A. recent book on the Ardennes campaign, popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge, by the distinguished historian Antony Beevor (Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s last gamble) is critical of Field Marshal Montgomery. Monty in charge of the Northern Army hoped that everyone would be back home by Christmas 1944. In fact the German tank attack punching through the Ardennes divided the Americans from the the rest of the allies. At Malmedy, in breach of the Geneva convention, 135 US servicemen who had surrendered were shot by the SS. The German thrust ran out of steam after a month primarily because of the lack of petrol and aggressive American counterattack. Like a gambler’s last throw Germany and Hitler had realised the game was up by Christmas 1944.
Monty in a speech took most of the success on behalf of British army which incensed Churchill. Monty, being an austere teetotaller, and Churchill were never going to be bedfellows whilst it is said his relationship with Eisenhower never recovered after he told the general to put his cigarette out. This lies at the heart of the degrading of Monty that he was arrogant. A piece on the Radio 4 Today programme yesterday went further stating his response to other humans reflected Asperger’s syndrome. Those who have this condition are totally out of kilter with other humans. Monty for example thought US General Bradley liked him a lot when he loathed him. His step-grandson Tom Carver on the programme said his father escaped from a POW camp in Italy to join up with the advancing allied army. The initial greeting of Monty was “What took you so long?” and yet he continually wrote the Red Cross for news of his son.
My own view on Monty, based on my readings and the knowledge gleaned as he and I went the same school (St Paul’s), where the Normandy landings were planned and he played a active role well into the 1960s, is that – whatever his character failings – his impact was considerable. After the fall of Singapore where a record number of prisoners were taken, Churchill expressed concern about the quality of the British soldier. Roosevelt questioned what Britain was doing in North Africa anyway. Monty was pitted against the Wehrmacht’s most astute general Irwin Rommel, a master of surprise tactics. So for all these reasons the victory at El Alamein was vital. It did not turn the war – Stalingrad did – but it’s said that Britain never won a battle before El Alamein and never lost one afterwards. Although annual reunions at the Albert Hall of Eighth Army veterans did much to bolster Monty’s repuatation as a self-publicist, it is equally true that this austere man was a genuinely loved and admired leader of men. In his book on Rommel and Montgomery Peter Caddick-Brown recounts one story of a mother hailing Monty in the street and then thanking him for the Xmas card she received from him every year after the loss of her son on the desert campaign. Monty himself had a stern upbringing in Tasmania where his mother beat him and he lost his first wife after a freak death caused by a insect sting. This may explain the austerity of his personality.
Probably the most accurate verdict on Monty is that he was a great general but only when he was in total control of his theatre of war. When he had to play in a team his character failings became too acute.