Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery
Bernard Montgomery, the hero of El Alamein and North Africa, was one of the most inspirational military commanders of World War Two. Montgomery was also the senior British military commander at D-Day and retained that position within the west European sphere of the war until the war ended.
Bernard Montgomery was born in 1887, the son of a Bishop. He was educated at St. Paul’s School and Sandhurst and in 1908, aged 21, he gained a commission in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. During World War One, Montgomery served on the Western Front. A highly efficient young officer, he was given a succession of command posts both in Britain and in India and by 1938, he had been promoted to the rank of major-general.
At the outbreak of World War Two, Montgomery was part of the British Expeditionary Force that had to withstand the might of the Wehrmacht’s ‘Blitzkrieg’. Montgomery was given the command of the Third Division (BEF) which had to be evacuated at Dunkirk.
After Churchill’s sacking of Field Marshal Auchinleck after the failure of the first battle at El Alamein, Montgomery was given command of the Eighth Army in North Africa. He was likened to being like a ferret and being as popular as one! However, unlike many senior officers of the day, he went out of his way to meet the soldiers under his command. He lived a lifestyle that was not typical of a general. Though his command base was a large and luxurious North African house, Montgomery lived in a caravan in the garden. Strictly teetotal and anti-smoking, he made sure that his men had a reasonable access to cigarettes. There is no doubt that he was popular with the men in the Eighth Army.
His victory at El Alamein was to turn the tide of the war. The defeat of the Germans at El Alamein, was the first they had experienced and within North Africa, the Germans could only retreat and they quit North Africa in May 1943. It is difficult to overstate the importance of Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein.
At D-Day, Montgomery commanded the British and Canadian units that were given the task of taking on the main bulk of the German forces at Normandy. This enabled the American Twelfth Army Group to move deeply into France and head the breakout from Normandy. Montgomery wanted a full-scale rush on Berlin via the Ruhr, but this was overruled by the Allies Supreme Commander, Dwight Eisenhower. Montgomery and Eisenhower had a solid professional relationship but ‘Monty’ did not always agree with the overall strategy of Eisenhower who he believed too frequently favoured the plans of the Americans – including the maverick General George Patton.
On September 1st 1944, Montgomery was promoted to field marshall, the highest rank he could reach in the British Army. By now Montgomery commanded the 21st Army Group that succeeded in taking the vital port of Antwerp in Belgium but was involved in the failure at Arnhem. The 21st Group was also deeply involved in the Battle of the Bulge – Germany’s ill-fated attempt to push back the Allies. Montgomery’s group crossed the River Rhine on March 24th 1945. He accepted the formal surrender of the German military at Luneburg Heath on May 4th 1945.
After the end of the war, Montgomery consolidated the status he had. From 1946 to 1948, Montgomery served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff and from 1951 to 1958, he was Deputy Supreme Commander of NATO forces in Europe.
History writes two different books on Field Marshall Montgomery. His supporters highlight his pivotal defeat of Rommel and the German army machine in North Africa. He was revered by front line forces as he related and communicated well with them. His detractors say that his historical success in North Africa had more to do with the build up of American war equipment and munitions, and remind us of his failures at the Falaise Gap, Arnheim, and the planning of Dieppe. His arrogant and egotistical way with peers and mid level commanders invited contempt.
In 1946 Montgomery was granted a peerage and he took the title Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, in recognition of the part he played in the war. He is remembered as one of the British Army’s most successful generals. He died in 1976.