A biography of Robert Laycock, Evelyn Waugh’s commanding officer in WWII, has been published in the UK. This is The Commando General: The Life of Major General Sir Robert Laycock by Richard Mead. The book is featured on a British military website (Army Rumor Service) by a reviewer posting as Metellus Cimber II (a character from Skakespeare’s Julius Caesar). He describes the book as:
…the perfect present for anyone interested in the Second World War, in the origins of the Commandos or in Evelyn Waugh, who was Laycock’s friend, admirer, staff officer and who features frequently in the narrative. The book is well-written and spiced with dry military humour.
After describing Laycock’s family, education and military experience, the review goes on to summarize the book’s sections on some of Laycock’s encounters with Waugh:
The five days in May 1941 that Laycock spent in Crete were the most controversial of his career. There is still debate over whether he disobeyed orders that Layforce (two lightly armed battalions of commandos) should be the last to leave the island and over whether he ought to have departed, as he did, leaving most of his command to be taken prisoner by the Germans. He was criticised at the time and again in 1955, when Evelyn Waugh published Officers and Gentlemen, the second volume of his war trilogy Sword of Honour, which was based on his own wartime experiences. Some people, who included Ann Fleming (Mrs Ian Fleming, a notorious charmer, gossip and trouble-maker), identified Ivor Claire, a composite fictional character who did desert his men, with Laycock. Waugh was appalled, denied the identification and and put Mrs Fleming firmly in her place: “Just shut up about Laycock”, he wrote, signing off “****, you! E. Waugh”. Surprisingly, their friendship survived this exchange; both of them thereafter sometimes ended their letters with “**** you! Love, Evelyn/Ann”. In reality the Sword of Honour character who most resembles Laycock is the brave and likeable Colonel Tommy Blackhouse. Long after Laycock’s death Anthony Beevor, in his magisterial study of the Cretan disaster, was highly critical of his decisions (while stressing that there was no question of cowardice on Laycock’s part). This has tarnished Laycock’s reputation.
We may never know what really happened, because it has since emerged that Waugh, the keeper of the Layforce war diary, made false statements in it, apparently in order to bury some unpalatable truths and perhaps to protect Laycock. However, although Waugh’s conscience troubled him thereafter, he would never criticise Laycock, nor permit criticism of him in his presence. His dedication of Officers and Gentlemen to Laycock read: “To Major General Sir Robert Laycock KCMG CB DSO. That every man in arms would wish to be”.
The reviewer does not mention whether the book also reflects the rebuttals of Beevor’s book in Donat Gallagher’s In The Picture and more recently in Philip Eade’s biography. The book concludes its discussion of Laycock’s relations with Waugh:
There are many moments of humour in Commando General, some involving Evelyn Waugh and Randolph Churchill. It says much for Laycock that he both tolerated their presence on his staff and retained to the end of their lives the unconditional loyalty of these two brave but unsoldierly and cantankerous officers. None of them made old bones. They died close together: Waugh in 1966, Laycock in 1967 and Churchill in 1968. None of them liked the post-war world into which they had survived.
The book will be published next month in the US and is for sale on both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.