Bernard Montgomery: An Insufferable Field Marshal
A Difficult Man
Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (1887-1976) was one of Britain’s greatest ever military commanders, but it is also beyond dispute that he was one of the most difficult people to work with, a view that was certainly held by his American counterparts during World War II, namely George Patton and Dwight D Eisenhower. Montgomery described himself as being “tiresome,” and the epithet seems entirely apt.
Before World War II
Montgomery did not come from a typical British officer class background, being the son of an Anglican bishop who was reasonably well-off but by no means rich. At Sandhurst (the Royal Military Academy) Montgomery was the “odd one out,” especially as he was not afraid of questioning opinions with which he did not agree. Being both middle-class and independent-minded were not the best qualities for a career as an officer in the British army prior to World War I.
During the 1914-18 war, Montgomery served with distinction and was lucky to escape with his life after being shot in the chest by a sniper.
Between the wars, he attended the Army’s Staff College at Camberley, firstly as a pupil and later as a teacher of army tactics. He used this pause from active service to very good effect, as he had been horrified by the tactics that had been practiced during World War I and was convinced that there had to be a better way of fighting wars in the 20th century. In particular, he deplored the “gung-ho” tactic of attacking en masse with a superior force that was bound to suffer a high casualty rate even if it won the encounter. Instead, he preferred to reconnoiter the enemy and identify his weaknesses before attacking where he was most vulnerable.
Egypt and El Alamein
In August 1942 Lieutenant General Montgomery was sent to Egypt to take command of the British Eighth Army, which was threatened by the progress of Rommel’s Afrika Corps as it advanced across North Africa. Montgomery did two things that were different from what had gone before. He coordinated the forces under his command, namely those on the ground and in the air, and he made himself known among his troops, which boosted their morale and led to them being intensely loyal to him. He knew that soldiers who trusted their commanders were far more likely to be victorious, and he regarded high troop morale as “the most important single factor in war”.
On one occasion he was about to step into a tank when a soldier suggested that his broad-brimmed hat would get caught on the hatch and offered him a standard black beret in its place. Montgomery was for ever after proud to wear a soldier’s beret, on which he placed the badge of the Royal Tank Regiment alongside his officer’s badge.
The victory of the Eighth Army (together with the Australian 9th Division) at El Alamein was largely due to Montgomery’s superior tactics and his use of military intelligence (including decrypted German radio transmissions) to second-guess his opponent. He also tried to work out what Rommel’s tactics would be by understanding how the German commander’s mind worked. His ability to get inside the head of his opponent was one of Montgomery’s greatest strengths.
However, it has to be admitted that this victory, which many people (including Churchill) came to regard as the turning point in the War, went somewhat to Montgomery’s head, as he came to believe that only he had the right ideas about how the campaign should proceed from that point. In particular, he had a low opinion of the efforts made by the American forces under George Patton, whom he despised and mistrusted (the feelings were entirely mutual on Patton’s part).
The Italian Campaign
The next phase of the war was the invasion of Sicily, as the first step of the long Italian campaign. This was to be an allied attack, involving both British and American forces, but Montgomery was keen to ensure that the main credit for victory would go to him. Patton, for his part, had little time for Montgomery, whom he regarded as being arrogant, brusque and standoffish, and in this assessment he was not wrong. Patton could also not stand Montgomery’s tactic of meticulously planning every move, at one point calling him a “timid little fart”.
When the Americans captured Palermo, which Montgomery had wanted to do, the latter was highly annoyed. He agreed to meet Patton at Palermo and Montgomery planned to fly there in an American Flying Fortress that he had won in a bet. Patton gave an evasive answer when Montgomery asked if the runway at Palermo would be long enough to land such a plane and it turned out that it was not. Montgomery was lucky to escape unscathed when the Fortress ran off the runway and was wrecked. He had no doubt who was to blame for this incident.
The Invasion of Europe
During the invasion of mainland Europe that started with the D-Day landings in June 1944, Montgomery was again conscious of the need to be one step ahead of the Americans. Montgomery most resented the fact that Eisenhower was the Allied Supreme Commander and therefore his boss. Montgomery had been promoted to the rank of Field Marshal, which was not a rank used in the American army, and Montgomery assumed that this gave him overall permanent command of the ground forces in Europe, both British and American, which had been the case only on a temporary basis when the invasion was being launched.
Relationships between the two men continued to be fraught, with Eisenhower on several occasions having to appease Montgomery by letting him have his way in tactical matters. Sometimes this was a wise move, but not always.
For example, Patton wanted to advance against Germany via a southern route whereas Montgomery preferred a northern approach through the Netherlands. Eisenhower gave in to Montgomery, but the resulting campaign (Operation Market Garden) was, for once in Montgomery’s glittering career, a dismal failure.
As it happened, the Germans made things much easier for the Allies by attempting a counter-attack through the Ardennes Forest not far from where the bulk of the American forces under Patton were stationed. The Americans turned the situation to their advantage and forced the Germans back. However, Montgomery was later to claim far more credit for this victory than he was entitled to do, British forces having only played a minor part in the Ardennes campaign. Not surprisingly, this attitude infuriated the Americans.
Montgomery now wished to claim the ultimate accolade of capturing Berlin itself, as did Patton, but Eisenhower decided that it would be politically expedient for that honour to fall to the Soviet forces that were advancing from the East. No doubt he reckoned that for either man to have been able to claim that particular credit would have made them even more insufferable than they already were.
After the War
Patton died after a road traffic accident in Germany not long after the war ended, but Montgomery lived on into old age, dying in 1976 at the age of 88. His post-war work included helping to create NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that has done much to preserve peace in Europe and the wider world.
“Monty” never lost his popularity with the British people, and made a number of appearances in television documentaries, etc. in his later years, in which he was always keen to praise the bravery and devotion of the troops under his command while also making sure that credit went where it was due.
Bernard Montgomery had a remarkable talent for winning battles and planning campaigns, but along with that went the character flaws that made him a very difficult person to get along with, especially with regard to the military and political hierarchy. Winston Churchill, who had to be persuaded to appoint Montgomery to command of the Eighth Army prior to El Alamein, was famously quoted as saying of him: “In defeat, unbeatable; in victory, unbearable.”