Alexander, Harold Rupert Leofric George, first Earl Alexander of Tunis 1891-1969, field-marshal, was born in London 10 December 1891, the third son of James Alexander, fourth Earl of Caledon, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Graham-Toler, daughter of the third Earl of Norbury. His youth was spent at the family estate, Caledon Castle, in the county Tyrone. His father, who had served briefly in the Life Guards but was better known as an adventurous deep-water yachtsman, died when Alexander was six; his mother, eccentric and imperious, held aloof from her children; but their four sons were perfectly happy in their own company. It was in Northern Ireland that Alexander developed both the athletic and the aesthetic sides of his character; he trained himself as a runner and enjoyed all the usual country sports, but he also taught himself to carve in wood and stone and began what was to prove one of the main passions of his life, painting. After reading Reynolds's Discourses on Art he decided that the thing he wanted most in the world was to be president of the Royal Academy. At Harrow he worked well enough to rise smoothly up the school. His games were cricket, athletics, rackets, rugger, boxing, fencing, and gymnastics and he won distinction at all of them; he is best remembered as nearly saving the game for Harrow in what Wisden called the most extraordinary cricket match ever played, at Lord's in 1910. He also won a school prize for drawing.
He went on to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and was commissioned in the Irish Guards in 1911. Although he was pleased at the idea of spending a few years in a Guards battalion, he intended to retire before long and make a living as an artist. These plans were upset by the outbreak of war in 1914. Alexander's battalion went to France in August and he served there continuously until early 1919, being in action throughout except when recovering from wounds or on courses. He was twice wounded, awarded the MC (1915), and appointed to the DSO (1916). Promotion was rapid. A lieutenant when he arrived, he became a captain in February 1915, a major, one of the youngest in the army, eight months later, with the acting command of the 1st battalion of his own regiment, and a lieutenant-colonel, commanding the 2nd battalion, in October 1917. During the retreat from Arras in March 1918 he was acting brigadier-general in command of the 4th Guards brigade.
The war was a turning-point in Alexander's character and career. He had painted in the trenches, and he continued to paint throughout his life, reaching at times a standard only just short of the professional; but in the course of the war he had come to realize the fascination of the profession of arms, and had proved to himself, and demonstrated to others, that he was outstandingly competent at it. His reputation stood very high for courage but also for a cheerful imperturbability in all circumstances. For four years he lived the life of a regimental officer, without any staff service; he later criticized senior commanders of that war for never seeking personal experience of the conditions of the fighting troops.
Not wishing to go back to barracks or to the army of occupation in Germany, he applied in 1919 for an appointment to one of the many military missions in Eastern Europe. He was first posted as a member of the Allied Relief Commission in Poland under (Sir) Stephen Tallents [qv.] and later went with Tallents to Latvia which was in danger of falling either to Russia or to Germany. The Allies had no troops in the Baltic and only a small naval detachment under Sir Walter Cowan [qv.]. Tallents placed the Landwehr, composed of Baltic Germans, under Alexander's command. At the age of twenty-seven he found himself at the head of a brigade-sized formation with mainly German officers. He was good at languages and had taught himself German and Russian; his authority derived from his charm and sincerity and his obvious professionalism. He kept his men steady and resistant to the attractions of the German expeditionary force under von der Goltz and led them to victory in the campaign which drove the Red Army from Latvia.
Alexander retained all his life a keen interest in Russia. During the war of 1914-18 he designed a new uniform cap for himself with a high visor and flat peak, on the model of one he had seen a Russian officer wearing. He always wore the Order of St. Anne with swords which Yudenitch awarded him in 1919; when he met Rokossovsky in 1945 the Russian general muttered to him in an aside that he had once had it too. In the second war, like Churchill, he admired Stalin and was enthusiastic about the Soviet Army.
After the Soviet Union recognized the independence of Latvia in 1920 Alexander returned to England to become second-in-command of his regiment. In 1922 he was given command and took it to Constantinople as part of the army of occupation. In 1923, after the treaty of Lausanne, the regiment went to Gibraltar and thence in 1924 to England. In 1926-7 he was at the Staff College. He was very senior in rank, a full colonel, but for the duration of the course he was temporarily reduced to the rank of major. After commanding the regiment and regimental district of the Irish Guards (1928-30), he attended the Imperial Defence College. This was followed by the only two staff appointments in his career, as GSO 2 at the War Office (1931-2) and as GSO 1 at Northern Command (1932-4). He was already widely regarded as likely to make the outstanding fighting commander of a future war; the other name mentioned, from the Indian Army, was that of (Sir) Claude Auchinleck.
