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.

Eighth Army advanced through Cyrenaica and Tripolitania and debouched into Tunisia. It was in Tunisia that Monty for the first time since 1940 experienced – or, as he undoubtedly felt it, suffered – service in a force where he was not the sole operational commander. His contempt for Anderson, Commander of First Army (a British army but with French and American corps besides), became ever more stridently expressed as the two armies came together under one Army Group command. First Army had been built up in Tunisia after the TORCH landings, and Monty had already been scathing about what he had heard of their performance. His self-confidence, like that of his army, was now at its zenith. He, and they, alone knew how to fight and win: that was the Monty message, and he took pleasure in the exclusive arrogance with which he had infected his own command.

It was not wholly justified. The hard-fighting, sometimes mishandled troops of First Army undoubtedly needed a Monty – their own commander lacked charisma: but they did not have everything to learn from the Desert veterans, although from Hamilton’s account one would suppose so. Nor, for that matter, could an army which had so fumbled the fruits of victory after Alamein exactly pose as instructors of the world in the military arts. Monty’s success and confidence were tonic in their effect: too often they were also divisive and offensive.

The same curious dual effect of inspiration and irritation was carried into the campaigns of Sicily and Italy – described, from Monty’s point of view, in parts three and four of this book. Here Monty’s Army had to run in double harness with an American army – Patton’s Seventh in Sicily, Clark’s Fifth in Italy. Monty reckoned that these colleagues had much to learn about war and that he was the best person to teach it. It was not surprising that they saw matters differently.

Increasingly, Monty’s consciousness of being the sole repository of military wisdom coloured his operational views. In the invasion of Italy – operations AVALANCHE, Clark’s Fifth Army landing at Salerno, and BAY-TOWN, Monty’s own Eighth Army descent on Reggio in the south – Monty excoriated the Salerno landing, as Hamilton does. This is nonsense. There was nothing wrong with the general concept of AVALANCHE. Certainly the operation was near calamity at one point, but in the end it succeeded, and it was certainly right to threaten the Germans by landing as far north and pressing northward as hard as possible.

Then, having landed – some days before Clark, against no opposition and preceded by a huge, wasteful, destructive and unnecessary bombardment – Monty had the task of marching northward to Clark’s support. He made little attempt to press his troops. Despite the critical position at Salerno, and in spite of news that Clark was in peril, Monty took his time. His advance did nothing to help Clark, although, after the event, he absurdly bragged that Eighth Army had ‘saved his bacon’. Hamilton remarks that ‘both Rommel and Montgomery, the two most famous generals of the desert, had failed to intervene [at Salerno] because they both found the respective strategies of their colleagues in Central Italy to be utterly misguided.’ Apart from the question of whether both could have been simultaneously right, that is a serious criticism of Monty, if true. It implies that because (with some justification) he thought the Salerno operation and his own landing too disconnected to be strategically sound, he was not prepared to extend himself. The impression remains, pace Hamilton, that Monty was disgruntled at not being given the principal part in the Italian opera. Hamilton describes his mood at that time as stemming from ‘injured professionalism’. His exchanges with Alexander – given here – were petty and pettish. There is little attempt at military analysis in this work, but both in Sicily and Italy many readers will regard Hamilton as remarkably generous to Monty, and unjust to his critics.

The last parts of this book have a happier story to tell. They are concerned with the preparation and execution of OVERLORD, the Allied landings in Normandy; and with the Normandy fighting. Hamilton rightly emphasises Monty’s personal achievement in the preparatory, pre-D-Day stage. OVERLORD, apparently so inevitable in its triumph once consummated, was an extraordinary, a bold, a memorable event in the history of war. It could have gone very wrong. There were bad moments. Hamilton describes – and certainly does not exaggerate – Monty’s role as Allied Land Force Commander of the invasion, and his sheer moral courage in assuring every soldier of that vast armada that it was going to be a success. He, personally, could tell them that without any doubt it was going to work. It always had, when he said so. They must accept it from him – and they did. This was quintessential Monty, drawing on the immense credit amassed by his successes in the past and the publicity they – and he – had received: exploiting the empathy he felt he had cultivated with British soldiers (not all felt it to the degree Hamilton imagines, but enough did), and infecting all with the confidence they needed, inspired by the power of their commander’s will.

