- Monty: The Field-Marshal 1944-1976 by Nigel Hamilton
Hamish Hamilton, 996 pp, £15.00, June 1986, ISBN 0 241 11838 7
It seemed to me, when editing Soldier in 1946, that a blown-up colour photograph of Monty’s ‘fruit salad’, his massed rows of medal ribbons, would make a good front cover. Would he agree to lend our photographer his battle-dress blouse, a garment as glorious and sacred as the High Priest’s breastplate? We need not have doubted. He also gave us a key to the ribbons, some of which – like the Order of Nicham-Iftikhar (Tunisia) and the Order of Ouissam-Alouite (Morocco) – might have baffled even a crowned head. It was all part of the Monty service, or, as some would say, publicity service.
On Soldier we revelled in the Monty legend. He had nodded his approval to the launch of the magazine early in 1945, in 21 Army Group. It appeared at a time when notices in occupied Germany warned ‘No Fraternisation’ and each soldier had a booklet, signed by the field-marshal, reminding him why the Master Race was beyond the pale, incapable as it was of ‘any form of decency, or of honourable dealings’. Yet by June 1945 we were printing Monty’s first relaxation of the ban, which Christ himself might have penned: ‘Members of the British Forces in Germany will be allowed to speak to, and play with, little children.’ It was not so much the little children as their big blonde sisters whom the soldiers sought as playmates. Hopes were raised by a further relaxation a few weeks later: ‘You may now engage in conversation with adult Germans in the streets and public places. You will not, for the present, enter the homes and houses of the Germans.’
Nigel Hamilton, in this robust last volume of his 2732-page trilogy, does not reproduce these orders, which surely have more than a touch of the touching about them. Here was a soldier who had commanded almost a million men in the field and taken the surrender of a million men (‘A million chaps! Good egg!’) regulating day-to-day human relationships with a cautious benevolence, as if not despairing of the ultimate perfectibility of man. At the same time he was drafting an Olympian message to the vanquished (‘my twenty million subjects!’), a splendid document which Hamilton rightly quotes at length. ‘I want to give you hope’ was its theme:
There is every prospect of a good harvest and you must see that it is gathered in ... I will restore freedom of the Press; this will be done in stages ... You may have Trade Unions ... You may hold public meetings and discussions; I am anxious that you should talk over your problems among yourselves.
The style, as the author says, was ‘typical Monty: direct, personal, simple and positive’. Alas, Eisenhower’s staff rubbished the draft: ‘The tone and underlying thought appear not that of a conqueror, but that of one competing for the good will of the Germans. Such competition must be avoided.’
The Americans had not forgiven Monty for helping to clean up their ‘most awful bloody nose’ in the Ardennes. But Monty knew that he also had bitter enemies at home, even in the Army. After his death, he said, ‘the rats will get at me,’ but the rats did not wait that long. Like Wellington, he was soon ‘much exposed to authors’, especially American ones, and was stung into saying: ‘I think Aides should be forbidden to write books about their Generals.’ Even Eisenhower’s lady driver stuck her pen into Monty. The major onslaughts came in the memoirs of the American generals themselves, provoking more-in-sorrow letters of protest from the field-marshal. In Britain, however, the legend of his leadership remained inviolate. It was a memorable shock when, late in the 1950s, a publisher asked me to read the typescript of a fiercely revisionist book by a young military historian who had gathered up the views of the generals Monty had sacked in the Western Desert. The publisher hardly needed to be told by me that the book would create a scandal. I now learn from Nigel Hamilton’s pages that Monty also was shown a typescript. He described it as ‘an amazing work’ and wrote to (Sir) Denis Hamilton, editorial director of Kemsleys: ‘My recommendation is that you have nothing to do with the book, and do not buy it for any newspapers in the Kemsley Group. It will do the author no good.’ It was, of course, Correlli Barnett’s The Desert Generals (1960, reissued 1983).
In 1962 the Thomson Organisation, having taken over the Kemsley Group, acquired Monty’s private papers, and it is to these that Nigel Hamilton, son of Sir Denis, has had access, a privilege which was denied, for example, to Lord Chalfont (Montgomery of Alamein, 1976), who was told by the field-marshal that ‘if those papers ever came to light they would cause a Third World War.’ Nigel Hamilton was aged 12 when he first met Monty, who once introduced him to Churchill as his ‘socialist friend’ (in tribute to his independence of mind). Though describing Monty, in this volume, as ‘a revered and, let me confess it, deeply loved friend and shepherd’, he is forced to admit that his good shepherd had some most unhappy traits, of which megalomania and insubordination were but two; the worst – shown in his treatment of General Omar Bradley – was that ‘he was at heart, as he had always been and always would be, a bully.’ This, on the biographer’s part, is incorruptibility indeed.
It is bad luck for Hamilton that he has to open the book with an account of Monty’s least successful battle: Arnhem. Had the assault succeeded and Monty broken through to outflank the Ruhr, his name ‘would have gone down in history as a greater field commander than even Wellington’. In the event, an airborne division was squandered. ‘It was Monty’s worst mistake of the war, defying all the principles of logistic back-up, of adequate reserves and the relentless application of superior firepower.’ Why, then, did he not call it off, when he could have done? The author’s answer is that Monty was by nature far more adventurous than the world believed.