In 1934 Alexander was appointed to command the Nowshera brigade on the North-West Frontier, one of the most coveted in India. Auchinleck commanded the next brigade, in Peshawar. Alexander surprised and delighted his Indian troops by learning Urdu as rapidly and fluently as he had Russian and German. Next year he commanded the brigade in the Loc Agra campaign (called after a small village north of the Malakand pass) against invading tribesmen; and not long after, under Auchinleck's command as the senior brigadier, in the Mohmand campaign. Both operations were successful; roads were built, large regions pacified; Alexander was appointed CSI (1936). It was noted not only that he had mastered the difficult techniques of fighting in mountainous country but also that he was always to be seen with the foremost troops. This was both a revulsion from the behaviour he had condemned in his senior commanders in France and a natural result of his personal courage; it remained to the end a characteristic of his style of leadership.
His promotion to major-general in 1937, at the age of forty-five, made him the youngest general in the British Army; in 1938 he was given command of the 1st division at Aldershot. In 1939 he took the division to France as one of the two in I Corps under Sir John Dill [qv.]. In the retreat to Dunkirk his division only once fought a serious if brief battle, when he successfully defended the Scheldt for two days, throwing back all German penetrations; for the rest of the time he was obliged to fall back to conform to the movement of other divisions. It was Dunkirk which first brought his name prominently before the public notice. I Corps was to form the final rearguard and Lord Gort [qv.] superseded the corps commander and put Alexander in command. His orders were definite: to withdraw all the British troops who could be saved. A different interpretation of the military necessities of the moment was held by the French commander, Admiral Abrial, and Alexander confessed that to carry out his orders while leaving the French still fighting made him feel that he had never been in such a terrible situation. During the three days in which he commanded, 20,000 British and 98,000 French were evacuated: Alexander left on the last motor launch in which he toured the beaches to see that there were no British troops remaining.
On his return to England he was confirmed in command of I Corps which was responsible for the defence of the east coast from Scarborough to the Wash. Promoted lieutenant-general, in December 1940 he succeeded Auchinleck at Southern Command. He showed himself an admirable trainer of troops and was the first to introduce the realistic battle-schools which became so prominent a feature of military life from 1940 to 1944. He was also put in command of a nominal Force 110 which was to be used for amphibious operations; he and his staff planned a number which never came off, such as the invasion of the Canaries and of Sicily.
In February 1942 Alexander was suddenly informed that he was to take command of the army in Burma where the situation was already desperate. The key battle had been lost before Alexander arrived; the Japanese were across the Sittang river, in a position to encircle and capture Rangoon. It was by the greatest good fortune, and the oversight of a Japanese divisional commander in leaving open one narrow escape route, that Alexander himself and the bulk of his forces were able to escape from Rangoon which, in obedience to ill-considered orders from Sir A. P. (later Earl) Wavell [qv.], he had tried to hold almost beyond the last reasonable moment. After its fall Burma had no future military value except as a glacis for the defence of India. Alexander decided that the only success he could snatch from the jaws of unmitigated defeat was to rescue the army under his command by withdrawing it to India. It was a campaign of which he always spoke with compunction and distaste, except for his admiration for General (later Viscount) Slim [qv.]. Left entirely without guidance after the fall of Rangoon—not that the guidance he had received previously had been of any value—Alexander did the best he could. As a further sign of the gifts he was to display as an Allied commander, it should be recorded that he got on the best of terms not only with Chiang Kai Chek but also with General J. W. Stilwell.
It might be thought that two defeats in succession would have meant the end to Alexander's hopes of high command. Churchill had shown no mercy to Gort or Wavell and was to show none to Auchinleck. But as he wrote in The Hinge of Fate (1951), in sending Alexander to Burma never have I taken the responsibility for sending a general on a more forlorn hope. He had formed so high an appreciation of Alexander's ability that he immediately confirmed his designation as commander-in-chief of the First Army which was to invade North Africa, under Eisenhower's command, in November 1942 when the Allies for the first time seized the strategic initiative. But before that could take effect, Churchill felt impelled in early August to visit Egypt. Auchinleck was more impressive in the field than in conversation in his caravan; Churchill decided to replace him with Alexander. It is ironical that one of the main reasons why Auchinleck was replaced was that he declared himself unable to take the offensive until September: Churchill was to accept from Alexander, with but little remonstrance, a postponement until late October.
