The son of a bishop, Bernard Montgomery, or ‘Monty’, was born in London but spent his early years in Tasmania. He fought during much of the First World War, and was twice badly wounded. An obstinate individual, he fell out with his mother to such an extent that when she died in 1949, he refused to attend her funeral. Training to be an army officer at Sandhurst he was demoted for having set a fellow student on fire and during First World War he allegedly caught a German by kneeing him in the testicles.
Self-confident in the extreme, prone to odd headwear, Montgomery was adored by his men, especially during the Second World War desert campaigns in North Africa during which he made his name by defeating Erwin Rommel at El Alamein. But he frequently clashed with his American counterparts and, because of his immense self-pride, took offence easily. Having planned the successful invasion of Sicily, he believed himself worthy of being in overall command of the Italian campaign, and took great umbrage at having to work under Dwight Eisenhower.
In December 1943, Montgomery was appointed land commander, again under Eisenhower, for Operation Overlord, the planned invasion of France. His D-Day objectives included the capture of Caen within the first 24 hours. In the event, it took several weeks and proved costly, for which he was heavily criticised. During the chaotic days of mid-June, his American counterparts felt that Montgomery’s strategy was too cautious and hoped to have him replaced, a view endorsed by Churchill. But Montgomery held onto his post and his tactics did draw much enemy attention to the east of the Allies’ bridgehead, allowing the Americans to successfully breakout from the west.
He clashed with Eisenhower again over how to proceed through Germany. Montgomery energetically advocated a narrow push, a ‘pencil-thrust’, but Eisenhower’s preference for a broad thrust prevailed. Montgomery’s carefully planned airborne assault on Arnhem in 1944 ended disastrously, and again costly, but his efforts in relieving the beleaguered Americans during the Battle of the Bulge helped restore his reputation.
Montgomery resented Eisenhower being given the responsibility of land operations for the push into Germany. He believed Eisenhower’s ‘ignorance as to how to run a war is absolute and complete’. On 4 May 1945, at Lüneburg Heath in Lower Saxony, Montgomery formally accepted the surrender of all German forces in north-western Europe.
Post-war, Montgomery worked as Chief of the Imperial General Staff until, in 1951, he joined the newly-formed NATO, becoming Deputy Supreme Commander, a post he retained until his retirement seven years later.
When, during his retirement, he was asked to name the three greatest generals in history, he replied, ‘The other two were Alexander the Great and Napoleon’. He wrote his memoirs in which he criticized many of his former colleagues and commanders.
Bernard Montgomery died on 24 March 1976, aged 88.
D-Day: History In An Hour, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is due for publication 24 April 2014.