General Messervy: A Biography

For a website devoted to historical (or quasi-historical) topics, I’ve never actually posted a biography.  Well, that has now officially changed.  The person I have chosen to be my first to have his life discussed?  General Sir Frank Walker Messervy (1893-1974), an officer in the British Indian Army who served in both World Wars.

From Messervy Stories:


Sir Frank Walter Messervy, although not born in Jersey, was the son of Walter John Messervy of St. Helier, Jersey (1861-1955).  Walter was an accountant who took up a position as a bank manager in Trinidad.  There he met his wife, Naida Myra de Boissière (b. abt. 1869) and their three children were born there.  The de Boissières were a family of note in Trinidad, having descended from Jean Valleton de Boissière who emigrated to Trinidad in the late 1700s. The family held extensive estates and is distinct from other French immigrants by religion (Protestant) and their sometimes unconventional lifestyle.  You can read more about the family here:

Frank Walter Messervy was born in Kingston Jamaica on 9 December 1893.  As a child, he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in England, Arthur and Charlotte Hoskyns. Charlotte Lydia Messervy Hoskyns was the sister of Frank’s father and was born in St.Helier, Jersey in 1847. The Hoskyns were extremely wealthy from their tea plantation in Ceylon.  In the 1901 Census, they were noted as “Living on Own Means” and Frank, at the age of 7 years was already living with them (nephew) at their home in Ashley Gardens, near Hanover Square London, complete with a list of seven servants for three people.  In the 1911 Census (when Frank would be almost 18 years) he was a boarder at Eton College.

In World War I, the young cavalry officer, commissioned into the Indian Army, served in France, Palestine, Syria and Kurdistan. After studying at the military school at Camberley, he was sent to India and then became an instructor at Quetta and continued to progress to more responsible positions of command.  Frank Messervy was described by R. G. Satterthwaite (his son-in-law)  as being “ …an extraordinary figure: tall and athletic looking, with a facial expression that clearly showed his sense of purpose.” Satterthwaite, from his own personal knowledge, recounts how Messervy said to pronounce his surname: “The accent is not on the Mess, but on the ‘serve’”. 1

In World War II, Messervy distinguished himself and in 1941, when Major-General J.C. Campbell died, he took over as commander of the “desert rats.” By 1943, he took command as Major General of the 7th Indian Division. In 1944, he was asked to lead the 4th Corps, and played a crucial role in the defeat of the Japanese Army in Burma.  After the surrender of the Japanese, Messervy was appointed general officer commanding-in-chief, Malaya. In 1946 he returned to India as general officer commanding-in-chief, northern command, and on the creation of Pakistan in 1947 he became that government’s first commander-in-chief. He retired in 1948 with the honorary rank of general.

Somewhere in his busy career, Frank met and married Patricia Courtney, who was the daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Arthur Waldegrave Courtney.  Marriage took place in 1927 in Farnham, Surrey, England.  Three children were born to the Messervys, a daughter Rosemary Ann born in 1929, a son Derek Arthur Frank born in 1934 in Quetta, India and the youngest Nigel John, born in 1937 in Muree, Bengal, India.   Passenger lists show Patricia Messervy and her three children took the lengthy journey between India and England several times, and never in the company of her husband.
Unfortunately, Nigel died 10 April 1965 at the age of 28 years.  At the time of his death, Nigel lived at 41 Lansdowne Road in London, but place of death was Blindley Heath, Surrey. Some sources state he died in a car accident. Derek Messervy married Jennifer Irvine in Chelsea, London.  Electoral rolls show them living in Hampshire in 2004.  Rosemary Messervy married Richard Satterthwaite in Marylebone, London in 1949.

After World War II, Messervy was the first Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army (1947-48) during the period of upheaval as India became independent from Britain.  It is said that Messervy’s involvement in the politics of the Pakistan’s leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, led to his early retirement in 1948.  He returned to England and remained there until his death. Messervy died on 2 February 1974 at his home, North End House, Heyshott, near Midhurst, Sussex.

Sir Frank Walter Messervy received the following honours during his career:

Order of the Nile (Egypt) 1920

Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) 1942

  • Distinguished Service Order (DSO) – 1941
  • Bar to DSO – 1944
  • Knighted on July 5 1945
  • Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire – 1947
  1. Satterthwaite, R.G. Caribbean History Archives.

Another biography, this one from The Caribbean History Archives:

Frank Messervy

The unrelenting hail of shot, shell and fire stopped with the dawn. The rain that had been falling for the previous six weeks continued coursing, a weird syncopation of dropping sounds, a drip-splash-drop-drop-drip symphony that managed oriental quarter-tones, a lunatic cacophony through which the drifting mist made not merely the landscape, but the immediate surroundings take on the quality of Chinese mist paintings of the type seen on screens in restaurants.

