Life and death of Bernard Montgomery, the facts
Who was Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery? Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, (17 November 1887 – 24 March 1976), nicknamed "Monty" and the "Spartan General", was a British Army officer. Montgomery was born in Kennington, London, in 1887, the fourth child of nine, to an Anglo-Irish Anglican priest, the Reverend Henry Montgomery, and his wife, Maud (née Farrar). Henry Montgomery, Vicar of St Mark's, Kennington, at that time, was the second son of the noted Indian civilian Sir Robert Montgomery, who died a month after his grandson's birth. He was probably a descendant of Colonel Alexander Montgomery (1686–1729). Bernard's mother, Maud, was the daughter of the preacher Frederic William Farrar and was eighteen years younger than her husband. After the death of Sir Robert Montgomery, Henry inherited the Montgomery ancestral estate of New Park at Moville in northern County Donegal. However, there was still £13,000 to pay on a mortgage, a large debt in the 1880s, and Henry was at the time still only a parish priest. Despite selling off all the farms that were at Ballynally, "there was barely enough to keep up New Park and pay for the blasted summer holiday".
It was a financial relief of some magnitude when, in 1889, Henry was made Bishop of Tasmania, then still a British colony, and Bernard spent his formative years here. The bishop considered it his duty to spend as much time as possible in the rural areas of Tasmania and was away for up to six months at a time. While he was away, his wife, still in her mid-twenties, gave her children "constant" beatings, then ignored them most of the time as she performed the public duties of the bishop's wife. Of Bernard's siblings, Sibyl died prematurely in Tasmania, and Harold, Donald and Una all emigrated. Maud Montgomery took little active interest in the education of her young children other than to have them taught by tutors brought from England. The loveless environment made Bernard something of a bully, as he himself later recalled "I was a dreadful little boy. I don't suppose anybody would put up with my sort of behaviour these days." Later in life Montgomery refused to allow his son David to have anything to do with his grandmother and also refused to attend her funeral in 1949.
The family returned to England once for a Lambeth Conference in 1897, and Bernard and his brother Harold were educated for a term at The King's School, Canterbury. In 1901, Bishop Montgomery became secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and the family returned to London. Montgomery attended St Paul's School and then the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, from which he was almost expelled for rowdiness and violence. On graduation in September 1908 he was commissioned into the 1st Battalion The Royal Warwickshire Regiment as a second lieutenant, and first saw overseas service later that year in India. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1910, and in 1912 became adjutant of the 1st Battalion of his regiment at Shorncliffe Army Camp.
He saw action in the First World War, where he was seriously wounded, and during the Second World War he commanded the Eighth Army from August 1942 in the Western Desert until the final Allied victory in Tunisia. This command included the Battle of El Alamein, a turning point in the Western Desert Campaign. He subsequently commanded the Eighth Army in Sicily and Italy before being given responsibility for planning the D-Day invasion in Normandy. He was in command of all Allied ground forces during Operation Overlord from the initial landings until after the Battle of Normandy. He then continued in command of the 21st Army Group for the rest of the campaign in North West Europe. As such he was the principal field commander for the failed airborne attempt to bridge the Rhine at Arnhem and the Allied Rhine crossing. On 4 May 1945 he took the German surrender at Lüneburg Heath in northern Germany. After the war he became Commander-in-Chief of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) in Germany and then Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
North Africa and Italy
In 1942, a new field commander was required in the Middle East, where Auchinleck was fulfilling both the role of commander-in-chief Middle East Command and commander Eighth Army. He had stabilised the Allied position at the First Battle of El Alamein, but after a visit in August 1942, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, replaced him as C-in-C with Alexander and William Gott as commander of the Eighth Army in the Western Desert. After Gott was killed flying back to Cairo Churchill was persuaded by Brooke, who by this time was Chief of the Imperial General Staff, to appoint Montgomery, who had only just been nominated to replace Alexander as commander of the British ground forces for Operation Torch.
A story, probably apocryphal but popular at the time, is that the appointment caused Montgomery to remark that "After having an easy war, things have now got much more difficult." A colleague is supposed to have told him to cheer up – at which point Montgomery is supposed to have said "I'm not talking about me, I'm talking about Rommel!"
Montgomery's assumption of command transformed the fighting spirit and abilities of the Eighth Army. Taking command on 13 August 1942, he immediately became a whirlwind of activity. He ordered the creation of the X Corps, which contained all armoured divisions to fight alongside his XXX Corps which was all infantry divisions. This was in no way similar to a German Panzer Corps. One of Rommel's Panzer Corps combined infantry, armour and artillery units under one corps commander. The only common commander for Montgomery's all infantry and all armour corps was the Eighth Army Commander himself. Correlli Barnett commented that Montgomery's solution "... was in every way opposite to Auchinleck's and in every way wrong, for it carried the existing dangerous separatism still further." Montgomery reinforced the 30 miles (48 km) long front line at El Alamein, something that would take two months to accomplish. He asked Alexander to send him two new British divisions (51st Highland and 44th) that were then arriving in Egypt and were scheduled to be deployed in defence of the Nile Delta. He moved his field HQ to Burg al Arab, close to the Air Force command post in order better to coordinate combined operations. Montgomery was determined that the Army, Navy and Air Forces should fight their battles in a unified, focused manner according to a detailed plan. He ordered immediate reinforcement of the vital heights of Alam Halfa, just behind his own lines, expecting the German commander, Erwin Rommel, to attack with the heights as his objective, something that Rommel soon did. Montgomery ordered all contingency plans for retreat to be destroyed. "I have cancelled the plan for withdrawal", he told his officers at the first meeting he held with them in the desert. "If we are attacked, then there will be no retreat. If we cannot stay here alive, then we will stay here dead."
