33 – Viscount John Vereker Gort
Field Marshal Viscount Gort VC
6th Viscount Gort
1886 – 1946
Governor of Malta 1942-1944
Field Marshal John Standish Surtees Prendergast Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort VC GCB CBE DSO and two Bars MVO MC (commonly known as Lord Gort) (10 July 1886 – 31 March 1946) was a British soldier who served in both World War I and II, rising to the rank of field marshal and receiving the Victoria Cross.
He was born in London and grew up in County Durham and the Isle of Wight. He was educated at Malvern Link Preparatory School and Harrow School and then entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich in January 1904, having succeeded his father to the family title in 1902. He was commissioned in the Grenadier Guards in July 1905 where he took to his duties with exceptional zeal.
On the death of King Edward VII in 1910 Lieutenant Gort was in command of the Grenadier NCOs detailed to bear the coffin and attend the catafalque. He was made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order for his services. Later that year he went moose hunting in Canada and accidentally shot his Indian guide, prompting an immediate return.
On 22 February 1911 he married Corinna Vereker, a second cousin, at the Guards Chapel, Wellington Barracks. They had three children, Charles in 1912, Joscelyn in 1913, and Jacqueline in 1914. They divorced in 1925.
On 3 September 1913 he was appointed ADC to General Francis Lloyd, GO Commanding London District.
First World War
By 1914 he had reached the rank of captain. He fought on the Western Front, was mentioned in despatches nine times, and won a Military Cross and Distinguished Service Order and two bars.
He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on 27 September 1918 at the Battle of Canal du Nord, near Flesquieres, France. Lieutenant-Colonel Gort led his battalion under very heavy fire and although wounded, when the battalion was held up he went across open ground to obtain assistance from a tank and personally led it to the best advantage. He was again wounded, but after lying on a stretcher for a while insisted on getting up and directing the further attack which resulted in the capture of over 200 prisoners, two batteries of field-guns and numerous machine-guns. He refused to leave the field until the success signal had gone up on the final objective. Gort’s batman, Guardsman Ransome, was killed while helping Gort to safety.
After attending a short course at the Staff College, Camberley in 1919, Gort returned in 1921 as an instructor.
He took up sailing in 1922 and was a keen yatchsman until the next war intervened, joining the Royal Yacht Squadron in 1922 and participating in the 1925 Fastnet race. In 1924 he rewrote the Infantry Training Manual.
He was promoted to colonel in 1925, and in January 1927 went to Shanghai, returning in August to give a first hand account of the Chinese situation to the King and the Prince of Wales. He went on to command the Guards Brigade for two years from 1930 before overseeing training in India and then returning to the Staff College in 1936 as Commander.
In 1932 he took up flying, buying the de Haviland Moth aeroplane Henrietta and being elected chairman of the Household Brigade Flying Club.
He was made a full general in 1937, unusually being promoted directly from major-general and never holding the rank of lieutenant-general, and was then the surprise choice to be Chief of the Imperial General Staff. At this office he advocated the primacy of building a land army and defending France and the Low Countries over Imperial defence after France had said she would not be able on her own to defend herself against a German attack. The First Sea Lord Sir Roger Backhouse argued that this Continental commitment might not be limited. Gort replied by saying ‘Lord Kitchener had clearly pointed out that no great country can wage a “little” war’.
Second World War
At the outbreak of war he was given command of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France, arriving on 19 September 1939. During this time he played a part in a political scandal, the Pillbox affair, that led to the dismissal of the War Minister, Hore-Belisha. Following the Phony War, the 1940 German breakthrough in the Ardennes split the Allied forces. Communications between the BEF and the French effectively broke down, and on 25 May Gort took the unilateral decision to ignore his orders for a southward attack by his forces. Gort’s command position was difficult, serving under French High, theatre, and army group command while also being responsible to London. Withdrawing northwards, the BEF together with many French soldiers were evacuated during the Battle of Dunkirk. The disposition of the BEF was attacked, in hindsight and at the time, as too conventional – chiefly due to lack of any kind of defensive works. Gort is credited by some as reacting efficiently to the ensuing crisis. Gort’s decision to withdraw the BEF from likely capture is credited by many in helping Britain remain in the war and preventing British morale from collapsing due to the defeats of 1940. Others hold a more critical view of Gort’s leadership in 1940, seeing his decision to not follow orders to join the French in organizing a large scale counterattack as defeatist and undermining to the overall Allied reaction.
Gort served in various positions for the duration of the war. On the day of his return, 1 June 1940, he was made an ADC General to King George VI. On 25 June he went by flying boat, with Duff Cooper, to Rabat, Morocco, to rally anti-Nazi French cabinet ministers, but was instead arrested by Vichy gendarmerie. He was quickly released, and he returned to Britain.
Gort was given the post of Inspector of Training and the Home Guard, and with nothing constructive to do visited Iceland, Orkney, and Shetland. He went on to serve as Governor of Gibraltar (1941-42). He pushed ahead with extending the airfield into land reclaimed from the sea, against the advice of the British government, but was later thanked by the War Cabinet for his foresight when the airfield proved vital to the British Mediterranean campaign. As Governor of Malta (1942-44) his courage and leadership during the siege was recognized by the Maltese giving him the Sword of Honour. The King gave Gort his Field Marshal’s baton on 20 June 1943 at Malta. On 29 September, Gort, together with Generals Eisenhower and Alexander, witnessed Marshal Badoglio signing the Italian surrender in Valletta harbour.
He ended the war as High Commissioner for Palestine and Transjordan. During a meeting in November 1945 with Field Marshals Brooke and Montgomery, Gort collapsed and was flown to London where the diagnosis was cancer.
In February 1946, he was created a Viscount in the Peerage of the United Kingdom under the same title as his existing Viscountcy in the Peerage of Ireland. Upon his death on 31 March 1946 without a son, the Irish viscountcy of Gort passed to a cousin and the British creation became extinct.
He was the father-in-law of Major William Sidney, 1st Viscount De L’Isle VC, and first cousin-once-removed to General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton. Gort was present when his son-in-law received the VC from Alexander on 3 March 1944 in Italy (the VC ribbon was cut from one of Gort’s uniforms).