A British Achilles: The Story of George, 2nd Earl Jellicoe KBE DSO MC FRS

Invariably, a reviewer approaches a biography of a living subject who also happens to be a friend with a deal of trepidation. It is made no easier by the reference to the Homerian legend in the title, describing as it does a Greek hero immersed by his mother Thetis in the River Styx, to render him invulnerable save for his heel. Close though he came to the geographical Troy during the war years, George was wounded but did not suffer Achilles’ fatal wound in war, although he exposed his vulnerable heel in later life. Nor did his mother try to stop him going to war by dressing him in girl’s clothes, although I suspect that this would have amused him. Indeed, it was Lady Jellicoe who was injured while watching her son’s daredevil stunts on the Cresta Run. But it would be easy to get carried away by these allusions to classical mythology.


The author, appropriately a civil servant after service as a captain in the Army, is singularly qualified to write about George Jellicoe’s early years in the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service and his subsequent time in Government, and she has written equally eloquently about another founder of the SAS: her father Major ‘Gentleman Jim’ Almonds. Her passion for her subject does not, however, blind her to her critical faculties. She also does her subject justice by a delicious sense of self-deprecating humour.


Close on the first half of the book is devoted to George Jellicoe’s military adventures during the Second World War, first with David Stirling and then as Officer Commanding of the SBS raiding the islands of the Dodecanese from Haifa. It is a story told with a verve and briskness typical of special forces operations, and it is hard to tear oneself away from the narrative. Each one of the operations is deserving of a volume in its own right and it is a trifle disappointing that the authoress dispatches them so quickly. Occasionally, flashes of the subject’s personality shine through, but this never amounts to a fuller personality emerging.


The time in Government is preceded by a stint in the Foreign Service, with a posting to Washington, representing, appropriately enough, Balkan affairs, at the time when Philby and Maclean were also serving there. This leads the author to treat us to a synopsis of the Cambridge Spies, which adds little by way of illumination to the large corpus of work that has been published, leading one to conclude that the space might have been more profitably devoted to her subject. With a singular flair for contemporary or future trouble spots, Lord Jellicoe moves to Baghdad as Deputy General Secretary of the Baghdad Pact. It is affairs, or rather ‘affaires’ of a different kind which sees him sacrifice the Foreign Service for his love Philippa, now Lady Jellicoe. It is indeed a pity that Lorna Almonds Windmill has not managed to tease out more about the enormous influence that Philippa has been and is in George’s life, as it would have done much to explain their reaction to subsequent peccadilloes, which again saw his departure, this time as Leader of the House of Lords, from the Heath Government over meetings with Mayfair call girls.


The section on Lord Jellicoe’s time in Government is perhaps the best in the book and reveals the enormous contribution he made during the troubled period of that short-lived Government. It also portrays Heath in a more sympathetic light than many of us have come to see him. Importantly, it also shows the consistency of Lord Jellicoe’s views on Europe and, from an internal political point of view, his appreciation of the need for reform of the Upper House, which he continues to serve as Father of the House.


The book left me disappointed at its lack of depth and ability to probe the remarkable and honourable character of the man, be it man of action, diplomat, politician or family man. He is revealed not so much as a person, but as a succession of offices held. But I suspect that this is more due to Lord Jellicoe’s reticence in letting even an authorized biographer participate in his innermost thoughts, rather than to any failing on the part of the author. In many ways the introductory quotation says more about Lord Jellicoe than the rest of the book:


I burn my candle at both ends:
It will not last the night.
But O my foes and ah my friends
It gives a splendid light.


The book concludes with a review of Lord Jellicoe’s time as Chairman of Tate & Lyle, which, perhaps ironically for an hereditary peer, he rescued from the genteel decline it was suffering at the hands of the founding families. His continued interests in international affairs as Chairman of the British Overseas Trade Board is also covered, and the authoress is right to highlight the pioneering efforts he made as Chairman of the Medical Research Council in getting the Thatcher Government to recognize the scourge and danger of AIDS with some reluctance.


A reviewer is sometimes expected to be a pedant and the use of words like ‘torturous’ instead of ‘tortuous’ and ‘Wykamist’ betray sloppy proof-reading by an otherwise excellent editor, who is to be congratulated on the maps on Greece and the islands of Crete, Rhodes and the Dodecanese, showing the subject’s raids and escapes. The occasional fast-forwards to Iraq in 2003 and the author’s opinions have no obvious place in an otherwise fast-paced tale of a remarkable man.


Is it too much to hope for an autobiography to fill the gaps?


George Kieffer
RUSI Member

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