1941 • Singapore

Alan Wood studio portrait 400

Young Alan Wood, c. 1934

Alliott (Alan) Wood was born in 1914, went to Sydney Grammar School, and graduated from Sydney University, then Oxford. Alan stayed on in England after his time (1935–38) at Balliol College. Madeline Wood paraphrases her son’s account of his final results: “His tutors all reckoned he deserved a first on his papers but he was very nervous at the viva—and apparently went to pieces and the examiners could get nothing out of him. And I gather his manner put them off.” It was not the first or last of his difficulties with those in authority, although he did get on well with Sandie Lindsay, Master at Balliol, and helped organise Lindsay’s campaign against Chamberlain’s “selling out” to Hitler at Munich in 1938.

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Alan Wood working with Alexander (Sandie) Lindsay, Master of Balliol, 1938, when Lindsay unsuccessfully stood as an independent progressive opposed to the Munich agreement in which Chamberlain failed to stand up for Czechoslovakia; Hitler invaded shortly afterwards.

Wood joined Beaverbrook’s Daily Express in January 1939, to his sister’s amusement and his brothers’ incomprehension, his mother calling the move “foreign to Wood traditions”. It was bad enough that Beaverbrook gave “exultant support” for the 1938 Munich agreement appeasing Hitler, when the paper’s slogan was “There will be no war”; the paper’s policy of “Isolation” meant avoiding any commitment to restrain the two fascist dictators now dominant in Europe—Hitler and Mussolini. Alan complained that he had to write editorials he himself disagreed with. By April 1939 (Alan informed his mother) Beaverbrook was “writing a good many of his own articles”, many of which were, Alan believed, “rare nonsense”. But at the same time Beaverbrook was at last “in the throes of having to change his mind about ‘Isolation’.” This change is explained in Alan Wood’s posthumous (and partly redacted) book, The True History of Lord Beaverbrook, published thirty years later.

True Hist Beaverbrook Alan Wood cover

His family was soon supporting Alan in his decision to stay on with Beaverbrook “if he feels he is doing good work. Bill says that if it is Al who has brought Beaverbrook round from ‘Isolation’ to support of the [case for an] Anglo-Russian alliance he has done a good piece of work.” (Madeline to Fred Wood, 25 May 1939) The Express was firmly refusing to support the notion gaining currency before the war that the UK should combine forces with the fascist European powers against the Soviet Union. By the beginning of 1940, the AAP reported that the Express was “leading the campaign against war with Russia.” When his brother Bill read this, he wrote to Alan, “This [policy], I presume, is at least partly due to you and it is excellent and admirable.” (Bill to Alan Wood, n.d. [c. February 1940])

Perhaps it was the slightly patronising manner of Bill’s letter that incensed his younger brother, because Alan replied saying “Bill’s remarks are all nonsense”, which produced “a ferocious answer” from Bill. (Madeline to Fred Wood, 29 February 1940) This mixture of affection, mockery, admiration and rivalry between the brothers was characteristic.

Meanwhile Beaverbrook was consolidating his arguments for a Soviet alliance, which led to his acting on Churchill’s behalf in the following year (1941) in a visit to Moscow.

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Beaverbrook makes news in his own paper, the Daily Express, 29 September 1941, p. 1

Now to the manuscript that caused Alan difficulties with customs, and eventually ended his job at General Staff Intelligence.

The conversation starts as usual, “This is your bag, sir?” But then Alan, starting to get anxious now, observes the other man has begun to turn the pages slowly, stops to read whole paragraphs, and then holds up a single sheet like a Raffles man examining a fillet from the harbour market. Something’s fishy in this foolscap typescript, on which Alan has been labouring for the last few weeks. It’s a scarifying of the British Army, done in Al’s impatiently acerbic manner. His reflections on his first months stuck in barracks. [RED, pages 186–7]

Alan’s offending manuscript was for a book called Bless ’em All. It gave an account of military blundering, poor training, pointless parades and old-school military spit-and-polish while the men seemed to be doing nothing but waiting and waiting, with no war to fight, and receiving inappropriate instructions for a modern war.

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Alan’s book had been through six printings (“50,000 copies”) in Britain before the Australian edition (shown here) appeared in 1942.

Alan explains the oddity of his situation at the start of Bless ’em All:

“The author of this book is an Australian who joined up with the Royal Artillery as a volunteer in the summer of 1940, and served as an anti-aircraft gunner during the Blitz in London. He did not apply for a commission, but, in his own words, ‘I remained happily in the ranks, partly for the reason that I preferred the company there, and partly because I knew I would make a very bad officer, and there are enough bad officers in the Army already.”
.     “I have been serving in the ranks of the British Army for over a year: I think it is a bad army which could be made much better: and I want in this little book to explain why and how.”
.     But whereas a civilian “can write what he likes about the Army” in ignorance of it, once he enlists “and learns what he is talking about, he is told not to talk at all. When his eyes are open his mouth is shut. … Consequently I am in a difficulty. This book should be a scientific document, compete with detailed references to time and place. But it has to take on some of the characteristics of a mystery novel, strewn with false clues designed to delude and deceive any seeker after my identity.” (p. 9)
.     “I must emphasise that personally I have been very happy in the Army, so this book is not a private grudge. Being in H. M. Forces has been an absorbingly interesting adventure …. To one like myself from the tie and clean collar class of society, joining the Army is about the only possible means of living with members of all social classes on terms of perfect equality.” 

Alan’s book was an argument for modernising the army. His ideas for how this could be done, such as by democratising the ranks and drawing on the guerrilla methods of the Spanish Civil War, are developed in the next episode of RED, Six-foot cat.

On its publication, some thought the book was by George Orwell, who wrote to Liddell Hart in 1942, “No, I didn’t write Bless ’em All. I am not in the army because I am not physically fit, … but I have been in the Home Guard from the beginning and could write a rather similar book about that.” (George Orwell, A Life in Letters, ed. Peter Davison, Harvill Secker, p. 204)

While still writing his book, Alan Wood was made “an intelligence officer somewhere in the Middle East” at some time between 27 January and 20 February 1941. This new position was at least as incongruous as his job interpreting Beaverbrook’s rather inconsistent thoughts about the war. His work with British intelligence is still unknown; but, whatever it was, Alan was also finishing his mischievous book about “incompetence in headquarters”. It was characteristic of Alan that he did not find these two tasks at all in conflict with each other.

Nor was it Alan’s wish to be transferred to Military Intelligence. One of his cousins wrote, years later, of the transfer:

Al came to see us again, but not in uniform. Someone who knew him in Oxford said it was [a] waste for him to be a private and he should be in the Army Intelligence. .… He was furious—didn’t like the ‘life’—all the officers were ‘twerps’ and he missed his previous ‘cobbers’; after which he disappeared to the Middle East for a time. (Jean Mackay to Jonathan Wood, 12 January 1969).

The disastrous end to Alan Wood’s intelligence career is HERE.