General Sir Richard Nugent O'Connor KT, GCB, GBE, DSO & Bar, MC (21 August 1889–17 June 1981) was a senior British Army officer who fought in both World War I and World War II, who commanded the Western Desert Force in the early years of the Second World War. He was the field commander for Operation Compass, in which his forces destroyed a much larger Italian army – a victory which nearly drove the Axis from Africa, and in turn, led Adolf Hitler to send the German Africa Corps under Erwin Rommel to try to reverse the situation. O'Connor was captured by a German reconnaissance patrol during the night of 7 April 1941 and spent over two years in an Italian prisoner of war camp. He eventually escaped in December 1943. In 1944 he commanded VIII Corps in the Battle of Normandy and later during Operation Market Garden. In 1945 he was General Officer in Command of the Eastern Command in India and then, in the closing days of British rule in the subcontinent, he headed Northern Command. His final job in the army was Adjutant-General to the Forces in London, in charge of the British Army's administration, personnel and organisation.
In honour of his war service, O'Connor was recognised with the highest level of knighthood in two different orders of chivalry. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Order (twice), the Military Cross, the French Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour, and served as Aide-de-camp to King George VI. He was also mentioned in despatches nine times for actions in the First World War, once in Palestine in 1939 and three times in the Second World War.
Early life and the First World War
O'Connor was born in Srinagar, Kashmir, India, on 21 August 1889. His father was a major in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and his mother was the daughter of a former Governor of India's central provinces. He attended Tonbridge Castle School in 1899 and The Towers School in Crowthorne in 1902. In 1903, after his father's death in an accident, he moved to Wellington College and thereafter to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst in 1908. In September of the following year he was commissioned, as a second lieutenant and posted to the 2nd Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). He maintained close ties with the regiment for the rest of his life. In January 1910, the battalion was rotated to Colchester, where he received signals and rifle training. It was then stationed in Malta from 1911 to 1912 where O'Connor served as Regimental Signals Officer.
During the Great War, O'Connor served as Signals Officer of 22 Brigade in the 7th Division and captain in command of 7th Division's Signals Company. From October 1916, as a captain and later as a brevet major, he served as brigade major of 91 Brigade, 7th Division. He was awarded the Military Cross in February 1915. In March of that year he saw action at Arras and Bullecourt. O'Connor was awarded the DSO and appointed brevet lieutenant colonel in command of 2nd Infantry Battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company, part of the 7th Division, in June 1917. In November, the division was ordered to support the Italians against the Austro-Hungarian forces at the River Piave which then formed part of the Italian Front. In late October 1918 the 2nd Battalion captured the island of Grave di Papadopoli on the Piave River for which O'Connor received the Italian Silver Medal of Military Valor (Medaglia d'Argento al Valor Militare) and a bar to his DSO.
O'Connor attended the Staff College, Camberley in 1920. O'Connor's other service in the years between the world wars included an appointment from 1921 to 1924 as brigade major of the Experimental Brigade (or 5 Brigade) under the command of J.F.C. Fuller, which was formed to test methods and procedures for using tanks and aircraft in co-ordination with infantry and artillery.
He returned to his old unit, The Cameronians, as adjutant from February 1924 to 1925. From 1925 to 1927 he served as a company commander at Sandhurst. He returned to the Staff College at Camberley as an instructor from October 1927 to January 1930. In 1930 O'Connor again served with the 1st Battalion of The Cameronians in Egypt and from 1931 to 1932 in Lucknow, India. From April 1932 to January 1935 he was a general staff officer, grade 2 at the War Office. He attended the Imperial Defence College in London in 1935. In April 1936 O'Connor was promoted to full colonel and appointed temporary brigadier to assume command of the Peshawar Brigade in north west India. In September 1938 O'Connor was promoted to major-general and appointed Commander of the 7th Division in Palestine, along with the additional responsibility as Military Governor of Jerusalem.
In August 1939, 7th Division was transferred to the fortress at Mersa Matruh, Egypt, where O'Connor was concerned with defending the area against a potential attack from the massed forces of the Italian Tenth Army over the border in Libya. The 7th Division later converted to become the 6th Division in November 1939.
Italian Offensive and Operation Compass
Italy declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940 and, soon after, O'Connor was appointed Commander of the Western Desert Force. He was tasked by Lieutenant-General Maitland Wilson, commander of the British Troops in Egypt, to push the Italian force out of Egypt, to protect the Suez Canal and British interests from attack.
