Monty’s Army: Alam Halfa to the Rhine I

It is easy to dismiss Montgomery as a Second World War general who applied the doctrines and methods of 1918 to win his victories. Montgomery’s insistence that his battles be fought according to a ‘master plan’, his employment of concentrated artillery and his insistence on not moving until he had adequate logistical support, combined to give his battles the outward appearance of the great offensives that Haig mounted in France between 1916 and 1918. He won because he enjoyed superiority in material, and was able to compel his opponents to fight a series of set-piece battles, not dissimilar to those of 1918, which minimized the British army’s shortcomings. Closer inspection reveals a different picture. Montgomery did enjoy a quantitative material superiority over his enemies. But so had Cunningham and Ritchie. Both had deployed more tanks than Rommel before CRUSADER and Gazala, and it had availed them nothing. Furthermore the British army’s quantitative superiority was partially offset by the qualitative superiority of so many German weapons. Montgomery did not employ the same operational doctrine and techniques as Haig had done in 1918. His battles were a product of the doctrines that the army had developed between the wars, the lessons of its defeats in 1940–2, and his own personality.

Montgomery won his victories against an enemy who, from Alamein, through Tunisia, Italy, and Normandy, practised a highly effective defensive doctrine. The German army’s defences increasingly relied upon deep, fortified positions, and deep minefields. They no longer deployed their tanks en masse but used them as mobile pill boxes. The backbone of their defences consisted of small parties of infantry, lavishly equipped with machine-guns and mortars and supported by one or two tanks or self-propelled guns. In Italy, they usually built their main defensive positions along natural lines, either rivers or mountains, or along a series of small towns commanding main roads. In the bocage country of Normandy, visibility was so poor that they preferred to hold as strong points road junctions and villages rather than high ground. A thinly held outpost line, usually on a forward slope, gave them warning of an attack. Their main defensive positions, covered by minefields, machine-guns, and anti-tank guns sited in enfilading positions, were on the reverse slope where they were concealed from British artillery observers. The Germans ranged their mortars and artillery onto ground where the British were likely to form up for an attack. They held their positions in great depth, and, when attacked, usually mounted a swift counter-attack before the British were able to consolidate their gains.

The Germans sometimes held their positions with properly constituted divisions. But the British frequently marvelled at their ability rapidly to form improvised battle groups from the remnants of formations and thought it one of the strengths of the German army. The Germans themselves were not so sanguine. A Corps commander who fought in Italy always preferred to fight with properly constituted divisions, saying of ad hoc groupings that ‘In a major battle they melted away like butter in the sun’. One reason for this was that such ad hoc groups often lacked proper artillery support. The Germans tried to use mortars to compensate for this weakness, and in Normandy British medical officers estimated that they caused as many as 70 per cent of infantry casualties. When forced to withdraw, the Germans employed small, mobile rearguards equipped with handfuls of tanks, self-propelled guns, and anti-tank guns, mines, booby-traps, and snipers to slow the pace of the British pursuit. They usually remained in position just long enough to enable their own engineers to carry out essential demolition work and began to withdraw when it was clear that the British advance guard was about to outflank them. In the opinion of Major-General W. E. Clutterbuck, GOC 1st Division in Tunisia, the result for the British was that ‘the A.Tank mine and the H[eav]y A.Tank gun has “seen off” the t[an]k to a great extent and while the tank is still most useful to inf[antry], its real helper is becoming massed Art[iller]y’.

In finding ways of overcoming their opponents, from late 1942 onwards, British field commanders were compelled to operate within two constraints. The first was their long-held fear that the morale of their troops was dangerously fragile. The second was their knowledge that the army was fast running out of men. Together they meant that they had no option but to employ operational techniques that put a premium on minimizing casualties.

Even before the war senior commanders had harboured doubts about the fragile morale of their troops. By mid-1942 the string of defeats that they had suffered convinced them their worst fears were justified. In May 1942 Wavell decided that

we are nothing like as tough as we were in the last war and that British and Australian troops will not at present stand up to the same punishment and casualties as they did in the last war. It is softness in education and living and bad training, and can be overcome but it will take a big effort.

A month later, worried about the apparently poor morale of units in 8th Army, Auchinleck asked the War Cabinet to reintroduce the death penalty as a deterrent to stem the rising tide of deserters. Two years later, again because of a growing incidence of desertion from front line units, Alexander followed suit.

