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by Field Marshal the Lord Bramall of Bushfield

In his pitch perfect address to 2nd and 3rd Battalions, The Parachute Regiment, on their return home after the Falklands War, Bramall, then CGS, urges them ‘To accept the praise and applause with dignity and try very hard not to do a single thing back home which will compromise that dignity or lose the respect that everyone in the land feels for you’. The address shows a man who, from personal experience both on the battlefield and in peacetime, has an innate humanity and understanding of the British soldier.

Field Marshall The Lord Bramall of Bushfield KG GCB OBE MC is one of the most loved, admired and respected soldiers of the post-Second World War period. In this engaging and eclectic book, Bramall includes the essays, addresses, speeches, and his considered thoughts on well-nigh everything that has defined us militarily as a nation from D-Day to the present time. There is none of the grandstanding of a recent CDS whose autobiography is portentously entitled Taking Command. Bramall’s experiences bring the humility of someone who, as a 20 year old second lieutenant, landed with his platoon on JUNO Beach followed by months of fierce fighting in North West Germany where he won the Military Cross.

The book has wide appeal because you can dip in as your mood or inclination take you. The chapter on Normandy and the NW Europe Campaign, 1944-5, which Bramall describes as militarily and historically significant as the Battle of Hastings, the Armada and Waterloo, is outstanding for its clarity at a strategic level, and the vivid reality of the Normandy hedgerows.  How must Bramall have felt as he weaved his way through the drowsy English countryside to the embarkation point at Southampton?, Monty’s eve of the invasion pep talks buzzing, the dockers shouting ‘Are you downhearted?’, the Armada of 4000 ships, the splendour of the RAF, and the equally splendid Royal Navy beach-masters, and then within a few days those chilling cries: ‘Tiger!’, ‘Sniper!’, ‘Panzerfaust!’

Bramall’s military career received its heartiest round of applause - and gratitude - when he was CGS in April 1982 when the Argentine government under General Galtieri read the flakiness of the Foreign Office correctly, but badly miscalculated Mrs Thatcher’s resolve. And, of course, she had a formidable team in ‘Everyone needs a Willy’ Whitelaw and Francis Pym, both with MCs from the Second World War, and the redoubtable chiefs of staff, Bramall, Lewin, Leach and Beetham, all of whom had had a distinguished war record. There are some jolly vignettes:

‘Oh hello, Admiral, what can I do for you!’

To which Henry Leach, chief of the naval staff replied,

‘Prime Minister, it is what I can do for you! ‘

‘Oh, and what’s that!’

‘Within five days sail a Task Force from Portsmouth and retake the Falklands - otherwise our national name will be mud, and as a country our word and power to deter would never be trusted or respected again!’

It was just what Mrs Thatcher wanted to hear. The Falklands Campaign was, and remains, a remarkable feat of arms from a standing start, with clear political direction, and no one from the Treasury in the war cabinet (advice to Mrs Thatcher from Harold Macmillan). His chapters on the Second Gulf War and Iraq and the Balkans conflict paint a very different canvas.

For the RUSI aficionados, academics and aspiring senior officers, there’s plenty in the book on nuclear deterrence - he argues forcefully against the renewal of Trident - the higher organisation of defence and evolving future strategy. His chapter on the Application of Force in the Future is prescient, particularly on psychological operations, or what is now called hybrid operations - that is by combining kinetic warfare with subversive efforts, the aggressor (Russia?) seeks to avoid retribution or attribution. Lord Bramall is predictably forthright on defence spending, or as he puts it, ‘paying insurance premiums’. Still, and this is a failing of most senior retired officers, he does not pay enough heed to how politicians analyse risk or, as the great military historian, Sir John Keegan, called ‘the opportunity costs’ of not spending enough on health, education and social care.

Now here’s the question: are you a ‘Monty’ or ‘Alex’  man, and where do you think Field Marshal Lord Bramall’s thoughts lie on this issue? Bramall’s last chapter is on leadership and generalship. It’s enjoyable, thoughtful and his best chapter. Bramall looks at all the great generals since Wellington who, in his view, still reigns supreme. His praise of Kitchener is, however, less convincing. His victory at Omdurman, thousands of Dervishes killed, courtesy of Beatty’s gunboats in the Nile and the maxim machine gun, with only 27 casualties was certainly ruthless. It provoked the glorious exchange in the cult comedy series, Blackadder Goes Forth, starring Rowan Atkinson:

Yes, that was a bit of a nasty one, ten thousand Watusi warriors armed to the teeth with Kiwi fruit and Guava halves, we didn’t take any prisoners, just made a huge fruit salad’.

As to Monty and Alex, the following exchange, which took place at Winchester College at the end of the war, is telling:

Monty, addressing the boys, ‘Who was the greatest general of the Second World War?’

‘Alexander, sir.’

‘Quite right, quite right! He always did exactly what I told him!’

Bramall rates Montgomery as the greatest professional soldier since Wellington, though he pays fulsome tribute to Alex as a debonair, brave and immaculate Guardsman whom the Americans trusted implicitly. To conclude, go to war with ‘Monty’, but have dinner with  ‘Alex’.

Bramall’s chapter on regimental leadership, Leadership the Green Jacket Way, is a classic.  He wrote it when he was commanding officer of 2nd Battalion the Royal Green Jackets in Penang in 1966. It is still issued to the Green Jackets’ successors, The Rifles, ever since. The current CGS, Commander Field Army, and Assistant Chief of the General Staff are all Rifles. On the subject of Drill, Bramall provocatively says, ‘This is a subject which must be approached with great caution’. Few would disagree there are three great ‘Brands’, to borrow an ugly phrase, in the British Army: The Rifles, The Parachute Regiment, and The Household Division. And there’s much to learn from one another.

As the book’s Foreword from Sir Anthony Seldon says, ‘I challenge any reader not to emerge more thoughtful, wiser and just a little humbler’.

Paul  de Zulueta

The Bramall Papers. Reflections on War and Peace by Field Marshal the Lord Bramall of Bushfield. Published by Pen & Sword

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