Monty’s Army: Alam Halfa to the Rhine II

THE BRITISH ARMY IN NORTH AFRICA 1940 (E 1416) A Matilda tank of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in the Western Desert, 19 December 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Much time was devoted to inculcating battle drills in the expectation that they would speed the tempo of operations. A week before Montgomery arrived in the desert, Auchinleck’s newly appointed BGS, Brigadier de Guingand, asked Corps commanders to develop a battle drill for breaking through deep enemy positions protected by minefields. ‘In the German Army this type of operation is carried out stage by stage in accordance with a standard procedure which may be modified for particular conditions. This has proved successful in recent operations.’ Montgomery had already enthusiastically embraced battle drills in Britain and lost no time in insisting that all arms develop them. They ‘will enable deployment to be speeded-up’ as well as ensuring the proper co-ordination between all arms. He appeared to have succeeded. At Alamein the Germans captured British orders that seemed to them to be clearer and briefer than anything they had seen before. Almost simultaneously the General Staff formerly endorsed the practice in an ATM.

Montgomery did not remain isolated from his generals. On the contrary he went out of his way to train them. ‘I do concentrate’, he wrote in, September 1943, ‘on teaching my Generals, and I am certain one has got to do so.’ He spread his ideas through a series of short booklets distilling his experiences as a field commander and by organizing lectures and study periods at which he presided. Before D-Day, he continued the process. On 13 January 1944, for example, he spoke to all Army, Corps, and Divisional commanders in 21st Army Group, explaining to them how he intended to stage-manage his battles and issued each of them with another pamphlet, Notes on High Command in War.

Like Haig, Montgomery preferred to be surrounded by his own men, but the criteria he employed in selecting them was professional competence, not whether he found them personally congenial. He was ruthless in placing men who he had trained in his methods and who had demonstrated their ability as commanders in the field in command of units and formations under his command. Before Alamein, for example, he obtained not only two new Corps Commanders, Leese and Horrocks, but also a new CRA, Sidney Kirkman. On returning from Italy to take command of 21st Army Group, he quickly installed a number of senior staff officers who had worked closely with him in 8th Army in key staff posts and throughout his tenure in command kept close control over appointments. These measures went a long way to ensure that formations that had fought in the Mediterranean and formations that had been training in Britain since 1940 practised a common operational doctrine by 1944.

However, Montgomery did not always get his own way over appointments. He did not think that Crerar was fit to command an army in action, only two of his original corps commanders in Normandy, Guy Simmonds and Gerald Bucknell, were his protégés and his attempt to dismiss the commander of the Guards Armoured division, Alan Adair, was blocked. Officers excluded from his favoured circle were resentful, but he was hardly unique amongst Second World War generals in placing men he knew and trusted in key positions under him. General Sir Richard McCreery, for example, began the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel and GSOI to Alexander, then commander of 1st division. When Alexander became C-in-C Middle East in 1942, McCreery became his CGS and ended the war, still under Alexander, as GOC 8th Army.

The extent to which other senior commanders followed Montgomery’s example and reduced the latitude of their subordinates to interpret orders varied. Neither Alexander, when he commanded Army Groups in Tunisia and Italy, or Leese, when he commanded 8th Army in Italy, tried to do so to the same extent as Montgomery. The fact that their forces contained large allied contingents made it politically necessary for them to adopt a more relaxed policy towards those of their subordinates who were also allied or Dominion commanders responsible to their own governments.

The reaction of subordinates confronted by this new regime varied. Some positively welcomed it. ‘Pip’ Roberts, who commanded an armoured brigade in the desert in 1942, contrasted Montgomery’s precise orders before Alam Halfa favourably with Ritchie’s indecisiveness before Gazala. ‘There was one firm plan’, he later wrote, ‘and one position to occupy and we all felt better.’ When he commanded VIII Corps in Normandy, O’Connor found that ‘what Montgomery gave to his commanders was a sense of assurance. A sense of confirmation having examined the plan.’ Others did not like his methods but they seldom lasted long. Montgomery did share another attribute with Haig, namely his willingness to dismiss senior officers who he believed had failed in action through showing insufficient determination and drive to carry out his orders. Since Ritchie’s appointment to command 8th Army, senior officers had grown increasingly prone to question his orders. But Montgomery would not tolerate this habit he called ‘bellyaching’. He dismissed Herbert Lumsden from command of X Corps and Alec Gatehouse from command of 10th Armoured division after Alamein because he had no time for officers he believed had shown signs of ‘“wilting under the strain”’. Shortly after arriving in London, Lumsden was reputed to have entered his London club wearing a bowler hat and his uniform and said, ‘I’ve just been sacked because there isn’t enough room in the desert for two cads like Montgomery and me.’ Others whose careers suffered because they were insufficiently ruthless in driving their troops forward included D. C. Bullen-Smith (dismissed from command of 51st Highland division in July 1944), Bucknell, and ‘Bobby’ Erskine (dismissed from command of XXX Corps and 7th Armoured division in August 1944).