The book ends with the Allied Armies poised, it seemed, to drive into the heart of the Reich. The fighting in Normandy had culminated in break-out, with Monty’s strategy of attracting the Germans to the east of the Allied line while making the main break-out effort in the west now justified, it appeared, after grave misgivings in high places about what Monty was trying to do. By the closing pages Eisenhower has assumed direct command of the Allied land forces, leaving Monty to command the northern wing, the British and Canadian 21st Army Group. There are already rumblings of disunity and acrimony over the exploitation of the great victory in Normandy – Monty’s victory, Hamilton argues, in concept and in resolute execution, whatever the uniform of the troops who ultimately broke the crust of German resistance. For the development of this troubled theme the reader must await Hamilton’s third volume.

There are two factors which, despite his achievements, have worked to diminish Monty as an historical personage, and Hamilton recognises – and documents – both of them, while not, it seems, fully accepting the damage done.

The first circumstance which has hurt Monty – and was particularly unfortunate for his character – was this. At no time in the Second World War, except when serving under Brooke in 11 Corps in France and Flanders in 1940, was Monty commanded by a man whom he respected as a soldier. Hamilton makes this abundantly clear. For the first parts of this book – commanding Eighth Army along the North African littoral, taking part as one of two Army Commanders in the Tunisian campaign, in Sicily and then in Italy – Monty was nominally subordinate to Alexander. He held Alexander’s ability in low esteem, and Hamilton’s passages about Monty and Alexander are as explicit and persuasive as anything here. He quotes Monty in Italy: ‘Alexander is a very great friend of mine, and I am very fond of him. But I am under no delusion whatsoever as to his ability to conduct large-scale operations in the field: he knows nothing about it: he is not a strong commander and he is incapable of giving firm and clear decisions as to what he wants. In fact no one ever knows what he does want, least of all his own staff; in fact he does not know himself.’ There is much in the same vein. Alexander, according to Monty – and to Hamilton – was incapable or unwilling when it came to imposing his will on subordinates. Brooke thought so too: ‘When it came to working on a higher plane ... he was at once out of his depth. He had no ideas of his own and always sought someone to lean on.’

Hamilton describes American astonishment at the brusque, offhand manner adopted towards Alexander by Monty, his subordinate. This showed an unattractive side of Monty, but it stemmed from an understandable emotion. For, in truth, Alexander never commanded Monty at all. Nor did he command Patton or Clark, his American Army commanders. He rode with so loose a rein that no riding master would have accepted that the horse – or horses – were under their nominal rider’s control. Hamilton rightly emphasises how, in the invasion and subsequent conquest of Sicily, for example, Alexander appeared to have no strategic concept whatever. Monty and Patton were allowed to pursue different – and inharmonious – operational plans. It is by no means as clear as Hamilton suggests that Monty’s own proposals for victory in Sicily provided the best answer – some would argue the exact reverse. What is evident, however, is that Alexander did not attempt to provide any answer at all. Monty’s strictures on his nominal superior were as convincing as they were devastating. Nevertheless, while grumbling that nobody was ‘gripping’ the Sicilian campaign (Alexander’s clear responsibility), Monty simultaneously signalled that it was quite unnecessary for Alexander initially to come to Sicily unless he wanted to! Monty did not mind the absence of a nominal master where he thought that absence would leave him in effective control. It was when he found that he could not have his own way without the support of a superior that he complained (with justice) at lack of authority.

It was to some extent the same in North-West Europe where Monty’s immediate commander was Eisenhower. Monty, again, had a low opinion of Eisenhower’s military capabilities: but here his discontent had all the overtones of British/American jealousies, resentments and misunderstandings. These were flames which it was always easy to fan, and Monty’s contempt for Eisenhower fanned them. Nor was his own point of view as self-evidently superior on each occasion as he assumed, and as Hamilton assumes. But whatever the operational rights and wrongs – and in war all is speculative until it has actually happened – Eisenhower’s achievement in quenching those flames of disunity far outweighed his inadequacies as a field commander. Eisenhower’s monument was the endurance of sufficient Anglo-American solidarity to achieve final victory. It was not easy for him. Monty infuriated the Americans with what they regarded as his ill-mannered and conceited emphasis on his own achievements, his own proposals; and the dislike has never died. Hamilton often excuses Monty’s manners by explaining that his preoccupation with his soldiers’ lives, at risk from the faulty strategy of others, overrode all considerations. This will not do. The history of war is full of examples of commanders as resolute for victory, as good as – or a great deal better than – Monty, who could combine ruthless effectiveness with self-restraint and courtesy. This would be a more balanced work if its author had shown recognition of that fact.

