Monty: World War II’s Most Misunderstood General, Part 2
[Note: This is Part 2 of a scheduled three-part analysis of Montgomery’s leadership and battlefield performance in World War II. Look for Part 3 in September or October 2005. The first part of this series can be found here.]
Last month’s article on the generalship of Field-Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery during World War II was aimed at presenting a brief glimpse into a complex character that was nothing like the cardboard stereotype that has been the typical portrayal of the man they called Monty.
This essay is part 2 of a three-part examination of Monty’s leadership during the war and his relationship with senior Allied commanders. This essay is a look at his campaigns in the Mediterranean after El Alamein.
* * *
With Bernard Montgomery what you saw was what you got; there was not the slightest pretense to the man. He spoke his mind, always forcefully and with little thought of whether or not it was, in modern terminology, politically correct. Monty spoke as a soldier whose only concern in war was winning, a point lost on some military historians. Such outspokenness earned him a great many enemies. However, what separated Monty from the rest was that he was not only willing to accept the slings and arrows that come with such candor but – for the most part – he simply refused to back down when he believed he was right.
In the Mediterranean a dramatic reversal of British fortune took place near the Egyptian border with Libya in the autumn of 1942. There, in the bloodiest battle of the desert war, a heretofore little-known British general led a revitalized Eighth Army over Erwin Rommel, the celebrated Desert Fox. Thereafter the names of both El Alamein and Bernard Law Montgomery were immortalized. Churchill later proclaimed that: “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”
M-4 Sherman of 13th Armored Regiment west of Kasserine Pass on 24 February 1943.
Tank commander is Captain G.W. Meade. (National Archives)
American involvement in the war against the Axis began in November 1942 with Operation Torch, the invasion of French North Africa. With it came coalition warfare and the growing pains of learning to fight what was now an allied war. There were inevitable clashes of personality and of doctrine on each side as Brits and Americans learned to live with one another in a common cause. The first real disagreements in the Mediterranean that occurred in the spring of 1943 were between Montgomery and senior British officers during the planning for the invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky). Fresh from triumphant victories over Rommel in North Africa, Montgomery was deeply (and properly) concerned over the lack of a cohesive plan for the invasion of Sicily. The Allied ground command-in-chief, Gen. (later Field-Marshal) Sir Harold Alexander, was preoccupied with the faltering campaign in Tunisia. By temperament inclined to be a hands-off commander, Alexander played no decisive role in supervising the planning which was left adrift. The ground, sea and air commands were all held by virtually independent British commanders-in-chief, (Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder and Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham) each of whom, including Alexander, had a veto over planning. Still inexperienced in the art of coalition command, Eisenhower’s role in the campaign was largely that of a figurehead. Inter-service squabbling over Husky (the upcoming invasion of Sicily) ensued, with the air and navy posing various objections to the plans emanating from an inexperienced staff in Algiers that was planning the ground campaign. By the late spring of 1943, with time growing precariously short, the only result was distractions and indecision. Montgomery aptly argued that the plans put forth to date were worthless. In early May, in a scene later made famous in the film “Patton”, Monty proposed to Ike’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, a compromise plan for Husky that was accepted and implemented whereby there would be a joint Anglo-American invasion of the southeastern corner of Sicily by his Eighth British Army and Patton’s Seventh U.S. Army.
Monty’s compromise plan called for Eighth Army to land along a fifty-mile front from Syracuse to the Pachino peninsula. At the same time, along the south coast, Patton’s Seventh Army would make their primary landings at Gela and Scoglitti with the U.S. 1st and 45th Infantry Divisions, while to the east at Licata, the heavily reinforced 3rd Infantry Division would land to protect the Seventh Army’s left flank. The object of the two assault landings on July 10, 1943 was to seize an Allied bridgehead in southeastern Sicily and capture the key ports of Syracuse, Licata and the airfields near Gela, from which Allied aircraft would support the ground forces.
Once securely ashore, future operations were left deliberately vague. Although the port city Messina in the northeastern corner of the island was the only strategic target in Sicily, Alexander elected to allow the land battle to develop before committing himself to a course of action by his two armies. As the campaign evolved, Patton’s only mission was to protect the Eighth Army’s (Monty’s) left flank.
Troopers of the 505th PIR board a C-47 in preparation for a practice parachute
jump prior to the invasion of Sicily. (National Archives)
The landings were preceded by U.S. airborne and British glider landings to seize key targets around Gela and Syracuse as part of a bold night operation, the first of its kind ever attempted. The British glider force encountered dangerously high winds, smoke from the island, and heavy flak both from enemy guns and, unexpectedly, from friendly naval vessels, which, contrary to orders, mistakenly fired upon the aerial armada. Of the 147 gliders involved, nearly half crash-landed in the sea, drowning 252 British soldiers. The factors of inexperience, wind and enemy flak were a fatal combination that turned the first stage of Husky into a first-class disaster. The U.S. airborne landings fared little better and more than 3,000 paratroopers were scattered over a thousand square-mile area of southeastern Sicily.
Unlike the airborne and glider operations, the amphibious invasion was a great success. The Eighth Army landings were so successful that Montgomery ordered his two corps commanders to push inland and up the coast toward Catania without delay.
The most important of the three American landings took place at Gela, where both German and Italian forces heavily contested the 1st Infantry Division landings. However, the Axis strategy of dividing allied forces backfired and by July 12 the two Allied armies were in control of firm bridgeheads.
Hitler acknowledged that Axis forces had no hope of reversing the Allied invasion. However, despite the generally feeble resistance of a large but ill-trained and inept force of Italians, the Germans had no intention of ceding Sicily without a fight. A German panzer corps headquarters was ordered to the island, as were elements of the elite 1st Parachute Division, which was alerted to drop into the plain of Catania to block the coastal highway to Messina.
During the night of 13-14 July Montgomery launched a night airborne and glider operation to seize a key bridge on the northern edge of the plain of Catania by coup de main. The target, Primosole Bridge, was not lightly held by the Italians as supposed, but defended by a regiment of tough, veteran German paratroopers of the 1st Parachute Division who had arrived in Sicily several hours before the British operation commenced.
Despite the airborne landings, the British attempt to seize Catania and advance along the coastal highway to Messina failed after a savage five-day battle. Montgomery conceded failure and switched his main offensive effort to the northwest to break the German defenses around Mt. Etna, then sweep around its northern edge to the coast below Messina. However, by shifting his main effort to the west, Montgomery had split his Eighth Army and unwittingly presented the Germans with an opportunity to delay his advance long enough to establish the Etna Line (the principal German defense).
[continued on next page]