Bernard Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

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The Viscount Montgomery of Alamein
17 November 1887– 24 March 1976

Montgomery wearing his famous beret with two cap badges.
Nickname Monty
Place of birth Kennington, London
Place of death Alton, Hampshire
Allegiance Flag of the United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Years of service 19081958
Rank Field Marshal
Commands held Eighth Army 1942–1943
Allied 21st Army Group 1943–1945
Chief of the Imperial General Staff 1946–1948
Deputy Supreme Commander Europe of NATO 1951–1958
Battles/wars World War I
Anglo-Irish War
World War II
Awards Knight of the Garter
Knight Grand Cross of the Bath
Distinguished Service Order
Order of Victory
Mentioned in Despatches, 9 occasions between 1915 and 1944

Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, KG, GCB, DSO, PC (IPA: /məntˈgʌmərɪ əv ˈæləmeɪn/; 17 November 1887– 24 March 1976), often referred to as "Monty", was a British Army officer. He successfully commanded Allied forces at the Battle of El Alamein, a major turning point in the Western Desert Campaign during World War II, and troops under his command were largely responsible for the expulsion of Axis forces from North Africa. He was later a prominent commander in Italy and North-West Europe, where he was in command of all Allied ground forces during Operation Overlord until after the Battle of Normandy.

Early life

Montgomery was born in Kennington, London in 1887, the fourth child of nine, to an Anglo-Irish Anglican priest, Rev. Henry Montgomery. The Montgomery family came from Moville, County Donegal, near Londonderry, and maintained their home, New Park, there. Montgomery considered himself Irish and a County Donegal man. In 1889, the family moved with his father when he was made Bishop of Tasmania. His father was kind, but ineffectual in the house, and often away on missionary work. His mother was a martinet, who allowed her husband 10 shillings a week from his salary and beat her children. Montgomery said that he had an unhappy childhood, often clashing with his mother and becoming the black sheep of the family to such an extent that he declined to go to his mother's funeral. His father died at Moville in 1932.

In 1901, Bishop Montgomery became secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and the family returned to London. Montgomery went to St Paul's School and then the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, from which he was almost expelled for setting fire to a fellow cadet during a fight with pokers. He joined the 1st Battalion, The Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1908, first seeing service in India until 1913.

First World War

The First World War began in August 1914 and Montgomery moved to France with his regiment that month. He saw service during the retreat from Mons, during which half the men in his battalion became casualties or prisoners. At Meteren, near the Belgian border at Bailleul on 13 October 1914, during an allied counter-offensive, he was shot through the right lung by a sniper and was injured seriously enough for his grave to be dug in preparation for his death. He was awarded the DSO for gallant leadership.

After recovering in early 1915, he was appointed to be brigade-major training Kitchener's New Army and returned to the Western Front in early 1916 as an operations staff officer during the battles of the Somme, Arras, and Passchendaele. During this time he came under IX Corps, part of General Sir Herbert Plumer's Second Army. Through his training, rehearsal, and integration of the infantry with artillery and engineers, the troops of Plumer's Second Army were able to achieve their objectives efficiently and without unnecessary casualties.

Montgomery served at the battles of the Lys and Chemin-des-Dames before finishing the war as General Staff Officer 1 and effectively chief of staff of the 47th (2nd London) Division, with the temporary rank of lieutenant-colonel. A photograph of October 1918 shows the then unknown Lt-Col Montgomery standing in front of Winston Churchill (Minister of Munitions) at the victory parade at Lille.

Between the wars

After the war Montgomery commanded a battalion in the British Army of the Rhine, before reverting to his substantive rank of captain. He wrote up his experiences in a series of training pamphlets and manuals. He then attended the army's Staff College at Camberley, before being appointed brigade-major in the 17th Infantry Brigade at the end of 1920. The brigade was stationed in County Cork during the Anglo-Irish War. A cousin of Montgomery's had been assassinated by the IRA in 1920 (see the Cairo Gang) and he was a half-Irish Protestant. However, though he was effective, he did not employ methods as brutal as those of his contemporary in Cork, Arthur Percival. On his arrival he urged units of his brigade that their "behaviour must be beyond reproach" although later he stated that it "never bothered me a bit how many houses were burnt" (a reference to the government policy of burning the homes of suspected republicans and sympathisers). IRA officer Tom Barry said that he "behaved with great correctness". Montgomery increasingly came to see the conflict as one that could not be won, and withdrawal of British forces as the only feasible solution. In 1923, after the establishment of the Irish Free State and during the Irish Civil War, Montgomery wrote to Percival that in order "to win a war of that sort you must be ruthless" and 20th century democratic Britain would not do that, and so "the only way therefore was to give them [the Irish] some form of self-government and let them squash the rebellion themselves".

In 1923 Montgomery was posted to the Territorial 49th Division, eschewing the usual amounts of drill for tactical training. He returned to the 1st Royal Warwickshires in 1925 as a company commander and captain, before becoming an instructor at the Staff College, Camberley and a major ( brevet lieutenant-colonel). In 1927, he met and married Elizabeth Carver, a widow, and a son, David, was born in August 1928. Elizabeth was the sister of Percy Hobart, WWII commander. Montgomery became lieutenant-colonel of the 1st Battalion of The Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1931, and saw service in Palestine, Egypt, and India. He was promoted to full colonel and became an instructor at the Indian Army Staff College in Quetta, India. As was usual, Montgomery maintained links with the Royal Warwickshires, taking up the honorary position of Colonel-of-the-Regiment in 1947. As throughout his career, Montgomery stirred up the resentment of his superiors for his arrogance and dictatorial ways, and also for his disregard of convention when it obstructed military effectiveness. For example, he set up a battalion brothel, regularly inspected by the medical officer, for the 'horizontal refreshment' of his soldiers rather than forcing them to take chances in unregulated establishments. He became commanding officer of the 9th Infantry Brigade in 1937, with the rank of brigadier, but that year also saw tragedy for him. His marriage had been a very happy and loving one, but his wife was bitten by an insect while on holiday in Burnham-on-Sea. The bite became infected, and his wife died in his arms from septicaemia following an amputation. The loss devastated Montgomery, but he insisted on throwing himself back into his work immediately after the funeral.

