BELOW Montgomery watches his tanks move up to the front line at the Second Battle of El Alamein, November 1942.

‘The end of the beginning’: Montgomery & El Alamein

Graham Goodlad assesses the career of Britain’s best-known and most controversial general of the Second World War.


To beleaguered Britons in the autumn of 1942, the hard-fought victory of the Eighth Army under its new commander General Bernard Montgomery at the Second Battle of El Alamein came as much-needed relief. It followed a year in which the country had suffered a catastrophic run of military setbacks: from the fall of Singapore (described by Winston Churchill as ‘the greatest disaster to British arms which our history records’) to the humiliation of the ‘Channel Dash’ (when three large German warships were able to sail through the Straits of Dover in broad daylight), this truly was the darkest hour. Public morale was in crisis, with Churchill’s own position as Prime Minister also under threat: he faced two votes of no confidence during 1942, and though both were defeated, unhappiness with his leadership was growing.

BELOW Montgomery watches his tanks move up to the front line at the Second Battle of El Alamein, November 1942.
Montgomery watches his tanks move up to the front line at the Second Battle of El Alamein, November 1942.

Victory in the desert of Egypt represented a turning of the tide. The events of 23 October to 4 November 1942 signalled the end of Nazi Germany’s ambitions in the Middle East, and clearly demonstrated the worth of the British and Commonwealth contributions to the alliance. Perhaps more importantly, after the previous year’s disasters, the first major British land success of a war that had just entered its fourth year changed the narrative, reviving Churchill’s own political fortunes, and providing a launch pad for future allied advances. In celebration, church bells rang out in Britain for the first time since the spring of 1940. Though there would be setbacks still to come, it was, as Churchill himself put it in one of his most famous speeches, ‘perhaps, the end of the beginning’.

For Montgomery, Alamein was to make his reputation in more ways than one. Victory in North Africa turned him into the hero of the hour, and catapulted him to national celebrity: promoted to full general and knighted in honour of his achievement, he would go on to hold major commands in Sicily and north-west Europe, and to play a vital role in the liberation of Normandy. But even in his moment of triumph at Alamein, there were portents of some of the controversies to come. Montgomery’s slow pursuit of the retreating Germans was criticised, as he was perceived to show the caution and reluctance to risk heavy casualties that would become as much a trademark as his famous black beret.

In our special for this issue, timed to mark the 80th anniversary of El Alamein, Graham Goodlad first assesses the life and career of Britain’s best-known and most controversial military commander of the Second World War, and then offers a forensic analysis of the battle itself.

Flawed genius of the battlefield

More than 45 years after his death, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery – or simply ‘Monty’ – retains an almost legendary status. To many, he is a military leader of genius, responsible in the North African desert for the first outright Allied land victory of the conflict. His statue, topped by his distinctive beret, is a familiar sight outside the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall.

RIGHT ‘Quick as a ferret, and about as likeable.’ Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery in England, 1944.
‘Quick as a ferret, and about as likeable.’ Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery in England, 1944.

Yet Montgomery remains a divisive figure. His drawbacks were many. He was prickly and abrasive, and he could be petty and vindictive. His complete lack of tact caused continuous friction with his superiors and allies alike. Walter Bedell Smith, chief of staff to General Eisenhower, whose relations with Montgomery were notoriously fraught, famously told him, ‘You may be great to serve under, difficult to serve alongside, but you sure are hell to serve over!’ Of Montgomery’s vanity there can be no doubt. Asked to name three outstanding generals, he once replied, ‘the other two would be Alexander the Great and Napoleon.’

Alongside the triumph of El Alamein, we must also consider his controversial role in the liberation of north-west Europe. Often criticised for being unduly risk-averse, paradoxically he was largely responsible for the costly overreach of Operation Market Garden, the disastrous attempt in September 1944 to create an Allied invasion route into northern Germany. So how are we to assess the career and reputation of this remarkable yet fallible commander?

