Two World War II soldiers: Alexander & Montgomery

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Two World War II soldiers: Alexander & Montgomery

Many generals co-operate or fight against each other, not always on opposing sides. Almost all the Second War generals and field marshals on both the Axis side or in the Allies actually knew each other, some reasonably well, because they had coincided at some military college or other. Sandhurst, St. Cyr, and even West Point trained and entertained future generals as officer cadets from Germany, France, Italy, Britain, her Commonwealth, and the United States. Here we take a brief look at two of the most important Generals in the War, later made Field Marshals. Neither was famous for enjoying good humour or any company other than their own; both were immensely ambitious, both were driven by the Furies that inspire War.

Harold Robert Leofric George Alexander was born in 1891, a Victorian. After a classic English education, not exempting bullying, he became a young officer in the Irish Guards during the latter half of the Ist War. Rising fast, his short temper by no means hindering his ‘upward mobility’, he was commanding a brigade (two or more regiments combined) on the North-West Frontier of India in the 1930s.

When the Second War broke out Alexander was appointed Commander of the First Division of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) in France in 1939. He was not yet fifty years old and a Lieutenant-General.

The BEF failed hopelessly against superior German forces, and had to withdraw to the British coast, miraculously aided by calm weather in the Channel. This was Dunkirk, one of those mysterious pieces of good fortune so painfully rare in wartime. Thousands of soldiers in the BEF were collected from the beaches and quays at Dunkirk by the British Navy accompanied by every kind of small or large motor boat, private sloop, old fashioned schooner, even rowing boats and fishing smacks which bravel put out from English ports despite constant attack by German aircraft – in extraordinarily fine weather to save the troops. Alexander was the last senior officer to leave Dunkirk. It was June, 1940.

After conferences with his political and military superiors in which Alexander had a great deal to say, mostly positive, devastatingly frank and distinctly politically in correct, Alexander was sent to the Far East, where he had to supervise another retreat, this time Rangoon (Burma) to Assam, after the overwhelmingly successful Japanese invasion in March, 1942. This withdrawal succeeded too, but Alexander longed for victory, not retreat.

In July Churchill made Alexander Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East. He was responsible for the North Sarican campaign (1942/3) in which the British Eighth Army under Bernard Montgomery advanced from El Alamein to Tunis. Rivarly and rows between the two ambitious generals was intense, and the respective staffs followed suit.

By now the Americans had entered the War and had reversed the maps to suit their point of view. General Alexander found himself second-in-command under Eisenhower (a general who had never been in a fighting campaign) in the last phases of the war in North Africa; subsequently the invasion of Sicily. It had been decided by the powers that be that the best way to attack ‘the soft underbelly’ of Germany was to invade Italy at the very southernmost point, and then fight upwards and north. Alexander was annoyed, frustrated and anguished by the terrible losses at Anzio (January, 1944), and later by the stubbornly determined defence of Monte Casino by  Axis forces.

He stayed as Allied Commander in Italy until the end of the War. He had the satisfaction of entering capitulating Rome at the head of the Allied forces on 4 June, 1944, and was promoted Field Marshal in December of that year.

After the War he accepted a rather mild job as Governor-General of the Dominion of Canada, from 1946 to 1952; after six years in which his temper did not much improve, he returned to Britain to serve two years as Minister of Defence under Winston Churchill. He died in 1969 at seventy-eight, after being made first a Viscount, then an Earl ( 1946 and 1952 respectively).

Bernard Law Montgomery was born in London in 1887, though he passed much of his boyhood in Tasmania, where his father was a Bishop. Later he served throughout the First War with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in India, France and Ireland. Within only 3 months of the beginning of the Great War he was wounded fighting on the Western Front.

Having recovered, and already establishing a reputation as a fighting soldier with a short temper, terrific ambition, and unassailable panache, he served in India and Palestine, and then commanded the Third Division of the BEF (see above) in France and Belgium in 1939/40.

Montgomery made his military reputation while commanding the Eighth Army from 1942 – 44. He fought his way from the desert to southern Italy, his coolness and totally professional thoroughness complementing the indefatigable confidence of his superior commander, Alexander. This does not mean these two soldiers liked each other very much. Certainly there was mutual respect. Montgomery had invented ‘the tailor’s war’ by adapting standard British Army uniforms to suit his own personality. For instance he would surprise other generals by showing a lot of sweater beneath his battledress blouse – an unheard of practice – but then when other officers tried to emulate him he would appear at conferences correctly dressed directing his icy stare at those officers who showed a lot of sweater in the ‘wrong’ place. His manner of speaking was clipped and abrupt, and woe betide any junior who took too long to make a report.

Montgomery was present (of course he was) with the first waves of the Allied invasion of Normandy, having spent months waiting with growing impatience for Eisenhower to make up his mind about invasion dates. It was 1944. In that year (September) he became a Field Marshal (popular with both his King and Queen). He formally accepted the surrender of German forces in a ceremony on Luneberg Heath on 4 May, 1945. In 1946 he became Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. He was forty-nine. After two years as CIGS (Chief of the Imperial General Staff – a term no longer used – he became Deputy Commander of NATO forces in Europe from 1951 to 1958. Bernard Montgomery died in 1976.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

One Comment

  1. Almawheaten April 25, 2018 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    Monty did not die in 1958

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