William Gott

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William Henry Ewart Gott
Brigadier W H E Gott.jpg
Brigadier William Gott
Nickname(s) "Strafer"
Born (1897-08-13)13 August 1897
Died 7 August 1942(1942-08-07) (aged 44)
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  British Army
Years of service 1915–1942
Rank Lieutenant General
Unit King's Royal Rifle Corps
Commands held XIII Corps
7th Armoured Division
7th Support Group
Battles/wars

First World War
Second World War

Awards Companion of the Order of the Bath
Commander of the Order of the British Empire[1]
Distinguished Service Order & Bar[2][3]
Military Cross[4]

Lieutenant General William Henry Ewart Gott CBCBEDSO & Bar, MC (13 August 1897 – 7 August 1942), nicknamed "Strafer", was a British Army officer during both the First and Second World Wars, reaching the rank of lieutenant general while serving in the Eighth Army. In August 1942 he was appointed as successor to Claude Auchinleck as commander of the Eighth Army. On the way to take up his command he was killed when his plane was shot down. His death led to the appointment of Bernard Montgomery in his place.

Military career[edit]

Educated at Harrow School, he was commissioned into the King's Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC) in 1915, and served with distinction with the British Expeditionary Force in France during the First World War. His nickname "Strafer" was a pun on the German war slogan Gott strafe England (God punish England). He was promoted to the rank of captain in January 1921,[5] and attended Staff College from January 1931.[6] He was promoted major in July 1934,[7] having been made a brevet major earlier in January.[8] His service between the World Wars included a posting as adjutant to a territorial battalion,[9][10] and a period of postings in India as a general staff officer (GSO2)[11] and Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General.[12]

North African campaigns[edit]

Gott, second from right, at a briefing led by General Neil Ritchie (smoking pipe)

Having been promoted lieutenant colonel in October 1938[13] to command the 1st Battalion KRRC on its transfer from Burma to Egypt to become part of the Mobile Division (later to become 7th Armoured Division),[14] Gott enjoyed a remarkably rapid promotion path: he was successively chief staff officer of the division (General Staff Officer, Grade I) ranked lieutenant-colonel) commander of the Support Group as acting brigadier, and General Officer Commanding (acting major-general)[15] of the 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats). While under Gott's command the Support Group performed well during the Italian invasion of Egypt, conducting a planned withdrawal, and the subsequent Operation Compass which saw the destruction of the Italian Tenth Army. Following the arrival of German troops in North Africa the British Commonwealth forces were pushed back to the Libyan border with Egypt where Gott was placed in command of a mixed force to plan and conduct Operation Brevity which was unsuccessful. A subsequent larger scale operation, Operation Battleaxe in which the support Group also took part was also a failure and led to a reorganisation of the commands in the Western Desert which included Gott's promotion to command the 7th Armoured Division.[16]

In late 1941 the next major Commonwealth offensive, Operation Crusader, took place. Although ultimately the operation was a success for British Eighth Army, 7th Armoured Division was heavily defeated by the Africa Corps at Sidi Rezegh in November 1941.[17]

Gott's permanent rank had been made up to full colonel in October 1941[18] and he was promoted to acting lieutenant general and given command of XIII Corps in early 1942.[19] He led the corps in the battles of Gazala and First Alamein.

Death[edit]

Gott's grave at the El Alamein cemetery. The wreath was laid by Sqn Leader Jimmy James and his son.

In August 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill removed General Sir Claude Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief Middle East and acting General Officer Commanding Eighth Army. Gott's aggressive, somewhat impetuous personality appealed to Churchill, and he was strongly recommended by Anthony Eden, who had served with Gott during the First World War. Gott was chosen to take over Eighth Army. This was despite the reservations of Auchinleck and General Sir Alan Brooke,[20] the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Brooke knew Gott very well and had a high opinion of his abilities.[21] However, a number of factors, including a personal interview with Gott on 5 August (during which Gott had revealed that he had "...tried most of his ideas on the Boche. We want someone with new ideas and plenty of confidence in them."[22]), led Brooke to conclude that Gott was tired and had temporarily lost his drive having been in the desert since the start of the war.[23] He also felt that Gott needed more experience before taking an army command.[22]

Before he could take up his post, Gott was killed when the transport plane he was traveling in was shot down and destroyed while returning to Cairo from the battle area.[24][25] The aircraft, a Bristol Bombay of No. 216 Squadron RAF flown by 19-year-old Flight Sergeant Hugh "Jimmy" James, was intercepted and shot down by Unteroffizier Bernd Schneider and Emil Clade of Jagdgeschwader 27 (Fighter Wing 27). With both engines out, the pilot had made a successful crash landing, but two German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters attacked the crashed plane, strafing it until the Bombay was totally wrecked. Everyone left onboard was killed. Gott's body was buried at the El Alamein War Cemetery. His replacement was Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery, who had been Brooke's preferred choice.

