General Bernard Law Montgomery Re-Assessed

My original Blog entitled Rating the Generals of WW2 arose in response to an emailed query by Blaine. This blog attracted a slew of replies and comments some of which can be read on the Comments Section under the relevant blog. The three most note-worthy – of which this is one – is a rebuttal of my comments and rating on the generalship of Bernard Law Montgomery. This excellent re-assessment is by my brother Blaine who obviously has time during retirement to read all my blogs diligently as he should be doing. His points are detailed and well presented. Herewith is the full unabridged reply by Blaine.

Main picture: Montgomery and his American rivals – Bradley and Patton

Generals in general

My comments here relate to the fighting generals, not the Eisenhowers and Alexanders whose main function seemed to be to pacify the various factions and not to decide strategy. They supplied such vague strategic guidance in both Italy (Alexander) and Western Europe (Eisenhower) that it was every general for himself.

Crusader Mark III tank, one of the British tanks used during the Second Battle of El Alamein

Crusader Mark III tank, one of the British tanks used during the Second Battle of El Alamein

All the fighting generals were extremely egotistical and bombastic to a greater or not so much lesser extent. The interesting common characteristic was that although they were egotistical , they actually had very small egos as they were easily slighted. The top American generals seemed to suffer from this most. The generals who were the worst were Mark Clark and Patton. In my mind I cannot separate out who was worst. As far as I can remember, Montgomery who could be extremely touchy and who fought as hard as the rest for his piece of glory, never denigrated the Americans. On the contrary, the American war diaries are littered with negative references to the British soldiers in general and their commanders in particular.

Another factor to consider is how the generals would have fought in the ascendency as well as adversity. The revered Western generals actually only fought when the tide had already turned in their favour. Sure Montgomery was involved in the fall of France but he was only a bit player in a short campaign in which the whole BEF was on the back foot from day 1.

Lt General Bernard Montgomery, GOC 8th Army, standing in front of his personal Grant Tank

Lt General Bernard Montgomery, GOC 8th Army, standing in front of his personal Grant Tank

Montgomery

Personally I find Montgomery an extremely irritating personality. He was an ascetic and incredibly prickly, asexual, vinegary and stiff. Psychologists would have a field day analysing this complex character, particularly if they did a Freudian analysis. However, I will try to put that aside.

I rate Montgomery higher than Dean and would give him a 9 (if I was a rating agency, I would give him a 9-).

On arrival in the desert, he immediately “gripped” the situation to use his favourite expression. He basically told Gen. Alexander, his superior, to stay out of his hair. He would tell Alexander what he was going to do and what he needed and allowed no interference with his plans. Within a week of sizing up the situation, realising the parlous state of training, morale and a numerical superiority insufficient to ensure victory, he told Churchill that the offensive that he was demanding would be delayed by 2 months. I can think of no other general who would have said that to Churchill.

Captain Montgomery during WW1

Captain Montgomery during WW1

His first action was to move his HQ out into the desert nearer the troops and co-locate with the Air Force HQ for better coordination. In 3 years of war the Brits had never done this. He then toured every unit to understand what he had inherited and to boost morale. Although he had terrible people skills, was a physically unimposing figure and had a horrible, high pitched, upper class voice he managed to get the soldier’s support by affecting an a less formal clothing style and improper headgear. Perhaps the Brits are empathetic to eccentrics.

The 8th Army was a cobbled together bunch of nationalities – British, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Indians. While the politics were not as bad as that to be found later between the Brits and the Americans, it nevertheless made it unwieldy. The next problem on the ground was that the tanks and the infantry had never fought an integrated battle. The infantry distrusted the tankers as they never seemed to be around when needed. The tanks also had a propensity to act like cavalry. Their charging tactics might have worked with the poorly trained and led Italians but Rommel was far too wily for them. Time and again he would lead their charges into antitank ambushes and annihilate them. They never learned. What made these one sided engagements even worse was that Rommel always held the ring after a battle so he could recover his tanks and repair most of them while the British tanks were irretrievably lost.

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Understanding the tools he had to work with, he retrained them and worked out strategies that would not expose their weaknesses. This necessarily meant that he was doomed to plod but at least he would not lose. Considering that the desert army had twice advanced halfway to Tripoli and twice been ignominiously hustled back into Egypt, he dared not countenance failure. He also realised that once he had broken the impasse at Alamein he would always be vulnerable to the open desert flank as all generals before him, both allied and axis,. Thus his follow up was methodical. It entailed moving sufficient logistics up behind the advance and continually establishing forward airfields as that was the only thing that could quickly blunt another Rommel end run through the desert.

