCOs or Officers to look at Teaching as future career, the overwhelming knee-jerk response was horror and derision; the overwhelming assumption that soldiers were crazed sociopaths who should be kept away from Children at all costs.

And finally, as a student thirty years ago when current school leaders were being trained the PGCE course at my University hounded the one Student who was in the University TA Unit off “their” course, and took a leading role in a campaign to get the Unit itself shut down.

And these people are now running Schools…

Alan Garner
Alan Garner
January 31, 2013 3:25 pm

@H. The mass armies of WW1 and II were not “highly” egalitarian they were simply more egalitarian relative to previous ones. And that was down to the fact that, as you say, they were “mass”. More spaces to fill meant more opportunities for genuine talent to fill them, necessity being the mother of invention meant that talent wasn’t always privately educated or “posh”. Do you really believe that Lord Rupert VC would have promoted an oik from the ranks over an Eton graduate fresh from Sandhurst if he actually had that choice?

Britain isn’t run by the aristocracy any more, as it was then, and I’m sure British army officers will be commissioned and promoted more and more on merit. And, like yourself, fewer and fewer rank and file will care about background. But to say that was truly the case in the world wars in rather disingenuous.

January 31, 2013 4:08 pm

@ Alan Garner:

‘the consensus of opinion’? And whose would that be? The general population of the UK, whose main source of knowledge is Blackadder? Or the historians? The vast majority of whom ascribe the stalemate on the Western Front to the fact that defensive armament had progressed faster than offensive until 1918, when funnily enough, trench warfare ceased.

Alan Garner
Alan Garner
January 31, 2013 4:15 pm

@GNB. On the contrary, more and more consensus is forming around the popular view of an inflexible high command in WW1 leading to rigid tactics and strategy exacerbated by the invention of newer technologies like the machine gun, barbed wire, improvements in ration storage etc. We see the failings of the British generals because we’re British but most European armies suffered, to a greater or lesser degree, from the same problems of not enough care being taken to minimize casualties. My assertion, I don’t think unreasonably, was that the class bound nature of recruitment and promotion contributed to this. That’s why, in my opinion meritocracy in armed forces matters.

On the matter of the schools question, I’d agree that the, often left-wing, nature of state school teachers and administrators affects the overall number of officer recruits, I’d also say that, while someone said the majority of officers in the RN were predominately not upper class, how many non upper class recruits have made it to the very top? In fact, since the war, how many non upper class new recruits have made it to say the top 5 jobs in any of the services? I’d be surprised if it was even 1. That failure to break through the closed shop at the very top does rather play to the argument of the lefty teachers encouraging state pupils against enrolling.

Charles Beaumont
Charles Beaumont
January 31, 2013 4:29 pm

This is fairly interesting although not at all surprising. But much more interesting would be the break-down. What is the proportion in the infantry regiments and the Paras, still very much the fighting backbone of the army? Has there ever been a state-educated officer cadet in the Household Cavalry or the Guards? It’s overwhelmingly from these regiments that the future top brass are selected. And then, what proportion of these officer cadets are graduates of Russell Group universities? I suspect many of the privately educated officer cadets are coming from schools that are, academically speaking, inferior to the better (selective) state sector.

January 31, 2013 4:32 pm

I’m sorry Alan but no credible historian is saying anything of that kind at all.

They generally agree on two things about British Generals; 1) that you musn’t view the war from a modern perspective. You have to view it through the lense of the time. In the regard the Germans typically proved no better than our commanders, at least on the Western front, largely because none of them had ever encountered warfare of this kind before. 2) As the war progressed, British tactics actually developed very rapidly between operations, to the extent that later operations took on quite a sophisticated nature (for the time).

January 31, 2013 4:48 pm

@AG: Again, too much Blackadder. The British Army in 1914-18 was a ferment of new thinking and innovation and embracing of technology – which was what led to the eventual creation of a true combined arms doctrine (once communications allowed realtime tasking of artillery and, to an extent, air power) – and an Army fighting by it which beat the Germans fair and square.

The officers who led that Army came from all levels of society; as you say it was a mass Army. The current British Army is not a mass Army, it is a small professional force, with a generally high level of IQ and educational qualification in the ranks as well as in the officers’ mess.

Without prying too hard – and if it’s not my business, do please ignore me – have you ever served?

steve taylor
January 31, 2013 4:49 pm

Also perhaps it should be pointed out that what the Chinese desperately want to replicate in the structure of their armed forces, because they think it is the key to why Anglophone armies do so well, is a core of independent thinking professional NCOs.

Alan Garner
Alan Garner
January 31, 2013 4:57 pm

You’re quite right Chris. The British were credited with rapidly improving their tactics later in the war, even in the context of one battle. The invention of tanks and creeping barrage were excellent military innovations. I was however not commenting on the successes of the war only the failures and my own, and other expert opinions for them. If this was a thread about the good that British recruitment policies have done you could cite those as examples.

Just to try to avoid any arguments, I don’t have any expertise regarding current class ratios in the armed forces or how those forces recruit from private and state schools. All opinions on those subjects are those of a layman. I am, however, employed as a historian for a publishing company that writes, mostly, about military history. Any opinion, while still my own unless I quote others, is based, I hope, on “credible historians” and hopefully my boss agrees or I’m in bother. I’m told “it doesn’t do to have one’s credibility brought into question dear boy”.

January 31, 2013 5:08 pm

I would imagine that the reason they have the officer data ready to hand is because it’s already centralised in the records at Sandhurst?

Would also be interesting to see a breakdown by Regiment/Corps and even the same figures for the RAF and RN branches.

Yes it would. Anecdotally, I’d expect the RN officer corps to be less posh than the Army and the RAF even less posh than the RN.

steve taylor
January 31, 2013 5:12 pm

IXION said “Schools like I went to, a Secondary Modern:- I got the school prize!”

Aren’t you a solicitor or something? So how do you go from SM to a law degree. Doesn’t that show social mobility?

The trouble is the Left would have nothing to bang on about if the didn’t have equality or social mobility to bang on about. Look at Labour’s front bench as a glowing example of social mobility………

There was a guy at my school two classes below me who got 5 grade 1 CSEs, the “system” didn’t think him able to cope with O level work, and he now has his own architect’s practice.

steve taylor
January 31, 2013 5:17 pm

a says “Yes it would. Anecdotally, I’d expect the RN officer corps to be less posh than the Army and the RAF even less posh than the RN.”

Back in the 19th century the Army was officered by the upper class and the RN by the middle classes.

El Sid
El Sid
January 31, 2013 5:34 pm

Hasn’t it been argued that one of the reasons for our decline was too many of the “officer class” were killed in WW1?

Overall casualty figures were 1 in 8 for other ranks, 1 in 7 officers – but a lot of the leading public schools and Oxbridge lost 1 in 5. (source: chapter 2 of Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan which deal specifically with the (not very) Lost Generation – the whole book is well worth a read if your knowledge of WWI comes from Blackadder, it counters a lot of popular myths.)

Of course, you can argue that the top 1% of leaders are the ones that really make a difference – people like Rhodes, Carnegie, Weinstock and others – and they may well have been disproportionately knocked off within that 1 in 7 figure.

And certainly to start with, pretty much anyone who volunteered became an officer if they had been to university or grammar school, not least because they at least could read orders – something that wasn’t guaranteed among their men. It was a different world then.

Worth noting that it’s 7% of all kids go to private school but that goes up to 18% of those in sixth form.

On exam results, I can’t find the reference for the figures now, but it’s something like private schools account for 20% of all A-Levels taken and 50% of all pupils who get 3 A’s at A-Level (or is it 50% of all A’s at A-Level? It’s something like that). Private schools are also much more likely to do “hard” subjects – twice as likely to do sciences and three times more likely to do languages.

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
January 31, 2013 6:01 pm

@AG – In the course of WW1 class relations in the Russian Army helped to provoke a Revolution, amongst the egalitarian French led to mutinies and standstill, and in Germany helped cook up the myth of “betrayal” and the poison thereby brewed. By contrast the British Army won the war, at least in part because it mastered the art of recruiting Officers from a much wider social group than it had done previously – especially from amongst Grammar School Boys.

Furthermore it learnt those lessons so well that it repeated the trick with Potential Officer Selection Courses in the next war, and they worked so well that Yank Academics from Harvard Business School picked up the idea and developed the Assessment Centre approach to graduate recruitment, used with great success by big companies for many years afterwards.

If anything, the pool of Potential Officers was subsequently narrowed by the abolition of the Grammar Schools which actually reversed social mobility in respect of everyone from Oxbridge Graduates and top Civil Servants to HMAF Officers and front-bench politicians.

And finally the Teachers I have met as a Governor in several schools for many years don’t discourage careers in HMAF because they fear their pupils will encounter a “Posh Ceiling”; they just don’t like Soldiers, mostly considering them to be both inherently dangerous and incredibly stupid.

I might add that Cromwell referred to “Plain Russet-Coated Captains”, who were mostly from the Gentry – comfortable landowners – if not necessarily rich. The kind of egalitarian ideas you ascribe to the New Model Army were aired at the Putney Debates, and by the Levellers and Diggers. Cromwell had most of them shot for Mutiny in the end.

steve taylor
January 31, 2013 6:05 pm

@ El Sid

I just through “it” in. As I explained above I do have some real world insight into this topic.

