Scapegoat: Brigadier George Taylor DSO and Bar Part II

Maryang-san (right), Korea

Enemy positions overlooking the Imjin River, October 1951

Operation Commando had been extremely hard-fought and was a great success. Taylor was rightly proud of his troops and issued a congratulatory letter on 9 October to all ranks of the brigade. This was endorsed by the American corps commander in a fulsome letter to Cassels. Like many battles though, as time goes on, it has become forgotten. American commentators do not mention it and some British historians reduce it to a mere footnote. For the Australians however, it became the Battle of Maryang San and a significant battle honour that has gone down in legend and a lesson in how to fight this sort of war. The commanding officer of 3 RAR, Frank Hassett, was awarded an immediate DSO in the field and much later became the Australian Chief of the General Staff.

On 22 October, both the American corps commander and divisional commander, Cassels, visited Taylor’s headquarters. Was there any indication from either of them that they were in any way dissatisfied with Taylor after what was, by any standards, a resounding victory? Yet, on 25 October, Brigadier Taylor was relieved of his command and replaced by Lieutenant Colonel MacDonald, CO 1 KOSB. MacDonald was not even a full colonel, let alone a brigadier. The Australians were sorry to see ‘this fine soldier fall victim to the intrigues and undermining of a few British officers within the Brigade. . . . This unforeseen change of command could not have come at a worse time for the Brigade.’ Maryang San was shortly recaptured by the Chinese. To add insult to their disgust over the loss of what they had fought so hard for, the Australians learnt that the new brigade commander had issued a Special Order of the Day, effusively praising his old battalion, the KOSB, without a mention of anyone else.

What prompted Cassels to make this emergency appointment with no reference to the Army Board or Military Secretary’s department? If the problem (of Taylor continuing in command) necessitated this immediate action, why did Cassels not put Brigadier Pike, the highly experienced artillery commander, in to command the brigade? Pike had all the confidence of the Commonwealth allies and, although a gunner, that did not preclude him from commanding an infantry brigade.

Then, as now, an officer receives an annual confidential report, initiated by his immediate superior and then commented on by the next rank up. It grades the officer, comments on his performance and recommends him for promotion, or not, and future employment. He sees it and initials it. When an officer is removed from his appointment for misconduct or inadequacy, an interim ‘adverse’ report is raised. The officer can appeal against this right up to Army Council level. Unsurprisingly, this is what happened here. On 24 October, Major General Cassels wrote the following adverse report on Taylor:

When I first visited 28 British Commonwealth Brigade in May ’51 I found Brig Taylor in the middle of a battle. It struck me at the time that he did not have real control of his battalions and his plan and explanations were somewhat vague. It was also clear that his Brigade H.Q. was not a happy one. However as I was not his commander at the time I said nothing. When I assumed operational command of the Division on 28 July ’51, 28 Bde was in a static defence role and the only operations were patrols and small raids over the IMJIN. Therefore, during this period, I had no opportunity of judging whether my previous impressions were right. At the same time, I still got the feeling that he was vague in his plans and, though he may have known exactly what he wanted, he could not clearly explain it. I could not pick a specific instance and therefore did not talk to him about it.

It was not until October that I really had a chance to see him in action when his brigade took part in a divisional attack. The brigade played its part extremely well but I felt at the time, and have since had confirmation of this, that this was due to the coordination and planning of three first-class battalion commanders aided by an excellent Brigade Major and Field Regiment commander. Brig. Taylor did not really make or coordinate the plan and, in the battle, he spent far too much time out of touch with the big picture and his H.Q., and interfered with the battalion commanders. Meanwhile the Brigade was virtually being commanded by the Bde Major and the gunner C.O.

After the battle it was quite clear that all was not well in the Brigade and many rumours came to my ears which I have now investigated. I have found that the three battalion commanders, the affiliated Field Regt. C.O. and many other officers have no confidence in Brig. Taylor as a brigade commander. From all I have heard and from my own impressions I confirm this. In my opinion he is militarily stupid but at the same time he is vain and either pays no attention to advice or brushes it aside. He lacks forethought and, though personally very brave, is liable to make illogical and unthinking decisions in a crisis. He is determined and knows what he wants to do but cannot produce clear and intelligible plans or orders to his subordinates who have to guess what he wants. I consider he is not capable of commanding a brigade.

I wish to emphasise that he is a most gallant, sincere and good-hearted officer who is well liked by everybody. Nevertheless he has not got the characteristics required in a brigade commander and I must reluctantly recommend he be replaced.

