Harold Alexander

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Harold Alexander
Aristocrat, Count, Independece fighter, Marshal, Minister, Politician, Related to Latvia, WWI participant, WWII participant
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Field Marshal Harold Rupert Leofric George Alexander, 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis KG GCB OM GCMG CSI DSO MC CD PC PC(Can) (10 December 1891 – 16 June 1969) was a British military commander and field marshal who served with distinction in both world wars and, afterwards, as Governor-General of Canada, the 17th since Canadian Confederation.

Alexander was born in London, England, to aristocratic parents and was educated at Harrow before moving on to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, for training as an army officer. He rose to prominence through his service in the First World War, receiving numerous honours and decorations, and continued his military career through various British campaigns across Europe and Asia. In the Second World War, Alexander oversaw the final stages of the Allied evacuation from Dunkirk and subsequently held high-ranking field commands in Burma, North Africa, and Italy, including serving as Commander-in-Chief Middle East and commanding the 18th Army Group in Tunisia. He then commanded the 15th Army Group for the capture of Sicily and again in Italy before receiving his field marshal's baton and being made Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean.

He was in 1946 appointed as governor general by King George VI, on the recommendation of Prime Minister of Canada William Lyon Mackenzie King, to replace the Earl of Athlone as viceroy, and he occupied the post until succeeded by Vincent Massey in 1952. Alexander proved to be enthusiastic about the Canadian wilderness and was a popular governor general with Canadians. He was the last non-Canadian-born governor general before the appointment of Adrienne Clarkson in 1999, as well as the last governor general to be a peer.

After the end of his viceregal tenure, Alexander was sworn into the Queen's Privy Council for Canada and thereafter, in order to serve as the British Minister of Defence in the Cabinet of Winston Churchill, into the Imperial Privy Council. Alexander retired in 1954 and died in 1969.

Alexander was born in London, the third son of the Earl and Countess of Caledon, the latter being a daughter of the Earl of Norbury. Alexander was educated at Hawtreys and Harrow School, there participating as the 11th batsman in the sensational Fowler's Match against Eton College in 1910. Though Alexander toyed with the notion of becoming an artist, he went instead on to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.

Military career

In September 1911, Alexander was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Irish Guards, British Army. He was promoted to lieutenant in December 1912.

First World War

Alexander spent the war on the Western Front. As a 22-year-old platoon commander in the 1st Battalion Irish Guards, he served in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1914. He took part in the retreat from Mons and was wounded at First Ypres and invalided home. He was promoted temporary captain on 15 November 1914 and permanent captain in the newly raised 2nd Battalion on 7 February the following year.

Alexander returned to the Western Front in August 1915, fought at Loos and was, for ten days in October 1915, acting major and acting Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion Irish Guards as a "Battle Casualty Replacement". He then returned to 2nd Battalion as a company officer and, in January 1916, received the Military Cross for his bravery at Loos. For service on the Somme on 15 September 1916, he was in October appointed to the Distinguished Service Order, the citation for which read: "For conspicuous gallantry in action. He was the life and soul of the attack, and throughout the day led forward not only his own men but men of all regiments. He held the trenches gained in spite of heavy machine gun fire." In the same month, Alexander was further honoured with induction into the French Légion d'honneur.

On 10 December 1916, Alexander took second-in-command of 1st Battalion Irish Guards as acting major. By May, Alexander was briefly acting Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, as an acting lieutenant-colonel, while still only a substantive captain. He became a permanent major on 1 August 1917 and was again promoted acting lieutenant-colonel, this time confirmed as Commanding Officer of 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, on 15 October. Alexander commanded his battalion at Third Ypres, where he was slightly wounded, then at Bourlon Wood (part of the battle of Cambrai), where his battalion suffered 320 casualties out of 400 men. Alexander, between 23 and 30 March 1918, had to assume command of the 4th Guards Brigade, during the British retreat. He once again commanded 2nd Battalion at Hazebrouck in April 1918, where it took such severe casualties that it saw no further action. Still an acting lieutenant-colonel, he then commanded a corps infantry school in October 1918.

Rudyard Kipling, who wrote a history of the Irish Guards, in which his own son fought and was killed, noted that, "it is undeniable that Colonel Alexander had the gift of handling the men on the lines to which they most readily responded... His subordinates loved him, even when he fell upon them blisteringly for their shortcomings; and his men were all his own."

The inter-war years

Alexander in 1919 served with the Allied Control Commission in Poland. As a temporary lieutenant-colonel, he led the Baltic German Landeswehr in the Latvian War of Independence, commanding units loyal to Latvia in the successful drive to eject the Bolsheviks from Latgalia. During service there, he was accidentally wounded by one of his own sentries on 9 October 1919.

