Great Commanders

Bernard Law Montgomery: Unbeatable and unbearable

Major Bernard Law Montgomery in 1915

Early career

Montgomery was born in London in 1887. He joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment after attending the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

In 1914, whilst fighting in the First World War (1914-18) he was shot through the right lung by a sniper, and nearly died. A grave was even dug in preparation for his body.

Fortunately, he made a full recovery and saw out the rest of the war as a Staff Officer during the Battles of the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917). In this capacity he observed the tactics used by generals like Sir Douglas Haig, and became critical of their readiness to accept high casualties during campaigns. 

‘The frightful casualties appalled me. The so-called “good fighting generals” of the war appeared to me to be those who had a complete disregard for human life.’
Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1958

When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Montgomery was sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force and commanded the 3rd Division.

He predicted the operation would be a disaster, and so trained for tactical retreat, something that proved vital during the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940.

British troops awaiting evacuation at Dunkirk, 1941

Montgomery was nicknamed 'Monty' by his troops, although they never addressed him that way in person!

General Bernard Montgomery, November 1942

El Alamein

In 1942 Prime Minister Winston Churchill appointed Montgomery commander of the Eighth Army in the Western Desert. Montgomery rapidly restored the army's flagging morale and ensured that his army was properly supplied. For nearly two months Montgomery continued to train and re-equip his army.

‘I want to impose on everyone that the bad times are over, they are finished! Our mandate from the Prime Minister is to destroy the Axis forces in North Africa... It can be done, and it will be done!’
Montgomery promising his troops a swift victory, 1942

British infantry advancing at El Alamein, 1942

Montgomery effectively organised the defence of El Alamein against the German forces led by General Erwin Rommel. He countered both Italian and German attacks, before delivering the Allies their first major land victory of the war at the Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942.

This was a turning point in the North African campaign and indeed the Second World War.

Montgomery's rivalry with Rommel was so fierce, that he even named his pet spaniel after him. Monty also had another dog, a fox terrier named Hitler.

Montgomery also played a crucial role in the Allied invasions of Sicily and then Salerno in Italy during 1943, in spite of disagreements with US Generals Patton and Bradley, who both viewed his previous successes jealously.

Montgomery explaining his plans to King George VI, 1944

North West Europe

In June 1944 Montgomery commanded all the ground forces taking part in the Allied invasion of Normandy. Despite setbacks, his skilful planning entrapped and defeated the German forces at the Falaise Pocket.

Later Montgomery convinced US General Dwight Eisenhower to agree to his planned invasion of the Low Countries and the Ruhr: Operation Market Garden.

Monty’s invasion plan failed due to large number of German armoured units in the region, which caused disastrous losses.

But he redeemed himself with his excellent command during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, shoring up American defences with 30 Corps, and permitting the deployment of reserves that turned the battle.

‘General Montgomery is a very able, dynamic type of army commander. I personally think that the only thing he needs is a strong immediate commander. He loves the limelight but in seeking it, it is possible that he does so only because of the effect upon his own soldiers, who are certainly devoted to him. I have great confidence in him as a combat commander. He is intelligent, a good talker, and has a flair for showmanship.’
US General Dwight D Eisenhower, 1943

After overseeing the meticulously-planned Rhine crossings of March 1945, Montgomery’s troops advanced into Germany. He eventually accepted the surrender of all German forces in Denmark, northern Germany and the Netherlands on 4 May 1945.

Winston Churchill and Montgomery visiting 79th Armoured Division after the Rhine crossings, 1945

Viscount of Alamein

After the war, Montgomery was made 1st Viscount of Alamein in 1946 and Commander of the British Army in the Rhine in Western Germany. 

In later life he was involved in several personal controversies, like voicing support for apartheid in South Africa, speaking against the legalisation of homosexuality and criticizing US tactics in Vietnam. His personal memoir published in 1958 was particularly inflammatory, as he criticised many of his wartime colleagues, including the then US President Dwight Eisenhower.

‘The United States has broken the second rule of war. That is: don't go fighting with your land army on the mainland in Asia. Rule one is, don't march on Moscow. I developed those two rules myself.’
Montgomery on the American war in Vietnam, 'New York Times', 1968

Montgomery meets the crew of his B-17 Flying Fortress, 1943

Unbearable?

Montgomery was arrogant, unlikeable but ultimately successful. He famously lacked diplomacy skills and tact when dealing with others, but this directness made him a great military leader.

One example of his difficult personality is when US Major General Bedell Smith bet Monty that British forces would not capture Sfax by 15 April 1943. Montgomery won the wager when Sfax fell on 10 April, and demanded an American bomber to use as his personal transport.

Unfortunately, Smith had made the wager in jest and only pandered to Monty’s 'crass stupidity' at Eisenhower’s bidding. 

'In defeat, unbeatable; in victory, unbearable.'
Winston Churchill on Bernard Montgomery, 1945

Despite his complex character, Montgomery remains one of the best-known generals of the Second World War, and one of the British Army’s greatest ever commanders.

His most unconventional claim to fame however is in lending his name in part to the comedy troop ‘Monty Python’. Who - only sometimes - claim they selected ‘Monty’ in mocking tribute to the legendary Second World War general!

Montgomery died in Isington, Hampshire on 24 March 1976 and his statue stands outside the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall.

Montgomery commemorative mug, 1976

Montgomery commemorative mug, 1976

Monty was notoriously vain. When asked once to name three great generals he replied: ‘The other two would be Alexander the Great and Napoleon.’

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