Fifty years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the Eve of D-Day in June 1964, the former American President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote the following letter to Old Salopian, General Sir Miles Dempsey, Commander of the British Second Army, 1944-45:
On this sixth of June I suspect that your memory goes back, as mine does, to live over again the gnawing anxieties, the realization of unavoidable sacrifices, and the bright hopes that filled us on D-Day, 1944. Never, during the two decades that have since passed, have I ceased to render daily and devout thanks to a kindly Providence for permitting us to achieve in eleven months the complete victory that so many believed would require years… To you, one of my closest associates in OVERLORD, I am impelled to send, once more, a special word of thanks. Your professional skill and selfless dedication to the cause in which we all served will be noted by the historians of those dramatic months, but no historian could possibly be aware of the depth of my obligation to you.
With warm regard.
The letter is part of a collection of papers, diaries and photographs belonging to General Sir Miles Dempsey that will be auctioned in London later this month. Writing in The Daily Telegraph earlier this week, a few days before the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Judith Miller, Editor of the Miller’s Antiques Price Guide, described her own excitement at recognising the hugely significant role played by Dempsey in the Normandy Invasion – made all the more compelling by the fact that Dempsey is, as his biographer Peter Roston readily points out, “almost unknown to the general public”.
Judith Miller writes: “Week-in, week-out I receive advance notice of forthcoming sales from auction houses in Britain, Europe and the United States. Because at any given time I’m putting together a new edition of Miller’s Antiques Price Guide, all of these press releases and catalogues are very useful to me, and many contain items that, in terms of collecting, are of personal and not just professional interest. Occasionally, however, something comes through that totally resonates, that engages my attention at the expense of all else and, in this particular case, made me actually rub my arms with excitement at the sheer historical gravitas of it.
“On the 15 October 1944, during a frontline visit across the Channel, King George VI knighted General Miles Dempsey, and in so doing made him the first soldier to be knighted on the field of battle since Agincourt in 1415. The extraordinary exclusivity of this gives some indication of just how deserved it was.
“Having played significant roles in the evacuation of Dunkirk, the North African campaign against Rommel, and the invasions of Sicily and Italy, Dempsey had been personally selected by General Bernard Montgomery to command the Second Army – the main British force, which also included Canadians – for the D-Day Landings, which began on the 6 June 1944.
"Montgomery’s proved an astute choice: successful assaults by the Second Army on the Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches on the Normandy coast, were followed by a war of attrition designed to capture the town of Caen, selflessly drawing in vital German units and firepower and, in so doing, allowing the Americans space to establish a bridgehead to the west and break out into northern France.
“The Second Army’s subsequent rapid advance into Belgium, liberating Brussels and Antwerp in September, and prefacing Dempsey’s battlefield knighthood in mid-October, was followed by the crossing of the Rhine on the 23 March 1945 – Dempsey being not only the first British Army commander to do so, but also by now – the Second Army having swelled to over half a million men – the commander of the largest British army in history.
“Compared to Patton, Bradley, Clark and, of course, Montgomery and Eisenhower, Dempsey has, outside of military circles, been something of an unsung hero of the liberation of Europe and the overthrow of Nazi Germany. This is in part due to the fact that, after the war, he never wrote any memoirs. But it is also due to a strong sense of modesty and propriety: on May 3 1945 a delegation of senior German officers representing General Keitel and Admiral Doenitz attempted to surrender the German army to him but, typically, he sent them instead to Montgomery, which led to the formal surrender the next day, the 4 May 1945, at Luneberg Heath.
“What is abundantly clear, however, from the collection of letters, and related diary and photographs coming up at the Books, Atlases, Manuscripts and Photographs sale at Bonhams Knightsbridge in London, on Wednesday 18 June, is the extent to which Dempsey’s crucial role in one of the most momentous events in human history was appreciated by his superiors. Letters from Eisenhower, Montgomery, Dempsey and other commanders make compelling reading and, with the 70th anniversary of D-Day upon us, promise an equally compelling sale.”
Among the auction lots is an Order of Service for “The Knight's Vigil Held On The Eve Of D-Day”. Rostron’s biography of Dempsey opens with a description of that service, which had been arranged by Dempsey for the officers and men of Headquarters Second Army. As Rostron’s description hints, the service perhaps also held for Dempsey – who left Shrewsbury in 1914 at the age of 17 – memories of the many occasions when he had gathered in the Chapel at Shrewsbury School with his fellow pupils, almost all of whom would, as he did, go straight from School into the trenches of the First World War.
“Dempsey, a devout Christian, called on his men, in the service known as "The Knight's Vigil", to dedicate to Almighty God the task which lay before them. Accompanied by his Chief of Staff and his Deputy, he led them in that evocative prayer which he had known thirty years before at Shrewsbury:
"Teach us good Lord to serve Thee, as Thou deservest; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to ask for rest; to labour and not ask for any reward save that of knowing that we do Thy will".
Rostron later goes on to describe the profound influence Cyril Alington, Headmaster of Shrewsbury during Dempsey’s years at the School, had on him: “It is to the effect of the young and enormously energetic Alington’s huge persona that the deep religious faith and upright, honourable character, which were to be Dempsey’s throughout his life, may be largely attributed. As well as some photographs, Dempsey kept to the end of his life his cricketing records [he was captain of the 1st XI] and a collection of typed handouts on religious themes, such as an analysis of the Bible, from his time at Shrewsbury.”
