Military Papers of Major-General Eric Edward Dorman O'Gowan

Scope and Content

The archive of Eric Edward Dorman O'Gowan contains correspondence relating to the war in the Western Desert, 1940-1942; correspondence relating to various works published after the war concerning the Desert campaigns, the leading protagonists, and other aspects of the Second World War; personal memories; and correspondence relating to general military thinking, notably the Arab-Israeli conflict. Many of the documents deal with recurring themes, notably the reputations of Field-Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, Dorman-Smith, Sir Winston Churchill, Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery and others; these questions, and the way they have been dealt with by historians, arise frequently throughout O'Gowan's correspondence, even when the main subject matter may be entirely different.

Administrative / Biographical History

Major-General Eric Edward Dorman O'Gowan, widely known as 'Chink' after joining the Northumberland Fusiliers in 1914, was born Eric Edward Dorman-Smith at Bellamont Forest, Cootehill, Co. Cavan, Ireland in 1895. Leaving Sandhurst in 1913, he was wounded in Flanders in 1914, won the Military Cross at Ypres in 1915, and fought at Passchendaele in 1917. Never a typical soldier, he socialized with literary figures in Milan and Paris after the war, and became a close friend of Ernest Hemingway, much of whose work he inspired. During the 1920s and 1930s he held several prestigious posts as a tactical instructor, and was involved at the War Office in mechanizing the Army, continuing this work as commander of an infantry battalion in Egypt before becoming Director of Military Training in India.

He is best known as one of the most controversial figures of the British Army in the twentieth century. His belief in the unorthodox, and in the strategy of the indirect approach and obliquity, earned him a reputation as a brilliant military thinker, particularly after the defeat of numerically superior Axis forces in the Western Desert in 1941. His tactical appreciation of the first battle of El Alamein in July 1942 is regarded as classical, and many have claimed that it was his planning as Deputy Chief of Staff to Field-Marshal Auchinleck which was substantially responsible for Montgomery's eventual victory in the desert. The removal of Dorman-Smith and Auchinleck by Churchill in August 1942 fuelled Dorman-Smith's impression that he had been denied promotion and responsibility too often; he had already complained in 1941, and offered his resignation in March 1942. The military and political hierarchy ignored the protests at first, but had him demoted to Colonel and then retired from active service in 1944, despite his successful command of a brigade at Anzio. No explanation was given, but Dorman-Smith was aware of many of the reasons. His flaunted unorthodoxy and undisguised dislike of inefficient amateurism, together with his outspoken intellectual self-confidence, alienated many within the Army Establishment, and he faced taunts throughout his career that he was more a Staff Officer than a Commander.

He stood unsuccessfully as the Liberal candidate for the Wirral in the General Election of 1945, and, disillusioned with Britain, he adopted the Irish name O'Gowan as head of his small Ulster clan in 1949. Although he had served on the British side in the Troubles of the 1920s, he became involved with the Irish Republican Army in 1954, his main contributions being his tactical expertise and his border estates, which were used as IRA training camps. He maintained a lively correspondence and was involved in a number of publications on the subject of military thinking, the history of the Second World War and the reputations of himself and his contemporaries, winning a libel case against Churchill in 1954. He died of cancer in May 1969.


As a result of his disillusionment with the Army, O'Gowan destroyed many of his military papers in the late 1940s and early 1950s. When transferred to the Library, the remaining papers were in 6 numbered boxes, each containing a discretely numbered series of folders. With a few exceptions, the General had written a summary of each folder's content on the cover. These titles have been retained. Restricted papers (GOW/2) were removed and placed in another box; these items were de-restricted in 2012, with the agreement of O'Gowan's son. An original list was made, retaining precisely O'Gowan's arrangement, including box numbers and folder numbers, and supplying additional information concerning the content of each folder; box 6, folder 3 was omitted, however. The original list has been included amongst the papers (GOW/1/1). The original arrangement has been retained in the present revised list, although this means that apparently-related material is not always grouped together, and the chronological order of material within files is often confused. Because of these peculiarities, there has been no sub-classification except that which was done by O'Gowan. Some material is also duplicated between files, and a certain amount of this has been retained in order to reflect the organisational context of the files. The papers have been re- boxed, but the original box numbers and folder numbers have been recorded in the present list as former references. A further box (GOW/3) was added when the draft of O'Gowan's biography was deposited in 1988.

Access Information

At the time the gift was made O'Gowan requested that certain restrictions be placed upon the use of his papers. Items in series GOW/2 were closed to public inspection, until they were de-restricted in 2012 with the approval of O'Gowan's son.

Acquisition Information

The papers were presented to the Library of the University of Manchester by O'Gowan and his wife in 1968, and were subsequently transferred to the John Rylands Library on Deansgate following the merger of the two libraries in 1972.

Other Finding Aids


Related Material

The Library also holds the papers of Field-Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck (AUC ), whom O'Gowan served as deputy chief of staff during the Western Desert campaign.