The Commanders: the leadership journeys of George Patton, Bernard Montgomery, and Erwin Rommel Lloyd Clark


This is not the first joint biography of George Patton, Bernard Montgomery, and Erwin Rommel, arguably the three outstanding battlefield commanders of World War II. Terry Brighton led the way in 2009 with his acclaimed study Masters of Battle: Montgomery, Patton, and Rommel at war, and three years later came Peter Caddick-Adams’ only slightly less ambitious Monty and Rommel: parallel lives. In Lloyd Clark, the trio have found an able new chronicler.

As the author of several outstanding campaign studies, including Blitzkrieg, Anzio, and Arnhem, Clark is well-qualified for the task. The Commanders draws on an impressive range of archival and secondary sources, supplemented by unpublished papers and interviews. The narrative zips along, giving enough of the wider context to make his subjects’ careers intelligible. Clark has a gift for memorable phrases. Confronting the ‘Bonus Army’ protestors in Depression-era Washington DC, for example, Major Patton’s force had ‘taken up its position without fanfare like a cartridge slipped effortlessly into a shotgun chamber’.

Small details are used economically to elucidate character. In the invasion of France in 1940, we see the inexhaustible Rommel hurrying everywhere to issue orders, or up to his waist in water helping his engineers with a river crossing, but also finding time to ask his wife to collect news cuttings about his exploits.

The book follows a firmly chronological structure, with successive phases seen from the viewpoint of each commander in turn. Clark charts the developing rivalry between the two Allied figures, from North Africa to Italy and Normandy, and their struggle against the common adversary. The similarities and differences between their respective personalities and experiences are largely implicit, until the concluding chapter draws the threads uniting them together.

The nature of leadership is the theme that drives the narrative from the beginning. As Clark makes clear, each of his subjects exhibited the personal qualities that mark an effective military leader – the capacity to inspire and motivate troops, combined with an in-depth knowledge of the craft of making war. Each of them led from the front, showing undoubted courage as junior officers in World War I, and all three suffered serious battlefield wounds.

From those under their command, they expected high standards. They were always demanding, sometimes harsh, though also demonstrated a human concern for their troops’ welfare.

Erwin Rommel, the hands-on commander, helping to push a staff car stuck during the war in North Africa in 1941. As a leader, he was tactically brilliant but lacked strategic insight. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Away from the field, they were reflective students of warfare, impatient with the hidebound traditions to which many of their superiors clung. Between the wars, they wrote about the military art with the benefit of their experience of the trenches – Patton analysing tank warfare, while Montgomery and Rommel focused on infantry tactics.

Able individuals

These were extremely able individuals, whose self-confidence often amounted to arrogance. Patton and Montgomery manifested an outright disdain for their superiors which might have terminated the career of a lesser individual. Yet, conversely, all three had the political sense to cultivate important patrons who could advance their careers. Patton associated himself at an early stage with General Pershing and later with George Marshall, while Montgomery benefited from the support of Alan Brooke. Rommel headed Hitler’s military escort and, until fatally undone by his indirect association with the July 1944 bomb plotters, was lionised by Nazi propaganda as the ideal German general.

For the majority of readers, the most engaging part of the book will probably be its treatment of World War II, as the three men’s careers ran largely in parallel, while also beginning to intersect. It is a familiar story, but written with an acute appreciation of his subjects’ personalities. Recording Montgomery’s disparaging comment on Patton’s age – in fact, the American was just two years his senior – Clark notes, ‘it was a characteristically cutting observation by an officer whose shallow pool of humility was gradually evaporating in the North African sun’.

So who was the greatest of the three? Clark leaves readers to make up their own minds, having provided the information needed to form a judgment. All three had major flaws. Patton’s brashness and tendency to bully were deeply unattractive. Montgomery’s egotism grated on almost everyone who encountered him. Rommel’s tactical brilliance was countered by a lack of strategic insight. Yet in their different ways, they were all superb leaders of men.

In fewer than 400 pages of text, readers cannot expect in-depth analysis of the campaigns in which the three leaders took part. Sometimes, though, we could hope for a little more detail. Clark describes the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 as Patton’s ‘great achievement’, yet this mighty clash of arms is covered in just four pages. Readers can, of course, readily find specialist studies of it and other battles elsewhere.

Clark has set out to give us a vivid portrait of his subjects’ characters and careers, and in this he has succeeded. The Commanders effectively bridges the gap between academic and popular history and will be read with enjoyment by students of the period. Well-written and solidly researched, it is recommended.

The Commanders: the leadership journeys of George Patton, Bernard Montgomery, and Erwin Rommel
Lloyd Clark
Atlantic Books, hbk (£25)
ISBN 978-0857897282