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Commando General: The Life of Major General Sir Robert Laycock KCMG CB DSO

Richard Mead
Sir Robert Laycock, usually known as Bob, has arguably not received as much attention from military historians as he deserved; the publication of Richard Mead's biography is therefore welcome. Commando General would be the perfect present for anyone interested in the Second World War, in the origins of the Commandos or in Evelyn Waugh, who was Laycock's friend, admirer, staff officer and who features frequently in the narrative. The book is well-written and spiced with dry military humour.

Laycock has been overshadowed by his great Second World War contemporaries, who include Mountbatten, Dill, Montgomery and Churchill. It was not difficult to be overshadowed in such company. Nevertheless some of these very distinguished men held Laycock in high regard, especially Churchill. Another factor was his unexpectedly early retirement from the Army in 1947, at the age of forty. His reasons are not entirely clear, but – among other factors - the Army was contracting, too many senior officers were chasing too few jobs and he had an estate to run. Laycock later served as Governor of Malta from 1954 to 1959. He died in 1967, aged only sixty.

Laycock unquestionably enjoyed a privileged existence. He was the son of a rich country gentleman, educated at Eton and Sandhurst, where he passed out 15th out of the 108 cadets of his intake. He hunted, shot and sailed yachts. In 1932, on extended leave, he sailed a four-masted barque round the Cape of Good Hope. He belonged to the Royal Yacht Squadron and White's Club. His family owned a country estate and a London house. The Duke of Westminster was a family friend. Laycock's photographs show that as a young man he was strikingly handsome, while his surviving acquaintances add that he was charming and a born leader. He was also very intelligent indeed, with a serious interest in science, which he never lost.

There were drawbacks to this enviable life: not conformist by nature, Laycock was expected to conform. His father, like many of his class and generation, was a caring but controlling parent. Joe Laycock, who had fought in the Anglo-Boer War, had decided ideas about what were and were not appropriate careers for his children to follow. Left to himself, Bob Laycock would not have become a soldier; he wanted to go to university to read science, thereafter becoming a research chemist. That was “not on”, so he joined the Royal Horse Guards, soon becoming Adjutant. As a compensation, there would be plenty of opportunities to enjoy sport in the Army.

The most interesting part of Laycock's military career occurred between 1940 and 1945. In June 1940 Laycock was a 33-year-old Captain, about to take up a staff appointment. At that point destiny called: in July he became a Lieutenant Colonel and Commanding Officer of 8 Commando, one of the first to be formed on Churchill's order. The following year he was a full Colonel. But in 1941 Laycock's career seemed to hit the rocks: he experienced disappointment and disaster in the Mediterranean.

The five days in May 1941 that Laycock spent in Crete were the most controversial of his career. There is still debate over whether he disobeyed orders that Layforce (two lightly armed battalions of commandos) should be the last to leave the island and over whether he ought to have departed, as he did, leaving most of his command to be taken prisoner by the Germans. He was criticised at the time and again in 1955, when Evelyn Waugh published Officers and Gentlemen, the second volume of his war trilogy Sword of Honour, which was based on his own wartime experiences. Some people, who included Ann Fleming (Mrs Ian Fleming, a notorious charmer, gossip and trouble-maker), identified Ivor Claire, a composite fictional character who did desert his men, with Laycock. Waugh was appalled, denied the identification and and put Mrs Fleming firmly in her place: “Just shut up about Laycock”, he wrote, signing off “****, you! E. Waugh”. Surprisingly, their friendship survived this exchange; both of them thereafter sometimes ended their letters with “**** you! Love, Evelyn/Ann”. In reality the Sword of Honourcharacter who most resembles Laycock is the brave and likeable Colonel Tommy Blackhouse. Long after Laycock's death Anthony Beevor, in his magisterial study of the Cretan disaster, was highly critical of his decisions (while stressing that there was no question of cowardice on Laycock's part). This has tarnished Laycock's reputation.

We may never know what really happened, because it has since emerged that Waugh, the keeper of the Layforce war diary, made false statements in it, apparently in order to bury some unpalatable truths and perhaps to protect Laycock. However, although Waugh's conscience troubled him thereafter, he would never criticise Laycock, nor permit criticism of him in his presence. His dedication of Officers and Gentlemen to Laycock read: “To Major General Sir Robert Laycock KCMG CB DSO. That every man in arms would wish to be”.

Later in 1941, against his better judgment, Laycock took part in Operation Flipper, “the Rommel Raid”, carried out mainly by men from No 11 (Scottish) Commando. One of its objectives was an attack on the headquarters of Erwin Rommel, then the Commander of the German Afrika Korps in North Africa. The operation was a failure; Rommel had left the target house weeks earlier and all but two of the British Commandos who got ashore were killed or captured. Laycock once more deftly extricated himself. Although Laycock could not be blamed for the intelligence failure, this second debacle in one year was not helpful to him.

Nevertheless Winston Churchill, for one, was relieved that Laycock had managed to escape from both Crete and North Africa. He valued Laycock and had plans for him. Now a Brigadier, Laycock became Commander of the Special Service Brigade, which was the umbrella organisation for the Commandos. In 1943 Laycock led his brigade in the invasion of Sicily before being recalled to become Chief of Combined Operations, succeeding Mountbatten in that capacity, and the youngest Major General in the British Army. He attended most of the major Allied conferences for the rest of the war.

There are many moments of humour in Commando General, some involving Evelyn Waugh and Randolph Churchill. It says much for Laycock that he both tolerated their presence on his staff and retained to the end of their lives the unconditional loyalty of these two brave but unsoldierly and cantankerous officers. None of them made old bones. They died close together: Waugh in 1966, Laycock in 1967 and Churchill in 1968. None of them liked the post-war world into which they had survived.

One of the best jokes in the book was supplied by Sir Winston Churchill himself, in planning whose State funeral Laycock was closely involved. Why, asked Laycock, did Sir Winston wish his coffin to be taken to Waterloo Station after the funeral service in St Paul's Cathedral, for transport by rail to Oxfordshire for burial? Surely Paddington was the logical station to use?

“I want Waterloo because de Gaulle will be there!”

And that is what happened.

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