Alexander returned to Britain in May 1920 as a major, second in command of 1st Battalion Irish Guards; in May 1922, he was promoted substantive lieutenant-colonel and appointed commanding officer. He commanded the battalion at Constantinople (a sensitive posting in the runup to the Chanak Crisis), then Gibraltar from October 1922, then in London from April 1923 until January 1926, when he was released from that role to attend Staff College, Camberley. Alexander was then in February 1928 promoted to colonel (backdated to 14 May 1926) and was the next month appointed Officer Commanding the Irish Guards Regimental District and 140th (4th London) Infantry Brigade in the Territorial Army a post he held until January 1930, when he again returned to study, attending the Imperial Defence College for one year. There, two of Alexander's instructors—the future field marshals Alan Brooke and Bernard Montgomery—were unimpressed by him.

After the completion of his courses, Alexander, on 14 October 1931, married Lady Margaret Bingham, the daughter of the Earl of Lucan and with whom Alexander had two sons—Shane, born 1935, and Brian, born 1939—and a daughter, as well as adopting another daughter during his time as Canada's governor general. Alexander then held staff appointments as (from January 1931) GSO2 in the Directorate of Military Training at the War Office and (1932–34) GSO1 at HQ Northern Command in York, before being made in October 1934 a temporary brigadier and given command of the Nowshera Brigade, on the Northwest Frontier in India. For his service there, and in particular for his actions in the Loe-Agra operations against the Pathans in Malakand between February and April 1935, Alexander was that year made a Companion of the Order of the Star of India and was mentioned in despatches. He was mentioned once more for his service during the Second Mohmand Campaign in Mohamad Province from August to October of the same year, serving under Brigadier Claude Auchinleck. Alexander had a reputation for leading from the front and for reaching mountain crests with or even ahead of his troops.

In March 1937, Alexander was appointed as one of the aides-de-camp to the recently acceded King George VI and in May returned to the United Kingdom to take part in this capacity in the state procession through London during the King's coronation. Alexander would have been seen in this event by two of his Canadian viceregal successors: Vincent Massey, who was then the Canadian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, and Massey's secretary, Georges Vanier, who watched the procession from the roof of Canada House on Trafalgar Square. Following the coronation celebration, Alexander returned to India, where he was made the honorary colonel of the 3rd Battalion 2nd Punjab Regiment, and then in October 1937 was promoted to the rank of major-general, making Alexander the youngest general in the British Army. He relinquished command of his brigade in January 1938, and in February returned to the United Kingdom to take command of the 1st Infantry Division. In June 1938 he was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath.

Second World War

Following the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Alexander brought the 1st Infantry Division to France, where, in late May 1940, he successfully led the division's withdrawal to Dunkirk. Shortly after Bernard Montgomery had been appointed to command II Corps, Alexander was, while still on the beachhead, placed in command of I Corps, and left the beach on the last destroyer on 3 June after ensuring that all British troops had been evacuated. In recognition of his services in the field from March to June 1940, Alexander was again mentioned in despatches.

After Dunkirk, Alexander returned to the UK and continued to command I Corps, now guarding the coasts of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. He was promoted acting lieutenant-general in July 1940, and appointed the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the Southern Command, which was responsible for the defence of south-west England. His rank of lieutenant-general was made permanent in December 1940.

On 1 January 1942 he was knighted and appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, and in February, after the Japanese invasion of Burma, was sent to India to become GOC-in-C of British Forces in Burma as a full general. Alexander was unable to fulfil his orders to hold Rangoon, which was abandoned on 6–7 March. He took personal charge of some small local engagements, and was almost captured by the Japanese. Alexander increasingly left much of the tactical conduct of the campaign to his corps commander, Bill Slim, while he himself handled the more political aspects of relations with Joe Stillwell, the nominal commander of the Chinese forces. Alexander was promoted to Commander-in-Chief of Allied Land Forces in Burma, March 1942, and ordered Slim to abandon Mandalay and retreat to India.

By July 1942, the British and Indian forces in Burma had completed their fighting retreat back into India, and Alexander, having yet again been mentioned in despatches for his Burma service, was recalled to the United Kingdom. He was at first selected to command the First Army, which was to take part in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. However, following a visit in early August to Egypt by British prime minister Winston Churchill and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke, Alexander flew to Cairo on 8 August to replace Claude Auchinleck as the Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command, the post responsible for the overall conduct of the campaign in the desert of North Africa. At the same time, Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery replaced Auchinleck as the general officer commanding the Eighth Army. Alexander presided over Montgomery's victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein and the advance of the Eighth Army to Tripoli, for which Alexander was elevated to a knight grand cross of the Order of the Bath, and, after the Anglo-American forces from Operation Torch and the Eighth Army converged in Tunisia in February 1943, they were brought under the unified command of a newly formed 18th Army Group headquarters, commanded by Alexander and reporting to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean at the Allied Forces Headquarters. Omar Bradley, an American general on the Tunisian Campaign, credited Alexander's patience and experience with helping an inexperienced United States "field command mature and eventually come of age."

