Rating General Montgomery: A Further Rebuttal

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The blog “Rating the Generals of WW2” has certainly stirred a hornet’s nest. Firstly Luigi admonished me for neglecting General Slim of Burma.  This unintended omission confirms that both the 14th Army and its Commanding Officer are now forgotten, true to their namesake, The Forgotten [14th] Army. In this case, a peremptory mea culpa and honour was satisfied. Not so in the case of Montgomery. After publishing Blaine’s rebuttal on my rating, I then used the right of reply to question the speed of Montgomery’s advance from El-Alamein after crushing the Axis Powers. Blaine has taken umbrage with my interpretation of Montgomery’s “ponderous” advance across Cyrenaica & Tripolitania in Libya. The essence of the dispute is whether Montgomery was rightly cautious and considered or whether he was ponderous and unimaginative. Whereas Blaine favours the former interpretation, I favour the latter.

Main picture: Montgomery and his adversary Erwin Rommel, both vainglorious and publicity seeking

Blaine’s rebuttal

Dean makes up a valid point concerning Ultra – the interception and decryption of German military codes and the efficient distribution of the resulting intelligence product to all military theatres. Churchill was privy to most and called them his golden eggs (I think).  The Americans in the Pacific also benefited from the cracking of the Purple code of the Japanese.

GERMANY - OCTOBER 18: A four-rotor German Enigma cypher machine with a second operator display (a 'remote lampboard'), made during World War II. This type of machine, devised by the German Navy in 1939, was used to encode wartime messages requiring a particularly high degree of security. The cracking of German cypher codes by Allied intelligence was a major achievement in cryptanalysis and played a key role in the outcome of the North Atlantic U-boat engagements. The search to crack the the Enigma codes also resulted in ?Colossus?, the first all-electronic digital computer. This rare machine is thought to have been used in the post-war years for coding diplomatic traffic in Switzerland. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

GERMANY – OCTOBER 18: A four-rotor German Enigma cypher machine with a second operator display (a ‘remote lampboard’), made during World War II. This type of machine, devised by the German Navy in 1939, was used to encode wartime messages requiring a particularly high degree of security. The cracking of German cypher codes by Allied intelligence was a major achievement in cryptanalysis and played a key role in the outcome of the North Atlantic U-boat engagements. The search to crack the Enigma codes also resulted in “Colossus”, the first all-electronic digital computer. This rare machine is thought to have been used in the post-war years for coding diplomatic traffic in Switzerland. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

When rating the various generals, both Allied and Axis, some of the inspired decisions of the Allied generals must be seen in this light.  Chester Wilmot makes for interested reading.  He was what we would nowadays call an embedded journalist.  When he wrote his authoritative “Struggle for Europe” post war, he was unaware of Ultra and hence falsely credited Monty with second sight.

Dean uses the failure of Monty to promptly follow up on Rommel or indeed cut him off as a failing.  Yes and no.  Dean admits that Monty advanced 1800km in 50days.  That equates to 36km per day that he moved up a whole army on a single road.  Not to be sneezed at.  The desert was for forays and outflanking moves when the enemy wanted to make a stand. It was not for moving an army.

The battle winning German 88mm anti-tank gun. Like Ultra, insufficient credit has been given to this weapon

The battle winning German 88mm anti-tank gun. Like Ultra, insufficient credit has been given to this weapon

Dean also quotes that at some stage Rommel only had 11 tanks.  That must be read as serviceable tanks.  In the days of solid shot anti-tanks rounds, tanks were seldom destroyed, rather temporarily disabled.  Furthermore, Rommel consistently gamed the system in order to squeeze more supplies out of the parsimonious Wehrmacht.  These exaggerated messages were intercepted by Ultra but Monty interpreted them correctly.  Rommel didn’t need tanks.  Four 88mm guns could stop a whole division’s advance and cause them to deploy whereupon they would up sticks and disappear.

