The desert martinet

Viscount Montgomery: tactless, arrogant and with no instinct for politics

Sacred Cows

The closest I ever came to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was at a passing-out parade at Eaton Hall, the training centre for National Service subalterns. Montgomery took the salute and then spoke. After 20 minutes of unremitting tedium he ended on a high note. His squeaky voice rose a decibel.

“Remember always” (a long pause gave notice of wisdom to be imparted) “work hard and play hard.”

The response to this banality was suppressed giggles in the ranks. Could this really be the great military leader, the victor of El Alamein, the battle that marked the turning point in the war? Well, yes, it could. The sad truth was that Montgomery, loaded with honours and savouring his image as a crusty old soldier, was already something of a joke. Hopelessly vain and insufferably arrogant, his public pronouncements were becoming ever more bizarre.

Retiring as Deputy Supreme Commander of Nato in 1958, he transferred his attention to the House of Lords (he was a viscount from 1946) where his speeches attracted a full attendance though more for light relief and a few belly laughs than for any serious contribution to debates. His entertainment value was at its peak in 1965 when he gravely informed his fellow peers that the Sexual Offences Bill, a first tentative step for toleration of sex outside the norm, was a “charter for buggery” that would lead to the “most abominable bestiality”; this from a social misfit who found his only satisfaction in being surrounded by adoring, good-looking young men.

Montgomery, loaded with honours and savouring his image as a crusty old soldier, was already something of a joke

El Alamein and the campaign which followed in the Western Desert was the centrepiece of Montgomery’s military career and reputation. Proving himself to be a master of logistics, a dedicated professional who was risk-averse and protective of his men, he rose to god-like status. And that is where the trouble started. Draping himself in the mantle of infallibility, he ruthlessly discarded friends and colleagues who were no longer useful to him, giving gratuitous advice where it was least needed.

He had his comeuppance in the wake of the Allied invasion of Western Europe. In overall command of ground operation for the Normandy landings, Montgomery proved his worth as a meticulous planner who inspired the loyalty of his troops. But he was less solicitous with his equals and superiors.

As Supreme Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower felt cut out from the loop while his two foremost aides, Generals Omar Bradley and George Patten, resented having to serve under an English martinet.

With his ignorance of power politics, Montgomery simply could not get it into his head that in the Anglo-American alliance Britain was the junior partner. It was American money and manpower that kept the show on the road.

It came as a huge shock, though not to those who worked closely with him, when he was effectively demoted to lead the British and Canadian 21st Army Group. The consolation prize of a field marshal’s baton was small comfort in having to defer to Eisenhower, whom he did not rate. True though it was that Eisenhower was not much of a strategist,  he had in abundance an instinct for politics that was entirely foreign to Montgomery. This failure of imagination was to cost him dear.

Montgomery’s stock fell again with the ill-conceived Operation Market Garden, a combined ground and airborne attempt to cross the Dutch rivers to expose the flat German plains to a rapid armoured advance. The plan foundered on poor supply lines and unexpected German resistance. Pinned down at Arnhem, the British assault force was decimated.

Montgomery took responsibility for the carnage but, characteristically, with the caveat that all would have been well had Eisenhower given him stronger backing. As always, the blame for his failure was shifted from his shoulders.

Was it calculated perversity that led Montgomery to antagonise his American colleagues at every opportunity? When, briefly, his standing with Eisenhower was improved by his rallying of Anglo-American forces against a surprise German counter-attack through the thickly-wooded and snowbound Ardennes (the Battle of the Bulge) he spoilt it with a widely publicised pronouncement that American troops performed admirably when under competent, i.e. Montgomery’s, command.

He took responsibility for the carnage at Arnhem with the characteristic caveat that all would have been well had Eisenhower given him stronger backing

Again and again it was the same story — a total lack of tact, an overwhelming arrogance and an inability to understand that human and material resources had their limits. This came out most obviously in his constant harping on his dearest ambition to lead the British troops into Berlin, this to be achieved by a massive thrust into enemy territory as opposed to Eisenhower’s preference for a broad front advance. As a good listener, Eisenhower allowed Montgomery to have his say. A more sensitive counsellor might have picked up on hints that in no way could Eisenhower allow Montgomery to upstage Bradley and Patten by mounting a triumphal entry into Berlin.

Eisenhower solved the problem by conceding the German capital to the Red Army while shifting the centre of the advance away from Montgomery’s 21st Army Group in favour of a central offensive by Bradley’s 12th Army Group towards the River Elbe, there to meet up with the Russians. Montgomery had to make do with presiding over the surrender of a million German troops in North West Europe. The ceremony on Luneburg Heath was a pinnacle in his career but masked a bitter disappointment. He never forgave Eisenhower, who was to be his target for vicious censure well after the end of the war. But, of course, being Montgomery, he could never understand why Eisenhower cut off all communication.

After the war, as Chief of Imperial General Staff, Montgomery was a leading propagandist for compulsory military service as a part of every boy’s (never girl’s) education. It was an extravagance and one that near-bankrupt Britain could ill afford. Nor, in the atomic age, was National Service anything but backward-looking. The days of a large standing army were over.

Montgomery was saved from new ideas by overwhelming vanity. Dismissing all his contemporaries as “useless, quite useless”, his faith in himself was unwavering. When a journalist asked him to name the three greatest commanders in history, he answered promptly: “The other two were Alexander the Great and Napoleon.”

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