Alexander took over as commander-in-chief, Middle East, on 15 August 1942. For the first time he found himself in a position which was not only not desperate but full of promise. He had a numerical superiority, and at last equality of equipment, against an army fighting at the end of a long and precarious line of communication with its bases and debilitated by sickness. General Gott [q.v.], who was to have been his army commander, was killed; but he was replaced immediately by General Montgomery (later Viscount Montgomery of Alamein) who had been one of Alexander's corps commanders in Southern Command and whose capacities as a trainer and inspirer of men were well known to him. He had a sound defensive position, strongly manned, and plans had been prepared for the expected enemy assault; they were based on a partial refusal of the left flank while holding the strong position of Alam Halfa, fortified and prepared by Auchinleck to block an advance on Alexandria. Reinforcements in men and tanks continued to arrive. Nevertheless there was a problem of morale, since the Eighth Army had been fighting in retreat since May and had lost one position after another; it was natural for the troops to wonder whether they might not find themselves retreating once more. The first step towards victory in Egypt was when Alexander made it known, as soon as he assumed command, that there was to be no further retreat; the decisive battle was to be fought on the Alamein line.
The defensive battle of Alam Halfa and the offensive battle of Alamein were, as Alexander always insisted, Montgomery's victories. He had always had the gift of delegating and no one was more generous in acknowledging the merits of his subordinates. There is reason for argument whether, after the failure of the first plan at Alamein, Lightfoot, part of the credit for Supercharge, the modified version, should go to suggestions from Alexander. In truth the two generals, the commander-in-chief and the army commander, were aptly suited to their respective roles and played them well. The successful campaign in Egypt, won at almost the lowest point in the Allied fortunes, marked the beginning of a period in which British and Allied armies knew scarcely anything but success.
The invasion of North Africa in November meant that after two months a British Army, the First, with a French and an American corps, was fighting in northern and central Tunisia against a mixed German-Italian army and meanwhile the German-Italian Armoured Army of Africa, defeated at Alamein, was withdrawing towards southern Tunisia pursued by the Eighth Army. It was evident that a headquarters was required to command and co-ordinate the two Allied armies. Alexander was summoned to the Casablanca conference of January 1943. He made a great impression on President Roosevelt, General Marshall, and the United States chiefs of staff; his reputation at home had never been higher. The conference decided to appoint him deputy commander-in-chief to General Eisenhower with command over all the forces actually fighting the enemy. He set up a very small headquarters, called the 18th Army Group from the numbers of the two British armies which made up the bulk of his command; this was originally located in the town of Constantine, but as soon as he could Alexander moved out into the field and operated from a tented camp, moved frequently.
The Tunisian campaign provides a convincing proof of Alexander's capacity as a strategist. It also demonstrates his great gift of inspiring and elevating the morale of the troops he commanded, as well as his skill in welding together the efforts of different nationalities. At the beginning he faced a difficult task. The southern flank of his western front had been driven in by a bold enemy thrust which threatened to come in upon the communications of the whole deployment. Alexander was on the spot, even before the date at which he was officially to assume command (20 February 1943); he was seen directing the siting of gun positions at the approaches to the Kasserine pass. This was a flash of his old style but it was not long before he took a firm grip on higher things and reorganized the whole direction of the campaign. He sorted out the confusion into which the First Army had been thrown by the rapid vicissitudes of the past, brought into play the ponderous but skilful thrust of the Eighth Army, and directed the efforts of both in the final victory of Tunis. In this last battle in Africa he employed an elaborate and successful plan of deception, based on an accurate knowledge of enemy dispositions and intentions, and broke through their strong defensive front with a powerful and well-concealed offensive blow. In two days all was over. A quarter of a million enemy were captured. On 13 May he was able to make his historic signal to the prime minister: ‘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.’
Sicily was the next objective on which the Casablanca conference had decided. The forces commanded by Alexander, as commander-in-chief 15th Army Group, consisted of the United States Seventh and British Eighth armies. The principal interest in the campaign lies in the immense size of the amphibious effort required, larger in the assault phase even than for the invasion of Normandy, and in the elaborate planning which preceded it. It fell to Alexander to decide on the final form of the plan, a concentrated assault on the south-eastern corner of the island, rather than, as originally proposed by the planning staff, two separate attacks in the south-east and the north-west. In this decision he was vindicated, mainly because of his correct assessment of the new possibilities of beach maintenance produced by recently acquired amphibious equipment. In the course of the first few days, however, he made one of his few strategic errors in yielding to Montgomery's insistence that the Eighth Army could finish off the campaign by itself if the United States Seventh Army were kept out of its way; admittedly Alexander was deceived by inaccurate reports of the progress that the Eighth Army was making. As a result the reduction of the island took rather longer than expected and a high proportion of the German defenders managed to withdraw into Calabria. Nevertheless, the capture of Sicily in thirty-eight days was not only a notable strategic gain but also brought encouraging confirmation of the validity of the methods of amphibious warfare of which so much was expected in the next year's invasion of France.
