Note the Spot of Tea
- the great British remedy for everything except a bullet in the stomach.
Bernard Law Montgomery was born on 17 November 1887 in London. He was educated at St Paul's School and the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and commissioned into the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1908. He was severely wounded early in World War One and spent the rest of war as a staff officer.
Between the wars he served in India, Egypt and Palestine. In April 1939, he was given command of the Third Division, part of the British Expeditionary Force which took part in the fighting preceding the Fall of France in June 1940. On his return to England, he was made commander in chief of the "Home Division" - that is, London and the South East. Over the following two years, he focused on training British soldiers to high levels of fitness and co-operation between arms of service.
as he was the commanding General of all Army forces in London and the Home Counties. A necessary consequence of this was that he was the General nearest to Winston Churchill, and therefore the senior officer to whom the Prime Minister turned when he needed to speak to a general. Montgomery was savvy and unscrupulous enough to play this to advantage, ensuring he remained close to the confidences of Churchill in a way denied to other generals not so fortunate in their postings. American commentators often assert that Montgomery was not the best British general of WW2
and that he was over-rated and in some cases this may be true, yet the same could be said of many others on all sides of the war. However, one thing known for sure is that Monty had a bad habit of overstating his own achievements and using his proximity to Churchill to play this for best advantage.
It could be speculated that had he remained more modest, his genuine achievements would have been seen as more than enough to be regarded highly unto themselves, but it cannot be forgotten that he did do much good for the war.
He was rapidly promoted. In August 1942, he was appointed commander of the Eighth Army, the British and Commonwealth forces fighting in the Western Desert. He inspired a dispirited and defeated force to victory over the Germans and Italians at the Battle of El Alamein. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was convinced this battle marked the turning point of the war. Given his numerical advantages, dug-in positions, and terrain that prohibited the Germans from flanking him, it was a battle that would have been tough to lose, but one of the most underrated effects Montgomery had at Alamein was on morale. His troops were tired, had gotten used to losing, and were coming off a long retreat and most of them expected to be pushed out of Egypt entirely by Rommel's (who had a big psychological edge on Montgomery's predecessors) next offensive. He made it quite clear that he wasn't going to be losing any ground and that he had arrived to stop the Germans and throw them off the continent entirely, and morale soared as he toured the front lines.
Montgomery commanded the Eighth Army in the subsequent Allied campaigns in Sicily and then on the Italian mainland. He was then recalled to the UK to take part in the planning of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. This, perhaps more than El Alamein, is perhaps Montgomery's most successful act during the war. To be in charge planning the entire Overlord amphibious operation, work out the logistics and organisations behind the largest amphibious landing in history and even to be part of bringing everything ruthlessly into place while politicians bickered over who did what cannot be understated. It may not be the most glorious post, but was absolutely crucial and many have speculated (Max Hastings in his history books predominantly) that there were very few people who could have performed such a duty. His work got Operation Overlord off the ground, yet he recieves almost no credit in history for his role in that. This, perhaps, may have been one of the reasons fuelling his bitterness, especially with the Americans attaining so much historical glory from Omaha. (Not to say that was undeserved, of course)
During the Normandy landings and for several months afterwards, Montgomery commanded all Allied troops in France. In September 1944, this command was taken over by US general Dwight Eisenhower, with Montgomery reverting to command of 21st Army Group. Montgomery bitterly resented this, although he was promoted to Field Marshal by way of compensation. His arrogance and reluctance to cooperate with others made him increasingly unpopular, particularly with the Americans, although Bradley was known to be perhaps the best contact with the two sharing a similar careful pace of operations. This sense of desperation - especially when his achievements were viewed alongside General Patton's - may have led him to authorise the completely uncharacteristic Operation Market Garden - the airborne operation around Arnhem later filmed as A Bridge Too Far
. In general, Monty preferred a slower and careful pace to set things up right and proper while the Americans were intent to more aggressively push. The debate as to which approach was correct is, rather normally for historical debates, impossible to answer. The British had not the manpower to expend in the ways the Americans wanted to in surging actions and had to husband their resources carefully, with Monty's approach reflecting this. Unfortunately, his approach differed greatly to the enthusiastic American Generals, leading to the aforementioned disagreements.
It must, however, be remembered that while Monty's forces were moving the slowest of all the Normandy fronts, they were
taking on by far the hardest objective and facing the most well equipped and experienced German Divisions in the entire theatre.
Montgomery's later unfortunate assertion that he had saved the Americans in the Battle of the Bulge was gratuitous and offensive to the US Army, who had put in virtually all the blood, sweat and suffering. It is true that Eisenhower had asked Montgomery to stabilise the northern front in the Ardennes and make contingency plans for the use of British troops to replace exhausted American units, and that Montgomery had temporarily been placed in charge of some American units North of the "bulge" because otherwise their commander on the South of the "bulge" would have had great difficulty communicating with them. Montgomery did this with great success, even employing great diplomacy in dealings with American units placed temporarily under his command. But the Bulge fighting petered out long before any great British involvement needed to be made. Quite rightly, the Americans were greatly offended by his bombastic suggestion that he had won their battle. Amid mounting criticism and a threat to sack him, Montgomery made a humiliating climb-down.
Montgomery led his army group in the battle for Germany and, on 4 May 1945, he received the surrender of the German northern armies at Lüneburg Heath. In victory he was not magnaniminous. He haughtily refused a German field-marshal's pleas to allow German civilians to move to safety behind the British front line, on the grounds that he doubted the Germans would have treated British civilians with consideration had they invaded us in 1940. The German civilians needed to know their country had lost, and could therefore take their chances with the Russians, and like it.
After the war, Montgomery was created a knight of the Garter and Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. He commanded the British Army of the Rhine and served as chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1946 to 1948. From 1948 to 1951, he was chairman of the permanent defence organisation of the Western European Union. In 1951, he became deputy commander of the Supreme Headquarters of NATO, serving for seven years. He died on 24 March 1976.
Only a few Field-Marshals were created during WW2
by the British War Cabinet. Another prominent one was the man regarded by many as Britain's very best fighting general of the war. Field Marshal William Slim (who did not, as was rumored, rise from the ranks) was also in the Warwicks during WWI, and commanded an Indian division during the early part of the North African war, participating in recapturing East Africa from the Italians as well as in the even lesser-known Syrian, Iraqi and Persian campaigns. Slim was sent to command in Burma in 1942, and led the bulk of the British Army out of Burma into India on its longest retreat, saving the bulk of that Army to fight again. Slim then defeated the Japanese invasion of India, destroying an army group and chasing its remnants out of Burma. As a Field Marshal, he was poised to retake Malaya when the bombs dropped and the war ended. It is tempting to wonder how things might have played out if Slim had commanded the army in Europe and Montgomery had been sent East to deal with the Japanese. A more prudent British government might have done this: Slim got on well with the Americans and was decorated by them in recognition of his achievements. Montgomery's methodical approach might have worked better against the Japanese, and besides there were very few Americans for him to offend in South-East Asia. Slim became CIGS immediately after Montgomery.