Wednesday 22 November 2017

Meet the Irishman who changed World War II

Sacked by Winston Churchill, pals with Ernest Hemingway, Cavan man Eric Dorman O'Gowan led an action-packed and unorthodox life. Pavel Barter tells his story

Desert generals: From left: Winston Churchill, Eric Dorman-Smith, William Gott and Claude Auchinleck
Desert generals: From left: Winston Churchill, Eric Dorman-Smith, William Gott and Claude Auchinleck
Family home: Bellamont House in Cootehill
Eric Dorman

In May 1950, Eric Dorman O'Gowan stepped off an aircraft at Boston airport carrying a couple of battered suitcases. The 54-year-old veteran of two world wars, from Cootehill in Co Cavan, was on a tour of the US in an effort to convince people of the failure of Irish partition.

One member of the press mob, who met him at the airport, wrote: "He looked, in spite of his grey hairs, like a wiry boy of 14 who is engaged in a piece of mischief."

The description was apt. Eric Dorman O'Gowan (1895-1969) spent a life packed with controversy. Here was a man who played a decisive role in World War II, stopping Erwin Rommel, Hitler's prized general. Yet shortly afterwards, Winston Churchill sacked him.

Lavinia Greacen, O'Gowan's biographer, describes him as a "poltergeist of history". Before my father gave me Greacen's book, Chink: A Biography, a couple of years ago, I had never heard about this uncompromising outsider. I was even more surprised to discover that my grandfather had taught him at military college prior to World War I, so I set about telling the story of O'Gowan's life for RTÉ's Documentary on One.

Eric Dorman
Eric Dorman

Eric Dorman-Smith, as he was known before he changed his name to its pre-anglicised origin, was born in Bellamont House in Cootehill. At first glance, he was the stereotypical Anglo-Irish aristocrat. But from his childhood friendship with John Charles McQuaid, archbishop of Dublin from 1940 to 1972, through to acquaintances with Daphne du Maurier, author of The Birds, and IRA veteran-turned-Irish politician Seán MacBride, his influence spread far beyond Cavan's borders.

Aogán Ó Fearghaíl, President of the GAA, grew up in Maudabawn, outside Cootehill. "In the 1960s, the neighbours would pack into our little kitchen at night to talk about local and world events and play cards," Ó Fearghaíl told me in his office at Croke Park. "I heard discussion about O'Gowan. We called him The Brig, as in The Brigadier. A man who went off to join the British army, then came home to speak on an anti-partition, pro-Irish unity platform, at political rallies in Cootehill. He was an amazingly complex character."

The 'Chink'

One of O'Gowan's longest lasting friendships was with the novelist Ernest Hemingway. The pair met at the end of World War I in Milan where 19-year-old Hemingway was working for the Red Cross and O'Gowan was recovering from the hell of trench warfare. The pair became close friends, drinking, gossiping and philosophising. Hemingway nicknamed his Irish friend "Chink" after O'Gowan's regimental mascot, the chinkara antelope.

The young American hero-worshipped O'Gowan, according to Jeffrey Meyers, author of Hemingway: A Biography. "Chink, who was just four years older, had fought at the Battle of Mons. He was a major at Passchendaele. So he represented values Hemingway admired: tight-lipped stoical, tough, reserved kind of guys. Hemingway always went to teachers."

O'Gowan spent Christmases with Hemingway and Hadley, Hemingway's first wife, in Switzerland. Together they climbed the St Bernard Pass, a 30km Swiss trek, in street shoes. They fraternised with James Joyce in Paris and went bull-running in Pamplona. O'Gowan's presence can be found in Hemingway's books such as In Our Time (1925) and The Sun Also Rises (1926). The protagonist of Across the River and Into The Trees (1950), currently being made into a film with Pierce Brosnan, is said to be modelled on O'Gowan.

Correlli Barnett, an English military historian, described the Cavan man as "a great wit. Genial. A good host. Just a bloody good bloke to know and to have as a friend".