That invasion was the principal factor affecting the last two years of Alexander's career as a commander in the field, during which he was engaged on the mainland of Italy. His troops were now no longer the spearhead of the Allied military effort in Europe. He was required to give up, for the benefit of the western front, many divisions of his best troops on three occasions and his task was defined as to eliminate Italy from the war and to contain the maximum number of German divisions. The first part of this directive was rapidly achieved. In his second task also, which from September 1943 onwards represented the sole object of the campaign, he was strikingly successful. So far from diverting troops from Italy to the decisive front, the Germans continuously reinforced it, not only robbing the Russion front but even sending divisions from the west. To obtain this success, however, in a terrain always favouring the defence, Alexander was obliged to maintain the offensive and to compensate for the lack of superior force by using all the arts of generalship.
‘The campaign in Italy was a great holding attack’, Alexander states in his dispatch. As is the nature of holding attacks, it was directed against a secondary theatre. Nevertheless it gave scope for daring strategic planning in spite of the odds and of the forbidding and mountainous nature of the ground. The initial assault at Salerno, simultaneous with the announcement of the Italian surrender, was a good example; a force of only three divisions, all that could be carried in the landing craft allotted to the theatre, was thrown on shore at the extreme limit of air cover. The landing at Anzio was a masterpiece of deception which caught the enemy off balance and forced him to send reinforcements to Italy. It made a vital contribution to the offensive of May and June 1944 in which the Germans were driven north of Rome, with disproportionately heavy losses in men and equipment. For this offensive Alexander made a secret redeployment of his two armies and mounted a most ingenious plan of deception; his opponent, Field-Marshal Kesselring, was unable to react in time, for all that his defensive positions were strong both by nature and artificially. The capture of Rome just before the landing in Normandy was a fillip to Allied morale. A more important result from the point of view of Allied grand strategy was that this crushing defeat obliged the Germans to reinforce Italy with eight fresh divisions, some taken from their western garrisons; a month later, in contrast, Alexander was ordered to surrender seven of his divisions for the campaign in France. The final battle, in April 1945, was another example of Alexander's skill in deployment and in deception; by 2 May he had routed the most coherent enemy group of armies still resisting; all Italy had been overrun and a million Germans had laid down their arms in the first big surrender of the war.
The Italian campaign showed Alexander at the height of his powers. These included besides the skill of a strategist a thorough grasp of the principles of administration. As an Allied commander he was supreme; there were no instances of friction anywhere in his command in spite of its varied composition, including at one time or another troops from Britain, the United States, India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Poland, Italy, Brazil, and Greece. For the greater part of the campaign, as commander-in-chief of 15th Army Group, later renamed Allied Armies in Italy, he acted as an independent commander, since it had been agreed that the commander-in-chief, Mediterranean, Sir Maitland (later Lord) Wilson [q.v.], should concern himself primarily with the general maintenance of the Italian campaign and with the security of the other areas of the command.
On 12 December 1944 Alexander succeeded Wilson. He was appointed to the rank of field-marshal to date from 4 June 1944, on which day the Allied armies entered Rome. But for all his high rank and heavy responsibilities he remembered his criticism of the commanders in the war of 1914-18. He always spent more time with the forward troops than in his headquarters. His popularity was immense, and his strategic planning benefited because he knew what the war was like at the point that counted.
After the war it was expected by some that Alexander would become chief of the imperial general staff. But W. L. Mackenzie King [q.v.] invited him to be governor-general of Canada, and Churchill pressed him to accept. His sense of duty was reinforced by a strong attraction to the idea of serving Canada. His extended tenure of office ran from 1946 to 1952. He was the last British governor-general and his popularity was as great as that of any of his predecessors. He was comparatively young and brought a young family with him; he toured the whole country, played games, skied, and painted. To his dignity as the representative of the King of Canada and his reputation as a war leader he added an informal friendliness and charm. While in Canada he produced his official dispatches on his campaigns published in the London Gazette; they have been described by his biographer as ‘among the great state papers of our military history’.
