Corps Commanders book cover

Corps Commanders book cover

Corps Commanders. Five British and Canadian Generals at War, 1939-45

by Douglas E. Delaney

Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011
408 pages, $34.95 (PB)

Reviewed by Colonel Bernd Horn

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This is a brilliant book. Dr. Doug Delaney, an experienced former infantry officer and current associate professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada, has written an incredibly valuable book that delivers on several levels. First, it provides five great case studies of corps commanders in the Second World War; second, it makes a great argument for the utility and value of British staff college training of the period and its impact on interoperability within the Commonwealth; and third, its speaks to leadership and command.

Corps Commanders, as the title aptly states, is about five very different corps commanders during the Second World War. Two are British, Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks and General Sir John Crocker. The other three are Canadians, namely Lieutenant-Generals E.L.M. Burns and Guy Granville Simonds, as well as General Charles Foulkes. All were quite different. As Dr Delaney describes them, one was “… a consummate actor, one a quiet gentleman, one a master bureaucrat, one a brainy sort with little will and the last a brain with will to spare.” Delaney expertly tells their individual stories by delving into their personalities, how they were formed as commanders, how they interrelated with others, and how they fought.

Each case study is complete in every sense. The reader is given the inclusive picture and understanding of each of the respective commanders – the formative experiences that shaped their personality, their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the reasons for their success or failure. Delaney also walks the reader through their campaigns and major battles during their tenure as corps commanders with incredibly insightful analysis. Detailed maps provide added clarity to the narrative. By the end of each chapter, the reader cannot help but feel that they fully comprehend both ‘the man’ and ‘the situation.’

Not surprisingly, each of the case studies is extremely interesting, since all the corps commanders chosen for analysis represent such different characters. Some were good, some were great, and others were neither. However, by examining their strengths, weaknesses, accomplishments, and failures, Delaney dissects the concept of command and its central components. As a result, the book is almost a ‘how to’ guide to being a good commander. In essence, the reader is treated to a virtual primer on leadership and command. As such, the reader can easily draw great lessons with respect to successful command from the case studies. Nonetheless, these lessons are derived from both good and bad examples. In addition, the case studies also lay out simple soldierly truths that are timeless. For example, from Montgomery’s dictum that a commander must always radiate confidence regardless of circumstances, to the necessity of sharing hardship with the soldiers, these simple ‘truisms’ provide a useful reminder to leaders at all levels.

In the narrative process, Delaney also provides great insight into other key Allied personalities of the war, as well as the delicate issues of coalition warfare. In this respect, the book goes a long way in succinctly and logically describing and explaining the ‘atmospherics’ of the ‘politics’ of command. As many may suspect, ability, skill, and experience are not always the only, or key, arbitrator of promotion.

Throughout, the writing is crisp and flowing. The book is meticulously researched, and it contains impressive endnotes that provide excellent source material, as well as additional explanatory notes. The book also has a detailed index and impressive bibliography. Finally, 18 black and white photographs add graphic support to the narrative and put a ‘face’ to many of the characters mentioned.

In sum, Corps Commanders is an important addition to the body of knowledge on the Second World War and the study of command. Although the war is arguably dated, the many lessons on leadership and command that emerge are timeless and are as relevant today as they were then. In closing, this is an outstanding book that should be read by all aspiring leaders and commanders, and as early in their careers as possible. It is also strongly recommended for all military members of any rank, as well as for historians and anyone who is interested in the profession of arms.

Colonel Bernd Horn, OMM, MSM, CD, PhD, is the Chief of Staff Strategic Education and Training Programs at the Canadian Defence Academy. He is also an Adjunct Professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada.