Book Review – The Last Great Cavalryman: The Life of Richard McCreery-Commander Eighth Army

Richard Mead, The Last Great Cavalryman: The Life of Richard McCreery-Commander Eighth Army. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2012. Maps. B&W Photos. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 261pp. Hbk. £25.00  

Reviewed by Neal Dando, PhD Candidate, Plymouth University

The Last Great Cvalryman

Richard Mead’s biography of General Richard McCreery, entitled, The Last Great Cavalryman, seeks to highlight the career of an officer who has been somewhat overshadowed by more famous contemporaries and the later successes of Eighth Army during the Italian campaign. It fills an important gap in the historiography, as one of the problems with the early histories of the Italian campaign is the lack of any solid references to McCreery. Therefore, this is an important biography that sheds light on a commander who rose from being a staff officer in 1938 to command a Corps and then an Army by 1944. Of his contemporaries, General Alexander mentored him as GSO1 to 1st Infantry Division and took him on again as his Chief of Staff in mid-1942. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, sent him to North Africa, seeing him as one of the, ‘best armoured divisional commanders’ while the war correspondent Christopher Buckley considered McCreery to be, ‘an exceedingly able and intellectual officer.’[1] Major-General John Strawson, who as a junior officer, served under McCreery, saw him as that, ‘rare coalition of a brilliant staff officer and a higher commander.’[2] Notably McCreery clashed with Major-General Eric Dorman-Smith who labelled him, ‘dreary McCreery’ and with Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, who nevertheless still respected his professional qualities.[3] McCreery’s performance is largely glossed over in later accounts, being noted as competent or having a more taciturn style of command.[4]

The biography briefly covers McCreery’s childhood, family life and early influences. His wartime experience as a troop commander in the First World War is covered in two short chapters and is perhaps only useful in offering background about his early military experience. A more important phase of his career is discussed in the five chapters covering the interwar period. The majority of the work -fourteen chapters – covers his career from Brigadier to Commander of Eighth Army during the Second World War, which students of armoured doctrine and the Italian campaign would find of most use. The final six chapters cover his post-war work in Austria, then as commander of the British Army of the Rhine and later at the United Nations in New York before he retired in late 1949. The two chapters covering his involvement in the post-war reduction of Regiments in the late 1950s and early 1960s is also of interest. Seven maps cover his key actions, and two sections of photos illustrate his early and later life. Mead has made widespread use of relevant primary sources from the National Archives, Regimental Museums, private papers, letters and diaries of McCreery and others to provide the details of his career and working relationships with others. Mead is at pains to explain that he was fortunate to be able to use interviews with contemporaries, from John Strawson’s papers on McCreery. In doing so, he has successfully interwoven the story of McCreery’s career with that of the changes to armoured formations in Britain, events in North Africa and the narrative of the Italian campaign to 1945.

Mead’s methodology is straightforward and logical with chapters remaining concise. McCreery’s career is continuously linked to a narrative of events, along with explanatory sections on relevant topics, such as, changes in armoured regiment and brigade structure in March 1940 (p. 69). Of particular interest is the issues of having a Commander of the Royal Armoured Corps, who interfered over operational aspects of the newly created armoured divisions in 1941 as well as Churchill’s direct interference on armoured matters in the same year (p. 79). Mead also provides enough narrative to give context to McCreery’s involvement as adviser to General Claude Auchinleck in North Africa, then as Chief of Staff to Alexander, General Officer Commanding X Corps in Italy and finally as Commander of Eighth Army to the end of the war, whilst covering the private and family life of McCreery throughout.

