Obituary: Sir Edgar Williams

Nigel Hamilton
Thursday 06 July 1995 23:02

"The best intelligence officer on any side" in the Second World War was how the historian Maj-Gen F.W. Von Mellenthin described Edgar Williams, who also ran Rhodes House, Oxford, for almost 30 years, co-edited the Dictionary of National Biography for 31, and was a guru to generations of post-war military scribes. Yet he never wrote a book, or fulfilled his early academic promise as an historian of 18th-century British cabinet government.

"Bill" Williams was, in this sense, the quintessential Oxford don: sharp- tongued, intellectually vain - and all too careful not to present himself as a target for malevolent critics. The war had made him, but there were all too many unmade scholars who disliked his acerbic wit and would never, he knew, forgive him for his spectacular rise to greatness under the most bombastic and egoistical of warriors, Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein.

Thus he hid his potential writer's light under an Oxford bushel, incapable of leaving his Alma Mater, yet unwilling to meet the historical challenge to his formidable mind. In almost 50 years as a don at the university, he published only two essays, and three entries for the Dictionary of National Biography (on Churchill, Montgomery, and - his best - Carton de Wiart).

Perhaps the puzzle of Williams's character - his mix of arrogance and humility, of anecdotal efflorescence and reticence, decisiveness and indolence - will never be adequately explained. He was born in Kent in 1912, the son of a Nonconformist minister, which led to a lifetime's religious discomfort. As a scholar at Merton College, Oxford, he took a First in Modern History in 1934 and seemed destined for a life of brilliant scholarship, becoming an assistant lecturer at Liverpool University in 1936 and a research fellow at Merton in 1937, working on cabinet government in 18th-century England.

The Second World War cut short this academic career only to proffer an even more brilliant opportunity in North Africa, where as an armoured cars' captain Williams was spotted by General Claude Auchinleck's new Director of Military Intelligence, Brigadier "Freddie" de Guingand. Williams later referred to de Guingand as "the finest untrained mind" in the British army - a typical Williams observation.

It was General Montgomery's good fortune to inherit both de Guingand and Williams when taking over a baffled Eighth Army at Alamein. De Guingand's summary of the operational and intelligence "picture" in the desert stunned Auchinleck's successor - not least because of the quality of decrypted German signals now known as Ultra.

The triumph of the Eighth Army was due in large part to the managerial teamwork "Monty" inculcated in the desert. Under Monty's new broom, and working closely with RAF counterparts, the staff of the headquarters of the Eighth Army was transformed. A key element in the transformation was de Guingand's role as army chief of staff, and the rise in professionalism and morale that accompanied his promotion. By dint of energy, intelligence and charm, de Guingand "humanised" Monty's outrageously dictatorial and arrogant character, translating the army commander's genius for competitive combat into professional reality. In this, de Guingand was aided by his even brighter subordinate, Major Williams.

Williams's Eighth Army Intelligence reports had always demonstrated a gift for brevity and descriptive irony. When summoned to Montgomery's caravan in mid-August 1942, Williams found himself amazed by Montgomery's certainty that he was going to win the forthcoming battle (Alam Halfa), and by Montgomery's focus upon the battle that would take place two months thereafter: Alamein. It was Williams's recognition of Montgomery's tactical foresight, as well as Montgomery's need for first-class, intelligible Intelligence to ensure his tactics would work, that may well have altered the destiny of Britain's army in the desert. Montgomery needed to find the weaknesses in Field Marshal Rommel's lay-out; Williams identified them, and Montgomery trained and led the Eighth Army until it exploited them to final victory. Following the battle Williams's boss (Lt-Col Murphy) was posted away and thereafter Montgomery would not move without the 29 year-old's Intelligence picture - and approval.

Williams's donnish wit, independence of mind as an academic in uniform, as well as his remarkable ability both to sum- marise essentials and place those essentials within a quasi-historical context, in order to predict the enemy's behaviour, marked him head and shoulders above any other British field Intelligence officer. Montgomery's great briefing to the Allied commanders and their staffs in St Paul's School before D- Day, with his uncanny predictions of German reactions at Allied progress once ashore, owed much to Williams's talent for assembling an enemy scenario, and ''selling'' it to Montgomery in his characteristic, high-pitched Oxford delivery, alternating careful, clear exposition with flashes of lightning wit and perception.

