Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sir Neil Ritchie

General Sir Neil Methuen Ritchie was a British commanding officer during the Second World War.

Ritchie's military career started in 1914 when he was commissioned as an officer in the Black Watch. During the First World War he served in France and in the Mesopotamian campaign where he won the Military Cross in 1918, for "a fine example of coolness, courage and utter disregard of danger".

By the start of the Second World War Ritchie had risen to the rank of brigadier, and was involved in the evacuation of Dunkirk. He held posts on the staffs of Wavell, Alanbrooke and Auchinleck and was highly regarded by them all. It was Auchinleck who was to give him his highest field command, the Eighth Army, in November 1941.

Ritchie had the bad luck to hold his highest command during the earliest phases of the war, when British fortunes were at their lowest ebb. The Eighth Army, in North Africa, were the only British land force engaging the Germans anywhere in the world. After some early successes against the Italians the British were pushed back following the arrival of the Afrika Korps under Rommel. Ritchie was originally intended as a temporary appointment until a suitable commander could be found, but in fact ended up commanding the Eighth Army for over six months. He was in command of the Eighth Army at the Battle of Gazala in May-June 1942 where Ritchie failed to exercise strong command over the army and the British were heavily defeated, losing the port of Tobruk. He was sacked by Auchinleck on 25 June 1942 prior to the first battle of El Alamein.

Auchinleck is often seen as having appointed Ritchie, a relatively junior commander, in order to allow him to closely direct the battle himself as Commander-in-Chief Middle-East. Ritchie was criticised heavily both during and after the war for his failure to stop Rommel. Since then several commentators have come to his defence, most notably Field Marshal Lord Carver.

After being replaced as Eighth Army commander Ritchie was appointed to command the 52nd Division in Britain and later XII Corps during the D-Day landings. The fact that Ritchie regained an active command following his dismissal, unlike his Eighth Army predecessor Cunningham, reflects the high esteem in which he was held by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alanbrooke.

After the war Ritchie remained in the Army and in 1947 served as Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the Far East, aide-de-camp to the King and as colonel of the Black Watch, his old regiment. Following his retirement he emigrated to Canada and took up a position as chairman of an insurance company. He died at the age of 86 in Toronto.