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World War II: Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander

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World War II: Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander

Field Marshal Harold Alexander

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Harold Alexander - Early Life & Career:

Born December 10, 1891, Harold Alexander was the third son of Earl of Caledon and Lady Elizabeth Graham Toler. Initially educated at Hawtreys Preparatory School, he entered Harrow in 1904. Departing four years later, Alexander sought to pursue a military career and gained admission to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. Completing his studies in 1911, he received a commission as a second lieutenant in the Irish Guards that September. Alexander was with the regiment in 1914 when World War I began and deployed to the Continent with Field Marshal Sir John French's British Expeditionary Force. In late August, he took part in the retreat from Mons and in September fought at the First Battle of the Marne. Wounded at the First Battle of Ypres that fall, Alexander was invalided to Britain.

Harold Alexander - World War I:

Promoted to captain on February 7, 1915, Alexander returned to the Western Front. That fall, he took part in the Battle of Loos where he briefly led the 1st Battalion, Irish Guards as an acting major. For his service in the fighting, Alexander was awarded the Military Cross. The following year, Alexander saw action during the Battle of the Somme. Engaged in heavy combat that September, he received the Distinguished Service Order and the French Légion d'honneur. Elevated to the permanent rank of major on August 1, 1917, Alexander was made an acting lieutenant colonel shortly thereafter and led the 2nd Battalion, Irish Guards at the Battle of Passchendaele that fall. Wounded in the fighting, he quickly returned to command his men at the Battle of Cambrai in November. In March 1918, Alexander found himself in command of the 4th Guards Brigade as British troops fell back during the German Spring Offensives. Returning to his battalion in April, he led it at Hazebrouck where it sustained heavy casualties.

Harold Alexander - Interwar Years:

Shortly thereafter, Alexander's battalion was withdrawn from the front and in October he assumed command of an infantry school. With the end of the war, he received an appointment to the Allied Control Commission in Poland. Given command of a force of German Landeswehr, Alexander aided the Latvians against the Red Army in 1919 and 1920. Returning to Britain later that year, he resumed service with the Irish Guards and in May 1922 received a promotion to lieutenant colonel. The next several years saw Alexander move through postings in Turkey and Britain as well as attend the Staff College. Promoted to colonel in 1928 (backdated to 1926), he took command of the Irish Guards Regimental District before attending the Imperial Defense College two years later. After moving through various staff assignment, Alexander returned to the field in 1934 when he received a temporary promotion to brigadier and assumed command of the Nowshera Brigade in India.

In 1935, Alexander was made a Companion of the Order of the Star of India and was mentioned in despatches for his operations against the Pathans in Malakand. A commander who led from the front, he continued to perform well and in March 1937 received an appointment as an aide-de-camp to King George VI. After taking part in the King's coronation, he briefly returned to India before being promoted to major general that October. The youngest (age 45) to hold the rank in the British Army, he assumed command of the 1st Infantry Division in February 1938. With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Alexander prepared his men for combat and soon deployed to France as part of General Lord Gort's British Expeditionary Force.

Harold Alexander - A Rapid Ascent:

With the rapid defeat of Allied forces during the Battle of France in May 1940, Gort tasked Alexander with overseeing the BEF's rearguard as it withdrew toward Dunkirk. Reaching the port, he played a key role in holding off the Germans while British troops were evacuated. Assigned to lead I Corps during the fighting, Alexander was one of the last to leave French soil. Arriving back in Britain, I Corps assumed a position to defend the Yorkshire coast. Elevated to acting lieutenant general in July, Alexander took over Southern Command as the Battle of Britain raged in the skies above. Confirmed in his rank in December, he remained with Southern Command through 1941. In January 1942, Alexander was knighted and the following month was dispatched to India with the rank of general. Tasked with halting the Japanese invasion of Burma, he spent the first half of the year conducting a fighting withdrawal back to India.

Harold Alexander - To the Mediterranean:

Returning to Britain, Alexander initially received orders to lead the First Army during the Operation Torch landings in North Africa. This assignment was changed in August when he instead replaced General Claude Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Command in Cairo. His appointment coincided with Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery taking command of the Eighth Army in Egypt. In his new role, Alexander oversaw Montgomery's victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein that fall. Driving across Egypt and Libya, Eighth Army converged with Anglo-American troops from the Torch landings in early 1943. In a reorganization of Allied forces, Alexander assumed control of all troops in North Africa under the umbrella of the 18th Army Group in February. This new command reported to General Dwight D. Eisenhower who served as Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean at the Allied Forces Headquarters.

