Brian Horrocks

Brian Horrocks

Brian Horrocks, the son of an army doctor, was born in India in 1895. Educated at Uppingham and Sandhurst Military Academy he was commissioned into the British Army in 1914.

In August 1914 he was sent to the Western Front in France. He took part in the battle of Mons and at Ypres, on 21st October 1914, his platoon was surrounded by the enemy and Horrocks was wounded and became a prisoner for the rest of the First World War.

In 1919 Horrocks served as a volunteer with the White Army in Siberia. While fighting against the Red Army he won the Military Cross. Once again he was captured and was not released until 1920.

An outstanding athlete Horrocks was the British modern pentathlon champion and took part in the 1924 Olympic Games. He studied at Camberley Military College and later became a chief instructor there.

In 1939 Horrocks was sent with the British Expeditionary Force to France where he served under Bernard Montgomery. Promoted to brigadier during the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940. The following year Horrocks took command of the 9th Armed Division had had responsibility for protecting the Brighton coastal area.

In August 1942, General Harold Alexander appointed Bernard Montgomery to replace Claude Auchinleck as commander of the Eighth Army. One of Montgomery's first decisions was to recruit Horrocks as head of the 13th Corps.

Horrocks fought at El Alamein before succeeding Herbert Lumsden as commander of the 10th Corps. In August 1943 he became the leader of the 9th Corps and took part in the successful campaign in Tunisia.

In June 1943 Horrocks was badly wounded when he was hit by a bullet from a German aircraft. He underwent several operations before resuming active duties in the summer of 1944.

General Bernard Montgomery appointed Horrocks as commander of the 30th Corps during the D-Day landings in June 1944. Horrocks and his troops liberated Amiens (31st August), Brussels (3rd September) and Antwerp (4th September). Serving under General Miles Dempsey, Horrocks took Bremen in Germany on 27th April 1945.

After retiring from the British Army in 1949 Horrocks did a series of military programmes for the BBC and wrote his autobiography, A Full Life (1960). Brian Horrocks died in 1985.

Primary Sources

(1) Brian Horrocks, A Full Life (1960)

In October, 1912, I passed into the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, bottom but one. It was a most undistinguished start to a military career. Apart from the games side I achieved nothing at all and remained a gentleman cadet (the equivalent of a private soldier) throughout my time at the college. Let me be quite honest about it: I was idle, careless about my turnout-in army parlance, scruffy-and, due to the fact that I am inclined to roll when I walk, very unsmart on parade. Throughout my military career I have always been allotted a position on ceremonial parades where I was least likely to be seen.

To make matters worse I got into trouble with the railway officials during a return journey from Gatwick races. We had gone there with such an absolute certainty for the third race that I had refrained from buying a return ticket in order to have more to invest on the horse. I did not even buy a race card so certain was I of a lavish win. As might be expected the certainty did not materialise and the railway company took strong exception to my return journey ticketless and penniless. The result was three months' restrictions which meant that I was unable to leave the premises during my last term at the Royal Military College and spent the time doing additional fatigues and parades. I was lucky not to be rusticated.

Up to now my life had been typical of that led by many young men with average or slightly below average intelligence who entered the British Army in those days. I was a games addict, did as little work as possible and seemed all set for a normal, somewhat humdrum, military career, but the First World War altered all that.

(2) Brian Horrocks joined the British Army on the outbreak of the First World War.

The mobilization arrangements for the B.E.F. in 1914 must have been very efficient, because only four days later I reported for duty with a militia battalion of the Middlesex Regiment at Fort Darland, Chatham. Within fourteen days and still only eighteen years of age I was marching down to the railway station at the head of ninety-five reservists who comprised the first reinforcement for the 1st Battalion the Middlesex Regiment then in France with the British Expeditionary Force. This was, I should think, the last time there was any romance and glory attached to war. It is impossible now after the bitter experience of two world wars to recapture the spirit of this country in August, 1914. As I marched through those cheering crowds I felt like a king among men. It was all going to be over by Christmas and our one anxiety was whether we would get over there in time. And all ranks felt the same. I arrived at Southampton with ninety-eight men, as three more had hidden themselves on the way down in order to get to the war.

