Born November 17, 1887
Died March 24, 1976
British field marshal
Considered by some historians the greatest British general of all time, Bernard Montgomery was the best known and most successful officer to lead British troops during World War II. He transformed the demoralized 8th Army into a skilled fighting machine that defeated German field marshal Erwin Rommel's (1891-1944; see entry) fierce Afrika Korps in the North African desert. Although he was a hero to many people, he was also a controversial figure; it is said that he possessed a difficult personality—his bluntness, egotism, and stubborn streak often got him into trouble with his military colleagues. Whatever Montgomery's reputation with fellow officers, his careful planning and desire to minimize casualties (dead and wounded) made him popular with the soldiers who served under him.
Launching a military career
Montgomery was the fourth of nine children born to a clergyman and his wife. His mother was stern and too busy with her church work to devote much time to her children. Montgomery later recalled that "If I could not be seen anywhere, she would say, 'Go and find out what Bernard is doing and tell him to stop it.'" When Montgomery was two years old the family moved to Tasmania, an Australian island in the south Pacific Ocean, where his father had been appointed bishop. After their return to London in 1901, Montgomery attended St. Paul's School.
In 1906, already planning a military career, Montgomery entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, where he was better at sports and making mischief than at academics. During his last years at school, however, he improved his grades and in 1908 he graduated thirty-sixth in a class of 150. Commissioned a lieutenant, Montgomery wanted to serve in India (which was then a colony of England) where he could support himself well on little pay, but his grades had not been high enough to earn him a spot in the Indian army. Instead, he signed up with the Royal Warwickeshire Regiment, which had a battalion in India.
The influence of World War I
After several years in India, Montgomery returned to England in 1912. When World War I (1914-18) began in 1914, he was immediately called into battle in France. Only two months later, he was shot in the chest. His life was saved by another soldier who had come to help him and was himself shot; the dead man's body fell over Montgomery and shielded him from taking further bullets. Montgomery was assumed dead for several hours, but finally he was able to indicate that he was alive. He was rescued and taken to a hospital in England.
Promoted to captain and awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Montgomery returned to the fighting in France in 1916. He was a staff officer for the remaining two years of the war, serving as a lieutenant colonel in command of the 17th Battalion Royal Fusiliers (fusiliers are muskets—the guns this battalion once carried).
Montgomery's experiences during World War I strongly affected his attitude toward the military—especially how officers should treat the troops serving under them. He had witnessed suffering and death that he considered unnecessary, and he had seen officers sacrifice soldiers needlessly in hopeless battles. Thus he believed in careful, detailed planning before sending troops to fight, and in making sure that the soldiers were extremely well trained and equipped.
He also believed that explaining to soldiers the importance of certain decisions and battles helped make them feel good about what they were doing. To this end he encouraged personal contact between officers and their men. Montgomery believed that commanders who remained distant from their troops could not command as much loyalty and dedication as those who saw and talked to as many soldiers as possible. In later years, Montgomery would be criticized for refusing to begin battles before his plans, troops, and equipment were ready, but those fighting under his command appreciated his concern for their lives.
In the years between World War I and World War II, Montgomery served in a number of locations around the world, rising steadily through the ranks of the army. After serving with the occupation forces in Germany, Montgomery attended the army's Staff College at Camberley, then spent some years in Ireland. In 1926 he became an instructor at the Staff College, and in 1929 he was assigned to head the committee to rewrite the army's manual on infantry training. Montgomery ruffled some feathers when he ignored the other committee members' opinions and wrote the manual himself.
When he was thirty-nine years old, Montgomery shed his bachelor status and married Betty Carver, the widow of an officer who had died in World War I. The marriage was happy and produced a son, David, born in 1928. After ten years, however, Betty died from an insect bite. Montgomery was devastated by her death, but reacted by throwing himself even more deeply into his work.
Another world war begins
During the 1930s, Montgomery served in India, Egypt, and Palestine (where he helped in the effort to keep peace between Arabs and Jews). By 1939—as war loomed on the horizon—he was in command of the army's Third Division, one of the few units ready for combat. The war began in September 1939 after Germany invaded Poland. In the summer of 1940 Germany invaded France. Montgomery was sent as part of the British Expeditionary Force sent to help fight off a German invasion. The campaign was not successful, and the British troops had to be evacuated from Dunkirk, on the northern shore of France. France surrendered to the Germans on June 22.
