General Miles Dempsey (1896-1969) was the commander of the British and Canadian troops on D-Day, and led the 2nd Army for the rest of the campaign.
Dempsey was born at New Brighton, Cheshire, on 15 December 1896, the son of a marine insurance broker. He attended Sandhurst, graduating in 1915 then joining the Royal Berkshire Regiment. He served on the Western Front and in Iraq, and was wounded, mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Military Cross.
By 1939 he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel, and he commanded the 13th Infantry Brigade (Royal Berkshires) with the BEF in France in 1939-40. Dempsey first made a name for himself during the Dunkirk evacuation, where his brigade played a major role in the British rearguard actions. He was appointed to the DSO for his role in the retreat.
Dempsey spent the two years after Dunkirk in a series of staff appointments. In 1942 he was promoted to major general and given the job of forming a new armoured division.
In December 1942 he was promoted to acting Lieutenant General, replaced General Horrocks as commander of the 13th Corps and posted to the 8th Army in Libya.
Dempsey helped plan the invasion of Sicily, then commanded the 13th Corps during the invasion itself, starting on 10 July 1943. His corps landed on the Allied right, near Syracuse and Avola, with the 5th and 50th Infantry Divisions in the lead. His corps advanced up the east coast of Sicily, reaching the Straits of Messina on 3 September 1943.
Dempsey took part in the early stages of the campaign in Italy, where he became an expert in combined operations. His corps carried out an assault crossing over the Straits of Messina (Operation Baytown), and then advanced up the boot of Italy.
As a result of Dempsey’s successes in Sicily and Italy, Montgomery chose him to command the British 2nd Army during Operation Overlord. His troops landed on Juno, Gold and Sword beaches, and then took part in many of the hardest battles in Normandy. His army’s role was to draw the German armour onto itself, while the Americans prepared to break out at the western end of the line.
Dempsey’s army took part in the battle for Caen; Operation Epsom (26-27 June 1944), the second major British attack on Caen; Operation Charnwood (8-9 July 1944), the capture of northern Caen; Operation Goodwood (18-20 July 1944), which cleared the rest of Caen; Operation Bluecoat (28 July-7 August 1944), carried out to support Operation Cobra; and the battle of the Falaise Gap (although the Canadians and Poles carried out the main attacks from the north of the gap).
At first Dempsey commanded the British and Canadian forces, but once enough Canadian units were in place they were formed into General Crerar’s 1st Canadian Army, and the two formed Montgomery’s 21st Armour Group.
After the breakout from Normandy the Canadians advanced along the Channel Coast, while Dempsey’s forces took part in the Great Swan, advancing through France and Belgium, liberating Brussels and Antwerp and entering Holland. Dempsey was gazetted KCB in June, and dubbed by King George VI during a Royal visit to the front later in the year.
Dempsey’s army fought in the Roermond Triangle (15-27 January 1945). It then took part in Montgomery’s set piece crossing of the Rhine around Wesel on 23 March (Operation Plunder). Within five days he had broken through the last German defensive line and his troops was able to dash across the north German Plain. Dempsey personally accepted the surrender of Hamburg on 3 May 1945.
After the end of the war in Europe Dempsey was sent to the Far East, where he replaced General Slim as commander of the 14th Army, after Slim had controversially been told he was being replaced causing a near mutiny in the army. The issue was solved by promoting Slim to command the Allied Ground Forces in South-East Asia, replacing General Leese. Dempsey commanded the 14th Army during the post-war reoccupation of Singapore and Malaya. He then replaced Slim as commander of Allied Ground Forces in South-East Asia. In 1945 his knighthood was raised from a KCB to a KBE. He was promoted to full general, then appointed commander-in-chief Middle East in 1946-47.
He retired at his own request in July 1947 and entered the world of business. He also became chairman of the Racecourse Betting Control Board, reflecting a long time interest in horses. He married in 1948, and died on 5 June 1969.
One key to Dempsey’s success was that he was an un-assuming figure who was able to control his corps commanders while remaining largely in the background. As a result he isn’t as well known as his American contemporaries, many of whom became very famous.