Correlli Barnett obituary | history books

The military historian Correlli Barnett, who has died aged 95, was a prolific and controversial writer. His books took aim at the myths surrounding Britain’s wartime exploits, in particular the way in which its armed forces were led during the first and second world wars.

Barnett – or “Bill” as he was universally known – was convinced that Britain’s political and military leaders, as well as the mandarins who provided them with administrative support, were regularly guilty of abysmal incompetence during periods of conflict, and that repeated failures to learn lessons or adopt reform had contributed to Britain’s decline as a nation.

He made his reputation in 1960 with The Desert Generals, in which he essayed a bold attack on most of the senior British commanders who ran the north Africa campaign during the second world war, accusing them of amateurism and contrasting their efforts unfavourably with the Germans. His criticism extended to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who had generally been seen as the hero leader of the campaign, but exonerated Montgomery’s predecessor, Claude Auchinleck, who, he argued, had in effect defeated the Axis forces in the first battle of El Alamein before being succeeded by Montgomery. Montgomery’s more famous victory in the second battle of El Alamein was, he contended, unnecessary because the impending Anglo-American invasion of north Africa (Operation Torch) would have forced the Germans into retreat anyway.

Correlli Barnett made his reputation with The Desert Generals (1960), a bold attack on senior British commanders in north Africa during the second world war

Barnett’s irreverent treatment of Montgomery and the British Eighth Army infuriated some, but the book’s success encouraged him to attack other military myths in The Swordbearers (1963) and in Britain and Her Army (1970), in which he challenged the notion that sea power had obviated the need for an efficient army to safeguard Britain’s interests in Europe.

There followed three impressive volumes charting Britain’s decline from the mid-19th century to the 1950s. In The Collapse of British Power (1972) he traced the sources of decay to mid-Victorian evangelism and the rise of the public schools, with their overriding concern to produce “gentlemen”, steeped in the classics, at the expense of useful learning related to industry and science. As a consequence, he argued, Britain had lost its competitive edge in domestic and international affairs.

In his view, Britain’s decline as a manufacturing, trading and imperial power was already evident by 1900 and was even more cruelly exposed in the first world war. Germany, from Bismarck onwards, had provided the exemplar of a modern, efficient state, oriented towards science and technology, which Britain had lamentably failed to emulate.

These themes were developed in the second volume, The Audit of War (1986), in which Barnett skilfully deployed a great weight of evidence, particularly drawn from official reports, to challenge the deeply rooted myth of Britain’s splendid record in production, innovation and management during the second world war.

Third, in The Lost Victory: British Dreams, British Realities, 1945-1950 (1995), Barnett pointed out that Britain had not won the second world war but had merely been on the winning side. The old failings in domestic and foreign policy had not been tackled, he said; indeed, things were getting worse. The dream of postwar reformers to create a New Jerusalem had turned into a dream reality of a “sub-literate, unskilled, unhealthy and institutionalized proletariat hanging on the nipple of state maternalism”. This brief summary does scant justice to Barnett’s mastery of a mass of evidence, his range of targets and his savage invective from him, such as describing Britain’s strategy after 1945 as “all fur coat and no knickers”.

The Audit of War was particularly influential because some of its ideas were taken up by the Conservative political theorist Keith Joseph, who became a government minister under Edward Heath and then Margaret Thatcher. In general, however, Barnett was more successful at provoking discussion than in gaining acceptance for his concepts, or providing feasible remedies. Even sympathetic reviewers pointed out that Britain’s power base was always relatively weak, and that decline was inevitable sooner or later. They, such as well why other nations France and Italy, had also declined without Britain’s alleged cultural handicaps.

Perhaps most disturbing to many was Barnett’s unapologetic adherence to 20th-century Germany as his model; a military-industrial-educational complex designed to preserve and enhance its power in a ceaseless, Hobbesian struggle with ruthless competitors.

Barnett was born the only child of Douglas, a banker, and his wife, Kathleen, in Croydon, south London, and was educated there at Trinity school before taking a degree in modern history at Exeter College, Oxford. He was just too young to fight in the second world war, but did his national service in the Intelligence Corps from 1945 to 1948, after which he worked for the North Thames Gas Board until 1957, followed by a period in public relations until 1963. Thereafter he spent many years making a living as a freelance historian and writer, including in 1963-64 as a consultant and contributor to BBC Television’s innovative series The Great War, also later working in a similar role on two other BBC series, The Lost Peace (1965-66) and The Commanders (1972-73).

He was also an outstanding success as part-time keeper of the archives at Churchill College, Cambridge, between 1977 and 1995, playing an important role in acquiring the papers of Winston Churchill after many years of wrangling over their financial value and destination. In the early 80s he was appointed lecturer in defense studies at Cambridge University – but resigned after three years in order to devote more time to his writing.

He was appointed CBE in 1997.

Although those who did not know him might have expected the angry tone of many of Barnett’s publications to go hand-in-hand with a choleric, Colonel Blimp-ish personality, in fact he was about as far from that image as might be imagined. Despite his annoyance at him with inefficiency in public life, he was remarkably even-tempered and cheerful, generous with his time in answering queries and in helping friends. He retained almost boyish looks into old age, and with them a youthful exuberance and sense of fun.

With his wife, Ruth Murby, whom he married in 1950, Barnett spent most of his time in East Carleton, Norfolk, where his recreations included gardening, interior decorating and mole-hunting. He also enjoyed traveling through France, although a dislike of flying restricted more distant ventures.

Ruth died in 2020. He is survived by their two daughters.

Correlli Douglas Barnett, historian, born 28 June 1927; died 10 July 2022

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