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The Bartholomew Committee: An Opportunity Lost?

Editorial Note: As the Second World War Research Group prepares for our 2017 conference on the subject of ‘When East Meets West: The Second World War in Global Perspective’, we present the final of five posts based on papers presented at our 2016 conference on '1940-1942: The Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century?'.

After the conclusion of Operation DYNAMO on 3 June 1940, the War Office reacted quickly to form a committee to look into the reasons for the defeat in France and any changes which could be made quickly in the face of the threat of invasion. Although expectations had been exceeded regarding the number of men rescued from the Continent, losses of heavy equipment necessary to defend the British mainland had been particularly severe. The forming of the Committee took place in the knowledge that 150,000 British troops remained in France, south of the Somme. Sir Alan Brooke returned to France only a few days after escaping with orders to co-ordinate a defence. He quickly realised that this was a lost cause and urged a second evacuation – meaning he would be unavailable to testify.

British tanks cross the frontier into Belgium in May 19940. (Source: © IWM (F 4337))

Sir George Bartholomew, recently retired as General Officer Commanding Northern Command, was appointed to chair the committee. On paper his credentials were good; a former Commandant of the Imperial Defence College, Chief of the General Staff (India) and Director of Military Intelligence – some considered him one of the best minds on the General Staff. Others were less convinced, thinking of him as a typical conservative with a profound dislike of the Royal Air Force (RAF). Three other senior members of the Committee had served in France. Thirty-seven officers gave evidence while the committee was in session, a mixture of senior British Expeditionary Force (BEF) personnel down to battalion commanders – and a sole representative of the RAF. The Committee sat for six days, taking evidence only on four. An initial draft was ready in early July; after a General Staff conference in late July and discussion by the Army Council in September, its findings were eventually published in October, belying the initial haste spurred by fear of invasion.

The Committee made a number of recommendations for urgent change in the Army, including increased mechanisation of artillery, reconnaissance and liaison elements, improved artillery provision and co-ordination of air support. It also proposed making the operational ‘building block’ of the Army the Brigade, or Independent Brigade Group. However, many of its findings were gradually watered down as the draft passed through the bureaucracy; Sir John Dill, the CIGS, also gave Lord Gort, the former C-in-C of the BEF (who did not give evidence) a categorical reassurance that the report would not result in fundamental change in the structure of the Army.

British soldiers destroy stores at an RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) depot before retreating to the Channel portsduring the evacuation of the BEF in 1940. (Source: © IWM (F 4756))

Some of the recommendations were impeded by the loss of equipment in France. In particular for purposes of defence against invasion, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns were in short supply thus making proposals for increased and reorganised provision of them at Division and Brigade level somewhat moot. This also meant that weapons that were obsolescent or which had underperformed were kept in production both to make up losses and to postpone the disruption to supply and training which would be caused by retooling and issue to the Army at a time of high threat.

Although the British soldier was held to be the equal of the German, the report criticised steadfastness in defence, tactical shortcomings and issues of discipline. Command and communications were considered extremely rigid. Despite the 1935 Field Service Regulations stating that orders should not be excessively prescriptive and should not prevent subordinate commanders from carrying out their mission in the face of better local knowledge or on their initiative, experience in France showed that some senior commanders still insisted on the following of written orders, despite the fast pace of operations outstripping the ability to transmit them. There are many examples in the literature of orders to hold positions when they had fallen, or been surrendered long since. Senior witnesses criticised command rigidity. The report highlighted shortcomings in discipline and ‘fighting spirit’; however, rather than propose innovative solutions it concluded that these problems could be solved by more close order drill and time on the range.

Unloading Bren gun carriers and a 40mm Bofors gun at Southampton during the return of the second British Expeditionary Force from France, 19 June 1940. (Source: © IWM (H 1852))

One of the successes of the campaign was the use of ‘carriers’ – small, fast-tracked vehicles. Until the Battle of France, these had been viewed predominantly as tractors or logistic vehicles; the report recommended their wider use across the Army and their fitting with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons as standard. Although this latter point was not completely adopted, the wider use of such vehicles – which had impressed the Germans – was one of the successful recommendations from the report.

The other primary recommendation was the operational building block of the Army should now be the Brigade, and the Independent Brigade Group, rather than the Division. Reorganisation of divisional assets to allow Brigades to have organic artillery, anti-tank, anti-aircraft and reconnaissance support was proposed, but equipment shortages and the delay in introducing better weapons led to these ideals being diluted. Experience in home exercises in 1941-42 highlighted flaws in the concept where equipment was inadequate either in numbers or performance and the Division returned to prominence; however, the early success of the concept in the Western Desert against inferior opposition led to later failures against the Germans.

The need for quick and achievable change driven by the threat of invasion makes some of the curtailing of the Bartholomew report’s proposals excusable to some extent. However, the opportunity genuinely to innovate in other areas was lost due to equipment shortages and a lack of willingness to review concepts of command. The change would come eventually, but more gradually than may have been the case had senior officers not watered down the committee’s recommendations as it passed through the War Office bureaucracy.

This post first appeared at Defence-in-Depth, the blog of the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.

Phil McCarty is a PhD candidate at the University of Wolverhampton where he is working on a thesis concerning the British Expeditionary Force and Norway Expeditionary Force in 1940 under the supervision of Professors John Buckley and Stephen Badsey. His first degree was in Military Studies from the University of Manchester in 1983; then went to King’s College London for the MA in War Studies under Lawrence Freedman, Brian Bond and Mike Dockrill in 1983-84. From 1984-86 worked in the Research Department of the Royal United Services Institute; left this to become a Research Officer in the Ministry of Defence in 1986. Seconded to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s Research Analyst cadre from 2006-2009. He is a member of the British Commission for Military History and a member of the Council of the Society of Friends of the National Army Museum.

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