The second factor which has greatly damaged Monty was his bombast, the bragging, the urge to describe himself as uniquely effective, so that nothing he touched had been well-managed before, so that nobody else in the same business could understand war unless taught by Monty, so that all had gone exactly according to plan. The present reviewer once heard Monty advise: ‘Military History? They’d better just read my campaigns. It’s all they’ll need.’ How silly, and how sad – but how very much Monty! And – for here is the heart of the damage – while Monty himself could chuckle, his eyes aglint with enjoyment at the ‘naughtiness’ of so preposterous a remark, that was not always or often how such remarks would be taken. Or recounted.

There was plenty of this bombast in Hamilton’s first volume and in the new book he again displays it extensively, sometimes smiling at it, sometimes excusing it, sometimes gently chiding it. Monty’s need to seem infallible led him not only to misrepresent but to misread his own achievements. Here are two examples from the period covered by this book. At Mareth at the gates of Tunisia, in March 1944, Monty fought a battle – an unsuccessful frontal assault followed by an effective ‘left hook’, primarily with his armour – which ended in German withdrawal. Monty described this (in a letter to Brooke, which Hamilton does not quote) as ‘quite a classic battle ... scope for subtlety and resource as well as outwitting the opponent’. Mareth ended in success, but, as Hamilton acknowledges, the Germans had already planned to withdraw: they were never trapped. The ‘left hook’, redeemed by some excellent fighting and leadership at a lower level, was muddled and delayed by Eighth Army’s own staff work. The frontal assault was expensive and failed in its object: Monty thought that it had drawn the German reserves, which was not the case. In no sense did Monty, at Mareth, ‘make the enemy dance to his tune’ – a favourite phrase, used here. Hamilton is frank, with interesting evidence, about the crisis at Eighth Army Headquarters when the frontal attack foundered. Except in Monty’s self-defeating bombast Mareth was not a ‘classic battle’. It was, instead, a battle which showed Monty – a much higher commendation – capable of adjusting his ideas with speed when he had first got matters awry and when an initial plan failed. But, throughout his campaigning, Monty had to proclaim that no enemy, no event, had moved or occurred except in conformity to his own plan, his own will. Where this was simply untrue he preferred to look away, or boastfully to misrepresent. He thus did less than justice to his own generalship. Generalship, after all, is largely a matter of reacting quickly and shrewdly to mistakes: the enemy’s mistakes, subordinates’ mistakes – or one’s own.

A second example of self-defeating bombast was in Normandy, during and after operation GOODWOOD – a major British attack southward to the east of Caen in July 1944. Monty intended this to be so threatening as to draw the dwindling German armoured divisions towards the east of the beachhead, thus facilitating an ultimate American breakout in the west. He took pains to make this limited intention clear – and even more pains afterwards, when he was irritated to find some people believed that he had intended that the British armour should break out towards the Seine and that they had failed to do so.

In fact, however, Monty had undoubtedly thought a break-out by the British perfectly possible. He devised for the operation a limited object, consistent with what was now his overall strategy: but he was mentally prepared (and probably hoped) for greater things. In a letter to Brooke, not quoted here, he wrote before the battle: ‘The possibilities are immense: with 700 tanks loosed to the south-east of Caen and armoured cars operating far ahead anything may happen ...’ If language means anything, those words far transcend the concept of a strictly limited attack, a gesture to attract the German armour. Monty, quite rightly, was ready for anything. In the event, GOODWOOD – ill-conceived tactically – did not achieve even its own limited objectives, let alone anything more ambitious: and thereafter Monty spent too much time and ink explaining that all had gone according to plan. His obsession with being right at all points has harmed his reputation. Hamilton recognises this, but, some will think, inadequately so.

Which brings us to Carlo D’Este’s book. For in this carefully researched, militarily perceptive and lucidly written work on the planning of OVERLORD and the fighting in Normandy, the author argues cogently that between Monty’s actual plans and later boasting a great gulf lay. D’Este contends that Monty’s initial plan was to retain flexibility so that he could threaten to break out of the beachhead in different directions – either east from the eastern, British sector towards the Seine or southward from the American, western sector, as in fact occurred. For this to work the crucial area was around Caen. Caen was an important area of communications and the ground south of it was dominant. Monty aimed to take it immediately after D-Day on 6 June, and D’Este argues that, had he done so, his later avowed ‘master plan’ of holding defensively in the east while maintaining enough pressure there to draw the German armour off the Americans would probably never have been adopted. It was because the Caen area was stubbornly held by the Germans, thus denying deployment space to the British, that Monty made a virtue of necessity and decided that the function of the eastern, Second Army wing of the Allied battle line was to attract the German reserves. But it was not his original ‘master plan’. Only when the course of the battle foreclosed his other options did Monty, according to D’Este, evolve the concept of the Caen area as the hinge of an opening door.

