Bernard Law Montgomery

Colin F. Baxter

in Military History

ISBN: 9780199791279
Published online February 2012 | | DOI:
Bernard Law Montgomery

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One of the most controversial commanders of World War II, British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, commanded British and Allied forces in some of the most decisive battles of World War II. Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said of Montgomery that he was “indomitable in retreat, invincible in advance; insufferable in victory.” American military historian Martin Blumenson, in a 1962 article, famously called Montgomery “the most overrated general of World War II” (see Blumenson 1962, cited under Biographies). The myth that Montgomery would not attack the enemy unless he vastly outnumbered the enemy was enshrined in the “Montgomery Martini,” concocted by novelist Ernest Hemingway: fifteen parts gin and one part vermouth. The literature on Montgomery has passed through the normal stages of historiography: from triumphalism immediately after the war, followed by revisionist writings, and then a period of orthodox interpretation. Recent military historians have benefitted from the work of their predecessors, and with the advantage of free access to wartime records, they offer far more accurate appraisals of Montgomery as a battlefield commander. In his book, Monty’s Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), British military historian John Buckley views Montgomery as neither saint nor demon, but rather as someone who is sometimes brilliant and sometimes foolish. Montgomery’s claim to fame rests upon his leading the British Eighth Army (forty languages were spoken in the Eighth Army) to victory over the Axis Powers at El Alamein, fought between 23 October and 4 November 1942. In his thoroughly researched study, Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein (Barr 2004, cited under Battle of El Alamein), historian Niall Barr rejects the false might-have-beens and armchair-hindsight explanations for what did or did not happen, and he presents a fair-minded account of the desert campaign. From North Africa to Sicily and the Italian campaign, praise and criticism were Montgomery’s close companions. The controversies are discussed fully in Colin Baxter’s, The War in North Africa, 1940–1943: A Selected Bibliography (cited under General Overviews). Small and unimpressive looking, with a high-pitched voice (like Patton), Montgomery, at his most casual, wore baggy corduroy trousers, a grey turtleneck sweater, and the famous black beret with a general’s badge and the Royal Tank Corps insignia. Despite the idiosyncratic, dogmatic, tactless, and quarrelsome aspects of his character, it is to the credit of Montgomery’s military superiors during the interwar years that they looked over such failings and recognized a winner and continued to promote him. As a result of recent scholarship, the often-bleak picture of Montgomery and the British Army (which were inextricably linked) painted by writers such as Basil Liddell Hart and John Ellis and others has begun to fade. Military historians David French, Stephen Hart, Niall Barr, John Buckley, and others have shown convincingly how Montgomery successfully matched the operational techniques, doctrine, and tactics of the British Army to the abilities of the citizen-soldier Anglo-Canadian Twenty-First Army Group that helped bring victory in the West. Montgomery is no longer underrated in the serious historiography of World War II. He and other British commanders were determined to avoid the bloodletting of World War I. Their men’s lives were to be saved by the use of massive firepower: “Let metal do it rather than flesh.” The National Army Museum conducted a poll in 2011 to determine Britain’s greatest general. Montgomery’s name was not among the finalists. In a 2013 poll, the Battle of El Alamein was not listed among the five greatest British battles. However, the research by recent military historians, who have not ignored Montgomery’s mistakes, has rehabilitated his reputation to the point where he ranks as one of the great Allied commanders of World War II.

Article.  12762 words. 

Subjects: Military History ; Pre-20th Century Warfare ; First World War ; Second World War ; Post-WW2 Military History

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