In all three cases there was a suspicion of commanders seeking easy solutions to complex, systemic problems. In making these requests, they were harking back to the same solutions that Haig and his contemporaries had espoused. They, too, had seriously doubted the willingness of the town-bred masses who filled the ranks of the army during the First World War to withstand the rigours of war with their morale intact. They, too, had believed that only an outward conformity to the tenets of military life and strict discipline would serve to maintain the army’s cohesion. Montgomery shared his contemporaries’ concerns about the morale of their troops, but he never asked for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Instead, he adopted a holistic approach to conserving morale. Firm discipline was an essential factor in maintaining the willingness of troops to fight, but discipline alone was not enough. Troops also needed good leadership, realistic training, physical fitness, and professional man-management. But the single most important factor in sustaining morale was success in battle. ‘I have no failures in my Army and the troops know it’, he told an audience of senior officers in February 1943. However, the need to ensure that each operation was successful itself limited the scope of what he could ask his troops to do. ‘I limit the scope of operations to what is possible, and I use the force necessary to ensure success.’ This meant, for example, that at the operational level in early October 1942 he substituted a new plan for the Alamein offensive because he believed that his troops were insufficiently trained to carry out his original plan. In Normandy, the early stages of the campaign convinced him that some of the divisions he had brought back from the Mediterranean were battle-weary. For the rest of the campaign he preferred to spearhead his operations with formations like 15th and 43rd Infantry divisions and the 11th and Guards Armoured divisions. Fresh from Britain, where they had been training for four years, their morale was less fragile.

Haig had begun and ended the First World War believing that if two sides were equally matched, the one with the stronger will to win would be victorious. At the tactical level, Montgomery and his colleagues shunned such simplicities. They put into practice the army’s inter-war doctrine that battles should be fought with the maximum quantity of material and the minimum quantity of manpower. Concerned about the morale of 6th Armoured division in January 1943, Lieutenant-General C. W. Allfrey, GOC V Corps, insisted on the ‘maximum use of Artillery and minimum use of bodies’. At the end of 1943, the DMT in Italy concluded that a plentiful supply of armour was essential because the infantry now expected its support as a right. Lieutenant-General Sir Sidney Kirkman, GOC of XIII Corps, echoed his opinion in November 1944.

We may at times be lavish with artillery expenditure, but the British soldier has come to expect a certain measure of support and if at this stage support appears inadequate, I consider that attacks will be launched in so half-hearted a manner that we shall incur heavy casualties without success.

But even if they had not been concerned about morale, senior officers would have been impelled to rely more upon material. In late 1942, just as supplies and equipment began be delivered in quantities sufficient to enable the army to fight battles of material, manpower began to run dry. Recruits were so scarce by late 1942 that the army had to begin to disband formations. In December 1942, Alexander cannibalized 8th Armoured and 44th Infantry divisions to find drafts to maintain his remaining British formations. In mid-1943 the equivalent of four divisions were disbanded in the UK. In the autumn of 1943, the War Cabinet, wrongly assuming that the war in Europe would end by the autumn of 1944, allocated the army an intake of only 150,000 recruits. The only way the War Office could find sufficient men for 21 Army Group was by reducing the six Lower Establishment divisions in the UK to cadres. When that did not suffice, men were transferred to the infantry from the RAF Regiment and the Royal Artillery and, once those sources ran dry, Montgomery had no option but to disband two complete divisions in late 1944.

The shrinking size of the army from late 1942 had political, operational, and tactical consequences. Churchill realized that it threatened Britain’s political influence within the Anglo-American alliance. In November 1943 he insisted that the War Office find three more divisions to commit to the cross-Channel invasion so as to give the British parity with the Americans at least in the opening weeks of the campaign. But the process of shrinkage was inexorable, and by December 1944 he could only lament that ‘I greatly fear the dwindling of the British army as a factor in France as it will affect our right to impress our opinion upon strategic and other matters’.

