Oliver Leese

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Sir Oliver Leese, 3rd Baronet
Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese, commander of the British Eighth Army in Italy, 30 April 1944. TR1759.jpg
Sir Oliver Leese, commander of the British Eighth Army, at his Battle Headquarters in the Mignano area, Italy 1944.
Born (1894-10-27)27 October 1894
London, England
Died 22 January 1978(1978-01-22) (aged 83)
Llanrhaeadr, Wales
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  British Army
Years of service 1914–1947
Rank Lieutenant General
Unit Coldstream Guards
Commands held 1st Battalion, Coldstream Guards
29th Infantry Brigade
West Sussex County Division
15th (Scottish) Infantry Division
Guards Armoured Division
XXX Corps
Eighth Army
Allied Land Forces South-East Asia
Eastern Command
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
Awards Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath[1]
Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Distinguished Service Order
Mentioned in dispatches (2)
Commander of the Legion of Merit (United States)[2]
Légion d'Honneur (France)
Croix de Guerre (France)
Virtuti Militari (Poland)[3]

Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver William Hargreaves Leese, 3rd Baronet KCB, CBE, DSO (27 October 1894 – 22 January 1978) was a senior British Army officer who saw distinguished active service during both World War I and World War II. During the Second World War he commanded XXX Corps in the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943, serving under General Sir Bernard Montgomery, and later commanded the Eighth Army in the Italian Campaign throughout most of 1944.

Early years

Leese was the first son of Sir William Hargreaves Leese, 2nd Baronet, a barrister, and was educated at Ludgrove and Eton. Early in World War I, he joined the British Army and was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the Coldstream Guards on 15 May 1915.[4] Leese was wounded three times, the last during the Somme offensive in 1916,[5] an action in which he was Mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).[6] The citation to his DSO, which was gazetted in November 1916, read:

For conspicuous gallantry in action. He led the assault against a strongly held part of the enemy's line, which was stopping the whole attack. He personally accounted for many of the enemy and enabled the attack to proceed. He was wounded during the fight.[7]

After the war, he remained in the British Army, being promoted captain in 1921,[8] and attending the Staff College, Camberley from 1927 to 1928.[9] In November 1929 he was appointed as brigade major to 1st Infantry Brigade (Guards)[10] and was formally promoted to major a few days later.[11] He was promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel in July 1933.[12]

On 18 January 1933 Leese married a granddaughter of Sir Baldwyn Leighton, 8th Baronet, Margaret Alice (d. 1964), daughter of Cuthbert Leighton (recte Leicester-Warren), DL, JP, (1877–1954), of Tabley House, Knutsford, by Hilda Margaret Davenport; they had no children. Lady Leese's brother was the last of the line to own the Tabley estate which he left on his death in 1975 to the National Trust.

From 1932 to 1938 Leese held a number of staff appointments and was promoted to lieutenant colonel in December 1936,[13] brevet colonel in September 1938[14] and colonel in October 1938.[15] In September 1938 he was posted to India to be a GSO1 instructor at the Staff College, Quetta.[16] He had succeeded to the baronetcy on his father's death on 17 January 1937.[17]

Second World War

Leese returned to the United Kingdom from India in March 1940, six months after the outbreak of World War II. It had been planned for him to command a brigade in Norway but with the German Army's invasion of Western Europe in May, he was sent to join Lord Gort's headquarters as Deputy Chief of Staff of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). He evacuated from Dunkirk with Gort on 31 May.[18] On his return to the United Kingdom Leese was ordered to form and train a large brigade group, 29th Infantry Brigade. In December 1940 he was appointed acting major-general[19] and given command of the West Sussex County Division which included 29th Brigade.[18] A month later he was moved to command of the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division.[18] His rank was upgraded to temporary major-general in November[20] and was made substantive in December.[21] In June 1941 he was given command of the Guards Armoured Division during its formation and training.[22]

In September 1942 he was sent at the request of the British Eighth Army commander, Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, to North Africa to assume command, as an acting lieutenant-general,[23] of the Eighth Army's XXX Corps.[22] Montgomery had formed a good opinion of Leese when he had instructed him at the Staff College, Camberley in 1927 and 1928 and had also been impressed by his work at GHQ in France.[18] Leese commanded XXX Corps for the rest of the campaign which ended with the Axis surrender in May 1943 in Tunisia. He was mentioned in dispatches for his services in North Africa.[24] XXX Corps then took part in the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 before returning to the United Kingdom after the Sicily campaign, which ended in August, to prepare for the planned invasion of Northwest Europe, scheduled for the spring of 1944.[25] Leese was promoted to temporary lieutenant-general in September.[26]

Leese receiving his knighthood in the field from King George VI.

