Obituaries and Articles

ASSORTED ARTICLES, LETTERS, OBITUARIES relating to Field Marshal Lord Harding of Petherton 1896-1989

 

LONDON CALLING JUNE 16, 1955: FIELD MARSHAL SIR JOHN HARDING by LT GENERAL SIR BRIAN HORROCKS     

 “I first met John Harding during the battle of Alamein when he was commanding the 7th Armoured Division in my Corps – 13 corps. Our job was to try to keep the German reserves down in the south for as long as possible, while the main punch was made by 30 Corps on our right. The 7th Armoured Division had had a very bad night doing their best to penetrate some deep enemy mine-fields. When I went down to see them in the morning their tanks, scattered over a wide area of desert, were being consistently shelled by German and Italian guns.

As I approached, a small stocky figure climbed out of the turret of his tank and strolled across to greet me. It was John Harding, fresh, alert, confident and with a complete grasp of the whole tactical situation; he might well have been taking part in a squadron exercise on Salisbury Plain. He was a first-class armoured commander, always well forward in the battle and almost frighteningly regardless of his own safety. And, mind you, to be an armoured commander in Egypt was the supreme test, because in the desert the tank was the queen of the battlefield.

Harding would undoubtedly say, even today, when he has reached the highest pinnacle which the Army has to offer, that he enjoyed his time in command of the “Desert Rats” more than anything that has come his way either before or since. During his time in the desert he was awarded the DSO and two Bars within thirteen months – pretty good going. Still, to have been a successful commander does not necessarily qualify an officer automatically for the highest post in the British Army. Divisional commanders are many, but there is only one Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

Nevertheless, none of us were surprised when the Prime Minister selected Harding for this high office as he was undoubtedly the outstanding figure of what might be described as the post-war vintage. In fact, it almost seemed as though some kindly fairy had been directing Harding’s whole life with this one supreme goal in view. For few generals have held such a variety of command and staff appointments all over the world.

But let me go back to the beginning. As befits a man of West Country Yeoman stock, Harding prefers the country to the town. But his father, a solicitor’s clerk in Somerset, could not provide the capital to set his son up as a farmer. So in 1912, at sixteen years of age, the reluctant young Harding found himself in London with the job of clerk in the Post Office Savings Bank. Surely a somewhat obscure, unusual approach to his present elevated position.

But May, 1914, marked the most important milestone from the Army’s point of view, for it was then that his name appeared for the first time in the Army list as 2nd Lieutenant Harding of the Finsbury Rifles, Territorial Army, and he gained his first experience of active service as a platoon commander in this battalion at Gallipoli in August 1915. Here he got bitten with soldiering, and in 1917 he was given a regular commission in his county regiment, the Somerset Light Infantry.

As a result of these four years of active service in the front line, Harding acquired a deep understanding of the problems which face regimental officers and men in battle. He has never forgotten his regimental experience, and although perfectly capable of “planning” at the highest level he never became a theorist. This is particularly important today when the Army has reached such an important cross-roads in its development. Behind lie the well-tried organisations and methods with which we won the last war. In front is a comparatively unknown territory dominated by tactical nuclear missiles of all sorts.

How fortunate that at this time of all others we have a CIGS who is, above all, a first-rate practical soldier. And who knows just what is and what is not possible in warfare. Throughout the maze of controversy which has raged about the shape of our future army Harding has always been quite clear that he wants a streamlined Army based on highly trained, tough, mobile battle-groups, prepared to live hard. The fact that he started life in the Territorial Army is also an asset in these days when our reserve Army consists very largely of Territorial divisions; Harding is no stranger to the problems which beset the part-time soldier.

Between the wars he led the normal life of a young regular officer, advancing slowly up the promotion ladder, attending the Staff College and alternating between regimental and staff employment. But in 1934 fate stepped in again, and he was appointed Brigade Major of the British Brigade with the International Force during the Saar Plebiscite. It was here that his education in international relations began.

During the second world war he showed himself to be that rare bird: a first-class staff officer who was also a good commander. For fifteen months, as Brigadier, General Staff, he was the guiding genius of the Western Desert Force, which later became 30 Corps. Corps commanders can and Corps commanders departed, but John Harding seemingly went on forever. Eventually he got his reward for months of selfless work by being appointed to command the famous 7th Armoured Division just before the battle of Alamein. Then, apparent all set for rapid advancement as a commander, he was severely wounded just short of Tripoli. As a result he was left with a badly maimed hand and was out of action for nine months.

