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Montgomery - Pros and Cons


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I'm almost finished with "The Armor Campaign in Normandy" by Stephen Napier and it's got me thinking of Monty and the controversy that surrounds him.  The English love him, the Americans love to hate him and more ink has been spilled writing about him than any other general outside of Patton and Rommel.  Personally, I have rather mixed feelings about him.

 

Pros - 

 

He was an effective leader who kept his own subordinates in line and on plan.  The troops trusted him and he was able to project the image of being a leader.  

 

He had an abundance of self confidence and was not prone to losing his nerve.  

 

He had a fairly good understanding of the strengths, and more importantly the weaknesses, of his own troops compared to his opponent and planned his battle accordingly

 

He understood the broader war aims of his boss (Churchill) and fought his campaign with those goals in mind.

 

Cons - 

 

His actual battle plans were not always so good, particularly his use of armor.  Either he shoved too many tanks on too little frontage (Goodwood) and created traffic jams, or as in the case of Market/Garden, shoved them on a single road with no alternate options for movement. 

 

He was not terribly comfortable with the idea of fluid, mobile warfare, preferring set piece style battles of his own choosing.  

 

While he demanded complete obedience from his own subordinates, he did not always obey the commands of his own superiors.  Sometimes this can be a good thing in a commander, in the case of Monty it almost cost him his job and created unnecessary friction in the Anglo-American alliance.

 

He was not exactly a likable guy, but that does not really matter much in evaluating him as a general.   He certainly had no issue with throwing other people under the bus in order to make himself look good or to cover up his mistakes.  

 

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My opinion based on my limited reading on the topic is that Monty was a decent commander who also benefited from being in the right time at the right place.  Probably not worthy of all the praise heaped on him, nor a bad as his critics make him out to be.

 

One thing we know for certain, he was absolutely no fun at parties.  

 

Thoughts?

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With regards to his (mis)use of armour, I think that ultimately comes from him being primarily an infantryman, having served as one in the Great War, so it is in some senses not that surprising

I think that's part of it.  In some cases there were other factors as well.  His choice to attack with his armor divisions instead of with infantry divisions during Goodwood had more to do with the fact that the British Army was running low on infantry but had a surplus of tanks.  The British seemed to never really figure out effective infantry/tank cooperation during the war.  Auchinleck started to figure this out and wanted to reorganize his units to give a better armor/infantry mix, but he got sacked and Monty reverted everything back to the traditional organization model.  

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Was it true he was a pedophile?

According to his biographer Nigel Hamilton, Monty may have been a repressed homosexual.  It's worth noting that when he was younger, Monty was a rather devoted husband and was quite crushed when his wife passed away in 1937.  Interestingly, Monty's wife was the sister of British General Percy Hobart, the guy responsible for all the "Hobart's Funnies" specialized engineering tanks at D-Day.  Monty tended to enjoy the company of younger officers rather than his peers, but that might have just been due to the fact that he was generally not well liked by most of the other generals and high ranking officers.  Also, since Monty did not smoke or drink or womanize, this might have prompted rumors of him being "a bit of a poof."

 

Prof Hamilton, who was befriended by the field marshal at age 11 and knew him well for the last 20 years of his life, has no doubt of the nature of Monty's feelings.

"These were quasi love affairs. He became really passionately involved with these young men - and then, more and more, boys, who he would call 'my sons'. They were nothing of the kind, of course, but in his own personality he would frame them in this way.

"I myself have more than 100 very loving letters from him. My relationship with him wasn't sexual, in the sense that it wasn't acted upon, but I had been through enough years at British boarding schools to know what kind of enormous affection and feeling he had for me.

"And I wasn't alone, this was a consistent pattern in Monty's life." One boy was Lucien Treub, Montgomery's "little Swiss friend", who met him at 12, and told Hamilton how the general would bathe him personally and rub him down so he would not catch cold. "I've interviewed him several times and he was quite clear he didn't feel there was any molesting going on, but it's a tricky area," Prof Hamilton said.

http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/feb/26/books.booksnews

 

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I think that's part of it.  In some cases there were other factors as well.  His choice to attack with his armor divisions instead of with infantry divisions during Goodwood had more to do with the fact that the British Army was running low on infantry but had a surplus of tanks.  The British seemed to never really figure out effective infantry/tank cooperation during the war.  Auchinleck started to figure this out and wanted to reorganize his units to give a better armor/infantry mix, but he got sacked and Monty reverted everything back to the traditional organization model.  

The lack of infantry manpower reserves is a common refrain that I've seen many historians use when describing the British Army. Between the demands of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and - within the Army - of the competing needs of Armor, Artillery, Anti-Air and Logistics, the amount of Tommies available for duty as Mere Infantry - Poor Beggers - was low, as was their quality. Compounding the issue is the fact that many of the sources that the British Empire historically used to draw manpower from (India, Australia, New Zealand) had problems of their own in World War 2. I'm working from memory here but the British had to scrap one or two divisions in order to scrape together enough warm bodies to flesh out their existing units.

 

As for Normandy and Goodwood, it is as simple of an issue as looking at a map. The British and Canadians had the unenviable task of not only defending the Normandy beachhead from attack by the Germans from the nearest and most direct approach by the Nazis but also attacking in the same direction. This isn't meant to defend Monty or the actions of his subordinates or the general demeanor of the British Army post June 1944. But in a conflict like World War 2, there were real and insurmountable problems that smart and brave people back then had a tough time overcoming. It's easy for us armchair generals with the benefit of hindsight to make judgments.

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Was it true he was a pedophile?

 

I actually do remember that the pedophilia claims were basically instances of libel/slander that were passed around during the day by some rival military officers to try and defame him to the public.