In 1938, he organised an amphibious combined operations landing exercise that impressed the new commander-in-chief, Southern Command, General Wavell. He was promoted to major-general and took command of the 8th Infantry Division in Palestine. There he quashed an Arab revolt before returning in July 1939 to Britain, suffering a serious illness on the way, to command the 3rd (Iron) Infantry Division.

Second World War

Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. The 3rd Division was deployed to Belgium as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Montgomery predicted a disaster similar to that in 1914, and so spent the Phony War training his troops for tactical retreat rather than offensive operations. During this time, Montgomery faced serious trouble from his superiors after again taking a very pragmatic attitude towards the sexual health of his soldiers - outraging the clergy by stating openly in a memo that in his opinion "when a man wanted a woman, he should have one" - but was defended from dismissal by his superior Alan Brooke, commander of II Corps. Montgomery's training paid off when the Germans began their invasion of the Low Countries on 10 May 1940 and the 3rd Division advanced to the River Dijle and then withdrew to Dunkirk with great professionalism, returning to Britain intact with minimal casualties. During Operation Dynamo — the evacuation of 330,000 BEF and French troops to Britain — Montgomery had assumed command of the II Corps after Alan Brooke had taken acting command of the whole BEF.

On his return Montgomery antagonised the War Office with trenchant criticisms of the command of the BEF and was briefly relegated to divisional command and only made CB. In July 1940 he was promoted to lieutenant-general, placed in command of V Corps and started a long-running feud with the new commander-in-chief, Southern Command, Claude Auchinleck. In April 1941 he became commander of XII Corps and in December 1941 renamed the South-Eastern Command the South-Eastern Army to promote offensive spirit. During this time he developed and rehearsed his ideas and trained his soldiers, culminating in Exercise Tiger in May 1942, a combined forces exercise involving 100,000 troops.

North Africa and Italy

Montgomery in North Africa, November 1942. His aide (shown behind him looking through binoculars) was killed in action in 1945.
Montgomery in North Africa, November 1942. His aide (shown behind him looking through binoculars) was killed in action in 1945.

In 1942 a new field commander was required in the Middle East, where Auchinleck was commander-in-chief. He had stabilised the allied position at Alamein, but after a visit in August 1942, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, replaced him with Alexander, and was persuaded by Alan Brooke to appoint Montgomery commander of the British Eighth Army in the North African campaign after Churchill's own preferred candidate, William Gott, was killed flying back to Cairo.

Montgomery's peremptory assumption of command of the Eighth Army was deeply resented by Auchinleck and his departing staff, but transformed the Eighth Army. Taking command two days earlier than authorised on 13 August 1942, Montgomery ordered immediate reinforcement of the vital heights of Alam Halfa, joined the army and air headquarters together in a single operating unit, and ordered all contingency plans for retreat to be destroyed. A criticism of the Eighth Army up until this point had been that the constituent units tended to fight their own separate battles. Montgomery was determined that the Army should fight its battles in a unified, focused manner according to a detailed plan.

Montgomery made a great effort to appear before troops as often as possible, frequently visiting various units and making himself known to the men, often arranging for cigarettes to be distributed first. Although he still wore a standard British officer's cap on arrival in the desert, he briefly wore an Australian broad-brimmed hat before switching to wearing the black beret (with the badge of the Royal Tank Regiment next to the British General Officer's badge) for which he became famous. Both Brooke and Alexander were astonished by the transformation in atmosphere when they visited on 19 August.

German commander Erwin Rommel attempted to encircle the Eighth Army at the Battle of Alam Halfa from 31 August 1942. ULTRA decryption had confirmed Montgomery's initial decision to defend the area, and Rommel was halted with very little gain. After this engagement, Montgomery was criticised for not attacking the retreating German forces; however, in Montgomery's judgement, the Eighth Army could not defeat the Germans in mobile, fluid mechanised battles and choosing to engage in such a battle, therefore, would play to German strength.

The reconquest of North Africa was essential for airfields to support Malta and for Operation Torch. Ignoring Churchill's demands for quick action Montgomery prepared meticulously for the new offensive. He was determined not to fight until he thought there had been sufficient preparation for a decisive victory, and put into action his beliefs with the gathering of resources, detailed planning, the training of troops, especially in night fighting and in the use of over 300 of the latest American-built Sherman tanks, 90 M7 Priests, and visiting every single unit involved in the offensive.

Infantry advance during the Battle of El Alamein. In fact, this image was staged by the photographer Len Chetwyn, and shows Australians storming their own cookhouse.
Infantry advance during the Battle of El Alamein. In fact, this image was staged by the photographer Len Chetwyn, and shows Australians storming their own cookhouse.

The Battle of El Alamein began on 23 October 1942, and ended 12 days later with the first large-scale, decisive allied land victory of the war. Montgomery correctly predicted both the length of the battle and the number of casualties (13,500).

