In defence of Monty: James Holland on the Allied commander's D-Day decisions
For 50 years, historians have lined up to attack the architect of D-Day. But, writes James Holland, their criticisms are misguided
On Friday 30 June 1944, American general Omar Bradley visited Bernard Montgomery’s Tactical HQ, near the village of Blay, a few miles west of Bayeux. He found the architect of the Allied assault on Normandy in a particularly spikey mood. “I say,” he remarked to Bradley, looking at Chet Hansen, who had been recently promoted, “now do you have a major for an ADC [aide-de-camp]? Simply a dog’s body, you know, a whipping boy. I would not have an ADC who is more than a captain.”
What on earth compelled him to say such a thing? It was insulting to Bradley (commander of the US First Army), insulting to Hansen, whom Monty had seen many times before, and spectacularly rude and unnecessary.
“Messenger boys, simply messenger boys,” added Montgomery. He then launched into a withering critique of the superbly designed American M1 steel helmet.
It is hard not to cringe recounting this outburst. Montgomery and Bradley needed to work hand in hand, side by side, with unity of purpose, mutual respect and fellowship. How much harder it was when a small Englishman in corduroys and a sweater was sitting there being so appallingly discourteous.
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A monstrous ego
History has not been kind to Montgomery, particularly not over the last 50 years, as one historian after another has lined up to crucify both his character and his military reputation. To a certain extent, he brought it upon himself through his monstrous ego, the crass way in which he spoke to his peers and superiors, and the very large chip that remained planted on his shoulder.
Montgomery never exuded the easy charm of many of his contemporaries. He also had a social inferiority complex, which he masked with haughtiness and arrogance – an arrogance that was supported by a growing self-belief. Discipline, clear thinking, preparation and sound, solid training were his watchwords, all of which had much merit. Yet he liked to impose himself by giving the impression of absolute self-assurance.
Discipline, clear thinking, preparation and sound, solid training were his watchwords
Montgomery wasn’t the only senior commander with an ego. His great character flaw, however, was his social awkwardness. He simply did not know how to interact with others. He compensated for his lack of charm by talking entirely on his own terms, regardless of what offence he might be causing. He lacked the ability to read the emotions of others very clearly – and that repeatedly got him into largely avoidable hot water. But these failings of character did not mean he was a bad general, and all too often since the end of the war successive historians have put their personal distaste towards his character ahead of sound historical judgment. The reality requires more nuance.
Tactically he was arguably not the most imaginative. But, at this stage of the war, sound strategic vision and operational skill were more important for the Allied armies.
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Montgomery understood that, although most of the men under his command were now well trained, they were also reluctant soldiers, conscripts who were in uniform only because of a global war in which they had no choice but to participate. He also espoused the Allied mantra of ‘steel not flesh’, a strategy Britain had been determined to pursue long before war was declared and one to which the United States was equally wedded. This meant using their global reach, modernity and technological know-how to allow industrialised mass-production and mechanisation to do as much of the hard work as possible, thus limiting the number of those in the firing line to an absolute minimum. In the British Second Army in France, only 16 per cent of troops would be infantry and 7 per cent in tank units.
Britain and America were fighting highly complex, long-chain, industrialised war that harnessed air, land and sea power. It required a very effective operational commander, and Montgomery was certainly that.
Plan under attack
Criticisms of Monty’s performance in Normandy usually begin with the plan. The thesis of Carlo D’Este’s 1983 book, Decision in Normandy – one that has largely held sway ever since – revolved around its perceived shortcomings. Montgomery was appointed Allied land commander at the end of 1943 and so had a big say in how the overall plan for Overlord (the battle for Normandy) looked. He rightly insisted on expanding the invasion beaches to five from three and also insisted on using airborne forces to help secure the flanks. However, it was a combined team that actually worked out the plan – albeit under his overall direction – and this was approved at an early stage by Dwight D Eisenhower as supreme Allied commander, and his chief of staff, General Walter Bedell-Smith. Monty presented the main plan for Overlord to all the senior commanders on 7 April 1944. It had to be this early to allow enough time for the naval plan, Neptune, to be prepared and organised, and for the component parts of Overlord to be worked out. It was not Monty’s job to oversee the detailed planning on each invasion beach.
At the 7 April meeting, he included a map, which showed ‘phase lines’ of where the Allies might be in the days and weeks that followed the invasion. On D plus 17, for example, the phase line suggested they would be 50 miles inland. Bradley cautioned against showing this; he felt it risked making them open to criticism if they did not achieve these predicted lines, which saw the Allies in Paris in 90 days.
Monty brushed aside such concerns. There was a palpable sense of doom among many of the Allied leaders, and he correctly sensed the need to present the invasion plan with confidence and with a clear sense of what was achievable. Based on German performance in previous campaigns in Tunisia, Sicily and southern Italy, his assumptions were entirely reasonable. It made no sense for the Germans to continue to fight close to the coast after a successful Allied invasion; their lines of supply would be over-extended and they would then remain within range of powerful and extensive off-shore naval guns.
Monty rightly insisted on expanding the invasion beaches to five from three
Arguments about phase lines aside, the plan was accepted by all and reinforced again on 15 May when Eisenhower asked his commanders to speak up if any had any concerns about it at all. None did, because it was the best possible plan for the shipping available. Although there were 4,126 landing craft on hand, everyone wanted greater numbers, so that more men, more tanks, and more materiel could be delivered on D-Day.
