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General Sir Richard McCreery GCB, KBE, DSO, MC (1 February 1898 – 18 October 1967), was a British career soldier, who was Chief of Staff to Field Marshal Harold Alexander, 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis, at the time of the Second Battle of El Alameinmarker and later commanded the British Eighth Army in Northern Italy during 1944–45.

Background and early life

Richard (Dick) Loudon McCreery was born on 1 February, 1898, the eldest son of Walter A. McCreery of Bilton Park, Rugby. His mother was Emilia McAdam, a direct descendant of the Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam, known to his contemporaries as The Colossus of Roads, for his invention of the process of Macadamizing. John McAdam’s achievements are still commemorated today in the word ‘tarmac’.

Dick McCreery was educated at Eton Collegemarker and the Royal Military College, Sandhurstmarker. Like many idealistic young men of his generation, McCreery exaggerated his age in order to enter the Army on the outbreak of the First World War.

Service in the First World War

McCreery joined the 12th Royal Lancers {see 9th/12th Royal Lancers} in 1915, and served in France from 1915-17 and from August-November, 1918. He was wounded on active service, and received the Military Cross in 1918.

Inter-war years

McCreery was appointed Adjutant of his regiment in December 1921. At the time of his appointment he was the youngest person ever to hold the post.

From 1935 to 1938 he was Commanding Officer of the 12th Royal Lancers.

The inter-war years saw McCreery’s greatest sporting achievements (see Equestrianism below). His outstanding skill as a horseman was achieved despite the loss of several toes and a hole in the riding muscle of his right leg, as a result of his wounding in the First World War, which left him with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life.

In 1928 McCreery married Lettice St. Maur, daughter of Major Lord Percy St. Maur (younger brother of the 15th Duke of Somerset) and the Hon. Violet White.

The interwar years were not without tragedy for McCreery. In 1921 one of his younger brothers, Bob, was killed in Ireland by republican forces. He was serving in the British Army, but off-duty at the time. {See Anglo-Irish War}. McCreery’s youngest brother, Jack, who was a playwright with a play running in the West End, took his own life.

Second World War

In 1939–40, McCreery was involved in the Battle for France, towards the end of which he commanded the Second Armoured Brigade, which found itself fighting alongside General Charles de Gaulle. McCreery was impressed by de Gaulle’s bearing during the latter’s direction of a counter-attack at Abbeville, and remained an admirer of the French General in later years.

McCreery was an expert on the use of light armoured vehicles (such vehicles being the mechanised equivalent of the cavalry of which his regiment had been part). His next posting overseas during the Second World War was as Adviser, Armoured Fighting Vehicles, Middle East (March to August,1942), where he was General Sir Claude Auchinleck's chief adviser on such matters. There followed spells as Chief of General Staff, Middle East, and then Chief of General Staff, 18th Army Group, North Africa (1942–43).

It was during this latter time that McCreery was Chief of Staff to Field Marshal Harold Alexander, Montgomery’s immediate superior at the time of the Second Battle of Alameinmarker, and McCreery had a role in the planning of that battle, in which armoured vehicles played such a significant part.

In July 1943, McCreery was given command of the Tenth Corps in Italy, which played a key role at the bitterly contested Salerno landings, and was later involved in the Battle of Monte Cassinomarker and the eventual capture of Rome on 4 June 1944. In September 1943, McCreery attempted to quell the Salerno Mutiny.

McCreery was knighted in the field in July 1944 by King George VI, at Palazza di Pera, Italy.

McCreery took over command of the British Eighth Army from Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese on December 31, 1944. The spring offensive which followed culminated in a 23-day battle near the River Po, victory in which resulted in the surrender of nearly a million German soldiers.

The achievements of the Eighth Army in this campaign are perhaps less well remembered than those of the Desert Campaign under Field Marshal Montgomery, on account of the fact that they were contemporaneous with the campaign in Northern France following the Normandy landings. This tended to be the main focus of public attention at the time, and has similarly attracted more attention from subsequent historians, perhaps unjustly.

Doherty sums up this, the final campaign of the Eighth Army as follows: ‘Sir Richard McCreery had managed one of the finest performances of a British army in the course of the war. He had done so through attention to detail, careful planning and a strategic flair that had few superiors.’

McCreery was the last commander of the British Eighth Army; in 1945 it was re-constituted as British Troops Austriamarker. He was also the only cavalryman to command it.