In this new role, Alexander oversaw the Tunisia Campaign which ended in May 1943 with the surrender of over 230,000 Axis soldiers. With victory in North Africa, Eisenhower began planning the invasion of Sicily. For the operation, Alexander was given command of the 15th Army Group consisting of Montgomery's Eighth Army and Lieutenant General George S. Patton's US Seventh Army. Landing on the night of July 9/10, Allied forces secured the island after five weeks of fighting. With the fall of Sicily, Eisenhower and Alexander rapidly began planning for the invasion of Italy. Dubbed Operation Avalanche, it saw Patton's US Seventh Army headquarters replaced with Lieutenant General Mark Clark's US Fifth Army. Moving forward in September, Montgomery's forces began landing in Calabria on the 3rd while Clark's troops fought their way ashore at Salerno on the 9th.

Harold Alexander - In Italy:

Consolidating their position ashore, Allied forces commenced advancing up the Peninsula. Due to the Apennine Mountains, which run the length of Italy, Alexander's forces pushed forward on two fronts with Clark in the east and Montgomery in the west. Allied efforts were slowed by poor weather, rough terrain, and a tenacious German defense. Slowly falling back through the fall, the Germans sought to buy time to complete the Winter Line south of Rome. Though the British succeeded in penetrating the line and capturing Ortona in late December, heavy snows prevented them from pushing east along Route 5 to reach Rome. On Clark's front, the advance bogged down in the Liri Valley near the town of Cassino. In early 1944, Eisenhower departed to oversee planning of the invasion of Normandy. Arriving in Britain, Eisenhower initially requested that Alexander serve as the ground forces commander for the operation as he had been easy to work with during earlier campaigns and had promoted cooperation among Allied forces.

This assignment was blocked by Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who felt that Alexander was unintelligent. He was supported in this opposition by Prime Minister Winston Churchill who thought the Allied cause to be best served by having Alexander continue to direct operations in Italy. Thwarted, Eisenhower gave the post to Montgomery who had turned Eighth Army over to Lieutenant General Oliver Leese in December 1943. Leading the newly re-named Allied Armies in Italy, Alexander continued to seek a way to break the Winter Line. Checked at Cassino, Alexander, at Churchill's suggestion, launched an amphibious landing at Anzio on January 22, 1944. This operation was quickly contained by the Germans and the situation along the Winter Line did not change. On February 15, Alexander controversially ordered the bombing of the historic Monte Cassino abbey which some Allied leaders believe was being used as an observation post by the Germans.

Finally breaking through at Cassino in mid-May, Allied forces surged forward and pushed Field Marshal Albert Kesselring and the German Tenth Army back to the Hitler Line. Breaking through the Hitler Line days later, Alexander sought to trap the 10th Army by using forces advancing from the Anzio beachhead. Both assaults proved successful and his plan was coming together when Clark shockingly ordered the Anzio forces to turn northwest for Rome. As a result, the German Tenth Army was able to escape north. Though Rome fell on June 4, Alexander was furious that the opportunity to crush the enemy had been lost. As Allied forces landed in Normandy two days later, the Italian front quickly became of secondary importance. Despite this, Alexander continued pushing up the peninsula during the summer of 1944 and breached the Trasimene Line before capturing Florence.

Reaching the Gothic Line, Alexander commenced Operation Olive on August 25. Though both Fifth and Eighth Armies were able to break through, their efforts were soon contained by the Germans. Fighting continued during the fall as Churchill hoped for a breakthrough which would allow for a drive towards Vienna with the goal of halting Soviet advances in Eastern Europe. On December 12, Alexander was promoted to field marshal (backdated to June 4) and elevated to Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces Headquarters with responsibility for all operations in the Mediterranean. He was replaced Clark as leader of the Allied Armies in Italy. In the spring of 1945, Alexander directed Clark as Allied forces launched their final offensives in the theater. By the end of April, Axis forces in Italy had been shattered. Left with little choice, they surrendered to Alexander on April 29.

Harold Alexander - Postwar

With the end of the conflict, King George VI elevated Alexander to the peerage, as Viscount Alexander of Tunis, in recognition of his wartime contributions. Though considered for the post of Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alexander received an invitation from Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to become Governor-General of Canada. Accepting, he assumed the post on April 12, 1946. Remaining in the position for five years, he proved popular with Canadians who appreciated his military and communication skills. Returning to Britain in 1952, Alexander accepted the post of Minister of Defense under Churchill and was elevated to Earl Alexander of Tunis. Serving for two years, he retired in 1954. Frequently visiting Canada during his retirement, Alexander died on June 16, 1969. Following a funeral at Windsor Castle, he was buried at Ridge, Hertfordshire.

Selected Sources

  • History of War: Harold Alexander
  • Spartacus: Harold Alexander
  • World War II Database: Harold Alexander

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