Montgomery was knighted and promoted to full general. The Eighth Army's subsequent advance as the Germans retreated hundreds of miles towards their bases in Tunisia used the logistical and firepower advantages of the British Army while avoiding unnecessary risks. It also gave the Allies an indication that the tide of war had genuinely turned in North Africa. Montgomery kept the initiative, applying superior strength when it suited him, forcing Rommel out of each successive defensive position. On 6 March 1943 Rommel's attack on the over-extended Eighth Army at Medenine ( Operation Capri) with the largest concentration of German armour in North Africa was successfully repulsed. At the Mareth Line, 20 to 27 March, when Montgomery encountered fiercer frontal opposition than he had anticipated, he switched his major effort into an outflanking inland pincer, backed by low-flying RAF fighter-bomber support.

This campaign demonstrated the battle-winning ingredients of morale (sickness and absenteeism were virtually eliminated in the Eighth Army), co-operation of all arms including the air forces, first-class logistical back-up and clear-cut orders.

The next major Allied attack was the Allied invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky). It was in Sicily that Montgomery's famous tensions with US commanders really began. Montgomery managed to recast plans for the Allied invasion, having Patton's Seventh US Army land in the Gulf of Gela (on the left flank of Eighth Army, which landed around Syracuse in the south-east of Sicily) rather than at Palermo in the west of Sicily as Patton had wished. Inter-allied tensions grew as the American commanders Patton and Bradley (then commanding II US Corps under Patton), took umbrage at what they perceived as Montgomery's attitudes and boastfulness. They resented him, while accepting his skills as a general.

During the autumn of 1943 Montgomery continued to command Eighth Army during the landings on the mainland of Italy itself. In conjunction with the Anglo-American landings at Salerno (near Naples) by Mark Clark's Fifth Army and seaborne landings by British paratroops in the heel of Italy (including the key port of Taranto, where they disembarked without resistance directly into the port), Montgomery led Eighth Army up the toe of Italy. Some criticism was made of the slowness of Montgomery's advance. The Eighth Army, responsible for the eastern side of the Allied front, from the central Apennine mountain spine to the Adriatic coast, fought a succession of engagements alternating between opposed crossings of the rivers running across their line of advance and attacks against the cleverly constructed defensive positions the Germans had fashioned on the ridges in between. Eighth Army crossed the Sangro river in mid-November and penetrated the German's strongest position at the Gustav Line but as the winter weather deteriorated the advance ground to a halt as transport bogged down and air support operations became impossible. Montgomery abhorred the lack of coordination, the dispersion of effort, and the strategic muddle and opportunism he percieved in the Allied effort in Italy and was glad to leave the "dog's breakfast" on 23 December.

Normandy

Montgomery returned to Britain to take command of the 21st Army Group which consisted of all Allied ground forces that would take part in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. Preliminary planning for the invasion had been taking place for two years, most recently by COSSAC staff (Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander). Montgomery quickly concluded that the COSSAC plan was too limited, and strongly advocated expanding the plan from a three-division to a five-division assault. As with his takeover of the Eighth Army, Montgomery travelled frequently to his units, raising morale and ensuring training was progressing. At St Paul's School on 7 April and 15 May he presented his strategy for the invasion. He envisaged a ninety day battle, ending when all the forces reached the Seine, pivoting on an Allied-held Caen, with British and Canadian armies forming a shoulder and the US armies wheeling on the right.

During the hard fought two and a half month Battle of Normandy that followed, the impact of a series of unfavourable autumnal weather conditions disrupted the Normandy landing areas and seriously hampered the tactical delivery of planned transportation of personnel and supplies which were being brought over precipitously across the English Channel. Consequently, Montgomery argues in his literary account (WIP) that he was unable to follow his pre-battle plan precisely to the timescales planned outside of battle. It should be noted that the extension of the battle plan by one month was the cause of significant retrospective criticisms of Montgomery by some of his American peers, including the much respected Bradley and equally controversial Patton. However, it can be shown that this may well have been embitterment relating to Montgomery's Bulge press statement above.

Montgomery's plan was clear in its early brief, that is, an aggressive British and Canadian presence in the east to attract the bulk of the German armour, combined with a building up of American forces in the west as preparation to a southern breakout, followed by a pincer east originally towards the Seine, where all bridges west of Paris were destroyed. Correctly the American pincers turned north for an entrapment at Falaise. Regardless of concerns over delays and operational wisdom, Montgomery significantly adapted and strategically planned the Normandy landings to the extent that it was the significant structure which attracted, trapped and destroyed the bulk of the German attacking forces from north western France, that is from the Point de Calais to Le Havre, and beyond. (WIP).

As stated above, this series of battle plans by the British, Canadian and American armies inflicted one of the biggest defeats of the war on the German army in the west. The campaign that Montgomery fought was essentially attritional until the middle of July with the occupation of the Cotentin Peninsula and a series of offensives in the east, which secured Caen and attracted the bulk of German armour there. An American breakout was achieved with Operation Cobra and the encirclement of German forces in the Falaise pocket at the cost of British sacrifice with the diversionary Operation Goodwood.

Advance to the Rhine

Montgomery talking to General Maczek, commanding officer of Polish 1st Armoured Division, 1945.
Montgomery talking to General Maczek, commanding officer of Polish 1st Armoured Division, 1945.

