General George Giffard


General Sir George Giffard GCB DSO (1886–1964) was a British military officer, who had a distinguished career in command of African troops in World War I, rising to command an Army Group in South East Asia in World War II.

Giffard served in World War II initially as Military Secretary at the War Office and then, from 1940, as General Officer Commanding Palestine & Trans-Jordan.

In 1941 he became Commander-in-Chief of West Africa Command. While the Mediterranean was barred to British shipping by German and Italian naval and air force units, West Africa was an important link in Allied lines of communication to the Middle East and Far East. In addition to organising the logistic infrastructure, Giffard’s major achievement was the reorganisation of the units of the Royal West African Frontier Force into two field infantry divisions, capable of serving as independent forces in rough terrain. Initially, this was in response to a potential threat from Vichy French forces in Senegal and Niger. Later, these two divisions, 81st (West Africa) Division and 82nd (West Africa) Division served with distinction in the Burma Campaign.

He was made General Officer Commanding Eastern Army, India in August 1943. This army faced the Japanese army which had occupied Burma. Several sources, notably Field Marshal William “Bill” Slim, testified to his contribution to the improvement in morale and effectiveness in Eastern Army during this period.

In 1943 he was appointed Commander in Chief of 11th Army Group in Burma. His period of command here was less happy, mainly because of difficulties with the US General Joseph Stilwell. The two men disliked each other, and Stilwell held so many appointments that any working arrangement had to be an awkward compromise. (As commander of the Northern Combat Area Command, Stilwell was Giffard’s subordinate, but as Deputy Supreme Commander of the South East Asia Command, he was Giffard’s superior.) Nevertheless, this period was marked by the victories in the Arakan, and at Imphal and Kohima, to which Giffard contributed greatly. Late in 1944, 11th Army Group was replaced by the Allied HQ, ALFSEA and Giffard was replaced by General Oliver Leese.

He was also Aide-de-Camp General to the King from 1943 to 1946. He retired in 1946.

Several sources, notably Field Marshal William “Bill” Slim, testified to his contribution to the improvement in morale and effectiveness in Eastern Army during this period.

Although General George Giffard would later have many vociferous critics, and even Slim eventually backtracked on his initially favourable estimate, at first he seemed like a breath of fresh air after Irwin.

The new Army Commander had a great effect on me. A tall, good-looking man in the late fifties, who had obviously kept himself physically and mentally in first-class condition, there was nothing dramatic about him in either appearance or speech. He abhorred the theatrical, and was one of the very few generals, indeed men in any position, I have known who really disliked publicity . . . But there was much more to General Giffard than good taste, good manners and unselfishness. He understood the fundamentals of war – that soldiers must be trained before they can fight, fed before they can march, and relieved before they are worn out. He understood that front-line commanders should be spared responsibilities in the rear, and that soundness of organisation and administration is worth more than specious short-cuts to victory.

The first weeks of December were anxious ones for him. It did not help that the entire senior personnel of SEAC were in a state of flux, largely because of Mountbatten’s megalomania. October was a key month for ‘Dickie’, as he saw the back not only of Stilwell (against whom he had intrigued assiduously) but the three chiefs of staff who had ‘defied’ him. All the problems basically arose from the fact that the creation of the post of Supreme Commander, South-East Asia, was a nonsense that had never been properly thought out and was simply one of Churchill’s ‘bright ideas’. Mountbatten, with his vaulting ambition, always wanted to be a generalissimo, not a mere committee chairman, in which case, as the chiefs of staff ruefully concluded, what was the point of them and what was their role supposed to be? Either they or the supreme commander were an unnecessary layer in the military hierarchy. In land warfare the complex system would work only if the supreme commander, the army commander and the general actually directing the campaign were all of one mind. Mountbatten and Slim meshed perfectly, and Slim and Giffard collaborated well because Giffard always gave his subordinate his head. But Mountbatten and Giffard was an impossible mixture. Temperamentally poles apart, they seemed to differ at every conceivable level. For Giffard fighting during the monsoon was dangerously irresponsible, personal visits to buck up the men’s morale were mere grandstanding, and Mountbatten’s entire style was personally and aesthetically repugnant. Detesting Stilwell as he did, Giffard thought that both Slim and the Supreme Commander deferred to him too much. Resenting the entire system that had made him Mountbatten’s underling, and disliking the man personally, Giffard habitually sided with the other commanders, Peirse and Somerville, who both felt exactly as he did. Whatever Mountbatten proposed, the trio opposed as if by reflex action. Sacked in May, Giffard was still in post in October because of the difficulty of finding someone to replace him; a general had to be found who was both competent and could put up with Mountbatten, and this was never going to be easy. The obvious solution was for Slim to take over Giffard’s role, but the Supreme Commander opposed this, ostensibly because Slim was too valuable where he was. This argument might have worked in March–June 1944 during Kohima-Imphal, and again after December when Slim was engaged in CAPITAL, but had no validity whatever in the intervening period. The suspicion arises that, consciously or unconsciously, Mountbatten was jealous of Slim. Already in the habit of taking credit for the other man’s achievements, Mountbatten may have felt that this would be impossible if Slim was at the very nerve centre of power. The suspicion is enhanced by Mountbatten’s refusal to have Slim in either Giffard’s job or that of Pownall, as his chief of staff, when Pownall retired in the autumn.

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