A slow ascent

Montgomery was born into the fringes of the Victorian elite, the son of a church minister of Anglo-Irish gentry stock. It was a privileged background in terms of status yet far from affluent. His formative years were spent in the remote imperial outpost of Tasmania, where his father served as bishop for more than a decade.

Although he was the fourth child in a family of nine, Montgomery’s childhood seems to have been lonely. In reaction to his mother’s harshly disciplinarian parenting, he developed a hard, withdrawn personality. Opting for a military career whilst finishing his education back in England, he was almost expelled from Sandhurst after setting fire to a fellow cadet – a prank that betrayed an unsettling streak of cruelty.

ABOVE Montgomery as a young soldier in the First World War. Shocked by the bloodletting of the Western Front, he drew many lessons from the conflict.
Montgomery as a young soldier in the First World War. Shocked by the bloodletting of the Western Front, he drew many lessons from the conflict. Image: NAM.

The reprieve seems to have shocked the young Montgomery into adopting a much more serious attitude. From then on, he dedicated himself to his chosen profession with unremitting hard work. Later, he would write of his conviction ‘that the profession of arms was a life-study, and that few officers seemed to realise this fact’. Montgomery’s single-minded professionalism made him a poor fit with his more relaxed peers. Although physically fit, at 5ft 7in he was shorter than his contemporaries, with sharp eyes set in a pointed face. ‘Quick as a ferret, and about as likeable,’ was one frank assessment of him.

But he was beginning to exhibit the determination that would take him to the top of his profession. Nor was he short of physical courage. The outbreak of the First World War saw him commanding a platoon in heavy fighting close to Ypres. In the still recommended fashion, leading from the front with sword drawn, he is said to have leapt into an enemy trench and taken a German soldier prisoner.

But on the same day, he was severely wounded in the chest and leg, surviving despite the grim experience of having his grave dug for him.

The war made a deep impression on Montgomery. Like many of his generation, he was shocked by the wasteful loss of life. From the bloodletting of the Western Front, he drew the powerful lesson that military action required careful advance planning and the husbanding of resources.

In later life Montgomery would strongly criticise senior commanders for being remote from their trench-bound troops. As so often in his appraisal of others, he was less than fair. The extended nature of the front made it difficult for generals to exercise face-to-face command, and their direction of the war from chateaux behind the lines was a function of limited communications more than personal convenience. By contrast, in the more mobile conditions of the Second World War, it would be easier for Montgomery to be a more active presence among his fighting men.

below British troops awaiting evacuation from Dunkirk, May 1940. Montgomery, then commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, had trained his troops for withdrawal and managed their return with minimal casualties.
British troops awaiting evacuation from Dunkirk, May 1940. Montgomery, then commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, had trained his troops for withdrawal and managed their return with minimal casualties.

Between the wars, Montgomery became an acknowledged expert on infantry training, rewriting the War Office manual on the subject whilst still a comparatively junior lieutenant-colonel. He also performed effectively as a junior commander in two colonial conflicts, the Irish War of Independence in the early 1920s and the suppression of the Arab revolt in Palestine in 1938-1939.

Personal tragedy confirmed his austere, introverted personality. Against expectations, in 1927, this solitary, driven man got married. His wife was Betty Carver, a young widow with two children, who gave Montgomery a son of his own. After ten years of happy married life, however, Betty died prematurely from complications arising from an insect bite. At 50, he was once again alone, focusing on his work with greater intensity as he coped with his heart-breaking loss.

By the outbreak of the Second World War, Montgomery was well known in the higher echelons of the army for his intelligence, drive, and impatience with what he regarded as incompetence. It was this last quality that, for all his ability, slowed his promotion. He did not trouble to conceal his contempt for established thinking when it obstructed efficiency.

below General Sir Claude Auchinleck. In August 1942, Churchill took the decision to replace ‘The Auk’ as the Middle East theatre commander. His intended replacement, Lieutenant General William Gott [second from right], was killed before he could take up the post, paving the way for Montgomery.
General Sir Claude Auchinleck.