This was supported by the Australian Lieutenant General Sir Horace Robertson, the Commander-in-Chief British Commonwealth Forces in Korea, in a letter of 30 October:

A very gallant officer with plenty of drive, enthusiasm and likeable qualities. In view of his previous record, had there been another Division available, I must have considered posting him there for confirmation of this report. I feel and I felt before the Division was formed that a very gallant and forceful Battalion Commander had been moved past his sphere but I was careful not to prejudice the Division Commander as I wanted him to decide for himself. The type of operations at present in progress in Korea demands a careful and skilled planner in all grades of command, for there is scope for and need for good planning and manoeuvre with carefully worked out co-operation of all arms. Without all this disaster is almost inevitable and casualties can be overwhelming. I believe that Brigadier Taylor’s qualities might enable him to command a brigade in trench warfare where plans in meticulous detail were made at Army and Corps level, but I do not consider he has the planning capacity to command a brigade in any war of manoeuvre.

He is a staunch man, afraid of nothing and would die gallantly rather than give up an inch of ground to the enemy, and his personal example to the rank and file would be inspiring. However, I am convinced the Division Commander took the right decision.

Taylor initialled the report on 25 October and forwarded an appeal to the Army Board through the Military Secretary. Cassels then commented on the appeal on 28 November:

I would like to make clear the circumstances immediately prior to my decision to write an adverse report on Brig Taylor. Immediately after the battle I naturally congratulated Brig Taylor and his brigade having won it, but some time later it came to my ears, NOT through RA channels, that all was not well and that the three infantry COs were not happy. This was most disturbing news but, as the COs themselves had not said anything, I had no positive proof one way or the other. I was considering what to do when, the next morning, Lt Col Moodie, OC 16 NZ Fd Regt, saw Commander Royal Artillery [Brigadier William Pike] and told him categorically that he knew that the three infantry COs had no confidence in their Brigadier and were even contemplating asking that they should be relieved of their commands. The CRA, naturally and rightly, told me.

It seemed to me that the first thing I had to establish was whether Lt Col Moodie’s statement was, in fact, correct. After considerable thought I ordered the CRA to go and see Lt Cols MacDonald and Barlow and find out. He did this and brought back full confirmation of Lt Col Moodie’s statement.

It was then clear that either the Brigadier or the COs would have to go. I did not think that any useful purpose would be served by ‘putting the cards on the table’ with Brig Taylor as, whatever happened at any such discussion, the result would still have been that one or the others must go.

On the other hand, if the CRA had found that Moodie’s allegations were quite wrong then I would of course have told Brig Taylor of all the facts and would have removed Moodie. In this case I maintain that Brig Taylor’s stock would have risen with his COs and not fallen as he suggests.

I had a high opinion of the COs and, as stated in my report, I already had my doubts of Brig Taylor’s capacity to command a brigade. I therefore decided that he must go and, as the current state of affairs was obviously unsatisfactory, that it must be done quickly. After personally talking to Lt Cols MacDonald and Barlow to confirm what I heard, I wrote an adverse report on Brig Taylor.

Since Brig Taylor has left I have taken particular pains to confirm all I said in his report because I wanted to be quite certain that I was not doing him an injustice. My inquiries included a discussion with Lt Col Hassett, OC 3 RAR, to whom I had not previously spoken on this subject. I regret to say that everything has been fully confirmed, and there is nothing in Brig Taylor’s appeal which causes me to change my opinion.

The papers now went the rounds of three Army Council members: the Adjutant General (AG), Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff (VCIGS) and the Quartermaster General (QMG). They commented:

Clearly the removal of this officer from Command of 28 British Commonwealth Brigade must be confirmed.

The more I read the case, however, the less I am certain as to why the Divisional Commander relieved Brigadier Taylor of his Command. Taylor’s background is excellent and his record as a soldier should have made him in every way fit to Command his Brigade. The Brigade which he, Taylor, has trained and commanded for some time appears to have put up a first-class performance in its first major action in Korea, and as Taylor was in command during this action, to him must go the major share of the credit.

His methods may not have appealed to General Cassels but they would seem to have been effective.

Apart from all this I am not entirely happy in regard to General Cassels’ handling of the case. I should have thought that the simple and correct approach was for Cassels to have told Taylor of what he, Cassels, thought Taylor was doing wrong and to have told him to put it right. If after a reasonable trial Taylor failed to put it right then there would have been a case for removal.

It is impossible not to feel that some clash of personalities has been at any rate a contributory cause to the incident.

I consider that the report should stand and the appeal fail insofar as it is against that report, but that Brigadier Taylor should be given Command of another brigade (not in Korea) at the earliest possible date.

17 Dec 51

General Sir John Crocker AG

I agree with AG’s view. I suggest that he should, if possible, be appointed to command a Regular brigade, where he will have an opportunity of proving his worth.