There is a good deal in this, but the point should not be exaggerated, and although D’Este’s book is a model of judicious restraint it will be thought by some to be less than fair to Monty operationally. Certainly Monty’s bombast – then and afterwards – obscured the truth about the Normandy fighting and the degree to which it had gone according to plan, but the question tends to turn on timing and sequence. Thus, initially, Monty certainly believed in ‘pulling the enemy on to Second Army so as to make it easier for First [US] Army to expand and extend quicker’, as he signalled personally to Brooke as early as 10 June. That, of course, was during the build-up phase when American clearance of the Cotentin Peninsula and seizure of Cherbourg were the pressing Allied requirements. Later, when the Germans had reinforced Normandy, and, willy-nilly, the struggle was one of attrition, Monty – like any commander so placed – had to calculate where the enemy containing line could be made to break. That this slow struggle was forced upon him rather than planned by him is undeniable, but the course of events – except in detail and timing – was not utterly remote from the original Montgomery idea. A break-out and wheel which would take the Allies to the Seine always and inevitably had the British and Canadians on the inner flank; and the inner flank of a wheel can legitimately be thought of as a hinge. D’Este makes the interesting point that ‘it cannot be overemphasised that both before and after D-Day the Allied commanders were not thinking in terms of a “break-out” except as it pertained to the seizure of Brittany. The phrase “break-out” is one which was coined after the fact ...’

This is curiously expressed, and it may be that the author should have written ‘planning in detail’ rather than ‘thinking in terms’. Certainly the occupation of Brittany was thought of by Monty as a vital logistic step, a consummation of the campaign’s first phases (it was, in the event, largely irrelevant – the battle of France moved too fast). But there were, always and naturally, concepts for advance to and across the Seine, as the phase map D’Este himself produces makes clear. He emphasises that the actual ‘break-out’, however, was Bradley’s initiative: suddenly the German line snapped, Bradley saw an opportunity and took it, and Monty supported him. The consequence was ultimate victory. That Monty played a crucial part in it by his nerve, determination and professional skill is hard to deny: that it was all of his own devising is as absurd as D’Este argues. Monty ‘played the battle’ with realism and ability. His error was to pretend that he had planned its every turn.

This is an admirable book. The story of D-Day, in particular, is told with splendid clarity. The military analysis is thorough and well-argued; and what D’Este says about the British Army is, in the main, reflective and true. Interestingly, he argues (as does Hamilton in a different context) that Monty’s plans were often bold: for example, the concept of thrusting armoured groups deep inland immediately post-invasion to disrupt German counter-moves (it never happened). He is critical of some of Monty’s lack of tactical grip when things went sluggishly or awry. This may be less than just: an Army Group Commander, even Monty, could only intervene effectively at a fairly high level, and much that went disappointingly in the battle was at a very low level indeed. D’Este is tough – but fair – about the fighting of some British divisions and he remarks, as does Hamilton, that the Eighth Army veterans showed particularly badly. This was generally known to be true, and D’Este properly attributes it at least in part to that very conceit which Monty himself had been at such pains to inculcate. The Normandy fighting was more intensive than the desert experience, and very different. Unless men and formations were prepared to learn from it, they failed.

There are some mistakes in the book, mostly insignificant. Geyr Von Schweppenburg was not a Field Marshal. Simpson was not Military Secretary or ‘Secretary to the CIGS’: he was Director of Military Operations at the War Office. And the Grenadier Guards did not stop for tea after crossing a Nijmegen bridge already in American hands in September 1944. They stopped, having crossed the bridge and seized it under fire, because it was nightfall, and because the routes to Arnhem lay up one raised road, held by the Germans, off which tanks could not deploy. But these are small things in an excellent book. It is not a biography of Monty, and it is critical of his bombast and of much else: but it is warm in praise where the author believes praise due, and as warmly defends Monty against the more absurd and offensive charges sometimes made, particularly in the United States, against his conduct or his generalship. It is inevitable that in a book on Normandy Monty, the Allied Land Force Commander, plays the star role and D’Este, an American officer, examines that role and the playing of it with impressive objectivity.

Nobody was neutral about Monty and nobody will be neutral about either of these two volumes. D’Este gives us thoughtful, analytical history. But Hamilton, despite exaggerations, leads us to know Monty. He enables us to see and hear the man. He writes: ‘Those who were permitted to visit the warrior in the field seldom went away unimpressed. Short in stature, with bony cheeks and long, sharp nose, steel-blue eyes and a precise, relentlessly logical mind, this captain of men imparted an aura of clarity and conviction which infused all who served under him.’ That is fair. That is right. That was Monty.