Generals at War
With the Germans and with each other.
May 30, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 35 • By ANDREW ROBERTS
Of course, Patton and Montgomery did cordially loathe each other--Patton called Monty "that cocky little limey fart" and Monty thought Patton a "foul-mouthed lover of war"--and Charles Whiting seeks to place this dislike in its overall geopolitical context. By mid-1943, America was overtaking the United Kingdom in every aspect of the war effort, a fact that Winston Churchill acknowledged and which led him subtly to adapt his political posture accordingly. Yet Montgomery could simply not bring himself to face the new situation, and became progressively more anti-American as the preponderance of the United States became more evident.
The moment when Montgomery publicly cracked came on January 7, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge, when (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force having lifted its near-three-week censorship restrictions) he gave an extensive press briefing to a select group of war correspondents at his headquarters at Zonhoven. It was a disgraceful performance by anyone's estimation--including his personal staff, who were shocked by his ineptitude or, some think, his malice.
Montgomery's presentation of the story of the Germans' great Ardennes offensive, and the way that it had been turned back, implied that his 21st Army Group had had to save the Americans: "General Eisenhower placed me in command of the whole northern front," boasted Monty in his most vainglorious manner. "I employed the whole available power of the British group of armies. You have this picture of British troops fighting on both sides of American forces, who had suffered a hard blow. This is a fine Allied picture." Although he spoke of the average GI being "jolly brave" in "an interesting little battle," he claimed he had entered the engagement "with a bang," and although he might not have quite meant it like that, he left the impression that he had effectively rescued the Americans from defeat. There were some generous references to the courage of the American fighting man, but none to the American generals other than Eisenhower.
As a result of the Zonhoven briefing, Bradley, saying that Montgomery was "all-out, right-down-to-the-toes mad," told Eisenhower that he could not serve under Montgomery, but would prefer to be transferred back to the United States. Patton immediately made the same declaration. Then Bradley started courting the press, rarely "venturing out of his [headquarters] without at least fifteen newspapermen." Bradley and Patton subsequently leaked information to the American press that damaged Montgomery, and then proceeded, in the words of the American journalist Ralph Ingersoll, "to make and carry out plans without the assistance of the official channels, on a new basis openly discussed only among themselves. In order to do this they had to conceal their plans from the British and almost literally outwit Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters, half of which was British." Charles Whiting shows how Anglo-American generalship in the West from 1943 to 1945 was indeed a special relationship: specially dreadful.
Michael Reynolds's book, Monty and Patton: Two Paths to Victory is an admirably evenhanded work that shows how both generals were excellent fighting men in their own very different ways, but also how their arrogance, personal unpleasantness, and giant egos were bound to produce clashes when they had only the western half of the European continent in which to operate together. A former British major-general who led NATO's Allied Command Europe Mobile Force, Reynolds has written three books on the Battle of the Bulge, and no one could be better qualified to cover this ground, which he does highly effectively.
By the end, the reader is certain that of the two, Patton was the nastier, madder man, and one understands why he was demoted so soon after the war--but not before he had suggested arming the Wehrmacht in order to force the Red Army "back into Russia" at a time when the Soviet Union had over five million men under arms. (Reynolds's book also has 16 pages of maps that are invaluable in understanding Patton's strategy.)
The true hero of all three of these books is not mentioned in the title or subtitle of any of them. How General Eisenhower held the ring between these competing, strutting martinets, using charm, good humor, but occasionally veiled threats too, is a fascinating study in diplomacy. Thank God they all--even Monty for much of the time--liked Ike.
Andrew Roberts is the author, most recently, of Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership.