General Sir Evelyn Hugh (Bubbles) Barker KCB KBE DSO MC

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Photo of Sir Evelyn Hugh Barker c1939
General Sir Evelyn Hugh ‘Bubbles’ Barker KCB KBE DSO MC.

General Sir Evelyn Hugh Barker KCB KBE DSO MC (22 May 1894 – 23 November 1983), saw service in both the First World War and the Second World War. During the latter he commanded the 10th Brigade during the Battle of France in 1940, and the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division and later VIII Corps in the Western Europe Campaign from 1944 to 1945.

After the war Barker was the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the British Forces in Palestine and Trans-Jordan from 1946 to 1947 during the Palestine Emergency and is remembered for his antisemitism and his controversial order, in the wake of the King David Hotel bombing in July 1946, where he declared: “[We] will be punishing the Jews in a way the race dislikes as much as any, by striking at their pockets and showing our contempt of them.”

Born in Southsea, Hampshire, England, on 22 May 1894, Evelyn Hugh Barker was the son of Major General Sir George Barker, a British Army officer of the Royal Engineers, and Hon. Clemency Hubbard, daughter of John Hubbard, 1st Baron Addington, as the youngest of two children and the only son. He was educated at Wellington College, Berkshire, later entering the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, where, on 5 February 1913, he  was commissioned into the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC) of the British Army. He was posted to the 4th Battalion, KRRC, which was then serving in Gharial, India.

Barker, by now having gained the nickname of “Bubbles”, was still in India with his battalion when the First World War began in August 1914. However, in November, the battalion was sent to England where it became part of the 80th Brigade of the 27th Division. On 27 November Barker was promoted to the temporary rank of lieutenant. The following month the 27th Division was sent to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front, where Barker remained until being wounded in March 1915 during the actions of St Eloi Craters. By now recovered from his injuries, Barker returned to his battalion, which in November 1915 was sent to the Salonica Front, where he would remain for the rest of the war. Promoted to the rank of captain on 10 April 1916, he became the battalion’s adjutant, remaining in this post until August 1917, when he became a General Staff Officer Grade 3 (GSO3) on the HQ of the 22nd Division, a Kitchener’s Army formation. He relinquished this appointment on 11 January 1918 upon becoming a brigade major with the 67th Brigade. He ended the war in November, having been wounded twice, awarded the Military Cross (MC) on in June 1917, and the Italian Silver Medal of Military Valor in September, the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) on 3 June 1919, and was twice mentioned in dispatches, once on 21 July 1917 by Lieutenant General Sir George Milne, Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of the British Salonika Army, and again on 5 June 1919.

In 1919, with the war over and still with the KRRC, Barker, still a temporary captain, took part in the British military expedition against the Bolsheviks in the south of the former Russian Empire during the Russian Civil War.

Remaining in the army during the interwar period, Barker, promoted to captain on 19 August 1920, returned to England and served as a GSO3 at the War Office and later at Southern Command. In 1923 he married Violet Eleanor and together they had one son, George Worsley Barker. He then served on regimental duties for a few years before attending the Staff College, Camberley from 1927 to 1928. Among his many fellow students there were a large number of future general officers, including Philip Christison, Angus Collier, Oliver Leese, Eric Nares, Oliver Edgcumbe, Stephen Irwin, Ronald PenneyCharles Norman, Wilfrid Lloyd, Stanley KirbyWilliam BishopEdmund BeardColin JardineEric Dorman-SmithGeorge SurteesRobert Bridgeman, Reginald Savory, John Hawkesworth, Alfred Curtis, Eric Hayes, Christopher Woolner, Clement West and John Whiteley. After graduating he returned briefly to the KRRC before returning to the War Office as a GSO3 from 4 December 1929 onwards.