On 13 September, Graziani struck: his leading divisions advanced sixty miles into Egypt where they reached the town of Sidi Barrani and, short of supplies, began to dig in. O'Connor then began to prepare for a counterattack. He had the 7th Armoured Division and the Indian 4th Infantry Division along with two brigades. British and Commonwealth troops in Egypt totalled around 36,000 men. The Italians had nearly five times as many troops along with hundreds more tanks and artillery pieces and the support of a much larger air force. Meanwhile, small raiding columns were sent out from the 7th Armoured and newly formed Long Range Desert Group to probe, harass, and disrupt the Italians (this marked the start of what became the Special Air Services). The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force supported by bombarding enemy strongpoints, airfields and rear areas.
During November O'Connor was appointed an acting lieutenant-general in recognition of the increased size of his command.
The counteroffensive, Operation Compass, began on 8 December 1940. O'Connor's relatively small force of 31,000 men, 275 tanks and 120 artillery pieces, ably supported by an RAF wing and the Royal Navy, broke through a gap in the Italian defences at Sidi Barrani near the coast. The Desert Force cut a swath through the Italian rear areas, stitching its way between the desert and the coast, capturing strongpoint after strongpoint by cutting off and isolating them, The Italian guns proved to be no match for the heavy British Matilda tanks and their shells bounced off the armour. By mid-December the Italians had been pushed completely out of Egypt, leaving behind 38,000 prisoners and large stores of equipment.
The Desert Force paused to rest briefly before continuing the assault into Italian Libya against the remainder of Graziani's disorganised army. At that point, the Commander-in-Chief Middle East General Sir Archibald Wavell ordered the 4th Indian Division withdrawn to spearhead the invasion of Italian East Africa. This veteran division was to be replaced by the inexperienced 6th Australian Division, which, although tough, was untrained for desert warfare. Despite this setback, the offensive continued with minimum delay. By the end of 6 December the Australians besieged and took Bardia, which fell along with 40,000 more prisoners and 400 guns.
In early January 1941, the Western Desert Force was redesignated XIII Corps. On 9 January, the offensive resumed. By 12 January the strategic fortress port of Tobruk was surrounded. On 22 January it fell and another 27,000 Italian POWs were taken along with valuable supplies, food, and weapons. As Tobruk fell it was decided to have XIII Corps answerable directly to Wavell at HQ Middle East Command, removing HQ British Troops Egypt from the chain of command. On 26 January the remaining Italian divisions in eastern Libya began to retreat to the northwest along the coast. O'Connor promptly moved to pursue and cut them off, sending his armour southwest through the desert in a wide flanking movement, while the infantry gave chase along the coast to the north. The lightly armoured advance units of 4th Armoured Brigade arrived at Beda Fomm before the fleeing Italians on 5 February, blocking the main coast road and their route of escape. Two days later, after a costly and failed attempt to break through the blockade, and with the main British infantry force fast bearing down on them from Benghazi to the north, the demoralised, exhausted Italians unconditionally capitulated. O'Connor and Eric Dorman-Smith cabled back to Wavell, "Fox killed in the open..."
In two months, the XIII Corps/Western Desert Force had advanced over 800 miles (1,300 km), destroyed an entire Italian army of ten divisions, taken over 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks and 1,292 guns at the cost of 500 killed and 1,373 wounded. In recognition of this, O'Connor was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, the first of his two knighthoods.
Reversal and capture
In a strategic sense, however, the victory of Operation Compass was not yet complete; the Italians still controlled most of Libya and possessed forces which would have to be dealt with. The Axis foothold in North Africa would remain a potential threat to Egypt and the Suez Canal so long as this situation continued. O'Connor was aware of this and urged Wavell to allow him to push on to Tripoli with all due haste to finish off the Italians. Wavell concurred as did Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, now the military governor of Cyrenaica, and XIII Corps resumed its advance. But O'Connor's new offensive would prove short-lived. When the corps reached El Agheila, just to the southwest of Beda Fomm, Churchill ordered the advance to halt there. The Axis had invaded Greece and Wavell was ordered to send all available forces there as soon as possible to oppose this. Wavell took the 6th Australian Division, along with part of 7th Armoured Division and most of the supplies and air support for this ultimately doomed operation. XIII Corps HQ was wound down and in February 1941 O'Connor was appointed General Officer Commanding-in-Chief the British Troops in Egypt.
