Bernard Law Montgomery

The English field marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (1887-1976), was an outstanding commander and hero of the British people during World War II.

Bernard Montgomery was born on Nov. 17, 1887. He went to St. Paul's School in London and entered the army in 1908. He fought in France during World War I and was mentioned in dispatches for gallantry in action.

After the usual staff and command assignments, Montgomery was a major general in command of the 3d Division in 1939. The division moved to France with the British Expeditionary Force in that year for the so-called Phony War. Montgomery participated in the withdrawal to Dunkirk in the spring of 1940. In England he became head of the 5th Corps in 1940, of the 12th Corps in 1941, and of the South East Command in 1942. In July 1942 he was appointed commander of the British 8th Army in Egypt, a position that marked the beginning of his rise to fame.

Northern Africa and Italy

Now a lieutenant general, Montgomery reorganized the 8th Army, gave the officers and men confidence in themselves and in eventual victory, and set about to defeat his opponent, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. When Rommel attacked at Alam Halfa on August 31, Montgomery won a defensive battle. On October 23 at the Battle of El Alamein, Montgomery gained an offensive victory. His defeat of the Italo-German army prompted an Axis retreat out of Egypt to the Mareth Line positions in southern Tunisia, 1,500 miles away. Although Montgomery pursued Rommel, he was unable to trap him.

Montgomery was a full general before the end of 1942 and was knighted on November 10 of that year. In February 1943 his 8th Army came under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's Supreme Allied Command and directly under Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, the Allied ground force commander. In March, Montgomery took part in the final Anglo-American offensive in Tunisia, which swept the Axis forces entirely out of North Africa by May.

It was largely Montgomery's plan, one of concentrated rather than dispersed landings, that dictated the invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943. While Gen. George Patton's U.S. 7th Army landed on the southern coast of Sicily, Montgomery put his 8th Army ashore on the eastern face. Montgomery then tried to drive up the eastern coast to Messina, but his army was blocked at Catania, and American forces reached Messina first.

Montgomery led his army across the Strait of Messina on Sept. 3, 1943, to the Italian mainland. He moved to the Taranto and Bari areas of the eastern coast, where his forces captured the Foggia airfields by October 1.

The 8th Army moved across the Biferno River and captured Termoli after a complicated and brilliant operation that utilized an amphibious landing together with a direct pressure force. But bad weather and difficult terrain, plus obstinate German resistance, prevented rapid progress, and by the end of 1943 Montgomery's army was immobile at the Sangro River.

Invasion of Normandy

At that time Montgomery was assigned to the United Kingdom, where he took command of the British and Canadian forces scheduled to participate in the cross-Channel attack. In addition to being 21st Army Group commander, he was named the Allied ground forces commander for the invasion of Normandy. On June 6, 1944, D-day, he directed the British 2d Army and the U.S. 1st Army, which crossed the Channel.

Montgomery's generalship came under criticism during the first 2 months of the European campaign because of his alleged caution and slowness. He was to have captured Caen on D-day, but he took it only on the forty-second day of the campaign. His Goodwood attack also became the subject of much controversy. Yet Montgomery virtually destroyed two German field armies in the Argentan-Falaise pocket, closed on August 19, and he propelled the four Allied armies across the Seine River in a pursuit that came to an end only at the Siegfried Line.

Montgomery relinquished his command of the Allied ground forces to Eisenhower on Sept. 1, 1944, a change contemplated long before the invasion. He was promoted to field marshal on the same day. He started the discussion now known as the broad-front versus narrow-front strategy. Finally, Eisenhower gave Montgomery permission to launch Operation Market-Garden, a combined air-ground attack planned to get British forces across the lower Rhine River in Holland. The airborne drop was successful, but the ground attack failed, and the hope of driving directly to Berlin and bringing the war to a quick end vanished.

The winter fighting was bitter. It came to a climax on Dec. 16, 1944, when the Germans launched their Ardennes counteroffensive and created the Battle of the Bulge. Eisenhower put Montgomery in command of all the troops on the northern shoulder of the Bulge.

Montgomery crossed the Rhine River late in March 1945, helped encircle and reduce the industrial Ruhr, and swept across the northern German plain to the Elbe River. He commanded the British occupation forces and the Army of the Rhine (1945-1946), then was chief of the imperial general staff (1946-1948). He was chairman of the Western Europe Commanders in Chief Committee (1948-1951) and deputy supreme Allied commander, Europe (1951-1958). He retired in 1958 and wrote his memoirs. He died on March 24, 1976, in Alton, Hampshire.

Further Reading on Bernard Law Montgomery

Montgomery's own books include El Alamein to the River Sangro (1948), Normandy to the Baltic (1948), Memoirs (1958), The Path to Leadership (1961), and A History of Warfare (1968). A life study of Montgomery is Alan Moorehead, Montgomery: A Biography (1967). The best histories of Montgomery's campaigns are in Sir Francis de Guingand, Operation Victory (1947); Winston Churchill, Closing the Ring (1951); Chester Wilmot, The Struggle for Europe (1952); Sir Arthur Bryant, The Turn of the Tide (1957); and Alan Moorehead, The March to Tunis: The North African War, 1940-1943 (1967). A view of Montgomery less favorable than the popular one is offered by Reginald William Thompson in Churchill and the Montgomery Myth (1968) and Montgomery, the Field Marshal: The Campaign in Northwest Europe, 1944/45 (1970). See also Martin Blumenson, Breakout and Pursuit (1961) and Salerno to Cassino (1969).

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