@ All

I remember one year my old unit shared its week in the Bristol with a CCF unit. The latter were nearly a different species to our little “crew” in all manner of ways which I won’t go into now. But one of the things that really struck was the latter’s attitude. They were just confident; they sort of exuded it. We had cadets who needed to be pushed with the simplest of things. And I do mean the simplest of things. I watched the CCF unit rig Bosuns and head of up the Creek while we were still sorting out buoyancy aids. (Though me fellow staff were on the whole pretty dire so not entirely the kids’ fault.) They CCF in uniform (what are termed 4s now) were just immaculate; some of our kids looked like scarecrows even after staff helped them. The CCF both literally and figuratively sailed through the week. They were perhaps a bit arrogant, but as reflected at the time perhaps they had a right to be up to a point.

January 31, 2013 7:05 pm


If you consider that constitutes Social mobility.

If you think me cursing my f**kwit, burn out, psycho teachers, every day, as I wasted 2 years of my life slogging thru FE college to get 5 O levels and 3 A levels. Then yes I was socially Mobile.

I considered it a betrayal of me and my generation.

AS for officers, being posh,I can’t really comment. But I have not been massively impressed by the superior intellectual prowess, they supposedly possess. Not all dick heads by any means, just not anything special.. I would think a long time before following some of them into battle.

I can opine that squadies intelligence really does need a fill up.

steve taylor
January 31, 2013 7:22 pm


Well if the system failed you at one level it made up for it at the next. You aren’t stacking shelves at the local supermarket are you?

Saying that for all I know you could come from a family of High Court judges and QC’s and just being “a” solicitor isn’t up too much! ;) :)

January 31, 2013 8:06 pm

Part of the problem is the way that the Army conducts its selection process. I have watched the Regular Commissions Board at work and there is no doubt that many of the private school types do exude confidence and have had opportunities to exercise leadership, undertake adventurous training, travel widely, etc that their state school counterparts lack. What they sometimes lack in brain power is disguised by self confidence and a bevy of qualifications, thanks to the support they received from high quality teaching staff. The hub of the issue is that unlike the RN and RAF the Army still wants potential officers to be recommended by a regiment or corps. In practice this means that there is a tendency for some regiments (certainly in the Cavalry and the Guards) to be self-selecting. Regardless of what recruiting regulations may say, they prefer to take potential officers who have been to private schools, who have friends within the regiment and who will socially fit within what is really a large family. The state grammar school boy will have a job breaching this invisible barrier and as for the comprehensive school product from a council estate…

I once had an extended lunch in the Officers’ Mess of a cavalry regiment at Tidworth (no names, no packdrill) and while they were socially delightful, the differences were very apparent. For example the cashmere wooly-pullies knocked up by the regimental tailor and bought by their young officers at an extortionate price – and used for climbing in and out of tanks. I will always remember the expression on the face of a fellow guest who was invited to go shooting for game the next day – when he accepted, clearly under the impression that this meant a little rough shooting and was a free offer, the immediate response was ‘Oh, good, could you give me a cheque for £200 please?’ (and that is a true account). Fortunately I had already declined. And of course they were proud of their tradition of ‘no women in the mess’ (there was a separate back bar for them). This is in the recent past.

Some (not all) regiments still take the view that unless you have a family connection, the right social acquaintances and some private money to cover the rather large mess bills, you simply will be unable to fit in, no matter how good you are in a professional sense. It is simply a subtle form of discrimination in a very English kind of way. No-one will stop a boy from Gateshead Comprehensive applying to the Household Cavalry, but selection is not simply by ability, even assuming he has the leadership qualities which remain undeveloped by so many state schools. Hence you will tend to find the comprehensive-educated officers in the various corps and supporting arms. Since the senior leadership of the Army is predominately drawn from the Cavalry and Infantry it is hardly surprising that ‘posh boys’ tend to run the organisation and feel no impetus to change – after all it worked for them, didn’t it, and by definition proves that the right people have reached the top.

steve taylor
January 31, 2013 8:16 pm

Though isn’t that the way of the world at all levels? It isn’t just the upper echelons who play “it is what, but who you know”?

January 31, 2013 8:38 pm

@Fatman: it may have changed since my time, but although most candidates go via pre-RCB short courses with their regiment or corps, you could apply directly for an RCB if you wanted. Moreover, some candidates attended pre-RCB with more than one regiment or corps.

January 31, 2013 8:58 pm

Very good comments and it is very interesting to read the threads. I also was a student at Welbeck College which provided technical officers for the Army (it did on those days). It was an interesting place but the key point was that over 90% of the students were from state schools. These went straight to Sandhurst and became officers in the the various technical corps. I did find myself in the minority there. It did have a 3 day selection process so the quality of students were v good.

I do not agree that the quality of officers in the Services is dictated by the number of independent school students. I do agree that there are as good quality students from the state system that would be the match for any independent school student. However, it is the number of bright and capable pupils with confidence that the independent sector delivers that gives the impression of bias. As I said earlier it is the focus of the educational systems that provides the opportunities for young people to consider a career in the services, and in the state sector there is a lot of negative bias against the Services.

If you want an example of how the Services are remembered in the different types of schools. Here it is, at my first schools, the Two VCs awarded to ex students are proudly on display in the school chapel and everyone knows about the actions of these two ex pupils. At my other independent school, there is a chapel built as a memorial to the WWI students who gave their lives. At the back of which are the two books of the dead, which celebrates the lives of students who died in both WWI !and WWII. You go to most independent schools and you will something similar. In fact at Winchester College there is a Balaclava students. There is a long history with independent schools and it is in their makeup that there has been a relationship with the military. It is not something you see in the state system. Or of you do it is a rare thing, partly due to the age of the schools. Partly due to the nature of state school teachers, which has tended to be not really supportive of the military.

This may explains there appears to be a lot of officers from independent schools. I would also suggest that certain regiments will have an even bigger percentage of intake from these schools, but this can be partly explained by the family nature of certain regiments, which is also valid for soldiers.

Keep up the chat, love the site keep going!

January 31, 2013 9:00 pm

True – I’m over-simplifying. However, the trouble is that pre-RCB visits give the ideal opportunity to decide who you don’t want. Moreover, there is then the process at Sandhurst of regiments confirming they still want to take young officers (hence the regimental reps at the Academy on the lookout for performance or behaviour that confirms or undermines their original choice). As I recall the Royal Logistic Corps tends to end up with most of those unwanted at this stage. The bottom line is that the regimental system resembles the British social class, ranging from upper class (Household Div, cavalry), upper middle class (posher infantry regiments, RTR), other infantry, artillery, engineer regiments + certain corps (middle middle class), more technical corps and less prestigious supporting branches (lower middle class). While you will sometimes find officers of the ‘wrong’ social background in surprising places, I think you would find a survey of the combat arms would give a fairly good correlation between school and the social background of their officers. One for the Equal Opportunities brigade perhaps? The answer is of course for officers to join a broad branch, such as ‘Infantry’, and to then be posted into regiments at random and without the CO being able to reject them.

January 31, 2013 9:12 pm

A couple of years ago, a Teacher Friend of mine, decided to emigrate with his family to New Zealand to work. Now, he works at, Wanguni High School. It is a state school. Scroll down the page and have a look at what sports the School provides –

I wish my school had provided me with that level of choice.

January 31, 2013 10:25 pm


Without dragging this post off centre, I’m: –

1) Born in a prefab
2) Dyspraxic / Dyslexic
3) First person in my entire extended family to go to university
4) Son of secretary and storeman, union convener.

I’ll slap working class dick on the table for ‘length for length’ comparison with anyone:)


There is a lot to recomend the approach, of an infantry corp, the regimental system, has a lot to answer for, particulalry, as no unit fights as a regiment anymore, it is in part a breeding ground for this kind of ‘my gangs better than your gang’ bollocks.

January 31, 2013 11:32 pm

Hmm. Where to start.

@AG: It is simply wrong to think of the Army of 14-18 as either (a) Led entirely by Public Schoolboys (although that was pretty much the case at the outset) or (b) Prone to woeful performance for the duration of that war. Fact is, by 1918 (by which stage a significant proportion of Junior officers were men of moderate means, and modest origins)the Brit Army was highly proficient at the most complex arts of war in history, and was deprived of total victory only by virtue of the lack of political will to continue the fight for the few more weeks needed for the Germans to formally acknowledge they had been comprehensively whipped.

Think of this – the armies of France, Russia, Italy and even Germany (at the very end) broke or mutinied between 1916 and 1918. Brits never even came close. If you want to find Generals who thought in terms simply of throwing men into the meat-grinder, you need to look at Nivelle of France, or Falkenhayn of Germany. Whatever their other failings, Haig and hiis subordinates bust a gut to get better at the business of modern war.

However: post WW1, few Regiments in the (rapidly down-sized) Regular Army were keen on retaining the services of chaps from modest backgrounds (like Bill Slim) who could not afford the gentleman’s lifestyle. Slim (commissioned into the same Regiment as Monty) opted to go to the Indian Army, and soldiered thereafter as a Gurkha officer).

