A Modest Major General by Rupert Litherland

A Modest Major General by Rupert Litherland


Colonel Rupert Litherland’s last published work was a highly regarded biography of Major General Bunny Burnett, and he has now returned to the fray with a biography of Major General Ronnie McAlister. Both men were 10th Gurkhas, both held the post of Major General Brigade of Gurkhas but were very different personalities. With Burnett what you saw was what you got: scruffy, laid back, extrovert, hail fellow well met, humorous, a smoker who enjoyed a drink, all of which did nothing to hide a great deal of common sense, tremendous professional competence and much operational experience that had won him an MC and a DSO. McAlister was much less of an extrovert, outwardly reserved, not at all showy, impeccably mannered, and a modest drinker but with a sharp and perceptive brain with the ability to reduce the most complicated situations to its basics that could be understood by all. In terms of authorship this biography was probably much more difficult to write than that of Burnett, if only because Ronnie McAlister was much more of a private person. Commissioned into the 3rd Gurkhas in 1942 and a temporary major three years later, he transferred to 10th Gurkhas when his own 3rd Gurkhas went to the army of the newly independent India. McAlister swiftly gained a reputation as a superb trainer and staff officer. Litherland traces this phase of his career in detail and shows how McAlister’s reputation for being able to shine in any demanding staff appointment reduced his experience of operations. That may well be so, but as this book shows admirably, when ‘Ronnie Mac’ took command of 1/10th Gurkha Rifles that battalion achieved more in the course of the Borneo campaign than any other Gurkha battalion – and that bar was very high indeed.

Of particular value, not just to the Brigade but to military historians generally, is the account of the events on the Hong Kong border in 1967 when McAlister was in command of 1/10 GR. Litherland has gone to great lengths to uncover previously unpublished sources and to interview leading participants, and he has produced what is certainly the most accurate account to date, and which is unlikely to be surpassed.

As Litherland says, those of us who knew General Ronnie and had served under him would have liked to acknowledge his service and his friendship at a memorial service, but it is the measure of the man that when he knew he was dying, at the very respectable age of ninety-two, he insisted that there was to be no fuss and no memorial service.

This is an excellent book which well captures the character of a fine officer and a man of great kindness and humility who even when achieving high rank never lost the human touch.  Gordon Corrigan – Author ‘Mud, Blood and Poppycock: Britain and the First world War

© The Gurkha Museum Trust Winchester - Registered Charity Number 1169920 (formerly 272426)