Denis Falvey

Denis Falvey

Denis Falvey joined the 64th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, during the Second World War. An artillery surveyor specialist and served in Egypt, Greece and North Africa.

He also took part in the D-Day landings and went through France and Belgium on the way to Nazi Germany.

After the war Falvey became an economist and worked for the British Iron and Steel Federation. He also lectured at the Royal Military Academy.

Falvey's war memoirs, A Well-Known Excellence, was published in 2002.

Primary Sources

(1) Denis Falvey, A Well-Known Excellence (2002)

Raw troops in tropical kit were fit subjects only for music-hall jokes. We looked, and felt, ridiculous. The authorities were terrified their charges would contract heatstroke, so we always had to wear 'coal-scuttle' helmets in the heat of the day, and the buttoned-up portions of our shorts had to be turned down to protect our delicate knees. How it was possible for our authorities to rule a country like Egypt for generations and persist in believing in a myth like that of sunstroke defies explanation. The helmets, which were heavy, were soon replaced by light pith topees, and these, in turn, soon disappeared in favour of the familiar forage cap. The comic shorts were also replaced by more modern ones, with the result that we looked and felt much smarter. On active service in the desert many men went further, particularly those of dark complexion, and were bare to the waist, with perhaps a handkerchief to protect the back of the neck. Hats were rarely worn in action.

(2) Denis Falvey, A Well-Known Excellence (2002)

The War Cabinet had noted with concern the threat posed to Greece by the German presence in Rumania and Bulgaria. There was great sympathy in Britain for Greece, who was already at war with Italy and was therefore an ally. Before reaching a decision to render help, the War Cabinet sent Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary, and Sir John Dill, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (GIGS), to Cairo to discuss with the three Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East the feasibility of sending an expeditionary force.

After discussion with the Greek government in Athens, the decision to intervene was made. Eden seems to have been the prime mover, but his colleagues shared the responsibility. The decision was taken with full awareness that the expedition would be a gamble: the force was to consist of two infantry divisions plus an armoured brigade, whose tanks were already in poor mechanical condition. This puny force was quite inadequate to hold the German horde, and one can only assume that the German speed of reaction was wholly underestimated, and that wishful thinking had descended into fantasy. According to Churchill, the invasion of southern Yugoslavia and Greece was entrusted to the German Twelfth Army of fifteen divisions, of which four were armoured. The RAF would be outnumbered by ten to one, without even counting the Italian air force. The only charitable explanation is that this information was not available at the time, which means our Intelligence was very remiss. The impression remains that the honourable desire to aid Greece was so strong that an outsize gamble was thought worth the risk.

(3) Denis Falvey, A Well-Known Excellence (2002)

The defence of Crete had been extemporized and our infantry had displayed great courage against the cream of the Nazi airborne forces. As most commentators are agreed, it very nearly came off - defeat was by the narrowest of margins. Yet in a wider context the outcome was fortunate. Had the attack been repulsed it would not have been long before another invasion was mounted, predominantly seaborne but with heavy air support. After its already very serious losses, the Royal Navy would almost certainly have been unable to prevent a seaborne invasion, nor would it have been able to sustain the already gravely weakened garrison in narrow waters totally dominated by the Luftwaffe. The Germans could have island-hopped from Kithera and Milos, as well as coming directly from Piraeus. Our losses would have been far higher because few of the garrison would have escaped. And, the island would not have been of any strategic value to us. So much for speculation.

(4) Denis Falvey, A Well-Known Excellence (2002)

In the summer of 1942 the Eighth Army had lost confidence in its commanders. It was confused and bewildered, but it knew for certain that something was seriously wrong in the higher reaches of the command, a view shared by the War Cabinet. The record was dreadful. After the costly victory ('Crusader'), we had been jostled out of Benghazi in early 1942 without the excuse of the previous year, when the competing claims of the Greek campaign had diverted attention and resources. At Gazala, Auchinleck had the advantage in infantry and artillery and the superiority in tanks he had specified, (three for every two enemy tanks, but four to one against the Germans alone, who, nevertheless, defeated our armour decisively). He was directly responsible for the strategic misjudgement which led to the loss of Tobruk. Then had followed the muddled scramble to the Alamein gap, and the ensuing blocking action.

(5) Denis Falvey, A Well-Known Excellence (2002)

The Eighth Army viewed the arrival of a new commander with some scepticism. We did not have much faith in generals in the summer of 1942. Montgomery was on trial, and he knew it. He was a brilliant exponent of the art of leadership, and understood soldiers' psychology. So, his showmanship was a means to an end. Hitherto, the army commander had been a remote figure; some might not even know his name, but all had heard of Rommel! Montgomery intended not only to win the battle, but to win over his army. Nothing succeeds like success.

Much has been written about the remarkable effect Montgomery had on the troops, his appearance in peculiar hats, and so on. This was superficial. We judged him on results and his manner of achievement. Many of the troops never saw him: our first encounter was months later at Tripoli. Yet the signs of a new grip on affairs was palpable, as Churchill noticed. There was the first of those special messages to the troops. These were printed on sheets, some 11 inches by 8 inches, and were widely circulated. The first gave the gist of the famous address to the staff. We were going to fight where we stood. There would be no withdrawal, no surrender. We had to do our duty so long as we had breath in our bodies.