While these laborious tactics lacked the derring do of Boys Own, and although he had numerical superiority and air superiority, he never gave Rommel even a sniff of a counterpunch at the way to Tunis.

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On to Sicily: When he could afford the time to study the plans for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, he immediately realised that they were doomed to failure. Not one of the beachheads was mutually supporting as they were weakly distributed around the circumference. None of the American generals to be involved in the operation bothered to peruse the plans, or if they did, they were so useless as not to recognise its failings. That gave Monty a clear run to rejig the plan. Unfortunately, he appropriated the starring role to capture Messina and the only exit off the island by the Axis forces. This meant that Patton was given the supporting role of farting around the interior and to the unimportant west of the island. This is where he gets his minus in the 9- score. He overestimated his ability to push through the narrow coastal strip between Mt Etna and the east coast. In consequence, he wasted time trying and then had to move the northward lines of advance of the Americans so that he could push around the west of Mt Etna. This was probably the start of Patton’s extreme enmity towards Monty as it elbowed him out of the way.

Montgomery talking to Canadian soldiers in Sicily 1943

Montgomery talking to Canadian soldiers in Sicily 1943

On to Italy: There was no glory in this campaign to be had by anyone. Monty’s task was to cross the Messina Straits and advance up the toe, foot and shin of Italy to meet the Salerno beachhead. Although there was scant opposition, this took an inordinate amount of time and evoked a lot of bitterness from General Clark who was under extreme pressure at Salerno. I have walked about 25km of the Italian coast, albeit much further north but the topography seems similar. It is not country that you wish to push a few divisions through. It is extremely rocky right to the coast so there is no possibility of going cross country on some outflanking manoeuvre. Furthermore, the roads in those days would have been extremely basic. If the Germans wanted to, they could have made life merry hell for the Brits. As it was, the Germans harassed with impunity and laid mines and booby traps everywhere as they withdrew northwards. They collapsed mountainsides onto the roads and blew every bridge. The advance was only as fast as the engineers could fix things.

General Bernard Montgomery inspects a ruined Italian church

General Bernard Montgomery inspects a ruined Italian church

On to Overlord: Montgomery was placed in overall charge of the ground forces until the breakout in France whereupon Eisenhower would take over. As in the case of Husky, Montgomery immediately rubbished the plans that had been prepared. The forces were too light and he insisted on more divisions to be landed which delayed the operation by a month. But he was right. According to Chester Wilmot, Monty and the American generals were shown the “funnies” that had been developed by Hobart. The funnies were adaptations of tanks for the various specialist tasks involved in an amphibious assault: swimming tanks, mine thrashers, ditch crossers, bridging tanks, etc. The American generals were not particularly interested in this display of British eccentricity and only wanted a few of the swimming tanks. Monty, on the other hand, recognised their usefulness and very quickly established what and how many he needed for the British army. He was on top of the invasion problem and they were lazy thinkers or just arrogant and lazy.

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Monty’s overall plan was for the British to land closest to Germany and directly opposite Caen, an important communications centre. The Americans would land further to the west. The Brits would be seen as the major threat to an advance to the Seine and also to a link up to a possible later landing at Calais which was part of the deception plan. Also, virtually all the panzer forces were arrayed around Caen and to the northeast. The effect was to pull the strongest forces onto the Brits who would slowly grind them up while the Americans could develop and expand their beachhead relatively unhindered. To be sure, the Americans did not have it easy in the bocage country which was ideal to defend against tanks with light forces. It took American ingenuity to develop an effective bocage cutter which involved welding long teeth onto a Sherman. This enabled a tank to rip through the impenetrable hedges that bordered each small field. The tanks were thus not confined to the narrow country lanes anymore.

Left to right: The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke; Mr Winston Churchill; and the Commander of the 21st Army Group, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, at Montgomery's mobile headquarters in Normandy. TR 1838 Part of MINISTRY OF INFORMATION SECOND WORLD WAR COLOUR TRANSPARENCY COLLECTION War Office official photographer Horton (Capt)

Left to right: The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke; Mr Winston Churchill; and the Commander of the 21st Army Group, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, at Montgomery’s mobile headquarters in Normandy.