As it was, fewer men were to be landed on D-Day than on the Sicilian beaches the year before. Operations were ongoing in the Pacific, while a second planned invasion was to take place in southern France in August. In this still global war, there was much competition for landing craft and shipping.
Despite these constraints, the vagaries of the weather and the risks of mounting such a massive operation, D-Day was a huge success. The absolute priority was to ensure Overlord did not fail. That trumped everything else. Montgomery deserves credit for this.
Monty gave priority to securing the flanks, which was achieved, and to consolidating the bridgehead, which also followed in swift order. It’s true that British forces didn’t meet their objective of capturing Caen on the first day of the operation, but historians have become too fixated by this failure. This obsession is, in part, the result of criticism at the time by the air commanders. Both Arthur Tedder, the deputy supreme commander, and Air Marshal Arthur Coningham, the commander of the RAF’s 2nd Tactical Air Force, were anxious to capture the high ground south-east of Caen onto which airfields could be swiftly built. When this didn’t happen immediately, they blamed Montgomery for perceived sluggishness.
But Caen proved a tough nut to crack for a reason no one could have predicted: Hitler’s decision to keep his armies fighting as close to the coast as possible. This made no military sense – and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the commander of German Army Group B covering Normandy, pointed this out to the führer when the two met on 17 June. That Hitler refused to take Rommel’s advice – ordering his men to fight for every yard – was hardly Montgomery’s fault.
In fact, in many ways, Hitler’s tactics worked to the Allies’ advantage. By fighting close to the coast, they could indeed continue to benefit from the support of naval guns. And while it was true the bridgehead became congested by mid-July, the supply lines were shorter and a large number of airfields were swiftly constructed close to the coast.
The Allies, and Monty especially, have been criticised for being heavy on their feet and risk averse. Neither of these accusations are fair. The terrain did not favour rapid exploitation. When the well-equipped and highly motivated 12th Waffen-SS Panzer Division counter-attacked on 7 June, they made little progress, despite coming up against just two Canadian infantry battalions and a few tanks shorn of fire support. It was the same story for the Panzer Lehr Division, arguably the best in the entire Wehrmacht, who threw themselves against British infantry and armour at Tilly, south of Bayeux and made no headway. Attacking in Normandy was tough.
What’s more, the Allied way of war was to probe forward with infantry and armour, goad the enemy into a counter-attack, then hammer them with the full force of their immense firepower. Co-ordinating naval guns, artillery, tactical air forces, as well as armour, anti-tank units and infantry, took time. Replacements, ammunition stocks and reserves also had to be in place. These were the constraints of the Allies’ materiel wealth.
The Germans, by contrast, shorn of air support, with no naval firepower and more limited resources, could organise themselves far more swiftly into the tactically agile battle groups that have so impressed historians. These were enabled by the freedom of their poverty, however, and fundamentally were a sign of weakness. Tactical chutzpah was not enough to win the battle, let alone the campaign – and certainly not the war.
Monty’s men – the British and Canadians – ground down the Germans very effectively. During the battle for Normandy, they came under attack from one of the largest concentration of panzer divisions of the war, and almost entirely destroyed them in the process, while pushing them back.
It is true that the bombing of Caen, beginning on D-Day and championed by Montgomery, achieved little. It is also the case that Montgomery allowed Eisenhower and Tedder to believe Operation Goodwood, Second Army’s drive to capture the high ground south-east of Caen from 18–20 July, could achieve a decisive breakthrough when he himself had more limited and realistic aims. But Goodwood was General Dempsey’s plan, not Monty’s, and it did result in the Second Army advancing seven miles, to within reach of the Bourguébus Ridge.
Montgomery’s failing was his inability to explain the reality: that the Germans were being chewed up
Montgomery had always aimed to tie down the bulk of German armour in the British and Canadian sector and this is exactly what happened, albeit further north than originally expected. For those back in London and Washington, however, looking at a two-dimensional map, and with V1s now landing on England, it looked like the Allies were barely making progress at all. Montgomery’s failing in Normandy was his inability to explain the reality: that the Germans were being chewed up and that, soon enough, the floodgates would be open and the Germans would collapse.
British and Canadian efforts around Caen meant there were fewer panzer divisions facing the Americans, which in turn meant that when the breakthrough did finally arrive in the US sector, following the brilliantly executed Operation Cobra, the Germans were already on their knees, short of reserves, unable to move swiftly, and on the point of complete collapse. It was not long in coming.
In the end, the campaign in Normandy was won after 80 days, a week and a half ahead of schedule. Of the 2,500 German armoured fighting vehicles thrown into Normandy, barely two dozen escaped. Two armies were annihilated: by any reckoning it was a stunning victory. As the mastermind of that battle plan, Montgomery is owed far greater credit for his handling of this initial phase – and for his generalship throughout the campaign in western Europe.
James Holland’s latest book, Normandy ‘44: D-Day and the Battle for France, was published by Bantam Press in May. To listen to his new podcast on the Second World War (which he hosts with comedian Al Murray), head to iTunes or your favourite podcast provider
James Holland is a historian, writer and broadcaster. His latest book is 'Brothers in Arms: One Legendary Tank Regiment’s Bloody War from D-Day to VE-Day' (September 2021)