The Last Great Hero
The Extraordinary Life of Field Marshal Alexander
When I was a young boy, I used regularly to get a magazine called Look and Learn. In one of the editions there was a large article on Britain during the Second World War and included circular head and shoulder illustrations of Britain’s war leaders. Montgomery was one of the field commanders, Alexander was the other. To my ten year-old eyes, Monty, with his beret and sharp features, aroused my juvenile mistrust. The picture of Alexander, on the other hand, made a considerable impression. His distinctive peaked cap and smart appearance made him look how I imagined a general should look, but I was also struck by his gentle eyes with laughter lines stretching down from either side. He seemed kindly and humorous, and at that age, the cut of someone’s gib seemed very important.
From that moment on, Alexander was on my radar – not massively so because for the next twenty years, through school, university and beyond, I never studied the Second World War and had only a passing interest in the subject; but I did not forget about him, nor, for some reason, that image from a magazine that has long since disappeared from the shelves.
It was really when I began to work on a new book about the North African campaign that I began to study Alexander’s career in any kind of depth. I was immediately struck that although Alamein is always considered Montgomery’s battle, Alexander was his commanding officer at the time, and it was Alex, and not Monty, who made the crucial decision about where to make the second thrust at a time when the battle was faltering. It was also Alex who was the battlefield commander during the subsequent bitter campaign in Tunisia. After he took over in February 1943, commanding both Monty’s Eighth Army and the combined Anglo-US First Army, the campaign was brought to a swift and emphatic conclusion. More than 250,000 Axis troops were taken prisoner at Tunis in May that year. That was the biggest single victory ever in British history. More enemy soldiers were captured then than at Stalingrad three months earlier.
Today, Alex is a largely forgotten figure, but during the war and after he was every bit as famous as Montgomery and certainly more widely revered. His reputation has fallen somewhat in the last couple of decades – Max Hastings, for example, in his recent book on Churchill, dismissed him witheringly. So too have others, who claim he was not intellectual enough, and lacked strategic understanding. I find this astonishing, because my considerable studies of both the North African and Italian campaigns do not support these views. Rather, I found Alex to be a superb, highly instinctive commander: tactically astute, deeply pragmatic, and, crucially, adored by all who served under him. He was the only senior commander Montgomery never fell out with, but even intensely prickly commanders such as US generals Patton and Mark Clark avowed their utmost loyalty and respect to their dying days. In Italy, Alex commanded no less than twenty-four different nationalities, and never earned a bad word from any of their commanders.
Alex led an extraordinary life. He was the most experienced senior commander during the Second World War on any side. No other commander saw as much front-line duty in as many different theatres and corners of the globe as he. He saw active command at every rank apart from major-general, survived four years of front-line service in Flanders, commanded Germans in Latvia, Indians in the Swat Valley along the North-west Frontier, was almost the last man to leave Dunkirk, and the most senior commander of British and Indian forces in Burma, was commander-in-chief in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Greece and eventually rose to be Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean. His victory in Italy saw the first complete surrender of German forces in May 1945, and he saved not only civil war in Italy but in Greece too. Afterwards, as Governor General of Canada, he enabled thousands of displaced Jews to settle in Canada. A brilliant sportsman, he had also originally intended to become a professional painter rather than soldier. Funny, debonair and charming, he also managed to master a large number of languages including French, German, Italian, Russian and Urdu.
I think Alex deserves to be held in the kind of esteem that has been reserved for great British heroes such as Drake, Marlborough, Nelson and even Burton, Scott and Shackleton. His military achievements were considerable but that is not why he is such a hero to me. Rather, it is for his qualities of bravery, daring, imperturbability, tact, humour and humanity that make him stand out, kindled to a profound modesty and sense of duty. British generals have often been accused of being overly cautious during the Second World War, but it should not be forgotten that Britain helped win the war against two more dangerous foes than Imperial Germany in 1914-1918 with considerably less loss of life. Whether it be those who served under him in the trenches of the Western Front, or in India, Burma and the Mediterranean, a common phrase recurs: ‘I would have followed him to the end of the world.’
