My grandfather, currently aged 97, was on the planning staff for the invasion of Sicily with General Alexander so I was fascinated to read With Alex at War: from the Irrawaddy to the Po 1941-1945 by Rupert Clarke, who was ‘Alex’s’ ADC (aide-de-camp or Chief of Staff) for most of the war. This great first hand account describes the preparation for invasions and battles in the ‘forgotten’ war up through Italy, which turned out very much not to be the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’.
It was immensely interesting to me, given I had recorded my grandfather describing these very events when I visited him in April. Reading an account from the perspective of someone else with the same bird’s eye view of this part of the war as my grandfather was fantastic, and it was great to see a photo of the British Embassy in Tunis where my grandfather often slept on the floor of the map room during the planning of the invasion of Sicily.
General Alexander was clearly a unique and exceptional man. Reading about his character gives you a great perspective on leadership and on the power of being a quiet and friendly man, who seems to have been almost entirely lacking in ego and was instead motivated purely by what was best for the Allied army and what was best for his men.
It was particularly interesting to hear how he stitched together the eighth army from so many nationalities. My grandfather talks of how much he enjoyed the company of the New Zealanders, Indians and Australians in the war and this book makes you realise quite what a feat it was combining all the nations involved in the Allied Armies Italy, and doing so with such grace that he was universally admired by them all. For me this was summed up in one anecdote that you could call someone a bloody fool, but if you called them a bloody American fool or a bloody British fool you would be immediately thrown out of headquarters.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. If you are interested in the war in Italy, getting to know some of the great characters of the second world war from a first hand perspective, or simply in this amazing man, I would highly recommend this well written and enjoyable book.