Clashed with Monty

His fellow officers in the army, however, told a different story. Sporting an argumentative and abrasive manner, O'Gowan was loathed by many of his contemporaries. In particular, he clashed with Bernard Montgomery, a fellow general who detested Irish nationalists. Militarily, O'Gowan was on a different page to Montgomery. While Monty believed in forceful attacks, using overwhelming manpower, O'Gowan preferred an "indirect approach": committing as few soldiers as possible and confounding the enemy through surprise.

During World War II, O'Gowan was posted to Egypt. In 1940, his strategies helped defeat Mussolini's Italian forces in North Africa. Then Adolf Hitler sent Rommel to claim the Middle East. By 1942, Britain's Eighth Army was retreating. The Libyan port town of Tobruk had fallen and Rommel's Panzer division was marching towards Alexandria.

If Alexandria had fallen "it would have meant the collapse of British power in the Middle East," Christopher Dorman-O'Gowan, Eric's son, told me. "The Germans would then have controlled the whole of the Mediterranean. They would have won the oil fields." Could it have changed the course of the entire war? "Undoubtedly."

Claude Auchinleck, commander in chief of the Middle East, stepped into command of the Eighth Army, appointing Dorman-Smith, as he was still known then, as his chief of staff for a last stand at the coastal railway station of Alamein.

Using the Cavan man's indirect approach, they threw Rommel's forces into disarray. Churchill, however, believed Auchinleck and O'Gowan were taking too long. He sacked them and appointed Montgomery in their place. Montgomery defeated Rommel at the Second Battle of Alamein and the myth emerged of Monty as the hero and O'Gowan as a failure.

The nationalist emerges

"O'Gowan was the guy who planned and changed the war," says Ó Fearghaíl. "He laid down the battle plan that changed the course of the war. Montgomery got all the credit for it."

Bitter and angry, O'Gowan returned to Cavan where he threatened to sue Churchill. He became a fervent nationalist, speaking at anti-partition rallies and standing for election in Cavan on a united Ireland ticket. In the mid-1950s, he ­assisted the IRA during the Border Campaign. Some of his former associates believe his Republican dalliances were driven by revenge. O'Gowan's behaviour, however, suggests this was not the case.

At Alamein, he was one of the few generals with access to Ultra, the top-secret decryption technology that intercepted messages from Nazi high command. O'Gowan never betrayed his British army oath of silence about Ultra - not even to his own son. In my documentary, I explore how his Irish nationalism emerged many years beforehand during childhood.

However, O'Gowan's abrasiveness and his lack of diplomacy contributed to his demise. "I think that's probably right," said his son. "There's a spectrum of behaviour, and I suspect my father was not terribly good at smoothing the way with a view to the future."

Prior to his death from stomach cancer in 1969, O'Gowan experienced vindication for his ­achievements. In 1960, Correlli Barnett's book The Desert Generals was released, challenging the myth that Montgomery saved the day at Alamein. "Montgomery was drawing on plans and ideas drawn up by his predecessors: Auchinleck, as the commander in chief, and Eric Dorman-Smith as his chief of staff in the field," said the author.

O'Gowan remains a shadowy figure: a poltergeist of history whose story is barely known, even in his native Co Cavan. "From Ireland's perspective, he should have much greater praise," suggested Greacen, who is currently working on a collection of O'Gowan's letters. "He was very strong minded, which took courage. He didn't go against the grain without cost to himself. He would suffer depression, worries. But never self-doubt."

As a British general who became an Irish nationalist, O'Gowan was unorthodox and contradictory but he had precedent in aristocrats such as Constance Markievicz and Charles Parnell. Perhaps he was closest in nature to Edward Fitzgerald (1763 -1798), an Irish aristocrat who joined the British army before becoming an Irish revolutionary.

For Ó Fearghaíl, the story of Eric Dorman O'Gowan is evidence of the complexities of Irish history. "Very little of it is black and white," said the GAA President. "It can be very grey."

Documentary on One: The Brigadier, RTÉ Radio One, is on today at 1pm. Repeated tomorrow at 7pm

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