Dorman-Smith was born to a mixed-religion couple in Bellamont Forest, Cootehill, County Cavan, Ireland. He was received into the Catholic Church four days after his birth as a result of his Catholic mother's pleading. His younger brothers, Victor and Reggie, were baptised Protestant. His best friend as a child in Cootehill was John Charles McQuaid, the local doctor's son, who was later appointed Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin.
At the age of 12, he was sent to St Anthony's, a Catholic school in Eastbourne, Sussex. His Cavan accent and buck teeth made him stand out and, in the effort to modify his accent, he developed a stutter. While there, his parents moved to Maidenhead in England and, after a year, he was moved to Lambrook, which was a school attended by his younger brothers, whereupon his stutter vanished. In 1910, he went to Uppingham School, Rutland, where he befriended Brian Horrocks. His father insisted he take the entrance exam for the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in December 1912 and he scored 6969/12600, being placed 69th in the order of merit, thus obtaining one of the 172 available places. Horrocks also succeeded, ranked 171. After two terms, he passed out in exemplary fashion, leaving Horrocks to complete a third term, achieving 515/600 in military history and 2031/2800 in general military subjects. His overall score was 7976/10,500, placing him 10th. He was commissioned lieutenant in the 1st Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers. During his school days he showed that he had strong principles, in particular there were episodes of casual anti-semitism towards friends of his which he reportedly took steps to address. He gained his nickname "Chink" on his first night in the officers' mess when his fellow subaltern Richard Vachell noted his resemblance to the Chinkara antelope mascot that the regiment had had to leave behind when they moved back to England from India.
"Chink" and the Northumberland Fusiliers were sent to Flanders on 13 August 1914 and were involved in the Battle of Mons and was wounded in the retreat. Later that year he was involved in the battles of Messines, Armentières and Ypres and received another wound on 9 December. In May 1915 the battalion was involved in fighting at Railway Wood, near Ypres. Although he had received a shrapnel wound and four lesser injuries from rifle bullets, he organised, under heavy fire, a withdrawal of the survivors of his regiment, for which he was awarded one of the first batch of the Military Cross. After a difficult period of convalescence, he was sent to teach trench warfare to new recruits and in January 1917 he was posted to the Northern School of Instruction. He returned to active service in July 1917 and, at the age of 22, he was temporarily appointed Acting-Major in the 10th Battalion. In late 1917, he was posted to the Italian Piave Front on attachment to the 68th Infantry Brigade School. He finished the war in Genoa, recovering from an attack of gastroenteritis, with a bar added to his MC and having received three mentions in despatches. Upon his discharge from hospital he was appointed Commandant of the British Troops and sent to Milan.
In Milan on 3 November 1918, he met Ernest Hemingway, who had been wounded at the Italian front and decorated with the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery while serving with the Red Cross. He was posted to the Military Landing Staff at Taranto before returning to England as adjutant to the Northumberland Fusiliers. In June 1921, the regiment was posted to his native Ireland as part of the effort to repress the rebellion. His battalion was part of the Curragh 5th Division and from its headquarters in Carlow, its role was to patrol the county of Kilkenny. He discovered that his childhood nurse had married the local IRA brigadier and on one occasion, helped her bury a cache of hand grenades on the grounds of Bellamont Forest prior to a raid by the Black and Tans but otherwise remained politically neutral.
His period of duty in Ireland ended in February 1922 and he moved to the Rhine Army still as Adjutant of the Northumberland Fusiliers. He witnessed the breakdown of transport and communications after the French sent troops into the Ruhr basin in January 1923 to enforce war reparations.
In 1924, he left his regiment to become an instructor at Sandhurst Military Academy, where he became acquainted with Richard O'Connor; the duo went on a walking tour of the Austro-Italian Alps at the end of 1924. In 1927, Dorman-Smith sat the entrance examination for the Staff College. In the Strategy paper the examiner, J. F. C. Fuller awarded him 1,000 marks out of a possible 1,000. The advantage of gaining the p.s.c. (passed Staff College) was that the two-year course provided a network of 180 highly trained officers for help afterwards. By arriving with such a splash, it is probable that Dorman-Smith became regarded with suspicion by people who would one day be his peers and superior officers.