Caen was supposed to be taken on the 1st day but was not until weeks later. The failure to achieve this is not a negative as an amphibious landing on this scale is just a confusing mess and the slow advance can also be attributed to the average British soldier’s lack of drive. The shortfall of this initial assault and all other assaults by the Brits was not a negative in the scheme of things and at no point was Monty worried. Their repeated assaults kept 80% of the panzer divisions concentrated on the British sector and were slowly being ground up.

Notwithstanding the bocage, the Americans were also struggling to break out. It took Monty to advise Bradley to put more divisions in over a smaller sector in the critical assault around St Lo (I think). This was successful and was the beginning of the American breakout. After surviving a Hitler inspired thrust to cut them in two, the breakout became a rout. About this time Patton arrived on the scene. There were no forces left in front of him and he had free reign to make a gigantic sweep through the interior of France. Patton took all the glory but I doubt whether at any stage before the German border he had to fight more than a skirmish. All he had to do was bluster, swear, cajole and fire staff.

General Montgomery Decorates Men of the 50th Division in Normandy, 17 July 1944

General Montgomery Decorates Men of the 50th Division in Normandy, 17 July 1944

Was the failure to close the Falaise gap Monty’s fault? I doubt anyone could be blamed although most of the acrimonious accusations came from the Americans. More probably it was due to the fact that the British were still pushing against the bulk of the panzer forces that had been arrayed around Caen whereas the Americans were pushing against scant and unbattle tested occupation troops. Also, the desperation with which the disciplined German soldiers fought to keep the gap open cannot be underestimated.

After Falaise, all armies of the Allies swept with equal speed across the Seine and up to the borders of Germany. Montgomery showed that he wasn’t any slower than his American rivals in his precipitous follow up. He also cannily bypassed strongholds at the channel ports to be dealt with at his leisure.

Montgomery and his American rivals#1

At this point he made his biggest mistake – Operation Market Garden (Arnhem). By this time Eisenhower had moved to France and took over control of all ground forces from Montgomery. Montgomery hard fought for his corner, namely that the British Armies (with an attached American army) should be given priority to strike through to the north and debouch onto the open northern plains of Germany. He was justified in his strategic concept as the northern plains held out the best chances for rapid exploitation as the Allies were far more mobile than the Germans. The southern sectors were hilly and forested which negated the advantages of mobility. Eisenhower played the political game and insisted that all the armies first move up to the Rhine on a broad front. Although Montgomery thought he was right, he was a good enough general to realise that the Eisenhower concept was not a strategy at all and if necessary he would hold back while an overwhelming assault was developed by one of the American armies. He repeated this offer to Eisenhower on a number of occasions during the advance to the Rhine. He was a good enough and magnanimous enough general to realise that any concentrated assault was better than a broad front given the supply constraints that came to the fore at this point. None of the Americans was big enough to concede anything to Montgomery and only fought for the glory of their own army.

Montgomery and his American rivals#3

Dean was right. Montgomery was goaded by the perception that he did not have the dash of the Americans and conceived Market Garden. It was certainly audacious but for once he relied on too many links in the chain of events. If anyone link failed then the whole plan collapsed. In consisted of a pencil like thrust along a single road along which route paratroopers were dropped to capture bridges and key points ahead of the follow up forces. The most important was the final one – Arnhem. Capturing this would allow the Siegfried Line to be bypassed and the Lower Rhine to be crossed thereby exposing the northern plains and the Ruhr to attack from the north. There were no prepared defences inside Germany and success would have caused immediate chaos throughout Germany as hasty troop movements would have caused holes to appear elsewhere. It was famously not to be. A combination of bad luck, atrocious weather, the unknown presence of 9th and 10th Panzer Divisions refitting in the area and bad planning. The atrocious weather prevented air support and resupply to the besieged troops in Arnhem. Maj-Gen Urqhart, in command of the 1st Airborne Division, was charged with the responsibility or securing the bridge. He selected drop zones for paratroopers and landing zones for gliders up to 13km from the bridge. In the hours before the Normandy landings, the British glider troops secured vitally important bridges over the Orne River by dropping right on to them. They were extremely successful. Unfortunately Urqhart did not heed these lessons and admitted afterwards that he was too timorous. Thus Montgomery’s copy book was blotted. -1 on his score.