When Field Marshal the Earl Alexander died on Monday, 16th June 1969, so passed one of the last great British heroes. He had been the most experienced battlefield commander of any side during the Second World War, having commanded in combat at every rank of command from subaltern to field marshal. He had fought along the Western Front, commanded German troops in the Baltic in 1919-20, and had carried out colonial policing duties in the Middle East, India and the North-West Frontier. At the beginning of the Second World War he had been the last British soldier to leave Dunkirk, had brought the British and India army back from Burma into India, commanded British forces in the Middle East and North Africa, and had been the British and American commander-in-chief when 250,000 Axis troops had been captured with the German and Italian surrender at Tunis in May 1943. He was c-in-c in Sicily, and throughout the Italian campaign. It was in Italy that the first German unconditional surrender was signed in May 1945. Post war, he served in Churchill’s second government and as Governor-General of Canada, where he granted thousands of displaced European Jews the chance to create new lives.
And then he retired, living out his final years simply, although always actively. A highly talented artist, he painted and travelled, sat on boards, did charitable work, embarked on building projects and spent time with his family. He rarely looked back. Despite a life that stretched from the reign of Queen Victoria to Elizabeth II, and despite a career that had taken to the far corners of the globe, that had seen him face death innumerable times, Alex was always a man who looked forward, who embraced the ever changing world.
No-one who met Alex – as he was always known – ever had cause to doubt his integrity; moreover, there were few people more prone to self-deprecation and less likely to blow their own trumpet. Such unassuming modesty had been drummed into him as a child, a childhood in which he had been brought up to respect notions of honour, duty and impeccable manners in all things and at all times.
Born the third son of the Earl of Caledon, Alex’s background was certainly privileged. His father died when Alex was just eight, but he never shared a particularly close relationship with his mother, who was a rather distant and forbidding character. Fortunately for Alex, however, he was close to his brothers, and especially to William, the youngest, and the boys were given plenty of love and affection from their nanny and a huge amount of freedom. Although the family had an English home, Tyttenhanger, near St Albans, and also London house, Alex spent most of his childhood at Caledon, roaming the estate, camping out and cooking on fires with William in summer, canoeing, shooting and fishing in winter – it was what he called a ‘Ton Sawyer’ life. At an early age, he developed a great talent for drawing and painting but also for wood carving. He also had a vivid imagination, and used to tell stories partly for his own amusement but also for William’s, most of which revolved around two imaginary peoples, the Comber and Vaxa Nations. A sketch book survives with numerous detailed drawings of battles between Comber and Vaxa. He would also draw endless caricatures, something he would later adorn his letters with.
Alex received no schooling whatsoever until, at the age of fifteen, he was sent to Harrow. This explains his rather ordinary academic record; he had a lot of catching up to do. However, he did win the art prize and also excelled at sports. In his final year, he played in Fowler’s Match at Lord’s, the most famous Eton-Harrow cricket match ever to have been played. From there, he went straight to Sandhurst, passing out in July 1911, aged nineteen. As a fiercely proud Ulsterman, he was determined to join the Irish Guards. The ‘Micks’ were a young regiment, created by Queen Victoria in only 1900; nearly all its number were Irish. ‘They were my bosom friends,’ he later said. ‘In the Micks there is a great feeling of matiness between officers and men. The Irish love their leaders, as I had found as a boy, and they have natural good manners.’ He was yet to excel as a soldier, but was certainly developing into a handsome, highly athletic young man, and the perfect gentleman. Between duties, he found plenty of time to go to dances and the theatre, to hunt, shoot, box and play polo, as well as cricket and golf. He even went motor racing at Brooklands, and in Easter 1914, entered – and won quite effortlessly despite having travelled overnight to Dublin – Ireland’s most famous sprint, the Irish Mile.