This seeming setback was in reality a blessing in disguise, for had he not been wounded he would soon have been promoted to command a Corps and might quite likely never have become Chief of Staff to Field Marshal Alexander’s 15th Army Group in Italy. He would thus have missed the most valuable experience of his whole career, because the armies which fought in Italy were composed of troops from many nations, and it was then that Harding developed his genius for co-operation. Today there is not general officer in our Army who is more popular with our Allies and with the Dominions, or in whom Allied commanders have such complete confidence. And if there is one lesson more than any other which has emerged during these post-war years it is that no army and no nation can “go it alone”. All over Europe are NATO military headquarters consisting of commanders and staff officers from many different countries working together in complete harmony.

After making a success in this gruelling staff appointment, in 1945 he was promoted to command 13 Corps, and was responsible for the final drive to Trieste. Now with this war record behind him it is not surprising that the Army thinks highly of Harding; but other generals have equally distinguished careers and yet few have achieved his popularity. The answer lies in his complete modesty, simplicity and obvious integrity.

The war over, in 1946 he was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Central Mediterranean Forces. Then for one year, as C-in-C Far East Land Forces, he grappled with the thorny problems of Korea, Malaya, and Pacific defence. Finally, his genius for co-operation came into full play when, for the last year before taking up his present post he was C-in-C British Army of the Rhine. It was thanks largely to his drive and determination that the Northern Army Group was welded into an inter-Allied team.

That Sir John Harding is a master of his own craft, the Army, there can obviously be no doubt at all, but the CIGS, like many people today, wears two hats. After fighting the Army’s own battle from his office in the War Office he must step over the way to a meeting of the Chiefs of Staff, forget his parochial army outlook, and consider the problem form the wider aspect of national defence. Now I have no doubt that behind closed doors the three Chiefs of Staff have many fierce arguments, but to the world outside they present a united front. Indeed, when Field Marshal Montgomery during a recent lecture at the Royal United Services Institute suggested that co-ordination between the three services could be improved Sir John Harding was the first man to stand up and contradict his old chief.

Many of us thought that Harding’s main difficulty would lie in the political field. He was a stranger to the ways of Whitehall, and no doubt like many generals had a deep-rooted mistrust of all politicians. In all probability during his early days as CIGS he found the battle of Whitehall a hard one, but it has been interesting to note how his influence with our political leaders has steadily increased. The other day one of our most senior and experience Ministers said to me: “I honestly believe that Harding is one of the best CIGS the British Army has ever had”.

(Broadcast in the BBC’s General Overseas Service)”.

 

LETTER FROM THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WAR, ANTONY HEAD, LATER LORD HEAD 1955:

 

                                                                                Secretary of State for War

                                                                                                                                                                                                           War Office

Whitehall

SW1

My Dear CIGS

Tomorrow you hand over and I want to tell you how much, on both personal and official grounds, I shall miss you at the War Office.

You have been an outstanding success as CIGS during a difficult and arduous period for you and I have encountered nothing but wholehearted and enthusiastic agreement in this respect.

It has been a great achievement on you part and I have indeed been fortunate.

But beyond that, by your very straight dealing and excellent relations with all spheres of Government you had done an immense and incalculable amount of good to the Army’s standing and prestige. I doubt if the army has ever had a better ambassador among the potentates of Whitehall.

Personally I can’t tell you how much I have appreciated you absolute straight dealing and candour with me or your unfailing courtesy and consideration for a much younger and less experienced man than yourself.

My only regret is that more of the measures we both knew to be desirable have not been put into effect; and that was my fault.

The country has asked a lot of you now and I still feel it may be more than should be demanded of anyone after all you’ve given.  Their excuse can only be that they have given the most vital job to the only man in whom they have full confidence.

No CIGS has had a wife who did more for the army than Mary and I am to some extent aware through Dot of all it owes her.

I wish you both the very best of luck in Cyprus and the hope that it will prove more tractable than present circumstances suggest. You will I hope not fail to let me know if at any time there is anything I can do to help in any way.

I shall be thinking of you both very much in the future and shall always look back with both pride and pleasure on the time when I worked with you.

Yours ever,

Antony Head

 

LETTER FROM THE PRIME MINISTER AT THE END OF LORD HARDING’S GOVERNORSHIP:

 

10 Downing Street

Whitehall

October 17

My Dear Field Marshal

I cannot allow the announcement of your impending departure from Cyprus to pass without letting you know personally of my feelings. Your tenure of office as Governor of Cyprus has been an extraordinary example of public service and devotion. When my predecessor asked you in 1955 to undertake this task we all admired the way in which you so readily put aside what would have been a very understandable desire to enjoy a well earned retirement. I cannot imagine a tougher assignment being given to any man nor can I think of any man who could have discharged it with greater distinction.