(3) Brian Horrocks, A Full Life (1960)

My chief memory of those days, and the memory retained by all platoon commanders, was of marching-endless and exhausting marches I had never realest before that it was possible to go to sleep while the legs continued automatically to function. It was during these hard comfortless days that I first met that priceless Cockney sense of humour. A small private soldier in the rank in front of me looked up at his neighbour, who was blessed with a long lugubrious face, and said, "Why don't you give your face a holiday, chum? Try a smile."

(4) In 1914 Brian Horrocks was escorted back to Germany where he remained in prison for the next four years.

It was a lonely life, and to add to my misery something seemed to have gone wrong with one of my legs, which had become very swollen. Nevertheless, although I could hardly walk, I was judged fit to be sent back to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. My escort turned out to be a Feldwebel of the Imperial Guard who had been at the front since the beginning of the war, and was now on his way back to Germany to do some course or other; he spoke a little English, and had once been to London to take part in a swimming race.

At the station I was leaning out of the carriage window when a German Red Cross girl passed along the platform carrying a large bowl of soup with an appetizing smell. She stopped, and then, seeing that I was an Englishman, spat into the soup and threw it on the platform. There was a bellow of rage from my escort. He made me sit well down in the carriage while he leant out and collected food from all who passed, every bit of which was passed back to me.

(5) Brian Horrocks took part in the Russian Civil War in 1919.

During my time in Germany I had lived for many months with one other British officer in a room with fifty Russian officers. So I had perforce to learn Russian. When, therefore, the War Office called for volunteers who knew the language to go to Russia to help the White armies in their struggle against the Bolsheviks, I immediately applied and was ordered to Siberia. Instead of returning to my regiment for some elementary instruction in military matters and for some much-needed discipline, I set off on what promised to be a

far more exciting venture.

The Red armies after seizing power in Moscow and Petrograd had overrun most of Siberia. During the winter of 1918-19 the Whites, under command of Admiral Koltchak, had driven them back into Russia proper. Apparently this success had been achieved mainly by the Czechs. After the revolution thousands of Czechs had come to Siberia and, realizing that their only chance of survival lay in a cohesive effort, they had formed themselves into a corps under command of a Czech general called Gaida. With the exception of a few battalions formed from Russian officer cadet training units, plus one division of Poles, these Czechs were the only reliable troops at Koltchak's disposal. Now, very naturally, they wanted to go home, and it was our task to train and equip White Russian forces raised in Siberia to take their place on the front.

We were warned that the White Russian officers and intelligentsia resented both our help and our presence in their country. One wise old British colonel said even in those early days, " I believe we shall rue this business for many years. It is always unwise to intervene in the domestic affairs of any country. In my opinion the Reds are bound to win and our present policy will cause bitterness between us for a long time to come."

How right he was: there are many people today who trace the present international impasse back to that fatal year of 1919. This was well above my head: the whole project sounded most exciting and that was all I cared about.

(6) As commander of a machine-gun battalion, Brian Horrocks met Bernard Montgomery for the first time while serving in France in 1940. He later wrote about the meeting in his autobiography A Full Life (1960)

I hadn't been there two hours when I was told that the divisional commander. General Montgomery, was in his car on the road and wanted to see me. Monty had obviously come up at once to cast an eye over his new divisional machine-gun commander. This was my first meeting with him. I saw a small, alert figure with piercing eyes sitting in the back of his car - the man under whom I was to fight all my battles during the war, and who was to have more influence on my life than anyone before or since.