On 28 December 1928 he passed out Grade A in the top four and publicly burned his lecture notes, including those from Bernard Montgomery. They had already clashed on numerous occasions and "Chink" had also failed to attend his class on The Registering of Personality, which he regarded as unnecessary for the formulation of successful tactics. He then became the first infantryman to hold the post of instructor of tactics at Chatham, the Engineers' equivalent of the Staff College. In 1929 he was commissioned to write a textbook on military tactics, which became an official army handbook, Infantry Section Leaders' Training, within two years.
In July 1931 he was appointed Brigade Major to 6th Experimental Brigade at Blackdown, under Archibald Wavell, who, along with Richard O'Connor and Claude Auchinleck, were the most significant influences on his career and his most prominent supporters. In 1931, so much of the British Army was serving overseas that only about 500 Army men were present in the UK. Wavell aimed to increase the mobility of the army and led exercises to this aim in which Dorman-Smith assisted. He encouraged Dorman-Smith to ignore the standard manuals and devise new tactical approaches. In 1934, on the recommendation of O'Connor, he was appointed to the War Office at the rank of lieutenant colonel. He allied himself with Liddell Hart in a crusade against the use of horses in the army. He devised an estimate of British casualties over the first year of a big war into three categories; 25 percent caused by enemy action, 25 percent by indifferent generalship and accidents of war, 50 percent by the Treasury.
It was at that time Dorman-Smith began to clash with Alan Brooke, whom he viewed as the epitome of a traditional Horse Artillery officer, with little interest in the requirements of modern mechanised warfare. On a return to the Staff College in 1936, he had to deliver lectures on tactics which he considered already outdated. He spent his leisure time devising with Philip Christison more up-to-date theories of supply, staff duties and tactical handling, only to be reprimanded by Lord Gort, the Commandant.
After 16 months, rather than the customary three years, Dorman-Smith was appointed Colonel of 1st Battalion, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, in Egypt. His farewell speech to the Staff College on the success of Mussolini's Abyssinian campaign was not well received, probably because of its emphasis on the more mechanised approach of the Italian Army compared with the British Army. In Egypt, he clashed with his new command about his disregard for polo training and he was far from impressed by their military ability. He tried without success to break down barriers between British and Egyptian companies, probably another campaign that would be held against this unconventional officer.
Late in 1937, he went to Mersa Matruh to re-design the fortifications. His assessment of the terrain was to colour his estimate of Neil Ritchie's generalship when facing Rommel's assault in 1942 and seems to have realised that Alamein was going to be the decisive battleground in Egypt. In March 1938, he was offered the post of Director of Military Training for India, a major-general appointment and he left Egypt in May. The later Regimental History thanks Dorman-Smith for his modernising efforts in helping the battalion to survive the desert campaign, although it appears that they were glad to see the back of him.
In India, he soon got to know the Commander-in-Chief's loyal aide "Bunny" Careless, who developed an antipathy that might have re-surfaced when Dorman-Smith was his brigade commander in Italy in 1944. The occupant of the office next door to Dorman-Smith was the Deputy Chief, General Staff, Claude Auchinleck. They became close companions and went on hill-walks before breakfast each day. They developed a plan to transform the Indian Army but the outbreak of the Second World War put paid to them. In January 1940, Auchinleck was appointed corps commander in England. In August of that year, Wavell asked Dorman-Smith to take over command of the Staff College for Palestine at Haifa. Although it meant reverting to the rank of brigadier, Dorman-Smith accepted the post.
In October 1940, during the Second World War, Wavell asked Dorman-Smith to look into the feasibility of taking the offensive against the Italian forces who had invaded Egypt from Libya. On delivery of his report, he was sent as an adviser to Major-General Richard O'Connor and the Western Desert Force.