The Axis forces in Tunisia surrendered by May 1943, and Alexander's command became the 15th Army Group, which was, under Eisenhower, responsible for mounting in July the Allied invasion of Sicily, again seeing Alexander controlling two armies: Montgomery's Eighth Army and George S. Patton's Seventh United States Army. After Sicily, and in preparation for the allied invasion of Italy, the Seventh Army headquarters were replaced by those of the Fifth United States Army, led by Mark Clark.

When Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Allied Commander for the planned Normandy Landings he suggested that Alexander become ground forces commander, as he was popular with both British and US officers. Bradley, now the American commander of the 12th Army Group, remarked that he would have preferred to work with Alexander, rather than Montgomery, as he regarded the former as "a restrained, self-effacive, and punctilious soldier". Of the problems that subsequently surfaced with Montgomery's command of the British 21st Army Group, Bradley suspected they would not have occurred with Alexander in command. Brooke, however, applied pressure to keep Alexander in Italy, considering him unfit for the assignment in France. Thus, Alexander remained in command of the 15th Army Group, and, with the support of numerous allied commanders, controversially authorised the bombing of the historic abbey at Cassino, which resulted in little advance on the German Winter Line defences. It was not until the fourth attempt that the Winter Line was breached by the Allies, and Alexander's forces moved on to capture Rome in June 1944, thereby achieving one of the strategic goals of the Italian campaign. However, US Fifth Army forces at Anzio, under Clark's orders, failed to follow their original break-out plan that would have trapped the German forces escaping northwards in the aftermath of the Battle of Monte Cassino, instead favouring an early and highly publicised entry into Rome two days before the Allied landings in Normandy.

Alexander remained in command of 15th Army Group, as well as its successor, the Allied Armies in Italy, for most of the Italian Campaign, until December 1944, when he relinquished his command to Clark and took over as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces Headquarters, responsible for all military operations in the Mediterranean Theatre. Alexander was concurrently promoted to the rank of field marshal, though this was backdated to the fall of Rome on 4 June 1944, so that Alexander would once again be senior to Montgomery, who had himself been made a field marshal on 1 September 1944, after the end of the Battle of Normandy. Alexander then received the German surrender in Italy, on 29 April 1945. Further, as a reward for his leadership in North Africa and Italy, Alexander, along with a number of other prominent British Second World War military leaders, was elevated to the peerage on 1 March 1946 by King George VI; he was created Viscount Alexander of Tunis and Errigal in the County of Donegal.

Alan Brooke felt that Alexander needed an able chief of staff "to think for him", while Montgomery (Alexander's subordinate in Africa and Italy) claimed to think of Alexander as "incompetent" and success was attained in Tunisia only because Montgomery lent Brian Horrocks to organise the coup de grace. However, Harold Macmillan was impressed by Alexander's calm and style, conducting dinners in his mess like those at an Oxbridge high table, discussing architecture and the campaigns of Belisarius, rather than the current war. Macmillan thought Alexander's urbane manner and willingness to discuss and compromise were a sensible way to maintain inter-Allied cooperation, but Alexander's reserve was such that some thought him empty of strategic ideas and unable to make decisions. Graham and Bidwell wrote that Alexander's impenetrable reserve made it hard to judge whether or not he had any military ideas, but that he was "unable or unwilling" to assert his will over his army commanders, and that Mark Clark exploited this weakness.

Governor General of Canada

With the cessation of hostilities, Alexander was under serious consideration for appointment to the post of Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the British army's most senior position beneath the sovereign, but he was invited by Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to be his recommendation to the King for the post of Governor General of Canada. Alexander thus chose to retire from the army and take up the new position, and, in anticipation of his viceregal posting, was on 26 January 1946 appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George. It was then announced from the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada on 21 March 1946 that George VI had, by commission under the royal sign-manual and signet, approved the recommendation of his prime minister, Mackenzie King, to appoint Alexander as his representative. Alexander was subsequently sworn-in during a ceremony in the Senate chamber on 12 April that year.

Alexander took his duties as the viceroy quite seriously, feeling that, as governor general, he acted as a connection between Canadians and their king, and spent considerable time travelling Canada during his term; he eventually logged no less than 294,500 km (184,000 mi) during his five years as governor general. On these trips, he sought to engage with Canadians through various ceremonies and events; he was keenly interested in his role as Chief Scout of Canada, and, in preparation for his kicking of the opening ball in the 1946 Grey Cup final, practised frequently on the grounds of the royal and viceroyal residence, Rideau Hall. Also, in commemoration of Alexander being named the first non-aboriginal chief of the Kwakiutl tribe, he was given a totem pole on 13 July 1946; crafted by Mungo Martin, it remains on the grounds of Rideau Hall today. By the end of the year, Alexander was also distinguished with his induction as a Knight of the Order of the Garter.

