Frank Messervy

Frank Messervy

Frank Messervy, the son of a bank manager, was born in Trinidad on 9th December, 1893. Educated at Eton College and Sandhurst Military Academy he was commissioned into the British Army in 1913. During the First World War he served on the Western Front in France as well in Palestine, Syria and Kurdistan.

Messervy remained in the British Army and was on the staff of the 5th Indian Division when the Second World War started. He went to Sudan in 1939 and the following year fought the Italian Army in East Africa. Appointing commander of the 9th Infantry Brigade his troops helped to push the Italians out of Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Promoted to commander of the 4th Indian Division he fought under General Claude Auchinleck and helped to halt the German offensive led by General Erwin Rommel during the summer of 1941.

On 18th November, 1941, Auchinleck and the recently formed Eighth Army went on the offensive. Erwin Rommel was forced to abandon his siege of Tobruk on 4th December, and the following month had moved as far west as Archibald Wavell had achieved a year previously. Messervy's troops entered Benghazi on 25th December 1941.

Aware that British supply lines were now overextended, Rommel, who had obtained reinforcements from Tripoli, launched a counterattack It was now the turn of the British Army to retreat. After losing Benghazi on 29th January, Claude Auchinleck ordered his troops to Gazala.

Messervy was now placed in charge of the 7th Armed Division. Over the next few months the Eighth Army, under Lieutenant General Neil Richie, established a line of fortifications and minefields.

Erwin Rommel launched his offensive on 26th May. The Italian infantry attacked at the front while Rommel led his panzers round the edge of the fortifications to cut off the supply routes. Messervy was captured on 27th May but he removed his insignia of rank, pretended to be a batman, and the following day managed to escape.

British troops outnumbered Rommel by two to one but Lieutenant General Neil Richie wasted his advantage by not using his tanks together. After defeating a series of small counter-attacks Rommel was able to capture Sidi Muftah. On 12th June, two of the three British armoured brigades were caught in a pincer movement and were badly defeated. Messervy lost 58 tanks and on 14th June, Richie, with only 100 tanks left, abandoned Gazala.

After being sacked by Neil Richie, Messervy took over the recently formed 7th Indian Division. He then moved to Burma where he served under William Slim. Outnumbered by the Japanese Army Slim was forced to withdraw to India in May 1942.

When Lord Mountbatten arrived to become head of the Southeast Asia Command in August 1944 Messervy was placed in charge of the 4th Corps.

The following year General William Slim used large-scale deception tactics to suggest a direct attack Mandalay. Instead the 4th Corps under Messervy, captured the poorly defended Meiktila. When Japanese troops were sent to retake Meiktila, but Messervy held out and Slim was able to send his troops to attack Mandalay and after a vigorous battle it was taken on 20th March, 1945. The Japanese Army now began to retreat and Messervy was able to capture Rangoon on 3rd May.

Knighted on 5th July 1945, Messervy led the troops that captured Malaya from the Japanese and took the surrender of 100,000 troops.

In 1946 Messervy was placed in charge of the Northern Command in India and the following year became commander in chief of Pakistan's new army. Frank Messervy, who retired from the British Army in 1948 as a full general, died in Midhurst, Sussex on 2nd February, 1974.

Primary Sources

(1) Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (1947)

Last spring the Germans had constructed huge tents in an open space in the Lager. For the whole of the good season each of them had catered for over 1,000 men: now the tents had been taken down, and an excess 2,000 guests crowded our huts. We old prisoners knew that the Germans did not like these irregularities and that something would soon happen to reduce our number.