My history hero: Bernard Montgomery

Chosen by comedian Al Murray

This article was first published in the December 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Bernard Montgomery (1887–1976) – or ‘Monty’ – ranks among the most celebrated British soldiers of the 20th century. He cut his teeth in the First World War, earning a Distinguished Service Order for gallantry in 1914. Yet it is for his exploits in the Second World War – particularly for leading the 8th Army to victory over the Axis powers at El Alamein in 1942 – for which he is best remembered. In 1943, he was appointed commander of ground forces for the upcoming Normandy invasion, a campaign that would take Allied troops from the beaches of northern France all the way to Germany.

When did you first hear about Montgomery?

I grew up in a household that was really interested in history and, in particular, the Second World War. Monty is an iconic face of the war – a symbol of Britain resurgent, when we were beginning to figure out how to beat the Germans. I was drawn to him by the fact that he was such a peculiar, divisive figure. He even managed to divide opinion in our house: my dad, a former airborne soldier, wasn’t a fan; but I’ve always found Monty compelling.

What made Montgomery a hero?

He helped mastermind two of the most important campaigns of the Second World War – the battle for north Africa in 1942 and 43 and the invasion of western Europe in 1944. Without him, I think it’s safe to say that the war could have taken a different course.

He was the best British general in the western theatre by a long way. Many of his fellow generals disliked him intensely but, as Churchill told them, that was only because he was so much better than them. One group of people who certainly didn’t dislike him was his troops. He had a magnetic effect on them. Churchill was taken aback by how quickly he galvanised the 8th Army in 1942 – transforming it, he remarked, in a matter of days.

What kind of person was he?

He certainly didn’t do humility! He was entirely confident in his own brilliance, which probably explains how he managed to alienate so many of his fellow generals. Yet confidence can’t be a bad thing for a general – surely all great military leaders need it.

He was a brilliant organiser and, thanks to his experiences of fighting in the First World War – where he was horribly injured – acutely tuned in to the needs of his troops. He tried to be like an ordinary soldier – he was the first general to wear battle dress, and he almost got into trouble for letting his men eat a looted pig. It was this attitude that enabled him to motivate his troops like no other British general could.

What was Montgomery’s finest hour?

I think it has to be his role in masterminding the invasion of Normandy. He’ll always be remembered for victory over Rommel at El Alamein, but that was an inherited situation and the 8th Army was in the process of rebuilding anyway. Normandy was his great triumph. Nobody could have held their nerve and made such a massive undertaking work like he did – General Patton [who led the US 3rd Army in Normandy] certainly wouldn’t have been able to.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

The way he treated some of his colleagues was disgusting. Historians have often declared how ghastly he was. But let’s be honest: if you’re looking for someone to shoulder the pressure of leading something as critical as the Normandy campaign, that person often has to be an ugly character
– and, in many ways, Monty was just that.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

No, absolutely not. Which is probably the reason I admire him!

If you could meet Montgomery, what would you ask him?

I’d probably ask him what went wrong at Market Garden [the unsuccessful Allied attempt to seize a series of bridges behind enemy lines on the Dutch/German border in 1944]. It was his idea, and he got it wrong. But, blimey, I’m glad it was him having to make those decisions – and not me!

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Al Murray is one of Britain’s best-known comedians, and regularly appears on BBC TV and radio. His latest book, Watching War Films with My Dad, published by Century, is out now