20 Dec 51

Lieutenant General Sir Nevil Brownjohn VCIGS

I agree with AG’s minute but not the last paragraph. I am very unhappy at the way Cassels has handled this case. Quite apart from the fact that he says he had misgivings, unsupported by any specific instances, in May 1951, it seems to me inconceivable that during, anyway the first day and perhaps the whole of an important engagement a Div Comdr should only speak to his leading Brigadier on the phone. Cassels ought to visit his Brigadiers during a battle, and doubly so if he suspects their abilities. I deduce this from [the papers], and from the absence of any mention of a visit. Here, apparently, Cassels thought the Brigade HQ were ‘unhappy’ over a period of some five months (even though he states that the Brigadier is ‘good hearted and liked by everybody’), and yet he did nothing about it.

You cannot handle, and dismiss, Brigadiers on rumours, hearsay and enquiries. You must go and see for yourself.

I know Brigadier Taylor very well indeed. He is the finest type of fighting soldier—and that type will always repay a little ‘stringing along’ from their more intellectual seniors.

Clearly, his removal from command of 28th Brigade must be confirmed, and to that extent the appeal must fail. But I believe that the circumstances of his removal demand that the report should be expunged from his record. He should be given command of a Regular Brigade.

21 Dec 51

General Sir Ivor Thomas QMG

As there was disagreement between the members, the Military Secretary forwarded the papers to the Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff (DCIGS) and the senior civil servant on the Army Board, the Permanent Under Secretary (PUS). The DCIGS agreed with the last paragraph of the QMG’s note, without further comment and the PUS minuted the following:

I restrict my remarks to the point which is not agreed, i.e. whether the report should stand or be expunged.

In a case of this kind, I cannot see how the report can be effectively expunged even if it were considered desirable to do so. The officer has been removed from command and if his records do not show why, they will be incomplete. It is hardly in the officer’s interest that the facts recorded in the Report should not go on record. Indeed I personally regard the report with the discussion of it that has followed as on balance to his credit and I do not agree that it should be washed out.

Generally I have assumed that a report which is an honest expression of opinion ought to stand even though we do not agree with it; and that we only expunge records which are untrue or grossly unfair.

1 Jan 52

Sir George Turner PUS

In cases of disagreement such as this, the Military Secretary forwards the papers to the Secretary of State for War (in this case, Sir Anthony Head) for a decision. Here, the Miliary Secretary reminded him that there were two issues: the officer’s future employment and whether or not the adverse report should be expunged from his record. He also added that Sir Anthony Head might like to discuss the case with the CIGS, ‘who knows about this case’ before giving a final decision. Sir Anthony Head responded, on 23 January, that Taylor should be given another brigade and the report should not be expunged, and Taylor was informed by letter on 28 January. Taylor was subsequently appointed to command the 49th Infantry Brigade, which went on to deal successfully with the Mau Mau in Kenya.

Clearly, in the view of Army Council members, Taylor had been badly and unfairly handled by Cassels and, although the report remained on his record, they saw to it that his career was not ruined. Indeed, after retirement he became a sought-after lecturer on leadership in battle to up and coming army officers. His subject covered his experiences in the Second World War rather than Korea.

So why did this happen? If Taylor was a scapegoat, who was to gain? First of all, Cassels. He behaved uncharacteristically badly in his handling of Taylor. He acted against all the conventions of warning an officer as to his future conduct by sacking him without any prior indication of dissatisfaction. There is no record that he even spoke to him about it, let alone gave a formal, recorded rebuke, which should have happened. He failed to give proper reasons for doing so and his response to the challenge in Taylor’s appeal was weak and relied on hearsay, rumour and innuendo. He utterly misunderstood and misjudged Hassett, who, if anyone, would have made his views abundantly clear if he thought Taylor was inadequate. Cassels only spoke to Hassett after he had sacked Taylor. Cassels’s last paragraph of his response to Taylor’s reaction is simply not true.

In a letter to Taylor on 14 May 1987, Hassett wrote:

I thought we got on well together and I was very sorry when we said goodbye. To have to leave when the Brigade had just achieved a resounding success was a shattering experience for you.

The Brigade plan for Operation Commando was a very good one. Moreover, the Brigade and Divisional support given my Battalion was excellent. Most noteworthy were the artillery and tank support (which you controlled) and the supply trains bringing up ammunition and carrying out the casualties. Had the attack failed, you would have been blamed. Since it succeeded brilliantly, you must get the credit.

I think one of your senior officers was very ambitious. Perhaps that was part of the trouble.

I shall watch out for any information about anyone making allegations about you and speak up for you, if it is necessary.

