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Alan Brooke (1883 - 1963)

Alan Brooke was one of the most significant military leaders during the Second World War, for most of it as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the most influential position in the British army. He was latterly Chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast.

Brooke, though born at Bagnères-de-Bigorre in France and brought up in that country, had Ulster roots which were very deep. His father was Sir Victor Alexander Brooke, third Baronet (1843-1891), of Colebrooke, the family estate in County Fermanagh (his mother was Alice Sophia Bellingham, second daughter of Sir Alan Edward Bellingham, third Baronet, of Castlebellingham in County Louth, which while not strictly Ulster, the nine miles involved would import no significance socially). The first Brooke of Colebrooke, Sir Henry Brooke of Donegal, was the son of an Elizabethan captain of Cheshire origin, rewarded for his part in suppressing the Great Rebellion of 1641 by the grant of Colebrooke and 30,000 acres land in County Fermanagh. Dating from that time the Brookes were a thoroughly military family, whose members saw service in many campaigns, often achieving high rank and distinction. No fewer than twenty-six Brookes of Colebrooke would serve in the First World War, and twenty-seven in the Second.

Brooke was educated at in France, where the family owned a villa. As the country pursuits preferred by his family were equally available in Fermanagh as in the South of France, that the weather was rather better meant that they effectively lived there and the young Brooke attended a small school in Pau, which provided him with an education rather different to that of his future military peers: he spoke French before he spoke English and also learned German, and had little or no experience of the team-game esprit encouraged, to say the least, at English public schools (one of which he would probably have attended had the Brookes elected to live in Ulster).

Nevertheless he attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, was commissioned into the Royal Regiment of Artillery, and served throughout the First World War. He was regarded as a highly competent commander, and at the end of the war he had risen to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel with two DSOs (one of the most distinguished medals in the British army). In particular, as an artillery commander, strategist and tactician, he was credited in the British army with introducing the "creeping barrage". This involved firing waves of bombardment in front of advancing lines of attacking troops, with the aim of ensuring that the ground between the enemy's trench lines was covered and the exposure the attacking soldiers to unsilenced machine-gun fire from defenders, which had been catastrophic at the Somme battle in July 1916 - not least for the Ulster Division - was minimised. The tactic was first deployed later in the Somme battle and at Vimy Ridge the following year; although posterity is still appalled at the losses these battles produced, these were rather less than they might have been. Vimy Ridge, for example, was a significant victory for the Canadian Corps, whose successful attack was won with notably fewer casualties than in similar contemporary campaigns. Brooke was the Canadian Corps' artillery commander, though he deflected credit for the idea, simply claimed he got it from the French.

He lectured between the wars at various military academies, developing his ideas on artillery fire and movement, and becoming an advocate of greater strategic co-operation between the branches of the armed forces. As war approached, he was promoted lieutenant-general, and placed in command first of a newly reshaped anti-aircraft corps and then of the whole anti-aircraft command, and in August 1939 was made Commander-in-Chief, Southern Command, and chosen to command the 2nd corps of a British Expeditionary Force on mobilization, which came the following month. Early in the Second World War he was with the army in France and was involved in organising the evacuations back across the Channel. He returned to Southern Command in charge of national defence of the expected German invasion. He favoured a light line of immediate coastal defence with a powerful second line (he also was prepared, if in extremis, to drench landing German troops with poison gas). In 1941, Prime Minister Churchill decided to make him Chief of the Imperial General Staff (replacing Sir John Dill from Lurgan, County Armagh), and soon after he was appointed chairman of the chiefs of staff committee becoming effectively the principal strategic adviser to the war cabinet as well as the professional head of the army. Along with his force of intellect and personality, Brooke was now the foremost military figure in the overall strategic direction of the War.

Brooke was able to ensure the essential co-operation and co-ordination of the different armed forces, which required all his qualities of high and quick-thinking intelligence, combined with personal respect from and towards his colleagues; however, he was not at all a man to withhold his views and expected no less from others. He was also able to deal with the Prime Minister, Churchill, with whom he had a stormy personal relationship, to say the least (though there was very high mutual respect and affection), successful enough in making the best use of Churchill's mercurial persona but undoubted brilliant intelligence. The Prime Minister expected his military chiefs to do as he wanted; though he often got this, he never overruled a unanimous piece of their advice as extracted from them and presented to him by Brooke. At a different level, he was responsible for liaising with the other Allies' military commanders, his aim being to ensure maximal protection of British interests, just his Allies' were to maximise theirs. Sometimes high politics were unavoidable, such as sending convoy after convoy through the Arctic Ocean to Murmansk, at large cost to Britain but of little benefit to the Soviet Union; sometimes he was able to influence the United States, increasingly the greater power militarily and diplomatically, against their wishes, for example dissuading them from an early invasion of France (though both agreed that this would eventually come). Brooke expended some of his frustrations by keeping detailed personal diaries throughout the War. These were not planned for publication but when they did in fact appear in the late 1950s, they made rather uncomfortable reading for some, including Brooke himself.

After the war he was appointed to some ceremonial posts, such as Master Gunner of St James's Park in 1946, Lord Lieutenant of the County of London and Constable of the Tower in 1950; at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 he was nominated Lord High Constable. He also sat on the boards of directors of several companies, including the Belfast Banking Company. Already in 1945 he been created Brookeborough in the County of Fermanagh and was made 1st Viscount Alanbrooke the following year, when he also received the freedom of the City of Belfast. He received numerous military distinctions and awards, foreign as well as British.

In 1945, along with General Eisenhower, Field Marshal Montgomery and Field Marshal Alexander, he was awarded an honorary degree by Queen's University, and in 1949 was appointed Chancellor. The University's Senate Minutes record that Alanbrooke's appointment was followed only 6 months later by the appointment of Eric Ashby as Vice-Chancellor. Ashby, who would be one of Queen's outstanding chief executives, remembered Alanbrooke as a modest man, an easy guest (including house guest), and a fund of interesting stories about his war experiences, not least his presence at momentous meetings with Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, though mainly he enjoyed talking about his favourite interest of ornithology. And when he chaired senate meetings, Lord Ashby recalled, they were over in half the usual time.

Brooke was married twice. His first wife, Jane Mary Richardson, from Rossfad, County Fermanagh, whom he married just before the start of the First World War, was killed in a road accident. He subsequently married Benita Blanche, daughter of Sir Harold Pelly, fourth baronet, of Gillingham in Dorset, and widow of Sir Thomas Evan Keith Lees, second Baronet, of Lytchet Manor.

He died at home in England, still in office at Queen's. One of the tower blocks of the Queen's Elms Halls of Residence was named for him. His potrait by Patrick Phillips is on display in the Great Hall, Queen's University, Belfast. There is a memorial tablet to him in Colebrooke Parish Church, County Fermanagh.

Born: 23 July 1883
Died: 17 June 1963
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann


Brian Walker & Alf McCreary: Degrees of Excellence: The Story of Queen’s Belfast 1845-1995, (Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1994); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography;; Encyclopedia Britannica; Simon Heffer: Strictly English