Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives
Copyright: The texts of the detailed catalogues are the copyright of King's College London and are made available for private research only.
PAPERS OF GENERAL SIR RICHARD O'CONNOR
Provenance and arrangement of the papers
Those papers which remain in their original order include contemporary correspondence relating to service in Palestine, September 1938-August 1939 (3/2/- to 3/4/-); semi-official correspondence, Mersa Matruh fortress, September 1939-October 1940 (4/1/-); and correspondence as Commander, 8 Corps, January-December 1944 (5/-).
A large proportion of the remaining papers, including letters, have been mounted on paper and annotated by Major Nairne with explanatory notes identifying correspondents, and detailing their careers. Later binders, compiled chronologically and dealing with the life of General O'Connor mainly after his retirement from active service, have been broken up for ease of reference into subjects comprising official and military appointments and invitations, 1946-1973 (9/-); personal correspondence and papers, 1928-1979 (10/-); newspaper obituaries of senior defence personnel and related correspondence, 1926-1981 (11/-); and reviews and newspaper articles, 1945-1981 (12/-). Comments on and appraisal of the careers of senior defence personnel, some with newspaper obituaries, were collected together in 1971 (8).
The Imperial War Museum, London holds copies of the account of the First Libyan Campaign and the escape narrative. It also holds tapes of an interview with General O'Connor made in 1973 and relating to the First Libyan Campaign.
O'Connor's military career began in earnest when, in 1908, he joined the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. In October 1909 he was gazetted to 2 Battalion, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) based at Aldershot. He was posted to Colchester in January 1910 where he attended a signalling and musketry course. During 1911 to 1912, the battalion was stationed in Malta, with O'Connor as Regimental Signal Officer. For papers relating to the classification of regimental signallers during the Helio Sending exercises by 2 Battalion in Malta, 1912 and the following Court of Inquiry, see 2/1. For accounts of O'Connor's early life and schooling, see 1/1 and 1/3.
Service in World War I and the inter-war years, to September 1938
In June 1917, O'Connor was appointed temporary Lt Col and commander of 2 Infantry Battalion in the Honourable Artillery Company, as part of 7 Division, and was awarded the DSO. The Division was transferred in November that year to the Italian Front, near the River Piave, for operations against Austrian forces. In late October 1918, O'Connor was directed to capture the island of Grave di Papadopoli on the River Piave. The operation was successfully carried out by 2 Battalion between 24 and 27 October, and O'Connor was awarded the Italian Silver Medal of Honour and a Bar to his DSO. See 2/2/3-5 for the detailed diaries kept by O'Connor covering his service during World War I and immediately after, and 2/2/7 for newspaper cuttings relating to the Italian campaign.
Service in the inter-war years included appointments as Brigade Major in the Experimental Brigade, also known as 5 Brigade, which was formed to run testing procedures for the use of tanks and aircraft by infantry and artillery, 1921-1924; adjutant in The Cameronians, 1924-1925; instructor at the Staff College, Camberley, 1927-1929; and attendance at the Ninth Course of the Imperial Defence College in 1935.
In October 1935 O'Connor was appointed Commander of the Peshawar Brigade, North West Frontier Province in India. Little survives to document this period in O'Connor's career, although confidential reports on his progress, made by Maj Gen C B Dashwood Strettall, are held as 2/4/5-6. O'Connor later referred to lessons learned in mobility during his time in India, which he employed to great effect in the First Libyan Campaign.
Commander of 7 Division and Military Governor of Jerusalem
O'Connor worked alongside Maj Gen B L Montgomery, Commander of 8 Division, to monitor and control areas of unrest between the Arab and Jewish communities. The papers contain much correspondence with Haining and refer to particular incidents, including reports on the district of Ramallah, January and February 1939 (3/3/8) and the political situation in the sub district of Hebron, 1938-1939 (3/4/10); declaration by Montgomery of the general policy to be pursued by 8 Division, November 1938 (3/4/4); and suggestions by the District Commissioner of Jerusalem, Edward Keith-Roach, for alterations to the methods of government in Palestine, February 1939. The papers also include a despatch on the operations carried out by British forces in Palestine and Transjordan, covering action between November 1938 and March 1939 (3/4/53), and those relating to the theory and practice of military control (3/4/55).