Montgomery tours a bombed-out French town in Normandy

Montgomery tours a bombed-out French town in Normandy

After virtual stagnation of the whole Allied front from mid-September 1944 through to March 1945, Montgomery prepared for a massive set piece assault across the Rhine. He was much derided by his rival American generals for his ponderous preparation. However, he was doing exactly what he had successfully done in Normandy. His position was the greatest threat to Germany and hence again pulled the majority of German forces onto his front thereby allowing the American generals to exploit against minor forces once they had crossed the Rhine.

After all Allied armies crossed the Rhine within days of each other, Monty showed as much zest as anyone in banging around inside Germany. This included a final dash across the base of the Danish peninsular in the face of a Russian advance into this area. Any dilly dallying would have caused sticky problems of occupation with the Russians after the war.

Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery plays with Rommel his spaniel (right)

Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery plays with Rommel his spaniel (right)

His final act of generalship was as head of the British occupation forces in Germany. With his immediate clarity of thought he wasted no time in sizing up the situation and deciding what had to be done. His orders were immediate, crisp and clear. Meanwhile his American counterparts were being feted and generally enjoying themselves which included going on hunts.

As I said in his introduction, I could never relate to him on a personal level. But he was the most accomplished tactical and strategic thinking general of the war. Barring Arnhem, he always fought within his strengths and his troops’ capabilities. He always knew his attack had succeeded when he could withdraw part of his force into reserve whereas most other generals were always throwing in reserves. He was so organised with his plans and preparations that on the eve of a battle he could go to bed with instructions not to wake him. At Alamein, Rommel found to his cost that he could not stampede Monty into a mistake as he had been prepared for all possibilities and refused to take any bait offered. His remained balanced at all times which meant that he could change his line of attack when he was stymied. The German units could somehow be all mixed and still work towards a new objective which allowed them to immediately counterattack locally or on a wider scale. The British troops could not do this throughout the war. It was almost as if each regiment or arm (infantry, tanks, artillery) were a separate guild or trade union and they were all working to rule – including mandatory tea breaks. This is what he had to work with and throughout he only used their strengths and never exposed their weaknesses. Finally, although Monty was not a people’s person, he was a soldiers’ general as their lives were paramount as Dean rightly points out.

The final German surrender

The final German surrender

In summary, Montgomery prosecuted war like one plays bridge. First you have to accurately assess your hand and bid according to how much it is worth. This is the planning stage – whether to attack or defend and if to attack, then how far. Once dummy is revealed then, with the limited intelligence revealed by the opposition’s bidding, you develop a final plan whose priority is to win the hand with the lowest risk. If the cards fall advantageously then you will win overtricks (bonus points) but these don’t count towards winning the leg and hence the rubber. Hence strategies that carry the prospects of winning overtricks but with an attendant risk of losing the hand do not make for good bridge players. Monty would have been a good bridge player. The American generals couldn’t understand the word bridge unless it pertained to something that crossed the Rhine. However, they would have made good poker players in Las Vegas with all the glitz, razzamatazz, bluster, bluff and beady eye. Hollywood stuff.

In 1960, during the regiment's 100th anniversary, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was an invited guest to the celebrations

In 1960, during the regiment’s 100th anniversary, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was an invited guest to the celebrations

Right of reply

Blaine has correctly evoked the essence of the man – clear thinking but ponderous. As an aside he only mentions one of the issues that in my mind that blot his copy book. The second was the Battle of Arnhem where his vanity overrode common sense resulting in the death of thousands of paratroopers.

The first incident is not so well known. By the time when the Battle of El-Alamein was fought for the first time ever, the British in North Africa were receiving the decoded messages from Ultra on the same day during which they were transmitted.

By day three after the breakthrough, Montgomery was aware that Rommel only possessed 11 tanks. Instead of summarily overwhelming Rommel’s puny force with his remaining 400 tanks, he laboriously pushed Rommel back over 50 days and 1800kms all the way to Tunisia.

The failed Axis offensive at Kasserine Pass meant that by March of 1943 the Axis were doomed in North Africa

The failed Axis offensive at Kasserine Pass meant that by March of 1943 the Axis were doomed in North Africa

Even with this limited force, Rommel was able to inflict a bloody nose on the American forces at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia!

If nothing else is indicative of Montgomery’s ponderous thinking, this lack of decisiveness proves it.

 


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