David Fraser

  • Monty. Vol. II: Master of the Battlefield 1942-1944 by Nigel Hamilton
    Hamish Hamilton, 863 pp, £12.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 241 11104 8
  • Decision in Normandy: The Unwritten Story of Montgomery and the Allied Campaign by Carlo D’Este
    Collins, 555 pp, £12.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 00 217056 6

There were and there remain two extremes of opinion about Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, as well as a large number of intermediate positions. At one end of the scale are those who judge him a competent if somewhat pedestrian professional soldier who usually managed by good fortune to decline battle unless the odds were overwhelmingly in his favour, a general apt to forfeit the fruits of victory by excessive caution; an unimaginative commander with a very inflated view of his own talents and achievements, who was as conceited as he was uncharitable; an ill-mannered egocentric with a strong streak of unkindness. At the other extreme stands ‘Monty’ – idiosyncratic, strong-willed, decisive, unique of his era; the man who gave the British Eighth Army – and through it the whole British Army – restored confidence in itself and in its leaders in the autumn of 1942; the man who irrevocably turned the wretched tide of failure and disappointment by winning the battles of Alam Halfa and El Alamein, so that thereafter defeat was unthinkable, victory only a matter of time; the man who led the Allied armies to triumph in Normandy and chased the Germans back to the Reich and to ultimate surrender on Lüneburg Heath; the man who stood head and shoulders above his peers as one who really understood war and knew how to win. Monty, master of the battlefield.

In this second volume of his immensely long biography of the Field Marshal Nigel Hamilton takes position uncompromisingly at the latter end of the spectrum of opinion. He is not blind to Monty’s faults. ‘These,’ he writes of some of Monty’s characteristics, ‘were not the marks of personal greatness or nobility of spirit. They ... are distressing for his biographer to have to record.’ That is well and fairly said by one who frankly avows the personal affection which existed between the author and his subject. Hamilton’s efforts to be just compel admiration. He calls Monty’s vanity, indiscretion, rudeness and immaturity by their proper names, and where he excuses he never conceals. The book is packed with quotations from diary, document, letter and record of interview, and many passages harmful to Monty’s reputation are included in extenso – although often included in order to be confounded or explained.

But if Hamilton is sorrowfully frank about aspects of Monty the man, he is less critical about Monty the soldier. Here the author sees Monty’s achievements mainly through Monty’s own spectacles. In a disarming Author’s Note he writes: ‘He would make mistakes, misjudge people, situations, plans. Often, as in Sicily and Italy, his arrogance as an undefeated Army Commander caused resentment. There were occasions when ... he acted with complete disregard for advice or Allied embarrassment.’ And there are plenty of examples in this book to give substance to these remarks. Nevertheless Hamilton, in the main, justifies the ‘mistakes’, if mistakes they were, accepts with little demur the (generally dismissive) opinions voiced by Monty on his contemporaries, excuses even though he does not condone the blows Monty dealt to Allied solidarity by his insensitive conduct. Hamilton records these things exactly but they do not affect his own admiration. They happened, but they were generally justified or provoked. They were blemishes, perhaps, but scorched into insignificance by the radiance of Monty’s achievement. The preceding volume of this work was described by some as hagiography. It is not an uncommon charge where a biographer is clearly devoted to his subject. Is the picture given here one of Monty the man like all of us, Monty fallible, Monty warts and all? Or is this – despite disclaimers – Monty glorified?

Opinions are as likely to be affected by prejudice already formed as by what is in the book, so it is right to declare a view. This reviewer stands – albeit with some strong reservations – nearer what may be called the Hamilton position than its opposite. Monty did bring a completely new spirit to the Eighth Army when he assumed command. He showed who was master. He imposed his will. Monty did sometimes force sense upon Allied planning, absolutely refusing to commit his (or anybody else’s) troops to plans in which, for sound, conventional military reasons, he did not believe. He did this before the invasion of Sicily, he did it before the invasion of Normandy. Monty did dominate the collective consciousness of the British Army so that all felt when ‘that little man’ – sometimes spoken with exasperation as well as affection, but always with strong feeling – when ‘that little man’ was in control all would, in the end, be well. His appearance on the scene in Egypt, described in the earlier volume, may be likened to Wellington’s assumption of the command of the Army of the Peninsula. By uncompromising strength of mind he dominated men and events. In this book Hamilton takes Monty’s story from the immediate aftermath of Alamein in November 1942 to the triumphant break-out of Allied forces from the Normandy beachhead in August 1944. By the end of it Monty has been appointed Field Marshal.

It is a very long book. It is, some will find, overloaded with extended quotations which would have repaid some sharper editing. Many of these are records of conversation, and of reminiscence, long after the event. It is sadly inevitable that verbatim transcripts of such can give a blurred, garrulous impression. That is a pity. It is also a pity that most, though not all, reminiscences appear to be by devoted admirers of the Field Marshal. Like strong men in all ages, he liked those around him who could be tactfully adulatory, as well as loyal and efficient, but Monty was too shrewd to surround himself with courtiers and we could have done with some more reported criticism. There was plenty – even from those devoted to their chief. Monty is a rather curious flow of mingled narrative, anecdote, comment and quotation, but the impression emerges, and clearly by design, that Monty was generally right. For this to be proven many readers will feel that more analysis and less assertion would be appropriate.

In the first two parts the author leads us along the North African coast, westward from the field of Alamein. Monty has been criticised for sluggishness in the chase, for letting Rommel get away. Hamilton presents some interesting evidence on that point, castigating freely (as in the first volume) Monty’s subordinates in Eighth Army for what was undoubtedly a confused and unimpressive performance. He also defends Monty’s caution as the pursuit extended, claiming that there was good reason to fear that Rommel might successfully turn on Eighth Army again if it were allowed to overreach itself. Whatever one’s views on this, had Alamein ended with the trapping of a defeated Axis force there is little doubt Monty would have been crowned with more laurels, and rightly so. Conversely, he cannot escape responsibility for the disappointing aftermath of victory. In fact, it is doubtful whether his temperament was ideally suited to exploitation and pursuit. He did not set the pace, exercise command from the front, on such occasions. Monty was no opportunist, no tactical genius with an eye for the fleeting moment of battle, no Wellington at Salamanca. He was, however, a realist, perfectly prepared to adjust plans if they weren’t working. He was thorough, deliberate, resolute: and he was absolutely determined to win. That communicated itself throughout the army and in the end it was what mattered.

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