During the whole of your tenure of office Cyprus has been the centre of political and international controversies. This has made your task doubly hard but you have steered your course with such courage, fairness and skill that I feel no doubt that your Governorship will long be remembered with pride even by those who have  not agreed with our policies.

We have all been filled with admiration at the way in which Lady Harding has so nobly shared in your arduous task. I do hope that you will both now enjoy to the full your delayed retirement. In sending you my good wishes I hope I have been able to express to you something of the great debt which the country owes you for you have done.

Yours very sincerely

Harold Macmillan

EXTRACT FROM OBITUARY BY JRL ANDERSON IN THE INDEPENDENT January 21 1989:

Re Cyprus:

“Harding treated his task as a military emergency. His handling of the situation provoked many criticisms – the worst tempered of them talked of “shameful excesses” and “murderous colonialism”, not appreciating the difficulties the Governor faced. On the one hand he had to suppress what was rebellion and also to keep his own troops in hand.

He never got the credit he deserved for becoming master of a difficult situation, and much of the criticism – due to the British Government of the day, if to anyone – fell unjustly upon him.

In the desert, contemporary accounts speak of his “unshakeable inspiring influence amid violent eddies and currents in troublous days. He was as popular a CIGS as ever the army has had, extremely competent and at the same time kindly and considerate.

If his peerage was the reward (in 1958) of his services in Cyprus it was also a tribute to a great solider who had fought his way to the top and who from one war to another made no enemies except the enemies of his country”.

 

THE TIMES 21 JANUARY 1988:

 

“Field Marshal Lord Harding of Petherton, GCB, CBE, DSO and two Bars, MC who died on January 20 at the age of 92, was the first man in history of the British Army to begin his career as a Territorial and end it as Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

Soldiering, though he came to it by chance, was his life and love. Yet he had to wait until after the war for public recognition. Through the accident of war and wounds he failed to hold one of the wartime supreme commands, though his reputation among his fellow soldiers was assured.

He came to direct the fortunes of the Army at critical periods during the cold war and he held the governorship of Cyprus in troubled times at the end of the 1950s.

Born in February 1896 in Somerset, Allan Francis Harding began his working life as a clerk in the Post Office Savings Bank in London, after leaving Ilminster Grammar School. It was in London that he was introduced to Territorial soldiering, and he joined the Finsbury Rifles, the 11th Battalion the County of London Regiment. In May 1914 he was commissioned, and by the following year he was on his way to Gallipoli as a platoon commander. He quickly made his mark as a soldier, and in 1917 he obtained a regular commission.

He was then gazetted to his county regiment, the Somerset Light Infantry. Serving in Palestine he was given command of a machine gun battalion and thus, at 22 became a lieutenant-colonel. After the war, during which he won the MC he reverted to his substantive rank of lieutenant, and it was not until 1938 that he was appointed Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel, thus regaining the rank he had held 20 years earlier. He bore this long wait uncomplainingly.

The period between the wars impressed several lessons on Harding. He learned to appreciate the potential of armour. The following year at the Staff College he was fortunate enough to have Bernard Montgomery and Richard O’Connor as instructors. In 1934-35 he gained valuable experience of politico-military problems as Brigade Major in the international force supervising the Saar Plebiscite.

In 1936 at the War Office he was concerned with studying the problem of countering a threat to Egypt from Italian – held Cyrenaica.

But the outbreak of war found him frustratingly far from the scene of action, serving with his regiment on the North West Frontier in India. It was not until October 1940 that he was sent to the Middle East as GSOI 6th Division. Even then divisional HQ played no part in General Wavell’s offensive against the Italians, but Wavell made Harding his personal liaison officer with General O’Connor, commander of the Western Desert Force (later 13 Corps), and Harding stayed with O’Connor throughout the fighting, so impressing him that he secured his services as his Chief of Staff thereafter.

Harding continued to hold this onerous appointment under O’Connor’s successors General Beresford-Pierse and General Godwin-Austen; he was lucky not be among the party when O’Connor and General Sir Philip Neame were captured by the Germans in March 1941. During operation “Crusader” which relieved Tobruck in November 1941, Harding was a tower of strength, with his imperturbability and clarity of mind, in an exhausting and confusing series of battles. At one point Corps HQ was almost surrounded by the enemy, but managed to fight its way through to join the beleaguered Tobruk garrison.

