Clearheaded Bully



by Nigel Hamilton. McGraw-Hill‚ $25.95.
“THE MONTGOMERY PROBLEM” — that was a phrase often heard around American military headquarters in Europe during the Second World War, where General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery’s vanity, contempt, bossiness, and outright disobedience occasioned much wonder and fury. His behavior seemed to illustrate perfectly the axiom that the trouble with war is that it brings the bullies to the top. The English writer Nigel Hamilton, Monty’s close friend and admirer, is currently shedding light on the Montgomery problem in an immense authorized biography of some 2,500 pages, of which this hefty book is the second volume of three. Because Hamilton thinks as highly of Monty as Monty himself did, the light he sheds, even if it does emanate from a mountain of personal papers, orders, memoranda, diaries, and letters, is too glaring and “official” to allow for a very subtle biographical job. A more dispassionate approach would be needed to sort out Monty’s mingled strands of good sense and childishness, knowledge and ignorance, courtesy (rare) and rudeness (virtually constant), in order to arrive at a just estimate not only of his character but also of his military successes and failures. If Hamilton for the most part provides military hagiography, defending Monty’s every decision against American strictures, in the process he also writes some admirably detailed military history, and devotees of strategy and tactics will find this book absorbing.
Hamilton begins the narrative just after the battle of El Alamein, in the winter of 1942-1943, when, according to Monty’s many detractors, his delay in pursuing the routed Germans and Italians allowed too many of them to return to Europe to fight again. Monty’s gingering-up of the Eighth Army—his dramatic raising of its morale by constant inspirational talks and cigarette handouts, not to mention outlandish headgear and visible contempt for traditional British military snobberies—rapidly produced an extremely effective force, which stood in contrast to the green troops of the United States Army, then in disgrace at the Kasserine Pass. “The real trouble with the Americans,” Monty observed, “is that the soldiers won’t fight.” Next came the conquest of Sicily and the childish competition with the childish Patton over who could attain his objectives first. Monty was criticized again for his delay in crossing the Straits of Messina and in moving up the Italian peninsula to link with Mark Clark’s dicey beachhead at Salerno. Plucked away from Italy to help plan the invasion of France, back in England, Monty, flushed with success, increased his contumelious, bullying behavior toward all staffs but his owm. Once in Normandy, Monty went so far in open contempt toward Eisenhower, to whom he was subordinate, patronizing him and ordering him about, that the Supreme Commander remonstrated: “Steady, Monty! You can’t speak to me like that. I’m your boss.” (Earlier, Monty had humiliated Ike, a four-pack-aday man, by barking just before Ike lit up: “I don’t permit smoking in my office.”) Hamilton concludes by adverting to further difficulties between Monty and the rest of the Allies: their annoyance over his failure to seize Caen fast enough, and over his apparent lack of dash in helping to seal the Falaise Pocket, a lapse that again allowed masses of German troops to escape and fight on, in the Ardennes and at Arnhem.
Throughout, at issue between Monty and the Americans was the nature of successful coalition attack: should it occur on a broad front with equal pressure in a number of spots, or should it consist of one immensely strong, deeply planned, totally air-protected and artillery-prepared thrust? It is Hamilton’s conviction that if Monty’s single-thrust strategy had prevailed over Eisenhower’s (and Marshall’s and Bradley’s) broad-front idea, the war would have ended in the early fall of 1944, saving countless lives—among them, Hamilton rather too cunningly suggests, Anne Frank’s. This attempt to cast the rest of us in the role of unwitting but still reprehensible accomplices in the destruction of the innocent (“For Anne Frank . . . the Allies had simply arrived too late”) is typical of the means Hamilton resorts to in arguing Monty’s wisdom on every military occasion.
DESPITE HIS ADVOCACY of the Monty solution to every crisis, Hamilton’s military history, though sometimes repetitive and heavy, is usually illuminating and even exciting. Equally interesting is the revelation of Monty’s character, the objectionable elements of which even Hamilton is unable to whitewash. Perhaps Monty’s lifelong skill in taking cheap advantage and practicing a very British type of gamesmanship reflected anxiety over having been treated as a colonial outsider while young. He grew up in Tasmania, where his father was the Anglican bishop. He passed through St. Paul’s School and Sandhurst, earning little glory except in athletics and military drill. On the line in Prance during the Great War, he barely survived a severe chest wound, and it has been assumed that it was the spectacle of the clumsy failed attacks in France that impressed upon him two crucial principles: the indispensability of complete, meticulous planning before battle, and the importance of morale, soldiers being always terrified and on the brink of running away. His happy marriage he arranged on military lines, with lots of “planning,” and when his wife died young, acquaintances—friends were few—noticed rigidity overtaking an already eccentric personality. In the 1930s, he was a regimental commander in India and Palestine. At Dunkirk, he commanded a division, and his redemption of the Eighth Army in North Africa and his sound thrashing of the enemy there may be seen as an act of revenge for that embarrassment.