In effect, despite best efforts of the likes of Percy Hobart, the mainstream regular Brit Army officer corps between the wars collectively managed to devalue most of the hard-earned tactical skill and understanding acquired in WW1; invented ‘new’ concepts for Tank operations that owed more to romance and to the tactical habits of Napoleonic and Crimean days than to professional rigour, and thus fielded an Army in 1940 that was (evidently) less capable than its largely-conscript 1918 predecessor.

This tendency to discard hard-learned lessons is one of the most worrying habits of the Regular Brit Army.


The educational demographics of the latter-day Brit Regular Army are not well understood by insiders (many, perhaps most, of whom refuse to acknowledge the possibility that there might even be an issue).

Outsiders have little or no chance of understanding how it works. It took me over 20 of my 30 years in khaki before I began to ‘get it’, the starting point being a little-known 1980s book called Power and Prestige in the British Army, by a former Brit officer with the unlikely-sounding name of Prof Reggie Von Zugbach De Sugg. He developed a rigorous methodology for categorising the educational origins of officers, and the social eliteness of regiments, and then systematically catalogued the regimental and educational backgrounds of all officers promoted to general’s rank between (from memory) the end of WW2, and about 1980.

Demonstrating, in the process, that certain ‘elite’ regiments predominated in the ranks of General, and that for the most part Generals came from ‘elite’ schools.

Lately, the picture has shifted somewhat. To understand it, you have to forget the idea that the Army is a single cohesive entity. In terms of officer careers, it is better to imagine a system built rather like the Ribblehead railway viaduct: ). Each Regiment or Corps (‘capbadges’ for short) is one of a number of separate, nigh-on autonomous vertical structures, with ‘The Army’ as a linking span, unable to function without the verticals, running across the top, bearing the fast track to glory.

In order for an officer to get an opportunity to ride the Army’s fast track to Generalship, he/she must first rise to the to the top of the capbadge column: but, whereas the Army part of the mechanism seems to apply a rigorous set of standards that are entirely oblivious to the social/educational origins of candidates, it is evident that the socially-agnostic quality criteria applied once a candidate has been propelled to this higher-level of opportunity, are not common currency across all capbadges.

A number of fast-rising stars recently have been products of State schools – but they are mostly from Corps, not from Regiments (i.e. Royal Engineers rather than Infantry or Cavalry). Closer scrutiny of the Infantry strongly suggests that old habits die hard.

Since the 1970s, over 50% of Sandhurst graduates have come from state schools, but while this demographic has been reflected in the entry figures [bottom of the column] for most Infantry Regiments, at the top of the column, there is significant variation between Regiments when they select Commanding Officers for Regular Battalions – the critical command appointment, without which Generalship is unachievable.

in essence, the Army is happy to promote any ‘able’ candidate. Some capbadges are more (much more) likely than others to perceive ability in officers who are State school products.

I hope that all makes sense so far: what it doesn’t explain, is how we have wound up with Senior Officers and a General Staff so devoid of imagination and integrity. You can’t blame that on Public Schools, when the Army system is clearly perfectly content to promote ‘the most able’, regardless of background, as long as their parent capbadge is willing to groom them for the opportunity.

Something deeper is at work: our Army’s command culture has become deeply risk-averse, at least where risk to the promotion prospects of the individual is concerned. Obviously, the safest way up is to agree with your gaffer; new thinking is dangerous; inventive/innovative thinking is ‘risky’. If you want to be viewed as ‘able’, you must unlearn those habits.

It is ‘between the wars’, all over again.

O – and we live in an age where (across the public sector)corporate failure is not laid at the door of the individual (nominally) in charge, which in turn means we have a climate in which the only success which matters, is the career success of an individual. That means you can foul up in Defence procurement (or, indeed, in command of Brit operations in Basra) and still make it to Lt Gen.

We’re in a very bad place, and our Army’s commanders are showing no sign of smelling the Colombian Medium Roast . . . .
Stonkernote: Apologies. My first post on Think Defence, and it is massive.

In my defence, it is a subject about which I feel quite strongly, have debated keenly over the years, and my hypothesis has the support of Prof Reggie.

El Sid
El Sid
February 1, 2013 1:55 am

Welcome Stonker – good stuff.

The pressure to conform is not limited to the Army, particularly when the P45’s are flying – there’s been a lot of discussion about looking after “disruptive thinkers” over at the USNI in the last few months. The gunnery expert William Sims is their poster-child, even if he did nick the idea of continuous-aim firing from Percy Scott, originally of HMS Scylla before one too many arguments with an admiral got him posted to Singapore on Terrible

http://blog.usni.org/2012/06/08/guest-post-a-junior-officer-and-a-discovery-by-lcdr-benjamin-bj-armstrong and following

Lots of good links to follow up in that lot as well.

Also worth noting that one of Bernard Gray’s pet peeves (formalised in the Levene review) is the lack of accountability that comes with people passing through programme offices for 18-24 months at a time. He’s trying to make them stick for 4-5 years in one place, and make people much more directly accountable for the success or otherwise of the procurements they manage. We’ll see how it turns out, but it seems to be going in the right direction.

Sir H talks about this kind of stuff a lot at http://thinpinstripedline.blogspot.co.uk/ with eg http://thinpinstripedline.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/generalist-not-specialist-thoughts-on.html – and his latest tome is how the RN is losing good people who just want to command ships rather than drive a desk, in an era when we have a lot more desks than ships….

PS x – I wasn’t having a go, just expanding on your throwaway line because I happened to have the stats at hand. Something else I learnt from rereading that book today – Eton’s CCF is the only one to have a battle honour, from the Boer War.

February 1, 2013 8:09 am

@CB perhaps worth noting that:
Present CDS, late RA, about 7% of total reg army strength (he is the third late RA CDS since the position was created some 50 yrs ago – of couse you could add Alan Brooke a few years earlier). Present CGS, late RE, about 7% of total reg army strength.
Point is don’t make sweeping statements about cav and guards, although as Stonker pointed out they are good career managers.

A bit of history, by about late 1941 the army had an officer crisis, the various OTUs (RMCS and RMAW had closed in 1939) were experiencing high failure rates, men with officer potential were not coming forward. The problem was officer candidate selection (interviews) which was seen as and probably was too ‘old school tie’ oriented. The Adjutant General (late RA and later the first head of UNESCO) created a new system and turned the situation around, it was seen as fair and was clearly effective because the OTU failure rate dropped dramatically. This system basically exists to this the day. The question, therefore is the profile of candidates attending and the profile of those that fail (RMAS gives us the profile of those that pass).

Basically the selection process looks for candidates with the attributes of potential leaders.

A final amusing touch, an article in the old A&DQ about 40 yrs ago by a former staff officer in WO AG branch in WW2, regarded the AG as a dangerous socialist for his innovations.

steve taylor
February 1, 2013 8:46 am

@ El Sid

I know. :) Too many here seize on little bits of “texture” so they can parade their knowledge on topic. It can be a tiresome when all that is wanted is a chat. I know you were only throwing some information to carry the chat on. :)

steve taylor
February 1, 2013 8:55 am

I thought the inter-war armour experiments were a success. Wasn’t there an exercise where a trial armour formation ran over a “traditional” larger force?

February 1, 2013 10:56 am


As Stonker put it:- ‘This tendency to discard hard-learned lessons is one of the most worrying habits of the Regular Brit Army.’

Hobart and his followers were effectivly sidelined by the army establishment. and the whole ‘mobile force’ experiments explained away, by ‘The professionals’, who were banging one about their desire for cavalry horses into the 30’s!

The British army has a terrible habit of re-setting after a war to it’s previous default Position.

One random example. Long time ago read a lovely piece by and engineer who worked on the Chieftain. He was quite clear that the Army officer involved wanted it to be able to destroy a King Tiger at a mile! He did wonder where they were going to find one!

Another random example, After 10 years of Brushfire warfare the British army is attempting to reset to the BAOR standard with a 35 + ton reccy vehicle.

Whatever the intelligence or leadership qualities of the upper echelons, An ability to think things a new in a fresh way does seem absent.

For example: – What is a regiment for?

To an outsider it seems like a completely useless rung of middle management, of the type all successful companies stripped out in the 1970s/80s.

February 1, 2013 11:46 am

Off topic, but as English is not my mother tongue, allow me to ask this question:
Is it BRUSHFIRE war of BUSHFIRE war? Saw BRUSHFIRE pop up in several comments (not only this last one here by @ixion), but do not recall seeing BUSHFIRE somewhere. It’s BUSHFIRE isn’t it?
Or does it depend on which school you attended? :-)

February 1, 2013 12:08 pm

Did some research myself …
Cambridge Dictionary Online
Bush fire = a fire burning in the bush (= wild area of land) that is difficult to control and sometimes spreads quickly
Bushfire and brushfire do not appear as such in the dictionary.

February 1, 2013 2:12 pm


I’ve recently started reading Richard Holmes’ ‘Redcoats’.

Last night I reached the part (p40 et seq) where he describes how the Brit Army raised and deployed Light infantry during the Seven Years War in America, ditched them immediately afterwards, later re-instating them (nominally, at any rate) as Light Companies in infantry battalions, but armed with smoothbore muskets rather than rifles – only then to find out the hard way in the early days of the French Revolutionary wars that Johnny Foreigner had a much better, and very valuable, capability in this regard. (N.b. Even after 1815, Wellington as C in C and even as PM remained steadfastly opposed to the widespread introduction of rifled weapons, and the Brown Bess was still in service for the Crimea as a result)

Seems to reinforce my feeling that the worst habits of thought in the Brit regular army are deeply seated in the tribal culture of the whole, which in turn means great leadership will be required if they are ever to be eradicated.