Faced with a worrying outbreak of venereal disease, he outraged the clergy attached to the army by instructing soldiers to take precautions when visiting prostitutes. To Montgomery this was a common-sense response to a sexual health problem, but his conservative superiors were appalled that he should talk openly about a taboo subject.

Montgomery possessed one important asset, however, in the patronage of General Alan Brooke. One of his generation’s leading soldiers, he was to serve as Winston Churchill’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1941. Brooke recognised the sterling qualities that lay beneath his difficult subordinate’s unprepossessing exterior, and more than once saved him from dismissal when he earned the disfavour of the military establishment.

At the outbreak of war, Montgomery was given command of the 3rd Infantry Division, which was deployed to Belgium as part of the British Expeditionary Force. When, the following May, British forces had to be evacuated from Dunkirk, Montgomery was ready. He had trained his troops in the art of tactical withdrawal and managed their return to Britain with minimal casualties.

For the greater part of the next two years, Montgomery took on a succession of responsibilities for the defence of England’s south-coast counties. Here, he had ample opportunity to put into practice his ideas of infantry training, removing officers who did not measure up and insisting on the highest standards of fitness and efficiency. He was already noted for his brisk handling of professional relations, banning smoking and coughing at his briefings.

In August 1942, Churchill took the decision to replace ‘The Auk’ as the Middle East theatre commander. His intended replacement, Lieutenant General William Gott [second from right], was killed before he could take up the post, paving the way for Montgomery.

Although he irritated many, his qualities of leadership were beginning to be appreciated. But he had yet to make his name in an important field command.

Desert warrior

Montgomery gained his most famous appointment by accident, following a series of reverses that befell the British army in North Africa. Erwin Rommel, leader of Germany’s Afrika Korps, was a formidable opponent. There was no question about the importance of the Western Desert. Defeat there would put in jeopardy control of the Suez Canal, on which Britain’s worldwide communications depended, and open the oil-rich Middle East to Axis forces.

Montgomery was the indirect beneficiary of Churchill’s decision in August 1942 to replace the theatre commander, General Sir Claude Auchinleck. ‘The Auk’, as he was known, had taken responsibility for the Eighth Army in North Africa, alongside his overall role as commander-in-chief in the Middle East. The Prime Minister’s first choice to lead the Eighth Army was Lieutenant General William Gott, but he was killed before he could take up the post, when the transport plane carrying him was ambushed by German fighters.

A downed British fighter in the aftermath of the battle of Alam Halfa, September 1942. The British victory there preceded further success at El Alamein the following month.

His untimely death almost certainly led to the right general taking over. Gott was competent and popular, but he was tired by long service. By contrast, Montgomery knew exactly what he wanted to do, and he had the personality to energise and motivate an army that was reeling from a series of hammer blows.

The new commander showed an unexpected capacity to dramatise both his own personality and the task facing the Allied forces. Montgomery compensated for his short stature and high-pitched, slightly lisping voice by projecting a morale-boosting air of self-confidence.

He also adopted a casual and instantly recognisable style of dress – an anonymous grey pullover offset by a black beret, adorned with the badge of the tank regiment alongside his general’s insignia. He seemed to be constantly on the move, using a personalised Grant tank or an open-top Humber staff car to meet the troops. Later, he would make use of a small Miles Messenger aircraft to overfly the battle zone. He had made a practice of touring around to meet the troops with the BEF in 1939-1940, but it was only now that the legend of ‘Monty’ was truly born.

In an opening address to his staff, Montgomery told them that he had ordered the burning of all plans for withdrawal. ‘We will stand and fight here. If we can’t stay here alive, then let us stay here dead.’ In fact, there is no evidence that Auchinleck intended to abandon the strong defensive position that he had already established at El Alamein. The difference between the two commanders was in style as much as substance. But there was one crucial difference when it came to preparation for battle. Montgomery amassed his resources with great care before committing to the fight. The novelist Ernest Hemingway was alluding to his refusal to engage without a significant numerical advantage when he named the Montgomery cocktail, a martini with a ratio of 15 parts gin to one part vermouth.