Commander of 7 and 6 Division and Western Desert Force
Mussolini declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940 and O'Connor was appointed Commander, Western Desert Force, with the task to protect Egypt and the Suez Canal from Italian attack, as well as the oilfields at Mosul in Iraq and at the head of the Persian Gulf. The forward divisions of the Tenth Italian Army crossed the frontier of Egypt on 13 September 1940, under the command of the Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani. They reached Sidi Barrani, about sixty miles inside the border, and began to dig in. The Italian forces consisted of one Blackshirt Division in Sidi Barrani, two Libyan divisions divided between Maktila on the coast and the two camps at Tummar, a mobile group at Nibeiwa, and a metropolitan division in the Sofafi and Rabia camps.
At this time the Western Desert Force under O'Connor's command comprised some 30,000 men making up the 4 Indian Division, commanded by Maj Gen Beresford Peirse, 7 Armoured Division, under the command of Maj Gen Michael O'Moore Creagh, the Support Group, commanded by Brig W H E 'Strafer' Gott, and Selby Force. Lt Gen H Maitland Wilson was General Officer Commanding, British Troops in Egypt.
While plans for the 'Five Day Raid', which developed into what was to become known as the First Libyan Campaign, were being laid, preparations for attack and provision for munitions continued. The Italians were periodically bombarded by the Royal Navy and the RAF, so that stores and equipment could be supplied. A letter from Creagh in June 1940 (4/1/33) includes an appreciation of 7 Div and enemy positions, and refers to the bombing of Bardia by the Royal Navy and operations in Giarabub; another letter to Creagh refers to the policy of 202 Group, RAF in attacking enemy aerodromes and aircraft rather than military targets and troops, and fighter planes as escorts in land operations and observation rather than in strafing missions. Armoured Fighting Vehicles were modified for service in the desert and weaponry (4/1/73) and Bofors equipments, Boyes rifles and anti-aircraft guns were transferred to Mersa Matruh fortress (4/1/54). A small raiding party known as Jock's Column after its leader, Lt Col John Charles Campbell, operated as part of 7 Armoured Division (4/1/102).
Secrecy was a prerequisite to the planned surprise attack on the Italian forces, and a letter from O'Connor (4/1/133) criticises recent breaches in security caused by needless discussion of objectives. The existence of a captured appreciation, dated August 1940, by Italian 2 Division of British positions in areas including Bardia and Sidi Omar, with map, indicates effective policing by British troops. An appreciation of enemy position at Sidi Barrani (4/1/97) also touches on the condition of vehicles of 7 Armoured Division, and 1 Royal Tank Regiment (4/1/98), problems which surfaced constantly throughout the campaign.
The operations known as the First Libyan Campaign began on the night of 8 and 9 December, with Operation COMPASS. 4 Indian Division planned to break through the Italian defences at Sidi Barrani, and head west along the coast road, reaching Nibeiwa by the morning. The Support Group was stationed on the escarpment, to cut off the Rabia and Sofafi garrisons; 4 Armoured Brigade headed north to cut off the Sidi Barrani-Sollum road; and 7 Armoured Brigade waited in reserve. The raid was a success, though letters to Selby at Matruh and Beresford Peirse indicate the concerns over communications and supplies (4/2/19).
O'Connor then learned of the orders issued by General Sir Archibald Wavell for the withdrawal of 4 Indian Division, to spearhead the invasion of Italian East Africa, and its replacement by 6 Australian Division, untrained in desert warfare. The campaign continued with the assault on the fortress of Bardia, where the garrisons of Sollum, Fort Capuzzo and Sidi Azeiz had rushed following attack. Bardia was beseiged by members of 6 Australian Division and by the end of December some 40,000 prisoners and 400 guns had been taken. Letters of appreciation to Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham and members of the RAF highlight the contribution of these forces in taking Bardia (4/2/26).
In January 1941 the Western Desert Force was renamed 13 Corps, and O'Connor came directly under the command of General Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief, Middle Eastern Forces, resolving the problems highlighted by O'Connor in his letter to Galloway at HQ in Egypt and referring to the 'Archipelago' plan, to capture Mechili (4/2/32).
Correspondence with Creagh in early January 1941, referring to plans to advance to Tobruk and Mechili, indicate the need for a swift end to the raid, and by 9 January enough troops and supplies had arrived to launch an assault on the fortress of Tobruk. The fortress was attacked on 21 January and 25,000 prisoners were taken, as well as valuable supplies in the way of guns, tanks and food.
The next object was Mechili, and in correspondence with Creagh (4/2/35-36 and 4/2/38-41) O'Connor stresses the need to contain Italian forces there. 7 Armoured Division in fact failed in this task, and the Italian troops retreated successfully to the north west during the nights of 26 and 27 January.
