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World War II: Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

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British general Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (1887 - 1976), with a painting of himself on his 80th birthday, 17th November 1967.
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Bernard Montgomery - Early Life:

Born in London in 1887, Bernard Montgomery was the son of Reverend Henry Montgomery and his wife Maud. One of nine children, Montgomery initially was raised in Northern Ireland before his father was made Bishop of Tasmania in 1889. While living in the remote colony, he endured a harsh childhood which included beatings by his mother. When the family returned to Britain in 1901, Montgomery attended St. Paul's School before entering the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Graduating in 1908, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.

Bernard Montgomery - World War I:

Sent to India, he served abroad until 1913. With the outbreak of World War I, Montgomery deployed to France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Seeing action during the retreat from Mons, he was badly wounded during a counterattack near Méteren on October 13, 1914. Awarded the Distinguished Service Order, he was appointed as a brigade major and spent the remainder of the war in various staff postings. During this time he became known as a meticulous planner who worked tirelessly to integrate the operations of the infantry, engineers, and artillery.

Bernard Montgomery - Interwar Years:

After commanding a battalion of occupation forces, Montgomery reverted to the rank of captain in November 1919. Attending the Staff College, he was again made a brigade major and 17th Infantry Brigade in January 1921. Stationed in Ireland, he took part in the Irish War of Independence during which he advocated taking a hard line with the rebels. Moving through a variety of peacetime postings, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1931 and rejoined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment for service in the Middle East and India.

Returning home in 1937, he was given command of the 9th Infantry Brigade with the temporary rank of brigadier. A year later he organized a massive amphibious training exercise that was praised by his superiors and was promoted to major general. Given command of the 8th Infantry Division in Palestine, he put down an Arab revolt in 1939 before being transferred to Britain to lead the 3rd Infantry Division. With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, his division was deployed to France as part of the BEF. Fearing a disaster similar to 1914, he relentlessly trained his men in defensive maneuvers and fighting.

Bernard Montgomery - In France:

Serving in General Alan Brooke's II Corps, Montgomery earned his superior's praise. With the German invasion of the Low Countries, 3rd Division performed well and following the collapse of the Allied position was evacuated through Dunkirk. During the final days of the campaign, Montgomery led II Corps as Brooke had been recalled to London. Arriving back in Britain, Montgomery became an outspoken critic of the BEF's high command and began a feud with the commander of Southern Command, Lieutenant General Sir Claude Auchinleck. Over the next year, he held several posts responsible for the defense of southeastern Britain.

Bernard Montgomery - North Africa:

In August 1942, Montgomery, now a lieutenant general, was appointed to command the Eighth Army in Egypt following the death of Lieutenant General William Gott. Serving under General Sir Harold Alexander, Montgomery took command on August 13 and began a rapid reorganization of his forces as well as worked to reinforce the defenses at El Alamein. Making numerous visits to the front lines, he diligently endeavored to raise morale. In addition, he sought to unite land, naval, and air units into an effective combined arms team.

Anticipating that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel would attempt to turn his left flank, he strengthened this area and defeated the noted German commander at the Battle of Alam Halfa in early September. Under pressure to mount an offensive, Montgomery began extensive planning for striking at Rommel. Opening the Second Battle of El Alamein in late October, Montgomery shattered Rommel's lines and sent him reeling east. Knighted and promoted to general for the victory, he maintained pressure on Axis forces and turned them out of successive defensive positions including the Mareth Line in March 1943.

Bernard Montgomery - Sicily & Italy:

With the defeat of Axis forces in North Africa, planning began for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Landing in July 1943 in conjunction with Lieutenant General George S. Patton's US Seventh Army, Montgomery's Eighth Army came ashore near Syracuse. While the campaign was a success, Montgomery's boastful style ignited a rivalry with his flamboyant American counterpart. On September 3, Eighth Army opened the campaign in Italy by landing in Calabria. Joined by Lieutenant General Mark Clark's US Fifth Army, which landed at Salerno, Montgomery began a slow, grinding advance up the Italian peninsula.

Bernard Montgomery - D-Day:

On December 23, 1943, Montgomery was ordered to Britain to take command of the 21st Army Group which comprised all of the ground forces assigned to the invasion of Normandy. Playing a key role in the planning process for D-Day, he oversaw the Battle of Normandy after Allied forces began landing on June 6. During this period, he was criticized by Patton and General Omar Bradley for his initial inability to capture the city of Caen. Once taken, the city was used as the pivot point for the Allied breakout and crushing of German forces in the Falaise pocket.

Bernard Montgomery - Push to Germany:

As most of the Allied troops in Western Europe rapidly became American, political forces prevented Montgomery from remaining Ground Forces Commander. This title was assumed by the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, while Montgomery was permitted to retain the 21st Army Group. In compensation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had Montgomery promoted to field marshal. In the weeks following Normandy, Montgomery succeeded in convincing Eisenhower to approve Operation Market-Garden which called for direct thrust towards the Rhine and Ruhr Valley utilizing large numbers of airborne troops. Uncharacteristically daring for Montgomery, the operation was also poorly planned with key intelligence about enemy strength overlooked. As a result, the operation was only partially successful and resulted in the destruction of the 1st British Airborne Division.

In the wake of this effort, Montgomery was directed to clear the Scheldt so that the port of Antwerp could be opened to Allied shipping. On December 16, the Germans opened the Battle of the Bulge with a massive offensive. With German troops breaking through the American lines, Montgomery was ordered to take command of US forces north of the penetration to stabilize the situation. He was effective in this role and was ordered to counterattack in conjunction with Patton's Third Army on January 1 with the goal of encircling the Germans. Not believing his men were ready, he delayed two days allowing many of the Germans to escape. Pressing on to the Rhine, his men crossed the river in March and helped encircle German forces in the Ruhr. Driving across northern Germany, Montgomery occupied Hamburg and Rostock before accepting a German surrender on May 4.

Bernard Montgomery - Later Years

After the war, Montgomery was made commander of the British occupation forces and served on the Allied Control Council. In 1946, he was elevated to Viscount Montgomery of Alamein for his accomplishments. Serving as Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1946 to 1948, he struggled with the political aspects of the post. Beginning in 1951, he served as deputy commander of NATO's European forces and remained in that position until his retirement in 1958. Increasingly known for his outspoken views on a variety of topics, his postwar memoirs were severely critical of his contemporaries. Montgomery died on March 24, 1976, and was buried at Binsted.

Selected Sources

  • World War II Database: Bernard Montgomery
  • PBS: Bernard Montgomery
  • Bernard Montgomery
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