Williams was a delighted observer of the human species; since Monty was an inveterate examiner of human character, they formed an extraordinarily successful partnership. Monty happily acknowledged Williams's superior brainpower; Williams acknowledged Monty's ruthless will to win and to win tidily, with the minimum loss of Allied life.

Had de Guingand and Williams stayed at Montgomery's side, as in the desert, the campaign in North-West Europe in 1944-45 might have prospered with fewer set-backs and less acrimony. Commanding vast armies from a forward tactical headquarters, however, Montgomery failed to see the importance of Antwerp, cocked up the assault on the Ruhr by espousing the airdrop on Arnhem, and outraged American amour propre by saying he had warned the Americans they were too weak in the Ardennes, and thereafter taking all credit for sorting out the American debacle in the Bulge. Williams was forced to watch with sinking heart as Montgomery ignored his advice and gave his ill-fated press conference in January 1945, grinding General Omar Bradley's humbled American reputation into British dust.

It was an ill omen, rewarded not by American gratitude but by anger and bitterness. Montgomery was stopped from taking his Ninth US Army to Berlin; the army in fact was removed from the command. Berlin was surrendered to the Russians. When Williams, after the war - in which he won the DSO, CBE and Legion of Merit - agreed to become the first Director of Enforcement at the United Nations, however, he found the Russians as intransigent as the Americans had been in their hour of glory. The Soviets resisted all efforts to create a credible United Nations force, and Williams resigned and returned to academia.

It was tough, however, to slip back into the role of college fellow at Balliol after having second-guessed the greatest German commanders from Rommel to von Runstedt. He found he could not write about the war because he knew too much about Ultra - which was ordered to be kept quiet for 30 years - and was too honest to write as if it had not existed: meanwhile his students took over his erstwhile command of cabinet government in 18th-century England.

In a different university, perhaps, or in a different profession he might have turned his dazzling mind to greater advantage. Instead he applied for the post of Warden of Rhodes House at Oxford and became the students' pasha, renowned for his sardonic wit and war reputation (he had ended the war a Brigadier, aged 33), but not for his academic output. Even the editorship of the Dictionary of National Biography, shared with Helen Palmer and subsequently with Christine Nicholls, did little for his stature; he eschewed inclusion of private or personal details, as he did facts about work in the Intelligence services (euphemised as Foreign Office employment). He read widely and knew good contributors, but contributed little himself, and edited still less - resulting in the quiet termination of his editorship in 1980, although he had looked forward to running it in retirement.

Though Sir Edgar Williams (he was knighted in 1973) conquered an over- familiarity with the bottle, there remained a sort of sublimated anger that could manifest itself in testiness and even malice towards those who crossed him. Students (such as the future US president Bill Clinton) he could enjoy for their pranks and wildness; his fellow dons he could not always abide; in retaliation they nicknamed him "the Rodent of Ward's House".

Williams's sardonic humour remained with him to the end, however - as did his love of cricket. When, as umpire, he had to deny a clearly correct appeal for leg before from Robert Levens, the legendary excruciating slow bowler of the Barnacles Cricket Club, Levens rounded on him menacingly, "Not out? Why not?" cried the bowler. Williams was unperturbed. "Ball would not have reached wicket."

Williams did not dissimulate or drive, revelled in bus travel, could count much good work on behalf of Oxford University (he was a member of the finance committee and for a time Pro-Vice-Chancellor), as well as other universities in formation (East Anglia and Warwick).

He helped charitable trusts such as the Nuffield medical foundation, and for half a century aided historians, like myself, who sought his wise counsel and advice. Behind the Rodent, I can attest, beat a most intensely human heart. But, war-hardened and Oxford-toughened, he seldom allowed it to be off guard.

Nigel Hamilton

Edgar Trevor Williams, intelligence officer and historian: born Kent 20 November 1912; Assistant Lecturer, Liverpool University 1936-37; GSO1, Eighth Army, North Africa, 1942-43, Sicily and Italy 1943; DSO 1943; Brigadier, General Staff 21st Army Group 1944-45, Rhine Army 1945-46; CBE 1944; Fellow, Balliol College, Oxford 1945-80; CB 1946; Editor, Dictionary of National Biography 1949-80; Warden, Rhodes House, Oxford 1952-80; trustee, Nuffield Provincial Hospitals Trust 1963-91, chairman 1966-88; a Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Oxford University 1968-80; Kt 1973; married 1938 Monica Robertson (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1945), 1946 Gillian Gambier-Parry (one son, one daughter); died Oxford 26 June 1995.

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