Examining A General’s Dismissal: Army, Part 16

May 1, 1997 by Terry Copp

The news of General Andrew McNaughton’s retirement was announced on Dec. 26, 1943. McNaughton’s brief statement offered no explanation for the decision and the men and women of what was sometimes called “Andy’s army” were surprised and confused. The following week, as McNaughton and his wife left 1st Canadian Army headquarters to return to Canada, thousands turned out to wave and cheer in a show of affection that no other general or politician could inspire.McNaughton, who had presided over the creation of the overseas army, had not resigned voluntarily. The official explanation of retirement due to illness made little sense to Canadian reporters who met an obviously healthy McNaughton. And so, the Ottawa rumor mill went into high gear.

The story of McNaughton’s dismissal tells us a great deal about the Canadian Army and its relationship with the British high command during the war. Now that the papers of all the key figures in the dispute are in the public domain there is not much doubt about what happened, but as is often the case with history, there is little agreement on what it all means.

McNaughton and his biographer, John Swettenham, were convinced that his dismissal was arranged by Canadian Defence Minister J.L. Ralston because of a disagreement over sending 5th Armored Division to Italy. Contemporary historians, who have read the British and Canadian documents, recognize that the initiative came from British generals who argued that McNaughton lacked the qualities required to command an army in the field.

J.L. Granatstein explored these issues in his book The Generals and concluded that McNaughton was replaced for good military reasons. Granatstein’s view is supported by Paul Dickson’s exhaustive study of the events for his biography on McNaughton’s successor Harry Crerar. As well, John A. English, the outstanding analyst of Canadian military leadership, insists McNaughton was an amateur who failed to develop the professional knowledge required to train or command an army.

Regular readers of this Canadian Military History In Perspective series will not be surprised to learn that the issues seem much less clear cut to this writer. In 1939, when McNaughton was appointed to command 1st Cdn. Div., there was broad consensus that he was the logical and indeed the inevitable choice. He had developed an outstanding reputation with the Canadian Corps in WW I and had laid the foundations for the postwar army.

An electrical engineering scientist who devised artillery techniques during WW I, McNaughton had a breadth of vision that even his detractors recognized. He was also familiar with both the theoretical and practical side of soldiering. As the overseas army expanded he was placed in command of 1st Cdn. Corps and then–in April 1942–1st Cdn. Army.‘’##

The first sign of difficulties arose over his insistence that Canadian forces had to serve under Canadian command. Having watched Arthur Currie resist British attempts to feed the original Cdn. Corps into battle division by division, McNaughton never let his British counterparts forget that he was the commander of a national army, not a colonial force under their control.

Reviewing these political disputes with Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, it is difficult not to have considerable sympathy for the Canadian general. McNaughton had a constitutional duty and a personal commitment to the autonomy of the Canadian Army while Brooke wanted to control all Commonwealth forces as if they were British units. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa accepted British direction, why were the Canadians so difficult?

The problem was compounded by the British belief that they knew and understood modern war. Brooke believed Canadian formations ought to be commanded by British generals particularly if British units might serve with them. This was not an argument that held much appeal for Canadians, or for the Americans when their turn came. The British Army had after all failed at virtually every task it undertook from 1940 to the Battle of El Alamein and it was not obvious why anyone should believe that British generals held the key to success on the battlefield.‘’ McNaughton also insisted on expressing his own views about the best strategy for winning the war. He made no secret of his support for the direct approach to liberating Europe that was favored by generals George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower, but strongly opposed by the British military. When McNaughton agreed, at Churchill’s invitation, to re-examine the Jupiter scheme–a projected invasion of Norway which the British generals had already rejected–he created further resentment, even though his report concluded that the plan was too hazardous.

The Chief of the Imperial General Staff was not the only powerful individual to clash with McNaughton. He found himself at odds with Ralston, a distinguished WW I veteran who had commanded an infantry battalion at Vimy Ridge. From McNaughton’s perspective, Ralston was prone to interfere in matters that ought to be left to the responsible officers. Ralston, McNaughton insisted, should stick to policy and leave the details to the professional head of Canada’s overseas army. Again, it is hard to disagree with McNaughton. Ralston, a man of great ability, was respected for his commitment to the army but was notorious for his inability to delegate authority. Canadians concerned with the current debate over civilian versus military control of the Armed Forces would find much that is familiar in the Ralston/McNaughton conflict.

The two men also disagreed on the role to be played by the Canadian Army. Ralston and Gen. Kenneth Stuart, the chief of defence staff, were determined to get at least part of the army into action in 1943. McNaughton, meanwhile, was anxious to keep the army together and “did not recommend pressing for employment of forces merely to satisfy desire for activity….” The irony of administrators in Ottawa arguing that the morale of the troops would suffer unless some of the men saw action was not lost on McNaughton. When Ralston convinced a wavering Mackenzie King to press for Canadian participation in the invasion of Sicily, he emphasized opinion in Canada, not morale problems. King, ever sensitive to domestic concerns, gave in.

McNaughton accepted this decision on the understanding that 1st Cdn. Div. would be returned to England to participate in the invasion of the continent. His attention now turned to the reorganization and training of the army for its role in Operation Overlord. McNaughton was deeply concerned about the low priority given to army weapons production and the complacent attitude of officials in the British ministry of supply. He was particularly critical of British tank and anti-tank gun design and his criticism helped to lend a new urgency to army issues, though it won him few friends.

The first major task confronting McNaughton in 1943 was the reorganization of the 4th and 5th Cdn. armored divisions to fit the latest British model. Next came the challenge of forming 2nd Cdn. Corps Headquarters and finding enough staff officers to make it work. This led to the fateful decision to use the new corps headquarters to control 5th Cdn. and the Guards Armd. divisons in a major exercise scheduled for March 1943.

