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News > Pangbournian Stories > Book Reviews > 'Leaders': Profiles in Courage & Bravery in War & Peace by Robin Knight

'Leaders': Profiles in Courage & Bravery in War & Peace by Robin Knight

Review written by Gerry Pike (CR 86-14)
13 Oct 2021
Written by Gerry Pike
Book Reviews

There is much general talk these days about “leadership,” or perhaps a signal lack of it. You will find it pervading many a debate about the current crop of leaders, while across the world it is striking how more authoritative, atavistic leadership models seem on the rise.

But what do we really mean by “leadership”? It can prove an elusive term to define and we are unlikely to all agree. Context matters hugely.  War tends to encourage certain types of leadership, the challenges of peacetime rather different ones. Individual nations and cultures, let alone schools, have historically tended to be identified with very different styles of leader too, though we should beware stereotypes. But to allow that leadership takes many forms and that it can be a dynamic, even problematical concept, is not to subside into absolute relativism, still less cynicism about the term. To pull down the statues of flawed but once great men is not to reject the entire concept of hero but to review dubious myths by seeking to be more nuanced and discerning in applying the term. Below the surface it is about identity: what sort of people have we been and who do we want to be? 

In fraught times these are seldom easy questions to address but they will not go away. In this sense Robin Knight’s latest book is timely. Initially its focus may seem quite narrow, parochial even, as he concentrates on the extraordinary exploits of Old Pangbournians, in peace as well as in war. Take a step back, however, and the universal themes become apparent. What is courage? How does it differ from bravery?  Are we born with these qualities or are they shaped at school or forged by the experiences of Life? Can there be such a thing as an “unlikely hero”? Does heroism necessarily involve self-denying service to some great cause and the sacrifice of one’s own wellbeing? Is courage the preserve of the few or a source of inspiration to the many? These are sorts of essential questions Robin raises by telling the inspiring tales he has encountered in the annals of the College, delving methodically into its archives and reading the notable biographies some distinguished OPS have penned. If courage and leadership truly are intrinsically individual, then what better way to illustrate its rich tapestry of colours and textures than to highlight the extraordinary examples of Old Pangbournians whose shared experience of the College gives them some affinity with us.

In what senses are the individuals whose exploits are described in this book “leaders?  Some are so, in the literal sense: Admirals, Air Commodores, Squadron Commanders, Brigadiers, Captains on land, on sea, and below sea, all formally responsible for leading large groups of men and women. This, by all accounts they did with quite remarkably consistent distinction.  Others led in a classically heroic sense, acting with such courage and honour that they inspired those around them, usually unconsciously and often self-effacingly. Indeed, their abiding modesty for the most part seems to have been unaffected by the many gongs, medals, mentions in despatches, or the admiration of colleagues they earned. When pressed as to why or how they had behaved with such courage and selflessness, their replies are simple: we were just doing our duty.  Often it was a matter of sheer instinct.

Importantly, Robin has looked beyond war to find his material, including chapters on the Post-War World right up to the Covid present, and on the remarkable sportspeople, who in peacetime tend to become our icons. It all makes for an action-packed if humbling read. So what general themes stand out ?

The first is the sheer breadth of activity. You will find many branches of human endeavour here: the several branches of the armed forces, of course, but alongside them the peacekeepers, the medics combatting Covid, the charity workers and sporting stars too.

The second is how individualist many were, maverick even, which seems paradoxical given the strict codes and hierarchies they often worked in.  Whilst a sense of adventure or bloody-mindedness could look like recklessness at times, generally it was complemented by self-discipline and determination on an epic scale: just read the incredible “Smiley”s special operations  in Crete and Albania (of which Robin has written a stirring account) or of the cultured, scholarly charismatic Grecophile, Mike Cumberlege, who defiantly endured two grueling years of solitary confinement in Sachsenhausen  concentration camp before being shot by the SS. or Richard Pool who survived  three years as a POW working on the infamous Burma Road.  Some found a natural niche in particularly hazardous occupations: in submarines or bomb disposal for instance or in Covid wards. One can also cite the less hair-raising but still rare sporting exploits of Mike “the bike’ Hailwood, HCC Laird, (the youngest cap to play for England), Rex Willis (who formed a legendary partnership for Wales with Cliff Morgan), Scottish International Daryl Marfo and Olympians Rodney Pattison, Bart Simpson, Glyn Charles, Ian McGeogh, Rick Powell and Toby Garbett.  Then one encounters the enterprise of George Chatterton in helping to create the strategic Glider Pilot Regiment, or the dogged courage of Colin Hodgkinson, one of only two legless Allied pilots in World War 2.

The third theme is the appetite for adventure which many shared, buttressed by quite extraordinary powers of endurance and resolve. These qualities seem to have overridden any concern for self or personal safety. There are some quite staggering examples of this throughout the book, too many to recount here. One which stuck in my mind was that of John Mackenzie, at 29 the youngest Army Brigadier, whose heroic stand against an entire Panzer division echoes Thermyplae. That this capacity for self-sacrifice does not wither with time is well illustrated by the example of John Faber, who at 84, gave his own life in rescuing a drowning 13-year-old at Littlehampton.  Nor was there glorying in war: As Admiral Peter Gray put it crisply: “it was a dreadful time”.

This respect for Life and the saving of is a striking and precious commodity when conflict threatens conflagration and a general brutalisation. That it could extend to one’s adversaries underlines how deep it ran in John Burfield who rescued 500 Italians from a sinking Italian cruiser in the midst of a fierce battle off Cape Spada in July 1940.

This summary skims the surface of a book packed with instances of heroism and inspirational conduct. All the individuals concerned were “pangbournian” in that they attended the College, some albeit briefly. How far their experience there proved formative, character-wise, is hard to quantify objectively.  Some were in no doubt. As Richard Hamilton put it: “Pangbourne not only taught leadership but, more importantly, how to be part of a team. It taught me to …to set a goal and to go all out to achieve that goal…. and to never give up”.  The exploits of current and future students will probably be inspirational in less martial ways but the ethos expressed in the Flag Values embodies the essential continuity that characterizes a school with a unique and distinguished tradition of service.


October 2021

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