In practice, the nickname or epithet ‘Monty’ was not used when addressing Bernard Law Montgomery, except possibly by the few other soldiers senior to him in rank, and even then, with caution. He was born in 1887, and became a middle-sized, clip-toned, fiery exponent of the philosophy that insists that anything will be achieved by will-power. Montgomery rose so fast after leaving Sandhurst that he was appointed Lt. General, commander of the British Eighth Army in North Africa in August, 1942. He was a greyhound-like fifty-five.
Montgomery found his troops fed up, dispirited, low in morale. He adopted slightly unmilitary dress, favouring light fawn trousers of decidedly military cut, with a grey pullover peeping below a standard battle dress jacket. On his head he wore a distinctly peculiar beret, more like a Basque farmer’s headgear than a British general’s. On it he wore not one cap badge but two or perhaps three. The men loved it. He used to give them what he called ‘pep-talks’ which enthused them.
His predecessor Auchinleck had stopped Rommel’s advance at the First Battle of Alamein in July, 1942, but had then halted, making a defensive line there at El Alamein and at Alam Halfa. The brilliant German leader attacked this defensive line but was repulsed by Montgomery – their first meeting in battle. It was the first time Rommel had failed, and possibly made his Fuehrer suspicious of him, even if he knew Rommel was an example of the perfect German soldier. In 1944 this suspicion was the cause of Rommel’s forced suicide.
Montgomery set about building up a tremendous superiority in tanks, aircraft and men, ready to attack, again at El Alamein in October, 1942. The battle commenced with an overwhelming artillery barrage that permanently deafened many troops, but ‘softened up the ground’ – one of the British general’s favourite phrases. Montgomery defeated Rommel again at the Second Battle of Alamein but failed to follow up in time to destroy what was left of the Afrika Korps. The British badly needed this victory notwithstanding and its propaganda effect was magical. It seemed the tide might have turned at last.
Montgomery was knighted almost immediately, a popular move with some of the Allies and was promoted from Lieutenant-General to full General. He set to work planning an invasion of Sicily but was forced to work under the American General Eisenhower, with whom he did not get along, for various reasons not worth going into here. When the invasion actually took place Montgomery was again given a secondary role. He was reputedly furious.
In December, 1943 however he was recalled from Italy to start preparations for Operation Overlord – the invasion of France involving British and Commonwealth forces, the United States, the Poles, Free France and others. He was made Commander, but not Supreme Commander, this was Eisenhower again. As planner, Montgomery made an important contribution by securing agreement for a wide front for the D-Day landing of June 6, 1944.
Following the successful invasion of France, Montgomery did not shine in his attempted break-out from Caen (Normandy, 20 July), but managed to attract the German tank forces to his left flank so that the US could advance at Avranches. After the undoubted success of British and Commonwealth forces on the beaches he thought he should be in charge of all land operations waiting for the advance towards Germany. He hugely resented Eisenhower taking over land operations, and was not ‘backward in coming forward’, saying that the Supreme Commander’s ‘ignorance as to how to run a war is absolute and complete’. He added that he, Montgomery, should ‘run the land battle for him’. Now the internecine conflict between very high ranking generals was complete. Montgomery asserted that he alone was responsible for the successes in Normandy, and constantly re-asserted that he should be put in overall charge of the American generals. He was not at all popular with any American (except one, as we shall see later), and much grumbling and shouting took place.
King George VI, commander-in-chief of all British forces, responded rather nobly to the complaining Americans by making Montgomery a Field-Marshal. He had explained to the War Office and the King that he wanted a narrow-front strategy, by which all available forces would be placed under his command, ready for crossing the Rhine and advancing straight towards Berlin. At last the American generals agreed, especially Patton, but the cardboard political ones did not; they thought that Soviet Russia should be allowed to take Berlin, which of course they did, causing total loss of freedom for half of Eastern Europe, and the Cold War.
Eisenhower, meanwhile, agreed with Montgomery that they should strike at the Germans at Arnhem in Holland, using paratroops to secure the many bridges across the Rhine. This manoeuvre, called ‘The North-West Europe Campaign’ by military historians, proved disastrous, as there were more German divisions and tanks in the Arnhem/Nijmegen zones than had been reported by intelligence services. The action was an expensive failure, in terms of men, equipment, cost and morale, but Montgomery managed to extricate himself in time to assist the Americans in the Battle of the Bulge, which they were losing. He duly crossed the Rhine with text-book correctness in February, 1945. He wanted desperately to carry on, as the greatest military force ever assembled was prepared to rush forward and take Berlin before the Russians could. Eisenhower expressly forbade it, saying the relief of Berlin must be left to the Russians. Only his shade could explain why.
Montgomery, grinding his teeth, was left to clear away German forces from Holland and Denmark, and receive the surrender of all German forces in the north, at Luneberg Heath on 4 May, 1945. He then became Governor of the British controlled zone of Germany until he replaced Sir Alan Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke), as CIGS (Chief of the Imperial General Staff) in June, 1946.
Historians do not agree in the opinions they hold on Montgomery’s merits as a commander. Some have said he was the greatest fighting strategist and leader since the Duke of Wellington, others found him foolish, arrogant and a fop. He was asked in an interview when he was admittedly a little ancient who had been the three greatest generals of all time: he replied that the other two had been Alexander and Napoleon. Modesty apart, he was certainly one of the most successful (and popular) generals in the Second World War (“Good old Monty!”) Most historians (especially those who have never fired a shot in their life) find him ‘competent’ but ‘over-cautious and unimaginative’, to which the thinking man must respond that no soldier who was over-cautious and unimaginative could ever have thought of Arnhem – even if it turned out to be a failure –not necessarily Montgomery’s fault. Some historians have claimed that Montgomery’s successes were based on superior force and the orthodox set-piece battle. So were Frederick the Great’s and Marlborough’s. The epoch of Wingate and Templar (“Disguise your best men as apes and get them into the jungle and kill the enemy!”) was to come.
Field-Marshal Montgomery died, full of honours, in 1976. He was eighty-nine.