Dorman-Smith is credited by historian Correlli Barnett with planning Operation Compass and with the discovery of a gap in the Italian lines south of Sidi Barrani. He was then sent back to Haifa while the Western Desert Force carried out his daring plan with great success. In January 1941, Wavell again asked him to report to O'Connor and assess the progress of the campaign in order to distil what could be learned from its success. He stayed with the army until, in early February, the Italian 10th Army surrendered near Benghazi. O'Connor sent him back to Cairo to ask Wavell's permission to advance on Tripoli but in the meantime Churchill had instructed Wavell to send troops to the aid of Greece, ending Operation Compass. "Chink" returned to Haifa on 13 February 1941.
In April 1941, he was temporarily appointed Brigadier General Staff and watched from a distance while Rommel won back all the territory that O'Connor had gained and the Allied forces were pushed out of the Balkans and Greece. He conveyed several messages to General Freyberg who was preparing the defence of Crete. His temporary appointment ended at the end of May and he again returned to the Staff College in Haifa. When the news arrived that Wavell was going to be replaced by Auchinleck in July, Dorman-Smith probably thought that he stood a chance of getting a permanent role closer to the action but no job offer was made. By December, he had made up his mind to retire from the army. He had a meeting with Auchinleck and was appointed Liaison Officer for Persia and Iraq. Although he realised that was a meaningless sinecure, he stayed on. In February 1942, Auchinleck sent him to assess the condition of the Eighth Army under Ritchie. His conclusion, shared by everyone he consulted, was that Ritchie should be replaced but Auchinleck took no action. After a few more unproductive months in which he again offered his resignation (which Auchinleck tore up) he worked on a proposal for a Higher Command School with Smuts. He was offered on 8 May a choice of major-general positions, an unspecified role under Wavell in India or Deputy Chief of the General Staff in Cairo. "Chink" accepted the latter.
Until 6 August 1942, when he was sacked, Dorman-Smith, a full colonel but holding the acting rank of major-general, served as chief of staff to Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief Middle East. Auchinleck took over command of the Eighth Army on 25 June after the failure of Neil Ritchie to provide effective resistance to the Axis forces and took Dorman-Smith along to act as his staff officer. Dorman-Smith's novel use of intelligence derived from Ultra decrypts, led them to formulate tactics based on systematic attacks on the weak points of the German forces, notably the Italian formations, which proved successful in slowing down and finally disrupting the German advance. The stream of bad news from this war zone in the weeks prior to Auchinleck's assumption of personal command, had led to a crisis of confidence in Whitehall. Churchill and Brooke visited Cairo in August 1942 to take stock of the situation. They were not impressed by Auchinleck's poor grasp of public relations work and decided that a change of command was required.
Brooke had spoken to his former protégé Ritchie and various other senior officers whom he knew from his days with the horse artillery and came to the conclusion that Dorman-Smith was a poor advisor to Auchinleck,
I was beginning to be suspicious that "Chink" Dorman-Smith, one of his staff officers, was beginning to exercise far too much influence on him (Auchinleck). Dorman-Smith had a most fertile brain, continually producing new ideas, some of which (not many) were good and the rest useless.
Major St J. Oswald, a G2 Staff Officer at Eighth Army HQ who eventually rose to the rank of major-general, said of Dorman-Smith, "He really was as near being a lunatic as you can get".
Dorman-Smith never held any important military positions after this date. He reverted to the rank of brigadier on 11 September 1942 and was soon appointed to command the 160th Infantry Brigade, part of the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division in Kent, preparing and training for the invasion of Normandy. Another unfortunate meeting took place on 20 November, when Churchill paid a visit to the 53rd Division and invited "Chink" to the official lunch party. He ended up in an argument with Churchill and gave him a patronising lecture on military tactics. In May 1943, Exercise Spartan, took place and although his brigade performed well, there was no official recognition. To compound his misfortune, on 11 November 1943, he learned that his new corps commander was going to be Neil Ritchie. He wrote to his divisional commander, Major-General Robert Knox Ross, requesting that he be moved to a new post and on 21 November he was ordered to vacate his command and stay on leave of absence until further notice, although his divisional commander made it clear that this was in no way a reflection on his efficiency.