The increasing preponderance of American troops in the European theatre (from four out of seven divisions at D-Day to 72 out of 85 in 1945) made it a political impossibility for the Ground Forces Commander to be British. After the end of the Normandy campaign, General Eisenhower himself took over Ground Forces Command while continuing as Supreme Commander, with Montgomery continuing to command the 21st Army Group, now consisting mainly of British and Canadian units. Montgomery bitterly resented this change, even though it had been agreed before the D-Day invasion. Winston Churchill had Montgomery promoted to field marshal by way of compensation.

Montgomery was able to persuade Eisenhower to adopt his strategy of a single thrust to the Ruhr with Operation Market Garden in September 1944. It was the most uncharacteristic of Montgomery's battles: the offensive was bold and poorly planned. It ended in failure with the destruction of the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem. Montgomery's preoccupation with the push to the Ruhr had also distracted him from the essential task of clearing the Scheldt during the capture of Antwerp, and so after Arnhem, Montgomery's group were instructed to concentrate on doing this so that the port of Antwerp could be opened.

When the surprise attack on the Ardennes took place on 16 December 1944, starting the Battle of the Bulge, the front of the U.S. 12th Army Group was split, with the bulk of the U.S. First Army on the northern shoulder of the German 'bulge'. The Army Group commander, General Omar Bradley, was located south of the penetration at Luxembourg and command of the U.S. First Army became problematic. Montgomery was the nearest commander on the ground and on 20 December, Eisenhower (who was in Versailles) transferred Courtney Hodges' U.S. First Army and William Simpson's U.S. Ninth Army to his 21st Army Group, despite Bradley's vehement objections on nationalistic grounds. Montgomery grasped the situation quickly, visiting all divisional, corps, and army field commanders himself and instituting his 'Phantom' network of liaison officers. He grouped the British XXX Corps as a strategic reserve behind the Meuse and reorganised the U.S. defence of the northern shoulder, shortening and strengthening the line and ordering the evacuation of St Vith. The German commander of the 5th Panzer Army, Hasso von Manteuffel said

"The operations of the American 1st Army had developed into a series of individual holding actions. Montgomery's contribution to restoring the situation was that he turned a series of isolated actions into a coherent battle fought according to a clear and definite plan. It was his refusal to engage in premature and piecemeal counter-attacks which enabled the Americans to gather their reserves and frustrate the German attempts to extend their breakthrough."

Montgomery (left), Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham (centre) and the Commander of the British Second Army, Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey, talking after a conference in which Montgomery gave the order for Second Army to begin the crossing of the Rhine.
Montgomery (left), Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham (centre) and the Commander of the British Second Army, Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey, talking after a conference in which Montgomery gave the order for Second Army to begin the crossing of the Rhine.

Eisenhower had then wanted Montgomery to go on the offensive on 1 January to meet Patton's army that had started advancing from the south on 19 December and in doing so, trap the Germans. However, Montgomery refused to commit infantry he considered underprepared into a snowstorm and for a strategically unimportant piece of land. He did not launch the attack until 3 January, by which point the German forces had been able to escape. A large part of American military opinion thought that he should not have held back, though it was characteristic of him not to want to throw troops away owing to inadequate preparation. After the battle the U.S. First Army was restored to the 12th Army Group; the U.S. Ninth Army remained under 21st Army Group until it crossed the Rhine.

Montgomery's 21st Army Group advanced to the Rhine with operations Veritable and Grenade in February 1945. After a meticulously-planned Rhine crossing on 24 March and the subsequent encirclement of the German Army Group B in the Ruhr, Montgomery's role was initially to guard the flank of the American advance. This was altered, however, to forestall any chance of a Red Army advance into Denmark, and the 21st Army Group occupied Hamburg and Rostock and sealed off the Danish peninsula.

On 4 May 1945, on Lüneburg Heath, Montgomery accepted the surrender of German forces in northern Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. Characteristically, this was done plainly in a tent without any ceremony. In the same year he was awarded the Order of the Elephant, the highest order in Denmark.

On 26 October 1945 he was made a Freeman of Huddersfield.

Later life

Montgomery and Soviet generals Zhukov, Sokolovsky and Rokossovsky at the Brandenburg Gate 12 July 1945.
Montgomery and Soviet generals Zhukov, Sokolovsky and Rokossovsky at the Brandenburg Gate 12 July 1945.

After the war, Montgomery was created 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein in 1946. He was Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1946 until 1948, but was largely a failure as it required the strategic and political skills he did not possess. He clashed particularly with his old rival Arthur Tedder, who as Deputy Supreme Commander had intrigued for Montgomery's dismissal during the Battle of Normandy, and who was by now Chief of the Air Staff. When Montgomery's term of office expired, the Prime Minister Clement Attlee appointed General (later Field-Marshal) William Slim as his successor; when Montgomery protested that he had already promised the job to his protege General Crocker, a former corps commander from the 1944-5 campaign, Attlee is said to have given the memorable retort "Untell him".

Montgomery was then supreme commander or chairman of the western union's commanders-in-chief committee. He was an effective inspector-general and mounted good exercises, but out of his depth politically, and was pleased to become Eisenhower's deputy in creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces in 1951, continuing to serve under Eisenhower's successors Ridgeway and Al Gruenther until his retirement, aged seventy-one, in 1958. His mother died in 1949; Montgomery did not attend the funeral, claiming he was "too busy".

Montgomery was chairman of the governing body of St John's School, Leatherhead, Surrey from 1951 to 1966 and a generous supporter.

Montgomery as CIGS with Wavell and Auchinleck.
Montgomery as CIGS with Wavell and Auchinleck.

