Harold Alexander

Harold Alexander

Harold Alexander, the third son of the Earl of Caledon, was born in London on 10th December, 1891. After attending Harrow School (1904-08) he joined Sandhurst Military Academy. He graduated in 1911 and won a commission in the Irish Guards.

During the First World War Alexander fought on the Western Front. Wounded twice he won the Military Cross in 1915 and by the end of the war was brigadier of the 4th Guards Brigade.

In 1919 Alexander volunteered to lead the Baltic Landwehr, a brigade of ethnic Germans, against the Red Army during the Civil War. After successfully driving the communists from Latvia he returned to England where he became second in command of the Irish Guards.

Alexander served in Turkey and Gibraltar before attending the Staff College at Camberley and the Imperial Defense College. As a staff officer he went to at War Office and the Northern Command before being sent to India in 1934.

In 1937 Alexander was promoted to major general. At the age of 45 he was the youngest general in the British Army. In 1938 he was given command of the Ist Division and the following year he took them to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force.

In May 1940, General John Gort gave Alexander the task of planning the rear guard action that enabled the BEF to be evacuated from Dunkirk. With the help of RAF Fighter Command, Alexander achieved remarkable success during this retreat.

On arriving back in Britain Alexander was given command of coastal defences in Yorkshire until replacing Claude Auchinleck as head of the Southern Command.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry of Japan into the war in December 1941, Alexander was sent to Burma. Unable to halt the advance of the Japanese Army Alexander decided to retreat to India.

Alexander served briefly under General Dwight Eisenhower in North Africa before taking command of British forces in Egypt. Working closely with General Bernard Montgomery, head of the 8th Army, General Erwin Rommel and the Deutsches Afrika Korps were defeated at El Alamein in November 1942.

In February 1943 Alexander was given command of the new 18th Army Group and after the North African campaign ended in Tunisia led the 15th Army Group in Sicily (July - August, 1943) and was Supreme Allied Commander in Italy (September, 1943 - May, 1945).

In the winter of 1943 General Albrecht Kesselring withdrew his forces to what became known as the Gustav Line on the Italian peninsula south of Rome. Organized along the Garigliano and Rapido rivers it included Monte Cassino, a hilltop site of a sixth-century Benedictine monastery. Defended by 15 German divisions the line was fortified with gun pits, concrete bunkers, turreted machine-gun emplacements, barbed-wire and minefields. In December 1943, the Allied suffered heavy loses while trying to capture Monte Cassino.

In January 1944, Alexander ordered a new Cassino offensive combined with an amphibious operation at Anzio, a small port on the west coast of Italy. The main objective of the operation was to cut the communication lines of the German 10th Army and force withdrawal from the Gustav Line.

On 12th February the exhausted US Army at Cassino were replaced by the New Zealand Corps. Alexander now decided to use these fresh troops in another attempt to capture Cassino. General Bernard Freyberg, who was in charge of the infantry attack, asked for the monastery be bombed. Despite claims by troops on the front-line that no fire had come from the monastery, Alexander agreed and it was destroyed by the United States Air Force on 15th February, 1944.

Once the monastery had been bombed, the German Army moved into the ruins. As Basil Liddell Hart pointed out later in his book The Other Side of the Hill the bombing "turned out entirely to the tactical benefit of the Germans. For after that they felt free to occupy the ruins, and the rubble provided mud better defensive cover than the monastery would have been before its destruction. As anyone with experience of street-fighting knows, it is only when buildings are demolished that they are converted from mousetraps into bastions of defence."

After the bombing the Germans were able to halt several attempts to capture Monte Cassino. It was not until troops led by General Wladyslaw Anders (Polish Corps) and General Alphonse Juin (French Corps) that the monastery was taken on 18th May, 1944.

After the Second World War Alexander was appointed governor general of Canada (1946-1952). Granted the title the Earl of Tunis, in 1952 Winston Churchill appointed Alexander as his Minister of Defence. He did not enjoy his experience of politics and resigned from office in 1954. He published a military autobiography, Memoirs: 1940-1945 in 1961.

Harold Alexander died on 16th June, 1969.

Primary Sources

(1) Harold Alexander served under General John Gort who gave him the task of planning the rear guard action that enabled the British Expeditionary Force to be evacuated from Dunkirk.