Promoted to brevet major on 1 July 1929, made permanent on 24 October 1930, from 31 October 1931 until 4 December 1933 Barker was brigade major of the 8th Infantry Brigade, part of the 3rd Infantry Division, then serving as part of Southern Command. Made a brevet lieutenant colonel on 1 July 1934, in June 1936 Barker succeeded Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Eastwood, who had been one of his instructors at the Staff College, as Commanding Officer (CO) of the 2nd Battalion, KRRC, and was promoted to lieutenant colonel on 13 July. The battalion was then stationed in Palestine on internal security duties during the Palestinian Arab Revolt of 1936–39 as part of Brigadier Pierse Mackesy’s 2nd Infantry Brigade. In 1937 the battalion was converted into a motorised infantry role and, later in the year, was sent to England where it became part of the Mobile Division (later the 1st Armoured Division), the forerunner of the armoured divisions of the future, then commanded by Major General Alan Brooke.

In late July 1938 Barker handed over the battalion, which he had now commanded and trained for just over two years, to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Wilson, a fellow KRRC and student at the Staff College, Camberley, although in the year below during Barker’s second year there. On 1 August Barker was promoted to brevet colonel and, on the same date, to the temporary rank of brigadier at the relatively young age (in peacetime) of 44, and took command of the 10th Infantry Brigade. The brigade formed part of the 4th Infantry Division, then commanded by Major General Dudley Johnson, a distinguished veteran of the First World War, who had won the Victoria Cross (VC). The brigade, stationed in Shorncliffe, Kent, was one of three in the division, which was then serving under Eastern Command, and had been selected for overseas service as part of an expeditionary force in the event of a war. The fact that Barker, who was promoted to colonel on 20 August (with seniority backdated to 1 July 1937) was selected to command a brigade over the heads of many older and more senior officers was a clear indicator of how Barker’s superiors regarded him, although there would inevitably have been some resentment among the officers who had been passed over.

France and Belgium

A month after the start of World War II, in October 1939, Barker took his brigade to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), where they remained for the next few months. The 10th Brigade was one of three which formed part of the 4th Division. The other two brigades, the 11th under Brigadier Kenneth Anderson, and the 12th under Brigadier John Hawkesworth, the latter who Barker had attended the Staff College with in the late 1920s.[29] The division itself was under the command of Lieutenant General Alan Brooke‘s II Corps.

After many months of relative inactivity (which led this period to be known as the “Phoney War”) the German Army launched its assault on the Western Front on 10 May 1940. By this time, however, Barker was on leave in England and, upon hearing the news of the German invasion, immediately set off back to his unit, accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel Brian Horrocks, who had received orders to command a battalion. Horrocks later wrote about this incident in his autobiography, where he described Barker as being “as usual, very cheerful, and brimming over with energy”. The brigade, together with the rest of the division advanced to Brussels but, soon afterwards, was ordered to retreat and, from 19 to 22 May, fought to hold the line of the Escaut. On 27 May Barker’s brigade was briefly transferred to the 5th Division (with only two brigades), which was then holding the Ypres-Comines canal against an assault by three German divisions. The brigade was ordered to hold the gap between the 5th and 50th Divisions but was reinforced by Anderson’s 11th Brigade as the task was too difficult. The 3rd Division, part of II Corps, was ordered to move round the left of the corps to allow the 5th and 50th Divisions to form a coherent line. The day after, Barker was ordered to retreat to the Dunkirk perimeter, which it did, with most of the brigade, which had sustained heavy losses, being evacuated to England on 31 May. Peter Young, then a platoon commander in the 2nd Battalion, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment (part of Barker’s brigade), was impressed by Barker during this period, writing that he was “the coolest man you could wish to see under fire. He seemed to like it; indeed I feel sure that he did. He liked to observe his officers and men in times of stress, because it helped to weigh them up. After so many years I am not ashamed to confess that I always felt braver when he was present”.

Service in the United Kingdom

After returning to England he remained in command of the brigade until October 1940 and, after handing over to Brigadier Walter Clutterbuck on 6 October, Barker spent the next two months as member of a Transportation Committee, which saw him temporarily reduced to the rank of colonel. He was mentioned in despatches on 26 July and made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) on 20 August for his services in France and Belgium.