England was now in grave danger of invasion by the German forces, so Montgomery was assigned to lead the 5th Corps in protecting the coastal Dorset and Hampshire regions. Instead of following the conventional military tactic of concentrating only on the beach areas, Montgomery spread his troops out to a variety of locations, using the double-decker buses favored by tourists to transport them. Meanwhile, he focused on training and rigorous physical fitness to keep his men ready for possible attack.
Even though his abrasive personality and arrogance had made him unpopular with some people, Montgomery's skills and experience were noted by his superior officers. By December 1941, he had been made a lieutenant general and put in command of the whole South East Command.
Fighting Rommel in the desert
One of the places in which the Germans had established a stronghold was North Africa, where the Afrika Korps under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (1891-1944; see entry) threatened to take the strategically important Suez area of Egypt. The British 8th Army had been fighting Rommel's troops in the desert and were exhausted and demoralized. Looking for a new commander for the 8th Army, Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965; see entry) considered Montgomery but ultimately chose General "Strafer" Gott. But when Gott was killed in a plane crash on his way to his new job, Montgomery was assigned to head the 8th Army.
Arriving in northern Egypt, Montgomery quickly set out to improve the spirits of his troops. One of his first steps was to adopt a distinctive hat, first an Australian bush or slouch hat, and finally the black beret he wore for the rest of the war. Montgomery claimed the beret was "worth two divisions" because it made him immediately recognizable to his troops during his daily visits to their units.
Montgomery left much of the detailed battle planning to his staff—especially his trusted chief of staff, Francis de Guingand—and concentrated instead on building up his men's fighting spirit. He told them: "Here we will stand and fight; there can be no further withdrawal… we will stand and fight here. If we can't stay here alive, then let us stay here dead."
Montgomery's troops adopted his determination. They won a decisive victory against Rommel's troops at Alam Halfa in late August and early September. In October his forces fought the battle of El Alamein where Montgomery cemented his reputation as a great commander. After twelve days of fierce fighting, the 8th Army emerged victorious and chased the Afrika Korps across the desert as far as Tunisia, a distance of 2,000 miles. Montgomery had proved his skills in organizing, training, and motivating troops, and his efforts were formally recognized when England's King George VI knighted him.
Military victories and personality conflicts
The battles in Sicily and Italy that followed the successful North African campaign were somewhat less glorious for Montgomery, for they exposed more of his weaknesses. In Sicily, he was annoyed to be given a lesser role in the fighting. In addition, he did not want to work alongside General George S. Patton (1885-1945; see entry) of the United States, who also had a reputation as being difficult and overbearing. In Italy, Montgomery came into conflict with U.S. general Mark Clark when Montgomery's forces were supposed to meet up with Clark's forces to launch a combined attack. Clark accused Montgomery of moving slowly so that Clark's forces would have to bear the brunt of the fighting.
In December 1943, even before the Italian campaign was over, Montgomery was called away to take part in planning for the Normandy invasion, code-named Operation Overlord (also called D-Day). In this invasion the Allies hoped to get a foothold on the northern shores of France and then drive the Germans out of France and back into Germany. The D-Day landing took place on June 6, 1944, with Montgomery in charge of all land forces and American general Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969; see entry) in overall command.
An important role in the Normandy invasion
During the Normandy battle, Montgomery demonstrated his usual energy, organizational skills, and ability to cut to the core of problems. Once again, he worked hard on bolstering his troops' morale; one of the ways he did this was to travel around Normandy during and after the initial invasion to meet with the soldiers. It is said that he was personally seen by as many as a million men, whose lives he promised not to waste and whom he encouraged to have faith in an eventual victory.
When the initial phase of the successful Normandy invasion was over and the Allies prepared to move across France toward Germany, the command structure changed. Eisenhower stepped in to command the land forces directly, while Montgomery was assigned to head the 21st Army Group (part of the Normandy invasion forces), which included one British and one Canadian army. Meanwhile, Montgomery had been made a field marshal, the highest rank in the British army.
Clashing with the high command
Montgomery continued to have difficulty cooperating with his Allied colleagues, including—and most dangerously— Eisenhower. While Eisenhower favored a "broad front" approach to moving the troops forward, Montgomery pushed him to adopt a "single thrust" approach.
In September, Montgomery's plan, nicknamed Operation Market Garden, was to land Allied troops behind the northernmost section of Germany's front line, and create a gap through which more troops could pour in and surround the German army from behind. The troops landed behind Germany's line and faced stronger-than-expected resistance. The operation was a failure. More than 5,000 men were killed or taken prisoner.