Assessment[edit]

A big man with an aggressive, outgoing personality, he was popular with soldiers under his command, but as a senior commander he was considered by some to be out of his depth. The South African official historian, J. A. I. Agar-Hamilton, wrote of Gott:

It has not been unknown for a commander to pass from disaster to disaster, but it is quite without precedent for any commander to pass from promotion to promotion as a reward for a succession of disasters.[26]

John Bierman and Colin Smith say that Gott was much admired for his personal qualities, but lacked real military skill. He was one of the few senior officers who was "well known and well liked by the rank and file". However, "a cold appraisal of his soldiering in North Africa reveals no stunning display of tactics or Rommel-esque grip that bends scarred and exhausted men to the will of the born leader."[27]

Michael Carver, one of Gott's officers and later a field marshal, took a similar view. He stated that Gott was the one person to whom "all, high and low, turned for advice, sympathy, help and encouragement", but he also believed that Gott was "too good a man to be a really great soldier".[27]

Churchill himself seems to have accepted that he made a mistake in promoting Gott over Montgomery. Alan Brooke recalled that after seeing how Montgomery had revitalised the Eighth Army, Churchill commented on "the part that the hand of God had taken in removing Gott at the critical moment".[28]

References[edit]

Notes
Citations
  1. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35209. p. 3881. 4 July 1941. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  2. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35120. p. 1868. 28 March 1941. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  3. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35396. p. 7332. 26 December 1941. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  4. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 31759. p. 1219. 30 January 1920. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  5. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 32293. p. 3065. 15 April 1921. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  6. ^ The London Gazette: no. 33572. p. 428. 21 January 1930. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  7. ^ The London Gazette: no. 34071. p. 4666. 20 July 1934. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  8. ^ The London Gazette: no. 34011. p. 55. 2 January 1934. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  9. ^ The London Gazette: no. 33092. p. 6615. 13 October 1925. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  10. ^ The London Gazette: no. 33091. p. 6507. 9 October 1925. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  11. ^ The London Gazette: no. 34273. p. 2386. 10 April 1936. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  12. ^ The London Gazette: no. 34273. p. 2387. 10 April 1936. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  13. ^ The London Gazette: no. 34566. p. 6816. 1 November 1938. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  14. ^ Mead, p. 176.
  15. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35298. p. 5775. 3 October 1941. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  16. ^ Mead, p. 177.
  17. ^ Mead, p.178.
  18. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35360. p. 6826. 28 November 1941. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  19. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35462. p. 833. 17 February 1942. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  20. ^ Alanbrooke, p. 294.
  21. ^ Alanbrooke, p. 290.
  22. ^ a b Alanbrooke, p. 292.
  23. ^ Alanbrooke, pp. 290 & 292.
  24. ^ "War Without Hate" by Colin Smith synopsis
  25. ^ Weal, John (2003). Jagdgeschwader 27 'Afrika'. Aviation Elite Units Series. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84176-538-9.  Follow the link and search the extract for "Gott"
  26. ^ Barr.N, Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of Alamein, (2005), p.118
  27. ^ a b John Bierman and Colin Smith, Alamein: War Without Hate, Penguin UK, 29 Mar 2012.
  28. ^ David Fraser, Alanbrooke, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011, ebook.
Bibliography
  • Alanbrooke, Field Marshal Lord (2001). Danchev, Alex; Todman, Daniel, eds. War Diaries 1939–1945. London: Phoenix Press. ISBN 1-84212-526-5. 
  • Mead, Richard (2007). Churchill's Lions: A biographical guide to the key British generals of World War II. Stroud (UK): Spellmount. ISBN 978-1-86227-431-0. 

A first biography of Gott – "'Strafer' – The Desert General: The Life and Killing of Lieutenant General WHE Gott CB CBE DSO*MC" authored by Brigadier N S Nash CBE is to be published by Pen and Sword on 19 September 2013

His medals were presented to the RGJ (Rifles) Museum by his daughters in 2012

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
Michael Creagh
GOC 7th Armoured Division
September 1941 – February 1942
Succeeded by
Jock Campbell
Preceded by
Reade Godwin-Austen
GOC XIII Corps
February 1942 – August 1942
Succeeded by
Brian Horrocks