However, on 11 February 1941, Barker, in common with many other officers of his rank who had fought in France and Belgium, was, at the relatively young age of 46, promoted to the acting rank of major general and became General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 54th (East Anglian) Infantry Division, a first-line Territorial Army (TA) formation, in succession to Major General John Priestman, who was 9 years older than Barker. Despite being a first-line formation, the division contained a large number of second-line units, due to the division splitting with its second-line duplicate, the 18th Division, on a geographical basis. Barker trained his troops well in anti-invasion duties throughout the United Kingdom until, in January 1942, the division was placed on the Lower Establishment, which meant the division, in addition to receiving low priority for equipment, lost much of its artillery and other supporting units, and men were constantly being sent on overseas drafts to replace casualties, which severely hampered training. On 11 February 1942 Barker’s rank of major general was made temporary, and permanent on 22 January (with seniority backdated to 17 November 1941). The drafting process continued throughout 1942 and into 1943 until, on 14 April 1943, Barker handed over the 54th Division to Major General Charles Wainwright, and was ordered to become GOC of the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division on 30 April.

By the time Barker became GOC, the 49th “Polar Bears” Division had been selected to join the British Second Army, then commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Kenneth Anderson, which was formed in July to take part in the Allied invasion of Normandy, then scheduled for May 1944. The division formed part of I Corps, then under Lieutenant General Gerard Bucknall, later replaced in August 1943 by Lieutenant General John Crocker. As a result, the division undertook training in amphibious warfare, mainly in Scotland. Whilst he was there Barker, nicknamed “Bubbles”, apparently gained a reputation as a “demon for physical fitness and field training”, according to Captain A. P. Whitehead of the 70th Brigades’ 1st Battalion, Tyneside Scottish, who further wrote that “under his command the whole Division rapidly became a battleschool”. On 1 January 1944 Barker was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB).

The 49th Division had originally been selected as one of the initial three assault divisions for the invasion, and had, under Barker, been trained accordingly. However, with General Sir Bernard Montgomery arriving in England from Italy, where he had commanded the British Eighth Army, in early January 1944 to take command of the 21st Army Group (which controlled all ground troops for the invasion) from General Sir Bernard Paget, he almost immediately had the plan recast, increasing the number of assault divisions from three to five, with three airborne divisions in support. Montgomery, who, along with Paget, had been one of Barker’s instructors at the Staff College when the latter had attended as a student, also opted for the landings to be undertaken by experienced assault troops, and as a result the 49th Division, despite training for many months as an assault formation, was relegated to a backup role, and Major General Douglas Graham‘s 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division, which had fought in France and North Africa and had recently conducted an amphibious landing in Sicily, was chosen instead. Although disappointed, Barker’s division, in late January, moved to East Anglia and transferred to XXX Corps, under Lieutenant General Gerard Bucknall (formerly GOC I Corps, Bucknall, eager to see action had, in July 1943, requested demotion to command a division in an active theatre of war, being made GOC 5th Division in Italy before returning to England at Montgomery’s request to be GOC XXX Corps), and began preparations for the invasion, then scheduled for June, and continued training almost to D-Day itself.

Northwest Europe

The 49th Division landed in Normandy as part of Operation Overlord on 12 June 1944, six days after the initial Normandy landings (more commonly known as D-Day). Barker was confident about the ability of his troops, writing in his diary on 2 June, “I have a first class party to go with − I am satisfied that my chaps are in as good, if not better shape, than any others…. It will be a grim business but what fun when we see the Boche start to crack. After all these years of waiting I wouldn’t miss this for anything.” On 7 June he wrote, “News so far seems decidedly good especially that John Crocker’s chaps are fighting in Caen…. The Boche seems to have re-acted slower than I expected but his two Panzer Divs appear to be on the move…. It’s quite impossible to realise that we are going into battle.”