February 1, 2013 2:27 pm


You make a good point about the RA’s ability to generate Generals. Also worth noting that (according to Prof Von Zugbach’s figures, which he looked at when the ‘Stonker Hypothesis’ was brought to his attention a couple of years ago), the statistical probability of a State-schooled officer attaining General’s rank via the Gunners, is many, many times higher than the statistical probability of a State-schooled officer doing so via the Infantry*.

* Just don’t ask me which Infantry regiments – let alone battalions – might be the best or the worst in this respect as of now: the 2004 Jackson re-org of the Infantry hasn’t had time to show up in the stats (if indeed anyone is currently recording them) and the waters will be further muddied by the impending restructuring post-Afghan drawdown.

February 1, 2013 4:48 pm


As I have remarked one of my Military heroes is Monty*.

Much of what he did has been slated post ww2 as ‘stating the bleedin obvious’ Neatly forgetting that what was ‘bleedin obvious’ post say 1965, was clearly not ‘bleedin obvious’ to many of general rank in both western allied armies post 1940. He was ‘not one of us’ as far as the British Army establishment was concerned and until he started winning battles was met with open hostility and obstructionism. His re planning of the D Day operations almost certainly saved it from disaster.

* He gets criticised and written off by a lot of Patton-ites* for lots of ‘faults’ and only winning because he had the logistical back up his forebears lacked and so desperately wanted.

Mind yoiu Granted He was a serious ar*ehole to work with!

steve taylor
February 1, 2013 7:47 pm

IXION asked “What is a regiment for?”


and just below you will see volume two…..

February 1, 2013 7:52 pm

The old chestnuts to get them going are, fantasy fleet, merging the RAF with the Army/RN, small arms calibres, WW2 history, F-35 vs Typhoon Vs F/A-18/Gripen, FRES too heavy.
Sorry no ISO containers.

February 1, 2013 8:29 pm


I don’t deny people fight for their regiment.

Its just that lots of other soldiers in other armies fight just as hard when not in regements.

I repeat, if soldiers do not fight in deployed regements,but in battle groups assembled dor specific tasks, then apart from creating admin jobs waht do they do?

February 1, 2013 8:30 pm


Monty is a bit of a worry. Hero he may be to you, but I will go with the verdict of historian Michael Howard (who served under the man, with the Gds Armd in WW2):

“He was a very good First World War General”.

Not an encouraging verdict, yet somehow in keeping with the determination of successive generations of Brit senior officers to march steadfastly into the future whilst facing firmly backwards, looking through rose-tinted glasses and congratulating all around them for maintaining the standards that made us great (yesterday).

February 1, 2013 8:48 pm

All right, I’ll bite.
Monty was great when he took his time & prepared (EL Alamein), but hopeless off the cuff (Arnhem).

Jeremy M H
February 1, 2013 8:59 pm

RE: Monty

Needless to say a bit of a controversial figure on this side of the pond but I don’t think anyone can deny his capability as a planner of set piece operations. As far as a planner goes he was great. I would not call him hopeless in any scenario either. He was all around competent.

Arnhem and some of his more baffling performances in Northern Europe were a product, in my view, of his single minded desire to find a solution to end the war in his sector of operations. He did not handle his demotion from commander of ground forces well and personally I don’t think a guy like him goes for Arnhem if he was commanding a unified national force across the whole western front. In that case I think he let his desire to be the one to do something drive him into making a bad decision.

That being said all the Western Commanders were really bedeviled as much as anything by an army that (in comparison to the Germans and Soviets) was very soft and green. I don’t think any amount of brilliance by any commander of the West really changes how that campaign ends up going. It was going to be a bit of a plod because the soldiers were not capable of doing a lot more.

steve taylor
February 1, 2013 9:02 pm

He wasn’t as good as Rommel and without the RN he would have had no tank, troops, or shells…. ;)

February 1, 2013 9:07 pm

The set piece battle. Is there any other type of battle one should excel in?

steve taylor
February 1, 2013 9:14 pm

Thinking about if it wasn’t for RN submarines out of Malta..

February 1, 2013 9:33 pm

@Phil (and all Monty-philes)

[quote]The set piece battle. Is there any other type of battle one should excel in?[/quote]

The decisive battle in any war is the Pursuit. Blucher’s post-Waterloo pursuit of the French killed more men (by far) than did the battle itself (Blucher was quite cruel about the ability of Wellingon’s army in this respect).

See more recently Gulf War 1 “The Basra Highway”, deemed by many to be ‘cruel’ and ‘inhumane’, it spelled the end of S. Hussein as a regional threat, and turned him instead into a paper tiger.

Monty never mastered Pursuit, not in the desert, nor in post-Normandy France.

Pursuit cries out for letting the dogs of war off the leash – very German. Monty wanted everything buttoned up, tidy, amenable to his control and (above all else) with the minimum of risk. . . . esp. to his reputation/career (a characteristic common in today’s grownups).

February 1, 2013 9:57 pm


At Staff College (about a hundred years ago) I produced a study which looked at cohesion/what men fight for/how to manage your soldiers to maximise their combat effectiveness. I looked at WW2 Brit, Yank and Herman armies.

The thing that hit me most forcibly was the realisation that (Brit myths and legends notwithstanding), soldiers do not really fight for their Regiment, although in the rosy light of the aftermath they may come to think so.

When in harm’s way, they fight for their mates. The key is having strong bonds between individuals in the primary group of four-to-ten blokes who constitute the soldier’s ‘family’ in combat. If you can’t get that right, no amount of regimental tradition will hold the unit together, (altho’ as the Huns showed, if your troops have been weaned on violence and dog-eat-dog since childhood, a common system of high-quality training, plus a brutal system of battlefield discipline can also work wonders)

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
February 1, 2013 10:13 pm

@IXION 20.29 – as @Stonker asserts, people probably fight for their mates – Section? Platoon? Maybe Company? Possibly the function of a Battalion/Regiment is social – a mechanism to define who one’s mates are? Oddly, I believe the sociologists will tell you that our “comfortable” social group is a village of five or six hundred households; which most of us still “live” in even if the Village is virtual and worldwide – or an Infantry Battalion? Above that Big Regiment or Brigade sized groups have worked in military terms since the Roman Legions – even with Vexilla distributed from Eboracum to Vindolanda – maybe that number also has some evolutionary traction?

Just a post-pub thought…

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
February 2, 2013 2:23 am

@IXION – If the Regiment/Battalion does have some sort of serious social traction – as in the kind that men will fight and die for – should we not go with the flow and use them as a basis for all-arms battle-groups – give attention to what works in human terms?

Post whisky and soda moment…

February 2, 2013 2:24 am

Pretty much everyone

Monty- The word hero is perhaps to strong a word. I say after the event, his failings can be debated, (and I acknowledge them) It’s just: –

That Monty saw that, (Rather like Harris and in early times fisher), that war was in the WW” Context a contest between heavy weights, Hit hard hit first and keep on hitting.

That in the WW2 context it was about properly traineed properly led, and properly equipped armies that out gunned the opposition.

That He also clearly saw that (although he never put it this way) He led an army of civilians in uniform who weren’t actually by and large that good.

That in the deset he inherited an army he was not even first choice to take over. That although it had just stopped Rommel, was and is commonly regarded as spiritualy broken.

That he turned it round and led it to victory.

He then made a very good job of planning D Day, something a few other braisn had had a go at and not got their hed arround the job at all.

As for Arnheim as is not very often pointed out. He suggested it and pushed it as an idea… And everyone who had to in the high command including Ike poured over it, and approved it…

Rommel Hugely over rated, (Kesslring was twice the general he was), he got away with some real crap in the desert, and was as a result openly contemptuous of the British Army when preparing for D DAY.

As for Regements am not convinced and have never seen anything to show otherwise, other than ex poste facto ‘tales of glory’ type stuff.

What are the hard military reasons for them other than pure nostalgia?

Anyone in/ was in the Army want to have a crack at a post on that point?

February 2, 2013 3:22 am

@ Stonker,
“I’ve recently started reading Richard Holmes’ ‘Redcoats’”
— I’ve nearly finished the same book. It’s a mint read.

@ Anyone who will listen re; Monty,

Again I think we have to be careful about criticising a general out of context, using information that wasn’t available to people at the time, and being careful what we attribute to whom.

Arnhem for example. That whole operation had many problems that caused its downfall, a lot of them unattributable to Monty himself. The fact is it was a very bold, clever, and well reasoned gamble. A gamble yes, but one that was calculated carefully and that would have reaped massive dividends had it paid off. Not really in keeping with this idea of him being a complete conservative.

Monty strikes me as a realist, someone who understand his situations well. You could argue that he didn’t manage pursuits very well in Africa, but then nor did Rommel, who has quite a stunning history going back to being an infantry commander in WW1 of bold exploitations when breaking through enemy lines.

