Nelson was a country parson's son; the Duke of Wellington's family owned estates in Ireland, where young Arfur was born. Bernard Law Montgomery (17-11-1887 - 24-03-1976) combined both of these accidents of birth, and thus was bound to be a success in the military field. In addition to these advantages, his father took the family to ..... Australia! when Bernard was only a wee sprog. (Admittedly, it was a very British-looking part of Australia - Tasmania - but it was still Oz.)
This was in the days when The Colonies were either a place to make a lotta money by taking a lotta risks - or somewhere for upper-crust families to hide their more embarrassingly incompetent offspring. Now, young Bernard spent a great deal of his time playing with lead soldiers and reading about great battles in history. His mother spent a lot of time trying to modify such aggressive tendencies - usually by belting the living daylights out of him. (Bishop Montgomery always seemed to be out tending to his flock when parental duties called.)
The Bishop realised his son would never be a great churchman, and after being educated at St Paul's School in London and RMAS young Bernard ended up in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Serving in India, he once entered 12 horses in a garrison point-to-point race - which he won on a motorbike. Disqualified, of course: Not pukka, what? Tut-tut! His capacity for study and relentlessly enquiring mind saw him promoted, however, and he went to France with the British Expeditionary Force in 1914. Here, as a Captain, he was seriously wounded when shot in the chest.
Repatriated to England, he recovered from his wound, returning to duty by taking on a General Staff posting. He soon gained a reputation as an "ideas man": "...and why are we sending our chaps into no-mans-land with nothing but their uniforms to protect them from the Hun machine-guns? Why aren't they sitting in some sort of armoured box on wheels to shield them from the bullets?" etc, etc. His brother officers became sick of the sight and sound of him, and couldn't wait for him to be promoted.
He was a Divisional commander at the time of the German invasion of the Low Countries and France in May 1940. It was here for the first time that his major theories of warfare were tested in combat. A firm believer in always keeping one foot on the ground, he trained and deployed his troops intelligently and thoughtfully. Meticulous planning and attention to detail ensured his formations went into battle (and came out of it) in good order. War Office statistics showed that, out of the entire British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Montgomery's troops suffered the least from equipment failures and shortages - and they brought most of their kit back with them from Dunkirk, where Monty had temporarily assumed command of II Corps.
Whilst nobody could deny his talents as a commander of troops, his prickly nature kept him out of favour with the establishment. A series of frustrating attempts to end the arm-wrestle in North Africa, saw several senior generals fall by the wayside. Command of the British Eighth Army went from Lt-Gen Alan Cunningham to Lt-Gen Neil Ritchie, with Middle East Commander-in-Chief Gen Claude Auchinleck often assuming direct command of the Army after taking over as C-in-C from Gen Archibald Wavell. All four generals were replaced during this see-saw campaign. Churchill lost patience with Auchinleck's refusal to mount an all-out attack, and replaced him with Gen Harold Alexander.
Churchill's personal nomination for command of the Eighth Army was the burly, aggressive Lt-Gen Bill "Straffer" Gott. Tragically, Gott was killed when his aircraft was shot down by German fighters. At last, Montgomery could be ignored no longer. In characteristically impatient fashion, he took over command two days before his official appointment. The new broom swept clean. Staff officers who had survived by being cautious and pragmatic, were labelled "useless" and transferred out of Monty's command. If the news was bad, the general wanted to hear it pronto - not some soothing, sanitized version of events.
He also struck back at impatient, but militarily inexpert, political leaders. Unlike his inscrutable predecessors, Monty had plenty to say - especially when Churchill tried to push him for an early offensive against Rommel's Afrika Korps. In essence, his position was that he would guarantee a successful offensive if Churchill would guarantee him the weapons and supplies needed to make that attack a success. He thus firmly put Churchill in his place - as an outstanding politician, rather than an indifferent general.
One of Montgomery's outstanding qualities was his ability to assess, and employ, the best people for the job. His staff were all hand-picked, and he never micro-managed them. He, after all, had selected them for their jobs - he would be contradicting his own judgement by interfering with their day-to-day duties. And Monty never doubted his own judgement. Once a plan had been handed to his staff, he simply left the HQ and let them get on with implementing it. This enabled him to concentrate on the next stage of his campaign. He was very much the ringmaster of his own circus, and saw no need to be a fully-trained acrobat or clown in order for the show to be a success.
Contrary to popular belief, he did not rate the German commander, General Erwin Rommel, very highly. Rommel - a Panzer specialist - was most comfortable at the battlefront, surveying the action from close range and making minute adjustments to plans as he observed events through his binoculars. Monty employed a liaison staff of bright, upcoming young officers, to whom he awarded an amazing autonomy of action. These young men were empowered to tour the front-line units, acting as his eyes and ears. On some occasions, detecting a deviation from the General's orders by the local commander, they would instruct that officer in the correct course of action. And, of course, personally submit a full report to Montgomery.
Finally, on 23 October 1942, the Eighth Army went on the offensive. A huge artillery barrage raised the curtain on the second Battle of El Alamein. (The first had taken place a year earlier, when Auchinleck used the sea on his right flank and the Qattara Depression marshes to his left, to concentrate his defences and repulse a determined Afrika Korps attack.) This action was different from Auchinleck's defensive triumph: a full-scale, rolling offensive by a rested, reinforced, rearmed, re-equipped and rejuvenated Eighth Army. This was where Monty showed his true genius: every tactical manoeuvre by Rommel was anticipated and countered. The German superiority in the fluid, mobile battle of manoeuvre, was nullified by overwhelming force - concentrated locally, to tie down the Afrika Korps in piecemeal actions, where they were "crumbled" rather than crushed.