On 12 June 1991, Hassett wrote to Captain Eaton who was writing a history of 3 RAR:

The Korean chapters are quite the best I have read so far. I was particularly pleased to note they demonstrated well the tactical skill of Brigadier Taylor. Of course, the whole Divisional action was extremely well planned and executed. The timing of the attacks in series so as to make maximum fire support available to battalions at any given time, is one example. As a battalion commander it was comforting to go into an attack with the knowledge that over 120 guns and mortars, as well as tanks, were in support and that any administrative or other back up would be quickly forthcoming. I particularly appreciated the senior commanders being well forward, fully in touch with progress of the battle and able to make the right decisions quickly.

I also suggested, and I understand it is agreed, that the History include the comment ‘George Taylor was a most able tactician’.

Hassett then wrote to Taylor on 27 February 1992:

Here is the 3RAR version of the battle of Maryang San by Lt Col Breen, drawn on Eaton’s writings.

There is criticism of some British units, the KOSB in particular. Much of this flows from the KOSB having MacDonald as its CO. He disliked Australians, a sentiment they returned in full measure. I consider him a poor CO and a worse Brigade Commander.

I have taken pains to ensure that your own part in Commando is recognised as a valuable contribution from an experienced and able commander. This may be some belated consolation for the harsh treatment given you and the enormous hurt you must have felt. Of course, it is a 3RAR view as seen by junior officers and soldiers. Always forthright, they have called the shots as they saw them! Mostly, they were not in a position to appreciate the enormous support the Battalion was given at the Brigade and Divisional level. I recognised it and have said so.

When Taylor returned to England, he was given lunch at the House of Lords by his old friend General Horrocks, now Black Rod, who was dumbfounded when he learned what had happened. Horrocks told him that Cassels, as a brigadier before the Rhine crossing, was at the point of being sacked but his divisional commander was killed by a mortar bomb and Cassels was saved.

Cassels was not the sort of man to enhance his own career by stepping on the necks of others. He did not need to; he had a good record, was eminently capable and went on to great things later, including becoming Chief of the General Staff. Was he frightened of a rebellion by his battalion commanders? Were they anxious that Taylor was too robust for them? Peace talks had already started so no one wanted to expend life unnecessarily at this stage. Hassett was the star but, contrary to what Cassels thought, he had no problem with Taylor. With the possibly inadequate and unpopular New Zealand artillery commander, Moodie, did Cassels fear a falling out among the Commonwealth allies? Cohesion was important, particularly under intense American scrutiny. Cassels found the Americans difficult yet had to rely on them for much materiel. They would have been quick to drive a wedge into the fledgling Commonwealth Division if they thought it was not up to it.

Cassels then made MacDonald the brigade commander. Was it he who fomented disloyalty and distrust among his fellow commanding officers to further his own ambitions? Hassett had no time for him but he did appear to achieve that ambition, if that is what it was, by commanding a brigade as a lieutenant colonel. Barlow was a pessimist and possibly thought he would have an easier ride under a softer brigadier. He had to be pushed and prodded, so would have been no friend of Taylor’s. Possibly he resented Taylor’s earlier criticisms. Speer was at the end of the road, having completed a gruelling tour with his battalion in Korea. They had not done well on the operation and all he would have wanted was to return home as intact as possible; not for him a possibly gung-ho brigade commander.

Clearly, a key figure was Brigadier William Pike, the divisional Commander Royal Artillery. He was a fine officer and would have undoubtedly been Cassels’s closest confidant. As we have seen, he was charged by Cassels to find out what was going on and then escorted Taylor to Cassels for his final interview. Sadly, the family papers, well researched by his son, Hew, in his excellent From the Front Line are silent on the matter.

So there was a nasty brew in the cauldron and Taylor was thrown out. Whether he satisfies the definition of a scapegoat as the price to be paid for the cohesion of the 1st Commonwealth Division, or was more the victim of some disruptive disloyalty by his subordinates and blatant mishandling by his commander, we shall probably never know. If, however, he was a scapegoat, there must have been another or others to benefit.

‘Cui bono?’1 Cassels possibly; easier for him to sack a brigadier than all the commanding officers, if that was the alternative? Or was it to demonstrate his strength in the face of the Americans? The commanding officers? Taylor was not popular, except with the Australians, so they would have been glad to see him go. MacDonald? He certainly boosted his career by Taylor’s dismissal but Regimental Headquarters of the KOSB was unable to throw any light. What is not in doubt, as agreed by the Army Council, was that Taylor was wrongly dismissed. If he was not a scapegoat, then why? The reader must decide.

The weight of responsibility on the shoulders of the battalion commander is enormous. Only he can make the decision where to move his men and when. His superiors can give him orders to do so, but he has to make them work. In the next chapter, Lieutenant Colonel Bevan receives orders, but very late—they are so delayed, in fact, that he arrives at his objective too late to catch the French. But should he have moved earlier? What were the problems in doing so and would it have made a difference?