The supply situation in Africa, combined with the terrain and the nature of the campaign didn’t really favour extended pursuit for either side. And Monty would have been well aware what happened when an army in that campaign became too extended.

Maybe not the best General in the world, but a good one none the less.

February 2, 2013 3:33 am


Ah Jackson, went to State School, won Russian prize at RMAS, joined Int Corps then Slavonic studies at uni, head hunted by Paras (who always wanted him, his RMAS coy comd was Paras).

While I agree that after WW1 there was considerable reversion to the old ways, not forgetting that innovation without money is challenge, it’s not always been the case.

After the Boer War there were significant shake ups – I’d suggest that if the Boer War hadn’t happened WW1 would have been lost because the BEF would have been defeated in 1914. There wasn’t a great reversion after WW2 either – WOSB was retained and RMCS and RMAW were merged as RMAS (a step forward that undoubtedly raised the average IQ on the Wish Stream) and NS retained. Of course transferring anti-tk from RA to RAC was probably not a good idea, but the Brit Army has quite a good track record for innovation, eg adopting drones in 1963 through to more recently PRRs, but also some not so good eg M79s in Borneo and in parts of NI but no widspread adoption as UGLs until relatively recently – some 50 yrs after first use! (Although the relative unimportance of infantry in the Cold War might be taken in mitigation)

Ah the regimental system in RAC and infantry, well its cheap, keeps lots of people happy and tribalism is generally positive in the circumstances by helping morale (not just guys sticking together in a fire fight), but what size tribe? The real regimental downside (ignoring big ‘regts’ like RLC, RE) is the way it complicates Battle Casualty Replacement in a regular army. The Salerno ‘mutiny’ is one WW2 lesson that was conveniently forgotten, although I’ve never researched how BCR was handled in Korea.

February 2, 2013 9:34 am

“Monty never mastered Pursuit, not in the desert, nor in post-Normandy France.”

Show me the history books that show 2nd Army not streaking across NW Europe?

“Pursuit cries out for letting the dogs of war off the leash – very German.”

Ah the great romanticised pursuit. Study a bit deeper into the Eastern Front and you’ll see that against a cunning enemy pursuit is nothing more than that – pursuit. Plenty of German spearheads found themselves over-extended and unable to bring the enemy to decisive battle. Then the real decisive battle of war would begin – encirclement and investment. Same in the 18th and 19th Century – large amounts of time were spent “in pursuit” of a decisive battle, not pursuit for the sake of it. Cannae is the epitome of the decisive engagement. Like the Zulus if one runs 50 miles one must fight a battle at the end of it, simply running the 50 miles achieves little against an aggressive enemy.

steve taylor
February 2, 2013 10:25 am

One man’s pursuit is another man’s retreat, tactical withdrawal…. :)

February 2, 2013 11:54 am

There is a worship of – bold aggressive tactical manoeuvres in the armies of the world.

It’s the green equivalent of being fast shiny and pointy Too many McClellans and not enough Grants.

There is a worship of generals who successfully apply those techniques, others who are often equally succesful, but are ‘boring’ get ignored even sometimes within the staff colleges.

At the moment from the comfort of my armchair, I am very worried that, there seems little sign in the current leadership of all the armed forces of doing anything else except maneuvering against each other, cling ging on to shreds of past glories and hoping ‘something will turn up’.

The largley class homogenious leadership (have never herd a general with thick Geordie accent), I suggest is causing a very bad case of Group think.

February 2, 2013 12:17 pm


With the exception of the inevitable duffers, If Stalin hadn’t killed of the good ones, and then refused to let the remainder fight the war they wanted to fight, then The germans would have been handed their arse in 1941 in Russia Very quickly.

A lot of the Myth of BlitzKrieg is about the poor state of troop training Moral, and, leadership of its opponants.

After 1942-3 as a concept it rather fell apart because the lower ranking generals and troops had learnt how to deal with it.

I see to much published in the ‘trade papers’ of the armed forces which fetishises The pre 1942 german army, and it’s tactics, and also likes to claim that the British invented it and were copied by the Germans. In fact ther is almost no evidence the germans read Liddle Harte or had even heard of Hobart.

Again a lot of ex poste facto rewriting of what went on.

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
February 2, 2013 12:31 pm

@TD – 8.53 on the 1st; simple – your long posts are so stunningly brilliant that nobody can think of anything to add beyond garlands of praise – especially the ones about containers, obviously.

The short ones invite our own thoughtful and studied contributions – AKA banging on about our various private obsessions (well in my case, anyhow!)

@IXION – I think as well as a military man, we need a sociologist – I think battalion sized groupings might have an evolutionary social/tribal function in defining who “the mates we fight for” actually are; if so that is probably important in terms of unit cohesion.

February 2, 2013 12:38 pm

Men suffer for their regiments and fight for their mates.

In the heat of battle only the most psychotic charge forward with their heart full of regimental pride.

But unit and regimental pride brace the long hours stagging on, the filth, the high standards, the hunger, the cold and wet, the on-tap aggression, the cohesion,the pride and the competence.

Regiments don’t stir men to fight but in a well led regiment, unit pride gives an edge to everything else that comes before and after the fight: and that matters. You strive to be better then your peers and thus a more worthy foe to your enemies.

February 2, 2013 1:46 pm


Yes Battalion sized groups by all means, they seem to be a default setting throughout history (if you are flexible and allow groups of 400- 1000) to be ‘a battalion). They seem to have an operational/ logistical sense.


Are you really sure about that or is that just the ‘party line’? In effect the British army bangs on about it so much that people start to believe it.

If a soldier is in 1st battalion the Rifle Brigade is he really likely to be less motivated than the soldier say, in The Border Reg, 1st battalion Rifle brigade? I would need a lot of convincing that the former belief is not just the product of years yarns and tales and lots of port in the officers mess.

There was TV series some years ago called Warriors about the Balkans.

I did not watch it myself but I do remember this exchange on the radio. A serving snr officer was having a bit of a go about it saying in effect, it got this or that wrong. he was particularly upset at some of the feelings and motivations attributed to the soldiers, giving a bit of the old regimental ties stuff.

The writer put him down by simply asking him had he talked to them about it. Because he had interviewed many dozens of soldiers, who had served in Balkans before writing the scripts.

February 2, 2013 3:09 pm

He’s not motivated by the brand. He’s motivated by the pride taken by the leadership in the brand.

steve taylor
February 2, 2013 3:22 pm


The “other” brand doesn’t matter. It is belief that your brand is the best is all that matters.

You should go look at how the Americans move regimental history from one formation to another. Go read “We Were Soldiers”. One day they were whatever formation the next day they were all cavalry, all “Gary Owen”, and broad brimmed hats. The human element had stayed the same, the identity of the organisation had changed, but belief in the substance of the brand (the aforementioned human element) stayed the same.

February 2, 2013 4:15 pm

Precisely x. We agree. And I’ll drink to that and many more things today. Fucking Wales.

February 2, 2013 5:03 pm


You drink whilst do what to wales???

Re ‘brand loyalty’ OK I buy brand loyalty but repeat I have seen nothing to suggest that regimental loyalty would outperform brigade loyalty, And simply admin (reduce costs) into the bargin.

February 2, 2013 5:37 pm


‘And simply admin (reduce costs) into the bargin.’

Surely there still would be a need for an admin layer at that level anyway?

steve taylor
February 2, 2013 6:03 pm


Brigade is so far above the head of the average soldier it doesn’t matter. By the time you get to a “division” level you might as well be talking about national loyalty.

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
February 2, 2013 7:43 pm

@IXION – I think you might be able to inculcate both over a period of time – the Romans were profoundly connected to Legions of about Brigade size for centuries; however changing course might take centuries – and would only work if the Brigades had a more or less fixed structure; so for us the logic is to fix the “tribal” stuff at battle group size – even if it means cavalry regiments getting an infantry company, battalions getting a tank squadron, and both getting gunners and sappers – and grouping them under a task or area specific Brigade HQ as required. What I don’t know about are the practical benefits of any other intermediate steps between the battle groups and the whole army.

I did suggest three Divisions each with a full range of battle group types, a home area in the UK and specialist knowledge of a potential theatre of operations a few days ago, but nobody bit, so I treat the thought as crashed and burned…

February 2, 2013 8:29 pm

Wonder what James/Red Trousers would add to this debate?

February 3, 2013 1:19 am

There has been study upon study upon study about this sort of thing, going back many years, which generally come to the same conclusions time after time;

1) That the motivation to fight hard in the face of the enemy, to do brave and often quite heroic things, is inspired largely by the bond between the soldiers at a very local level (“Band of Brothers” type stuff), where the defining characteristic is not so much by section/platoon/company, as it is knowing everyone around you by name. Added to that are the instinctive human character traits and psychology of perceiving friendly forces as human (good) and enemy forces as sub-human (or at least villainous).

2) The element of the Regiment/Brigade/Division has been proven to add a certain base level of psychological confidence/willpower into fighting forces, often related either to their role or to the history of their unit. Airborne units for example often cultivate the idea of aggression, being “elite”, and being “designed/trained” to fight off overwhelming odds, (the 101st Airborne at Bastogne, the UK Paras in the “Platoon House” strategy in Helmand versus the Royal Marines mobile “raiding” operations in vehicles).