The four long years of the First World War developed him as a soldier. He quite openly enjoyed it, despite – or rather, because of – spending almost the entire war with fighting troops. During the retreat from Mons, he took part in his first action and had his first taste of raw fear – a sensation that would repeatedly return but which he somehow managed to control. Soon after, at the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914, he was seriously wounded in the thigh and hand and invalided home. He recovered well and, determined to get back to the front as soon as possible, walked sixty-four miles in one day to prove to a cautious doctor that he was fit enough. Sure enough, by February 1915 he was back, and later that summer led his company at the Battle of Loos where he ensured his men maintained the ground they had captured when either side the British were falling back. His reputation was growing rapidly, notably for his exceptional personal courage, but also for his extraordinary imperturbability and the gift of quick decision. Always leading from the front and with no regard to his own personal safety, he soon had the complete devotion and respect of all those who served under him. He also had a knack of being able to inspire and lift the spirits of his men. During the Battle of Passchendaele, after a particularly hard day, he sensed the need to lift the men’s spirits. He himself was at a low ebb, because his greatest friend and companion, Eric Greer, had just been killed as had the beloved padre, Father Knopp. Yet somehow he managed to lift himself up and perform an impromptu sketch in which he pretended to be the German general, Hindenburg. He soon had the men doubled up with laughter.
At the Somme he led his men as far as the crops and grass beyond the mud and carnage. He was wounded twice more, survived the Somme battles, Cambrai, and Passchendaele, and in 1917, aged just twenty-five, became acting Lieutenant-Colonel commanding the 2nd Battalion. The following year he was even given temporary command of the Guards Brigade. By the armistice, he had earned a DSO and bar, an MC, the French Legion of Honour, and had been mentioned in despatches five times.
Nor did his combat record stop with the end of war. In 1919, he was sent first to Warsaw and then on to Riga, in Latvia, where he joined the British Mission reporting on the situation in the Baltic states, which had been ceded to Germany in 1917 with the collapse of Tsarist Russia, but which the Bolsheviks now wanted to absorb back into the Soviet Union. Most Latvians, however, wanted to remain an independent state as had been agreed at the end of the war, and a large number of mostly German troops now offered their services to the Allies. Lacking leadership, Alexander was asked by the Baltic Barons to take command of the seven thousand-strong Baltic Landeswehr in an effort to repel the Red Army pressing into Latvia, despite being still only twenty-seven. Having trained them and ensured they were given adequate supplies of arms and equipment, he then led them in early 1920 on an advance of over a hundred miles, across the Sinyukha River, the traditional boundary of the Lett lands, and beyond, through bitter winter conditions of snow and ice, and routing six Soviet regiments and taking more than 2,000 prisoners. The ensuing peace ensured Latvian independence until the summer of 1940. Alex handed over command at the end of March 1920, his reputation greatly enhanced and having won the adoration of the Germans and Latvians who had served under him. ‘You are gentlemen and sportsmen,’ he told them in his farewell address. ‘I am proud to have commanded an Army composed entirely of gentlemen.’ During the Great War and from his time with the Baltic Landeswehr, Alex developed a great admiration for the qualities of the German soldier. Many of those who served under him later fought for Germany in the Second World War; indeed, a number even directly against Alex in North Africa. It gave him an understanding of German soldiers unique amongst Allied commanders; certainly, he was the only Second World War officer to have commanded German troops in battle.
Returning to England, he was then posted to Constantinople in command of the 1st Battalion, Irish Guards, before returning to take up a place at Staff College, where amongst his instructors were Montgomery and Brooke. Staff appointments followed, but a stint in England finally gave him the chance to spend some time outside of military duties, and to meet his wife, Margaret Bingham, the daughter of the Earl of Lucan. He was drawn towards her for her sense of humour, beauty, and because he recognized a kindred spirit. That she had no knowledge or experience of military life was an advantage. For her part, she found Alex charming but also great fun. She loved his originality, and not until after they were married did she learn anything of his reputation as a soldier. ‘I didn’t marry him because he was a successful soldier,’ she commented, ‘but because he was Alex.’
They wed in 1931, and their first child, Rosemary, was born the following year, while Alex was stationed at York. Then, in 1934, he was promoted again and posted to command the Nowshera Brigade along the North-West Frontier. It was almost unprecedented for a Guardsmen to be sent to command an Indian Army brigade, but Alex quickly won over his new charges. One of first acts was to resolve a water supply crisis that had been plaguing the Nowshera command for years. By cutting through red tape he showed he was more concerned for the welfare of his men than was he treading on official feet. He also learned Urdu, stunning his mostly Indian charges by addressing them in the language at a brigade sports days. ‘What’s the use of coming to a first-class Indian Brigade,’ he said, ‘and not be able to talk to the men in their own tongue?’