At Charleville, on 24 May, when the B.E.F. was absolutely ripe for the plucking, Hitler informed his astonished generals that Britain was 'indispensable' to the world and that he had therefore resolved to respect her integrity and, if possible, ally himself with her. Perhaps a less fanciful explanation of Hitler's attitude is supplied by Ribbentrop's representative at the Fuhrer's headquarters, who has left on record the comment: "Hitler personally intervened to allow the British to escape. He was convinced that to destroy their army would be to force them to fight to the bitter end."

On the military side the facts are clearer. On 23 May Field-Marshal von Rundstedt, commanding Army Group A, halted General Guderian's XIX Army Corps when two of its panzer divisions were heading for Dunkirk, not twenty miles distant and with little or no opposition ahead. The British counter-attack at Arras on 21 May, though undertaken by no more than two mixed columns, each comprising a tank battalion, an infantry battalion, a field battery, an anti-tank battery, and a machine-gun company, had caused him some concern. He therefore called the halt in order to "allow the situation to clarify itself and keep our forces concentrated". The panzers had just reached the Channel, and the success of this British counterattack engendered the fear of a larger operation that would cut them off from their supporting infantry. The next morning he received a visit from the Fuhrer, who confirmed the stop order. The panzers were not to be risked in a possibly flooded area but preserved for future operations-presumably against the French Army. On the other hand, the Luftwaffe's 'field of action' was not to be restricted.

Actually, on the available evidence, there can be little doubt that it was at the particular instance of the Luftwaffe's commander-in-chief, Field-Marshal Goering, that in the upshot the B.E.F. Was "left to the Luftwaffe". Guderian was to write, bitterly, of the first day of the evacuation, 26 May: "We watched the Luftwaffe attack. We saw also the armada of great and little ships, by means of which the British were evacuating their forces." Guderian's bitterness was shared by the whole of the German Army High Command.

(2) General Harold Alexander was sent to Burma in January, 1942.

It was clear that the retention of Rangoon was impossible with the forces at my disposal, dispersed as they were and with half of them already encircled. The day after my arrival I therefore ordered the evacuation to begin at daylight the following morning, and the demolition of the port and its installations to be carried out thereafter as quickly as possible. I could not save Rangoon but I could save the Army, with luck. The loss of our base would be a most serious matter, as we should have to depend on the scattered stores and dumps spread about in central and northern Burma. When these were used up, the Army would be crippled unless supplies could be sent in over the mountains from India; but, apart from a few mule tracks, communication with India was non-existent. It seemed that we must do the best with what we had. With Chinese assistance-however doubtful-we should be able at least to make the Japanese advance into Burma slow and costly. Such were the thoughts in my mind when I ordered the destruction and evacuation of Rangoon.

(3) Harold Alexander decided that when he took over control of British troops in Egypt he needed to restore morale. He explained his strategy in his book, Memoirs: 1940-1945 (1961)

My first step in restoring morale, therefore, was to lay down the firm principle, to be made known to all ranks, that no further withdrawal was contemplated and that we would fight the coming battle on the ground on which we stood. General Montgomery fully concurred in this policy, and communicated it to the Eighth Army H.Q. staff at a meeting held on the second evening of his arrival; and it went out to him as a written directive when I formally took over the Middle East command.

There is no doubt at all that Montgomery, during his address, gave brilliant emphasis to the agreed policy. He informed his audience that he had ordered all withdrawal plans to be burnt, that the defence of the Delta meant nothing to him, that all resources earmarked to that end were to be used to strengthen the Eighth Army.

(4) Harold Alexander and Bernard Montgomery were criticized for not being more aggressive after the Allied victory at El Alamein. He defended his actions in his autobiography published in 1961.

At Alamein Rommel was utterly defeated but not annihilated: Alamein was a decisive victory but not a complete one. It is easy to look back after eighteen years and suggest that the Afrika Korps could have been destroyed by a more vigorous exploitation after the breakthrough, but let us remember the realities of the time.

Monty had his first big command. He was new to the desert. He was fighting a great battlefield tactician in Rommel, whose troops were seasoned warriors: he and they had won some remarkable victories; whereas the Eighth Army had only recently been reformed and given the material to take on the Axis at better odds; many of our fresh reinforcements were new to desert conditions; and although our Intelligence was good we couldn't know accurately what punch the Germans were still nursing.