In January 1952 Churchill visited Ottawa and offered Alexander the post of minister of defence in his Government. When a friend remonstrated he replied: ‘Of course I accepted. It's my duty.’ To another friend he said, ‘I simply can't refuse Winston.’ As he entered on his first political post in that frame of mind it is not surprising that he did not much enjoy his period of office. He was not temperamentally suited to political life and in any case he had few real powers to exercise. Churchill continued to behave as though it was he who was the minister of defence and Alexander his spokesman in the Lords. Nevertheless, Alexander had the assets of his great personal popularity, his charm, and the fact that he numbered so many personal friends among foreign statesmen and military men, especially in the United States, and especially after the election of President Eisenhower. He made no particular mark as minister of defence because he preferred to rely on discreet persuasion and guidance; but he led a good team and suffered no diminution of his reputation. After two and a half years he resigned at his own request, in the autumn of 1954.
In the last fifteen years of his life he accepted a number of directorates. He was most active as director of Alcan and also served on the boards of Barclay's Bank and Phoenix Assurance. He travelled extensively on business for Alcan. He continued to paint and devoted more and more time to it. In 1960 he was persuaded by the Sunday Times to allow his memoirs to be ghosted. They were edited by John North and published in 1962, but were not very favourably received because of the curiously disorganized and anecdotal form. His motive in agreeing to publication was the desire to see that justice was done to the armies in Italy; for himself he preferred to be judged on the basis of his dispatches. For the rest he devoted himself to his garden and to reunions with old comrades. He died suddenly after a heart attack on 16 July 1969, in hospital in Slough. His funeral service was held in St. George's Chapel, Windsor, and he was buried in the churchyard of Ridge, near Tyttenhanger, his family's Hertfordshire home. The headstone of his grave bears at the top the single word ALEX, the name by which he was known to his friends and his soldiers.
He married in 1931 Lady Margaret Diana Bingham (died 1977), younger daughter of the fifth earl of Lucan; she was appointed GBE in 1954. They had two sons, one daughter, and an adopted daughter. He was succeeded by his elder son, Shane William Desmond (born 1935).
Alexander was created a viscount in 1946 and an earl in 1952 on his return from Canada. He was appointed CB (1938), KCB and GCB (1942), GCMG on his appointment to Canada, and in the same year (1946) KG. He was sworn of the Privy Council in 1952 and also of the Canadian Privy Council. In 1959 he was admitted to the Order of Merit. He was colonel of the Irish Guards from 1946 to his death, constable of the Tower of London from 1960 to 1965. From 1957 to 1965 he was lieutenant of the county of London, and for a further year of Greater London. He was chancellor and then grand master of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, an elder brother of Trinity House, and in 1955 president of the MCC. He was a freeman of the City of London and of many other cities. His numerous foreign decorations included the grand cross of the Legion of Honour and the Legion of Merit and Distinguished Service Medal of the United States.
Alexander was 5 feet 10 inches tall, slim, muscular, and handsome. His features were regular in the style which when he was young was regarded as typical of the army officer; he wore a trim Guardsman's moustache all his life. He dressed with careful and unaffected elegance on all occasions; his Russian-style cap was only the precursor of a number of variations on uniform regulations whereas in plain clothes he favoured neatness, fashion, and the avoidance of the elaborate.
There are two portraits of him at the National Portrait Gallery, by Edward Seago (a close personal friend) and by Maurice Codner; and two at the Imperial War Museum, by R. G. Eves and Harry Carr. The Irish Guards have two, by John Gilroy and Richard Jack; another version of the Gilroy portrait is in McGill University, Montreal. White's Club has a portrait by Sir Oswald Birley. The National Portrait Gallery has a sculptured bust by Donald Gilbert. A bronze bust by Oscar Nemon, in the Old Radcliffe Observatory at Oxford, was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1973 to mark the endowment of a chair of cardio-vascular medicine at the university in Alexander's memory. In the possession of the family is a bronze bust by Anthony Gray.
Nigel Nicolson, Alex, 1973; dispatches in London Gazette, 5 and 12 February 1948, 12 June 1950; I. S. O. Playfair and C. J. C. Molony, and others, (Official) History of the Second World War. The Mediterranean and Middle East, vol. iv, 1966, and C. J. C. Molony and others, vol. v, 1973; personal knowledge.
Contributor: David Hunt