On 24 December 1943, however, Leese received a telegram ordering him to Italy to succeed Montgomery as Eighth Army commander as Montgomery was to return to the United Kingdom in January 1944 to prepare for the Allied invasion of Normandy.[25] Leese commanded the Eighth Army at the fourth and final battle of Monte Cassino in May 1944 (when the bulk of the Eighth Army was switched in secret from the Adriatic coast to Cassino to strike a joint blow with the U.S. Fifth Army under Mark Clark, who Leese's staff would claim he hated working alongside) and for Operation Olive on the Gothic Line later in 1944. His rank of lieutenant-general was made permanent in July 1944.[27]

In September 1944 he was appointed to succeed George Giffard as the Commander-in-Chief of Eleventh Army Group and assumed command in November, by which time the Army Group had been renamed Allied Land Forces, South-East Asia.[28] Leese was replaced as commander of the British Eighth Army by Lieutenant-General Sir Richard L. McCreery. He viewed the existing command structure as inefficient and proceeded to appoint former members of his Eighth Army staff. The methods of the two staffs differed and the newcomers were resented. As Slim expressed it in his memoirs, "His staff, which he brought with him... had a good deal of desert sand in its shoes, and was rather inclined to thrust Eighth Army down our throats."[29] Leese commanded three groups: the Northern Combat Area Command under U.S. Army Lieutenant General Dan Sultan, the Fourteenth Army under Lieutenant-General William ("Bill") Slim in central Burma and further south in the Arakan, Indian XV Corps under Lieutenant-General Philip Christison. Until the end of the year, he fought a successful campaign which led to the capture of Rangoon by an amphibious landing (Operation Dracula) in early May 1945.[30]

Slim had turned the Fourteenth Army into an effective military force and had commanded a highly successful campaign from the relief of Imphal to the recapture of Rangoon and the destruction of the Japanese forces in Burma. Leese believed that Slim was very tired (he had asked for leave once Rangoon had been taken) and proposed to the Supreme Commander South East Asia, Louis Mountbatten and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Alan Brooke, that he should be replaced by Philip Christison, who had experience in amphibious warfare and so would be well suited to leading the Army in the planned seaborne landings in Malaya, leaving Slim to take over the new Twelfth Army, with the less demanding task of mopping up in Burma.[31] Leese misread the reactions of Brooke and Mountbatten and having then met Slim to discuss the proposals, came away believing Slim had agreed to them.[32] In fact, Slim reacted by telling his staff he had been sacked and wrote to Leese and Claude Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief India, to say he would refuse the new post and resign from the army in protest.[32] Once the news circulated within the Fourteenth Army, mutinies and mass resignations of officers were threatened. Leese was obliged to reinstate Slim, when the Supreme Commander South East Asia Louis Mountbatten, although he had authorised the original proposals, now refused to support him. Mountbatten subsequently approached Alan Brooke (who had always doubted Leese's suitability for the role) and they agreed that Leese should be removed. He was succeeded by Slim.[32]


None of the protagonists in the Slim affair show up well in retrospect. Richard Mead in Churchill's Lions suggests that Leese was naive, Slim petulant and Mountbatten devious.[32] Leese's career suffered and he returned to the United Kingdom to be GOC-in-C Eastern Command, a significant downward move having been one of only three army group commanders in the British Army. His promotion to full general is believed to have been blocked by Mountbatten and he retired from the army in January 1947.[32][33] Leese became a noted horticulturist, writing books on cacti and keeping a well noted garden at his house, Lower Hall in Worfield, Shropshire. Although a keen cricketer, he had only modest success as a batsman in the 1914 Eton XI and was relegated to 12th man for that year's Eton v Harrow match but was President of the Marylebone Cricket Club in 1965.[34] He served as High Sheriff of Shropshire in 1958.[35] Leese was a guest on the April 10, 1960 "What's My Line" game show. Following amputation of his right leg in 1973, Leese moved into Wales into a house called Dolwen at LLanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, near Oswestry.[36] He died there after a heart attack on 22 January 1978, aged 83 and was buried at Worfield parish church.[37]