In 1953, the Hamilton Board of Education in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, wrote to Montgomery and asked permission to name a new school in the city's east end after him. Viscount Montgomery Elementary was billed as "the most modern school in North America" and the largest single-storey school in Hamilton, when the sod was turned on 14 March 1951. The school officially opened on 18 April 1953, with Montgomery in attendance among almost 10,000 well-wishers. At the opening, he gave the motto "Gardez Bien" from his own family's coat of arms.

Montgomery referred to the school as his "beloved school" and visited on five separate occasions, the last being in 1960. On his last visit, he said to "his" students:

Let's make Viscount Montgomery School the best in Hamilton, the best in Ontario, the best in Canada. I don't associate myself with anything that is not good. It is up to you to see that everything about this school is good. It is up to the students to not only be their best in school but in their behaviour outside of Viscount. Education is not just something that will help you pass your exams and get you a job, it is to develop your brain to teach you to marshal facts and do things.

Before retirement, Montgomery's outspoken views on some subjects, such as race, were often officially suppressed. After retirement these outspoken views became public and his reputation suffered. He supported apartheid (although such views were more common in the 1960s than subsequently) and Chinese communism under Mao Zedong, and argued against the legalisation of homosexuality in the United Kingdom, arguing that the Sexual Offences Act 1967 was a "charter for buggery" and that "this sort of thing may be tolerated by the French, but we're British — thank God." Ironically, a number of Montgomery's biographers, including Chalfont (1976) (who found something "disturbingly equivocal" in "his relations with boys and young men") and Nigel Hamilton (2002) have suggested that he may himself have been a repressed homosexual; in the late 1940s he conducted an affectionate friendship with a Swiss boy, Lucien Treub.

Statue of Montgomery at Whitehall, London unveiled in 1980
Statue of Montgomery at Whitehall, London unveiled in 1980

Montgomery's memoirs (1958) were broadly judged to be tactless and arrogant. He criticised many of his wartime comrades in harsh terms, including Eisenhower (whom he accused, among other things, of prolonging the war by a year through poor leadership — allegations which ended their friendship, not least as Eisenhower was still US President at the time). He was stripped of his honorary citizenship of Montgomery, Alabama, and was challenged to a duel by an Italian officer. He was threatened with legal action by Field-Marshal Auchinleck for suggesting that Auchinleck had intended to retreat from the Alamein position if attacked again, and had to give a radio broadcast (20 November 1958) expressing his gratitude to Auchinleck for having stabilised the front at the First Battle of Alamein. The 1960 edition of his memoirs contains a publishers' note (opposite page 15) drawing attention to that broadcast, and stating that in the publishers' view the reader might assume from Montgomery's text that Auchinleck had been planning to retreat and pointing out that this was in fact not the case.

Perhaps at least in part because of these controversies, Montgomery was never raised to an earldom, although unlike his wartime contemporaries Harold Alexander, Louis Mountbatten and even Archibald Wavell, he had never been a Theatre Supreme Commander or held high political office. An official task he insisted on performing in his later years was bearing the Sword of State during the State Opening of Parliament. His increasing frailty, however, raised concerns about his ability to stand for long periods while carrying the heavy weapon. Ultimately, those fears were borne out when he collapsed in mid-ceremony in 1968 and did not perform this function again.

A favourite pastime of the British press during these years was to photograph Montgomery cashing his old age pension cheque at the local social security office. Because of his eminence, many assumed Montgomery was wealthy and did not need the money. In fact, he had always been a man of modest means and it caused him great anguish that many believed he was taking taxpayer money he did not need.

Another blow was a break-in at his home. Despite making a heartbreaking televised appeal for the return of his possessions, many of which bore only sentimental value, the items were never recovered.

Montgomery died in 1976 at his home in Alton, Hampshire, and was interred in the nearby Holy Cross Churchyard, Binsted after a state funeral at St George's Chapel, Windsor. His portrait (by Frank O. Salisbury, 1945) hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. A statue of Viscount Montgomery can be found outside the Defence Ministry in Whitehall, alongside those of William Slim and Alan Brooke. Another statue of Viscount Montgomery can be found in Brussels, Belgium, watching a Montgomery Square.

Character and controversy

Montgomery was a complex person. On the one hand, though far from flawless, he was a great and successful general through hard work, a refusal to conform to dead tradition, and an open, clear and alert mind. He was a humane man and was capable of inspiring great loyalty among his staff and his troops. Montgomery believed that in the 20th century it was essential to explain to troops why they were fighting and that orders and plans must be clear. He therefore tended to appeal more to the common soldiers under his command than to many of the officers who had more direct dealings with him. These men defended him with great passion even after the war, as the British historian Richard Holmes discovered when he was critical of Montgomery.

On the other hand, he was personally a difficult man. Montgomery did not get on with his contemporaries and mostly associated with junior officers. He was insensitive, conceited, and boastful. He was not an easy man to know socially and not loyal to the staff officers serving immediately under him. His dismissive and occasionally insulting attitude to others often soured opinions about his abilities and personality. It can be argued that his failures happened when he allowed his desire for personal glory to taint his planning, causing him to abandon his usual caution.

In stark contrast to his counterpart in East Asia, Field Marshal William Slim, Montgomery rarely ever admitted to making a single mistake during the Second World War. Slim was far more candid about his own mistakes, even in his wartime memoirs, than Montgomery.

