William Gott

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William Henry Ewart Gott
Brigadier W H E Gott.jpg
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 1st Battalion, King's Royal Rifle Corps
7th Support Group
7th Armoured Division
XIII Corps
Battles/wars

World War I
World War II

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 CB, CBE, DSO & Bar, MC (13 August 1897 – 7 August 1942), nicknamed "Strafer", was a senior British Army officer who fought during both World War I and World War II, reaching the rank of lieutenant-general while serving with the British Eighth Army. In August 1942 he was appointed as successor to General 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 Law Montgomery in his place.

Military career[edit]

Educated at Harrow School, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the King's Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC) in 1915, and served with distinction with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France during the Great 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, Camberley from January 1931.[6] He was promoted major in July 1934,[7] having been made a brevet major earlier in January.[8] His service during the interwar period 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, pictured here second from right, at a briefing led by Lieutenant-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, the "Desert Rats"),[14] Gott held a succession of posts in the division; 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.

While under Gott's command the Support Group performed well from the beginning of the campaign; skirmishing along the frontier from June 1940; conducting a planned withdrawal in September during the Italian invasion of Egypt, and during Operation Compass in December which saw the conquest of Cyrenaica and the destruction of the Italian Tenth Army the following February.

Following the arrival of the German Afrika Korps, under the command of Erwin Rommel, the Axis counter-attack in April, 7th Support Group, which had been refitting in the Delta, was called upon to stablize the front and to reform the retreating forces, which was achieved at the Libyan-Egyptian border. In May Gott was placed in command of a mixed force to plan and conduct the ambitious Operation Brevity, which succeeded in re-taking the Halfaya Pass, but failed in its wider objectives. 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]

During the next major Commonwealth offensive, Operation Crusader, in November 1941, 7th Armoured Division was severely mauled by the Afrika Korps at the battle of Sidi Rezegh, but kept the field and contributed to the British Eighth Army's ultimate success.[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]

During the Battle of Gazala, 8th Army's performance was fatally handicapped by a breakdown in relations at all levels; within XIII Corps during this period Gott's relationship with his subordinate Dan Pienaar, the commander of 1st South African Division, was toxic even by the abysmal standards of the time. Of XIII Corps performance in the action, the stand by 150th Brigade, and the breakout by 50th Division are notable, while the low point was the loss of Tobruk with its entire garrison during the withdrawal to Egypt. XIII Corps was able to withdraw in good order to the Alamein position and was instrumental in fighting the Axis to a standstill there in the First Battle of El Alamein.

Death[edit]

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

In August 1942, British 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 Great 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 (CIGS). 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. Those who were unable to escape from the downed Bombay (including Gott) were 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.[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] Field Marshal Sir Michael Carver, one of Gott's officers, 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] Gott's own view, as expressed to Alan Brooke was that he was the wrong man for the task, [28] though he was soldier enough to take it on if ordered to.[29] Churchill himself seems to have accepted that he made a mistake in appointing Gott instead of Montgomery, after seeing how Montgomery had revitalised the Eighth Army.[30]

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

References[edit]

Notes
Citations
  1. ^ "No. 35209". The London Gazette (Supplement). 4 July 1941. p. 3881. 
  2. ^ "No. 35120". The London Gazette (Supplement). 28 March 1941. p. 1868. 
  3. ^ "No. 35396". The London Gazette (Supplement). 26 December 1941. p. 7332. 
  4. ^ "No. 31759". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 January 1920. p. 1219. 
  5. ^ "No. 32293". The London Gazette (Supplement). 15 April 1921. p. 3065. 
  6. ^ "No. 33572". The London Gazette. 21 January 1930. p. 428. 
  7. ^ "No. 34071". The London Gazette. 20 July 1934. p. 4666. 
  8. ^ "No. 34011". The London Gazette. 2 January 1934. p. 55. 
  9. ^ "No. 33092". The London Gazette. 13 October 1925. p. 6615. 
  10. ^ "No. 33091". The London Gazette. 9 October 1925. p. 6507. 
  11. ^ "No. 34273". The London Gazette. 10 April 1936. p. 2386. 
  12. ^ "No. 34273". The London Gazette. 10 April 1936. p. 2387. 
  13. ^ "No. 34566". The London Gazette. 1 November 1938. p. 6816. 
  14. ^ Mead, p. 176.
  15. ^ "No. 35298". The London Gazette (Supplement). 3 October 1941. p. 5775. 
  16. ^ Mead, p. 177.
  17. ^ Mead, p.178.
  18. ^ "No. 35360". The London Gazette (Supplement). 28 November 1941. p. 6826. 
  19. ^ "No. 35462". The London Gazette (Supplement). 17 February 1942. p. 833. 
  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. ^ Pitt, B Crucible of War: Year of Alamein 1942 p122 (1982) Rowland ISBN 0-224-01827-2
  27. ^ a b John Bierman and Colin Smith, Alamein: War Without Hate, Penguin UK, 29 Mar 2012.
  28. ^ Alanbrooke, p. 292.
  29. ^ Pitt p181
  30. ^ 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. 
  • Nash, N.S., 'Strafer' – The Desert General: The Life and Killing of Lieutenant General WHE Gott CB CBE DSO*MC", Pen and Sword, 2013

External links[edit]

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