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Book Reviews

the soldier’s general: bert hoffmeister at war

by Douglas E. Delaney

Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005
299 pages, $85.00

Reviewed by Colonel Michael Cessford

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Book coverThis book is an important contribution to Canadian military historiography, providing insight and analyses across a range of related historical topics. As a biography, it tells the story of one of Canada’s best combat leaders – a man who made his mark as a battalion, brigade and divisional commander in operations against some of the finest formations in the German Wehrmacht. In addition, it speaks to the professional development of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, a process that demanded blood, treasure and time before the formations of the Canadian Army in Europe assumed their place among the very best of the Allied divisions. Finally, this book provides additional analysis of Canadian operations in Sicily, Italy and in the western Netherlands – areas of historical interest that have generally escaped the attentions of the majority of Canadian Second World War historians.

This being said, Delaney’s book is, first and foremost, a biography of Major-General Bertram Meryl Hoffmeister. It tells the story of an inter-war army cadet and then militia provisional lieutenant who, as a newly promoted and very inexperienced major commanding a rifle company, was one of the very first Canadian soldiers to go overseas during the Second World War. Delaney’s initial analysis of the evolution of Hoffmeister as a combat leader reflects the insight of a professional infantry officer, deepening our understanding of the process that shaped and developed a superb battalion commander. This was neither a simple nor a speedy process. Despite possessing leadership skills of the first rank, Hoffmeister was woefully ignorant of modern tactics and weapons, and he knew it. In one of the most extraordinary sections of this work, Delaney discusses Hoffmeister’s nervous breakdown in January 1941 – the direct result of his personal concerns regarding his technical and professional ability to lead troops in modern combat. This episode, briefly and guardedly discussed in Terry Copp and Bill McAndrew’s analysis of Canadian psychiatric casualties in the Second World War, is brought to light with understanding and compassion, placing in perspective the enormous stress facing young Canadians as they prepared for combat.1 The fact that Hoffmeister was able to surmount this crisis of confidence was remarkable; the fact that his leaders sustained their belief in his abilities is equally noteworthy. A year-and-a-half later, after successfully completing his tenure in company command, and having excelled (after a very weak start) on an advanced staff training course, Hoffmeister was offered command of his battalion – the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.

On 10 July 1943, Hoffmeister led the Seaforths ashore during the assault on Sicily. Delaney’s examination of Hoffmeister’s performance throughout the campaign in Sicily is comprehensive, providing a real understanding of the development of a young commander engaged in operations for the first time. Hoffmeister led from the front, and soon earned a reputation as an outstanding combat leader – winning his spurs in a series of tough engagements against a highly competent and well-equipped enemy. In particular, Delaney’s discussion of Hoffmeister’s actions in the battle for Agira is excellent, giving a real sense of his growing tactical expertise, leadership and confidence.

Delaney’s discussion of Hoffmeister as a brigade commander is equally polished, providing an unvarnished assessment of his performance in the fight for the Moro River, and in subsequent operations to capture Ortona. Delaney is critical of Hoffmeister’s initial handling of operations beyond the Moro River, providing a cogent and frank assessment of his brigade’s initial failure to breach the German defences. His analysis illustrates the complexity of operations at the brigade level, and the ‘learning curve’ that any new formation commander will face. This being said, Hoffmeister again proved to be an exceptionally quick study, and his performance at Ortona, well developed by Delaney, stands as a model of a remarkably effective tactical combat leader.

Delaney’s analysis of Hoffmeister as a divisional commander is the best and most effective portion of this book. Hoffmeister served 14 months in operations as the commanding general, 5th Canadian Armoured Division, and saw service in Italy and the Netherlands. This comparatively long duration in command allows Delaney to fully develop a strong and insightful assessment of the further evolution of Hoffmeister’s tactical and leadership skills. The lessons learned from Hoffmeister’s first operations as a division commander in the Liri Valley are traced and linked to the subsequent successes of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division against the Gothic Line, in the Romagna area, and in the Netherlands. Perhaps the most important point gained from Delaney’s analysis is Hoffmeister’s utter dedication to mastering his craft. This was an officer who thought seriously about the business of war, and who devoted himself to ensuring that both he, and his division, were ready for the challenges that lay ahead. When necessary, he was ruthless, removing from command any leader found wanting. The result was a first-class division that ranked among the very best in the Allied armies.

My only criticism (and it is a minor one) is the lack of context in some of Delaney’s analysis. It would have been useful to view a comparison between the operations of Hoffmeister’s commands and those of other Allied and Wehrmacht formations. For example, an assessment and comparison of the performances of the British 6th Armoured Division in the Liri Valley, and the British 1st Armoured Division in the Gothic Line, might have served to highlight the differences in Hoffmeister’s conduct of operations. In addition, some indication of the very high quality of the German defenders in Sicily and Italy would have helped placed Hoffmeister’s achievements in context.

This quibble aside, I fully enjoyed Delaney’s book, and consider it a very significant addition to any Canadian military library. I strongly recommend The Soldier’s General to all serious students of the Canadian military experience, and I look forward to further publications from Major Delaney.

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Mike Cessford, an armoured officer, is currently the Director of Defence Analysis at National Defence Headquarters. He holds a PhD in History from Carleton University.


  1. Terry Copp and William McAndrew, Battle Exhaustion: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Canadian Army, 1939-1945 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), p. 22.