Often it was Montgomery's statements about battles, as much as his actual conduct of them, that formed the basis of controversy. In his career, Montgomery's orders to his subordinates were clear and complete, yet with his superiors his communications would be opaque and incomplete. So, in Normandy he gave the impression to Eisenhower and others that he was attempting a breakout, while playing down this possibility in his actual orders to his subordinates. For example, shortly before Operation Goodwood he removed Falaise as an objective, but did not forward these new orders to SHAEF. Throughout his career he enraged his superiors and colleagues, partly because he would not allow convention to disrupt military effectiveness, partly because of a contempt for authority and an unwillingness to be in a situation where he was not in control, and partly because he could be quite a strange person. Walter Bedell Smith once said to him "You may be great to serve under, difficult to serve alongside, but you sure are hell to serve over!". He also found it difficult to publicly admit his operations had not gone to plan, irrespective of whether they were ultimately successful (Normandy) or unsuccessful (Market Garden, where he claimed that it had been a 90% success).

In the United Kingdom, Montgomery is remembered particularly for his victorious campaign in North Africa, which, with the Battle of Stalingrad, was very much seen as the turning point of World War II. The different nature of the war for the United States means that his reputation there is very much coloured by the controversies in the later stages of the war in Europe, especially around the Battle of the Bulge. These brought into relief both his virtues and failings.

At the end of 1944 there was tension between the Allies owing to a campaign by the British press for Eisenhower to appoint a deputy and for him to be the Allied ground commander. Immediately after the Battle of the Bulge, on 7 January 1945 Montgomery held a press conference in which he downplayed the role of the American generals, especially Patton, in the Allied victory at the Battle of the Bulge and focused on his own generalship. Many of his comments were ill-judged, particularly his statement that when the situation "began to deteriorate", Eisenhower had placed him in command in the north, and they were inflammatory to Patton, implying that he needed to be rescued by Montgomery "with a bang". In the press conference Montgomery said that he thought the counter-offensive had gone very well and did not explain his delayed attack on 3 January. According to Churchill, the attack from the south under Patton was steady but slow and involved heavy losses, and Montgomery claimed to be trying to avoid this situation. Montgomery also gave the impression that substantial British forces had been involved in the fighting that repelled the German attack (an impression explicitly corrected by Churchill in the House of Commons). A slanted version inserted by Germany within an Allied radio broadcast added to American resentment.

In a memo to Eisenhower, Montgomery proposed that he should again be made Commander Ground Forces and implicitly criticised recent conduct of the war while American confidence had been shaken and nerves were raw. Eisenhower, encouraged by the Deputy Supreme Commander, Air Marshal Tedder (another person with a long running feud with Montgomery), was on the point of dismissing Montgomery, when Bedell Smith and Montgomery's chief-of-staff, Major-General Freddie de Guingand, pointed that this would be both politically unwise and difficult to justify. De Guingand was able to convince Montgomery of the impact of his words (of which he was apparently unaware) and Montgomery wrote an apology to Eisenhower. The moment passed. Eisenhower commented in his memoirs: "I doubt if Montgomery ever came to realise how resentful some American commanders were. They believed he had belittled them — and they were not slow to voice reciprocal scorn and contempt".

On the other hand, during the same press conference Montgomery showed his respect for ordinary troops and eulogised the American soldier:

I first saw him in battle in Sicily and I formed a very high opinion of him. I saw him again in Italy. He is a very brave fighting man, steady under fire and with that tenacity in battle which marks the first-class fighting soldier. I have a great affection and admiration for the American soldier. I salute the brave fighting men of America. I never want to fight alongside better soldiers. I have tried to feel that I am almost an American soldier myself so that I might take no unsuitable action or offend them in any way ... Rundstedt was really beaten by the good fighting qualities of the American soldier and by the team work of the Allies.

On Eisenhower, he said:

The captain of our team is Eisenhower. I am absolutely devoted to Ike; we are the greatest of friends. It grieves me when I see uncomplimentary articles about him in the British press; he bears a great burden, he needs our fullest support, he has the right to expect it and it is up to all of us to see that he gets it.

Montgomery later wrote:

I think now that I should never have held that press conference. So great were the feelings against me on the part of the American generals that whatever I said was bound to be wrong. I should therefore have said nothing.

Brooke was perhaps near the truth when he said of Montgomery,

He is probably the finest tactical general we have had since Wellington. But on some of his strategy, and especially on his relations with the Americans, he is almost a disaster.

Assessment of Montgomery as a military commander

Any assessment of Montgomery is immediately entangled in his sometimes difficult, boastful personality, harshness towards those he felt did not measure up, and issues of Anglo-American national pride. Nevertheless this section attempts a balanced summing up of his general leadership from a military perspective. Was he primarily a ponderous set-piece general or was he indeed one of the most brilliant commanders of recent history, a true heir to Marlborough, at least from the British perspective? The truth lies somewhere in between. It is helpful to analyse Montgomery's generalship by looking at some central aspects of his successes and failures.

Positive aspects

As a trainer of men and mentor of subordinates

Montgomery deserves his due as an outstanding trainer of men. His record in Palestine, North Africa, Sicily and Northern Europe shows this. His meticulous preparation of his troops, ranging from the usual physical necessities, to painstaking explanation of his vision and plans down to relatively low levels, to well articulated exercises and drills, to his insistence that formations like divisions "should fight as divisions" (i.e. gain proficiency in "big picture" coordination and integration) show the mind and skill of a keen organiser. None of this is earth-shattering for any competent military commander (though many of his contemporaries, including many remembered better by history, showed great deficiencies in this regard), but Montgomery demonstrated a great level of proficiency and made it one of his special trademarks.