After landing in Normandy he wrote, on 12 June, “The last two or three days have been v. sticky as the Boche has had time to deploy his initial Panzer Divisions. Bobby [Erskine, GOC 7th Armoured Division] and his chaps are getting going again and made splendid progress. The whole thing is to keep this battle fluid and not allow it to crystallise. My guns were in action this pm firing their first shots in anger. The Boche are fighting well but with little support from guns and their air is simply non existent. The country here is frightfully enclosed − typically English country with thick hedges and ditches and their infantry are taking every advantage of it. They are lobbing grenades into the tank turrets and putting sticky bombs on, which Bobb[y] found most disconcerting…. Altogether things have gone really splendidly and everyone is in great heart.” Two days later he wrote, “Had breakfast with Andrew Dunlop [CO 146th Brigade] and hatched future plots. The Boche have dug in in front of him and are going to be difficult to move. They lie doggo in the ditches and then appear in the rear shooting everyone up. Bobby [Erskine] finished up last night having retained nearly all the ground he made during the pm.”

Sir Evelyn Hugh Barker
Lieutenant General Evelyn Hugh Barker, GOC VIII Corps, inspecting an StG-44 and other various captured German weapons during an inspection of the 3rd Division positions, 26 January 1945.

The division’s first contact with the enemy came around Tilly-sur-Seulles on 16 June, where the 6th Battalion, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (6th DWR), of the 147th Brigade, sustained very heavy losses. The division’s next engagement, intended to protect the right flank of the newly-arrived VIII Corps taking part in Operation Epsom, was during Operation Martlet on 25 June, with the objective of seizing the Rauray bridge. The first day of the operation went well, with the village of Fontenay, the initial objective, being captured, although Rauray itself was more difficult, eventually falling on 27 June and holding against repeated German counterattacks for four days. The division performed well, although the 6th DWR was later disbanded due to its heavy casualties (and replaced by the 1st Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment), but the defence of Rauray against two SS panzer divisions had impressed Barker’s superiors.

The division was withdrawn from the front line a few weeks later, transferring to Lieutenant General Crocker’s I Corps, which was then part of the First Canadian Army, on 25 July and played a minor role in the advance towards Falaise. The division, now with the 56th Brigade replacing the 70th Brigade (disbanded due to the British Army’s manpower shortage), advanced on the far left of the First Canadian Army towards the Seine, arriving there in late August. The division then, after crossing the river, turned towards the French port Le Havre, capturing it in conjunction with the 51st (Highland) Division while sustaining light casualties in a set-piece assault.

The 49th Division was then temporarily grounded, due to a shortage of supplies such as fuel and transport, with priority being given to XII and XXX Corps, now commanded by Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, in their pursuit of the retreating German armies into Belgium and for Operation Market Garden. On 21 September the division concentrated in Belgium and liberated Turnhout after crossing the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal.[43] It was during this period that Corporal John Harper of the Hallamshire Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, of the 146th Brigade, was posthumously awarded the division’s first and only VC of the war. The division then spent the next three weeks on the defensive, before capturing the Dutch town of Roosendaal on 30 October, after ten days of hard fighting. By the month’s end the division was at Willemstad.

The division, in mid-November, transferred from Crocker’s I Corps and the First Canadian Army to Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie‘s XII Corps of the British Second Army, where it was involved in the clearing the west bank of the River Maas on the Dutch-German frontier. On 28 November Barker met Montgomery and Dempsey, GOC Second Army, both of whom were impressed with Barker’s handling of the 49th Division, particularly in Normandy, and was informed that he was taking over command of VIII Corps. One of Barker’s former Staff College instructors, Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor, GOC VIII Corps, was being transferred to India to take command of the Eastern Army and Barker was appointed the new GOC VIII Corps in his place. Barker, handing over the 49th Division to Major General Gordon MacMillan, who had been a fellow student at the Staff College during Barker’s second year there, was promoted to the acting rank of lieutenant general on 2 December, and became GOC in time to see the end of Operation Nutcracker.