(Above) Montgomery in the turret of an M-3 tank
This technique became a feature of Montgomery's generalship. It worked particularly well when the attacking forces had excellent logistics, assured resupply and air superiority. Within two weeks, the Afrika Korps had been ejected from Egypt and squeezed out of Cyrenaica. Withdrawing in orderly fashion, with their customary discipline intact, the German troops were slowly but surely forced back. Some critics argue that Montgomery's overwhelming superiority in numbers of troops, tanks and guns would have assured success by any commander. Not so - the Afrika Korps had an esprit de corps which became a force multiplier. The German troops often fought best when outnumbered. It was Monty's masterful control of the forces under his command which made the difference. Numerical superiority is meaningless without intelligent application of resources. Montgomery was a master of this art.
On 8 November 1942, the Anglo-American landings at Casablanca (Operation TORCH), saw the Germans fighting on two fronts as the British and Americans advanced simultaneously from east and west. Rommel attempted to take advantage of the Eighth Army's extended supply lines with an attack at Medenine on 6 March 1943. To his dismay, the British held firm and continued their advance to the Mareth Line, where Montgomery stunned the Germans with an outflanking manoeuvre which rolled up the Army Group Africa defences. The inevitable withdrawal was still disciplined and orderly, but - starved of resupply and reinforcement - the German troops were now weary and dispirited. Forced into the Cape Bon Peninsula in Tunisia, they surrendered in May 1943. Montgomery - often criticised for his cautious, conservative style of warfare - had thus defeated the dashing "Desert Fox" Rommel in a mere six months.
His next project was Operation HUSKY - the invasion of Sicily. Montgomery took Eighth Army along the more arduous route through the island, attracting quality German opposition, in order to allow US Gen George S. Patton's Seventh Army a free run to the north coast. By the time the Allies invaded Italy, Monty was fighting the Americans as well as the Germans. Patton and his friend and subordinate, General Omar Bradley, hated and resented Montgomery's arrogant and dismissive attitude to his major allies. Patton, unfortunately, was similarly lacking in social skills - a fault which eventually led to Bradley being promoted over his head to command the US 12th Army Group. Montgomery led Eighth Army as far as the River Sangro. On 23 December 1943, he left Italy and returned to Britain, where a much larger task awaited him.
The "Second Front" against the Nazis - a priority of the Allies but an obsession of Stalin's - was finally opened on 6 June 1944. Montgomery took command of the land forces to be set ashore on that day, known as 21st Army Group. The invasion force was landed on five beaches in Normandy. American troops comprised 57% of the invading force. As before, Monty took on the most demanding tasks with his British Empire forces. His initial objective, Caen, drew the elite Waffen SS Panzer formations, leaving the Americans to pursue their customary rapid advance towards the Rhine. As the US buildup continued, American forces grew to 87% of the Allied total, and Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed to command the Allied land forces. Montgomery, promoted to Field Marshal, stayed in command of 21st Army Group, which was now a British Empire force of 2 British Armies and 1 Canadian Army.
The German Ardennes offensive of December 1944 (the Battle of the Bulge) was a triumph for Montgomery. In response to the Nazi armoured thrusts which split Bradley's US 12th Army Group, he took two US Armies under his command: Lt Gen Courtney Hodges' 1st Army and Lt Gen Bill Simpson's 9th Army. He then moved his XXX Corps to hold the line behind the Meuse, and reorganised the American defences. No more wasteful "knee-jerk" counterattacks: the German probes were met by disciplined, co-ordinated defence-in-depth which whittled away their limited resources. Hodges, who returned to Bradley's command after the battle, and Simpson, who stayed with Monty until after the Rhine crossings, both had nothing but praise for their treatment by the British Field Marshal.
Crossing the Rhine on 24 March 1945, 21st Army Group advanced rapidly, encircling Army Group B in the industrial heartland of Germany, the Ruhr valley. Interestingly, Montgomery's progress through the battlefields was much more in proximity to his troops than that of his US allies. His headquarters and sleeping quarters were contained in a caravan, towed by a gun tractor with the Field Marshal in the passenger seat. Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton and Clark billeted themselves in chateaux as they followed the front line (many miles distant from the fighting). On 4 May 1945, Montgomery met Admiral Friedeburg and Field Marshal Busch, from whom he accepted the surrender of all German forces in the north-western theatre of operations.
Post-war honours came the way of the victorious Allied generals. In the British tradition, Earldoms were awarded to the major commanders of the Army, including Montgomery's contemporaries Alexander, Auchinleck, Slim and Wavell. Not so Montgomery, who had to be content with being created Viscount Montgomery of Alamein in 1946. The sub-text to this story is that the great general trod on a few too many Establishment toes during his career. Memories are long and grudges are held.
Monty's story should have ended there, but it did not. A soldier to the end, he accepted a post as deputy to his old friend and boss, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, as Deputy Commander of the newly-formed North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). This was not a happy appointment for the strong-willed, opinionated Montgomery. He continued to view the world through a soldier's eyes, when a more politically-aware viewpoint would have been appropriate. As always, the serving soldiers were his major priority, and the procedures he instituted for operations and exercises showed that the fine military mind had not lost its sharpness. No - this appointment was a frustrating time for Monty, whose tendency to speak his mind did not always sit well with his American and European colleagues.
Bernard Law Montgomery died in 1976, and was buried with full military honours. His legacy was a mountain of papers written during his career and containing his thoughts on all things military. Many of his opinions and recommendations have been vindicated by history, but his airing of them without regard for diplomatic considerations, was a perennial fault.