Cabinet papers released this month after 50 years' closure clear up a mystery that had hung over Sir Alan Cunningham for the last 20 years.
The Cabinet minutes for 1942, released after the standard closure period of 30 years, contained three puzzling index references to 'Cunningham, Maj-Gen Sir A'.
The first revealed that a meeting of the War Cabinet on 9 March had decided that there was 'no suitable employment available' for him. At a further meeting on 18 May, the index said: 'Decision deferred', but then on 20 October it was logged that Sir Alan was 'to be available for further employment in an administrative role'.
In all three cases the actual minutes were blanked out in the books released in 1973.
It was known that Sir Alan had commanded British forces in East Africa in 1940, and that he had led an advance from Kenya into Abyssinia, helping in the defeat of the Italians in that campaign. It was also known that he had then been recruited to command the Eighth Army against Rommel - and that after the Afrika Korps had run rings around him, he had proposed a retreat, been relieved of his command, and sent home.
What was not clear before the latest papers were released was that Churchill had ordered that the disgraced general should not be given any further official work, a decision that had been endorsed by the War Cabinet - until 20 October 1942.
The minute for 20 October says that Churchill had withdrawn his objection to the employment of Cunningham 'in an administrative role' after representations from Field Marshall Jan Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa.
Smuts told Churchill that Cunningham 'had been responsible for a brilliant campaign in Abyssinia, against superior forces.'
He added: 'At the time of the events which had led to his being relieved of the command of the Eighth Army, he had not been physically fit.'
While Smuts favoured 'a strict attitude towards officers who held high commands and who were proved to be failures in the field, he felt strongly that in Maj-Gen Cunningham's case, it would not be right to . . . debar him from further employment'.
Churchill's objection was withdrawn, Cabinet agreed, and Sir Alan was soon after appointed commandant of the army staff college, then General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland and Eastern Command, before becoming High Commissioner and Commander-in-Chief, Palestine, in November 1945. Sir Alan died, aged 95, in 1983.
Source file: CAB65/28.Reuse content