Sir Evelyn Hugh 'Bubbles' Barker
General Sir Evelyn Hugh ‘Bubbles’ Barker KCB KBE DSO MC – From left to right, Lieutenant General Evelyn Barker, Rear Admiral H. T. Baillie-Grohman, and Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey on the Admiral’s barge during a tour of Kiel Harbour, Germany, 19 May 1945.
General Sir Evelyn Hugh ‘Bubbles’ Barker KCB KBE DSO MC – From left to right, Lieutenant General Evelyn Barker, Rear Admiral H. T. Baillie-Grohman, and Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey on the Admiral’s barge during a tour of Kiel Harbour, Germany, 19 May 1945.
General Sir Evelyn Hugh ‘Bubbles’ Barker KCB KBE DSO MC – From left to right, Lieutenant General Evelyn Barker, Rear Admiral H. T. Baillie-Grohman, and Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey on the Admiral’s barge during a tour of Kiel Harbour, Germany, 19 May 1945.

VIII Corps, which did not see much action from the time of Barker’s assumption of command, later saw extensive action during the final push into Germany between March and May 1945. The corps, with the 15th Infantry, 11th Armoured and 6th Airborne Divisions under command (along with the 5th Infantry Division from 17 April), captured OsnabrückMindenCelle and Lüneburg and later crossed the Elbe. On 15 April, elements of the 11th Armoured Division liberated the remaining survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. After the German capitulation and the end of World War II in Europe, Field Marshal Montgomery appointed Barker to head the Schleswig-Holstein Corps District of the British occupation zone, and he was knighted as a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) on 5 July 1945. During the entire campaign, Barker was twice mentioned in dispatches, on 22 March 1945, and again on 10 May.

Field Marshal B. L. Montgomery poses for a group photograph with his staff, corps and divisional commanders at Walbeck, Germany, 22 March 1945. Pictured sitting, on the far left, is Lieutenant General E. H. Barker.
Field Marshal B. L. Montgomery poses for a group photograph with his staff, corps and divisional commanders at Walbeck, Germany, 22 March 1945. Pictured sitting, on the far left, is Lieutenant General E. H. Barker.

Taking command in Palestine

On 31 December 1945 Barker was made an Honorary Colonel of the Duke of York’s Own Loyal Suffolk Hussars, a yeomanry regiment of the TA which had served as an artillery regiment in both the 54th and 49th Divisions under his command, a position he would hold until 1 September 1950. He was also made Colonel Commandant of the KRRC, from 11 February 1946 until 10 February 1956. On 5 May 1946 his rank of lieutenant general was made permanent (with seniority backdating to 13 September 1944) and, soon afterwards, he was sent to Palestine, where he had served before the Second World War, and was appointed GOC of the British Forces in Palestine and Trans-Jordan. The perception of the British government’s timidity with regard to the Jews, predominant in military circles, was expressed in the memoirs of Field Sir Bernard Marshal Montgomery, who was now the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), the professional head of the British Army, in 1946–48:

“Indecision and hesitation were in evidence all down the line, beginning in Whitehall … All this had led to a state of affairs in which British rule existed only in name; the true rulers seemed to me to be the Jews, whose unspoken slogan was – ‘You dare not touch us.’ “

Operation Agatha

Operation Agatha Spurred to deliver, in the middle of June 1946, Barker started planning a large-scale police operation throughout the Yishuv. Having the long-awaited order to arrest the leaders of the Jewish Agency, which was now strongly believed to be complicit in terrorism, Barker organised Operation Agatha in great secrecy and with high hopes of delivering a strong blow to the guerillas. The operation began in early morning of Saturday, 29 June (it became known as “Black Sabbath” among the Yishuv), with tens of thousands of soldiers and policemen employed in a cordon-and-search action in almost every Jewish settlement. By the end of the day, over 2,700 Jews were detained, including some leaders of the Jewish Agency. Dozens of weapon caches were found, including one in the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv.