Matters were soon to become much worse for the British. By March 1941, Hitler had dispatched General Erwin Rommel along with the German Africa Corps to bolster the Italians in Libya. Wavell and O'Connor now faced a formidable foe under a commander whose cunning, resourcefulness, and daring would earn him the nickname "the Desert Fox". Rommel wasted little time in launching his own offensive on 31 March. The inexperienced 2nd Armoured Division was soundly defeated and on 2 April Wavell came forward to review matters with Lieutenant-General Sir Philip Neame, by now the commander of British and Commonwealth troops in Cyrenaica (Wilson having left to command the Allied expeditionary force in Greece). O'Connor was called forward and arrived from Cairo the next day, but declined to assume Neame's command because of his lack of familiarity with the prevailing conditions. However, he agreed to stay to advise.
Captivity and escape
O'Connor spent the next two and a half years as a prisoner of war, mainly at the Castello di Vincigliata near Florence, Italy. Here he and Neame were in the company of such figures as Major-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart and Air Vice Marshal Owen Tudor Boyd. Although the conditions of their imprisonment were not unpleasant, the officers soon formed an escape club and began planning a break-out. Their first attempt, a simple attempt to climb over the castle walls, resulted in a month's solitary confinement. The second attempt, by an escape tunnel built between October 1942 and March 1943, had some success, with two New Zealander brigadiers, James Hargest and Reginald Miles, reaching Switzerland. O'Connor and de Wiart, travelling on foot, were at large for a week but were captured near Bologna in the Po Valley. Once again, a month's solitary confinement was the result.
It was only after the Italian surrender in September 1943 that the final, successful, attempt was made. With help from the Italian resistance movement, Boyd, O'Connor and Neame escaped while being transferred from Vincigliati. After a failed rendezvous with a submarine, they arrived by boat at Termoli, then went on to Bari where they were welcomed as guests by General Sir Harold Alexander, commanding the Allied Armies fighting on the Italian Front, on 21 December 1943. Upon his return to Britain, O'Connor was presented with the knighthood he had been awarded in 1941 and promoted to lieutenant-general. Montgomery suggested that O'Connor be his successor as British Eighth Army commander, but that post was instead given to Oliver Leese and O'Connor was given a corps to command.
VIII Corps and Normandy
On 21 January 1944 O'Connor became commander of VIII Corps, which consisted of the Guards Armoured Division, 11th Armoured Division, 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division, along with 6th Guards Tank Brigade, 8th Army Group Royal Artillery and 2nd Household Cavalry Regiment.
On 11 June 1944, O'Connor and the leading elements of VIII Corps arrived in Normandy in the sector around Caen, which would be the scene of much hard fighting during the next few weeks. O'Connor's first mission (with 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division under command) was to mount Operation Epsom, a break out from the bridgehead established by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, cross the Odon and Orne rivers, then secure the high-ground positions northeast of Bretteville-sur-Laize and cut Caen off from the south. The break-out and river crossings were accomplished promptly. O'Connor's commanding officer and friend from his days in Palestine, Montgomery, congratulated him and his Corps on their success. But cutting off Caen would prove much harder. VIII Corps was pushed back over the Orne. O'Connor tried to re-establish a bridgehead during Operation Jupiter with the 43rd (Wessex) Division, but met with little success. Although the operation had failed to achieve its tactical objectives, General Montgomery was pleased with the strategic benefits in the commitment and fixing of the German armoured reserves to the Caen sector.
After being withdrawn into reserve on 12 July, the next major action for VIII Corps would be Operation Goodwood, for which the corps was stripped of its infantry divisions but had a third armoured division (7th Armoured Division) attached. The attack began on 18 July with a massive aerial bombardment by the 9th USAAF, and ended on 20 July with a three-pronged drive to capture Bras and Hubert-Folie on the right, Fontenay on the left, and Bourguébus Ridge in the centre. However, the attack ground to a halt in pouring rain, turning the battlefield into a quagmire, with the major objectives still not taken, notably the Bourguebus Ridge which was the key to any break-out.
Restored to its pre-invasion formation but with 3rd British Infantry Division attached, the corps was switched to the southwest of Caen to take part in Operation Bluecoat. 15th (Scottish) Division attacked towards Vire to the east and west of Bois du Homme in order to facilitate the American advance in Operation Cobra (O'Connor, 5/3/25 July 29 1944). A swift drive was followed by fierce fighting to the south during the first two days of the advance, with both sides taking heavy losses.
