The unconditional surrender of the German armies in Italy on May 2, 1945, brought to an end one of the hardest fought campaigns of the Second World Ward. The British Eighth Army, under Lieutenant General Sir Richard L. McCreery, shares with the American Fifth Army of General Clark and Truscott the glory and the losses of the battle for Italy. Their campaign is described by the Allied Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean, Field Marshal Sir Harold R.L.G. Alexander, as one "which will long live in history as one of the greatest and most successful ever waged." A few months after V-E Day McCreery became commanding officer of the British Forces of Occupation in Austria.
Richard Loudon McCreery was born of February 1, 1898, the son of Walter A. and Emilia (McAdam) McCreery of Bilton Park, Rugby. After studying at Eton, he attended the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. At seventeen young McCreery joined the Twelfth Lancers in August 1915, as a second lieutenant. He served with them in France until 1917, was wounded, and returned as a full lieutenant to fight from August to November 1918, when he won the Military Cross. His regiment was one of the first to be mechanized, and he "accepted the armored fighting vehicle without reserve."
Between wars McCreery spent most of his time on regimental duties, with time out for steeplchasing - he won the Grand Military Gold Cup at Sandown Park in 1923 and again in 1928. In 1921 he was chosen adjutant of regiment, and was promoted to captain in 1923 and to major in 1927. He was married in 1928 to Lettice, daughter of Lord Percy St. Maur. In that year too, the thirty-year-old Major entered the Staff College. In 1930 he was made brigade major of the Second Cavalry Brigade in the Southern Command, covering a number of regiments and remained in this post until 1933. Two years later McCreery was raised to lieutenant colonel and given command of his old regiment, the Twelfth Lancers, which had become an armored car unit in 1928. In 1937 he was made a brevet colonel, and in July of that year was made a full colonel.
In 1938 Colonel McCreery was made General Staff Officer 1 of the first Division; his work in the desperate Dunkerque campaign of June 1940 won him the Distinguished Service Order and his promotion to brigadier in July (having first been made acting brigadier and then temporary brigadier). That December he was again promoted, to acting major general. and was given command of an armored division. General McCreery's work was mentioned in dispatches in 1941; he was "one of the young progressive generals to whom were entrusted the formation and training of the new armored divisions and the armored groups which came into existence in 1941." In the spring of 1942 he was in the Middle East as advisor on armored fighting vehicles at the General Headquarters. That summer General Sir Harold Alexander replaced Sir Claude Auchinleck in command of operations, and General Sir Benard L. Montgomery was placed in command of the Eighth Army, after its loss of Tobruk. McCreery became Alexander's Chief of the General Staff. In this capacity he worked on the British counteroffensive which began on October 23, 1942, and was culminated at El Alamein; and he helped plan the North African landings in November 1942, the first large-scale amphibious operations the Allies had undertaken.
Like many armies the "British" Eighth was made up of troops from various parts of the world, speaking various languages. In addition to the Englishmen, Irish Scots, and Welshmen from the United Kingdom, it included New Zealanders, under Lieutenant General Sir Bernard C. Freyberg, and divisions from India, South Africa, and Australia, as well as Fighting French and Greek members of the Southern Division. Visiting the Eighth in Tripoli, Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared, "I have never in my life seen troops who march with the style and air of the Desert Army. Talk about spit-and polish-!" At the end of the Italian campaign, when the Allied forces in Italy included Canadian, Polish, and Brazilian units and the Jewish Brigade, Churchill was to term it "as gallant an army as has ever marched."
For his staff work in Tunisia and the Middle East General McCreery was made a Companion of the Bath, and later a Knight Commander of the same Order. (He had already received the decoration of the Order of the British Empire.) In 1943 his major generalcy was substantiated (made permanent); and late that August he was given a field command - the Tenth Corps, attached to General Mark W. Clark's American Fifth Army. This was just before the Allied invasion of Italy. In the battle for Salerno, McCreery's corps was so hard-pressed that at one time the Germans thought the Wehrmacht had won and announced its victory. But the British and Americans clung to their beachheads and battled their way inland. Later Sir Richard and his men "played a decisive part in developing a brilliant technique for the passage of swift mountain rivers in the face of violent opposition," to quote a British release, and in "employing armor with a decisive effect in what had previously been thought impossible ground and weather conditions."