Montgomery made a great effort to appear before troops as often as possible, frequently visiting various units and making himself known to the men, often arranging for cigarettes to be distributed. Although he still wore a standard British officer's cap on arrival in the desert, he briefly wore an Australian broad-brimmed hat before switching to wearing the black beret (with the badge of the Royal Tank Regiment next to the British General Officer's badge) for which he became notable. The black beret was offered to him by Jim Fraser whilst the latter was driving him on an inspection tour. Both Brooke and Alexander were astonished by the transformation in atmosphere when they visited on 19 August, less than a week after Montgomery had taken command.
Montgomery returned to Britain in January 1944. He was assigned to command the 21st Army Group which consisted of all Allied ground forces that would take part in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy under overall direction of the Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower. At St Paul's School on 7 April and 15 May he presented his strategy for the invasion. He envisaged a ninety day battle, ending when all the forces reached the Seine, pivoting on an Allied-held Caen, with British and Canadian armies forming a shoulder to attract and defeat the main German counter-attacks, while the US armies took the Cherbourg peninsula and Brittany, wheeling south and then east on the right.
During the hard fought two and a half month Battle of Normandy that followed, the impact of a series of unfavourable autumnal weather conditions disrupted the Normandy landing areas. Montgomery's initial plan was to break out immediately towards Caen. Unable to do so, as the British did not get enough forces ashore to exploit the successful landing, Montgomery's advance was checked. Montgomery continued to follow his plan for the invasion by attracting and holding German counter-attacks in the area north of Caen, which was designed to allow the United States Army in the west to take Cherbourg. Hampered by stormy weather and the bocage terrain, Montgomery had to ensure Rommel focused on the British in the east rather than the Americans in the west, who had to take the Cotentin Peninsula and Brittany before the Germans could be trapped by a general swing east. By the middle of July Caen had been taken, as Rommel continued to prioritise prevention of the break-out by British forces rather than the western territories being taken by the Americans. This was broadly as Montgomery had planned, albeit not with the same speed as he outlined at St Paul's. An American break-out was achieved with Operation Cobra and the encirclement of German forces in the Falaise pocket at the cost of British sacrifice with the diversionary Operation Goodwood.
Advance to the Rhine
The increasing presence of American troops in the European theatre (from five out of ten divisions at D-Day to 72 out of 85 in 1945) made it a political impossibility for the Ground Forces Commander to be British. After the end of the Normandy campaign, General Eisenhower took over Ground Forces Command on 1 September, while continuing as Supreme Commander, with Montgomery continuing to command the 21st Army Group, now consisting mainly of British and Canadian units. Montgomery bitterly resented this change, although it had been agreed before the D-Day invasion. Winston Churchill had Montgomery promoted to field marshal by way of compensation.
Montgomery was able to persuade Eisenhower to adopt his strategy of a single thrust to the Ruhr with Operation Market Garden in September 1944. It was uncharacteristic of Montgomery's battles: the offensive was strategically bold but poorly planned. Montgomery either did not receive or ignored ULTRA intelligence which warned of the presence of German armoured units near the site of the attack.
When the surprise attack on the Ardennes took place on 16 December 1944, starting the Battle of the Bulge, the front of the U.S. 12th Army Group was split, with the bulk of the U.S. First Army being on the northern shoulder of the German 'bulge'. The Army Group commander, General Omar Bradley, was located south of the penetration at Luxembourg and command of the U.S. First Army became problematic. Montgomery was the nearest commander on the ground and on 20 December, Eisenhower (who was in Versailles) transferred Courtney Hodges' U.S. First Army and William Simpson's U.S. Ninth Army to his 21st Army Group, despite Bradley's vehement objections on national grounds. Montgomery grasped the situation quickly, visiting all divisional, corps, and army field commanders himself and instituting his 'Phantom' network of liaison officers. He grouped the British XXX Corps as a strategic reserve behind the Meuse and reorganised the US defence of the northern shoulder, shortening and strengthening the line and ordering the evacuation of St Vith. The German commander of the 5th Panzer Army, Hasso von Manteuffel said:
The operations of the American 1st 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.
Montgomery's 21st Army Group advanced to the Rhine with operations Veritable and Grenade in February 1945. A meticulously planned Rhine crossing occurred on 24 March. While successful it was weeks after the Americans had unexpectedly captured the Ludendorff Bridge and crossed the river. Montgomery's river crossing was followed by the encirclement of the German Army Group B in the Ruhr. Initially Montgomery's role was to guard the flank of the American advance. This was altered, however, to forestall any chance of a Red Army advance into Denmark, and the 21st Army Group occupied Hamburg and Rostock and sealed off the Danish peninsula. On 4 May 1945, on Lüneburg Heath, Montgomery accepted the Surrender of German forces in north-west Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.
Born: 17 November 1887
Kennington, Surrey, England
Died: 24 March 1976
Alton, Hampshire, England