Neil Ritchie

Neil Ritchie

Neil Ritchie was born in 1897. Educated at Lancing College and Sandhurst Military Academy he was commissioned into the Black Watch in 1914. In the First World War he fought in France and in Mesopotamia where he won the Military Cross in 1918.

Ritchie remained in the British Army and by the outbreak of the Second World War had risen to the rank of brigadier. In 1939 Ritchie went to France as a member of the British Expeditionary Force and served as chief of staff under General Alan Brooke.

After the evacuation from Dunkirk Ritchie joined the Southern Command where he served as chief of staff under General Claude Auchinleck. Auchinleck became commander in chief of British troops in the Middle East in July 1941 and four months later he appointed Ritchie as head of the Eighth Army. This was a controversial decision and critics pointed out that Lieutenant General Ritchie's last command had as leader of a battalion in the First World War.

Auchinleck and Ritchie launched Operation Crusader until 18th November, 1941. Initially this was very successful and 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.

Aware that Wavell's supply lines were now overextended, and after Rommel gained obtained reinforcements from Tripoli he 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 retreat to Gazala. Over the next few months the Eighth Army, under Ritchie, 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.

Ritchie outnumbered Rommel by two to one but he 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. Two days later Ritchie, with only 100 tanks left, abandoned Gazala.

Rommel returned to Tobruk and took the port on 21st June, 1942. This included the capture of over 35,000 British troops. However, Rommel now only had 57 tanks left and was forced to wait for new supplies to arrive before heading into Egypt. On 25th June 1942 Ritchie was replaced as head of the Eighth Army by Bernard Montgomery.

Ritchie was placed in command of the 52nd Division in Britain. During the D-Day landings in June 1944 he commanded the 12th Corps under General Miles Dempsey.

After the war Ritchie headed the Scottish Command until promoted to the rank of general and commander in chief of the land forces in the Far East in 1947. After retiring from the British Army he was chairman of the Mercantile and General Reinsurance Company in Canada. Neil Ritchie died in 1983.

Primary Sources

(1) (1) Bernard Montgomery, The Memoirs of Field Marshal Montgomery (1958)

Auchinleck was a poor picker of men,. A good judge of men would never have selected General Corbett to be his Chief of Staff in the Middle East. And to suggest that Corbett should take command of the Eighth Army, as Auchinleck did, passed all comprehension. Again, nobody in his senses would have sent Ritchie to succeed Cunningham in command of the Eighth Army; Richie had not the experience or qualifications for the job and in the end he had to be removed.