At the operational and tactical levels, Montgomery recognized, as early as December 1942, that ‘In all my operations now I have to be very careful about losses, as there are not the officers and men in the depots in Egypt to replace them’. Henceforth British field commanders could afford to be prodigal with munitions and equipment, but not with men. Faced with a possible shortage of artillery ammunition in March 1944, Alexander insisted that ‘artillery has proved a battle winning factor in this war—and now it appears that we must give it up and sacrifice men’s lives (which we haven’t got) to do this job. I think it’s dreadful.’ Shortly before the Normandy landing, the Adjutant-General told Lieutenant-General Gerald Bucknall, GOC XXX Corps, whose troops were about to assault the beaches that the ‘manpower & Reinforcement situ[atio]n [is] very touchy’. The shortage of replacements severely constrained commanders’ freedom of action. It reduced their willingness to seize fleeting opportunities, for fear that they might lead to heavy and unsustainable losses. In March 1944, Montgomery concluded that ‘We have got to try and do this business with the smallest possible casualties’. Initially he pushed 2nd Army hard to take the area southeast of Caen in order to secure the airfields that his air support required. He told his army commanders that they must penetrate inland rapidly. ‘We must crack about and force the battle to swing our way.’ But, by 10 July, faced by mounting casualties, he told Dempsey that, whilst he must enlarge the bridgehead, he had to avoid excessive losses. Second Army had plenty of tanks; what it lacked was a sufficiency of infantry. Dempsey therefore persuaded Montgomery to allow him to mount an all-armoured attack, Operation GOODWOOD, on 18 July. In September 1944, confronted by an equally serious shortage of drafts in Italy, Alexander admitted that ‘Commanders are forced to act cannily with serious adverse effects all the way down the tree’. The need to keep casualties to a minimum in 1944–5 placed a premium on careful preparations and planning and the avoidance of all unnecessary risks. In June 1944 Leese ordered that, in a set-piece attack, infantry brigade commanders should issue their orders forty-eight hours before H-hour and that six hours of daylight should be left to enable platoon commanders and tank troop commanders to make their plans. Two months later, Dempsey believed that if a battalion were ordered to attack an organized defensive position, it had a fifty per cent chance of success if it had two hours to make its preparations. It had a guarantee of success if it had twice as long. Dwindling manpower and the perceived deficiencies of the morale of their troops meant that from late 1942 onwards the British could not afford to operate with the same haste or develop the same disregard for casualties that characterized both the Russian and German armies.

The doctrine that Montgomery and his acolytes practised from Alamein onwards was not original, but neither was it the same as Haig had practised in 1918, although there were some superficial similarities. Indeed, recent research on the battles of 1918 has suggested that Haig in fact failed to practise any operational doctrine, and that he failed in a real sense to command the BEF. Haig believed that it was his task as the C-in-C of the BEF to establish a ‘master-plan’ and then leave it to his subordinates to carry it out. If he interfered in the actual conduct of operations beyond deploying his own general reserve, he would paralyse their initiative. These ideas synergised with Haig’s own personality. He was highly self-disciplined, he held himself aloof and found it difficult to form friendships with his equals. He liked order, disliked changing his mind or hearing his ideas opposed by subordinates. He picked weak and acquiescent men to fill staff posts at GHQ and dismissed officers who had crossed him. It was not surprising, therefore, that senior officers found it difficult to raise awkward questions with him. The result was that GHQ was isolated from the rest of the army, and from the realities of the battlefield. In 1918 Armies, Corps, and Divisions were left largely to their own devices to find solutions to the tactical problems that they confronted in the period of semi-mobile warfare that followed the collapse of the German spring offensive.

Montgomery’s operational doctrine was an amalgam of inter-war doctrine, the lessons that the high command drew from operations in the field and in exercises at home since 1939, and his own ruthless personality that drove him to always seek to impose his will on those around him. The experience of defeat in France, Greece, and North Africa taught the British to avoid operational manoeuvres in favour of set-piece attrition battles based on the possession of superior quantities of material. Montgomery agreed with Haig that battles should be conducted according to a ‘master-plan’, designed by the commander and intended to minimize the risk of confusion and error. To that end the plan had to be simple, for complex plans were inherently more likely to fail. He also agreed that subordinate commanders had to conduct their own part in the battle in accordance with the plan and their commander’s wishes.

But as an army and army group commander, Montgomery did not believe that his job stopped there. He prepared the master-plan and allocated resources to his army and corps commanders, but he also coordinated their movements once the battle had begun and liased closely with the RAF to ensure proper air support for the ground forces. Coordination was facilitated by the fact that Corps were deliberately organized flexibly so that their composition could be changed quickly to suit any particular operation. But this high degree of flexibility was bought at some cost. In July 1944, when 15th (Scottish) division, was switched from VIII Corps to XXX Corps, its commander complained that ‘their staffs are almost complete strangers to my staff and of course have different ways of working which require a certain time before we can say that we are in complete sympathy with them’. It was the task of corps and divisional commanders to prepare their own plans to fight the tactical battle in accordance with the Army commander’s plan. Senior officers exercised control over their subordinates by setting them a well-defined centre line for their advance and ordering them to move along it in a series of ‘bounds’.

In order to enable him to exercise command without imposing unnecessary delays on the tempo of operations, Montgomery discarded written operational orders in favour of verbal orders, issued either in face-to-face meetings or, during mobile operations, using r/t. He expected his subordinates to do likewise. The issue to subordinate commanders of marked-up maps showing start lines and objectives usually supplemented verbal orders. ‘There is’, according to one visitor in July 1943, ‘a strong anti-paper complex everywhere in 8th Army HQ . . .’ Far from remaining aloof from the rest of the army, Montgomery went out of his way to maintain contact with them. To ensure that all ranks understood their part in the ‘master-plan’, Montgomery tried to address all officers down to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel himself and again expected them to do the same to their subordinates.

