Military History Bernard Law Montgomery
by
Colin F. Baxter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0023

Introduction

One of the most controversial commanders of World War II, British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, commanded British and Allied forces in some of the most decisive battles of World War II. Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said of Montgomery that he was “indomitable in retreat, invincible in advance; insufferable in victory.” American military historian Martin Blumenson, in a 1962 article, famously called Montgomery “the most overrated general of World War II” (see Blumenson 1962, cited under Biographies). The myth that Montgomery would not attack the enemy unless he vastly outnumbered the enemy was enshrined in the “Montgomery Martini,” concocted by novelist Ernest Hemingway: fifteen parts gin and one part vermouth. The literature on Montgomery has passed through the normal stages of historiography: from triumphalism immediately after the war, followed by revisionist writings, and then a period of orthodox interpretation. Recent military historians have benefitted from the work of their predecessors, and with the advantage of free access to wartime records, they offer far more accurate appraisals of Montgomery as a battlefield commander. In his book, Monty’s Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), British military historian John Buckley views Montgomery as neither saint nor demon, but rather as someone who is sometimes brilliant and sometimes foolish. Montgomery’s claim to fame rests upon his leading the British Eighth Army (forty languages were spoken in the Eighth Army) to victory over the Axis Powers at El Alamein, fought between 23 October and 4 November 1942. In his thoroughly researched study, Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein (Barr 2004, cited under Battle of El Alamein), historian Niall Barr rejects the false might-have-beens and armchair-hindsight explanations for what did or did not happen, and he presents a fair-minded account of the desert campaign. From North Africa to Sicily and the Italian campaign, praise and criticism were Montgomery’s close companions. The controversies are discussed fully in Colin Baxter’s, The War in North Africa, 1940–1943: A Selected Bibliography (cited under General Overviews). Small and unimpressive looking, with a high-pitched voice (like Patton), Montgomery, at his most casual, wore baggy corduroy trousers, a grey turtleneck sweater, and the famous black beret with a general’s badge and the Royal Tank Corps insignia. Despite the idiosyncratic, dogmatic, tactless, and quarrelsome aspects of his character, it is to the credit of Montgomery’s military superiors during the interwar years that they looked over such failings and recognized a winner and continued to promote him. As a result of recent scholarship, the often-bleak picture of Montgomery and the British Army (which were inextricably linked) painted by writers such as Basil Liddell Hart and John Ellis and others has begun to fade. Military historians David French, Stephen Hart, Niall Barr, John Buckley, and others have shown convincingly how Montgomery successfully matched the operational techniques, doctrine, and tactics of the British Army to the abilities of the citizen-soldier Anglo-Canadian Twenty-First Army Group that helped bring victory in the West. Montgomery is no longer underrated in the serious historiography of World War II. He and other British commanders were determined to avoid the bloodletting of World War I. Their men’s lives were to be saved by the use of massive firepower: “Let metal do it rather than flesh.” The National Army Museum conducted a poll in 2011 to determine Britain’s greatest general. Montgomery’s name was not among the finalists. In a 2013 poll, the Battle of El Alamein was not listed among the five greatest British battles. However, the research by recent military historians, who have not ignored Montgomery’s mistakes, has rehabilitated his reputation to the point where he ranks as one of the great Allied commanders of World War II.

General Overviews

Chester Wilmot, an Australian war correspondent for the BBC, wrote the first outstanding military narrative of Allied operations in northwest Europe, Wilmot 1952. Wilmot had seen Montgomery close-up, and he was later given access to some of Monty’s papers. The “desert war” fought in Libya and Egypt, in which Montgomery won his world fame, is dismissed by John Ellis, one of Britain’s most provocative historians on World War II, as not worthy of a footnote (see Ellis 1990). Ellis argues that Allied victory in World War II was inevitable, given their industrial superiority. Overy 1996 provides an important corrective to the thesis that the Allies won the war primarily because of their larger population and production resources. Many of the debates over military operations that have dominated the writings of World War II military historians are superbly reappraised in Murray and Millett 2000. Weinberg 1994 is a breathtaking global history of World War II, based on exhaustive archival research. A new view of the global history of World War II is provided by Mawdsley 2009. Concisely written and offering a unique assessment of the war’s multiple theaters and fronts, it is especially useful for undergraduate students studying World War II. A printed primary source from which to examine Montgomery views as commander of the British Eighth Army are the papers edited by Stephen Brooks (Brooks 1991), and those for the battle of Normandy edited by the same author (Brooks 2008, cited under Battle of Normandy). Another essential source is the Eisenhower papers (see Chandler 1970).

