William ‘Strafer’ Gott, Churchill’s designated successor to lead the Eighth Army, was killed before he could take command. Michael E Haskew profiles the popular desert general
Nineteen men were dead, their aircraft a flaming heap of twisted metal. Four had survived, including the 19-year-old pilot, Flight Sergeant Hugh ‘Jimmy’ James, but among those killed was a towering figure of the desert war.
Lieutenant-General William Gott, unable to exit the transport, perished amid the difficult landing and subsequent strafing by Luftwaffe fighters. He was, together with Lieutenant-Generals Vyvyan Pope and Herbert Lumsden, among the highest-ranking British casualties of World War Two. But in Gott’s case, some concluded immediately that the initiative against Panzerarmee Afrika and its vaunted leader, Generalfeldmarshall Erwin Rommel, might have died as well.
The loss of Gott shaped history. In summer 1942, Britain’s Eighth Army had reached its proverbial moment of truth, and Winston Churchill had selected Gott to lead it in the battle to come – one that would determine the outcome in North Africa. Yet he was destined never to take that command and, with his death, General Bernard Montgomery stepped up. The rest, as they say, is history.