(5) In his autobiography, Memoirs: 1940-1945, Harold Alexander, wrote about the abilities of General Bernard Montgomery.

Montgomery is a first-class trainer and leader of troops on the battlefield, with a fine tactical sense. He knows how to win the loyalty of his men and has a great flair for raising morale. He rightly boasted that, after the battle of Alamein, he never suffered a defeat; and the truth is that he never intended to run the risk of a defeat; that is one reason why he was cautious and reluctant to take chances. There is, however, much to be said for his attitude when we consider that, up to October 1942, we had not won a single major battle since the start of the war - except Archie Wavell's operations against the Italians and some local victories against the Axis forces in the Western Desert.

Yet I can't disguise that he was not an easy man to deal with; for example, administrative orders issued by my staff were sometimes objected to - in other words Monty wanted to have complete independence of command and to do what he liked. Still, no serious difficulties arose over these very minor disturbances, he was always reasonable when tackled.

(6) In his autobiography, Memoirs: 1940-1945, Harold Alexander, wrote about the abilities of General Erwin Rommel.

Many of the soldiers I talked to had taken part in victorious advances which had led them to Benghazi and beyond, and had then been pushed back: for months, of course, the desert campaign had been a see-saw between the Eighth Army and the Afrika Korps. And the final result of this contest of arms, when I arrived in Cairo, was, as I have said, that we were back on the final ditch of resistance.

During these conversations I detected, not unexpectedly, a belief that Field-Marshal Rommel, who had commanded the German forces in Africa since their first arrival in February 1941, was a wizard of the battlefield: his publicity build-up had been enormous. There is no question that the Field-Marshal was a most able battle commander and a fine tactician for an independent force like the Afrika Korps, but it was hardly necessary to attribute to him preternatural gifts in order to explain his successes.

Incidentally, he was a very chivalrous enemy. I am told that when he took wounded prisoners he would go round the hospitals and praise them for having put up a good show, thereby sustaining and extending, no doubt, the Rommel legend.

(7) Harold Alexander led the 15th Army Group during the Sicily Campaign (July - August, 1943)

Sicily was the first large-scale amphibious operation against enemy-held beaches in the second world war. It was, therefore, without any practical experience that the planners began their task. Apart from the many assault problems to be solved, such as beach gradients, tides, hostile defensive positions, strength and location of German and Italian forces, it was obviously essential for us to have a port or ports through which to supply the troops fighting inland.

There were four good ports with the necessary capacity; Messina, Catania, Syracuse and Palermo. Messina was heavily guarded by fixed defences and beyond the range of our fighters. Catania was only just within fighter cover, and was also heavily defended and under the fighter umbrella of the Luftwaffe based on the Catania group of airfields, within close striking distance of the port. Syracuse and Palermo were both within our fighter cover and not so heavily defended.

(8) Harold Alexander worked closely with General Omar Bradley and General George Patton during the invasion of Sicily. He wrote about the men in his autobiography, Memoirs: 1940-1945 (1961)

They were two completely contrasted military characters; the one impatient of inaction, the other unwilling to commit himself to active operations unless he could clearly see their purpose. On one of my visits to the American head-

quarters, I was fascinated to hear this characteristic exchange:

Patton: Why are we sitting down doing nothing? We must do something!

Bradley: Wait a minute, George! What do you propose we do?

Patton: Anything rather than just sit on our backsides!

Both were good soldiers. Patton was a thruster, prepared to take any risks; Bradley, as I have indicated, was more cautious. Patton should have lived during the Napoleonic wars - he would have been a splendid Marshal under Napoleon.

In spite of all his bravura and toughness and terrific drive General George Patton was a very emotional man. He loved his men and they loved him. I have been with him at the front when he was greeted with demonstrations of affection by his soldiers, and there were - as I saw for myself - tears running down his cheeks.

(9) Basil Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill (1948)

An historical postscript can now be added to the much discussed question of the destruction of the historic Benedictine Monastery on Monte Cassino as a preliminary step in the Allied offensive there in February. The task was carried out by a large force of American bombers and supporting artillery. According to the announcements of the Allied Command at the time this destruction was ordered because the Monastery, which dominated the approaches to the town, had been "occupied and fortified" by the Germans. These statements were repeated in Field-Marshal Sir H. Maitland Wilson's report published in 1946 - which seemed strange in view of earlier testimony from the Vatican and the Abbot himself that the Germans had avoided trespassing on the Monastery, despite the tactical disadvantage which this involved for them.