Operation Shark

With information that the Irgun ring responsible for the King David Hotel bombing was hiding in Tel Aviv, Barker organised a massive police operation in the city. His instructions to his subordinate Major-General James Cassels were short: “Jim, I want you to search Tel Aviv, every single room and attic and cellar in Tel Aviv. Is that quite clear ?”[64]

The police action in Tel Aviv, codenamed Operation Shark, began on 30 July and achieved several successes, including the discovery of a large weapons cache in the city’s main synagogue, and the arrest of the LEHI’s leader Yitzhak Shamir. But the most important figure of the Zionist underground, Menachem Begin of the Irgun, slipped through British hands. He hid in a secret compartment in his house while British soldiers stayed in his home for two days. General Barker later recalled: “We should have caught him, but the men did not search his house properly. This is one of the problems of search operations. You have to rely on very junior people, and, if they make a mistake, the whole operation can be damaged.”[65]

On 24 January 1947, Barker confirmed the death sentence of the Irgun fighter, Dov Gruner. Barker later said in an interview to a researcher:

“This was a cut-and-dried case. Gruner had been caught redhanded, armed and shooting up British troops. His political views were nothing to do with the matter. It’s nonsense to say that he was a prisoner of war. There was no war. Even if there had been, the Irgun were not obeying the rules of war. He was a criminal, a murderer. So I took it up to Alan Cunningham and I said, “This is an absolutely definite case of carrying arms and I propose to sign the death warrant. Do you agree? He said he did. It wasn’t political. It wasn’t referred to London. It was a decision taken by me on the spot.”

Assassination plots

Barker was a target of the Irgun and the LEHI. In Palestine, explosive devices were placed around his home and at its very door, the GOC sometimes survived due to the vigilance of his officers, other times by luck. Assassination plots followed him to Britain after his return from the Mandate in February 1947. Among the would-be assassins was the future President of Israel, and the nephew of Chaim WeizmannEzer Weizman. A former Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot, and now a student of aviation in London, the 23-year-old Ezer Weizman worked with an Irgun colleague tracking Barker to his house and producing a plan to use a bomb against him. Before the duo was able to plant the device into the road, however, Weizman was visited by the police. Having attracted suspicion, the future President quickly left Britain. The story of this plot remained unknown until Weizman himself revealed it in his memoir “On Eagle’s Wings” 30 years later. The retired Barker commented on this news in 1977:

“I expect he’s glad that he failed in his mission. What good would it have done to kill me? It wouldn’t have helped the Jewish cause or the Irgun or anyone else. At least General Weizman has been able to go through the last thirty years without a murder on his conscience.”

After leaving Palestine in February 1947, Barker returned to England where he succeeded Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese, a fellow student at Camberley, as GOC of Eastern Command, a big step-down after his previous jobs. On 15 November 1948 he was promoted to the four-star rank of general (with seniority backdated to 3 October 1946). Shortly after being made Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) on 2 January 1950, he relinquished the command to Lieutenant General Sir Gerald Templer, a fellow student during Barker’s second year at the Staff College in the late 1920s, in February 1950.

From 6 July 1949 until 18 March 1950 he was aide-de-camp general to the King. On 18 March 1950 Barker retired from military service, at the age of 55, after a thirty-seven year military career. He did, however, maintain his links with the army and was, on 1 January 1951, made Honorary Colonel of another TA unit, the 286th (Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire Yeomanry) Regiment, Royal Artillery, holding this post until 31 December 1962. He was Deputy Lieutenant for the county of Bedfordshire from 12 July 1952 until 20 April 1967.

Despite controversy surrounding his command in Palestine “Bubbles” Barker was, although “largely unknown to the public, he was nevertheless a popular leader who was always very visible to his own troops, his nickname expressing perfectly his energy, enthusiasm and sense of humour”.