  1. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 36209. p. 4539. 12 October 1943. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  2. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37027. p. 1947. 10 April 1945.
  3. "ODNB Leese, Sir Oliver William Hargreaves". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/31346.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29960. p. 1963. 24 April 1917. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  5. Ryder, Rowland (1987). Oliver Leese. Hamish Hamilton. pp. 19–23. ISBN 0-241-12024-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Houterman & Koppes
  7. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29824. p. 11041. 14 November 1916. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  8. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 32306. p. 3370. 28 April 1921. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  9. The London Gazette: no. 33241. p. 435. 21 January 1927. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  10. The London Gazette: no. 335533. p. 7457. 19 November 1929. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  11. The London Gazette: no. 33556. p. 7781. 29 November 1929. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  12. The London Gazette: no. 33955. p. 4383. 30 June 1933. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  13. The London Gazette: no. 34351. p. 8190. 18 December 1926. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  14. The London Gazette: no. 34561. p. 6435. 14 October 1938. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  15. The London Gazette: no. 34563. p. 11041. 21 October 1938. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  16. The London Gazette: no. 34574. p. 7438. 25 November 1938. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  17. Burke's Peerage, Baronetage & Knightage 1953.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 Mead (2007), p. 241
  19. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35038. p. 189. 7 January 1941. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  20. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35340. p. 6481. 7 November 1941. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  21. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35377. p. 7043. 9 December 1941. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Mead (2007), p. 242
  23. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35708. p. 4055. 15 September 1942.
  24. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 36065. p. 2853. 22 June 1943.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Mead (2007), p. 243
  26. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 36186. p. 4295. 24 September 1943.
  27. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 36632. p. 3553. 28 July 1944.
  28. Mead (2007), p. 244
  29. Slim, William (1956). Defeat into Victory. London: Cassell. pp. 377–378. ISBN 0-304-29114-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. Mead (2007), p. 245
  31. Mead (2007), pp. 245–246
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 32.4 Mead (2007), p. 246
  33. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37862. p. 447. 21 January 1947.
  34. Obituary in Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1979, p. 1080.
  35. The Peerage
  36. Ryder, Rowland (1987). Oliver Leese. pp. 282–3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  37. Ryder, Rowland (1987). Oliver Leese. pp. 284–285.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Houterman, Hans; Koppes, Jeroen. "Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver William Hargreaves Leese". World War II unit histories and officers website. Retrieved 10 August 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Keegan, John (2005) [1991]. Churchill's Generals. London: Cassell Military. pp. 214–224. ISBN 0-304-36712-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Mead, Richard (2007). Churchill's Lions: A biographical guide to the key British generals of World War II. Stroud (UK): Spellmount. 544 pages. ISBN 978-1-86227-431-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  • Montemaggi, Amedeo (2002). LINEA GOTICA 1944. La battaglia di Rimini e lo sbarco in Grecia decisivi per l'Europa sud-orientale e il Mediterraneo. Rimini: Museo dell'Aviazione.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  • Simkin, John. "Oliver Leese". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 12 February 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Military offices
Preceded by
New post
GOC Guards Armoured Division
June 1941 – September 1942
Succeeded by
Sir Allan Adair
Preceded by
William Ramsden
September 1942 – December 1943
Succeeded by
Gerard Bucknall
Preceded by
Sir Bernard Montgomery
Commander-in Chief, Eighth Army
31 December 1943 – 1 October 1944
Succeeded by
Sir Richard McCreery
Preceded by
Sir George Giffard
GOC-in-C, Allied Land Forces South East Asia
November 1944 – May 1945
Succeeded by
Post disbanded
Preceded by
Sir Alan Cunningham
GOC-in-C Eastern Command
Succeeded by
Sir Evelyn Barker
Baronetage of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
William Hargreaves Leese
(of Send Holme)
Succeeded by
Alexander William Leese