Regiment/Brigade/Division histories can create a form of official peer pressure, the expectation that if you belong to Regiment x then you must live up to the proud traditions established by the unit. The US Rangers for example have cultivated their motto “Rangers Lead The Way!” into an expectation among their soldiers that they should be trained and ready to be the first in to any situation that is required of them.

The US Marine Corps has done an incredible job of cultivating a formal kind of peer pressure, the idea that they are a cut well above army infantrymen, along with the cementing the relationship between fellow “brother” marines.

Even just mottos themselves can be a source of inspiration. A simple, pithy mantra repeated so often that the concept embodied by the motto becomes ingrained in the soldiers mind can be quite useful as a mental cruch to support someone in times of hardship or when nerves are strained by some daunting task. Look at the USAF Pararescue units motto; “That Others May Live”. Find me a phrase that in four words better sums up the purpose of that unit and the expectation placed upon its members?

Think about our own SAS; “Who Dares, Wins”. Three words. Yet they perfectly sum up the ethos of a regiment that has built a reputation over time for being brazen and bold in its actions, taking calculated and unexpected risks to achieve sometimes incredible results.

Of course it’s not all plain sailing. If you look at the operation to recapture South Georgia as part of OpCorporate, by all accounts the SAS team that was inserted (and within 24 hours extracted) by helicopter, with the loss of two helicopters, had been warned by two expert climbers who were privvy to their planning not to do it because the conditions would be too extreme. These men were ignored because of a combination of not being considered “elite” and the ethos among the SAS men that they could do things that others thought impossible. In this case they should have listened to the advice given, but it went against the ingrained culture.

So it’s not all good having that regimental/brigade/division system. But when it is good, it’s very good. And a lot of the downsides can be managed with a bit of care and attention.

February 3, 2013 11:52 am


It’s not about ‘romanticised pursuit’, it is about actually catching up to your fleeing enemy, and wiping him out.

Monty’s Army let the Afrika Korps slip away after Alamein, and they let the Wehrmacht in France cross the Seine pretty much unmolested after Normandy. However hard and fast they were driving – bearing in mind the enemy were still largely horse-drawn, or pedestrian, or mounted in commandeered vehicles – they weren’t going hard enough, or fast enough.

As for the strategic master-stroke that never was, at Arnhem, Monty’s strategic priority should have been the re-opening of Antwerp, instead of presiding over the Arnhem botch-job (like an airliner crash, a chain of many, many lesser flaws in the plan, errors of judgment among the planners and on the ground and failures in execution that combined to create a single major disaster, whose principal author distanced himself sharpish from the failure, leaving his subordinates to catch the cack).

The study to read on Monty is a thing called ‘Colossal Cracks’ – which concludes that he was competent, and that his approach to tactics and to leadership were appropriate to the resources at hand. But not a great General. That he was the best of what the Brit Army had to offer at the time, and yet has been held up pretty much ever since for successor generations to revere, it speaks of a pretty sad state of collective mind.

February 3, 2013 1:11 pm


On the post-WW2 fossilisation of the Brit Army, on the face of it it ought to be easy to agree with you.

Scratch a little harder at the surface tho’ – in terms of thinking about war-fighting, the Brit Army post-Korea got very comfortably into the BAOR routine, and didn’t do much in the way of new thinking. True enough, there’s be a superficially new concept of ops every time you go a new Corps Commander, but the only radically different one to surface in all that time emerged in the late ’80s, from the office of Gen JC Reilly, who was (from memory) Director General Training and doctrine (first one ever, I believe). Stepping away from playing speed bumps, he advocated the Corps-level counter-stroke, which was first taught and practiced at Staff College in 1989: just in time for the Warsaw Pact to go into meltdown.

It is also instructive to read Spencer Fitz-Gibbons’ “Not Mentioned In Dispatches” which uses the Goose Green fight to illustrate a number of things – not least how far accepted Brit tactical best-practice [personified by H Jones psc VC] had drifted away from matching the hard facts of battle.

February 3, 2013 1:37 pm

I really do get all the stuff about the psychology of battle etc. But like I said Nothing posted here has gone anywhere near explaining why regiments are better than brigades at instilling unit ethos. I get it why soldiers fight – for their buddies.

But why do we have a middle managment level that complicates supply of replacement, and has very little to do with how the army organises top fight. There seem to be very little actual evidence other than rose tinted ‘for the regement’ exposte facto reminissing to back up any use for it.

Of course there is the suspicion it creats a lot of middle ranking officer jobs and a nice officers mess….

But no one yet has explained why a lad form Swansea would fight any less hard for 1st battalion ‘Welsh Brigade’ than for the 54th Foot and Mouth.

With regards to Monty he was no saint. The best comment on monty comes from no lesser person that King George.

After a particularly abbrasive meeting between KG, Churchill and Monty. Churchill and KG were walking in the grounds of Buck house. Churchill remarked that he sometimes thought monty was after his job.

“Thank God for that” the king replied, “I thoughhe was after mine”!

He was the best western theatre general of the war on the allied side, and that ain’t no shabby achievement.

A lot of people with their own axes to grind latter spent a lot of time ‘having a pop’ at his reputation. explaining how it should have all been done differently. In many cases having signally failed to do it themselves at the time.

Market Garden was a perfectly justified’ try on’ of a type several generals with more spectacular repuations would have had a go at in his shoes. It nearly came off, it is not entirely his fault it did not.

February 3, 2013 1:39 pm


Monty is certainly overrated, which is not to say his wasn’t a competent general, but competent is very different from military wizard!

I have always felt that subordinates such as Harding, Horrocks, Crocker and McCreery were overshadowed by Monty and his persona…though I guess at the time the British people needed a hero, so I can understand why they placed such a collective interest in him.

Ed Zeppelin
Ed Zeppelin
February 3, 2013 1:44 pm

Sandhurst is not an attendance course. If the ‘posh boys’ weren’t up to it, they would not be allowed to commission. The example of the Household Cavalry and Guards is equally risible, as the ‘teeth arms’ only tend to recruit from the top third of cadets. In my experience, like it or not, many of those are from private schools and perform exceptionally well, both at Sandhurst and on operations. Soldiers don’t give a toss if there Officers went to Public School. They respect them for joining and doing the job.
This is a disappointing and stupid post, and the responses have left me wondering if I will bother with this increasingly tedious blog any more. A shame, as it used to be excellent.

February 3, 2013 2:46 pm

@Ed Zep

The point is not that Sandhurst favours the posh boys: the intake of state-school types, and their success rate at commissioning is testament to that.

What is not understood inside the Army (let alone outside it) is how widely the career prospects of state and ‘posh’ school products vary, depending on the cap-badge into which they are commissioned.

Simple fact is, Infantry regiments take a lot of state school entrants as commissioned officers, as do (f’rinistance) the Gunners.

But the state school cohort in the Artillery are significantly more likely to reach General than is the case in the Infantry, even tho’ Infantry gets first dibs on those Officer Cadets seen by their trainers as the ‘top third’ of any Sandhurst commissioning course.

This does not speak of an even playing field across the entire collection of tribal bodies that comprises our ‘modern’ Army.

February 3, 2013 2:48 pm

The critical question would be to get hold of the number of people applying for Sandhurst (from different backgrounds), what grades they possess before they apply and then what percentages get accepted and where they end up. That would give us more insight.

@ Ed,
Don’t be a cock mate. If you don’t like the posts, don’t read them or don’t comment on them. Why take the time to write out a comment like that if you think the site is tedious?

Briefly on the subject of posh boys, there was a TV series about Sandhurst a while back. The boys on arrse didn’t seem too keen on some of the posh ones, who perhaps were edited to make them look more like twats than they really are. But none the less, there were several on there that looked like twats. And the state school boy did the best and I think was head hunted by the Paras. But that’s one TV shows snap shot of one class.

@ Stonker,
With respect, what was Monty supposed to do in Normandy? We’re talking about a war in some of the densest field and hedge networks anywhere in the world. It was perfect defensive country for an enemy conducting a fighting withdrawl, whose armour and anti-tank support was ideally matched to slowing down allied armour.

February 3, 2013 2:52 pm

Whilst looking for some else on the net, a couple of weeks ago. I came across Wiki’s Wikiquote’s website. So now we are talking about Monty. I thought I would have a look on his page, to see his quotes and what his peers thought of him. He thought’s on Arnham and his Rules of War quotes are very interesting. What Von Thoma, Bomber Harris and General Alexander thought of him as well.


I did follow the link regarding the Rules of War quote. This is a very good House of Lords Defence debate from 1962. His speech covers, what we are discussing on this thread. The make up of the Army, the need for good logistics Air and Sea. The worth of National Service, the CCF, and others, here’s the link.


February 3, 2013 3:24 pm

“It’s not about ‘romanticised pursuit’, it is about actually catching up to your fleeing enemy, and wiping him out.”

Easier said than done. He’s falling back on his lines and can move fast behind his screen, you’re moving away from your depots and if the enemy is doing a good job you’re vanguards have to be in a combat disposition. In the several hours it takes to meet, suppress, deploy, fight through, re-org and continue the advance the enemy can literally be driving across most of France.

“However hard and fast they were driving – bearing in mind the enemy were still largely horse-drawn, or pedestrian, or mounted in commandeered vehicles – they weren’t going hard enough, or fast enough.”

