Bernard Law Montgomery, the leading British commander in the European portion of the Second World War, was a man governed by extremes. On the one hand, he held himself to rigid standards and made similar demands upon his men, but in a way that tended to inspire them and contributed to his successes. On the other, he believed strongly in the importance of creating an aura of myth around the commander to motivate the men underneath him, and while his efforts proved successful in those terms, they also contributed to friction with his allies as the war proceeded. Montgomery excelled in painstakingly orchestrated operations with straightforward objectives, an approach that brought many successes but also exacerbated tensions with American commanders who expected more fluid operations with rapid movement and equally rapid results.
Montgomery had been a middle child in a large family with limited means. While his father, a bishop, enjoyed some standing, it was his mother who ran the family, and Bernard often found himself at odds with her. As he grew up, he enjoyed greater success in sports than in his academic work, but his experiences inculcated in him a deep faith in upright living and earnest effort.
He began his military career in 1908, serving with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in India. The First World War brought him to the Western Front, and he was nearly killed at Ypres in October 1914 by a bullet in the lung. He survived, but the effects of the wound left him sensitive to tobacco smoke; for himself, he had already refused the common soldier’s indulgence of smoking even as he rejected the equally ubiquitous habit of drinking, but this sensitivity turned the smoking of others into a burden that would tax already straining relationships.
Professionally, this wound removed him from the hazards of front-line service and pulled him instead into the staff environment, where he learned much about the conduct of battle from the command perspective. Like so many young officers from the First World War who remained in military service until the Second, Montgomery came away from the experience with firm ideas about how to improve upon the shortcomings of his commanders. Montgomery differed from many in the specific lessons learned. Where others focused on new developments in technology, such as tanks and airplanes, to escape from the static warfare of the trenches by restoring mobility to the battlefield, or even by avoiding it entirely through strategic warfare, Montgomery remained comfortable with the principle of a straightforward attack, finding fault instead with the tendency of World War I commanders to throw men into battle recklessly and with insufficient preparation. Those were the errors that he meant to correct.
Eager to pass such lessons on to the next generation of officers, he taught for a time at the Staff College at Camberley. He left a considerable mark there, especially with regard to infantry drill. He also had the opportunity to demonstrate his ability with command at the brigade level, with service in India and the Middle East, but his troubled relations with fellow officers kept him from higher opportunities. A chronic lack of tact coupled with his conspicuous rectitude made him unpopular with others in senior leadership.
He married Betty Carver in 1927, and they had a son the following year. While they were happy together, the marriage only lasted for a decade; Betty suffered a blood infection and died. After that, Montgomery focused his attention fully to his work. He was entrusted with the command of the 3rd Division in April 1939; this formation was sent to France in the beginning of World War II.
The German campaign in France in May 1940 proved highly effective, but Montgomery managed to make a fine impression on the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force during the retreat and evacuation at Dunkirk. Montgomery kept a level head during the crisis, focusing on practical procedures to save as many of his men as possible. This stemmed from the lessons he had learned from World War I, and it would characterize his work throughout the war, but in the context of those difficult days in May, it proved especially impressive, above all to his own commanding officer, General Brooke.
Higher command followed Montgomery’s return to England almost immediately. Starting in July, he served as a corps commander, leading first the 5th and then the 12th Corps. Here his role concentrated on the training of the men and the organization of their officers, and leading always by example, he gave them a firm preparation for the fighting ahead. From December, 1941 to August, 1942, this phase concluded with his leadership over South-Eastern Command.
Prime Minister Churchill’s original plan was to give Montgomery command over First Army for Operation Torch in North Africa, but then he had to contend with a sudden vacancy in the command of Eighth Army in Egypt when its new commander, General Gott, died in an accident. Eighth Army, already reeling from its losses at the hands of Rommel, was in greater need of secure leadership, and so Churchill sent Montgomery to Egypt instead.
General Alexander, Montgomery’s immediate superior, gave the new army commander considerable latitude. Montgomery had to contend with Rommel’s attack at Alam Halfa almost immediately, but he met the attack with confidence, having the benefit of intelligence from the new ULTRA system. Once this attack was repulsed, it fell to Montgomery (now commonly known as “Monty”) to repair the army.
In part, this entailed the same kind of work that he had been doing for the previous two years, but there remained the additional challenge that this was an army that had been beaten in the field, and faced a legendarily crafty opponent. In an effort to counter one legend with another, “Monty” strove to inculcate in his men the firm belief that they would prevail under his leadership. It was a fine line that he straddled; on the one hand, it was crucial that his men believed in his leadership, but on the other, such legends pose multiple dangers, above all to the sense of perspective of the hero in question and to his relationships with other commanders.
