Peace at last for Lt Gen Brian Horrocks – the man who outsmarted Churchill and Rommel

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Lt Gen Horrocks (centre) addressing men of XXX Corps at Rees in May 1945
Lt Gen Horrocks (centre) addressing men of XXX Corps at Rees in May 1945

When Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks died in 1985, he was honoured with a memorial service at Westminster Abbey, attended by representatives of the Queen and a list of officers and dignitaries that took up two full columns in The Telegraph.

His body was later cremated and, his family believed, his ashes scattered.

That was until earlier this year, when the regimental secretary of Lt Gen Sir Brian’s former unit received a call to tell him that the general’s ashes were, in fact, still at a crematorium near Chichester. They had sat unbeknownst and undisturbed for 37 years in its chapel of rest.

Unclaimed ashes are usually scattered after several years. In this case, however, an eagle-eyed veteran spotted the famous name and alerted Colonel (Retd) John Powell at the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.

Col Powell set about tracking down Lt Gen Sir Brian’s living relatives, who were shocked by the news which came “out of the blue”.

“We were very close,” his granddaughter Ilona Lazar told The Telegraph. “He was always upbeat and smiling and I loved spending time with them. He used to call me Miss I and always took me to the local pub for scampi and chips and cider which was a big treat.

“People used to come up to him in the street to ask for an autograph.”

Lt Gen Sir Brian’s ashes will be buried on Monday in a private ceremony at St Paul’s Church in Mill Hill - Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock
Lt Gen Sir Brian’s ashes will be buried on Monday in a private ceremony at St Paul’s Church in Mill Hill - Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Lt Gen Sir Brian’s ashes will be buried on Monday in a private ceremony at St Paul’s Church in Mill Hill, north London.

The ceremony has been organised by The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, a successor of Lt Gen Sir Brian’s Middlesex Regiment, and there will be music from the regimental band.

The date coincides with Albuhera Day, the regiment’s commemoration of its exploits in the Battle of Albuhera.

The general will be buried close to fellow Die Hards, as members of the regiment are known, and a set of Colours once borne by the Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge’s Own).

Lt Gen Sir Brian was a veteran of the First World War, the Russian Civil War and the Anglo-Irish War, and went on to lead troops in the Battle of France, North Africa, the Battle of Normandy, the liberation of Belgium, Operation Market Garden and the crossing of the Rhine.

It was an unlikely career, considering he ranked 162nd out of 167 cadets in his Sandhurst class, according to biographer Philip Warner.

In his own words, he “was idle, careless about my turnout — in army parlance, scruffy — and, due to the fact that I am inclined to roll when I walk, very unsmart on parade”.

In August 1914, he was commissioned to the Middlesex Regiment and shipped to France.

Lieutenant General Sir Brian's most well-known role came in the ultimately doomed Operation Market Garden during the Second World War
Lieutenant General Sir Brian's most well-known role came in the ultimately doomed Operation Market Garden during the Second World War

Weeks later on October 21, during the Race to the Sea, his platoon was surrounded and the then second lieutenant was shot through the abdomen and leg and captured. He remained in captivity for four years, and wrote: “The war for me was over and my active military career had stopped.”

During those years, he took up two hobbies: organising escapes and learning languages. He was never successful in the former, and was once rumbled 500 yards from freedom after leaving broken eggshells on a barn floor.

In the latter, however, he succeeded, mastering French, German and Russian - the last ostensibly to stop officers from spitting on the floor, an explanation he offered to an apparently bewildered Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev when he met him as Black Rod in the House of Lords.

Upon his eventual repatriation, he put his Russian to good use. In early 1919 he was shipped to Vladivostok as Britain supported the Whites in the Russian Civil War.

Second World War service cemented legacy

After fighting in the Anglo-Irish War of 1921 he competed at the 1924 Olympics in Paris in the modern pentathlon. But his service during the Second World War cemented his legacy.

Bernard Montgomery, an Allied field marshal studies a map with Lt Gen Sir Brian
Bernard Montgomery, an Allied field marshal studies a map with Lt Gen Sir Brian

In the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France, he waded chest-high into the sea with a torch to coordinate the nighttime escape of dozens of men.

Then in late 1942, he faced off against the legendary Nazi general Erwin Rommel at the Battle of Alam el Halfa in the deserts of North Africa.

Aware that Rommel had repeatedly lured British forces into an attack, Lt Gen Sir Brian planned an exclusively defensive action. This displeased Winston Churchill, who had paid a surprise visit to British forces in Egypt.

He told Churchill that Rommel’s dog would exhaust itself chasing the British rabbit, which would then turn on the dog and eat it. But according to Mr Warner, Churchill was unimpressed by the defensive plan and asked Bernard Montgomery, the Allied field commander, to remove Lt Gen Sir Brian.

Montgomery, a lifelong friend of Lt Gen Sir Brian’s, held firm and kept him in place. Rommel was successfully seen off and the Allied forces secured victory at the Battle of El Alamein.

Lt Gen Sir Brian stands on Bernard Montgomery's (pointing, centre) right in Egypt during the Second World War - Popperfoto
Lt Gen Sir Brian stands on Bernard Montgomery's (pointing, centre) right in Egypt during the Second World War - Popperfoto

Montgomery did not, however, allow Lt Gen Sir Brian to telegram Churchill “Rabbit ate dog”, suggesting that the Prime Minister had likely forgotten the phrase and would think the general mad.

His war nearly ended the next year when he was hit by a strafing German aircraft, a single bullet piercing his lungs, stomach and intestines.

Five surgeries and 14 months in recovery ruled him out of the D-Day landings. By August 1944 he took command of XXX Corps as it mopped up German resistance in Normandy and pushed on to liberate Belgium.

Operation Market Garden

Lt Gen Sir Brian’s most well-known role came in the ultimately doomed Operation Market Garden, the combined airborne and armoured operation devised by Montogomery to open a route through the Netherlands across the Rhine and into Germany.

His men formed the armoured thrust that pierced through German lines and liberated Nijmegen and Eindhoven, but failed to reach Arnhem in time to secure victory.

The then-acting lieutenant general’s role was immortalised in the film A Bridge Too Far by Edward Fox, who portrayed Lt Gen Sir Brian detailing the plan to his officers.

Lt Gen Sir Brian’s military career was extraordinary, but his national fame was cemented by a brief but successful transition into television. He presented three programmes, including the BBC's Men in Battle, in which he explained the tactics behind several key battles.

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