Even after Arnhem, with vital Channel ports still in German hands, Monty was all for a single bold thrust through North Germany, rather than Eisenhower’s laborious advance with 40 divisions along a 250-mile front. That made no military sense to the field-marshal, who denounced Eisenhower to the Chiefs of Staff as ‘completely and utterly useless’. Rarely in history, we are told, can a senior commander have so emphatically condemned his commander-in-chief. And Monty kept on at it, lamenting Eisenhower’s inability to ‘get a grip’ on the battle, his willingness to allow his generals to operate on a ‘have a go, Joe’ principle instead of in conformity with a clear master plan. ‘He held conferences to collect ideas,’ raged Monty. ‘I hold conferences to give orders.’
With the American debacle in the Ardennes, at the end of 1944, came Monty’s chance to fight his ‘finest defensive battle’. This is perhaps the most gripping part of the book, told with relish and scant regard for American sensitivities. So serious was the German threat that even Monty in his Memoirs forbore to describe its full extent, ‘lest it further upset American amour propre’. The American high commanders were taking too seriously rumours that German parachutists were out to assassinate them. ‘Eisenhower was at Versailles locked up in the Trianon Palace Hotel with the windows closed, curtains drawn and windows latched, day and night.’ General Bradley, cut off from his armies, was similarly hotel-bound in Luxembourg, changing his bedroom nightly, concealing his insignia of rank. In these circumstances it was unsurprising that Supreme Headquarters could not ‘get a grip’ on the battle. Eventually, having been granted by Eisenhower, over a bad telephone line, command of Bradley’s First and Ninth Armies, Monty with his cold, clear vision set about containing the German panzer thrust (‘it will be a bit of a party’). With an outsize Union Jack on the bonnet of his car and a cavalcade of outriders, he arrived at First Army Headquarters ‘like Christ come to cleanse the Temple’, as an aide-de-camp put it. ‘Personally I always enjoy a good battle,’ Monty found time to write to Mountbatten, ‘but this thing should never have happened; one ought really to burst into tears. It has prolonged the war by months.’ The American version of events is different and their historians will be unlikely to settle for this account. What Eisenhower and his commanders held against Monty was his humbling of Bradley, shorn temporarily of two armies.
Nigel Hamilton, who is nothing if not trenchant, uses the phrase ‘delusional insanity’ to describe the Americans’ attempts to counterattack after the Ardennes shock and has a cruel picture of them spreading their maps on ‘carpeted floors’ and muddling amateurishly away as if playing with tin soldiers. Soon Monty was scorning their obsession with mopping up the Ruhr instead of making straight for Berlin to forestall the Russians. After the Rhine crossing Eisenhower, without the permission of his political masters, cabled his plans for the final advance to Stalin, infuriating the British Chiefs of Staff – ‘it is not very satisfactory when Ike has to appeal to Stalin to help him control Monty’ (Alan Brooke). Monty, as we know, got as far as Lüneburg Heath, where his handling of the German surrender showed him in a poor light, not least because of his failure to invite his brilliant Chief of Staff, Major-General Sir Francis de Guingand, to share the glory.
There are fascinating glimpses of Monty’s spartan tactical headquarters and of his spirited young liaison officers, or ‘gallopers’, who drove through chaos and ruin to bring back intelligence for their early-to-bed master. No women were allowed to visit, in uniform or otherwise. The American generals were less ascetic, liked their food and had Women’s Army Corps girls in attendance. On the night Roosevelt’s death was announced Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton had spent the evening drinking champagne with four Red Cross girls. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps: but Monty’s view was that by light eating and abstention from stimulants he could better retain his clarity of vision, that X-ray ability to see the essentials through the ‘muck-age’. In war there is much to be said for a flat belly and an uncluttered mind.
With the fighting over, the British commanders returned to their farms, accepted directorships, took over newly nationalised industries or got down to their memoirs. Monty, the lonely widower, stayed on in harness. He had no home and his few possessions had been destroyed by bombing. Marlborough, notoriously, had made handsome profits out of retrieving the nation’s honour and had been rewarded with the purpose-built palace of Blenheim. Wellington picked up about a million pounds in grants and prize money, along with a second-hand domicile, Stratfield Saye. Earl Haig was given £100,000 and the public bought him the Haigs’ ancestral home at Bemersyde. But Monty, though qualifying to lodge in a schloss here and a château there, had nowhere in Britain to lie up, save in a War Office flat in Westminster or his own caravan parked at a school. His letter to Buckingham Palace angling for a modest grace-and-favour house was ill received. ‘The war had been won,’ writes Hamilton, ‘and no longer was the King soliciting invitations to Monty’s Tactical Headquarters in the field, now that his Imperial throne had been made secure.’ It is a rude comment, but not wholly unjustified. The unspoken message seemed to be: cash in on your memoirs, like everyone else. Perhaps it was good that for once Monty should be the victim of ingratitude.
