How Did He Know?


The man at warWhen Major Robertson received news that the Colonel had lost radio contact with a Battalion, he wondered which of his new recruits could be tasked with going into the woods at night to ascertain their position. It was a difficult choice, but he decided to ask Lieutenant James Finlay, his new platoon Commander.

James had trained at Sandhurst, before being sent to the front line early in 1945 to reinforce the Seaforth Highlanders. He arrived towards the end of the battle of the Reichswald; his first and only Company Commander was Major Hugh Robertson, who had been in the theatre of war since 1942.

James had two strong impressions. These woods were exceedingly spooky, and the addition of excellent enemy snipers at very close range made everybody trigger-happy. Tension and vulnerability were all around: he was scared.

By contrast, Major Robertson had just returned from 7 days R&R, to discover that he had lost almost his entire Company. Of the three platoons who had joked with him just a few days before, a mere handful had survived the battle in the Reichswald. His loss was agony: from El Alamein to the D-Day landings, he had marched, fought, lived and laughed with these men. Moreover, the war was so near the end: the Rhine crossing just weeks away. Facing him was a massive influx of new faces, in whom he must quickly identify strengths and weaknesses.

He knew:

  1. Excellent men could turn to jelly when the scents and sound of war were all around.
  2. You could distinguish the professionals from the amateurs only through testing.
  3. Fear was the most destructive of enemies.

To test his mettle, Hugh asked his new Lieutenant to look for the Lost Battalion. Sixty years later, James Finlay relates what happened:

“ I write my memoirs and remember the night in Feb. 45, when after a night skirmish, I was digging in when Hugh came to my position saying: ‘The Colonel has lost the battalion and wanted someone to go and look.’ I was frozen with fear; to go out in the dark woodlands seemed a certain equation to be shot at by both sides, as I put it. He was sensitive to my abject fear and said: ‘Jim White will do it.’ How did he know? Lt. White was carried in later after stepping on a schu mine. No one said anything, but I was rather shamed. A fine man.”

These few words encapsulate what I was taught about leadership, and which affect my practice to this day.

  1. Patience: it takes time for a boy to learn a man’s job.
  2. Tolerance: if you cannot say anything positive, say nothing.
  3. Watchfulness: prior to the critical situation, identify capability.
  4. Decisiveness: once you have made your choice, accept the consequences.

So gentle was the test, that, sixty years later, James is still wondering how Hugh knew that Jim White would do it.

©Linda Jane McLean

My sincere thanks go to James Finlay for writing this account, for his permission for me to record it publicly, and for giving his time for my interview.

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