On 30 March 1944, he learned that he was to be given command of the 3rd Infantry Brigade, part of the 1st Infantry Division, then participating in the Battle of Anzio, Italy. His brigade performed well but he was sacked again after it was alleged that his battalion commanders had complained about his leadership. The divisional commander, Major-General Ronald Penney, declared him "unfit for brigade command". The circumstances behind his demotion are controversial. He was in command of three battalions. James Hackett wrote in 1984 that Dorman-Smith was summoned by the divisional commander to give his opinion of his superior officer, a procedure that annoyed and offended him. Neither of the other two officers left accounts of the episode. The only evidence rests on the report of the divisional commander, which is tainted by inaccuracies in that at least one of the three officers did not lay a complaint. Greacen's biography includes a summary of the differences between the three accounts of this episode made by Penney on various occasions.
Four years after he was forcibly retired from the British Army, he changed his name from Dorman-Smith to O'Gowan, having long been aware that his father was descended from the O'Gowans, who had once been a ruling family in Ulster. In 1945 he had contested the safe Tory seat of Wirral, Cheshire for the Liberal Party. He won 14,302 votes and retained his deposit, coming third, with Selwyn Lloyd easily retaining the seat for the Conservatives with 51% of the votes of those who cast ballots. "Chink" retired to Dublin. Eve joined him in November 1945, gave birth to Christopher on 10 May 1946 and to Rionagh in December 1947. He began to study in the library at University College, Dublin, after his application to read for a degree was rejected.
Throughout his military career, Dorman-Smith had retained contacts with Ireland. He did not inherit Bellamont Forest until his father died in March 1948 and his parents had long ceased to reside there, leading to the estate becoming run-down by the time he took it over but he had paid regular visits during the 20s and 30s. The estate was 11 mi (18 km) from the Ulster border and at times it became a place of interest to the Republicans. During one of Dorman-Smith's stays, Éamon de Valera who seems to have been interested in learning of "Chink's" views on the state of the Irish army, made an informal and unannounced visit. During his time at the Staff College in 1927 to 1928, two Irish Army officers paid an official visit - after rebukes from the UK for visiting Fort Leavenworth in the USA and Montgomery, the senior lecturer, ordered a boycott so the welcoming party consisted only of the Commandant and Dorman-Smith.
In 1950, he joined Clann na Poblachta, a new party led by Seán MacBride, who had been an Irish Republican Army officer in Carlow during Dorman-O'Gowan's posting there. His ties and allegiance to the UK were fading fast. In May 1951 he stood for election to the Dáil as an independent candidate in Cavan, since Clann were already supporting another candidate. He polled just 495 votes - the lowest of the eight candidates. He later became an IRA advisor to the IRA Executive during the 1950s Border Campaign.
His first contact with the IRA seems to have been in the aftermath of their raid on the Gough Barracks in Armagh on 12 June 1954. Chief of Staff Tony Magan and the Adjutant-General Charlie Murphy visited him for discussions at Bellamont Forest. In July 1954, he spoke at a reunification rally in Manchester, making it clear that he was distancing himself from the policies of the UK. He grew frustrated at not being made part of the decision-making process of the IRA and when a raid on Omagh went wrong, he began to realise that the IRA did not meet his ideals of efficiency.
During 1955–56, his estate was used as a training-ground by the IRA two weekends a year but he was excluded from playing a role despite his eagerness to assist. He does not appear to have kept these contacts secret. Dame Daphne du Maurier, wife of his former Sandhurst adjutant Frederick "Boy" Browning, wrote a story about this side of his life, A Border-Line Case.
The British establishment appears to have dismissed him as a harmless crank. On 15 December 1956, after the failure of Operation Harvest and the introduction of the Special Powers Act, Charlie Murphy and Sean Cronin visited to convey the message that his usefulness to the IRA was over.