Then came the Battle of the Bulge, which took place in the Ardennes region of Belgium in December. In a last desperate attempt to gain some ground, the Germans had managed to push the Allies back along one portion of the front, creating a "bulge" in the line. Eisenhower was forced to put two American units that had been caught above the northern "bulge" under Montgomery's command. In a press conference held after the Allied victory, Montgomery implied that he had rescued the Americans and had been solely responsible for cleaning up a real mess. Montgomery would have been in even worse trouble with Eisenhower over this if not for the efforts of his chief of staff de Guingand to soothe the American general's temper.
The end of the war and beyond
Montgomery's troops took part in the Allied advance across northern Europe, liberating the Netherlands and finally driving into Germany. On May 4, 1945, Montgomery accepted the surrender of 500,000 Germans. The remaining German forces surrendered to the Allies on May 7. The war in Europe was over, and Montgomery took command of Great Britain's Army of Occupation in Germany. (An occupation army takes control of the conquered country and oversees its transition into peacetime.)
In early 1946, Montgomery was made viscount of El Alamein. He was appointed chief of the Imperial General Staff, and stayed in that position until 1948. Then he became chairman of the Western European Union's (with representatives from Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Luxembourg) Commanders in Chief Committee. From 1951 to 1958, Montgomery served as deputy supreme allied commander in Europe for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)— set up to protect Europe from Communist aggression—in charge of training, equipping, and integrating NATO forces.
Montgomery retired in 1958 and went to live with his son David at Isington Mill in Alton, Hampshire, where he worked on his memoirs. He died in 1976 and was buried in a country churchyard near his home.
Where to Learn More
Hamilton, Nigel. Monty, 3 vols. 1981-1986. New York: Random House, 1996.
Howarth, T.E.B., ed. Monty at Close Quarters. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1985.
Lewin, Ronald. Montgomery as Military Commander. New York: Stein and Day, 1971.
Thompson, R. W. The Montgomery Legend. New York: Ballantine Books, 1967.
Bernard Montgomery led his troops to decisive victories in North Africa and contributed to Allied successes in Sicily, Italy, and France.
Admiral Mountbatten: Allied Commander in Southeast Asia
While Montgomery dominated the scene in North Africa and Europe, another British officer was making a name for himself in another part of the world. As supreme commander of Allied Forces in Southeast Asia, Admiral Louis Mountbatten led his troops into several successful offensives against Japan.
A member of the British royal family, Mountbatten was the great-grandson of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Born in 1900, he joined the British navy and served as a midshipman during World War I, specializing in the use of signals. Just before the outbreak of World War II he was assigned to command the Fifth Destroyer Fleet.
Mountbatten took the helm of the battleship HMS Kelly in August 1939 and was soon involved in many clashes with German submarines. In the spring of 1940, the Kelly was almost sunk several times by torpedoes from German airplanes. Eventually, in fighting off the Greek island of Crete, the ship was sunk and Mountbatten almost drowned.
After a short period as commander of the aircraft carrier Illustrious, Mountbatten was named by Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965; see entry) to become an advisor on combined operations, which put him in charge of the Commandos (British units that staged raids against German positions in Norway and France). After the United States entered the war at the end of 1941, military leaders began to talk about an eventual invasion of France, and Mountbatten's experience in conducting amphibious landings (made by combined land, air, and naval forces who attack from the sea) became valuable.
In March 1942, Mountbatten was made chief of combined operations and promoted to the rank of vice admiral. In August, Mountbatten oversaw the raid on the German position at Dieppe, France. This mission was a great failure—3,336 of the 5,000 men who took part were killed—but it did provide crucial information that helped in the planning of the Normandy invasion, which would take place in June 1944.
In 1943 Mountbatten was transferred to another part of the world, becoming Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Southeast Asia, where, said Churchill, "a young and vigorous mind" was needed. The Japanese had overtaken the country of Burma (now Myanmar), and the Allied troops stationed in India were suffering both from low spirits and from a number of tropical diseases. They felt ignored and called themselves the "Forgotten Army."
Like Montgomery, Mountbatten knew that personal attention from high-level commanders could lift the men's spirits, so he began to visit as many units as possible, trying to convince the troops that their role was important and appreciated. Meanwhile, U.S. leaders were pushing for an invasion of Burma, which was a key strategic location because of its nearness to China. Mountbatten took charge of the invasion, and by July 1945 the Allies had recaptured Burma.