It was typical of the Japanese to fill the night with terror and death, only to fall silent with the dawn leaving the enemy exhausted, shell-shocked and desperate with the certain knowledge that the ring had grown tighter. The fourth army corpse lay entrapped in the maze of mountain gorges, precipices, spectacular but unseen waterfalls in probably the world’s thickest primeval tropical jungle, where only dynamite may be brought in to blast away gigantic trees so as to clear the way for lieutenant General Frank Messervy to remove his entrapped army from the heartland of Burma during the devastating days of the last war. he did. And with the 7th Indian Division and the reconstructed 4th Army Corps, he drove the Japanese Army through the Burmese mountains to take Rangoon.

That itself is a tale worth telling. For the last three hours, the Japanese Imperial Commander for Malaya, Sumatra, Java, Borneo and the Dutch East Indies, General Seishiro Itagaki, had been standing at attention with his ceremonial sword held out at arm’s length, with his entire officer corps lined up behind him. His army of 100,000 men were drawn up without arms in parade in the open field adjacent to the city of Rangoon, now reduced to ashes. General Frank Messervy entered the open field accompanied by the pipes and drums of the Argyle & Sutherland Highlanders (Princess Louise’s), and the entire 4th Army Corps for the purpose of taking the surrender. Detachment after detachment formed up and with the entire corps at present arms, General Itagaki handed his sword to Frank Messervy. It was just over 550 years old and had been made by Kanemoto, the most famous sword smith of his day.

Years later, I went to visit Sir Frank Messervy in his thatch-covered, large cottage not too far from London. Tall and gangly, and an older man by now, Frank recalled:

“In all my life, I have never seen a man so overwhelmed by emotion as was Itagaki when he handed his sword to me. He went ashen gray, just like a corpse, and the pupils of his eyes dwindled until there were no pupils at all. I know, because I looked straight and hard into his eyes as he surrendered his sword. It was as though he was surrendering his soul to me, and I though he would drop dead at my feet.”

The said sword had killed many people in its time. When the heir of the house came of age, he would go into the family village where the tenants were kneeling on either side of the path. To prove his manhood, he would take a right-hand swipe and a left and so on, severing heads on his way.

Why this story? General Sir Frank Messervy, K.C.S.I., K.B.E., C.B., D.S.O, was the son of Myra de Boissière who married an Englishman by the name of Walter Messervy, who had come out to Trinidad to work in the Colonial Bank, later Barclays Bank, eventually becoming its manager. Myra was the daughter of Poleska de Boissière, who then lived with her husband, Dr. de Boissière, in Champs Elysées, which is now the Country Club. Frank in fact might have been born at Bagshot House, which went to the Bank when his original owner, Valleton de Boissière, got into financial difficulties.

After Myra and Walter had had several other children, and Walter was posted to Jamaica to work in the bank, Frank had the good fortune of being “adopted” by wealthy, childless relatives of his father. They educated him at Eaton and made him their heir. From them, Frank inherited the Twining tea estates in Sri Lanka. He had an exceptionally brilliant military career. Graduating from Sandhurst in 1913, from where he was posted as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Indian Army, joining the 9th Hodsonshorse in 1914. During the First World War he served in France, Palestine, Syria and Kurdistan. His experience in this war was, as for most of the soldiers, a horrible one. After the Treaty of Versailles, Frank came back to his home country for prolonged visits, staying with his beloved grandmother in Champs Elysées. His uncle Arneaud was Lieut.-Col., the most senior officer serving on the western front in the war, spent much time with him as well.

Back to England, where Frank passed the staff college course at Chamberley in 1926, going on to become a brevet major in 1929 and a brevet lieutenant-colonel in 1933. During the Second World War, he first served in Eritrea and then in North Africa. Captured by the Germans, he escaped. He rose rapidly in rank, ending the war as Lieutenant General. Appointed G.O.C. in C. and Governor of Malaysia. He later became C. in C. of the army of independent Pakistan, and served there at the time when India achieved her independence.

Messervy was deputy chief scout to Lord Rowallan.

In his military career, Messervy was known as the “spearhead general”. He went into battle with his men, and did not stay behind to direct battle strategies over a map. In most pictures, he is dirty, unshaven, and probably missed his lunch. A deeply religious man, in the last years of his life, he went regularly to Lourdes, where he acted as stretcher-bearer for sick pilgrims. He died in 1974 – a Trinidadian at heart and in genes, decorated with the highest military honours of the British Empire, celebrated in many international publications, a brave hero who our soldiers can be proud of.

Some more details about his military career:

Early career

Messervy was educated at Eton College and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Indian Army in 1913 and in 1914 joined 9th Hodson’s Horse.[13] which later became part of 4th Duke of Cambridge’s Own Hodson’s Horse. He would see action in the First World War in France, Palestine and Syria from 1914 to 1918. He later served in Kurdistan in 1919.

Messervy was appointed as an instructor at the Command and Staff College, Quetta from 1932 to 1936. He was made Commanding Officer 13th Duke of Connaught’s’s Own Lancers, British India, during 1938 and 1939.