The irony of the bombing was, as both Senger and Vietinghoff remarked, that it turned out entirely to the tactical benefit of the Germans. For after that they felt free to occupy the ruins, and the rubble provided mud better defensive cover than the Monastery would have been before its destruction. "As anyone with experience of street-fighting knows, it is only when buildings are demolished that they are converted from mouse-traps into bastions of defence." Batteries posted and concealed in the ruins were able to enfilade and break up the subsequent British attempts to drive through to the town of Cassino.

(10) While in Italy General Harold Alexander was responsible for the controversial decision to bomb Monte Cassino.

The battle for Cassino-or rather the series of battles for Cassino - began on 17 January 1944, when X Corps attacked across the Garigliano. On 20 January, United States II Corps attacked across the Rapido, but this blow failed and X Corps, after meeting with some initial success, were checked by heavy counter-attacks. One more attack began on 16 February, and it was this assault that was preceded by the destruction of the monastery by bombing and artillery fire. But Cassino town and the monastery were not to be captured until 18 May, when the Poles raised the red and white standard with the white eagle over the ruins of the monastery.

Till the February bombardment, the great Benedictine monastery had been spared deliberately, to our detriment. Whether the Germans took advantage of its deep cellars for shelter and its high windows for observation I do not know; but it was obvious that this huge and massive building offered the defenders considerable protection from hostile fire, merely by their sheltering under its walls. As Winston Churchill has observed, the enemy fortifications were hardly separate from the building itself.

Was the destruction of the monastery a military necessity? Was it morally wrong to destroy it?

The answer to the first question is 'yes'. It was necessary more for the effect it would have on the morale of the attackers than for purely material reasons.

The answer to the second question is this: when soldiers are fighting for a just cause and are prepared to suffer death and mutilation in the process, bricks and mortar, no matter how venerable, cannot be allowed to weigh against human lives. Every good commander must consider the morale and feelings of his fighting men, and, what is equally important, the fighting men must know that their whole existence is in the hands of a man in whom they have complete confidence. Thus the commanding general must make it absolutely clear to his troops that they go into action under the most favourable conditions he has the power to order.

In the context of the Cassino battle, how could a structure which dominated the fighting field be allowed to stand? The monastery had to be destroyed. Withal, everything was done to save the lives of the monks and their treasures: ample warning was given of the bombing.

The great Benedictine monastery, from which a magnificent view of the surrounding country can be gained, has been completely rebuilt in cut stone. Both outside and in, it has been restored to its former condition, even down to the marble work and interior decoration.

The bombs of the Allied air forces had left nothing of the building standing except part of one of the outer walls - all else was a heap of rubble. Yet amidst this appalling destruction St. Benedict's tomb, in the centre of the monastery, went utterly unscathed.

After the capture and liberation of Rome I was able to tell the late Pope of its survival. He was deeply moved. He assured me, moreover, that he well understood the military necessity for the bombing and the inevitable destruction of the monastery.

(11) General Rudolf von Senger fought under Albrecht Kesselring at Monte Cassino.

Field-Marshal Kesselring had given express orders that no German soldier should enter the Monastery, so as to avoid giving the Allies any pretext for bombing or shelling it. I cannot testify personally that this decision was communicated to the Allies but I am sure that the Vatican found means to do so, since it was so directly interested in the fate of Monte Cassino. Not only did Field-Marshal Kesselring prohibit German soldiers from entering the Monastery, but be also placed a guard at the entrance gate to ensure that his orders were carried out.

(12) General Dwight D. Eisenhower, diary entry (11th June, 1943)

General Harold R. L. G. Alexander has a winning personality, wide experience in war, an ability to get along with people, and sound tactical conceptions. He is self-effacing and energetic. The only possible doubt that could be raised with respect to his qualifications is a suspected unsureness in dealing with certain of his subordinates. At times it seems that he alters his own plans and ideas merely to meet an objection or a suggestion of a subordinate, so as to avoid direct command methods. This, I must say, is only a feeling. I have no proof that in the cases where he has apparently changed his mind rather radically that he was swayed by anything except further reflection on the problem.

(13) In his autobiography, Memoirs: 1940-1945 , Harold Alexander, wrote about the Anzio Campaign.

