Obituary: Brigadier George Taylor (CORRECTED)
Tuesday 09 August 1994
George Taylor, soldier: born 17 September 1905; DSO and Bar 1944: CBE 1955; married 1937 Isobel McGuire (died 1975; one daughter), secondly Patricia De'Ath; died 17 July 1994.
GEORGE TAYLOR was born into a calm conservative world in 1905, just before the mutiny on board the battleship Potemkin. Thereafter the world - especially Europe - became and remained a place of extreme violence or threat of violence until Taylor's twilight days; and his participation in it was complete.
He won an almost unrivalled reputation as a battle commanding officer in North-West Europe in 1944-45 before commanding brigades in the Korean war and in Kenya during the Mau Mau campaign. His retired years, some three decades, were spent promoting Common Cause, an organisation dedicated to warning the West of the threat of Communism. A regular lecturer for Common Cause, he became its field director. In 1990, as the Soviet empire collapsed, he published his war memoirs, Infantry Colonel, whose initial chapter is entitled 'The Panzers from Russia'.
The fourth of six sons of Col Thomas Taylor of the King's (Liverpool) Regiment, he was brought up a Catholic in a Lancashire tradition that never forgets penal times. He was educated at St Cuthbert's (Ushaw), Durham. He took to the Liverpool Cotton Exchange, played county rugby and followed his father into the Territorial Army. In 1929 he was gazetted to a regular commission in the West Yorkshire Regiment, then in Northern Ireland commanded by a Great War triple DSO, Freddie de Guingand, destined to be Montgomery's chief of staff ('Send for Freddie'), who succeeded my father as the Adjutant.
The West Yorks took Taylor to the Caribbean, where he met Rudyard Kipling; then Egypt and on to Quetta, where a massive earthquake occurred in May 1935. Throughout the 1930s Taylor, very fast for his bulk, played rugby for the Army, for Waterloo and for Lancashire, and finally for the Barbarians, which brought him an England trial. After the Second World War, commanding 2nd West Yorkshires, he took them to the top of the 1947-48 Malaya Command rugby championship. In earlier days he had been a sprinter, representing his regiment in the quarter-mile. Commanding the 1st West Yorkshires in Austria after the Second World War, he looked just as capable.
The outbreak of war brought Taylor 15 years of terrible, though exciting violence, culminating in Korea in 1951, then Kenya in 1955. It began quietly in 1939, when he joined the BEF in France. In 1940 he became embroiled in the ill- fated Norwegian Operation being responsible for British lines of communication in the Arctic Bodo area. He was a staff officer in 1942 in Madagascar with the Combined Ops Reserve Force, which was soon sent to the North-West Frontier - what he called 'wasting the war'.
George Taylor was fortunate - according to his lights - to get himself posted as 2IC to the 1st Worcestershire Regiment (43rd Wessex Division); since this battalion landed on the D-Day beaches in Normandy. At that point, he was still in his thirties, experienced but not battle- scarred. His moment came after four weeks, when two Commanding Officers of 5th Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry had been killed and that regiment had been decimated on the pivotal Hill 112: Taylor became their third Normandy CO, with the task of absorbing reinforcements, shaking down what remained and creating an effective fighting unity out of a shattered body of men.
Always gifted at training troops and breathing fortitude into them, perhaps in the way of a rugby captain, he took 5 DCLI to a glorious record through to the end. His Wessex Division lost 36 Commanding Officers in the time, but he himself lost never a day out of the line until the armistice. Perhaps only (Sir) Denis Hamilton DSO of the 7th Duke of Wellington's could match that record.
Taylor's Intelligence Officer was (Sir) David Willcocks MC who was to become the Musical Director of the Bach Choir in 1960, with a brilliant career in music. He had been with 5 DCLI since 1940. He had this to say of his last CO: that as RIO he was well placed to witness 'not only his great courage and inspiring leadership, but also the care with which we reconnoitred and planned every attack or defensive engagement, in order to minimise casualties . . . his courage and concern called forth in all ranks a deep loyalty and affection'.
The first Tiger tank ever to fall into British hands was captured by 5 DCLI in one of Taylor's initial night battles, conducted with cunning after careful daylight reconnaissance. German self-propelled guns, tanks and personnel fell into 5 DCLI hands, and 50th Northumbrian Division was freed to move ahead again at once. Taylor as CO was awarded an immediate DSO (granted always for both personal and regimental success - a tribute to the whole show). He acquired a rising reputation for coolness under extreme stress, and for communicating that coolness to his men.
