Lord John Gort was Commander-in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in Western Europe in the months that led up to the evacuation at Dunkirk. It was Lord Gort who had to cope with the blitzkrieg tactic employed by the Germans – a task that proved an overwhelming one.
John Gort was born in 1886 in County Durham. He was born into an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family and after his schooling at Harrow, he joined the Army. After Sandhurst, Gort joined the Grenadier Guards. By 1914, at the start of World War One, Gort was a captain. During this war, Gort was mentioned in dispatches nine times, won the Military Cross, the Distinguished Service Order with two bars and in September 1918, was awarded the Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery.
Between the two wars, Gort taught at the Staff College and in 1925 was promoted to colonel. In 1930, he was appointed as Commander of the Guards Brigade and in 1936 he was appointed to the post as commander of the Staff College – a post he held up to 1939. In 1937, Gort became a full general.
With his exemplary military record, it seemed almost inevitable that Gort should have been given the position as Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that went to France and Belgium in 1940.
The BEF fared badly against the onslaught of the German military in the spring of 1940. It seems likely that no other British senior army leader of the time would have done any better than Gort – such was the impact of blitzkrieg.
Two views have developed as to what should have been done at Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo, the evacuation plan co-ordinated by Admiral Ramsey in Dover.
During the actual evacuation, some felt that as many soldiers as possible should have gathered at Dunkirk itself to assist the rapid movement of men off of the beach and onto the boats. However, this would have allowed the Germans to have got even nearer to the troops trapped at Dunkirk. Gort kept many units of men away from Dunkirk and on the beaches to the east of the town. He argued that they would assist in the holding operation directed against the Germans and give those at Dunkirk more of a chance to evacuate.
Those co-ordinating the evacuation believed that it also meant that too many men would be too far away from the boats assisting in the evacuation and that the first option was more preferable to the other. Gort was re-called to Britain during the evacuation and over 300,000 men were eventually evacuated out of Dunkirk. Gort, with his reputation, could hardly have been discarded and he was made ADC to the king, George VI. He served as Governor of Gibraltar and Malta (between 1941 and 1944) and in 1944 was made High Commissioner of Palestine – a post he held until 1945.
Lord John Gort died in March 1946.