A sick brain and a great naval disaster

It was June 27, 1942, during World War II and Russia was in desperate need of tanks, planes, ammunition, food and other war necessities. The Soviet army was involved in a fearsome battle against Hitler’s panzer divisions that were advancing deeper and deeper into Russian territory and winning on all fronts.

It appeared that without supplies the future course of World War II in the east was in doubt. And no one knew that a dreadful naval decision was about to be made to further the conquests of Nazi Germany.

To aid the Russian army, allied commanders decided to assemble a huge convoy of British and American ships with the final destination, Archangel, in northern Russia. It was a perilous journey under the best of conditions.

The strategy was to have this heavy naval escort meet merchant ships carrying supplies north of Iceland.

They were then to proceed through frigid enemy waters controlled by German submarines and torpedo-bombers based in northern Norway.

But a strange thing happened while in these treacherous waters.

The escorting naval ships received an order telling them to leave the convoy at high speed. In addition, the puzzled captains of the merchant ships were told to scatter and proceed to Archangel. These murderous signals sent from 2,000 miles away resulted in a frightful disaster. For U-Boat commanders and torpedo-bombers it became a shooting gallery. Just 11 of the 34 ships reached their destination. Winston Churchill called convoy PQ 17 one of the most melancholy episodes of the whole war.

But who sent this infamous signal against all naval advice? It was The First Lord of the British Admiralty, Sir Dudley Pound.

Members of his staff had noticed for some time that he was suffering from exhaustion and fell asleep when meeting with President Roosevelt and at other high level meetings. They also questioned whether his symptoms might be due to serious disease. But because Churchill held him in high esteem, as did other admirals, no one suggested that he should seek medical attention.

When Pound issued this infamous order he was actually suffering the symptoms of a glioma, a type of brain tumour, and died a few months later.

Dr. Bengt Ljunggren, a Swedish neurosurgeon and historian, outlines in his book Great Men with Sick Brains, how often we do not learn from history.

Many medically unfit people of power make decisions that affect millions of people without receiving medical help.

Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May, 1940. Chamberlain had returned from a meeting with Adolph Hitler, reporting the Fuhrer had agreed to peace. But Chamberlain’s mental and physical buoyancy was already failing and he died of inoperable colon cancer in November of that year.

The British ambassador to Washington, Lord Lothian, showed even greater signs that his brain was failing. He too had the habit of falling asleep. But on his arrival in the U.S he surprised journalists by declaring, “Well boys, Britain is broke. It’s your money we want!”

He had severe kidney failure and died two weeks later.

The great tragedy in all these cases is that close colleagues were sleeping at the switch. It was apparent to them that Sir Dudley Pound was sleeping 75% of the time and was not adequately handling the task of managing the admiralty.

During the conference on whether to invade Sicily or Sardinia, Field Marshall Viscount Alanbrooke noted that Pound had no opinion either way. Later at the Casablanca Conference, General George S. Patton remarked on Pound’s indecision. And even when Pound had lost the function of his foot and hand, he still attended a conference in Quebec City.

Symptoms of glioma are the same as most brain tumours, depending on the location of the malignancy.

The most common symptom is headache affecting about half of all patients. Other symptoms include personality changes, mental decline, seizures and finally, in the case of Sir Dudley Pound, right-sided paralysis and death.

Tragic mistakes could have been avoided if Pound had been forced to resign or at least consult a physician. Sadly, we do not learn from history.

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