Key point: This leader won the loyal following of his men. Despite imperfect health, he still fought on and led by example.
A big challenge faced Maj. Gen. Brian G. Horrocks, an infantryman, when he was cross-posted to take command of the British Army’s 9th Armored Division in March 1942.
Its standard of individual training was excellent, but the division’s mechanized state was another matter. A couple of days after his arrival, Horrocks called the divisional officers to a nearby cinema and addressed them. He told them he had just taken a look at the vehicle park and been shocked to find that only about half of the division’s tanks, armored cars, and personnel carriers were in running order.
“You know all about mechanical things,” Horrocks told the officers. “I don’t. However, in the infantry division I have just come from, almost all the vehicles are serviceable. Perhaps you would care to explain why so many of yours are not.” An officer of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (a recent offshoot of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps) rose to answer the general’s question but was politely told that perhaps he would be better employed making sure that the vehicles would run rather than explaining why they could not.
A man who minced no words yet radiated vigor, enthusiasm, and good cheer, Horrocks endeared himself instantly to the men of the 9th Armored Division, as he did elsewhere throughout his long career. Some tank officers who had filed into the cinema to see “a bloody infantryman whom they had never heard of” were now telling each other how fortunate they were to have a spirited, no-nonsense general in command. Horrocks overcame any lingering prejudice against infantrymen commanding armor.
Although having barely recovered from severe wounds, and never in robust health after his captivity by the Germans in World War I and then the Bolsheviks, he was a hard-driving and gallant soldier. Horrocks always led from the front and proved to be one of the ablest Allied field commanders of World War II. General James M. Gavin, heroic commander of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, who soldiered with him in Holland in September 1944, considered Horrocks “the finest general officer I met during the war, and the finest corps commander.”
To Defeat Erwin Rommel
The 9th Armored Division trained in northern England in the spring and summer of 1942. At 7 pm on August 15, Horrocks received a cryptic message ordering him to report to London overnight and telling him that he was going overseas and moving “one up.” Within 36 hours, he was the sole passenger in a plane taking off from the Lyneham airfield in Wiltshire. His destination was Cairo. It was a critical time for British fortunes in the Middle East. General Bernard L. Montgomery, Horrocks’s mentor since Dunkirk, had just taken command of the weary Eighth Army after its two years of bitter seesaw struggles against the German Afrika Korps and Italian forces.
Monty summoned Horrocks because he considered him “exactly what was wanted for the job which lay ahead”—revitalizing and re-equipping the Eighth Army before delivering a knockout blow to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Monty urgently wanted someone reliable and loyal, a man he knew and who would work directly under him. Horrocks arrived three days after Montgomery and was placed in command of the infantry-heavy XIII Corps with the rank of lieutenant general. He replaced Lt. Gen. William H. “Strafer” Gott, who had been killed when his plane was shot down en route to Cairo.
Dramatic changes were under way in the Eighth Army with intensified training and the arrival of reinforcements and new weapons and equipment. The brusque, professional Montgomery had issued firm orders that there were to be no more withdrawals. He told Horrocks that he planned to form a strong mobile reserve consisting largely of armored divisions, and then, when this was ready, he would “hit Rommel for six out of Africa.” Monty announced that he would defeat Rommel on ground of his own choosing—near the remote railway station at El Alamein in northwestern Egypt. When the Eighth Army, comprising British and Commonwealth units, was at top fighting pitch it would attack. “We are going to finish with this chap, Rommel, once and for all,” Monty promised.
Surviving a Strafing
The Battle of El Alamein, one of the major turning points of World War II, opened with a deafening thousand-gun barrage on the night of Friday, October 23, 1942. Horrocks led the XIII Corps in heavy fighting at El Alamein and also at the Alam Halfa ridge, where determined German assaults were beaten back by minefields, artillery fire, and Royal Air Force bombers and fighters.
Later, in December 1942, Horrocks was switched to succeed Lt. Gen. Herbert Lumsden as commander of the tank-heavy X Corps, comprising the 1st and 10th Armored Divisions. The gallant, handsome Lumsden had suffered heavy losses and fallen out of favor with Montgomery. At the end of April 1943, Horrocks was reassigned again. This time, he was loaned to General Noel Anderson’s British First Army, which, with U.S. Army support, was struggling to defeat Axis forces in Tunisia. Horrocks took over the IX Corps, replacing Lt. Gen. John Crocker, who had been wounded in action and had distinguished himself in the Mareth Line campaign in March 1943.
With Monty’s Eighth Army pushing from the east, British and American armies bottled up and crushed the German and Italian forces in Tunisia. The enemy troops surrendered by the thousands, and the Allies were triumphant in North Africa. Meanwhile, preparations were under way for the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy. The IX Corps was detailed to land at Salerno, Italy, as part of General Mark W. Clark’s Fifth Army, and General Horrocks went to Bizerte to watch the British 46th Division rehearse its assault.
Horrocks and the divisional commander stood on a Bizerte street watching the effects of a smoke screen being tried out by the Americans. Suddenly, a German fighter burst through the billowing smoke with its machine guns blazing. Horrocks was struck in the chest, and the bullet passed through his lungs and intestines and came out near his spine. Another round hit his leg. No one else was touched. Horrocks was lucky to be alive, but he had to undergo a series of operations in a Tunisian field hospital and at the Cambridge Hospital in the garrison town of Aldershot, Hampshire. He would be out of action for 14 months.
Horrocks Joins the “Die-Hard” Infantry Regiment
Like many young men of his generation, Brian Gwynne Horrocks had followed his father into the Army. He was born on September 7, 1895, at Ranniket, a British hill station in northern India, the son of William Heaton Horrocks of Little Bolton, Lancashire, and his Irish-born wife, Minna. Brian’s father was an Army doctor and later director of Army hygiene during World War I. He was knighted for his services.
The Horrockses were happily married, and young Brian had an idyllic childhood. As he reached school age, his father was posted to Gibraltar, which the lad described as “a small boy’s paradise.” He was sent to the Bow Preparatory School in Durham and then spent three years at the 16th-century Uppingham School in Rutland. Brian enjoyed his school years and drifted into the Army class at Uppingham. But he was more of a sportsman than a scholar, and cricket and other games took up much of his time. When he passed into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in Berkshire on February 12, 1913, he ranked one from the bottom of his class.
Meanwhile, mobilization was about to take place on August 4, 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, and all Sandhurst cadets who had completed the course were commissioned and posted to various regiments. Glad to leave the Royal Military College on July 15, 1914, Horrocks found himself a second lieutenant in the proud Middlesex “Die-Hard” Infantry Regiment, which had fought in Canada, India, Spain, and the Crimea. Within two weeks, Horrocks was in France with a draft for the regiment’s 1st Battalion.
The lean, dynamic young subaltern with a toothy grin led the battalion’s 16th Platoon in the Battle of the Aisne. He took part in the famous fighting retreat from Mons in the late summer of 1914, when British infantry were outnumbered 10 to one, and in early actions of the Battle of Ypres that autumn. On October 21, Horrocks’s platoon was surrounded by a superior German force, and he was wounded in the lower stomach. He was taken prisoner.
In 1917, while in captivity, Horrocks was promoted to captain. After his wounds gradually healed, he made several unsuccessful attempts to escape, resulting in his transfer to harsher camps—at Custrin in western Poland, and then Aachen, Holzminden, back to Custrin, and Clausthal in the Harz Mountains. Horrocks helped to dig tunnels and continued his escape attempts. He was successful several times, walking toward neutral frontiers, hiding in barns from Germans and their dogs, and scrounging what food he could find. But he was always recaptured.