Post-war years

In the immediate aftermath of the War McCreery was General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, British Forces of Occupation in Austria and British representative on the Allied Commission for Austria. He was thus responsible for running that part of the country under British occupation. (Austria, including Vienna, was divided up between the four Allied powers, in the manner portrayed in the celebrated film, The Third Man.) During his time in Austria his office was next to a room in Schönbrunn Palacemarker, just outside Vienna, which was known as the Napoleonzimmer, so commemorating a very different occupation. McCreery held this post from July 1945 to March 1946.

From 1946 to 1948, McCreery was General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, British Army of the Rhine in Germany, succeeding Field Marshal Montgomery.

In 1948–49, McCreery was the British Army Representative on the Military Staff Committee at the United Nations. During this time McCreery lived with his family on Long Island and commuted to an office on the 61st floor of the Empire State Building in New York. The agenda of the Committee at that time was to set up an independent fighting force for the United Nations, an aim which was never realised.

McCreery was made a full general in 1949.

Retirement

McCreery retired from the Army in December 1949. He lived the rest of his life at Stowell Hill in Somerset, a house built by his mother and designed by a pupil of the architect Edwin Lutyens. Next to riding McCreery’s great passion was gardening, and he continued to develop the garden originally laid out by his mother, Emilia McAdam.

McCreery achieved a brief and probably unwanted notoriety in the early 1960s when he published an article in the regimental magazine which was critical of Field Marshal Montgomery. He regarded Montgomery as excessively cautious, and indeed some historians have suggested that Montgomery failed to press home his advantage after the Battle of Alamein to the extent that he might have done (see, for example, Corelli Barnett, The Desert Generals). McCreery’s article caused a brief flurry in the national press, on account of Montgomery’s status as a national hero.

After his retirement from the Army in 1949, General McCreery did not play an active part in public life; however, at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956 he was moved to write a personal letter of protest to his war-time acquaintance Harold Macmillan, then a member of Sir Anthony Eden’s cabinet, as he regarded the operation as dishonourable.

General Sir Richard McCreery died on 18 October 1967 aged 69. His memorial service was held in Westminster Abbeymarker.

Equestrianism

Appropriately for a man who was associated all his adult life with a cavalry regiment, McCreery was a highly accomplished horseman. He twice won the Grand Military Gold Cup at Sandown Park Racecoursemarker (in 1923 and 1928), and represented the Army at polo. In 1924 he and his younger brother Captain Selby McCreery constituted 50 percent of the Army polo team that played against America. In retirement during the 1950s, Dick McCreery took up polo again for a time, playing at Windsor Great Park.

He hunted all his life with the Blackmore Vale Hunt, of which he became joint Master of Foxhounds.

At the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 the State Coach was drawn by six grey horses, one of which was named McCreery, the others being named after five other World War Two generals, a distinction which must have been particularly appreciated by McCreery in view of his lifelong association with horses.

McCreery’s steeplechasing accomplishments are commemorated in an annual race at Sandown Park, The Dick McCreery Hunters' Steeple Chase, run on the day of the Grand Military Gold Cup.

Character and ability

In his character General McCreery was modest to the point of shyness. He was not comfortable in public speaking, but as Doherty puts it: 'Not a self-publicist in the manner of Montgomery, McCreery managed nonetheless to gain the confidence of his soldiers who trusted him in peace and war.' An overriding sense of duty might be said to have characterised his life and career.

McCreery was clearly possessed of a high intelligence, which was not restricted in its operation by the early end of his formal academic education. Harold Macmillan, later to become Prime Minister, characterised McCreery as a ‘very clever’ man in his wartime diaries. Following a meeting at Eighth Army Headquarters in Forli, Northern Italy, in April 1945, he wrote: ‘He [McCreery] has always struck me as one of the ablest of the military officers whom I have seen out here.’

Descendants

McCreery had four sons and one daughter. His eldest son, Michael, was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the early 1960s, but left in 1963 to become leader of the Committee to Defeat Revisionism, for Communist Unity. He pre-deceased his father in 1965. His second son, Bob, inherited his passion for steeplechasing and became the champion amateur National Hunt jockey in the 1950s. His youngest son is the psychologist and author Charles McCreery.

Bibliography

  • Barnett, Corelli (1960). The Desert Generals. London: George Allen and Unwin.


  • Devereux, Roy (1936). John Loudon McAdam: Chapters in the History of Highways. London: Oxford University Press.


  • Doherty, Richard (2004). Ireland's Generals in the Second World War. Dublin: Four Courts Press.


  • Macmillan, Harold (1984). War Diaries: Politics and War in the Mediterranean, January 1943-May 1945. London: Macmillan.


  • Strawson, John (1973). General Sir Richard McCreery. A Portrait. Privately published.


  • Who’s Who, 1965. London: Adam & Charles Black.


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