It was one of Monty’s convictions that, with the possible exceptions of Rommel and Bradley, he was the only really professional soldier in the whole war. Everyone else was an incompetent amateur. Much of his correspondence, both official and unofficial, was devoted to slanderous cuttings-dowm of colleagues and superiors. “Corbett was, and is, the stupidest officer in the Indian Army,” he wrote. “Jumbo Wilson is, of course, no good.” General Alexander is “not clever and has a slow brain.” “Dickie Mountbatten is, of course, quite unfit to be a Supreme Commander.” “I know Charles [Miller] well; he was a dismal failure in Africa and in Italy, and in my opinion is unfit to be a Major-General.” Ike had never led troops in battle, nor even seen a dead body until April of 1943, and then only from the air. He was thus a mere theorist, “quite useless.” For him Monty felt deep disdain: “His ignorance as to how to run a war is absolute and complete.” During the battle for Normandy, Monty grew so outrageous in his belief in his owm genius that Ike’s deputy Arthur Tedder exerted great pressure to have him dismissed—an “intrigue,” Hamilton loyally asserts, that must rank as “one of the most reprehensible performances by a senior Allied commander in modern battle history.” After the war, the scorn Monty poured on both Ike and Bradley in his Memoirs (1958) was such that neither ever spoke to him again.
And yet. No account of Monty’s performances can quite dispense with the and yet, so complicated was this feisty, sharp-nosed, puritanical, obsessed, pedantic, self-righteous “little man on the make,” as some termed him. Because he insisted on meticulous planning before action, because he bored people by unremittingly talking about the plan, following the plan, and afterward reviewing the correctness of the plan, his troops plucked up their courage, convinced that their lives would not be thrown away carelessly. Just before D-Day, he visited the Welsh Guards at four in the morning. He jumped up onto the hood of a jeep and said to the men, “Gather round.” He asked one: “What’s your most valuable possession?” “My rifle, sir.” “No, it is not,” Monty said. “It’s your life, and I’m going to save it for you. Now listen to me.” And he proceeded to outline the plan. A habit that endeared him to no one above the rank of major general but pleased many below was to receive from an Allied staff an elaborate plan for an operation, study it critically, and pronounce it thoroughly bad, drawn up by theorists with no battlefield experience, etc. He would then revise it, stiffen it, and hand it back in unrecognizable form to his chastened, humiliated superiors. If they demurred, he rammed it down their throats with insults, which, oddly, they frequently swallowed.
All this planning might suggest excessive complication in Monty’s pre-battle arrangements. But no. In issuing orders he was notably simple and clear, with never a vague pronoun or an ambiguously expressed place designation. “Go for utmost simplicity in all things”: that was one of his most frequent schoolmasterly injunctions. Things always go wrong in war, he knew, and he once said that a winning general is one who has been right 51 percent of the time. A curious latter-day example of a British empiricist, Monty knew that no amount of intelligence or good will could substitute for battle experience, and it was his preeminence here, in relation to all other high officers of his time, that enabled him so often to see the truth when others did not. It was Monty, not the Americans, who sensed that the Italians, after their armistice with the Allies, would never turn and fight the Germans. It was Monty who sensed that the landing at Salerno was foolish and that the invasion of southern France was unnecessary, a mere exhibitionistic multiplication of threats that weakened the main effort in Normandy. But Monty could never dissimulate his conviction that his correct perceptions were the result of superior ratiocination rather than instinct or simple luck.
“One has to be a bit of a cad to succeed in the army,” he once said, and added, “I am a bit of a cad.” One reason he was considered a dangerous outsider by the British military establishment was his disparagement of the idea that sheer courage is the primary soldierly virtue. The novelist Anthony Powell, during the war a liaison officer in contact with Monty’s headquarters, recalls that “he was not in the least impressed by the mystique of [the Victoria Cross]; indeed, [he was] alleged to declare its possession hinted at an undeniable foolhardiness on the part of the wearer.”
In the context of forty years of subsequent history, Monty’s oddities, his scorn and fury, may seem more than signs of mere personal eccentricity. Indeed, the Montgomery problem can be seen today as a particularly melodramatic instance of the whole Great Britain problem. During the period covered by this book, a worldwide transformation took place so palpably that no one could ignore it. As the war went on, the American contribution, “amateur” though it may have been, inexorably grew to outweigh the British. Which meant that while everyone watched, the United States firmly elbowed Britain off the world stage, replacing her there as the foremost English-speaking presence. This humiliating process had been in train for decades, of course, but the war accelerated it dramatically. Montgomery, initially the savior of a noble community fighting virtually alone, diminished as the war went on to a resentful junior partner of the coarse giants from over the water, superior to them, doubtless, in finesse and shrewdness, but clearly inferior in size and weight. For all his elevation to field marshal, during the war Monty suffered an implicit demotion. Hence the sad spectacle of his compensatory vanity, his strutting tactlessness, his dogmatism and contempt. Ultimately he becomes a pathetic figure, and I think Shakespeare, if he were looking around for a hero at once admirable and vulnerable, could do something with him.