In 1947, the King issued letters patent granting his Canadian governor general permission to exercise all those powers belonging to the monarch in respect of Canada and, at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference of 1949, the decision was reached to use the term member of the Commonwealth instead of Dominion to refer to the non-British member states of the Commonwealth of Nations. That same year, Alexander oversaw the admission of the British crown colony of Newfoundland into Canadian Confederation and toured the new province that summer. Then, during a later visit to Alberta, the Governor General was admitted to the Blackfoot tribe as Chief Eagle Head. However, though the post-war period saw a boom in prosperity for Canada, the country was again at war by 1950, with Alexander, in his role as acting commander-in-chief, deploying to the Korean War soldiers, sailors, and airmen, whom he would visit prior to their departure for north-east Asia.

The Viscount travelled abroad on official trips—in 1947 visiting US president Harry S. Truman and in June 1948 Brazilian president Eurico Gaspar Dutra—as well as hosting a number of dignitaries. The visit of the Irish Taoiseach, John A. Costello, in 1948, caused Alexander some embarrassment when Costello chose the occasion to announce that Ireland was leaving the Commonwealth. Although the decision had been taken in principle some time before, the sudden announcement caused a diplomatic storm and Costello, to deflect criticism, claimed that he had been provoked into making the announcement by a series of diplomatic snubs by Alexander. In his memoirs Costello was to admit that Alexander's behaviour had in fact been perfectly civil and could have had no bearing on a decision which had already been made.

The Alexanders' relatively informal lifestyle at Rideau Hall was demonstrated when, during the Canadian tour of Princess Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Viscount and Viscountess hosted a square dance in the palace's ballroom. Alexander painted—creating a personal studio in the former dairy at Rideau Hall and mounting classes in art at the National Gallery of Canada—partook in a number of sports, including golf, ice hockey, and rugby, and enjoyed the outdoors—particularly during Ontario and Quebec's maple syrup harvest, himself overseeing the process on Rideau Hall's grounds. The Viscount was known to escape from official duties to partake in his most favourite pastime of fishing, once departing from the 1951 royal tour of Princess Elizabeth to take in a day's fishing at Griffin Island, in Georgian Bay, and granting a day off for students in the town of Drayton, Ontario, where his train briefly stopped.

Amongst Canadians, Alexander proved to be a popular viceroy, despite the calls for a Canadian-born governor general that had preceded his appointment. Not only did he have a much praised military reputation—he was considered to be the best military strategist since the Duke of Wellington—but he was also a charismatic figure with an easy ability to communicate with people. Others, however, did not fully approve of Alexander; editor Hugh Templin, from Fergus, Ontario, met with Alexander during Templin's time as a special correspondent with the Canadian Press during the Second World War, and he said of the encounter: "Lord Alexander impressed us considerably, if not too favourably. He was an aristocratic type, who didn't like newspaper men."

British Minister of Defence

Alexander departed the office of Governor General of Canada in early 1952, after Churchill asked him to return to London to take the post of Minister of Defence in the British government. The ageing Churchill had found it increasingly difficult to cope with holding that portfolio concurrently with that of prime minister, although he still took many major decisions himself, leaving Alexander with little real power. Soon after, George VI died on the night of 5–6 February and Alexander, in respect of the King's mourning, departed quietly for the United Kingdom, leaving Chief Justice of Canada Thibaudeau Rinfret as administrator of the government in his place. After his return to the UK, Alexander was on 14 March 1952 elevated in the peerage by the new queen, becoming Earl Alexander of Tunis, Baron Rideau of Ottawa and Castle Derg. He was also appointed to the organising committee for the Queen's coronation and was charged with carrying the Sovereign's Orb in the state procession on that occasion in 1953.


The Earl served as the British defence minister until 1954, when he retired from politics and, in 1959, the Queen appointed Alexander to the Order of Merit. From 1960 to 1965, he served as Constable of the Tower of London.

Canada remained a favourite second home for the Alexanders and they returned frequently to visit family and friends until Alexander died on 16 June 1969 of a perforated aorta. His funeral was held on 24 June 1969, at St. George's Chapel, in Windsor Castle, and his remains are buried in the churchyard of Ridge, near Tyttenhanger, his family's Hertfordshire home.


Source: wikipedia.org, Muižas laikmetu griežos, I. Dišlere, A. Ozola

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