The next month, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and the war ended with the official Japanese surrender in September. Mountbatten soon received the surrender of all Japanese forces in southeast Asia.
After the war, Mountbatten (who was named Earl Mountbatten of Burma in 1947) became viceroy of India, which was still a British colony. He was involved in the negotiations that led to India's independence in 1947 (as well as the establishment of Pakistan, which broke off from India to become a separate country). Mountbatten served as governor-general of India until 1948, when he returned to England to rejoin the navy.
Over the next several decades, Mountbatten served in various command positions in the British navy. From 1959 to 1965 he was chief of the United Kingdom Defense Staff and chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. When he retired in 1965, Mountbatten had reached the rank of admiral of the fleet. While on holiday in Ireland in 1979, he was killed by members of the Irish Republican Army (a group that often uses terrorism to protest Great Britain's presence in northern Ireland) who had nothing against Mountbatten personally but wanted to show that no one was immune.
Bernard Law Montgomery
Bernard Law Montgomery
The English field marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (1887-1976), was an outstanding commander and hero of the British people during World War II.
Bernard Montgomery was born on Nov. 17, 1887. He went to St. Paul's School in London and entered the army in 1908. He fought in France during World War I and was mentioned in dispatches for gallantry in action.
After the usual staff and command assignments, Montgomery was a major general in command of the 3d Division in 1939. The division moved to France with the British Expeditionary Force in that year for the so-called Phony War. Montgomery participated in the withdrawal to Dunkirk in the spring of 1940. In England he became head of the 5th Corps in 1940, of the 12th Corps in 1941, and of the South East Command in 1942. In July 1942 he was appointed commander of the British 8th Army in Egypt, a position that marked the beginning of his rise to fame.
Northern Africa and Italy
Now a lieutenant general, Montgomery reorganized the 8th Army, gave the officers and men confidence in themselves and in eventual victory, and set about to defeat his opponent, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. When Rommel attacked at Alam Halfa on August 31, Montgomery won a defensive battle. On October 23 at the Battle of El Alamein, Montgomery gained an offensive victory. His defeat of the Italo-German army prompted an Axis retreat out of Egypt to the Mareth Line positions in southern Tunisia, 1,500 miles away. Although Montgomery pursued Rommel, he was unable to trap him.
Montgomery was a full general before the end of 1942 and was knighted on November 10 of that year. In February 1943 his 8th Army came under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's Supreme Allied Command and directly under Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, the Allied ground force commander. In March, Montgomery took part in the final Anglo-American offensive in Tunisia, which swept the Axis forces entirely out of North Africa by May.
It was largely Montgomery's plan, one of concentrated rather than dispersed landings, that dictated the invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943. While Gen. George Patton's U.S. 7th Army landed on the southern coast of Sicily, Montgomery put his 8th Army ashore on the eastern face. Montgomery then tried to drive up the eastern coast to Messina, but his army was blocked at Catania, and American forces reached Messina first.
Montgomery led his army across the Strait of Messina on Sept. 3, 1943, to the Italian mainland. He moved to the Taranto and Bari areas of the eastern coast, where his forces captured the Foggia airfields by October 1.
The 8th Army moved across the Biferno River and captured Termoli after a complicated and brilliant operation that utilized an amphibious landing together with a direct pressure force. But bad weather and difficult terrain, plus obstinate German resistance, prevented rapid progress, and by the end of 1943 Montgomery's army was immobile at the Sangro River.
Invasion of Normandy
At that time Montgomery was assigned to the United Kingdom, where he took command of the British and Canadian forces scheduled to participate in the cross-Channel attack. In addition to being 21st Army Group commander, he was named the Allied ground forces commander for the invasion of Normandy. On June 6, 1944, D-day, he directed the British 2d Army and the U.S. 1st Army, which crossed the Channel.
Montgomery's generalship came under criticism during the first 2 months of the European campaign because of his alleged caution and slowness. He was to have captured Caen on D-day, but he took it only on the forty-second day of the campaign. His Goodwood attack also became the subject of much controversy. Yet Montgomery virtually destroyed two German field armies in the Argentan-Falaise pocket, closed on August 19, and he propelled the four Allied armies across the Seine River in a pursuit that came to an end only at the Siegfried Line.
