YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Monty: Final Years of the Field-Marshal, 1944-1976 by Nigel Hamilton (McGraw-Hill: $29.95; 996 pp., illustrated)

March 22, 1987| Alan Campbell Turner | Turner, a graduate of Oxford and Berkeley, is professor of political science at UC Riverside. and

Most American soldiers who had dealings with Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery disliked him. He tried Dwight D. Eisenhower's patience sorely. Omar Bradley obviously detested him. George Patton, like Montgomery a dedicated professional, saw in him only a bumptious rival.

They weren't the only ones. Sir Steven Runciman, the great Byzantinist, tells a surprising anecdote that shows how Montgomery affected people. In 1931, Runciman was in Jerusalem, staying at Government House; among his fellow guests was Princess Alice, Victoria's last surviving granddaughter. One Col. Montgomery, officer commanding the British troops stationed in Palestine, dined several times at Government House. "He lectured us on our unnecessary luxuries. He was priggish, and we all loathed him." But on a Sunday, at a religious service in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Runciman and Princess Alice found themselves seated in a gallery, directly above Montgomery, with lighted candles in their hands. They proceeded to drop hot wax on Montgomery's bald patch just below. Later, "the odious colonel" became "the odious field marshal" (Runciman's phrases).

Thus it was not just the Americans who disliked "Monty." Hardly anybody liked him very much--with the important exception of the enlisted men (British: other ranks ) that he led, almost invariably, to victory. His fame and his achievement rest on his unparalleled ability to train men for battle and to command them. He could communicate to them in some strange fashion his own self-confidence, his personal conviction of invincibility, and thus enable them to achieve what had hitherto seemed impossible. As his obituarist in the Los Angeles Times, Tom Braden, wrote in 1976, "I wouldn't say they (his troops) loved him exactly, but he made them love themselves."

Any biography of Monty is necessarily a study with two interacting aspects: a study of generalship and a study of his abrasive, arrogant personality. This book functions splendidly in both aspects. We have here the noble completion of a 10-year task: the third, final volume of the definitive life of the most outstanding British soldier of the 20th Century. The earlier volumes were "The Making of a General 1887-1942" (1981) and "Master of the Battlefield 1942-1944" (1983). Nigel Hamilton, earlier known chiefly for his excellent study, "The Brothers Mann," had great authorial advantages. His father, Sir Denis Hamilton, battalion commander under Montgomery and later, as editor-in-chief of Times Newspapers Ltd., publisher of Monty's writings, including his controversial "Memoirs," was made the field marshal's literary executor and custodian of his enormous personal archive. Nigel Hamilton also, as a boy and a young man, knew Monty, who treated him with great kindness.

Despite these personal links and special advantages of the author, the book is exemplary in its avoidance of bias. If we get Monty's side of controversies in full, we also are told of the case against him; and, on the personal side, the gross inconsiderateness of some of his actions is underscored by some new and appalling anecdotes not, I believe, earlier known, such as those concerning his attitude to his mother. (He attended neither her funeral, nor Churchill's.) The book is also handsomely produced. It contains 56 pages of photographs and 11 clear maps.

This volume takes up the story when Montgomery had just been promoted to field marshal (Sept. 1, 1944). The victory of Alamein in North Africa was behind him, as were his major contributions in planning the D-day landings and in commanding the subsequent campaign--the accomplishments that had earned him the British army's highest rank. From June 6 to the end of August, Monty had been commander-in-chief of all the Allied armies in the field in northern France. Eisenhower then assumed that role, in addition to his continuing supervisory role as supreme commander.

Eisenhower, however, had no experience as field commander of troops in battle. The conduct of the campaign--which dragged on for more than another eight months till V-E Day, after the glorious start of the first three months--became and has remained a subject of controversy. There was no strategic concentration; there was only a broad, slow, general advance, punctuated by the fiasco of Arnhem and the German Ardennes offensive. Montgomery wanted a concentrated thrust into the heart of Germany, preferably under his own command; Eisenhower was thinking of what was necessary to hold the Allies together in a coalition war. Both men were right, each according to his own lights.

These events and controversies are set forth by Hamilton in a full, lucid and fair narrative. Events down to V-E Day take the first 518 of the 947 pages of the book. Monty had 31 years more of life and 13 more of active service: first as military governor of the British zone of Germany, then as chief of the Imperial General Staff, finally for half a dozen years as deputy supreme commander of NATO under Eisenhower and several successors. Each of these episodes was, inevitably, attended by controversy, as was (even more) the publication of his memoirs in 1958.

"He wasn't," said the historian, Brigadier (later Sir) Edgar Williams, "a very nice man. But you don't win wars by having nice men."

Los Angeles Times Articles