Sunday, 29 March 2020

In Defeat, Unbeatable: In Victory, Unbearable

Winston Churchill's description of Bernard Law Montgomery in 1945 sums him up perfectly* 

My choice is probably not the most popular one, but despite expressing  outdated and controversial views in later life during the Second World War Montgomery was exactly what the British and Commonwealth forces needed.

As a child I remember Montgomery appearing on the news or in the papers quite regularly after saying something particularly ill thought out, The films "Patton" and "A Bridge Too Far" are not exactly pro Montgomery and so by the time we get to "Saving Private Ryan" it is established Hollywood fact that Montgomery is "overrated". Unfortunately it is these post-war antics that have blighted his record.

For a far more balanced view I thoroughly recommend this fantastically researched and written book:

So what is it about this prickly egotist that I admire?

Montgomery learnt in the First World War to value his troops lives and was a vocal critic of those prepared to accept high casualties. His criticisms hindered his inter-war career but he did learn to curb some of his excesses and was determined to be the most professional soldier he could be.

His singlemindedness paid dividends during the opening stages of WW2. He handled his troops well in France and eventually was given the desert command for which he will be eternally famed for. He was the master of the pitched battle. His attention to detail meant that nothing was left to chance. He kept his troops informed, he visited them and in return he was seen as a soldier-general they could trust.

The D-Day landings were his plan. His success.

He has been roundly criticised for Market Garden. However, having effectively destroyed the bulk of the effective German Army at Falaise Pocket his plan was approved. Clearly others believed it could work too.

His later Rhine Crossing was a return to his meticulous preparations. He saved his troops lives.

Interestingly he did admit to making mistakes, like not capturing Antwerp as a major priority. I cannot think of many other Allied Commanders who did that in their memoires.

And finally for those who believe he was slow and unimaginative you only have to look at his much underplayed role during the Battle of the Bulge. It was Manteuffel himself who described Montgomery's counter attacks as follows:

"The operations of the American First Army had developed into a series of individual holding actions. Montgomery's contribution to restoring the situation was that he turned a series of isolated actions into a coherent battle fought according to a clear and definite plan. It was his refusal to engage in premature and piecemeal counter-attacks which enabled the Americans to gather their reserves and frustrate the German attempts to extend their breakthrough"

*My favourite anecdote regarding his monstrous ego however is that attributed to a conversation between Churchill and King George after VE day. 

While Montgomery was playing up to the crowd Churchill is alleged to have said "I think he's after my job". 

King George's response "Thank God for that, I thought he was after mine!"


  1. A great choice Matt! I have just published my own choice over on my blog!

  2. Unfortunately, most self-styled "historians" of the past (at least) 40 years have chosen to denigrate Montgomery (Antony Beevor is a typical example). He was exactly the right man at the right time - one wonders just how many of those living today owe their existence to his concern for the life of their father or grandfather?

    1. Exactly. American troops at the time were very vocal in their appreciation of his efforts to minimise casualties.

      The Beevor book is desperately disappointing. He may have well just copied the Bridge too Far movie.

  3. 2 days has not been long enough for me to settle on one favourite!

    Monty's a good choice though.

    1. No worry! This is meant to be fun while we isolate!

  4. Here's mine Matt

  5. And I also have a soft spot for Monty. Meticulous is the word I'd use.

  6. Month was certainly a pretty complex character and had many obvious faults as a human being and even as an officer..there were instances of insubordination in his story too...but he had the strength of character and self belief to stand up to Churchill prior to El Alamein and refuse to take on Rommel and his Afrika Korps until he had such an overwhelming advantage in men and numbers that the attack was virtually guaranteed to succeed..and success was what was needed by the British at that stage if the war. His performance was never exciting or inspirational, but he got the job done in Normandy and North West Europe too.

  7. I have added my favourite general on my blog too Matt. Not too controversial I hope.....