Leigh-Mallory, Liddell Hart, and the Conundrum of the Geneva Disarmament Conference

As Edward Fox said when depicting Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks in A Bridge Too Far, “this is a story you will tell your grandchildren, and mightily bored they’ll be!” Seriously, this is the tale of how something that you believe you dealt with can easily re-emerge with the simple turn of a page, literally.

For me this was the issue of whether Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory was part of the RAF mission at the Geneva Disarmament Conference in 1932-33. At this point Leigh-Mallory had been promoted to Group Captain, and after a period as a Supernumerary at No. 1 (Air Defence) Group, he went on to be Deputy Director of Staff Duties in the Directorate of Organisation and Staff Duties (DOSD) in late 1932. Leigh-Mallory’s biographer, Bill Newton Dunn, cites Leigh-Mallory as being there.[1] However, when I queried this back when I began my research I was told that Philip Noel Baker related it to him ‘over a coffee’. What was I to make of this? Well I decided to check some of the many documents on Geneva that are extent in the Chief of the Air Staff files (AIR 8) at Kew. In addition, I examined The Air Force List for the period and the only officer who came up with Geneva listed as a duty was Group Captain John Tremayne Babington who is listed as the Air Representative, League of Nations. It was in this role that he served as part of the British Delegation to the Geneva Disarmament Conference. At this point, I was happy that I could put this down as an erroneous red herring based on the poor memory of an old man relating his story.

Enter one Basil Liddell Hart. Yesterday when perusing the library at the National Archives I decided to have a quick flick through Liddell Hart Memoirs. This was a search based on a hunch. I know that Liddell Hart knew Leigh-Mallory in the 1920s so I wondered whether he mentioned him. Yes he did. Twice actually. For the purposes of the Geneva Conference, it is the second reference that is important here. In his work as the Defence Correspondence for The Telegraph Liddell Hart attended the early phase of the conference in 1932, and in his memoirs he notes the various British military representatives at the conference. He notes the attendance of Major-General A.C. Temperley, Colonel Alan Dawney and Major Brian Robertson.[2] However, it is his recollections of the Air Ministry representatives that are most interesting for me. He wrote:

While at Geneva I saw much of them, and also of the Air Ministry representatives, Group-Captains John Tremayne Babington and Trafford Leigh-Mallory – who had been so helpful in developing air co-operation with the Experimental Mechanized Force in 1927-8 and the trial Tank Brigade of 1931.[3]

This has now raised several interesting issues for me. First, concerning Leigh-Mallory’s work with the Army, I was well aware of his work in 1927-28 but not aware of anything regarding the Tank Brigade in 1931. This may explain his short-term as an instructor at Camberley and requires more research. Second, I now have a firm source that Liddell Hart knew Leigh-Mallory. This is important in measuring his influence both inside and outside of the RAF in the period. A picture is emerging of an articulate and capable officer with a well-regarded reputation. This is important as it partly explains his rise to senior command.

However, the final issue is most contentious for me. I now have a source that corroborates Dunn and throws my previous consideration of the Geneva episode on its head. I cannot easily ignore Liddell Hart for several reasons. First, as I have already noted Liddell Hart clearly knew Leigh-Mallory in this period. Second, we know Liddell Hart was at Geneva. Third, Liddell Hart acidulously keep records, which he would have utilised in the production of his memoirs. This gives these comments more substance than Dunn’s circumstantial conversation with Noel Baker. Finally, we know that the other members that Liddell Hart mentions were at Geneva so he is unlikely to have one name wrong.

What does this mean for me? First, it means I need to go back and look at the archival records. I suspect the first port of call will be Liddell Hart’s papers to see what he has on Geneva. I will also have to examine his articles for The Daily Telegraph in this period to see what is mentioned. Second, I need to look at the other members personal papers. For example, Temperley has papers at the Imperial War Museum that cover this period. Third, I need to finally work out what Leigh-Mallory was actually doing in this period. I know he left Camberley in mid-1931 to go back to the Directorate of Staff Duties. This I suspect has links to Liddell Hart’s comment regarding the Tank Brigade. He then, as noted above, becomes a Supernumerary at No. 1 Group. While some sources claim he then goes to the Directorate of Operations and Intelligence, which is where Babington serves, The Air Force List clearly show that he stays at No. 1 Group until he goes to the DOSD in late 32. Dunn claims Leigh-Mallory is still involved with Geneva and does not note his posting to DOSD. This requires revision.

However, it is in his position as a Supernumerary where the answer may be. Supernumeraries were extra and non-regular member of staff. Given that The Air Force List shows Leigh-Mallory to be here until he goes to DOSD it may not be unreasonable to assume that after working with the Tank Brigade in 1931, he was attached to No. 1 Group, as no position existed in the Air Ministry for him. As a supernumerary, the Air Ministry could keep him on strength, rather than having to place him on the unemployed list, and send him to Geneva. This appears to fit Dunn and Liddell Hart’s recollections. However, the trouble is how to prove it!

Moral of this story? Never assume you were right. There is always something around the corner to change your opinion. A good empiricist will always follow the evidence not the theory.


[1] Bill Newton Dunn, Big Wing: The Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory (Shrewsbury: Airlife, 1992) p. 57-58.

[2] On Temperley’s experience, in which he does not mention Leigh-Mallory, see; The Whispering Gallery of Europe (London: Collins, 1938).

[3] Basil Liddell Hart, Memoirs, Volume 1 (London: Cassell, 1965) pp. 206-207.

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3 responses to “Leigh-Mallory, Liddell Hart, and the Conundrum of the Geneva Disarmament Conference

  1. Pingback: Solving the Conundrum: Leigh-Mallory and the Geneva Disarmament Conference « Thoughts on Military History·

  2. John Tremayne Babington was my grandfather. I think I may be able to shed light on some of his thoughts & reactions about the League of Nations & the whole disarmament issue, which btw he opposed with all the energy he had.

  3. Antonia,

    Yes. Please drop me an email (thoughtsonmilitaryhistory@gmail.com). I would love to hear more and any information you have could be invaluable. Many thanks.

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