In 1935, he led his brigade against a Pashtun uprising, which he crushed in became known as the Loe Agra campaign, and then later that year joined Brigadier Auchinleck for the combined Mohmand Campaign, which was equally successful. Both campaigns were marked by his meticulous preparation and by the high level of training he instilled into his men.
By the outbreak of war in 1939, this gilded officer was one of the army’s youngest Major-Generals and commanding 1st Division. He went with them to France, and after the British retreat in May 1940, was left behind to supervise the final withdrawal of British troops. He left in the early hours of 3rd June, having taken a launch alongside the beaches and shouting out to any men still stranded. Satisfied that every single last man possible had been lifted, he returned to the port, boarded a destroyer and sailed for England, his mission completed.
Remaining in England for the next two years of war, Alex realised that the vast majority of infantry troops under his command were simply not ready for battle. He subsequently began to develop Battle Schools in which men were taught simple forms of battle drill to which they would react automatically in times of stress – simple orders such as, ‘Down, crawl, observe, fire.’ He also recognised that some kind of battle inoculation was needed before submitting green troops to the terrors of German dive-bombing, shelling and machine-gunning. This could only be done with live ammunition. Thirdly, he realised that it was essential that all troops were battle fit. However obvious this may seem now, the Battle School system was considered quite innovative at the time and became the basis of future infantry training.
It was particularly during his time commanding Southern Command that Alex came to Churchill’s notice. The Prime Minister was certainly influenced by Alex’s aristocratic background, but also by his calm control and a military record that was second-to-none. It was with this in mind that in early 1942, he posted Alex to Burma to oversee the withdrawal of British and Indian forces back to the Indian border. During his subsequently successful retreat back across the Irrawaddy river, Alex once again did all that was asked of him, impressing with his unflappability and ability to make the best of a bad situation.
On his return to England, he was asked to command the proposed Anglo-US invasion of North-West Africa, but then after the rout of Eighth Army at Gazala and the loss of Tobruk, he was asked to replace his old friend Claude Auchinleck as C-in-C Middle East. He arrived in early August, a full general, and with Montgomery replacing the assassinated General Gott as commander of British Eighth Army. One of Alex’s great skills was to instinctively know what each level of command required. As C-in-C Middle East, his task was oversee the operations against the Axis forces, advise Montgomery, and ensure that his battlefield commander had all that he needed. And while Monty directed the battle on the ground, Alex acted as a buffer between Cairo and London, placating and soothing the Prime Minister and supporting his army commander at every turn. However, it was Alex, not Monty, who proposed advancing through the northern corridor during the second phase of the Battle of Alamein, a wise decision that came at a time when Eighth Army were beginning to falter.
Early the following year, with the campaign in Tunisia becoming increasingly bogged down, he was elevated to Army Group commander, in charge of the Anglo-US First as well as Eighth Armies. Now he was required to play a direct role in the conduct of the battle and quickly turned things around. In three months, the whole of North Africa was in Allied hands and some 250,000 Axis troops had been taken prisoner. This was then the single biggest battlefield victory in British history ever. More German and Italian soldiers were captured at Tunis than at Stalingrad three months earlier.
Like many German commanders, Alex was often at the front, visiting troops but also seeing the lie of the land and unfolding events for himself. He was a very visual battlefield commander. He had also developed a unique command style, in which he goaded his commanders by suggestion, putting words into their mouths and making them do exactly what he wanted whilst still believing it had been their idea all along. They then felt they had been directly involved in the development of a particular plan and strategy and were accordingly at one with their chief in how it should be executed.