The First Libyan Campaign ended with the pursuit and ultimate defeat of the retreating Italian forces, culminating in the battle at Beda Fomm on 6 February. The British forces had covered 500 miles in ten weeks, taking a total of 130,000 Italian and Libyan soldiers prisoner. The cable sent to Wavell recorded the victory with the term, 'Fox killed in the open...'.
Copies of minutes of meetings of the War Cabinet Defence Committee (Operations) in 4/4/- illustrate the discussions leading to the decision to assist Greece in the German offensive, rather than advance to Tripoli. The papers include the retrospective views of O'Connor (4/4/8).
Manuscript accounts written by O'Connor during his confinement in prison in Italy (and smuggled out by Colonel Fiske, US Military Attache in Rome) include details of plans and offensives, and factors influencing the campaign, including the use of surprise and administrative problems. They also touch on O'Connor appointment as General Officer Commanding, British Troops in Egypt and his recall in April 1941 in order to assist Lt Gen Sir Philip Neame following the German attack on Cyrenaica. See 4/3/15 and 4/3/21 for accounts by Neame and Lt Col J F B Combe, Cdr of 11 Hussars, of the desert campaign.
Prisoner of War, Castle Vincigliata, Florence in Italy
O'Connor found himself in impressive company, fellow inmates including Maj Gen Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart and Air Vice Marshal O T Boyd. Escape plans were quickly laid, and the escape narratives (4/5/1 and 4/5/2) closely document, with the aid of plans, the first attempt, over the castle walls and subsequent month's solitary confinement. The second initially successful attempt, via the escape tunnel constructed between October 1942 and March 1943, was made in the company of de Wiart. The two were captured in the region of the Po Valley, Bologna while Brig Combe and AVM Boyd reached Como. Fellow inmates Brigs Miles and James Hargest secured their escape by journeying to Switzerland.
The final and successful escape was made after the Italian surrender. Following unsuccessful attempts at a rendezvous with a submarine at Cattolica and Cervia, O'Connor arrived by boat at Termoli and transferred to Bari as the guest of General Alexander on 21 December 1943. See 4/5/4, 'After Vincigliata' the narrative of events after the Italian surrender. O'Connor maintained links in later life made with members of the Italian resistance, who had sheltered him during his escape.
Commander, 8 Corps and Operation OVERLORD
Correspondence documents the training and exercises in Yorkshire,and preparations leading to Operation OVERLORD, the planned invasion of Europe, particularly Operation EAGLE, February 1944, concerning the low standard of water discipline (5/2/20). Other papers highlight the need for training in the use of anti-mine devices and mine clearing apparatus, including the Flail and Conger tanks (5/2/36). Correspondence with Sir Winston Churchill in April and May, following the PM's inspection of Guards Armoured Division, discusses the armour protection of Cromwell and Sherman tanks, and the escape hatches of the Cromwell tanks (5/2/39 and 5/4/5).
8 Corps HQ transferred to Normandy on 11 June 1944. The first major attack which followed was codenamed Operation EPSOM, to break out of the existing bridgehead on the front of 3 Canadian Division and to cross the Rivers Odon and Orne, securing a position on high ground north east of Bretteville-sur-Laize and dominating exits from Caen to the south. A letter to Maj Gen R F L Keller commends the reconnaissance patrols by 3 Canadian Division (5/3/11) and a letter from Montgomery, 21 Army Group, congratulates O'Connor and the Corps on the attack on the Odon Valley (5/4/10). The British had secured a bridgehead in the Caen area, but failed to encircle the town.
Consolidation of ground taken was necessary, and in a letter to Maj Gen R K Ross, Commander of 53 (Welsh) Division, O'Connor urges the provision of adequate anti-tank defences, including trenches, mines and wiring (5/3/13). The advance continued with orders for 43 (Wessex) Division to secure Hill 112 in Operation JUPITER, 8 Corps attack towards the Upper Orne. O'Connor wrote to the Commander, Maj Gen I G Thomas, in appreciation of their achievements on 11 July 1944 (5/3/15). 8 Corps moved into reserve immediately after, when 12 Corps, commanded by General Neil Ritchie, took over the sector.
O'Connor was put in charge of the next advance, Operation GOODWOOD MEETING, with plans for 8 Division to attack southwards and establish an armoured division in the area Bourguebus-Vimont-Bretteville sur Laize. In a letter of thanks to Abel-Smith (5/3/19) O'Connor praises the work of 2 Household Cavalry Regiment in controlling the movement of the Corps from the west to the east bank of the Orne at the outset of the Operation. The attack began on 18 July with an aerial bombardment by 9 USAAF and was ended on 20 July with a successful three pronged drive to capture Bras and Hubert Folie on the right, le Poirier on the left and Four and Bourguebus in the centre. See The Forgotten Victor for a full account of the battle.
