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. 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 his advantage, ensuring he remained close to the confidences of Churchill in a way denied to other generals not so fortunate in their postings. Well, that's one interpretation (there can be no denying that he was a shameless self-promoter; the only question is whether he was as good as he thought he was). The others are that his competence and skills were evident and that it actually hurt his prospects being seen as a political suckup, since he did not get any frontline assignments for the next 2.5 years, and when he did finally get it, it was due to a plane crash of the guy selected before him.note
In August 1942, as a result of said crash, he was appointed commander of the Eighth Army: the British and Commonwealth forces fighting in the Western Desert, where they had been pushing back and forth in what seemed an endless see-saw motion with the Axis forces for months. At the Battle of El Alamein, he inspired a dispirited force to victory over the Germans and Italians. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was convinced this battle marked the turning point of the war. Given Montgomery's 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 then, this was Montgomery's design all along, having exploited Rommel's signature aggression to lure him into position.
The most significant effect of Montgomery's victory at Alamein was on morale. His troops were tired and were coming off a long retreat, and most of them worried they would be pushed out of Egypt entirely by Erwin Rommel's (who had a big psychological edge on Montgomery's predecessors) next offensive. Montgomery 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 as he toured the front lines, morale soared.
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: planning the entire Overlord amphibious operation, working out the logistics and organisations behind the largest amphibious landing in history, and to be part of bringing everything ruthlessly into place while politicians bickered over who did what, cannot be understated. It may not have been the most glorious post, but it was absolutely crucial and many have speculated (Max Hastings in his history books predominantly) that there were very few who could have performed such a duty.
His work got Operation Overlord off the ground, yet he receives little credit in history for his role in it. This may have been one of the reasons fuelling his later bitterness, especially with the Americans attaining so much historical glory from Omaha; it was ironic for two reasons, since Omaha was almost an unmitigated disaster due to the inexperience of some of the attacking U.S Troops (for which Montgomery cannot be blamed) and also due to the fact that Allied intelligence had failed to realise that the Americans would be landing almost on top of a crack German division (which Montgomery most definitely can be blamed for).
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 D. Eisenhower, with Montgomery reverting to command of 21st Army Group. Historians agree that this was the best choice, as Monty's was hardly the only problematic ego in play; Patton, for example, shared a mutual loathing with Monty, whereas the humble and soft-spoken Eisenhower didn't need to be a military genius, being a peerless mediator who could make everyone work together and very talented at getting his subordinates (including Montgomery) to maximize their own strengths. Ike also valued his subordinates' advice, including Monty's; delegated without micromanaging; and wasn't especially concerned with making himself look good.
Montgomery bitterly resented this appointment (Churchill himself approved of Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander for all of the listed reasons) although he was promoted to Field Marshal by way of compensation. This and other factors 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 from that of the enthusiastic/gung-ho American generals, leading to the aforementioned disagreements. In any case, Market Garden was a failure that resulted in large casualties for the British, American, and Free Polish forces involved, and failed to open a route across the Rhine into Germany. Montgomery's response at the time was to announce that the most important objectives had been met and that the operation was mostly successful. Prince Consort Bernhard of the Netherlandsnote responded to this with the retort that "My country can never again afford the luxury of another Montgomery success." Another thing to note is that, especially in the early stages of the combined UK-US involvement in the war, his reputation-building worked on the Germans too: in Sicily, for instance, Germany diverted most of her forces to the east of the island to resist Montgomery's advance and cover their own withdrawal, thus enabling Patton's more glamorous but rather less effectual westward dash to Palermo. Then again, Montgomery made it easy for them by focusing his whole advance on one or two roads at a time, while Patton was much more unpredictable.
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. Once they broke out, Montgomery actually covered more ground facing greater number of troops than the Americans.
Montgomery's later unfortunate assertion that he had saved the Americans in the Battle of the Bulge was controversial to say the least, as it seemed to be insulting to the US Army, who had put in much of 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, and is credited with turning a number of isolated delaying and holding actions into a concerted battle by quickly establishing proper organization between many subordinate American commanders who were actually running their own units well but had no knowledge of the bigger picture.
But a lot of the fighting petered out long before any great British involvement was needed. 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.
Many of Montgomery's criticisms were more or less justified. U.S. generals had mishandled the first phases of the operations, being completely surprised and unprepared in what had been a quiet section of the line, and it had been Monty who had led to the stabilization of the north side of the Bulge. On the other hand, those exhausted and under-strength units had been placed there precisely because it was a quiet section of the line, where nobody expected major action. In any event, it was Patton who relieved Bastogne and turned the German flank, and overcame a more complex problem in order to do it—not that Monty's role was easy or unimportant. And, while the remarks were read as insulting the entire U.S. Army, Montgomery actually had nothing but praise for the U.S. soldier (which meant that he was in a distinct minority amongst Allied generals, who usually saw the Americans as being soft and pampered and were loathe to give GIs any credit).
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 magnanimous. 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 in 1940 (probably not an unfair assessment all in all). 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.
He is also the origin of half of one of the most famous quotes of all time, from The Princess Bride, commenting on Vietnam, "The U.S. has broken the second rule of war. That is, don’t go fighting with your land army on the mainland of Asia."
The first rule, he said, was "Don’t march on Moscow," before adding with characteristic lack of modesty, "I developed these two rules myself." Indeed, Monty was not, in general, noted for lack of ego. He once told a class of schoolchildren that they should read a particular book because, "It's a good book. I wrote it".
One of only a few Field-Marshals created during World War II by the British War Cabinet.
He ended at #88 in One Hundred Greatest Britons.
Montgomery in media:
- Appears in historical footage during the opening of the British campaign in Call of Duty 2, where he's mentioned taking command of the British Eighth Army and leading a counteroffensive at El Alamein in order to drive Rommel and his forces back.
- Trevor Reid portrays him in The Longest Day.
- Played by Michael Rennie in the Macaroni war film The Battle of El Alamein (also known as Desert Tanks).
- He appears on the cover of Afrika Korps vs. Desert Rats.
- Appears in semi-canonical Strike Witches doujinshi set around North African Campaign, in charge of leading the Britannian 8th Army and serving as the General commander of Major Cecilia Glinda Miles of 4th Armoured Brigade, C Squadron. He worked along side the other famous African campaign generals from both sides such as George S. Patton and even the Magnificent Bastard Erwin Rommel himself. All three men also deeply care for and love the witches under their command and are highly protective of the witches they lead; although all three Generals initially disagreed on how exactly to deploy the girls in the African theater.
- In both the graphic novel and animated film When the Wind Blows, Monty is mentioned by Jim as still (mistakenly) being in command of the British military in the build-up to nuclear war. Unfortunately, this is meant to show how little Jim and his wife Hilda know of nuclear warfare, thinking it will be like World War II.
- In actor John Baddeley's autobiography Double Take: An Actor's Reflection, he recounts how, when auditioning for a voice role in Oscar's Orchestra, he showed off his voice talent with a series of funny voices and impressions- including one of Montgomery, which the producers loved so much that they ended up naming his character Monty in honor of it.
- The 1958 war film I Was Monty's Double is about a (true) disinformation campaign in which a junior officer who was an actor before the war and who bears a close resemblance to Montgomery is used as a Body Double. The junior officer in question, M.E. Clifton James, played himself (and Monty) in the film.
- Shows up in Into the Storm hotly debating Britain's defense in the Battle of Britain with Churchill, being very true to his historical self in the process.
- Played by Julian Wadham in Churchill, where he's a Reasonable Authority Figure who gives his men a Rousing Speech before D-Day.