Dorman-Smith was an unorthodox commander and has attracted contrasting opinions. To some, such as Basil Liddell Hart, he was "...the outstanding soldier of his generation". To others, such as Carver and Alanbrooke, he was a "sinister influence" and the major cause of Auchinleck's dismissal. Montgomery called him "a menace" but despite his antipathy, the Battle of Alam el Halfa was fought on a plan very close to that conceived by Dorman-Smith for Auchinleck. Montgomery made skilful use of the defensive system which he had been instrumental in planning and laying out. Carver, however, points out that Montgomery did make a decisive alteration to this plan by bringing up troops that were to have been held in reserve in the Nile Delta to form a continuous line of defence. The effect of this was to reduce the need for mobility for which the British Army in terms of organisation, training and communications was not highly skilled - despite the efforts of people such as Dorman-Smith to reform it.
The key characteristic of Dorman-Smith's career is that he was not politically astute and made a number of enemies in the 1920s and 1930s who worked against him, including Penney, Montgomery and most significantly in view of his fall from grace, Brooke, "I had been worried for some time by Auchinleck's handling of armoured formations, mainly due to his listening to the advice of "Chink" Dorman-Smith." Montgomery finally initiated battle at El Alamein at a later date than had previously been envisaged in the Auchinleck-Dorman-Smith plan, which was partly responsible for their dismissals.
He sued Churchill, forcing him to amend The Hinge of Fate, part of his history of the Second World War, so that an implied slur on the fighting mettle of Auchinleck was removed. Less acrimoniously, Montgomery was forced to tone down his criticisms of his predecessors in the Eighth Army, when he published his memoirs in August 1958. When Harold Alexander brought out his memoirs in 1961, "Chink" was preparing his case but his legal team advised him to withdraw.
His next meeting with Hemingway after the latter's departure from Genoa in 1919, was in Paris in 1922, where "Chink" was spending his vacation with his parents. Hemingway was living there with his wife Hadley and working as a freelance journalist. He invited Dorman-Smith to accompany them to Montreux. They spent their days fishing and climbing mountains and Hemingway alluded to this holiday in Green Hills of Africa. They decided to show Hadley around Milan and crossed the St Bernard Pass on foot - an adventure commemorated by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast.
They met up over Christmas 1922, again in Montreux and spent the visit luging and skiing. In early 1923, Hemingway visited Dorman-Smith in Cologne on behalf of the Toronto Star newspaper. During the following summer, he visited them in Paris where Hemingway introduced him to the intelligentsia, including John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound. Hemingway's first book, In Our Time, was dedicated to Dorman-Smith and includes some anecdotes from "Chink's" memories of the Mons campaign. In March 1924, he paid another visit to Paris and became godfather to Ernest Hemingway's eldest son John.
That summer, in company with Dos Passos, Donald Ogden Stewart and Robert McAlmon, they visited the San Fermin festival in Pamplona in July and participated in the bull-running. Proof of the high esteem in which Hemingway held Dorman-Smith is contained in his 1924 poem, To Chink Whose Trade is Soldiering. However, after their next meeting in April 1926, when Dorman-Smith was accompanying an army rugby team to Paris, they gradually drifted apart because of the stresses of Dorman-Smith's military career and the changes in Hemingway's life. They did not meet again until Dorman-Smith was touring the USA in April 1950.
He did not marry young and conducted a series of affairs until on 29 December 1927, he married Estelle, Lady Berney; their union was childless. During his period in Haifa in 1940, he met Eve Nott, with whom he began an affair. They wed on 17 May 1949 at Westminster Registry Office. He had a son and a daughter, Christopher and Rionagh and seven grandchildren and five great grandchildren. Dorman-Smith's youngest brother, Reginald, was Governor of Burma at the time of the Japanese invasion during the Second World War. His other brother Victor, was a Royal Navy Captain.
He died from stomach cancer on 11 May 1969 at Lisdarne hospital, Cavan, aged 73.