H. R. B. FOOTE died just 24 hours after the 76th anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai, the great founding battle honour of his regiment, the Royal Tank Regiment, into which he was commissioned in 1925 and served until 1958.
Although he held a variety of prestigious appointments during his career, including three years as Director of the Royal Armoured Corps, it is not for these that Bob Foote will be remembered. Old soldiers, no matter how distinguished, do not normally find themselves the subject of This Is Your Life as Foote did. What marked him out was his legendary bravery in the Second World War battles in the Western Desert, especially the battle of Gazala.
It was here that Foote commanded the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in the midst of some of the most vicious fighting of the whole campaign. The battles lasted for a week in 1942, at the beginning of which he won a DSO at Sidra Ridge, and culminated with his attack at Knightsbridge when, with most of his tanks destroyed, but required vitally to stay there, he reorganised his remaining armoured units by moving among them on foot to encourage them. Finally he put himself in his tank, in front of the remains of his regiment, standing high out of the turret so that he could be seen by his men. His tank was hit 29 times and when his communications and guns had all been destroyed he led what was left of his regiment forward on foot using hand signals to guide them. The withdrawal of the Guards Brigade which it had been his task to permit, was successfully accomplished. Lt-Col Foote was awarded the Victoria Cross after a showing of physical courage and leadership, in desperate circumstances, which beggars description.
Far the most important part of leadership is example. If you want a role-model perfectly to fit such a leader it was Foote. He led from the front when he needed to, which in the Western Desert was often, usually in his tank, memorably on one occasion on foot, but if the regiment was static, being continuously shot at and shelled, he would run round in his jeep encouraging his men. Some military thinkers who were not there might rate this as foolhardy, but so heavy had been the casualties with two-pounder guns in the Matildas versus the German 88s that the crews were now heavily interlarded with men from other parts of the regiment who were not specially trained as tank crews. Radio communications were, to say the least, difficult. He needed to do things that way.
After his final capture when Rommel overran Tobruk, Foote escaped over the wire from an Italian prisoner-of-war camp and with a handful of others moved up into the mountains where for weeks Il Colonello, as they called him, succeeded in gaining the support of the villagers, and eventually joined the Italian partisans who helped him to cross into Switzerland and ultimately back to England.
Soldiering was what in his life Foote did best. He was not only respected by his men, he was loved by them. When he was no longer serving he took a deep interest in the British Legion and the Old Comrades Association where he found some of his wartime warriors. There are words to describe the finer qualities of people, words which perhaps have gone a bit out of fashion these days. But General Bob was straight: a straight man, straight down the middle, no nonsense; a man of integrity and loyalty. I don't think he knew the meaning of the word devious.
Bob Foote was my Divisional Commander in Germany, but during the last 30 years or so, it was as a golfer that I got to know him well. A game which is meaningless to the uninitiated, but to which we were both devoted. He would be the first to say that he was not a player of the first rank, as if that mattered. Even so, I don't say that he would have swapped his VC for the ability to carry the hill in front of the sixth tee at West Sussex, but such a thought may have occasionally crossed his mind.
I remember watching Bob on television when they caught him for This Is Your Life. He dealt with this as one would expect: no fuss, just an occasional gentle look of surprise at the media hype surrounding him. He was over 80 at the time but they asked him to get into a tank with Eamonn Andrews. He was in plain clothes but he seemed to grow out of the turret; he was part of that tank. As I watched him on the screen I could feel the years rolling back to his time in the Western Desert.
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