On Aug. 13, 1942, Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery assumed command of the British Eighth Army in Egypt. It would prove to be one of the most controversial decisions in the war regarding the Allied coalition.
When World War II started, the British Army was dominated by class-conscious officers who valued pedigree over battlefield skill. This made it, as historian Maj. Gen. Lord Michael Fitzalan-Howard noted, “not very good.” One exception was Montgomery, son of a bishop of Tasmania. Short, thin, with a large beak-like nose and arresting blue-gray eyes, possessing an incisive, brilliant mind and an iron will, Montgomery was a masterful and inspiring trainer of men. He had almost single-handedly modernized the sclerotic British Army through his influential reorganization and training of the Fifth and Twelfth Corps and the South-Eastern Army in England during 1940-41.
“Indomitable in retreat, invincible in advance, insufferable in victory.” – Prime Minister Winston Churchill, describing Montgomery
In July 1942, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Axis forces were regrouping two hundred miles inside Egypt at El Alamein. With Tobruk having fallen, Rommel where he was, and the Seatrain Texas bringing a shipload of American Sherman tanks to Egypt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, having lost confidence in Commander in Chief Middle East Command Gen. Claude Auchinleck, decided that a change in command there was necessary. On Aug. 5, Churchill chose Gen. Sir Harold Alexander to replace Auchinlek and Lt. Gen. William Gott to succeed Auchinleck as the commander of the Eighth Army. On Aug. 7, Gott was killed when his plane was shot down. Montgomery was tapped as his replacement.
In his first address to the troops, Montgomery informed them that all previous plans for retreat would be burned. Then he said, “We will fight the enemy where we now stand; there will be no withdrawal and no surrender. If we cannot stay here alive, then let us stay here dead!” A morale-boosting frisson swept the ranks.
The devotion given Montgomery by those who served below him was not shared by his peers or superiors. Some of that ill will was caused by professional rivalry and jealousy. But a lot was self-inflicted due to his overbearing personality. Field Marshal Lord Gort, who commanded the British Expeditionary Force evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940 in which Montgomery served as a corps commander, said, “In dealing with him one must remember that he is not quite a gentleman.” Even Chief of the Imperial General Staff Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, his greatest supporter, recognized that Montgomery had a “lack of tact and egotistical outlook which seemed to prevent him appreciating other people’s feelings.”
This trait had important consequences when it came to Montgomery’s relationship with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander in the Mediterranean in 1943 and later in northern Europe. Given their differences in personalities, a falling out between the two was more a question of “when” rather than “if.” Unfortunately, the “when” happened immediately and dramatically.
Though Montgomery didn’t smoke, drink, or chase women, he did love to gamble. No wager was too small or unusual. In spring 1943, as Montgomery was preparing his attack on German troops in Tunisia from the east, Eisenhower’s chief of staff Maj. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith made the mistake of telling Monty that if his troops captured the Tunisian town of Sfax by April 15, he’d give Montgomery a B-17 complete with American crew to use as his personal airplane.
Smith meant it as a joke.
Monty took it at face value and entered it into his book.
The town was captured on April 10. There are different versions of what next happened. Some have Monty contacting Smith with the news, others that Monty contacted Eisenhower directly. But all accounts agree that Montgomery demanded his B-17 and refused to take no for an answer. Montgomery got his B-17 and American aircrew.
Needless to say this raised the eyebrows of the senior Army Air Force commanders in North Africa and deeply embarrassed Smith. Eisenhower was furious. In fact he was so incensed that weeks later he vented about it to Brooke during a meeting they had, backed up by Smith’s explanation. In vain Brooke tried to smooth things over. Brooke later had a meeting with Montgomery and raked him over the coals for his “crass stupidity.” Monty contritely apologized for his insensitive transgression. The incident proved a harbinger of worse to come.
The B-17 was written off in a crash-landing about a month later and was never replaced.