Every now and then, my friend Brett has so many questions but not enough time or knows how to ask them. So during our military history Q&A talks, I decided to help him out.
Back when we first started this talk, we were talking about Operation Market Garden, the air-land battle to seize key bridges in Holland with the aim of shortening the war and seizing the entryway into the heart of German at Arnhem. The operation was devised by the British with only two American units involved: the US Army 82nd and 101st airborne divisions. The rest was all led by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
Naturally, our conversation turns to Monty’s reputation and what role Monty played in the ultimate defeat of his own forces: the 1st British Airborne Division, and whether he was overly optimistic and disregarded key pieces of intelligence.
What is the truth about Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s reputation?
If you were to ask a Brit, he would say that “Monty” was a great tactical leader. He beat the Germans in North Africa and Europe. He was the overall ground commander during Operation Overlord. Everything about him is true and well deserved.
If you were to ask an American, it would be actually a split opinion. On the one hand, Americans who served under Monty (as opposed to Bradley and Patton) liked Monty. They certainly respected his strategy and tactics.
On the other hand and this is probably the more popular opinion is that they did not like Monty for several reasons. First off, in the opening phases, the US Army got pounded by the Germans. As a result, a lot of top Brit generals did not respect US commanders and thought we’re all amateurs. Later, under Patton and Bradley, the US Army adapted, grew, and learned its lessons and thus reversed the tables on the Germans. The Germans realized outright that while the US Army made mistakes, they saw the potential and realized we could outstrip both the Germans and the Brits under the right leaders. However, the Brits did not and continued in their beliefs of their own superiority.
Second, there were two instances that Monty knowingly or unknowingly perpetuated this view. First was the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Monty thought his British 8th Army should lead the main charge and the US in a supporting role. He got bogged down and the US 7th Army under Patton bailed him out. It should also be noted that Monty inherited the 8th Army while Patton built the 7th Army from scratch.
Second was the lead up to Operation Market Garden. When Monty made his case too strongly, Eisenhower had to remind Monty who the boss was – and it wasn’t Monty.
Perhaps the one that pissed most Americans off was during the Battle of the Bulge. When the US Army finally counterattacked, it did so from two directions: Patton’s 3rd Army from the south and Hodge’s 9th Army from the north. The problem was that the 3rd Army was administratively under the 12th Army Group (army groups control armies) led by American General Bradley but the 9th Army was temporarily under the British 21st Army Group under Monty. This transfer was done under objections and probably should not have happened.
The Battle of the Bulge was completely an American battle; mainly US forces were in the fight (55,000 British and Canadian forces helped, compared to close to 600,000 US soldiers). Monty at one point tried to claim credit for “winning the battle” even though he did relatively nothing. Prime Minister Churchill shot him down by announcing in Parliament in no uncertain terms this was an American battle and therefore an American victory.