Montgomery was a keen advocate of physical fitness and hard training: in the desert he had all ranks from brigadier down doing daily physical training; any man, no matter what rank, was expected to be fit to fight, and if any officer could not keep up on daily runs, he was sent home - Montgomery once observed that if a middle-aged officer was going to have a heart attack, better for it to happen on a training run than in action. Montgomery was also a critic of Battle Drill Training, which he felt was a crutch used by unit commanders. His personal view, put into action during the Phony War and afterwards, was that company and battalion training in the phases of war—relief in place, passage of obstacles, hasty attack, etc.—was ignored in favour of simple drilling at the section and platoon level.

Montgomery had a deep technical understanding of how the Army operated, at all levels from the infantry company to the Army Group. He helped to shape the Canadian army through assisting the formation of the fledgling First Canadian Army while they were under his command in South-Eastern Army. Montgomery personally visited most Canadian units, down to the battalion level, and assisted Canadian Army commander Harry Crerar in weeding out poor officers, giving direct criticism of battalion commanders, company commanders, and even regimental sergeants-major. Montgomery indirectly shaped the Canadian Army that saw action in Italy and NW Europe.

As a strategist and tactician

Montgomery's hallmark as a strategist was a detailed analysis of his enemy and development of a clear vision as to how that enemy was to be fought and defeated. Two words sum up the approach of the British commander: clarity and organization. These were put into practice through careful preparation of what he termed a "master plan", to which all subsequent effort was to be subordinated. The "master plan" embodied the vision, and the strategic and tactical approaches that would be used. Far from being rigid, Montgomery held that the flexibility or "balance" was one of the keys to his overarching structure. He regarded the German Army as one of hard-core professionalism, and held that wishful thinking and foggy concepts against such an opponent was a recipe for dismal failure.

Montgomery sought changes along these lines in the plan for the Allied invasion of Sicily. His influence however was more limited and his own less-than-spectacular gains in the difficult terrain, were unfavorably compared by some to the thrusting mobility of US General George Patton — a foreshadowing of controversies to come. Operation Husky was a success, but the Germans were able to extract tens of thousands of troops from Sicily to fight elsewhere, indicating that Montgomery's concerns about concepts, planning and execution were not totally off the mark.

His approach can be seen in his insistence on recasting or adjusting the invasion plans of Normandy, generally strengthening initial shock forces and insisting on a clear vision and method of how subsequent battles were to be fought. The success of the D-Day landings owed a great debt to Montgomery's planning. After the war, Eisenhower and his chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Walter Bedell Smith told the American military correspondent, Drew Middleton that "No one else could have got us across the Channel and into Normandy... Whatever they say about him, he got us there".

Montgomery felt his approach vindicated at the Second Battle of El Alamein. His strategic vision ushered in much needed clarity, and his defensive preparations (drawing in part on the prior work of his predecessor Auchinleck) also envisioned a decisive counterattack. During the most critical point of the battle his concept of "balance" or flexibility within the confines of a master plan held, and the British were able to shift forces to see off Rommel's thrust, and mount their own riposte that shattered the back of the Axis formations.

The Battle of Normandy saw similar success. He insisted on more forces for the initial landing and a clear vision for the further campaign against some planners who were primarily concerned with just getting on the beach. Despite the failure of all but the Canadians to gain the ambitious targets on D-Day, and the subsequent improvisations, his strategy of attritional battle on the left drawing in German forces and allowing a breakthrough on the right was successful. This approach could not be broadcast on the nightly news and the public perception of the struggle was typically one that saw both Allies equally attempting to break out of the beachhead, with progress being "slow." Montgomery however persisted, and deflecting pressure from his superiors (who remained in England) for quicker results, retained mastery of the developing battle. Overall, he achieved victory well within the originally planned ninety days. Normandy and El Alamein cement Montgomery's place as one of the greatest of the modern British generals in the view of some historians, and vindicate his concept of "balance" within the overall structure of a dominant "master plan".

As a builder of morale

Montgomery also deserves credit as a builder of morale, both that of his soldiers and that of the general public. A large part of his reputation has been sustained by the people who served under him. After his experiences in the First World War he had determined not to waste soldiers' lives: as Haig persisted in attritional battles, Montgomery wrote to his brother Donald, on seeing Canadians sent to assault Passchendaele Ridge that they were 'magnificent', but 'they forget that the whole art of war is to gain your objective with as little loss as possible', which was a doctrine that Montgomery subsequently lived by.

Further to this, he also displayed a genuine concern for the welfare of the men serving under him: for example, at one time he jeopardised his career by illegally hiring out land to a fair to raise welfare funds; he arranged for female nurses at forward casualty clearing centres in the desert war in 1943; he took a very pragmatic view towards sexual health; directly after the Battle of Medenine he was lobbying Brooke to allow long-serving soldiers to return to England. Coupled with this was his belief that soldiers must actually understand why they were fighting, and that they deserve to have things properly explained to them. Montgomery thought that one of the most important roles for a military commander was to motivate his men to fight, that military command is "a great human problem". In addition, Montgomery's experiences in the First World War led him to despise generals who led from the rear, well away from any fighting, and so was visible in his campaigns.