 

I'll have to dig up where I read it though.

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The lack of infantry manpower reserves is a common refrain that I've seen many historians use when describing the British Army. Between the demands of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and - within the Army - of the competing needs of Armor, Artillery, Anti-Air and Logistics, the amount of Tommies available for duty as Mere Infantry - Poor Beggers - was low, as was their quality. Compounding the issue is the fact that many of the sources that the British Empire historically used to draw manpower from (India, Australia, New Zealand) had problems of their own in World War 2. I'm working from memory here but the British had to scrap one or two divisions in order to scrape together enough warm bodies to flesh out their existing units.

 

As for Normandy and Goodwood, it is as simple of an issue as looking at a map. The British and Canadians had the unenviable task of not only defending the Normandy beachhead from attack by the Germans from the nearest and most direct approach by the Nazis but also attacking in the same direction. This isn't meant to defend Monty or the actions of his subordinates or the general demeanor of the British Army post June 1944. But in a conflict like World War 2, there were real and insurmountable problems that smart and brave people back then had a tough time overcoming. It's easy for us armchair generals with the benefit of hindsight to make judgments.

I sometimes wonder if the issues of the Sherman tank lacking firepower and armor were not used by the British as a scapegoatto justify their less than stellar armor performance in Normandy.  

 

That said, my impression on the Normandy campaign now that I have finished the book is that any attack using armor that managed to gain ground and not result in major losses was a minor miracle.  This goes for both sides.  The German counter-offenses were all pretty terrible and ended up costing them plenty of their precious big cats.  One thing I liked about the book is that while the author often quotes the number of tanks knocked out by German forces from their own records, he usually also will state what the Allied units records recorded as lost.  Guess what, German estimates were often two to three times higher than the actual number of kills they achieved.  I doubt anyone will be surprised by this observation.

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I sometimes wonder if the issues of the Sherman tank lacking firepower and armor were not used by the British as a scapegoatto justify their less than stellar armor performance in Normandy. 

 

It seems interesting that materiel the British suffered setbacks in has a poor reputation and the materiel they suffered them to has a great reputation regardless of any qualities of that materiel (see the Bismarck, for one).

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With regards to his (mis)use of armour, I think that ultimately comes from him being primarily an infantryman, having served as one in the Great War, so it is in some senses not that surprising

 

It's not as though Monty would have benefited much from British tank experience to begin with. Instead, I'm convinced that the main reason why Monty is accused of being a "slow" or "cautious" general is because the British historical establishment is in denial about the reality of the British Army of the Second World War.

 

The British Army was not, as often glorified, a professional army that was a wiser, more experienced version of the American Army. Instead as David French pointed out in "Raising Churchill's Army", the British Army was actually a morosely inflexible institution. It was still clinging to 19th Century belief systems that held that the liberal common soldierly could not be trusted and that only gentlemen could command them, resulting in a draconian command structure that frowned on individual initiative and innovation. 

 

In short, the British Army was in fact almost as bad as the Soviet Army when it came to junior officer leadership - with lots of officers just content to follow orders to the letter even if it led to calamitous results - because its aristocratic leadership actively condemned initiative.

 

Montgomery's popularity among the troops - and his equivalent unpopularity among his peers - was in fact rooted in this reality. Monty had fought in the First World War and fought under the same stupid draconian structure. He knew this was why only the British Army had problems implementing infiltration tactics in that war - whereas the Germans, French, and even the Canadians implemented it successfully. Hence he understood the plight of the common soldier and the junior officers, who were chaffing under the increasingly incompetent Divisional and Corps-level leadership that nonetheless demanded total obedience from their subordinates. Monty was thus seen by the common soldiers and the junior officers as their advocate and champion against the bumbling generals. The generals in turn resented him because Monty was not shy about exposing their flaws and blunders.

 

That said, Monty knew that the damage was already done. The junior officers could not unlearn their robotic obedience to orders with a wave of a wand; not after years of fighting under this model and certainly not with immediate subordinates who didn't believe in giving their troops initiative anyway. This is why Monty's plans always ended up being set-pieces and only very rarely involved fast-moving armored exploitation. Monty knew that his troops, or rather his Generals, Colonels, and Majors, didn't exhibit the level of initiative to make fast-moving armored exploitation operations work. That infamous incident at Nijmegan bridge - where the British stopped for tea while waiting for orders - was in fact the norm of the British army and British historians (aside from David French and a few others) have simply spent more ink trying to find excuses for these incidents rather than confronting that this was in fact a systemic problem.

 

That same disdain for poor generalship is why Monty had such strained relationships with Ike and most of the American Generals. Ike, to be frank, was a terrible tactician and a bad strategist. Monty disobeyed Ike because he knew Ike was incompetent at moving armies around; and that Ike often concerned himself with political consequences rather than military ones. When Monty worked under someone who understood strategy and tactics, like Alexander, Monty behaved pretty well. His ego really came to the fore in incidents like the Bulge, where he was pretty much the only Allied general to not lose his nerve. By contrast one American Army general had a nervous breakdown, while Ike's HQ basically wasted the first 24 hours unaware of what was really happening. That these failures in American generalship rarely get mentioned in retellings of the Bulge point to how Monty was similarly made into a convenient scapegoat by American historians to disguise the failings of Eisenhower and his generals.

 

In short, a good deal of Monty's bad press is due to people not realizing how flawed the British Army's command structure was, and of the overly bloated evaluations of Eisenhower's "leadership". With these factors into play, Monty really emerges as a solid, if not brillant commander working past the stupid limitations imposed on him by his nation and his commanders.

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