Field Marshal Harold Alexander, 1891-1969

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Field Marshal Harold Alexander was one of the most successful senior British generals of the Second World War, and proved to be an able commander of coalition armies. Alexander was born in London in 1891, the third son of the fourth Earl of Caledon. He joined the Irish Guards, with whom he served on the Western Front during the First World War, winning the Military Cross and the DSO (Distinguished Service Order). Somewhat ironically in 1919 he took command of a unit of German Freikorps fighting the Bolsheviks in Latvia. Between the wars he also served in India, commanding the Nowshera Brigade on the North West Frontier. In 1937 he became Britain's younger Major-General of the time, and in 1938 was appointed to command the 1st Division.

At the outbreak of the Second World War the 1st Division formed part of the BEF, and was sent to France. He first came to Churchill's attention during the retreat to Dunkirk. Alexander commanded the vital rearguard during this operation, and then took command of the defence of the Dunkirk beachhead, taking overall command when Lord Gort was withdrawn to Britain. Alexander remained at Dunkirk until the last possible moment, gaining a brilliant reputation as one of the few successful British commanders during the disastrous fighting in France.

Alexander's next appointment was as General Officer Commanding Southern Command, putting him directly in the path of any German invasion during the desperate days after the fall of France. None came, but the possibility did not completely fade until the entry of the United States into the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the buildup of American troops in Britain that followed.

Although the start of the war in the Far East had ended the danger of a German invasion of Britain, it did expose large parts of the Empire to attack. The invasion of Burma began in December 1941 and it was soon clear that there was a real danger that the country would fall to Japan. Alexander was sent out to Rangoon to take command, but by the time he arrived on 5 March 1942 it was too late to hold the city, and the only option left to the Allies was a retreat to India. This was the most controversial period of Alexander's career - different sources depict this retreat as slow and careful, or chaotic and disorganised. It is perhaps best seen as falling into two distinct sections - a first chaotic withdrawal from Rangoon, just in time to avoid being trapped by the Japanese, and a more careful retreat back to the Indian border, which ended in mid-May, at the start of the monsoon.

In August 1942 Alexander was moved from India to replace General Auchinleck as supreme commander in the Middle East, with General Montgomery commanding the Eighth Army. By the time Alexander arrived Auchinleck had defeated Rommel's first attempt to break through the Alamein lines, but the Germans were still dangerously close to Alexandria.

Alexander had arrived in North Africa just as the tide turned permanently in the Allies favour. Montgomery broke through Rommel's lines at El Alamein (23 October-5 November 1942), and the British began to advance west towards Tunisia. On 8 November the Allies landed in Algeria (Operation Torch), and the Germans were trapped between two forces.

When the two Allied forces finally met up Alexander was appointed as Eisenhower's deputy commander and commander of the Anglo-American ground forces, and took command of the final command against Von Arnim's trapped German forces. The final Axis surrender in North Africa came on 13 May 1943, resulting in Alexander's most famous message to Churchill:

"Sir: It is my duty to report that the Tunisian Campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores"

Alexander and Patton, Sicily 1943
Alexander and Patton, Sicily 1943

Alexander's next task was the invasion of Sicily. Once again he served under Eisenhower, as commander of Allied ground forces, giving him overall command of Montgomery's Eighth Army and Patton's Seventh Army. After a campaign lasting five weeks, the island was cleared of Axis troops, and work began on the invasion of Italy.

By now significant elements from Alexander's armies were being moved back to Britain to take part in the D-Day landings. Patton had been replaced by Mark Clark and the US Fifth Army for the landings in Italy, and in December Eisenhower himself would leave to take up his post as SCAEF (Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force). Alexander was promoted to replace him as supreme Allied commander in the Mediterranean Theatre. Although most of his attention would be focused on the fighting in Italy, this also gave him responsibility for Greece, where the German retreat was followed by the start of a brutal civil war.

The fighting in Italy soon developed a clear pattern, as Kesselring created a series of defensive lines, starting at Volturno-Termoli, which Alexander had to force his way through or round, while also attempting to prevent too many of his troops being pulled off to support the Normandy invasions or the invasion of Southern France. The most famous of those German lines was the Gustav Line. Allied efforts to break through this line included the long battle at Casino and the Anzio landings. Despite repeated setbacks, on 4 June Alexander's men entered Rome, the first Axis capital to surrender.

The final phase of the fighting in Italy in the spring of 1945 saw the Allies break through the Gothic Line, and threaten to break through into Austria. On 29 April Alexander received the unconditional surrender of all German forces in Italy, the first such surrender of the war.

Alexander was rewarded for his successes with the title of 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis. After the war he served as Governor General of Canada (1946-52) and Minister of Defence (1952-4). Alexander seems to have been almost universally respected amongst his fellow commanders, both British and American. Even the normally prickly Montgomery wrote that Alexander was the "only man under whom any general would gladly serve in a subordinate position".

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (8 April 2008), Field Marshal Harold Alexander, 1891-1969 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_alexander_harold.html

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