Montgomery was also instinctively aware of the importance of air-ground cooperation. The leader of the desert air force, Air Marshal Arthur Coningham, had already taken the initiative in placing his campaign caravan alongside that of the Eighth Army commander, but it was in partnership with Montgomery that cooperation between the two forces reached fruition. The two leaders achieved this despite personality differences that increasingly plagued their relationship.

RIGHT Montgomery with Dwight Eisenhower. During the North Africa campaign, Monty formed a dim view of his future boss, dismissing the man who would be Allied commander as knowing ‘nothing whatever about how to make war or to fight battles’.
Montgomery with Dwight Eisenhower. During the North Africa campaign, Monty formed a dim view of his future boss, dismissing the man who would be Allied commander as knowing ‘nothing whatever about how to make war or to fight battles’.

Within three weeks of taking over, Montgomery found himself conducting a desperate defensive engagement at Alam Halfa, where Rommel’s forces sought to encircle the Eighth Army. Montgomery’s success in regrouping and deploying tanks and infantry to cover his flank slowed the Axis advance, aided by RAF bombing of the enemy supply lines. Realising that his attempted breakthrough had failed, Rommel withdrew. This was a preliminary to the decisive battle of El Alamein, the story of which is told in an in-depth companion piece (see page 32).

In the wake of El Alamein, Montgomery was criticised for following up the victory too slowly. But he was not prepared to risk his initial gains by being over-confident. In the early months of 1943, he drove the Axis forces out of a series of defensive positions. At the end of March, he overcame a heavy frontal assault on the Mareth Line in southern Tunisia by means of an inland outflanking manoeuvre, with RAF fighter-bombers once again strafing German ground troops and armour.

By the time he left North Africa he had established himself as an outstanding field commander. He had transformed what he termed the ‘atmosphere’ in the desert theatre by his presence, showing his men that he was with them and making his expectations abundantly clear to his junior commanders. His mastery of detail paid dividends, not just in planning for battle but in making provision for his troops’ material needs. These were the hallmarks of the leadership style that he would display in the European theatre in the last two years of the war.

Beachheads in Italy and Normandy

After the North African campaign came to an end, Montgomery fought alongside US forces in the Allied landings in Sicily and then led the Eighth Army over to the Italian mainland. He was instrumental in the redrawing of the invasion plans for Sicily, so that the Allied forces were concentrated around Syracuse rather than dispersed more widely as originally intended.

Operation Husky provided experience of managing an opposed landing, which would be invaluable in the Normandy invasion the following year. It was a feat of combined operations that saw the deployment of new technology, including amphibious vehicles, and brought Montgomery into contact with individuals who would play a key role in the liberation of France.

It augured badly for future inter-Allied relations that Montgomery formed an unflattering view of his future boss, Dwight Eisenhower. Although he acknowledged the American commander’s political gifts, privately he decided that, ‘He knows nothing whatever about how to make war or to fight battles; he should be kept away from all that business if we want to win this war.’

Dissatisfied with the conduct of the Italian campaign, Montgomery was glad to be posted home in January 1944. In his new post as head of 21st Army Group, his role was no less pivotal than the one he had played in North Africa. He had a dual responsibility, contributing to planning for D-Day and commanding all Allied ground forces taking part in Operation Overlord.

Some of the more controversial episodes of Montgomery’s career: at Caen in July 1944, the liberation of the city was slower than expected. And with Operation Market Garden in September [below], ground forces were notoriously unable to relieve paratroopers at Arnhem in time.

It was at Montgomery’s instigation that the scale of the Normandy landings was expanded to cover a 50-mile front, across five rather than three landing beaches, with the flanks secured by airborne assaults. He also insisted on a separate US, British or Canadian army being assigned to each of the zones rather than a joint force.