Code-named Spartan, the excerise was one of the largest ever to take place in Britain. It was planned as an opportunity to practise McNaughton’s recently formed army headquarters in a complex offensive operation. To add another new headquarters to the mix may appear foolhardy, but exercises were supposed to be for learning and 2nd Cdn. Corps needed the experience. Spartan began on March 4 as a dress rehearsal for the Canadian role in the invasion of the continent. 1st Cdn. Army’s task was to break out of a bridgehead, exactly the role it would perform in 1944.

McNaughton rejected the obvious strategy believing correctly that his opponent could read a map and would prepare a trap in the open country west of Oxford. He ordered 1st Cdn. Corps to seize a bridgehead across the Thames drawing the enemy into battle. British 10th Corps then crossed the river forming one arm of the pincer.

Unfortunately, 2nd Cdn. Corps was unable to complete the encirclement as its tanks and trucks became snarled in a monstrous traffic jam centred in the town of Malmesbury. Spartan ended without the decisive victory, nevertheless 1st Cdn. Army officers thought they had done very well considering the inexperience of their headquarters and that of 2nd Cdn. Corps. Historians disagree on McNaughton’s performance in Spartan. John A. English insists that the Canadian commander lacked “professional knowledge” and “failed to demonstrate a capacity for higher command.” He acknowledges that much of the difficulty arose in 2nd Cdn. Corps which did not receive its signal equipment until a few days before the exercise. However, English sees McNaughton as a hesitant leader quite unable to manage his command.

Swettenham reached very different conclusions arguing that McNaughton’s bold scheme to seize the initiative and encircle his opponent was evidence of superior generalship. Problems with traffic control and signals would be dealt with as 2nd Cdn. Corps gained experience.

Military historian C.P. Stacey was far more cautious, but his own observation of Spartan and subsequent study of the documents convinced him that McNaughton had done very well and had proven himself as a field commander.

But at the time, Brooke was highly critical of McNaughton’s performance. And so it seems likely that the problems encountered in Spartan, combined with Brooke’s resentment of the Canadian general’s nationalism, led him to prefer the more co-operative Harry Crerar as Canadian Army commander.

McNaughton’s problems deepened when he refused to fire the commander of 2nd Cdn. Corps, Lieutenant-General E.W. Sansom, as requested by the British. McNaughton agreed that Sansom had not done well in Spartan, but insisted that he deserved a chance to lead the corps in another exercise. This may have been the final straw for Brooke who now began a not-to-subtle campaign to persuade the Canadian government to replace the troublesome McNaughton.

Whatever opinions one has of McNaughton it is surely evident that Brooke should have made his views known to McNaughton instead of lobbying behind his back. Brooke began the process at the Trident Conference in Washington, D.C., in May 1943. In a “casual conversation” with Stuart and Ralston he questioned McNaughton’s fitness to command. Crerar, who owed his advancement to McNaughton, shared Brooke’s doubts and entered into discussions on how to replace his mentor.

While these events unfolded, McNaughton found himself involved in a bitter dispute with Gen. Bernard Montgomery who refused to allow McNaughton to visit Canadian forces in Sicily. Montgomery later explained that he did this after consulting Gen. Guy Simonds, because such visits were likely to interfere with 1st Cdn. Infantry Div.’s operations. However, at the time, McNaughton was simply informed that he was denied permission to land in Sicily. On his return to England, McNaughton spoke to Brooke who denied that the Canadian commander had any right to visit Canadian troops.

Brooke was more determined than ever to be free of this difficult Canadian. His diary for July 1943 contains several references to conversations with Stuart and Crerar about replacing McNaughton and an August entry notes a two-hour conversation with Ralston “discussing how we are to get rid of McNaughton.”

The question had become more urgent because Ralston and Stuart were proposing that 5th Cdn. Armd. Div. and 1st Cdn. Corps Headquarters be sent to Italy. Ralston appears to have genuinely believed that the war might end before May 1944 and he wanted more Canadians in action. Italy, he believed, was the only place where that could happen. Ralston informed the prime minister that the British “no longer had confidence in McNaughton’s capacity to command troops” and preferred Crerar. Brooke elaborated on this view when he met with Mackenzie King at the Quebec Conference in August 1943 and McNaughton’s fate was sealed. In November, Ralston and Stuart crossed the Atlantic to inform the general that he would not lead the army in the field. One week later, McNaughton resigned.

What can be made of this at a distance of 53 years? McNaughton, in the words of Stacey, “was one of the most remarkable Canadians of his generation. He was a man of vast and far-ranging abilities, he had a singularly vivid and compelling personality and he was a great Canadian patriot.

When he lost command of the army he had created he was 56 years of age…it would be absurd to say he was burned out in 1943; but it is pretty evident he was tired….” Stacey goes on to suggest McNaughton was “hardly in a mental or physical state to undertake the responsibilities of high command in a great campaign” and that the “more workaday qualities of the less brilliant but solid Crerar were what the occasion required in 1944.” Stacey adds one further point: “…it seems quite impossible to conceive of McNaughton as an army commander under Montgomery.”

Perhaps I should allow Stacey, whose judgment was always sensible and balanced, the last word, but instead let me imagine a Canadian Army commanded by a man with outstanding leadership qualities and the ability to inspire men to greatness. Certainly McNaughton would have clashed with Montgomery, but the British general might have greatly benefited from a second opinion. Would McNaughton have accepted the limited resources and large tasks that Monty assigned to Crerar in 1944? Would the Canadians have felt differently about themselves and their contribution if McNaughton had led them into Germany and brought them home? The answers are not certain but the questions are worth asking because they focus on the subject of leadership, a topic of considerable importance for Canadians in 1943 and today.

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