As the allies prepared to pursue the Germans from France, O'Connor learned that VIII Corps would not take part in this phase of the campaign. VIII Corps was placed in reserve, and its transport used to supply XXX Corps and XII Corps. His command was reduced in mid-August, with the transfer of the Guards Armoured Divisions and 11th Armoured Division to XXX Corps and 15th (Scottish) Division to XII Corps. While in reserve, O'Connor maintained an active correspondence with Montgomery, Hobart and others, making suggestions for improvements of armoured vehicles and addressing various other problems such as combat fatigue. Some of his recommendations were followed up; such as for mounting "rams" on armoured vehicles in order to cope with the difficult hedgerow country (O'Connor, 5/3/41- 5/3/44 Aug 24, 26 1944).
Operation Market Garden, India and afterwards
O'Connor remained in command of VIII Corps, for the time being, and was given the task of supporting Horrocks' XXX Corps in Operation Market Garden, the plan by Montgomery to establish a bridgehead across the Rhine in the Netherlands. Following their entry into Weert at the end of September, VIII Corps prepared for and took part in Operation Aintree, the advance towards Venray and Venlo beginning on 12 October.
On 27 November he was removed from his post and was ordered to take over from Lieutenant-General Sir Mosley Mayne as GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, India. Smart's account says that Montgomery prompted the move for "not being ruthless enough with his American subordinates" although Mead states that the initiative was taken by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke, but Montgomery made no attempt to retain O'Connor. This marked the end of a long and distinguished combat career, although the new job was an important one, controlling the lines of communication of the Fourteenth Army.
Having been promoted to full general in April 1945, O'Connor was appointed GOC-in-C North Western Army in India in October that year (the formation was renamed Northern Command in November of that year). From 1946 to 1947 he was Adjutant-General to the Forces and Aide de Camp General to the King. His career as Adjutant General was to be short-lived, however. After a disagreement over a cancelled demobilisation for troops stationed in the Far East, O'Connor offered his resignation in September 1947, which was accepted. Montgomery, then Chief of the Imperial General Staff, maintained that he had been sacked, rather than resigned, for being "not up to the job". Not long after this he was installed as a Knight Grand Cross of the Bath.
O'Connor retired in 1948 at the age of fifty-eight. However, he maintained his links with the Army and took on other responsibilities. He was Commandant of the Army Cadet Force in Scotland from 1948 to 1959; Colonel of the Cameronians, 1951 to 1954; Lord Lieutenant of Ross and Cromarty from 1955 to 1964 and served as Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1964. His first wife, Jean, died in 1959, and in 1963 he married Dorothy Russell. In July 1971 he was created Knight of the Thistle. O’Connor was interviewed concerning North African operations in episode 8, “The Desert: North Africa (1940–1943)”, of the acclaimed British documentary television series, The World at War. He died in London on 17 June 1981 aged 91.
Honours and awards
- Knight of the Order of the Thistle – 26 April 1971
- Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath – 12 June 1947 (KCB – 4 March 1941, CB – 11 July 1940)
- Distinguished Service Order – 16 August 1917 and Bar – 1918
- Military Cross – 18 February 1915
- Mentioned in Despatches (13 times) – 17 February 1915, 1 January 1916, 4 January 1917, 15 May 1917, 18 December 1917, 30 May 1918, 4 December 1918, 6 January 1919, 5 June 1919, 15 September 1939, 1 April 1941, 27 January 1944, 22 March 1945
- Legion of Honour, Commander
- Croix de Guerre with palm
- Silver Medal of Military Valor (Italy) – 1918
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- Barclay, Cyril Nelson (1955). Against all odds: the story of the first offensive in Libya, 1940–41, including extracts from O'Connor's personal narrative. Sifton Praed & Co, London.
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|GOC 7th Infantry Division
September 1938 – November 1939
converted to 6th Infantry Division
converted from 7th Infantry Division
|GOC 6th Infantry Division
November 1939 – June 1940
|Commander of the Western Desert Force
(Redesignated XIII Corps in January 1941)
June 1940 – February 1941
Sir Henry Wilson
|GOC-in-C the British Troops in Egypt
February 1941 – April 1941
Sir James Marshall-Cornwall
|GOC, VIII Corps
Sir Mosley Mayne
|GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, India
January 1945 – October 1945
Sir Arthur Smith
|GOC-in-C, Northern Command, India
Sir Frank Messervy
Sir Ronald Adam
|Adjutant-General to the Forces
Sir James Steele
Sir Hector Mackenzie
|Lord Lieutenant of Ross and Cromarty
Sir John Stirling