Nor did Montgomery employ a staff of yes-men. One of the first innovations that he introduced when he took command of 8th Army was to appoint Auchinleck’s BGS, Freddie de Guingand, as his Chief of Staff. The latter’s role was not only to co-ordinate all staff functions, thus freeing the army commander to ponder how to fight the next battle. He also had the power to take decisions in Montgomery’s name when the C-in-C was away from his main headquarters. This enabled Montgomery to go forward and command from near the forward edge of the battle. Before D-Day, Montgomery urged all commanders down to Corps level to follow his example. The Court of Enquiry that investigated the reasons for the collapse of the Gazala line and the fall of Tobruk in June 1942 concluded unequivocally that commanders had to command from the front. By Alamein it had finally became common practice for formation commanders in 8th Army to exercise command in battle from a small tactical HQ. However, until 1944, 8th Army’s practice was not shared by formations training in Britain. Their commanders, preparing for D-Day, were told that forming a tactical HQ should be the exception, rather than the rule. On taking command of 21st Army Group, Montgomery overturned this recommendation. He expected his subordinates down to the level of division to follow his example and fight the battle from a tactical HQ, and most did so. Some paid the price by becoming casualties, but their readiness to command from the forward edge of the battle meant that Corps Commanders like Sir Brian Horrocks, who used a tank or a light aircraft to go forward to his division’s HQs, could, in the eyes of their subordinates, develop ‘a marvellous facility for turning up at the right moment’. However, merely because commanders were on the spot did not necessarily mean that they invariably took the correct decisions. On the opening day of GOODWOOD, ‘Pip’ Roberts, then commanding 11th Armoured Division, was following closely behind his armoured brigade commander and ordered the latter to mask rather than capture the village of Cagny. It was only after the war that he discovered that in doing so he enabled the Germans to reinforce their defences and block the further advance of his division.

When he took command of 8th Army on 25 June 1942, Auchinleck realized that it was essential that commanders ‘dispense with constant discussion with or reference to his subordinates’ and actually command them. Some of his senior staff officers thought that he was incapable of doing so. Auchinleck’s critics also thought he too-readily assumed that once an order had been given it would automatically be carried out. Montgomery did not make the same mistakes. Unlike Haig, he believed that it was an essential task of an army commander to monitor the execution of his orders to ensure that his subordinates were acting at all times in accordance with his master-plan. Just as he planned his battles two levels below himself, so he monitored the work of commanders two levels down. It was Montgomery’s refusal to allow his senior subordinates the latitude customary in the British army to develop their own interpretation of orders that more than anything set him apart from his contemporaries. Determined to impose his will on the enemy, he knew that he first had to impose it on his own subordinates. What he called maintaining a ‘firm grip’ was ‘essential in order that the master plan will not be undermined by the independent ideas of individual subordinate commanders at particular moments in the battle’.

Montgomery established his ‘firm grip’ through a variety of means. He imposed a rigorous training regime at all levels of his army, and he insisted that units and formations devised and practised drills to ensure that they could carry out common tasks rapidly and efficiently. Most of the shortcomings in 8th Army’s training had already been recognized by Wavell, Auchinleck, and their senior staff officers before Montgomery arrived. What Montgomery did do was to insist for the first time that all commanders took the training of their troops seriously. Only if they did so would ‘the doctrine laid down permeate throughout the formation.’ Realism, including the lavish use of live ammunition was essential. ‘We must’, he told a Staff College audience in September 1942, ‘adopt common-sense safety precautions and accept the risk of a few casualties in order to get the Army fit for battle.’ Whenever possible, he tried to rehearse operations before mounting them. Before Second Alamein, X Corps practised how to effect a passage through deep minefields, putting special reference on preparing rapid artillery fire-plans to overcome enemy anti-tank screens. Units earmarked for the landing in Sicily practised assault landing techniques at the northern end of the Red Sea. The 7th Armoured division spent three months in North Africa undergoing individual and unit training and combined operations training before landing in Italy in September 1943. Training was also conducted when formations were at rest. By December 1942, 1st Armoured, 4th Indian, and 50th divisions had all been left behind by the speed of 8th Army’s advance, but their Corps Commander, Horrocks, was busy chivvying them to ensure that they spent time in training. ‘I am going off the day after tomorrow’, he informed Montgomery, ‘to spend two days each with 50 and 4 Ind[ian] Divisions, just to see that the training is not all on paper . . .’

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