I knew him well by reputation. He was probably the most discussed general in the British Army before the war, and-except with those who had served under him - not a popular figure. Regular armies in all countries tend to produce a standard type of officer, but Monty, somehow or other, didn't fit into the British pattern. His methods of training and command were unorthodox, always a deadly crime in military circles. He was known to be ruthlessly efficient, but somewhat of a showman. I had been told sympathetically that I wouldn't last long under his command, and, to be honest, I would rather have served under any other divisional commander.

(7) Brian Horrocks wrote about returning from Dunkirk in his autobiography, A Full Life (1960)

If you ask anybody what they remember most clearly about the retreat to Dunkirk they will all mention two things - shame and exhaustion. Shame-as we went back through those white-faced, silent crowds of Belgians, the people who had cheered us and waved to us as we came through their country only four days before, people who had vivid memories of a previous German occupation and whom we were now handing over to yet another. I felt very ashamed. We had driven up so jauntily and now, liked whipped dogs, we were scurrying back with our tails between our legs. But the infuriating part was that we hadn't been whipped. It was no fault of ours. All I could do as I passed these groups of miserable people was to mutter " Don't worry-we will come back." Over and over again I said it. And I was one of the last British most of them were to see for four long years.

(8) As commander of the 9th Armed Division Brian Horrocks had responsibility for protecting the Brighton coastal area.

We, as a maritime power with territories all over the world, have had considerable experience in landing troops from the sea; the Germans have not. Nevertheless, given time there was little doubt that they could eventually stage a large-scale invasion of Britain, so our defence had to be organized with the utmost care to make up for our lack of numbers.

It proved a very difficult problem because an enormous town like Brighton is laid out primarily to provide holidays by the sea, not as a fortress from which to repel an invasion.

Monty used to pay constant visits. " Who lives in that house ? " he would say pointing to some building which partly masked the fire from one of our machine-gun positions. " Have them out, Horrocks. Blow up the house. Defence must come first."

He was, of course, absolutely correct, but it was not always so simple as it sounded. My predecessor had, somewhat unwisely, positioned troops on the two piers without first of all allowing the civilian firms responsible for the entertainment booths to remove their possessions. I have never seen anything like the chaos which confronted me on my first visit; dolls and mementos were strewn all over the place, the slot machines of the " What the butler saw " type had all been broken open and the contents removed. We were in for trouble and we got it. Some months afterwards I received a bill for many thousands of pounds, which I hastily passed on to divisional headquarters.

(9) In his autobiography Brian Horrocks compared the merits of Bernard Montgomery and Erwin Rommel.

One of the most fascinating studies of the last war was the contrast between these two great commanders, Montgomery and Rommel, each in his own way an outstanding general, yet utterly and absolutely different in almost every respect. Rommel was probably the best armoured corps commander produced by either side. Utterly fearless, full of drive and initiative, he was always up in front where the battle was fiercest. If his opponent made a mistake, Rommel was on to it like a flash, and he never hesitated to take personal command of a regiment or battalion if he thought fit. On one occasion he was found lifting mines with his own hands. His popularity with the soldiers was immense, but a great many officers resented his interference with their commands.

All this reads like the copybook general but, in point of fact, this is not the best way to control a swift-moving, modern battle. Very often at a critical moment no one could find Rommel, because he was conducting personally some battalion attack. He tended to become so involved in some minor action that he failed to appreciate the general picture of the battlefield.

Monty was not such a dashing, romantic figure as his opponent; nor would you find him leading a forlorn hope in person, for the simple reason that if he was in command forlorn hopes did not occur. He had an extraordinary capacity for putting his finger straight on the essentials of any problem, and of being able to explain them simply and clearly. He planned all his battles most carefully - and then put them out of his mind every night. I believe he was awakened in the night only half a dozen times during the whole war.

Their handling of the battle of Alam Haifa makes the contrast clear. Having made the best possible plan to win the battle, yet at the same time to husband his resources, Monty dismissed Alam Haifa entirely from his mind and concentrated on the next one.

While Rommel was leading his troops in person against strongly-held defensive positions on the Alam Halfa ridge, Montgomery was planning the battle of Alamein. That was the difference between the two.