Anzio played a vital role in the capture of Rome by giving me the means to employ a double-handed punch - from the beachhead and from Cassino - which caught the Germans in a pincer movement. Without this double-handed punch I do not believe we should ever have been able to break through the German defences at Cassino.

Orders for the operation were issued on 2 January. The objective was defined as to cut the enemy communications and threaten the German rear. Fifth Army was ordered to make "as strong a thrust as possible towards Cassino and Frosinone shortly before the assault landing to draw in enemy reserves that might be employed against the landing forces and then to create a breach in his front through which every opportunity will be taken to link up rapidly with the seaborne operation". Despite the switch, in all, of five divisions from Eighth Army to the Fifth Army, German resistance on the main front remained stubborn; and during the early critical days the British and United States divisions at Anzio had to fight unaided for their own salvation. Meanwhile, on the Adriatic sector. General Montgomery had continued with his attempt to break through the enemy's defensive system; but with even less success as the weather worsened and the enemy's strength increased.

Against a less formidable foe an operation such as we had devised would have succeeded; but I think we may well have underestimated the remarkable resilience and toughness of the Germans, in expecting them to be frightened by such a threat to their rear.

Hitler's orders to Kesselring were to hold on to Cassino at all costs, for political reasons, and to eliminate the Anzio landing. The withdrawal of the Hermann Goring division from Italy was cancelled, and Hitler told Kesselring that he would be reinforced by two motorized divisions, three independent regiments, two heavy tank battalions and some heavy and medium artillery units. Thus the enemy refused to weaken his battlefront at Cassino by drawing back formations to deal with the landings.

Every time we attacked Kesselring in Italy we took him completely by surprise; but he showed very great skill in extricating himself from the desperate situations into which his faulty intelligence had led him. I feel now that he would not, in these circumstances, have altered his dispositions on the main front to any great degree until he had tried every means to eliminate the threat to his rear. Nor need his determination be doubted. The forces under his command had been engaged in a continuous retreat for almost a year since November 1942, a retreat that had brought them just short of Alexandria to just north of Naples - and it was time to put a stop to it.

(14) Harold Alexander, Memoirs: 1940-1945 (1961)

Twenty-six nations contributed contingents to my command in Italy. I feel, therefore, it will be agreed that I speak from first-hand experience of the varying fighting qualities of troops in battle when I affirm that there are no better soldiers than those of the British race, provided they have a cause worth fighting for - and dying for, if necessary.

They object to being pushed around - they are intelligent enough to want to know what it is all about and they will become unhappy and disgruntled if they feel that unfairness exists. Yet, if their leaders are worthy of them, they will follow them anywhere. They are very patient and tough in defence. Yet though the British will go into the attack with great bravery and tenacity, as a whole they are not quick to exploit a success or to react to a sudden emergency.

British military leaders are reluctant to accept heavy losses unless the scales of victory are weighted in their favour. This attitude of mind no doubt results from our experiences in the first world war, when our enormous casualties in such battles as the Somme and Passchendaele gave us nothing more than a few square miles of French territory, and sometimes achieved an advance of no more than a few yards.

And what of the foe that our soldiers and those of our allies overcame and mastered? Having fought against the Germans in two world wars I cannot conceal my regard for their ability as fighting men. They are very brave and tough, and have a marked sense of duty and discipline. Furthermore, they take pride in mastering their weapons and learning their job on the battlefield.

If the Germans are a warrior race, they are certainly militarist also. I think they love the military pageant and the panoply of war; and the feeling of strength and power that a well-organized and disciplined unit gives to each and every individual member of that unit. I am quite willing to admit that I myself share this curious attraction for the strength and elegance of beautifully trained and equipped formations, with all the art and subtlety of their movements in action against an enemy. I can well understand the enthusiasm which the soldiers-from marshals to the private soldier - showed for Napoleon; and why they followed their leader without doubt or question in his victorious campaigns. Feeling thus, they shared the glory of his conquests.

I can also understand the German soldier's high morale when Hitler seemed invincible; but I think it very remarkable that they fought their last battles just as toughly and bravely as when they were winning their first-although they must have realized that all was lost. The last battles in Italy were just as bitter as any we had experienced in the Western Desert, or in the earlier stages of the Italian campaign. Like the boxer in the ring, the German soldier didn't give up until he was knocked out: and make no mistake about it, he was!