Furthermore, Rommel was wily and realistic enough to refuse a pitched battle at every turn. He stopped on the way long enough to shed his Italian troops, deploy them as a blocking force and take their transport (the bastard). Even though the Italians never provided much resistance, the Desert army was forced to deploy and waste yet another day or two.  Moreover, the masses of Italian prisoners became a logistical impediment of their own.  Rommel also demolished, mined and booby-trapped everything behind himself including all the harbours essential for logistics along such an extended advance.

Rommel retreating ahead of the 8th Army. Finally the Germans had been defeated

Rommel retreating ahead of the 8th Army. Finally the Germans had been defeated

Monty could possibly have sent some combined mechanised force through the desert to cut him off.  That would not work as the force would have to be strong enough to withstand any isolation by Rommel unsupported as the Germans, particularly under Rommel, were very efficient on the riposte.  That force would require a division or two of combined arms.  Possible, except that the British Army had no training or history in that kind of organisation.

Dean’s rebuttal concludes with an implicit conclusion that Monty’s tardy follow up aided the American debacle at Kasserine.  Not so.  That was the fault of the immature American Army alone.  In fact, that Rommel could force such an efficient reverse further supports Monty’s tactics.

Rommel-at-Kasserine-Pass-with-a-captured-American-half-track

Rommel at Kasserine Pass with a captured American half-track

Right of Reply

This is not a casus belli but it can rather be classified more as aluta continua.

I do concede that Rommel possessed a tank destroying monster in the form of the 88mm anti-tank gun. He had used it to great effect from his initial battles across Northern Africa whether it was against Wavell at Halfaya Pass [Operation Battle Axe] or the Auckinlek on the Gazala Line. None had a countermeasure or the antidote. The evocative autobiography by a British tank commander Cyril Joly entitled Take these Men offers both an provocative examination of the flawed British tactics and an enthralling journey into the world of Allied tankman in the Western Desert. Whether that insight came with the passage of time or whether it arose from hard won experience against the wily Rommel, one will never know.

A light- weight American Stuart Tank was easily outclassed by Rommel's Panzers at Kasserine Pass

A light- weight American Stuart Tank was easily outclassed by Rommel’s Panzers at Kasserine Pass

Whatever it was, Rommel can certainly be credited with superior tactics and strategy on all counts. Possibly of greater significance was that Montgomery had to use the human raw material that was in his possession. Unlike the professional German Army with its martial spirit and its élan, Montgomery possessed a civilian army with doughty but unimaginative soldiers. Thus Montgomery had to operate according to his strengths which was overwhelming material superiority.

While Blaine can allege that Rommel was misleading the OKW in Berlin as to the true situation on the ground, even if Rommel had significantly understated the number of “serviceable” tanks on hand, he would nevertheless still have been outnumbered by 10 to 1.

The Tiger 1 arrived too late in Tunisia to make any difference to the outcome in Tunisia

The Tiger 1 arrived too late in Tunisia to make any difference to the outcome in Tunisia

Blaine makes a particularly salient point regarding the recovery of “destroyed” or incapacitated tanks. This is true in a fluid situation such as the Battle of Gazala where these tanks could be retrieved and towed to workshops in the rear echelons but this is not possible in situations where the enemy forces are continually advancing. If a tank is immobilised even for a minor fault, it is irretrievably lost.

When Rommel was first defeated at the Battle of El-Alamein, the Ultra transcripts revealed that Rommel only possessed 35 tanks. As the retreat continued, Rommel shed tanks for various reasons, mechanical failure or destruction by Allied aircraft. Every day he reported a lower figure for tanks on hand until after two weeks he reported that he possessed 11.

German Panzerkampfwagen IV that was knocked out during the battle for El Guettar Tunisia

German Panzerkampfwagen IV that was knocked out during the battle for El Guettar Tunisia

Like all bosses, Rommel could have “gamed” the system. In this case, I am loath to accept that it could have influenced Montgomery’s decision not to take a left punch through the desert in order to cut Rommel off and pin him against the Mediterranean Sea. Instead what Montgomery did was to engage in set-piece battles during the whole of his advance.

This is more akin to the plodding style of the British as opposed to the nimble flexible approach of the Germans.

If that is the case, should not Rommel rather than Montgomery be accorded the title as the best fighting general of WW2?


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