As a general, Alex always looked the part too. Montgomery cultivated the image of the people’s general with his tank man’s beret and sweaters, but this was more popular with the press and media than with the men. Monty’s people skills were appalling, whilst Alex’s were exemplary. In any case, most soldiers like their commanders to look like commanders, and Alex certainly did that. Modest though he was, Alex had a streak of the dandy about him; he was happy to dress down most of the time, but if on show, he always looked immaculate, and added to his uniform a few distinct flourishes. One of these was the design of his cap. On leave during the First World War, he spotted a Russian officer wearing a high-peaked cap, with its visor dropping over his eyes. Alex liked the design so much he went straight to his hatter in St James and had him make an exact copy. It was a style he kept throughout his career simply because it had style. In the trenches he also took to wearing Russian boots – which also made him stand out.
He also made good use of his natural charm, as much at ease in the company of the rank and file as with generals, and with Americans, French, and even Germans as he was with his fellow Brits. He never swore: describing something as ‘tiresome’ was the closest he got to cursing, and only rarely did he lose his temper. One occasion was when he discovered the men of another battalion had refused to give two dying Germans a drink of water during the Battle of Passchendaele. Another was after Tunis, when some staff officers had failed to make the necessary applications for medals for gallantry for some of his men. He drank but was never drunk; he would sketch and paint whenever he had the chance; spoke a number of languages including German and Russian – which he learned during his time in the trenches – and French, Italian, and, of course, Urdu.
He also had a very sound sense of judgement, and perhaps even more importantly, understood the men under his command. He understood how much men could endure and what could be expected of them. He understood that armies need confidence and experience in combat, and that the approach to battle – the preparation and the closing-down of potential stumbling blocks – was the key to victory.
In Tunisia, he had shown his rare ability to handle coalition forces, a skill he continued to demonstrate as he led Allied forces first to victory in Sicily and then into southern Italy during the summer and autumn of 1943. The battles of Cassino and the landings at Anzio are often seen as low points in the Allied war with Germany, yet the shortage of troops, equipment and above all, shipping, combined with atrocious weather were factors that were out of Alex’s control. Italy, with its many rivers and long ridge of mountains, favours the defender, yet its one advantage for the attacker – the narrowness of the peninsula and long coastline offering great out-flanking opportunities – could not be made the most of due to the shortage of shipping. Whatever failings there were in Italy were more to do with London and Washington than Alex and the other commanders in the theatre.
What is undeniable is that on June 5th 1944, when Rome finally fell, the month long campaign had been the Allies’ biggest battle to date and had wrought a devastating defeat on the German forces in Italy. Alex’s strategy for the rest of the campaign in Italy was one that was subsequently hampered by the precedence given to D-Day and the campaign in North-west Europe. However, during his time as army group commander then Supreme Allied Commander, Alex managed to not only win a complete victory in Italy but at the same time averted any long-term civil war in both Italy and Greece. In Italy, he commanded twenty-three different nationalities, and not one of his subordinate commanders ever had a bad word to say against him. The Americans, in particular, were frequently at loggerheads with their British allies, but not one US commander had anything other than praise for Alex. Indeed, Eisenhower wanted Alex, not Montgomery, to lead Allied ground forces on D-Day.
He remained Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean until 1946, by which time full democracy had been restored to both Italy and Greece and the threat of communism been quelled. Then offered the Governor-Generalship of Canada, he readily agreed, throwing himself into his new role with energy and enthusiasm. During his six years there, he travelled some 184,000 miles, way more than any of his sixteen predecessors. He met as many Canadians as he could, learned much about the country, made sure he was always fully briefed and became much loved throughout the country. He also personally pinned onto the chests as many medals as he could to Canadian servicemen, always insisting the citation be read out in full. He recognized that such an occasion was of great importance in a young man’s life and was determined that the ceremony should in no way be skimped. By the time he returned to Britain he had greatly strengthened the links between Canada and the Crown as well as finding homes for many thousands of European Jews. His service was noted with the appointment of being made a Privy Councillor to the Canadian Government, an unprecedented accolade.