Again in contrast to Haig, Montgomery developed human and technological systems to monitor the work of his subordinate commanders. As an Army Group commander he could keep in close personal contact with his army and corps commanders. But he could not hope personally to visit each of his divisional commanders regularly, and so he employed a team of specially trained liaison officers to monitor their work. They visited divisional HQs in the afternoon when the commander was making his plans for the next day. They interviewed him, and he briefed them about his intentions. When Montgomery debriefed them in the evening, the liaison officers could tell him about not only each divisional commander’s plans, but also his state of mind. If Montgomery was disturbed by anything they told him, he quickly contacted the relevant army or corps commander. On top of this Montgomery also eavesdropped on his own subordinates. During CRUSADER some British commanders began unofficially to copy the Germans, and to monitor the operational traffic on their own units’ wireless nets. By this method messages picked up from forward nets could be in the hands of Army HQ within ten to fifteen minutes, whereas normal ‘sitreps’ took up to twelve hours to filter through. At Alam Halfa this process was systematized in the shape of the ‘J’ service, which was developed largely by the GSO1 (Operations) at 8th Army’s HQ, Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Mainwaring. It brought to light a worrying series of lapses in the command and control system. After Alamein the J system was established on a permanent basis. Parallel developments took place in Britain. The result was that in North West Europe a ‘Phantom’ patrol was attached to each divisional HQ to intercept traffic on the divisional and brigade nets and pass it back immediately to army HQ.

Montgomery and his colleagues were only able to command from near the forward edge of the battlefield because by late 1942 the army finally had the communications system that it required. They could now rely on receiving a steady flow of up-to-date information about their own and the enemy’s troops, and they could issue realistic orders in time for their subordinates to act upon them. The army’s mature system of C31 rested upon a greatly expanded signal establishment, and the manufacture of more and better equipment. In the course of the war the establishment of an infantry division’s signals regiment increased from 491 to 743 all-ranks, and an armoured division’s regiment from 629 to 753. The army was also issued with more radios. Between 1939 and 1945, the Ministry of Supply produced over 550,000 wireless sets for the army. It might have been better equipped sooner but for the fact that it received a lower priority than did the other two services for radio equipment. The quality of radio equipment also improved, so that by 1943 armoured units, for example, had sets that enabled commanders to control their whole regiment on a single frequency. However, the system did not depend solely on more and better radios. Cable retained its technical advantages over wireless in that it could carry a larger volume of traffic more securely. At Alamein, in Tunisia, and for much of the fighting in Sicily, Italy, and North West Europe, the distances and speed with which operations were conducted diminished compared to the war in the desert, and mountains degraded the performance of radios. It therefore became possible and necessary for signallers to create elaborate systems of line communication. This trend was most discernible in infantry formations, but it also occurred, although to a lesser extent, in armoured divisions. It was one reason why the British Army could employ large artillery concentrations in the second half of the war. The outcome of these developments was a more flexible communications system, with inbuilt redundancies that both reduced the likelihood of communications collapsing and facilitated the rapid transmission of information and orders. From 1942 onwards, commanders were far less likely to lose battles because their communications failed.

The purpose of the ‘master plan’ was to produce the maximum concentration of force at the decisive point and time. One of the first things that Montgomery did when he arrived in the desert in August 1942 was to end Auchinleck’s experiments with new forms of organization. Henceforth

Divisions must fight as divisions and under their own commanders, with clear-cut tasks and definite objectives; only in this way will full value be got from the great fighting power of a Division, and only in this way will concentration of effort and co-operation of all arms be really effective.

This greatly assisted team-building, for it meant that divisions were more likely to reap the full benefits of their training. Raymond Briggs believed that one reason why his own 1st Armoured division performed more effectively than the other two armoured divisions in X Corps at Alamein was that, unlike them, all of its component units had been able to spend a month training together before the battle.