The early years of World War II saw a series of humiliating defeats and military reverses for Britain. Montgomery was not the first to unequivocally reverse. His experiences in Ireland had shown him the importance of public support in a war. Montgomery was sometimes ungracious, but he was able to painstakingly articulate a vision for victory and couple with it a good sense for publicity (the use of his distinctive black beret with two badges, for example). He continued these same methods in England prior to the invasion, insisting on a clear concept of battle beyond the beaches, all united under a powerful master plan. Later on, Montgomery was not the only leader who struck a distinctive chord for morale prior to the great invasion, but he was certainly one of the most influential, ensuring not only the troops that stepped ashore on 6 June, were thus men confident in their leaders, their plans, their equipment and their cause, but so were the public. His speaking tour of British munitions factories before D-Day had made Churchill worry that he would be "filling The Mall" with adoring crowds if he was allowed to receive his field marshal's baton at Buckingham Palace.

Criticisms of Montgomery's generalship

Montgomery's record also has been extensively criticised. The criticism of his actions tends to be bound up with his difficult personality and relationships with superiors (see the Character and controversy Section above) but generally two areas in particular can be separated out, which are summarised here.

Slowness and over-caution

Montgomery was often accused of being slow and overcautious. Examples cited include before El Alamein, afterwards in the pursuit of Rommel, the Battle of Normandy, and in the counter-offensive in the Ardennes. In North Africa, prior to Montgomery taking command, the history of the campaign in North Africa had see-sawed as each offensive outran its supply lines: both sides won battles but neither gained a decisive advantage.

Similarly, during the Battle of Normandy, the fear of stalemate made the supreme command in Britain pressure Montgomery to push harder. At one point in July 1944, it was thought that Churchill was flying to France to personally sack Montgomery at Eisenhower's request. Air commanders complained that Montgomery had not captured suitable airfields from which to operate. Much is made of the fact that many of Montgomery's initial targets were not met, especially the failure to capture Caen on the first day or even for weeks after D-Day (criticism that was compounded after the war when Montgomery insisted that all elements had gone "according to plan", which clearly was not the case, although it should be noted in fairness that the bulk of the German panzer divisions, including S.S. units, were stationed on the Caen sector). However his predictions, the so called "phase lines" on the maps, were never intended to be a rigid guarantee but a guide, as would be clear from previous opposed landings at Salerno and Anzio. Much of the criticism resulted from Montgomery giving his superiors and the press the impression that he was trying to achieve large-scale breakouts while actually fighting an attritional campaign. However, in the end Montgomery's success was achieved in less time than planned.

Montgomery was not a dashing general, and deliberately methodical, usually not willing to sacrifice military effectiveness for other people's agenda. The realities of the wartime Britain must also be remembered. It had seen severe early defeats, an economy almost crippled by German U-boat attacks, and dwindling supplies of manpower to fight on fronts ranging from the Far East to the Mediterranean. There simply were no more big armies to commit wholesale in Normandy or elsewhere. Montgomery thus carefully husbanded the troops he had left. Furthermore, much of his apparent caution sprang from his regard for human life and a desire not to throw the lives of his troops away in the manner of the generals of the First World War. Therefore, for El Alamein, Normandy and the Ardennes, he was not prepared to go into an offensive until there was complete readiness of both men, equipment, and logistics. This approach sometimes exasperated his superiors, but it generally brought success, and ensured his popularity with his men.

The criticism of slowness and caution has been taken further with Montgomery being called primarily a "general of matériel": one who emerged at the right time and place to take advantage of the massive outpouring of American and British war production, ensuring the Allies local material superiority against their opponents. But this charge is hard to maintain in a war during which material weight counted above almost all factors. It was a mass production war in every theatre, and the same "matériel" criticism of Montgomery must then need to apply to the great Russian commanders of the Eastern Front like Zhukov or Konev, as well as to the American effort. Equally, it ignores the successful improvised actions in North Africa, Normandy, and the Ardennes, and yet as stated above, Montgomery did not have the man power or equipment to achieve those scale victories; so in essence one could say he was doing more with what he had, than any other general in Europe.

Market Garden and the Scheldt estuaries

A second great area of criticism centres around Montgomery's only defeat of the Second World War, the failure of Operation Market Garden at Arnhem. It may be significant that this operation was unlike any of Montgomery's successful battles by being bold, but poorly planned and supported. R.W.Thompson writes

The conception of such a plan was impossible for a man of Montgomery's innate caution... In fact, Montgomery's decision to mount the operation aimed at the Zuider Zee was as startling as it would have been for an elderly and saintly Bishop suddenly to take up safe-cracking and begin on the Bank of England.

It has been suggested that the ambition of the plan may have been a result of interpersonal friction and competition with the American generals, as well as other personality traits

A result of the concentration on Market Garden was the failure to clear the Scheldt estuary, which surrounded the vital port of Antwerp. In the autumn of 1944 the Allies required a port to shorten their supply lines and allow supplies to be brought in for the advance into Germany. It also meant that the Germans could reinforce their defensive lines in Holland, blocking one main axis of advance into their homeland. Montgomery pleaded the difficulties of continual fighting in prior weeks and logistical problems, but the result of the distraction of Market Garden was the escape of the German 15th Army and lengthy operations to clear the Scheldt. Thompson calls it "Montgomery's most agonizing failure", while Montgomery himself later noted that this was "a bad mistake — I underestimated the difficulty of opening up the approaches to Antwerp ... I reckoned that the Canadian Army could do it while we were going for the Ruhr. I was wrong."

Quotation

  • "The U.S. has broken the second rule of war. That is, don't go fighting with your land army on the mainland of Asia. Rule One is don't march on Moscow. I developed these two rules myself."
(spoken of the US approach to the Vietnam War) Quoted in Chalfont's Montgomery of Alamein.

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