Plans for Operation BLUECOAT, the attack towards Vire in July 1944, were quickly formulated and on 29 July O'Connor wrote to MacMillan concerning plans for 15 (Scottish) Division to attack enemy ground east and west of the Bois du Homme, in order to facilitate American advance into Normandy (5/3/25). Fierce fighting followed a swift drive south during the first two days of the advance, and both sides sustained heavy casualties. As the allies prepared to pursue the German armies from France, O'Connor learned that 8 Corps would not take part in this phase of the campaign. His command was reduced in mid-August, with the transfer of 11 Armoured Division to 30 Corps and 15 (Scottish) Division to 12 Corps.
In a letter to his close friend Lt Gen Sir John Harding, Chief of Staff, Allied Armies in Italy, O'Connor summarized the three main 8 Corps operations, to capture the bridgehead over the Odon; to surround Caen and enable its capture by Canadian troops; and the advance to Caumont (5/3/37).
While in reserve, O'Connor became concerned with the need for armoured vehicles for the transport of infantry, and in letters to Maj Gen Sir Percy Hobart, Lt Gen M C Dempsey and Montgomery he recommends the supply of Ram Chassis for the purpose (5/3/41-42). These requests were successful, since in a letter of 4 October to Dempsey he refers to the arrival in Ostend of converted armoured carriers, and further requests a supply of these and Priest vehicles from Bayeux for use as carriers (5/3/58). In a letter to Maj Gen J F Evetts dated 16 October, O'Connor suggests the modification of armoured vehicles such as Priests, Rams and Cromwells (5/4/52), and in another letter to Evetts at the Ministry of Supply in London he refers to German superiority in armoured infantry carriers (5/3/85). Equipment wastage in 8 Corps throughout Operations EPSOM, JUPITER, GOODWOOD MEETING, BLUECOAT and GROUSE, 15 July to 17 August, is also detailed (5/3/46).
Troops suffering from battle exhaustion also became a significant issue in the campaign. Cases of feigned battle exhaustion were suspected, and in a letter to Maj Gen I G Thomas of 43 Division and MacMillan dated July 1944, O'Connor recommends disciplinary action against offenders (5/3/18). A top secret and personal letter from MacMillan dated 22 July refers to the creation of the Divisional Exhaustion Centre, with comments on the numbers admitted (5/4/14). Another letter from Roberts dated 1 November includes statistics for cases of troops missing, battle exhaustion and desertion for units of 11 Armoured Brigade, 19 September to 19 October (5/3/84).
O'Connor retained command of 8 Corps and next saw action during September 1944 in support of 30 Corps, commanded by Lt Gen B G Horrocks, in Operation MARKET GARDEN, the allied operation to establish a bridgehead across the Rhine in the Netherlands.
The advance by 8 Corps lead to the capture of two Dutch towns, Helmond and Deurne. In a letter to Maj Gen L G Whistler, dated 15 September (5/3/53) O'Connor outlines a possible forecast of operations for the following days, including the construction of bridges over Escaut and the Meuse Junction canal, and the capture of Soerendonck and Weert. In letters to Whistler and Roberts (5/3/53) he refers to plans for the occupation by 3 Division of Deurne, Genert and Helmond, and necessary maintenance routes.
8 Corps next took part in Operation CONSTELLATION, the advance to take Venraij and then Venlo, which began on 12 October. O'Connor, in a letter to Brig C M Barber, Commander of 15 Division, criticises unnecessary breaches in security (5/4/50). CONSTELLATION began successfully with the capture of Venraij and the collapse of German defences, and effectively ended with the unexpected transfer of 15 Division to operations in the Scheldt estuary. Attacks by the German forces continued at the end of October notably on 7 US Armoured Division at Meijel, and in letters of 27 and 30 October to Maj Gen Lindsay Silvester, Commander, O'Connor urges provision for active patrols in the area and stresses the need to defend Weert and Nedeweert, and the destruction of the nearby footbridge over the canal (5/3/77 and 5/3/83).
After his transfer to India, O'Connor stayed in touch with members of the Corps and received accounts of advances made. Some of the most detailed letters are from Serjeant J S Green, including 8 Corps' crossing of the Elbe, the advance into Germany and occupation of Plon in Schleswig-Holstein (5/4/94), and from Barker, including an account of Operation PLUNDER (5/4/95).
GOC-in-C, Eastern Army in India
Adjutant General to the Forces
Summary of Career
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