He then reluctantly joined Churchill’s second cabinet as Minister of Defence, accepting the post only due his sense of duty. He remained in the post for two years, during the Korean War, before finally resigning, but the world of politics was not to his liking and it had not been a happy time. By now, aged sixty-four, his life as a soldier and statesman was over, but he remained as busy as ever. A heart attack in 1959 set him back, but he made a full recovery and gave up none of his duties. Then, in March 1969, his friend Dwight Eisenhower died and Alex and Margaret travelled to America for the funeral. Two weeks of lying-in-state duties in the freezing East Coast cold took their toll as did a subsequent visit to Canada. In June, he began to feel unwell and then, on the 16th he collapsed in excruciating pain. Rushed to hospital suffering a perforated aorta, he died soon after.
After a grand funeral at Windsor, at which Lord Mountbatten, Harold Macmillan and General Lemnitzer were amongst his pall-bearers, he was buried at Tyttenhanger. At the top of his headstone is the single word: ‘Alex.’ For all his many titles and awards, this was how he was always known.
Curiously, Alex was never really a very ambitious man, making him very unusual amongst those who reached high command. He strove to do as well as he possibly could at any task, but his apparently seamless rise was due entirely to merit and performance; he had luck but success bred its own fortune. And despite his critics, Alex never really had any failures as a soldier. There is no Arnhem that so marred Montgomery’s career, or Metz that tarnished Patton’s reputation. Both Patton and Montgomery, unquestionably the two most famous Allied commanders of the Second World War, were corrupted by their overriding ambition and the jealousy and suspicion that came with it. These two facets – ambition and jealousy – were also features of many of the German and Russian commanders. It could be used to drive men on, to put steel and the necessary ruthlessness into their beings, yet it could more often cloud judgement. It repeatedly did to Montgomery.
Alex may not have always made the right decisions, but he certainly did so far more often than not, and his decision making process was always done on the basis of clear judgement and, increasingly as his career progressed, a staggering level of experience.
There is a current vogue for dismissing many of the Allied generals for not being ruthless enough; for lacking the tactical genius of the German and Russian commanders. This is misplaced, however. Men like Zhukov or von Rundstedt had a completely different attitude to the lives of their men than those commanders from democratic nations. Any man can drive thousands of men relentlessly forward if they have nothing but contempt for the lives of the men under their command. What requires far more skill is making men continue to press forward when those troops know they could save their lives if they refuse. There was charge of death in the British or American armies for refusing to fight; only humiliation and time spent in the glasshouse. Personality and example are key attributes of commanders in any army but especially a democratic one. Alex’s personality was supremely suited to command at all levels and his example was unquestionable. His ability to reach out and touch the lives of his men, to inspire confidence, trust, and belief at the two moments when the world was experiencing more death and slaughter than at any other point in its history, was remarkable.
At a time when the future seems increasingly uncertain and in which, on occasion, our society seems dangerously broken, his courage, sense of duty and humanity are an inspiration. To my mind, it is these facets of his character as much as his incredible achievements that make him such a heroic figure.
Reall y enjoyed this article James – any suggestions for reading on Alex’s life, especially pre-WW2?
Thanks very much! Well, actually, I’m going to be writing a biography of Alex but it’s a few years away, so in the meantime, I’d have a look at WGF Jackson’s ‘Alexander as a Military Commander.’ There’s a fair amount in that about his pre-Second World War life. It’s out of print, but you’ll find it on abebooks.co.uk
Interested by your potted biography of Alexander. Many years ago I read a book about him titled, if i recall correctly ‘Alex’, that was enlightening. My main interest is WW1 and of course Alexander was a battalion commander in the Irish Guards for some of that war. I have always felt that he was over shadowed by Monty in WW2. The later is not one of my favourites given his seeming panache to seek the fame and limelight, however Alex seems to have been happy to get on with the job.
I look forward to your bio, even if it is a few years away. And whilst you are there if you could catch some time to do one on Alanbrooke and Dill I would be grateful. Both these men are due some/more coverage in biographical work.
This Biography of Alexander is very similar to that of Slim. Both men gaining valuable experience in WWI, both Govenor-General after WWII, both more interested in the well being of their men than of public opinion. In my eyes they deserve much more credit than given to them nowadays. I am glad to discover there was more than Montgomery in the British Army.
I couldn’t agree with you more!