  • Baxter, Colin F. The War in North Africa, 1940–1943: A Selected Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Seven historiographical essays evaluate and critically assess the major contributions to the literature on the Desert War. They discuss in detail the Montgomery-Auchinleck dispute, as well as other issues involving Montgomery in the Desert War.

  • Baxter, Colin F. Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1887–1976: A Selected Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    The author assesses 413 works bearing on Montgomery’s life, starting with his Australian childhood, his military career, and the post–World War II years. In this historiographical study, the author discusses many of the controversies that surrounded Montgomery’s conduct of military operations during World War II.

  • Brooks, Stephen, ed. Montgomery and the Eighth Army: A Selection from the Diaries, Correspondence and Other Papers of Field Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, August 1942 to December 1943. London: Bodley Head, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    Brooks spent four years cataloguing the Montgomery papers at the Imperial War Museum, London, and this work was published for the Army Records Society. Students and researchers will find correspondence relating to Montgomery in the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, London (the depository for the Alanbrooke and de Guingand papers; General Sir Francis de Guingand had been Monty’s chief of staff), among others, and the Churchill College Archives Centre, Cambridge, England. Government records are deposited in the National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom.

  • Chandler, Alfred D., Jr., ed. The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower: The War Years. 5 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970.

    E-mail Citation »

    On the great debatable issues, such as the single-thrust versus the broad front approach, or whether the Allies should have tried to beat the Russians to Berlin, there are ample details in these papers.

  • Danchev, Alex, and Daniel Todman, eds. War Diaries, 1939–1945: Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke. By Lord Alanbrooke. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this superbly edited volume of the diary kept by Chief of the Imperial General Staff Lord Alanbrooke, the editors had full access to his diaries and associated materials deposited in the Liddell Hart Centre archives. The diary is an essential primary source on British wartime strategy, of which Alanbrooke was the master. Alanbrooke alone could silence his own protégé, Montgomery, sending him pale and tight-lipped from the room.

  • Delaney, Douglas E. Corps Commanders: Five British and Canadian Generals at War, 1939–45. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    As single-division attacks rarely succeeded against the Germans, corps operations largely won the war in the West. Brian Horrocks is rated the highest in professional competence, commanding corps in North Africa and Northwest Europe. Canadian corps commander Guy Simmonds commanded Second Canadian Corps and shone in the Battle of the Scheldt, much to the satisfaction of Montgomery. Horrocks and Simmonds were both “Monty men” and were rated as his two best corps commanders in Northwest Europe.

  • Ellis, John. Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War. New York: Viking, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    British military historian Ellis echoes prior arguments that the Allies won World War II only because of “brute force,” that is, their possession of overwhelming industrial strength. Provocatively, he asserts that all the Allied commanders were vastly overrated, especially Montgomery, whom he rates highest in incompetence and criticizes for excessive caution.

  • Mawdsley, Evan. World War II: A New History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    In his references to Montgomery, the author presents a fair and balanced treatment of the field marshal.

  • Murray, Williamson, and Allan R. Millett. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a serious analytical study full of fresh insights and a good read. Montgomery is fairly assessed militarily and not on the basis of his personality.

  • Overy, David. Why the Allies Won. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    In retrospect, writes Overy, Allied victory looks almost predetermined, but the overriding theme in his book is that Allied manpower and industrial superiority did not make victory a foregone conclusion. While not denying the importance of those factors, he includes the elements of combat prowess and leadership in explaining Allied victory. In that context, he gives Monty high marks for generalship in the battle of Normandy.

  • Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    Weinberg is on firmer ground when dealing with grand strategy, but less so on operational history. Beginning with the Normandy campaign, he begins a series of attacks on Montgomery’s generalship.

  • Wilmot, Chester. The Struggle for Europe. London: Collins, 1952.

    E-mail Citation »

    Though many of his judgments have been challenged and others demolished, Wilmot’s book remains a thought-provoking read.

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