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Alexander, Harold Rupert Leofric George (1891-1969)


Photograph of Harold Alexander

Imperial War Museum. Via Wikipedia Commons

Alexander was born in London, the third son of the 4th Earl of Caledon. He was educated at Harrow and Sandhurst and served with distinction with the Irish Guards during the First World War. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and commanded a battalion on the Western Front. During the intervention in Russia, Alexander commanded the Latvian militia. He then became commander of the Irish Guards and served in both staff positions and as commander of a brigade in the Indian Army.

Commander of 1 Division when the European war broke out, Alexander was one of the youngest senior British officers at age 49.  He expertly led the rearguard action at Dunkirk in 1940, and was called upon to direct a similar desperate retreat during the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942, when he was ordered to relieve Thomas J. Hutton as general officer commanding Burma. He was possessed of great physical courage, and had a reputation as a lucky officer, but the Burma campaign would test his reputation for imperturbability and the ability to restore desperate situations to its limit.

Alexander met with Archibald Wavell, commanding ABDA, in early March in Calcutta. Wavell's only orders to Alexander were to hold Rangoon, and Alexander received no further orders until 18 April. In the meanwhile it became clear to Alexander that holding Rangoon was no longer within the realm of the possible. He chose to ignore his orders and retreat into central Burma, but his forces were already heavily engaged and all but encircled near Pegu. Iida Shojiro expected the British to fall back on Rangoon, and this allowed Alexander to break out to the north before the Japanese discovered his intentions. 33 Division actually crossed the British line of march, but Sakurai Shozo was racing his division west to get around the presumed British flank, failed to cover the road north, and allowed the British to escape.

With Rangoon lost, Alexander knew that northern Burma could not be held and that the essential thing was to preserve his army to defend northeast India. The Japanese, meanwhile, rushed reinforcements to Rangoon for the pursuit. Alexander got some assistance from Chinese forces under Joseph Stilwell, and he proved capable of working with the prickly American officer; but Stilwell had little real command authority. While Chinese forces occasionally fought with great tenacity, Stilwell could not coordinate their movements, and his "command" was soon fragmented and forced to retreat back into China. Alexander, in turn, managed to get his forces to Imphal just in advance of the monsoon.

Alexander was ably assisted throughout the campaign by William Slim, who took command of Burma Corps at about the same time that Alexander took over as GOC Burma.

Alexander was promoted to full general in April 1942 and was named as commander in chief in the Middle East in August. He spent the remainder of the war in the Mediterranean theater, where he rose to the rank of field marshal. His subordinates here did not think him highly intelligent and tended to ignore his orders when convenient to do so. One senior general wrote of him years after the war that "I think he is quite the least intelligent commander I have ever met in a high position. I cannot imagine his ever producing a plan, let alone a good plan. I don't think he ever did. Certainly in Italy I am sure he never really took charge of  operations. He had no tactical policty of his own. Everything just drifted" (Allen 1984).

Alexander served postwar as governor general of Canada and was subsequently created 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis.

Service record

1891-12-10     

Born at London, the third son of the 4th Earl of Caledon
1911

Graduates from Military Academy, standing 85th in a class of 172, and joins the Irish Guards
1918

Acting commander, 4 Guards Brigade
1919

Commander, Baltic Landwehr, Latvia
1922
Colonel    
Commander, Irish Guards
1926

Staff College, Camberley
1928

Commander, Irish Guards
1930

Imperial Defense College
1934
Brigadier
Commander, Nowshera Brigade, Northwest India
1937
Major general     

1938

Commander, 1 Division
1940-6

Commander, 1 Corps
1940-11

Commander, Southern Command
1940-12
Lieutenant general     

1942-3-5

Commander, Burma Command
1942-8-9

Commander, Near East Command
1943-2-19

Commander, 18 Army Group
1943-7-10

Commander, 15 Army Group
1944-6-4
Field marshal

1944-12-16

Supreme Allied Commander, Mediterranean
1946

Governor-General of Canada
1952

Minister of Defense
1954

Retires
1969-6-16

Dies at Windsor

References

Allen (1984)

Atkinson (2007)

Boatner (1996)

Dupuy et.al. (1992)

Governor General of Canada (accessed 2007-4-24)

Slim (1956)

Willmott (1982)



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