The challenges on the ground were formidable. The terrain of Normandy, with hedged fields and sunken lanes interspersed with dense woods, was less suited than the open spaces of the Western Desert to the large-scale use of armour. Although the Allies possessed superior firepower, they were pitted against Nazi Germany’s most ideologically committed, battle-hardened troops, who were under strict orders from Hitler not to yield a foot of ground.

Following the establishment of the Normandy beachhead, the invasion forces planned to seize Caen, nine miles inland and the centre of major communications routes. There was strong pressure from the air force chiefs to do so, as a preliminary to the capture of usable airfields.

The slower than expected liberation of the city was one of the most controversial episodes in Montgomery’s career. British and Canadian troops encountered exceptionally strong resistance, with most of the available Panzer divisions concentrating in the Caen sector. As a result, more than a month after D-Day, the city had still not been outflanked and its defenders not yet forced into withdrawal. In Operation Charnwood, Montgomery resorted to a frontal assault accompanied by intense aerial bombing, which reduced much of the city to rubble. This was followed up in mid-July with Operation Goodwood, a costly push in which British tanks were exposed to withering fire.

Caen played a crucial role in the outcome of the Normandy campaign. By drawing German forces into the area and holding them there, Montgomery had enabled US forces further west to seize Cherbourg. On 25 July, they began their advance into Brittany against a severely weakened foe, who now lacked the reserves for an effective counter-attack. Aided by the launching of Operation Bluecoat, Montgomery’s push south-eastwards from Caumont in the west of the British sector, the eventual result was the collapse of the German position in Normandy.

This had been a hard-fought campaign, which had not developed as expected. Tanks and air power had less than complete and immediate success in knocking out heavily fortified German defences. Casualties were higher than anticipated against a resourceful and determined enemy. Montgomery’s American allies later criticised him for not closing the ‘Falaise gap’, through which the enemy were fleeing, quickly enough. Perhaps 20,000 German troops managed to escape. Nonetheless, up to 100,000 of the enemy were encircled. No less significant was the loss of much of their heavy equipment and vehicles, including some 500 tanks.

The liberation of Normandy was an immense achievement, in which Montgomery played a vital part. He was unwise, however, to claim later that it had unfolded as part of a predetermined master plan. He had shown greater flexibility in adapting to changing conditions than this suggested.

Montgomery’s caravans

Montgomery ran his campaigns in a highly personalised way, with a main headquarters for most of his staff situated behind the lines, and a tactical headquarters (TAC) close to the battle zone. TAC was a mobile outfit consisting of three caravans, housing the commander’s office, map room and private quarters. This allowed Montgomery to monitor events whilst affording the solitude that was so important to him. He required space to plan and think, in the uncritical company of his two dogs, named ‘Rommel’ and ‘Hitler’. The caravans can be seen at the Imperial War Museum’s Duxford site in Cambridgeshire as part of its permanent exhibition, Monty: Master of the Battlefield.

Drive to Germany

In September 1944, an aggrieved Montgomery found himself relieved of overall command of ground forces in north-west Europe. The political reality was that only an American general would now be acceptable in such a high-profile role. Montgomery continued to head 21st Army Group and he was promoted to Field Marshal by way of compensation.

But he was no less assertive in the debates that took place within the Allied command. With the liberation of France now complete, there was no agreement on how to bring about the final defeat of the Third Reich. Although Eisenhower favoured an advance towards Germany along a broad front, he deferred to Montgomery’s passionately argued case for a single thrust into Holland and the industrial heartland of the Ruhr.

RIGHT The statue of Montgomery, topped by his distinctive beret, is a familiar sight outside the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. As an inspirational leader, he had few equals.
The statue of Montgomery, topped by his distinctive beret, is a familiar sight outside the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. As an inspirational leader, he had few equals.

This paved the way for Operation Market Garden, which entailed a carpet of airborne troops opening the way for the armour of 30 Corps to speed along a narrow corridor to the Rhine bridge at Arnhem. It was an imaginative stroke, which might have denied the enemy a chance to regroup and thus shortened the European war. But the planners failed to heed reports of two SS Panzer divisions stationed in the Arnhem region, and British ground forces proved unable to force their way through to relieve the paratroopers at Arnhem in time.