The Allied forces liberated Naples on October 1, 1943, but their way to Rome was hampered by mountainous terrain and unfavorable weather conditions. While the British Eight Army fought its way along the so-called Eight Army fought its way along the so-called "Hitler Line" of German defenses, the American Fifth and General McCreery's corps inched along toward the north. Rome was taken on June 4, 1944, and in July Alexander announced, "The Allied armies in Italy have driven a battered enemy a hundred and fifty miles to the north of Rome within one month in a campaign that must rank with the most vigorous and carefully planned campaigns in modern blitz warfare." With the fall of Florence in August 1944 the battle of central Italy was over, and the battle of northern Italy began.
In contrast to the movements of the Allies on the Western front, which began with the landings in Normandy in June 1944, the grim Italian fighting was slow and dull to the newspaper readers: Time aptly called it "the forgotten front." That November McCreery took over command of the Eighth when General Sir Oliver Leese was transferred to India to head a new army group. Over the mountains and through the mud and rain his army pushed along the Rimini-Bologna highway. In December 1944 his Britishers and Canadians freed the Adriatic coastal city of Ravenna, putting McCreery in position to strike toward the flank and rear of the Bologna defenses; and the same month Faenza fell to the Eighth also. Then, on April 21, 1945, the Eighth and the American Fifth Army surged into Bologna from virtually all directions and gained the greatest victory in the Italian campaign since Rome was taken. The long and bitter battle of the Apennines had come to an end with the fall of the most important communications hub in the Po Plain. With unabated speed the Allied armies pressed on toward the Brenner Pass, the Fifth capturing the important cities of Verona and Parma. The Italian Partisans rose in Milan and Turin and drove out the Germans, while McCreery's army took Venice.
On May 2, 1945, almost two years after the Allies made their first landing on the Italian mainland, the German armies in Italy surrendered unconditionally. The collapse was anticlimactic. The Fifth Army had already smashed to within thirty-five miles of the Austrian border for a junction with the American Seventh Army driving into the Austrian Alps under General Alexander M. Patch and it was reported in Rome dispatches that the Yugoslav forces in a drive to crush the German troops still fighting in Yugoslavia. General Clark's statement, "The military power of Germany in Italy had ..... ceased, even though scattered fighting may continue," officially closed the Italian campaign. Sir Richard McCreery and his Eighth Army then went to work on Austria.
But McCreery's work in Italy was not finished. He sent his New Zealand Second Division two hundred and twenty-one miles in twenty-three days to cross the Isonzo River and seize the Istrian peninsula, to which Tito had laid claim. On the afternoon of May 2, 1945, General Freyberg accepted the surrender of the German garrison of Trieste to the Allied forces. The troops, which occupied the cities of Trieste and Gorizia, brought Allied Military Government units along, as usual, but they found that the Yugoslavs had already taken over the military government of the disputed area. There was, however (according to Milton Bracker of the New York Times staff), "on strictly military grounds not the slightest evidence of friction between the Yugoslavs, who now are administering the Adriatic city (Trieste), and Eighth Army New Zealanders," in ten days. (Since early April, incidentally, it was announced that General McCreery's old regiment the Twelfth Royal Lancers, had "cooperated continuously" with the New Zealand division.) The three cities of Trieste, Gorizia, and Fiume were a long standing sore point between Italy and the Slavs, having passed from hand to hand for hundreds of years, but by mid-May 1945 the dispute seemed to be on its way to a settlement. In July the famous Eighth was disbanded, and McCreery was appointed commander of the British Forces of Occupation in Austria. It was a difficult assignment, for Austria was faced with scarcities of fuel, food, clothing, and other necessities, and with an uncertain political future.
Sir Richard McCreery, K.C.B., K.B.E., D.S.O., M.C., is a thin, light haired man. Devoted to armored vehicles in the field, he had an equal fondness for horses: his favorite recreations are polo, hunting, and steeple chasing. He is also a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club. Sir Richard and Lady McCreery have four sons and one daughter.
Reference Who's Who, 1945
From Current Biography 1945