Monty: World War II’s Most Misunderstood General, Part 1
Love him or detest him, there has rarely been a middle-ground when it comes to opinions about one of World War II’s most controversial and misunderstood generals: Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery. He has been the subject of gossip, endless articles and a number of biographies, as well as portraits and assessments in books about the battles, campaigns and theaters of war in which he served. Overall, historians have been unkind to Montgomery. In this article I intend to make the case that these judgments are mostly superficial and as often as not, wrong. He had a personality we love to hate and a record of accomplishment few could claim.
Monty was married to the British Army and was a dedicated officer whose entire existence was geared to preparing for war and to fighting that war to win. To that end, he demanded the highest standards of conduct, training and performance. Those who failed to live up to his standards were ruthlessly replaced by men who could. In the disastrous wake of Dunkirk in 1940 Montgomery began training the men under his command with both relish and a hardnosed insistence on performance. "His first priority was fitness," notes historian Alastair Horne, "’physical and mental,’ quoting with relish his favorite lines from Kipling;
Nations have passed away and left no trace,
And history gives the naked cause of it -
One single, simple reason in all cases;
They fell because their peoples were not fit.1
The relevance of Montgomery’s insistence on fitness has a modern day parallel. In the July 4, 2005 edition of The Boston Globe the Associated Press reported that, "Besides terrorists, germ warfare, and nuclear weapons, military officials increasingly worry about a different kind of threat – troops too fat too fight. Weight issues plague all branches of the military, from elite Marines to the Air Force . . . ‘This is quickly becoming a national security issue for us,’" noted one colonel. During World War II, this was a problem quickly solved by Montgomery: the unfit or those overweight were quickly weeded out. In his command even staff officers ran weekly seven-mile runs. These doctrines were among those he brought to each of his wartime commands. This is but one example of a general who was ahead of his time.
Like that of his adversary, Erwin Rommel, and his ally George S. Patton, Montgomery’s reputation was exemplified by his forceful personality, a trait possessed by all successful battlefield commanders. Like "Ike," Montgomery was instantly recognizable by the single nickname – "Monty." The British soldier had a reassuring sense that their commanding general not only knew what he was doing but would look out for their welfare, and, most important of all – their lives. Rommel, Patton, and Montgomery made such a deep impression upon their men that they, in turn, felt a bond with their commander that all would be well as long as he led them. All three made their presence felt by personal visits to their troops to motivate in times of uncertainty. A British writer has described such men as "characters." "Soldiers love a character, whether he happens to be their platoon commander, C.O., or commander-in-chief. Montgomery was a genuine character, a born exhibitionist with a sense of the dramatic and with tremendous confidence in himself."2
Fearless, and occasionally foolhardy in his public and private utterances, Montgomery was thoroughly disliked by many of his contemporaries for the usual reasons: jealousy and rivalry. However, right or wrong, Montgomery was scrupulously honest in his opinions which, combined with his rasping personality, attracted legions of detractors, both during the war and since, especially some American historians who have been unable or unwilling to judge him fairly. Yet, as was said of Admiral Ernie King’s appointment by FDR, Montgomery was not picked for high command because he was pleasant or a gentleman. In fact, what separated Montgomery from his peers was that he was unafraid to be unpopular.3 In short, neither Monty’s personality nor his sexuality is the criteria by which he should have been judged – then or now.
He was a consummate professional soldier at a time when Britain was desperate for competent battlefield commanders, not chivalry. Indeed, one of the ills of the British Army was that it was staffed with far too many "nice chaps." No one ever referred to Bernard Law Montgomery as a "nice chap."
An accomplished student of war like Patton and Eisenhower, Montgomery spent the interwar years studying, writing and preparing for the world war he too was convinced would one day occur. At first sight, Montgomery neither inspired nor intimidated. "He had not [Gen. Sir Claude] Auchinleck’s impressive presence, nor the handsome, martial bearing of Alexander, nor the rugged, bulldog features of Wavell."4 Habitually dressed in a nondescript uniform of his own design, Montgomery’s five foot seven inch frame, hawk-like features, thinning hair, high-pitched voice and, although born an Ulsterman, his English accent, all added to the impression far more reminiscent of a faceless civil servant than a general. Indeed, Omar Bradley’s aide once described Montgomery, "with his corduroy trousers, his enormous loose fitting gabardine coat and his beret" as resembling "a poorly tailored bohemian painter."5
Those who misjudged him on the basis of first impressions were soon disabused of their lapse. Montgomery’s most striking feature was his penetrating grey-blue eyes, which literally flashed with authority and determination and exuded the air of authority characteristic of all great commanders.6 Correspondent John Gunther thought he possessed, "the most piercing and luminous blue eyes I have ever seen."7 Montgomery’s lack of physical presence was more than compensated for by the magnetism with which he dominated the British Eighth Army. Other than [Field Marshal Sir Alan] Brooke [the Chief of the Imperial General Staff], whom he both respected and rather feared, no one intimidated Montgomery, not even Churchill with whom he maintained a spirited professional relationship that was devoid of the warmth and intimacy the prime minister enjoyed with men like Eisenhower and Alexander. Thus, while Montgomery seemed to have had Churchill’s ear, he never seemed to have had his heart. Churchill once said of him that he was "indomitable in retreat; invincible in advance; insufferable in victory!"
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