Market Garden was undoubtedly a disaster, but arguably a worse strategic error was the invaders’ earlier failure to clear the approaches to Antwerp, the largest port in north-west Europe. Had both sides of the Scheldt estuary been occupied at the beginning of September, the Allies would have had the use of a vital channel for supplies. It would have made the Arnhem gamble unnecessary. For this lack of insight, both Montgomery and Eisenhower as supreme commander were responsible.

Montgomery was at fault for the uncharacteristically poorly planned Arnhem operation, but he redeemed himself in December when the Wehrmacht launched its last major counter-offensive. This was the Battle of the Bulge. In a bold thrust through the thickly wooded, snowbound Ardennes, with Allied aircraft grounded by poor weather, German forces sought to split the invading armies and retake Antwerp.

In this moment of crisis, over the objections of 12th US Army Group commander Omar Bradley, Eisenhower temporarily transferred the US Ninth and First armies to Montgomery. The situation stabilised as Montgomery held the northern flank of the German assault. Helped by an improvement in the weather, which allowed Allied planes to resume their operations, and following an effective US ground offensive to the south, the threat receded.

In March 1945, Montgomery’s 21st Army Group crossed the Rhine and took part in the encirclement of the Ruhr pocket. On 4 May, at Lüneburg Heath, he took the surrender of all enemy forces in north-west Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.

It was a stage-managed event, which bore the clear imprint of Montgomery’s personality. He kept the German delegation waiting and insisted that nothing short of unconditional surrender would do. The signing ceremony took place inside his tent in front of BBC cameras. War correspondent Alan Moorehead reported that, ‘Rather like a schoolmaster taking an oral examination, Montgomery dominated proceedings, milking the occasion for all it was worth.’ It must have been the finest moment of his career.

A warrior not a diplomat

It was natural that Montgomery’s wartime pre-eminence would result in his promotion to a series of major commands in the post-war years. He headed the British forces of occupation in Germany, then succeeded Alan Brooke as Chief of the Imperial General Staff before serving as deputy commander in the recently created NATO.

But none of these appointments really suited him. He lacked the diplomatic skills and willingness to compromise that were required at the highest level. He was too much the maverick, liable to make an undiplomatic remark that might alienate his colleagues.

Montgomery’s real strength lay in his virtuosity as a battlefield commander. He was unrivalled for his grasp of logistics and – with the important exception of Arnhem – for his ability to size up a situation and take calculated risks. He flourished in the Western Desert, where he did not have to consider the views of his political masters or allies.

Montgomery’s awkward relationships with his superiors and his peer group were offset by his capacity to inspire the loyalty of his junior officers and men. As an inspirational leader, he had few equals. This enabled him to lift and maintain the fighting spirit of the Eighth Army when he assumed command, and it helps to explain his enduring celebrity status. For all his defects, ‘Monty’ was an indispensable figure when the outcome of the war rested on a knife edge. •

Bernard Montgomery timeline

Born, the son of an Anglo-Irish church minister

Commissioned into 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment

Wounded in action on the Western Front

Took part in counter-insurgency operations in the Irish War of Independence

Based in Palestine; involved in suppression of the Arab revolt

Evacuated from Dunkirk

Responsible for defences of South-East England

Commander of the Eighth Army in the Western Desert

Led Eighth Army in the invasion of Sicily and Italy

Commanded Allied ground forces in the Normandy campaign

Commanded 21st Army Group in the push into Germany

Commander-in-chief, British Army of the Rhine

Chief of the Imperial General Staff

NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe

Died at his home in Hampshire
Further reading
The official biography, Monty by Nigel Hamilton, appeared in three volumes, subtitled The Making of a General, Master of the Battlefield andThe Field Marshal (Hamish Hamilton, 1981, 1984, 1986).

Peter Caddick-Adams, Monty and Rommel: parallel lives (Arrow, 2012).
All Images: Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise stated.