They were going as fast as the enemy and more importantly the supply lines would allow. It’s very easy to sit there second guessing the decisions made and blaming poor generalship and lack of aggression for manoeuvres that were actually conducted because there was literally no way to supply any other option. The supply problems are well known and documented and it continues to amaze me that people hand wave such a massively fundamental issue into extinction. Despite Patton’s bravado men can’t fight eating their belts and had he hit any sharp German resistance what looked like a daring advance could easily have turned into an Arnhem scale problem of cut off troops. Patton was happy to have taken the risk but he had fuck all left to dig himself out of the shit had he landed in it. The Germans took a week to conduct a withdrawal and re-crystallise their defensive lines – that is no mean feat, they had plenty of fight left in them.

As for Arnhem – 60 odd miles of front was gained in a few days at the cost of one division. The Germans or Soviets would have considered such an exchange more than favourable. And here again we meet the scizophrenia of the Monty haters – slow ponderous Monty but when he takes a risk and ploughs on ahead he is villified for that too. The only difference between him and Patton at that point was simple luck. And again it is easy to say, he should have just re-opened Antwerp when you have the hindsight and you’re pretending supplies were not a massive, massive issue. The main thing dragging allied progress in late summer 1944 was supplies, supplies, supplies and supplies. You can’t just announce a decision flawed or a pursuit not aggressive enough without bearing that in mind. Try driving 300 miles in your car with a third of a tank of petrol and no possibility of a top up for days at a time – all the willpower in the world is not going to get you to your destination no matter how imaginative your route.

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
February 3, 2013 3:47 pm

@ IXION – Brigades would work fine, but why fix what isn’t broken – which might take years? Also, with some exceptions we customise Brigades for the task at hand – moving Tribal loyalties to the Brigade level would require the structures to be much more fixed…or everybody would go into a “Tribal” Brigade instead of a Regiment…and then still go into a different formation for ops; the same redundancy would apply.

February 3, 2013 3:56 pm


Whilst I think Monty was overrated in many respects I recognise the problems with fighting in Normandy. In retrospect destroying almost the entire German Army in France in three months isn’t bad going.

I think it was other peoples unrealistic expectations that led to the criticism of his handling of the campaign and not necessarily anything Monty himself got wrong.


My position on Arnhem is that it was a worthwhile high-risk operation that whilst a gamble had a good chance of success on paper. What let it down was how a lot of the details didn’t effectively translate into reality and also due to pure, cruel misfortune.

However ’60 odd miles of front was gained in a few days at the cost of one division’…

That sounds overly simplistic to me and an excuse for failure. I wouldn’t call a narrow salient into enemy territory that could be assaulted from three sides and had to be densely protected for several months afterwards to be any kind of advancement of the front.

Plus we are of course talking about a very high quality division here, not the cannon fodder that the Russians and Germans wouldn’t give a toss about.

February 3, 2013 4:03 pm

“My position on Arnhem is that it was a worthwhile high-risk operation that whilst a gamble had a good chance of success on paper. What let it down was how a lot of the details didn’t effectively translate into reality and also due to pure, cruel misfortune.”

What let it down was the fact that whilst the operation might have been pulled off had it been launched earlier somehow, in the greater context I cannot see a a narrow front advance being able to invest the Ruhr. Of course, not many then knew that, the Germans looked like they were done for in the West.

Really considering what people knew at the time Arnhem was a no brainer. You take a risk with a small portion of your force which you can afford to lose, against an enemy falling back in disarray, in order to invest what was essentially the heart of the German war machine. I’d judge him more harshly if her HADN’T given it a crack.

“That sounds overly simplistic to me and an excuse for failure. I wouldn’t call a narrow salient into enemy territory that could be assaulted from three sides and had to be densely protected for several months afterwards to be any kind of advancement of the front.”4

Im not excusing failure. I am merely pointing out some facts from a proper military perspective – frontage was gained, several key rivers breached and the best part of a German Corps chewed up for the cost of one division. It doesn’t matter if it was an elite division or not – divisions are there to be consumed. If Monty had a failing it was his inability to digest and face up to this basic premise of war – which one can understand when you consider his experiences in WWI.

February 3, 2013 4:26 pm

. . . errm, if Monty is to be excused for failing to catch the Hun on the run, once the Allies were free of the Bocage*, on the grounds that he could not do so on a third of a tank of gas, while his men ate their belts . . . I wonder how his rapier-like thrust was expected successfully to penetrate the industrial heartland of the Reich, when it was also at the end of that tenuous lifeline? Not really sure you can have that cake, and eat it, too.

The Archbishop’s boy had planned from day one to seize Antwerp, I believe, but late-summer hubris (it seems to have been pretty much an epidemic among Brits who should have known better) led him to drop that priority in favour of the Mkt Gdn thing. He had to do a lot of talking to bring a very reluctant Ike round, too – whose grasp of the overall logistic problem was arguably better than Monty’s, since Monty (really) had his eyes only on the Brit bit of the jigsaw.

*@ Challenger.

I’d use slightly different syntax. He didn’t ‘destroy almost an entire German army’.

Rather he ‘almost destroyed a German army’, and ‘almost’, with the Hermans, was simply never quite good enough.

More to the point – I have come to wonder why, when I was still in uniform, and particularly when I was at the Camberley College Of Knowledge, such analyses were not encouraged. I have never been so bored as when Staff College instructors expounded on battles gone by: a fascinating topic rendered turgid by the supposed intellectual elite of our Army.

Speaks volumes.

February 3, 2013 4:32 pm


Plus we are of course talking about a very high quality division here, not the cannon fodder that the Russians and Germans wouldn’t give a toss about.

That is unworthy.

They may have been cannon fodder but the fury of the eastern front, would have destroyed the western armies in short shrift. Both sides ‘cannon fodder’ in the east routinely kept fighting and achieving objectives after losses that would destroy so called elite divisions in the west.

February 3, 2013 4:44 pm

“I wonder how his rapier-like thrust was expected successfully to penetrate the industrial heartland of the Reich, when it was also at the end of that tenuous lifeline? Not really sure you can have that cake, and eat it, too.”

That is what Monty is grumbling about in that quote. He wanted ALL the supplies to come to him as Allied Main Effort. He didn’t get that. And I quite agree I doubt the rapier like thrust was realistic knowing what we know now, but back then the door to Germany seemed wide open.

And again seizing Antwerp when Jerry was broken seemed a poor choice if you could seize the Ruhr instead and completely undermine the German war effort – supplies were at the centre of everything he was trying to do – fact is he didn’t think he needed Antwerp if he became main effort supply wise and could conduct a narrow penetration of the front.

Monty took a risk, he did exactly what a lot of his detractors accuse him of never doing. It didn’t pay off, c’est la guerre. Once it didn’t pay off that left his decisions about Antwerp looking foolish.

February 3, 2013 5:31 pm

Monty (and, I would judge, many of our latter day ‘leaders’) had spent most of his working life avoiding risk – to his reputation, if notheing else. I’m inclined to the view that this way of thinking ultimately gives you leaders who don’t really understand, and therefore cannot manage, risk.

Pretty much the same kind of senior officers we have today.

I don’t think Monty recognised the risk he was taking. I don’t think he, or our army in the broader sense of the word, had really understood the requirements of airborne operations: which are all about taking your risks early, while the enemy are still milling about, then digging in like tics, (or getting the f#ck outta Dodge, perhaps). Look at the Urquhart – 4 yrs before the war he was a Capt at Staff College, earned himself a reputation for personal courage, and for a ‘safe pair of hands’, got made an Airborne General. Hate to say it, but he was a bit pedestrian for the role: but there is nothing the Brit Regular Army regards more highly than a ‘steady, safe pair of hands’ – now, and back then.

Like succeeds like (ducks pick ducks)- hence ‘Bony’ Fuller’s complaint about getting old ideas out of folk’s heads being harder than getting new ones in.

February 3, 2013 6:18 pm

Well a few things might have turned Arnhem into a victory. Air transport was in short supply, so waiting a day before the Arnhem part, would have allowed more resources to the earlier part of the thrust. One day less for the Paras to hold. That day could have allowed the bomber force to blast the woods where the German armour had been spotted.
One Sqn of Tetrach light tanks were dropped in on D-Day by Hamilcar gliders, but not used at Arnhem. They were poor tanks but one sqn at Arnhem would have been good for morale & perhaps confused the Germans for a while.
A couple of Polish signallers with the shortwave radios the underground army used to stay in contact with London, at Arnhem would have stopped the radio SNAFU.
Pattons army was starved of supplies & going nowhere, so Patton should have been asked to advise. If anyone could have rammed tanks up that road at speed, it would have been him.
Still all academic now.

Sir Humphrey
February 3, 2013 6:21 pm

Fascinating stuff. My own 2p worth is that 25-30 years ago when many took AIB after school, then schooling mattered. There is a marked difference between some comprehensive and private school students at 18, with the private students often getting a better chance at the sort of activities that would give them the innate leadership and confidence to pass AIB at the time.
However, as we increasingly move to an environment where people have been to university, then those three extra years provide a lot of time for non private pupils to gain confidence and life experience. I suspect over time the proportion of private pupils will diminish further – and it would be interesting to see the breakdown by ranks of those who were privately edcuated.