In any event, Montgomery promised victory to Eighth Army, and he delivered it in the Battle of El Alamein in October. He exaggerated his role in it slightly; the foundations of the British plan had been laid by General Auchinleck before his recall in the summer. Still, he had refined the plan to suit his own preoccupations, seeking above all to limit British casualties through thorough preparations and the precise, cool-headed execution of the plan. This was no battle of maneuver, but instead one that relied on the pressure of two opposing lines, supported by as much artillery and air support as each could muster. In this, the battle stands in contrast to the trend of combat in World War II, but it should be noted that this was not exclusively due to Montgomery’s role. Rommel, who was not present due to illness, had arrayed his own forces in a comparable manner. As it happened, the material advantages of the Allies told, and Montgomery won a signal victory, earning plaudits both at home and in the United States.
It is possible that Montgomery took his adulation too much to heart, putting too much faith in his own role in the winning of battles. Certainly, he took great advantage of his popular image, and again, this was not without some good sense. The trust of his subordinates was crucial to continued success; at the same time, he basked a bit too much in his glory to ensure smooth cooperation with other commanders, and the need for such cooperation only grew after El Alamein, as the American allies became increasingly involved in the war. As American involvement grew, Montgomery participated in the conclusion of the North African campaign and the early phases of the Italian campaign. In the planning phases, he made vital contributions, although in the execution of the plan, his tendency to move deliberately in order to conserve his own forces also permitted the enemy to escape with his forces.
His relationship with Eisenhower remained good during the planning for D-Day, and Montgomery was chosen to lead all ground assets in Normandy in the opening phases of the attack; once Eisenhower was able to set up his command headquarters, of course, he would assume supreme command in fact as well as name. Montgomery showed his worth in the planning of D-Day, as well; early plans called for as few as three divisions in the opening of the campaign, but Montgomery secured an increase to five normal divisions and three airborne divisions. The value of this contribution is evident in hindsight.
When the beachhead was secured, however, the differences between his vision and that of American officers became a point of increasing conflict. Montgomery pinned down a substantial portion of the German reserve at Caen, fighting the kind of slow, deliberate advance that most suited his temperament, while to his right flank, American forces secured wide tracts of land through rapid maneuver. To many American officers, it seemed Montgomery was taking his own good time while they captured most of Normandy.
Tensions only became worse after Eisenhower assumed command. Montgomery was promoted to Field Marshal and given command of the northern sector, but he tried too hard to impose his own vision on the coalition. He must have sincerely believed that he understood strategy better than the Americans, but his proposals for a concentration of effort in the north would have deprived American generals, like Patton, of any support for their own objectives. Official policy was to press on the Germans everywhere on a broad front. In his only attempt at an intrinsically risky operation, Montgomery tried to seize the initiative with Operation Market Garden, but the effort miscarried and only served to confirm the distrust of the American generals.
The German counter-thrust in the Battle of the Bulge, equally risky and equally unsuccessful in the end, further strained Anglo-American relations. The concentration of German effort was centered in the north of the American lines, and it was necessary and sensible that Montgomery would be expected to provide support for the beleaguered forces at Bastogne. Here, true to form, Montgomery magnified his own role in the battle, presenting it as a British effort to save the Americans; American exasperation with him reached its peak. Henceforth Eisenhower kept Montgomery in firmer control, and when this became clear, Montgomery accepted it and pressed on until the conclusion of the war.
For Montgomery’s sector, this came on May 4, 1945, when the Germans surrendered at Lüneburg Heath. When Germany was divided into zones of occupation, Montgomery became chief of the British zone. Other awards and positions followed. Already knighted just after the Battle of El Alamein, he became Viscount of Alamein in January 1946. In June of the same year, he assumed the role of Chief of the Imperial General Staff. When NATO was formed, he was sent to work with Eisenhower again as the leading British representative, and served as the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander between 1951 and 1958.
By this point, however, amity between Montgomery and Eisenhower was no longer possible. Each criticized the other harshly in his memoirs. While both share some blame for the friction between them, it was a natural result of the strategy that Montgomery employed in motivating his men. Leaving aside the question of the degree to which he came to believe in his own myth, which cannot reliably be ascertained, Montgomery’s successes depended in large measure on the degree to which his soldiers believed that he brought them victory. At key points, the strategy worked, but with a heavy cost.
Cowley, Robert et al. The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001
Dear, I.C.B. The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995
Keegan, John, ed. World War II: A Visual Encyclopedia. Collins & Brown, 2000
Parrish, Thomas. Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978
© 2014. All rights reserved.