McCreery was a keen equestrian, educated at Eton and was destined for a military career just as the First World War broke out. He served in the 12th Lancers and was badly wounded after fourteen months in France, but returned in the final phases of the campaign. The five chapters covering the interwar period are much more useful. Despite becoming one of the foremost equestrians in the army and having a reputation of being a keen polo player, successive commanding officers recognised him as also being a diligent, professional soldier (p. 31). This culminated in his rise to GSO1 in Alexander’s 1st Division in June 1938, despite having little staff experience before this (p. 61). The single chapter on his experiences in the campaign in France in 1940 highlights some of the operational issues that surrounded the use of armour during a campaign where British tanks were mechanically unreliable, there was no real doctrine and cooperation with Allies was unreliable at best (pp. 71-72). His time back in the UK to March 1942 saw him become an effective Divisional Commander and he was sent to Cairo in March 1942, to be Auchinleck’s adviser on armoured matters as Eighth Army rebuilt itself on the Gazala line. His subsequent clashes with Eric Dorman-Smith and later Auchinleck over their attempted changes to Divisional structures at the height of the retreat following Gazala and during First Alamein are illuminating and his ability was such that he was taken on as Chief of Staff to Alexander the same day (p. 100). McCreery later re-ignited discussion of this period in 1959, in a regimental journal article that also criticized Montgomery’s handling of the armoured corps at Second Alamein, (p.227).

Seven chapters cover his service in Italy. The author concentrates on McCreery and whilst the work is not an analysis of this campaign, it balances well in conjunction with Eric Linclater’s early history that at least notes some elements of McCreery’s decision-making abilities as GOC X Corps and latterly as Commander of Eighth Army.[5] Ian Gooderson’s recent analysis builds upon this by placing that decision-making process into the context doctrinal and unit experience in the Italian Campaign.[6] Mead offers some useful insights into operations through McCreery’s style of command. For example, during the planning process for the Salerno landings (Operation AVCALANCHE), McCreery was viewed by all attending the conference as being in full control of his planning and staff, in stark comparison to his American counter-part, Lieutenant-General Ernest Dawley (p.125). At this point X Corps, which was attached to US Fifth Army, consisted of 46th and 56th (London) Infantry Divisions. Both had seen action in Tunisia, and both had commanders with whom he felt he could work well (p. 124). McCreey had a different command style to General Mark Clark, Commander of US Fifth Army (pp. 123-124), and he contributed to making Clark hold his nerve during the first days of AVALANCHE, as the German counter-attack sought to drive a wedge between US and British forces (pp. 130-131). Montgomery was another who clashed with McCreery, but like Clark appears to have later respected his views. Mead notes that McCreery’s style of command was low key and unassuming (p. 185) and that he was no Montgomery or General Sir Oliver Leese in seeking popularity with the troops. He was considered both a ‘fine staff officer and field commander’ and that his record was largely unblemished, despite the difficulties with Auchinleck and Clark. Mead considers the Battle for the River Po as his finest battle (pp. 236-238).

Richard Mead’s study is a useful contribution to the body of analysis needed on all key British commanders. Indeed, if historians are to make proper assessments of success and failure concerning the British Army during the Second World War then this must begin by understanding the men who lead it from platoon commanders through to the highest echelons of senior command. This work remains a biography at its core and is best read in conjunction with more detailed operational narratives to understand the commander in action. Nevertheless, it highlights some of the issues faced by emerging commanders at various levels of leadership. In particular, it highlights how to manage relationships between commanders at all levels, such as Mead’s efforts with the French Division Légère Mécanisée’s in 1940 to his management of multi-national forces during the Italian campaign. Mead has shown that studies such as this allow researchers the space to understand a character more fully and their relationships between commanders, which a purely operational narrative might ignore.

Citation: Neal Dando, ‘Review of Richard Mead, The Last Great Cavalryman: The Life of Richard McCreery-Commander Eighth Army’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 29 July 2013

You can download a copy of the review here.

[1] Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, War Diaries, 1939-1945, edited by Alex Danchev and Dan Todman (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2001), p. 235; Christopher Buckley, Road To Rome (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1945), p.170.

[2] John Strawson, The Italian Campaign (London: Secker & Warburg, 1987), p.184.

[3] Lavinia Greacen, Chink: A Biography (London: Macmillan, 1991), p.194, cited in Nick Smart, British Generals of the Second World War (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2005), p.206.

[4] Richard Doherty, A Noble Crusade: The History Eighth Army 1941-45 (Staplehurst: Spellmount, 1999), p.255; Robin Neillands, Eighth Army (Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2004), p.325.

[5] See: Eric Linclater, The Campaign in Italy (London: HMSO, 1951).

[6] See: Ian Gooderson, A Hard Way to Make a War. The Italian campaign in Italy in the Second World War (London: Conway, 2008).


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