When Godwin-Austen was relieved of his command of 13 Corps after the debacle following Rommel’s riposte from Agheila in 1942, in which Godwin-Austen’s orders for withdrawal were countermanded by General Ritchie at Auchinleck’s instigation, Harding insisted on being relieved too, a move characteristic of his honesty and honour.

After a brief period of frustrating non-combatant activity in training and on the staff, Harding was soon back in action in command of the 7th Armoured Division, the “Desert Rats”, on the eve of Alamein. Though an infantryman Harding had all the temperament of a cavalry officer, and during the battle itself he was an inspiring example.

When his division attempted to force its way through minefields he went forward himself to see whether or not a gap had been cleared. The driver of his jeep was killed at his side, but he pressed on. In the pursuit which followed the battle he was far-seeing in his decisions, always fretting at the delays his anxious superiors imposed on him.

He was, typically, standing on top of his brigade commander’s tank, urging the latter to get his armour forward to assail the enemy when a shell landed nearby, knocking him off the tank and severely wounding him. Any attempt to evacuate him by ambulance over the rugged country was sure to prove fatal, so his men worked all night to construct an emergency landing strip. Next day, while the fighters of the Desert Air Force fought running battles with the Luftwaffe overhead, he was evacuated by air ambulance to Egypt.

His three DSOs gained in 1941, 1942 and 1943 are an eloquent testimony to his fighting record in the desert.

After recovering from his wounds Harding was appointed to command the 8th Armoured Corps, then training for the Normandy landings. But his known skill as a staff officer called him from this congenial task to be Alexander’s Chief of Staff in 15th Army Group, and he spent the rest of the war in the Mediterranean. Immediately after the war he commanded 13th Corps in Trieste in troubled times. During the war he had adopted John as a christian name by deed poll, having been styled thus from the earliest days by his Army friends.

After a brief “rest” as GOC Southern Command, Harding went to Singapore as commander of Far East Land Forces in 1949. With the Korean war, the French Indo-China war, and the battle against communist insurgents in Malaya, it was a tense time throughout. Harding was always highly aware of the need for some regional organisation which later took shape as Seato.

His appointment to the British Army to the Rhine in 1951 was an equally critical one. NATO was in its infancy; the ground force shield in western Europe had to be built up; British formations had to be brought to life again and thoroughly prepared for war. Harding brought a sense of urgency to the situation and his great experience of high command breathed new life into units that had become used to the undemanding life of an army of occupation.

When, in November 1952, Harding was called to take over from Field Marshal Sir William Slim as CIGS he left a BAOR which was tuned for battle.

The boy who started life as a savings bank clerk had now reached the top of a widely different profession. But his time as CIGS was by no means a settling into the comfortable upholstered seat at the top, and marking time for his pension. He was a man with a vision of how the Army should develop in the long term, and a time of international instability which led to continually changing requirements made it difficult to achieve many of his far sighted plans. While therefore relishing his job, Harding was often solely tried.

In 1955 he was about to retire to life in the country when he was summoned by the government to take on one of his toughest assignments. The Conservative administration had got itself into an international impasse over Cyprus where the situation was deteriorating. It was decided to appoint a military governor and commander-in-chief with direct responsibility for everything that went on in the island.

Harding had to address himself to projects of economic and social development, and to broadcasting. On the political front he performed the singular feat of winning the confidence of Archbishop Makarios, the leader of the Enosis movement.

When in 1956 Makarios was deported to the Seychelles after talks with Mr Lennox-Boyd, the Colonial Secretary had failed, Harding was left to battle against the EOKA terrorists. By 1957, judging that EOKA was on its legs, Harding accepted an offer of a ceasefire from EOKA. Its leader, Grivas, was made an offer of free passage to Greece. He did not avail himself of it, but his capacity for mischief was much reduced, and a period of comparative quiet followed.

In talks held in London later in 1957 Harding pressed for the release of Makarios under generous terms. This view eventually prevailed, though the emergency regulations in Cyprus were only slightly relaxed.

In final retirement, Harding, who was created first Lord Harding of Petherton in 1958, served as chairman of the Horse Race Betting Levy Board and was also chairman of the Plessey Company. Away from these duties he tended his Somerset garden. He was also Colonel of the Somerset Light Infantry (from 1960 the Cornwall and Somerset Light Infantry).

His wife, Mary, died in 1983. He leaves a son.

 

For further information about Lord Harding, see the biography by Michael Carver called “Harding of Petherton” (Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1978).