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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.




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