Taylor's second immediate DSO came through involvement in the Arnhem Battle in September. When Sir Brian Horrocks wrote his own memoir, Corps Commander (1977), he gave an account of 'the thrusting CO of 5 DCLI', whom by then he knew well. Working furiously to close the gaps between its own columns and the beleaguered parachutists, Wessex Division was later criticised as slow and 'sticky': so Horrocks, to remove any slur from the reputation of 'this first-class West Country division', related the story of 5 DCLI.
The CO divided his forces into two, infantry riding on armour quickly to Oosterhout to join up with the Polish paras. Five Tiger tanks then infiltrated into gaps within the columns. The CO sent back platoons with PIATs (hand- held anti-tank weapons) to ambush all five Tigers: one soldier shot his PIAT from so close that he blew out his own eye - 'I don't care; I knocked the bugger out.' 5 DCLI then linked up with the Polish Parachute Brigade, conveying ammunition, petrol, food, medical stores and the like.
George Taylor had a fine understanding - studied as well as experienced - of the first principle of modern battle, that drive and daring beats caution. As his superior wrote, 'Taylor knew the risks were great, but he also knew how serious were the straits of the Airborne Forces.' He knew his officers and men - 'looking upon them as my sons, who never failed me' - and thus he knew what he could put them to.
His gifts as a battle CO were incomparable. They included confidence in his fellow COs, notably Hugh Borradaile of 7th Somerset Light Infantry, whom Horrocks called 'a dynamo, not stopping nor relaxing'; who took command after four COs had been killed in weeks, and then suffered his jeep's being blown up by German tank fire; only he survived. Of such mettle those COs were made.
In 1950 Taylor found himself commanding 28th Infantry Brigade in Hong Kong; and from there in April 1951 he took two battalions to the Korean war, gathering in an Australian and a Canadian regiment to compose 28th Commonwealth Brigade in the Commonwealth Divison under General (Sir) Jim Cassels. Reading Taylor's two accounts in Ca Ira (the West Yorks journal), one has to say that his instinct for the toughest battle was extraordinary. Brigadier Kendrew won his fourth DSO later commanding 29th Brigade in Korea; but it seemed that not even such as he could touch Taylor for fighting instinct and will to win.
The first test came in October 1951, when 29th Brigade was weakened by regimental turnover (battalions serving each a year). General Cassels thus gave the task of the main attack to Taylor's Brigade in confronting the Chinese on the Imjin River; the Canadian Brigade to follow them and 28th Brigade to leap-frog through to the objective. As with Willcocks in 5 DCLI, Taylor set out a succinct two-phase plan that allowed junior officers to add their initiative to it as events flowed. Thus Taylor found that in setbacks his 'sons' had responded without awaiting higher authorisation to win swift initiatives. The Chinese suffered in excess of 3,000 casualties; the Commonwealth Division only 420. The Australian CO of 3 RAR, Francis Hassett, judged the operation as 'in many ways a classic'.
Curiously, Operation Commando proved for George Taylor not a ladder but a grave; he went undecorated and was appointed away at once to the UK. But his professionalism was rewarded by command of a Strategic Reserve unit, 49th Brigade, on its way to Kenya to break the Mau Mau revolt during 1953-55. Again Taylor designed an elaborate drive, Operation Anvil; it was judged to have turned the tide of the Kenya emergency, some 2,000 Mau Mau terrorists being rounded up. This time Taylor's soldiering was recognised with his appointment as CBE in July 1955. At that moment he might have been counted almost the most experienced field commander in the world: he was just 50.
But for him it was time to change. He was sent on the senior course at RNC Greenwich in 1956; and thereafter spent two final soldiering years at the Research & Development Establishment, West Byfleet, with a mixed team of scientists and soldiers, before retiring to give the rest of his life to Common Cause. Perhaps in earlier days he might have been given a colonial governorship as General Sir Hubert Huddleston was in the Sudan. He proved a good lecturer but not a great thinker.
Taylor's first wife, Isobel McGuire, died in 1975. He later married a Marine colonel's widow, Pat De'Ath, who gave him a dozen years of happiness. At his request, his cape/cowl as a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, granted by the Pope, rested at his Requiem upon his coffin.
FREDDIE de GUINGAND was, as the result of an editing error, described in Brigadier Taylor's obituary as 'a Great War triple DSO'. This was not de Guingand, but his senior colleague Col Morey Boyall, who retired from the Army in 1930.
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