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
February 3, 2013 6:49 pm

Just an anecdote, but when I was studying History at an American University of some repute an (American) chum of mine studying Military History expressed some surprise that we were not much more peevish about the ways in which the post D-Day grand strategy was influenced by a quiet determination on the part of the Cousins to be seen to win the war, especially by the broad front approach, and consequent allocation of supplies…

Any thoughts out there?

February 3, 2013 7:41 pm

Interesting discussion for a foreigner. Had to look up the meaning of “posh” first.

Who will have more chances to be admitted to officer training …
Who will in the end become a better officer …
The lad from the private school, spending his free time practising horse riding and attending parties at county estates?
The lad from the public school, spending his free time as a leader in the local boyscout troop?

Just to say that the type of school one has attended may have an influence, but for sure only a minor one and today less important than ten or twenty years ago. There are so many factors involved.

What school did Monty attend?

February 3, 2013 8:32 pm

@Sir Humphrey,

I don’t share your confidence about the inevitability of the Army’s career culture embracing talent from the state sector.

There is (obviously) reason to be optimistic, if you look at the success rates of state-school boys who have (over the last 30yrs) come up through the RA/RE.

This needs to be balanced with the recognition that (a) that cultural shift has not by a long chalk been replicated across the Army as a whole, least of all in the ‘Teeth Arms’; (b) Whatever respect may accrue to Tommy as a consequence of the much publicised combat in which he has for the last decade been engaged, scary death tolls and impending cuts mean that parents are less likely now (serving soldiers perhaps more than any?) than at any time I can remember, to encourage their offspring to serve, both of which factors combine in such a way that (c) many regiments are more – not less – likely to fall back in all innocence, on the educational institutions which they know well; that are most easily harvested, and whose products are most likely to fit easily into the cosy cod-Edwardian rituals that – according to myth – underpin their operational “excellence”.

February 4, 2013 8:14 am

whose products are most likely to fit easily into the cosy cod-Edwardian rituals that – according to myth – underpin their operational “excellence”.

Great line. We don’t know how good a true meritocracy might be for our Army because we have simply never had one….

February 4, 2013 8:45 am

Show me any human organisation thats a meritocracy.

February 4, 2013 9:06 am


1 Corps in Germany evolved steadily from being am infantry corps through to a highly mechanised one (well the regular elements). It also moved its defensive posture Eastwards, to finally ‘The British Army Beyond the Weser’. As far as concepts of ops go the constraint was what NATO headquarters could tolerate and that was highly influenced by the German politics.

That said mobile defence was introduced in the mid 1970s, then in 1978/9 Bagnall took command. Probably the most innovative British general since along time. He was the man whose doctrinal changes then permeated, including such unBritish notions as standard SOPs. As for counterstrokes, Wintex 82, not the popular stuff about edgy Russians, the really interesting story about 1 Corps counterstroke. No more from me on that, a question in the Lords might help, that’s where Bagnall’s CoS sits these days (FM Baron Inge). It was also Bagnall as CGS who had ‘British Miltary Doctrine’ written, very novel, the author had been his MA in Corps HQ, became VCDS and of course another gunner, but not state school methinks.

Lots of folk get hung up on the interwar stagnation. I think this has been exaggerated. It’s useful to note that by 1939 UK was the only fully mechanised army (the Germans didn’t reach this until 1956, the French burrowed the maginot line and the US didn’t get fully mechanised for another couple of years). There were problems, notably the RAF fetish about strategic bombing and hence the minimal attention given to land air warfare, frankly the army general staff should have known better and protested long and loud that the RAF was having a collective wet dream, that was the army’s real interwar failure.

February 4, 2013 10:33 am

Dammit, we really need that guest post from the man with the trousers about the Divisional Manoeuvre Group in Gulf 1 and the role of the Strikers when they transitioned to the RHA…

February 4, 2013 10:52 am

Last Monty post I think) form me.

He was most defo not part of the establishment – the son of a parson true but not the ‘Huntin shootin fisshin’ crowd who (and a good citation here is ‘Adolph Hitler mypart in his downfall’ he drove out of his command with a will.

Ed Zeppelin
Ed Zeppelin
February 4, 2013 2:20 pm

Chris B:
I’m not being a ‘cock’, but thank you for your charming response.

Ref the following:
“Briefly on the subject of posh boys, there was a TV series about Sandhurst a while back. The boys on arrse didn’t seem too keen on some of the posh ones, who perhaps were edited to make them look more like twats than they really are. But none the less, there were several on there that looked like twats. And the state school boy did the best and I think was head hunted by the Paras. But that’s one TV shows snap shot of one class.”

The boys on arrse? Oh dear. The Walter Mitty brigade’s opinion is one that I rarely seek out.
The state school boy ‘did the best’? And what agenda was the BBC pushing I wonder? If you knew anything about that specfic example, you certainly wouldn’t be using it in your defence. Don’t believe everything you see on TV. The commissioning course is a year long, and they compressed it into three hours.

I only mention my disappointment at this blog because I tend to come here for interesting insight into defence related issues, not petty inter-class slanging. Who gives a toss where people come from, as long as they cut the mustard. Also, the Army has been under-manned in terms of new officers for several years, so if more state educated individuals wished to apply they are free to do so.

steve taylor
February 4, 2013 2:28 pm

Ed Zeppelin said ” This is a disappointing and stupid post, and the responses have left me wondering if I will bother with this increasingly tedious blog any more. A shame, as it used to be excellent.”

Shut the door on the way out…

February 4, 2013 2:47 pm

@ Ed Zepplin

I think you’re a bit strong on your critisism, I think it’s an interesting topic and something not really talked about. It’s not off limits to talk of it. Fatman and Stonkers (very enlightening) comments and the initial post by TD suggest there is an issue, and it’s being discussed. I’m not sure where you see all this ‘petty inter-class slanging’ on here? Do you think there is no issue whatsever?

February 4, 2013 5:40 pm

@ Ed Zepplin,

“I’m not being a ‘cock’, but thank you for your charming response”,
— As charming as “… and the responses have left me wondering if I will bother with this increasingly tedious blog any more” deserved.

“The boys on arrse? Oh dear. The Walter Mitty brigade’s opinion is one that I rarely seek out.”
— That’s quite the assumption, to believe that every single one of them on there is just a nutjob with an army fetish playing out some fantasy. Remarkable really in that the bulk of them seem to have taken the research into their hidden Internet lives very, very seriously indeed, to the extent of serious mental disorders, given the stuff they talk about and the level of depth.

There were obviously some among them who disagreed with the premise of the broad thread, but the bulk seemed to agree as described above.

“If you knew anything about that specfic example, you certainly wouldn’t be using it in your defence. Don’t believe everything you see on TV”
— It’s lucky I didn’t post anything like, say; ‘… who perhaps were edited to make them look more like twats than they really are. But none the less, there were several on there that looked like twats. And the state school boy did the best and I think was head hunted by the Paras. But that’s one TV shows snap shot of one class’ otherwise it would look a lot like you didn’t bother reading my whole argument and just knee jerk reacted to the bit you didn’t like.

Oh wait….

Plus, there’s only so many ways to explain away the on camera comments of the directing staff about the various candidates, or the reality of where they ended up.

February 4, 2013 7:47 pm

@Phil + IXION

‘It doesn’t matter if it was an elite division or not – divisions are there to be consumed. If Monty had a failing it was his inability to digest and face up to this basic premise of war’

‘They may have been cannon fodder but the fury of the eastern front, would have destroyed the western armies in short shrift. Both sides ‘cannon fodder’ in the east routinely kept fighting and achieving objectives after losses that would destroy so called elite divisions in the west’

I wasn’t trying to make a comparison of British/German/Russian divisional quality, more recognising that a hell of a lot of time and effort went into putting together an airborne division at a time when British resources were stretched to limit and any expenditure of manpower and equipment became significant. Losing an entire division at a time when the British army only had 14 available for N.W Europe was necessarily a big deal.

This ties into criticism of Monty as well. Whilst recognising that he could be overtly cautious and missed many a good opportunity (whilst also recognising that his 1 gamble didn’t pay off) I sympathise with the difficult situation he was in. I don’t think that 1944 was really the time to be thinking that divisions existed to be ‘consumed’.

Although I do agree that Market Garden must have been very tempting at the time and did have a chance of success at least on paper I think in hindsight securing Antwerp to resolve the supply situation would have been a much better move.

February 4, 2013 7:53 pm


‘1 Corps in Germany evolved steadily from being am infantry corps through to a highly mechanised one’

Really? I thought from the off in the late 40s and early 50s it consisted of 3 armoured divisions (6,7,11) but only 1 infantry division (2)?

Dgy Geezer
Dgy Geezer
February 25, 2013 12:11 pm

The British Army does not *need* regiments at all, it needs corps and flexibility, not parochialism. It does not need the Household Division at all.
On topic: is not the role of an officer essentially bureaucratic and organisational- clerkly? That of NCOs is motivational= true leadership.
We do not need any officers of a rank below Major, see above: discuss

steve taylor
February 25, 2013 5:29 pm

Well what the Chinese admire most about the American (USMC is especially “NCO centric”) and UK forces is their NCOs.