‘Soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer,’ runs the saying, but Monty was more like a chimney on fire. In the post-war confusion his ego expanded terrifyingly. Through disregard of his advice, the pull-out from Empire resulted in bloody noses and dogs’ breakfasts everywhere. He was up against committees, with their passion for ‘frigging about’. Labour’s Defence Minister, A.V. Alexander, was ‘a mobile whisky and soda’. In 1947, as he fretted over the problems of Chief of the Imperial General Staff, he was secretly invited by Lord Kemsley to resign and lead the Freedom Movement, a new political party anxious to topple the Socialist Government. When Monty asked what would happen to the Army, which he was busy remodelling, Lord Kemsley replied that the country was more important than the Army. That ended the interview. Monty went on, instead, to be Chairman of Western European Union, clashing alarmingly with his fellow prima donna, General de Lattre de Tassigny, who once burst into tears with Monty’s arm around him (Monty confessed to telling the King that de Lattre was ‘the French equivalent of Dickie Mount-batten’). The next big post, and his last, was that of Deputy Supreme Commander of Nato. As a strategist, he was all for the Suez venture and hitting Nasser for six.
Meanwhile he was working on the book that would tell all, a task for which he was assumed to have ample leisure. The competition was stiff. He tried to discourage Lt-Gen. Sir Brian Horrocks, then Black Rod, from writing articles analysing the generalship displayed in the war, on the grounds that three of the commanders to be discussed, himself included, were members of the House of Lords and also Knights of the Garter: ‘I do suggest to you that it is hardly suitable for Black Rod to bring these into the public eye.’ His Memoirs, which he described as ‘the cat’s whiskers’, came out immediately he retired in 1958, bringing not only excommunication from Eisenhower but the prospect of the first libel suit between field-marshals. In the end, despite Monty’s fierce opposition, Field-Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck was mollified by an inserted slip, conceding that Eighth Army under his command in North Africa had stabilised the line before Monty’s arrival. There was wrath in the world’s capitals at some of Monty’s statements, but no real risk of that Third World War. Even now Monty could not rest and he took to touring the world at the expense of the Sunday Times, conducting ‘summit talks’ in Moscow and Peking. That newspaper declined, however, to print his views on apartheid. Unlike Wellington, ‘the good grey head which all men knew’, he seemed ever anxious to ‘put himself across’.
Many of the bruising family incidents were revealed in A Field-Marshal in the Family (1973) by Monty’s brother, Lt-Col, Brian Montgomery: the conquering hero’s refusal to meet his mother at a victory dinner; the arm’s-length relations with his son David, whom he temporarily disinherited after his divorce (the first in the family); the decision to cut his brother Brian’s wedding and go to a football match instead; and other incidents showing a perverse insensitivity. The Princesse de Merode, whose chateau was briefly Monty’s headquarters, said he was not un homme du monde. Still less was he a family man. His biographer suggests that he began to look for a ‘family’ elsewhere, in the company of young people whom he helped in many practical and generous ways, activities for which he has received too little credit. Harder to explain is his now well-known platonic friendship with the young Swiss boy, Lucien Trueb, to whom he wrote in extravagantly sentimental terms, proposing himself as a second father. The boy, Hamilton supposes, ‘filled the image of his adored youngest brother, graced with beauty and innocence; an image of a “beautiful” childhood that Monty had never enjoyed, having been cast as the awkward, unwanted black sheep of the family ... Thus, the two sides of Monty’s strange personality – the cold merciless pursuer of professional excellence and the simple, emotionally retarded adult – moved in tandem.’ It is a better explanation than some. Monty told Lord Chalfont that it was a biographer’s duty to find out what ‘made him tick’, well knowing that his personal clockwork was like that of nobody else. A black sheep redeeming him-self in history’s eye? A ‘little man on the make’? The chosen instrument of the God of Battles? Or just a very good professional soldier – touched intermittently by genius?
This uncommonly readable book could have been trimmed of a few recapitulations, and perhaps a few of its asperities, some of which are aimed at peripheral figures. Field-Marshal Lord Alexander, whom Churchill had wanted as Eisenhower’s deputy for D-Day, is ‘the vacuous Alexander’. There are four pages, more entertaining than relevant, quoting accounts of the gasconadings of Mountbatten at Kandy – a pantomime Principal Boy attended by fairies, and so on. Mountbatten had been recommended by Eisenhower in 1942 as Supreme Commander for the invasion of France and the author is perhaps anxious to show what the D-Day troops were spared. He approves the ‘abrasive and brilliant’ Field-Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, who apparently once told Monty: ‘You think you are going down in history as the victor of Alamein. But it will be for your re-raising of morale, together with Churchill, that you will be chiefly remembered – not Alamein.’ Templer may well be right. Even if the giant figure of Monty was part-myth, that did not matter at the time. Nor need it matter all that much now.
When Wellington died, his first-born, the Marquess of Douro, said: ‘Think what it will be when the Duke of Wellington is announced and only I come in.’ The second Viscount Montgomery may well have had similar qualms.