Second World War

East Africa

In September 1939, Messervy was promoted to colonel and became a General Staff Officer Grade 1 of the Indian 5th Infantry Division, which was about to be formed at Secunderabad. In mid-1940, the division was sent to the Sudan to counter the threat from the Italian forces based in Italian East Africa. Messervy was appointed commander of Gazelle Force.[14] Created on 16 October 1940, it was a mobile reconnaissance and strike formation of expanded battalion size created from elements of 5th Indian Division. During the ensuing East African Campaign, Messervy commanded Gazelle Force with notable success, latterly attached to the Indian 4th Infantry Division. By 13 February 1941, the campaign had become static and Messervy’s formation was disbanded.[15]

In early March 1941, Messervy was promoted acting brigadier to command the Indian 5th Infantry Division’s 9th Infantry Brigade and played a significant role in the third Battle of Keren during the second half of March 1941. His promotion was in part related to his actions during the advance from Kassala through Agordat to the early fighting at Keren during February.[15]

When the commander of the Indian 4th Infantry Division was promoted to command XIII Corps in North Africa Messervy, a brigadier for only six weeks, was appointed to take his place.[15]

Western Desert – North Africa

Messervy, unshaved, giving orders south-west of Gazala.

Messervy took 4th Indian Division to North Africa in April 1941, taking part in Operation Battleaxe in June. During Operation Crusader in November that year, 4th Indian Division, dug in on the Egypt – Libya border, played a key role in repelling Rommel’s tanks after they had defeated the British armour at Sidi Rezegh. The division’s battle groups took part in the Eighth Army‘s pursuit when Rommel withdrew from his defensive positions at Gazala in December, ending the year at Benghazi.[16]

In January 1942, Messervy was appointed to replace Herbert Lumsden, the wounded commander of 1st Armoured Division which had recently arrived in the desert.[17] During Rommel’s attack from El Agheila in late January 1942, the division was outmatched by the Axis armour and heavily defeated. On Lumsden’s return in March 1942, Messervy was moved to command 7th Armoured Division which had lost its commander, Jock Campbell, killed in a motor accident. Messervy was the only British Indian Army officer to command a British division during the Second World War.[17]

Messervy was known as the “Bearded Man” because he tended not to shave in battle. When Division HQ was overrun by the Germans at the start of the Battle of Gazala, he was captured (27 May 1942); but, removing all insignia, managed to bluff the Germans into believing he was a batman and escaped with other members of his staff to rejoin Division HQ the following day.[17]

Messervy knew little about tanks and was not considered a great success commanding armoured divisions by his superiors. He was dismissed from command of 7th Armoured Division by Eighth Army commander Neil Ritchie in late June 1942 following the severe defeat the division had sustained at the Battle of Gazala. He transferred to Cairo as Deputy Chief of General Staff, GHQ Middle East Command 1942 and was sent to India a few months later to raise 43rd Indian Armoured Division as its commander. Originally intended for service in Persia, the division was disbanded in April 1943 when the threat to Persia was removed by the Soviet victory at Stalingrad.[18]

India and Burma

Messervy was made Director of Armoured Fighting Vehicles, General Headquarters, India Command in 1943 where he argued successfully against the then prevailing view that large tanks could not be used in Burma. This was to have a significant impact in 1944 and 1945 when heavy armour was used to telling effect against the Japanese.[18]

In July 1943, Messervy was appointed GOC Indian 7th Infantry Division which was sent to the Arakan in Burma to join XV Corps in September. In the Japanese offensive in February 1944, despite having his headquarters overrun and scattered and his supply lines compromised, Messervy’s brigades conducted a successful defence whilst being supplied by air (Battle of the Admin Box). After going on the attack in late February, 7 Indian Division was relieved in mid-March.[19]

In March 1944, Messervy lost two brigades sent to reinforce the hard-pressed defences at Imphal and Kohima in India. By May, the whole division was back in the front line in the Kohima sector, fighting a key five-day battle at the Naga Village. It then advanced towards the Chindwin river, combining with Indian 20th Infantry Division to inflict a heavy defeat on the Japanese at Ukhrul.[19]

In December 1944, Messervy was appointed to command IV Corps, which he led in the 1945 offensive during which, he captured the key communications centre at Meiktila in Burma and advanced to Rangoon between February and April. When Messervy returned from home leave hostilities had ceased. He was made Commander-in-Chief Malaya Command in 1945 after the Japanese surrender.[20]


Well, Sir Frank Messervy was first cousin to my great-great-grandmother, thus making him my 1st cousin 4 times removed.  His biography is part of my family history.

British Generals 1939-1945 IND3143.jpg

14 thoughts on “General Messervy: A Biography

  1. I would like to thnkx for the efforts you have put in writing this blog. I am hoping the same high-grade blog post from you in the upcoming as well. Actually your creative writing skills has encouraged me to get my own web site now. Really the blogging is spreading its wings fast. Your write up is a good example of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m a bit behind the curve on this entry of a couple of years ago, but fascinated to find out more about this man.. Frank Messervy was my great uncle

    Liked by 1 person

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