But the story of Shrewsbury School’s connection with D-Day at the most senior military level does not end with Dempsey. Shrewsbury can lay claim to another arguably even more influential – and certainly even more overlooked – hero of the Normandy Invasion.
During the months leading up to D-Day, Dempsey’s commanding officer was General Sir Bernard Paget, who had been at Shrewsbury School from 1901 until 1906 and had, like Dempsey, then gone on to Sandhurst before serving with notable distinction in the First World War. (Paget won both the MC and the DSO, the highest military awards for bravery; Dempsey was awarded an MC in the First World War and the DSO in the Second.) Paget was Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces from the end of 1941 until July 1943, when he was promoted to General and assigned to form 21st Army group of 15 divisions – which included Dempsey’s 2nd Army – in preparation for the Normandy Invasion.
Paget spent the next months not only building and preparing the forces for the Normandy Invasion, but planning the Invasion itself. “Shortly after Paget’s death, papers which he had refused to allow to be published disclosed details of operation ‘Skyscraper’, prepared by him in the spring of 1943 as a detailed study of the proposed invasion of north-western Europe. It was described as ‘a blueprint for the D-Day operations of 1944; there were the same beaches, and the same objectives, while the problems of an opposed landing had all been fully assessed… the first key plan of the invasion.” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says of Paget that “he may go down in history as the greatest trainer of British soldiers since Sir John Moore”. Yet despite having commanded the 21st Army Group throughout the preparation for the invasion of Europe, the role of Commander-in-Chief for leading the combined forces onto the beaches of Normandy in Overlord on 6th June 1944 was taken from Paget’s grasp. Instead it was given to General Montgomery, who had been with Paget at Sandhurst, fresh from his successful campaigns in North Africa and Italy and widely feted and celebrated in the press as ‘the conquering hero’.
It was a decision that General Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff found very difficult: “The replacement of Paget with Montgomery for the liberation of France was a matter which was causing me much anxiety. Since the threat of invasion had lapsed, Paget had been placed in command of the forces in this country destined ultimately for the cross-channel operations. He had done a marvellous job in training up these forces, and I wish it had been possible to leave him in command for D-Day.”
Paget was, naturally, bitterly disappointed. However, in what many would argue is true Salopian style, he got on with the alternative job he was given in the Middle East and he never once expressed his disappointment publicly. As his son and biographer Julian describes in the preface to the biography of his father he wrote in 2008, “He was a man of exceptional modesty, and he firmly refused to write his own memoirs, or allow anyone else to do it. He was determined not to join ‘The War of the Generals’ with each setting out to promote their own claim to fame…. As a result, little has been written about his achievements…. In accordance with my father’s wishes, I have tried to avoid any criticism of others, or to cause controversy. I have not sought to resolve the rights and wrongs of various controversial issues in which he was involved, but have stated the situation seen by my father at the time, and have left it to readers to make their own judgements.”
Julian Paget leaves two of his father’s best friends to sum up his achievements. The Rt Hon Sir James Grigg, who was Secretary of State from 1943 to 1945, wrote: “It was on his creation of what was possibly the finest British Army of all time that I base the assertion that Paget rendered matchless service to the state. Mr Churchill once referred to Montgomery as ‘that great Cromwellian soldier”. I thought then and I think now that the epithet applied much more fittingly to Paget.”
The second quote chosen by Julian to conclude his biography of his father is by the author Sir Arthur Bryant, who co-founded the Ashridge College of Citizenship with Paget in 1946:
“The nobility and selflessness of the man were apparent to everyone who worked with him. By many of those who knew him, he will be remembered as the supreme embodiment of what a British soldier should be – a man of rocklike character, high moral and physical courage, unfaltering in obedience and in the performance of his duty, yet always eager to encourage initiative in others. Throughout his career he has been guided…. by a deep, religious faith and a crusader’s sense of mission. Such men arouse love and loyalty in those who serve under them, and leave behind an abiding impress.”
The qualities Bryant most admires in Paget might also be described as the epitome of a ‘true Salopian’, and it is fitting that his tribute was published in The Salopian magazine, June 1960.
Paget devoted a large part of his later life to the cause of adult education in citizenship, which he saw as being vital for the ‘winning of the peace’. “If we are to win the peace and establish a better world as a result of this war, we must maintain in peace those qualities which made us great in war, and are the redeeming feature of war. We must learn to put things first; duty before self-interest, and we must have high moral purpose and belief in ourselves and our Destiny.”
This quote is from a speech Paget gave at Shrewsbury School in 1943 – a year when he might have been forgiven for being unable to spare the time to return to his alma mater to give a talk and inspect the CCF. Like Dempsey’s visit to inspect the School CCF in 1945, their readiness to return – as both of them continued to do during the rest of their lives - demonstrates the importance Shrewsbury School had for both of them.
In 1948, Paget formally unveiled the School’s memorial to the Salopians killed during the Second World War. This memorial is the curved stone wall positioned behind the statue of Sir Philip Sidney, the School’s other great military hero, which serves as a memorial to all those Salopians – contemporaries of both Paget and Dempsey – killed in the First World War.