Montgomery relinquished his command of the Allied ground forces to Eisenhower on Sept. 1, 1944, a change contemplated long before the invasion. He was promoted to field marshal on the same day. He started the discussion now known as the broad-front versus narrow-front strategy. Finally, Eisenhower gave Montgomery permission to launch Operation Market-Garden, a combined air-ground attack planned to get British forces across the lower Rhine River in Holland. The airborne drop was successful, but the ground attack failed, and the hope of driving directly to Berlin and bringing the war to a quick end vanished.
The winter fighting was bitter. It came to a climax on Dec. 16, 1944, when the Germans launched their Ardennes counteroffensive and created the Battle of the Bulge. Eisenhower put Montgomery in command of all the troops on the northern shoulder of the Bulge.
Montgomery crossed the Rhine River late in March 1945, helped encircle and reduce the industrial Ruhr, and swept across the northern German plain to the Elbe River. He commanded the British occupation forces and the Army of the Rhine (1945-1946), then was chief of the imperial general staff (1946-1948). He was chairman of the Western Europe Commanders in Chief Committee (1948-1951) and deputy supreme Allied commander, Europe (1951-1958). He retired in 1958 and wrote his memoirs. He died on March 24, 1976, in Alton, Hampshire.
Montgomery's own books include El Alamein to the River Sangro (1948), Normandy to the Baltic (1948), Memoirs (1958), The Path to Leadership (1961), and A History of Warfare (1968). A life study of Montgomery is Alan Moorehead, Montgomery: A Biography (1967). The best histories of Montgomery's campaigns are in Sir Francis de Guingand, Operation Victory (1947); Winston Churchill, Closing the Ring (1951); Chester Wilmot, The Struggle for Europe (1952); Sir Arthur Bryant, The Turn of the Tide (1957); and Alan Moorehead, The March to Tunis: The North African War, 1940-1943 (1967). A view of Montgomery less favorable than the popular one is offered by Reginald William Thompson in Churchill and the Montgomery Myth (1968) and Montgomery, the Field Marshal: The Campaign in Northwest Europe, 1944/45 (1970). See also Martin Blumenson, Breakout and Pursuit (1961) and Salerno to Cassino (1969). □
Montgomery, Bernard Law
In August 1942, with the legendary Gen. Erwin Rommel almost at the gates of Cairo and the oil fields of the Middle East, the almost unknown Montgomery took command of the British Eighth Army and defeated the Axis forces at the Battle of El Alamein, the foundation of Monty's fame, October 23–November 4, 1942.
A small, wiry man with hawk‐like features, a neatly‐trimmed moustache, and a jaunty black beret, he was boastful and blunt. Critics have called him an egomaniac, overrated, and worse. His “finest hour” came both before and during the invasion of Normandy in which he commanded all Allied ground forces from June to August 1944. He became the lightning rod for criticism when temporary stalemate followed D‐Day. Relations with Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower soured; exuding infallibility, Montgomery was his own worst enemy, and the myth took root that he had failed in Normandy. In practice, his generalship displayed far greater flexibility than he ever acknowledged. Original intention or not, Montgomery succeeded in keeping German armored divisions tied down on the British and Canadian front, thus assisting the American breakout on the right flank in July.
Differences continued to mar Monty's relationship with Ike following the Allied victory in Normandy, with the newly created field marshal advocating a single, con centrated blow to end the war in 1944, and the Supreme Commander's decision to adopt a broad‐broad strategy. In September 1944, Montgomery launched Operation Market‐Garden, the largest airborne and glider operation in history. The attempt to seize a bridgehead over the Rhine at Arnhem failed.
In the Battle of the Bulge, Eisenhower placed all American troops north of the German thrust under Montgomery's command, a courageous decision that was contrary to the advice of Gen. Omar N. Bradley. Fighting desperately to stop the German counteroffensive, subordinate American commanders welcomed Montgomery's arrival. At a press conference after the battle, Monty praised the fighting qualities of the American soldier, but left the impression he had saved the American high command from disaster. He noted in his Memoirs, “I should have held my tongue.” Britain hailed Montgomery as another Wellington and he was made viscount of Alamein in 1946. He served as deputy commander of NATO forces, 1951–58.
[See also France, Liberation of; Germany, Battle for; Italy, Invasion and Conquest of; Sicily, Invasion of; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]
Nigel Hamilton , Monty, 3 vols., 1981–86.
Carlo D’Este , Decision in Normandy, 1983.
Richard Overy , Why The Allies Won, 1996.
Colin F. Baxter
R. A. C. Parker