Bernard Law Montgomery
and Misconceptions of Public Figures
If you ever watch the Classic movie Patton, with George C Scott, you will see Bernard Law Motgomery portrayed as an “Annoying Twit”. I’m not an anglophile, but I would like to see a more balanced and positive portrayal of one of the more important figures in 20th century history.
I would almost like to do a literary review on this figure, but no really excellent books have been written of this figure. And that in itself is part of the problem, I think they have not been written because popular misconceptions have painted Bernard Law Montgomery as “Controversial”. But I feel he has a very interesting and touching story that out to be re-examined in a more positive light, not that he is seen as evil or bad, it’s just that he’s always portrayed as “annoying”.
Various different skills are emphasized in Generalship, such as George Marshall (whom I think Colin Powell resembles), Dwight David Eisenhower as more political Generals. Douglas MacArthur, whose strategic brilliance was almost unrivaled, but whose political skills were uneven, being excellent in the Philippine’s and Japan, but being controversial in American Politics. Omar Bradley was pretty well rounded, and a credit to our General Staff system (with the British laughingly said was more Prussian than the Prussians) And George Patton who was tactically unrivalled in Blitzkrieg tactics, but managed to get himself in trouble on a regular basis when he made ill advised remarks and actions.
When the Patton movie was current, I was talking to my best friend about the Second world war in which his father had served in the American army and I was speculating on the best generals and he said that his father thought that Bernard Law Montgomery was the best. How can this be I thought, having just watched the movie, which did not really show Monty in the most flattering light. But his father was very firm about it, as an American soldier serving under Bernard Law Montgomery, he thought that Monty was more careful with the lives of the troops under his command and a better general.
Montgomery, like Erwin Rommel, was an infantry soldier in the first World War, and also like him taught and wrote manuals on the subject for their respective armed forces. Unlike Rommel, it is possible (likely even) that Montgomery never really mastered the exploitation phase of warfare, being better at strategy and defense. However, he did develop a strong and I feel healthy dislike for the high casualty mass infantry attacks found in the First World War, and never sought to do such himself.
The most touching element of Montgomery’s story is perhaps his marriage between the wars. Bernard Law Montgomery briefly got outside of the total centeredness around the military to fall in love, get married and have a child. While on a vacation, his wife was bitten by an insect and became infected and died. This would be an excellent area to re-examine Monty from a more sympathetic perspective. Upon her death though, he got back into being military centeredness and the rest is history. Monty’s first appearance in World War II was being a somewhat principle character in the successful extraction (you don’t win wars by retreating but he mounted one of the 1st armored attacks on the Germans in Northern Europe and it would have been so much worse without Dunkirk) of the BEF from France after the disasters of May 1940.
Winston Churchill was having a hard time with his generals adjusting to Erwin Rommel in North Africa. After a period of great initial success against the Italians, the British Army found itself getting completely unhinged by Erwin Rommel’s Africa Corps. This is the first example of the media circus , as he arrived when Auchinleck had stabilized the situation (after being savaged by Rommel) and was given the advantage of Auchinleck’s buildup and a lot of people thought Auchinleck was mistreated and he was perhaps to an extent, but Churchill made one of his better meddlings in taking Auchinleck out and putting Montgomery in, despite the various differences of opinion at the time. The resulting victory at El Ale mien highlights both Montgomery’s strenghts and weaknesses. The offensive got off on the wrong foot, getting slowed down on the original axis of advance in the north, but Monty saw this and quickly adjusted the axis to the south and the result is history. But after this success, he seemed unable to capitalize to the maxi mun extent in the exploitation and pursuit phase. We also see in Sicily, how Montgomery’s plans often ended up with him getting stalled in one area, while another general took advantage of this to go wild on the left, while he was stuck on the right.
Eisenhower, wisely extracted Montgomery from the Italian campaign and put him to the task of refining the operation that eventually became Overlord. I believe that the refinements that he proposed and Eisenhower signed off on resulted in the eventual victory in the West, despite Montgomery again finding himself in positions that often reflected badly upon him in the Media environment. Monty’s suggestions were to broaden the Normandy beachhead from a narrower front to a broader front, with more troops employed in the initial invasion. He also did an excellent job with home front morale in this period.
Once again on the European continent as a result of D Day, Monty found himself commanding on the left, on a broader front that he was instrumental in creating. It was a total Media Circus in 1944, and I can just imagine the rantings of the 1944 versions of Pat Buchanan, Bill O’Riellys, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermanns of the time. Monty promised a breakthrough on the left where he had managed to attract the bulk of the German heavy (Armored) forces. What was he suppose to say, I don’t know if we’ll really get anywhere here but we’ll try it anyway, of course he hoped to break though there, but the basic plan left open the eventual possibility of a massive break though on the right. He was just in the wrong place for Media glory. This is the basic point of this piece, is that much of what we still think of Bernanrd Law Montgomery is based on Emotive, media responses that are inaccurate and illogical when looked at from a more detached perspective.
Then we have the narrow front, broad front argument again in the Market Garden Operation in later 1944. Two factors I think resulted in the failure of this operation to achieve it’s ultimate objective, but it did achieve some tactical success. The not known deployment of Heavy German Armored units (resting and refitting after their wearing down somewhere) in the final break through area at Arnhem, put a severe cramp in the achievement of the ultimate objective (fate). Would a George S Patton kicking multiple butts personally at each point of resistance have carried the day, maybe? But it was Monty’s plan and other than putting someone else in charge, what could have been done, it was worth a shot and Eisenhower and Monty deserve credit for trying it.
Then Monty unjustly got himself in hot water again as a result of the succesful defence in the Ardennes in December 1944 and early 1945. This was the ultimate example of the emotive slant of the media at the time putting Monty in a bad light, and yes, in some ways Monty helped them along. Agian on the left, Monty was given command over Bradley’s units that were on the wrong side of the German penetration to be easily controlled by Omar Bradley on the right. Now the Ardennes offensive was essentially blunted by the extreme resistance of the American Units in the way of the Germans, who unlike the French in 1940, were a major problem that was not overcome by the initial blow. Monty and his expanded forces found themselves on the Northern shoulder of the possible break through. On the right, the Americans held onto much of strategic importance without pulling back in a mass, but contesting Bastogne. Monty took his forces and straightened then out and put them in the best possible positions. Monty saved the lives of many American units on the left by pulling them out of bad position that they found themselves in. The Germans ran out of steam, and their advance units were shattered and disorganized and they had not even reached Monty’s well positioned troops and would have been even further decimated if they had not have pulled out.
Somehow, in this mess that was the last major German offensive in the war, Monty managed to make comments that provoked controversy. I think that if one looks at what he actually said, he never said anything wrong, just perhaps patted himself on the back a little. The emotive responses to what was essentially statements taken out of proper context, put the seal on the what I feel is an inaccurate assessment of Bernard Law Montgomery and ought to be examined and laid to rest.
Bernard Law Montgomery survived the Media Firestorm and eventually received the surrender of the German Armed Forces in the West, but by some accounts, he just barely survived, as did George S Patton. I think too much of the emotive nonsense still survives in our popular culture, especially here in the United States. Why leave any imprint of the Media Bozo’s of the 1940′s in any position of influencing the posthumous legacy of one of the Finest Generals in British History and the 20th century? If we debunk the Media excesses of the past, perhaps they will have less reason to be illogical and biased in the present.