The most obvious expression of Montgomery’s pursuit of the principle of concentration, and the one which gave his battles the same outward appearance as those of the First World War, was the army’s employment of concentrated artillery. But appearances were deceptive. It was only in Normandy that Montgomery was able to employ the same high concentrations of artillery that Haig had employed on the Western Front. On the opening day of the Somme, the latter had massed 92 guns per kilometre of front; at Vimy Ridge he had 161 guns per kilometre; at Pilckem Ridge 172 guns per kilometre, and at the Ghelveult Plateau 324 guns per kilometre. The latter represented the heaviest concentration of artillery employed by the BEF throughout the First World War. Comparable figures for Alam Halfa were 9 guns per kilometre, for Alamein 31 per kilometre, and for Cassino 127 per kilometre. Haig’s concentrations dropped in the final year of the war. He employed only 125 guns per kilometre at the opening of Cambrai, 110 at Amiens, and 160 on the opening day of the assault on the Hindenburg Line. The only one of Montgomery’s offensives in Normandy that exceeded these figures was GOODWOOD, when he employed 259 guns per kilometre. However, other offensives had the support of thinner concentrations of artillery. The opening day of EPSOM was supported by only 64 guns per kilometre, the Canadian attack towards Falaise on 8 August 1944 (TOTALIZE) by 98 guns per kilometre, and the opening of the Anglo-Canadian offensive in the Reichswald on 8 February 1945 (VERITABLE) by 105 guns per kilometre. To some extent Montgomery used air power to compensate for his relative paucity of artillery, but he could not always do so. GOODWOOD, TOTALIZE and VERITABLE were supported by large numbers of bombers, but bad weather ruled out the heavy air support planned for EPSOM.

Furthermore, although some of the techniques that Montgomery and his colleagues employed were the same as those used by Haig between 1916–18, others were not. Montgomery was not the first Second World War field commander to recognize that massed artillery was a battle-winning factor of major importance. Auchinleck had employed it in July 1942 to inflict a series of hammer blows against the advancing Axis forces on the Alamein line. He was able to do so not only because the comparatively short line his troops held made the physical concentration of his guns possible, but also because sufficient 6-pdr. anti-tank guns had now been issued to relieve his field artillery of their anti-tank role. It was this artillery, plus Rommel’s own logistical problems, that were decisive in stemming the final German advance. After being bombarded for seven hours, a German infantryman lamented that the barrage was ‘such as I have never before experienced. Tommy has brought our attack to a standstill.’

Montgomery discovered how to use massed artillery successfully on the offensive. By late 1942, confronted by deep German defensive positions, the British had learnt that no attack could succeed without overwhelming fire-support provided by artillery and air support. ‘Fire dominated the battlefield. Fire is the chief antagonist of mobility’, and Montgomery did re-employ some of the same techniques that Haig’s army had perfected twenty years before. The artillery battle, for example, began with a counter-battery programme to destroy, or at least neutralize, the enemy’s guns. In Normandy each hostile battery that was located was deluged with an average of 20 tons of shells. In principle, after 1942 covering fire for infantry and tanks could be called down by a FOO at the request of the unit his guns were supporting. In practice, the army usually employed techniques first devised in 1916. Because the precise position of enemy defences was rarely known with sufficient accuracy, concentrations on known targets were employed less frequently than timed creeping barrages.

However, to dismiss the way in which the British employed their artillery as an outstanding example of the use of ‘brute force’ is to overlook the myriad ways in which forces in the field introduced innovations to enhance their combat effectiveness between 1942 and 1945. Some were relatively minor, like the use of 17-pdr. anti-tank guns to destroy concrete pillboxes that had proved resistant to field gun shells.106 Far more important were the drills that the gunners devised to augment the speed and effectiveness of their fire. Standard concentrations (‘stonks’) were first employed by 8th Army at Alamein in October 1942 and later used by 1st Army in early 1943. By the eve of the Normandy landing they had been perfected. They were standard drills in which the fire of individual batteries and regiments were superimposed upon a single map reference and then moved about as necessary. They could be employed both to support attacks or to lay down defensive fire to break up enemy counter-attacks. Air Observation Posts made their mark in the mountains of Tunisia, the first campaign when the army had a reasonable supply of medium and heavy guns. Flown by Royal Artillery officers, not RAF pilots, AOP pilots were soon entrusted with firing regimental and even divisional concentrations. In 1942 a new type of formation entered the army’s order of battle, Army Groups Royal Artillery (AGRA). Normally allocated on a basis of one per corps, AGRAs usually consisted of a mixture of field, medium, and heavy regiments. They provided a new element of flexibility in the provision of fire-support by enabling army commanders to mass their guns against a particular part of the enemy’s defences.

Developments such as these, when coupled with improved communications, produced an extremely flexible system of fire-support. Commanders could centralize control of their artillery at divisional, corps, or even army level, or decentralize it down to individual units. Hundreds of guns could be brought down quickly on a single target for a set-piece attack. At Alamein, 1st Armoured division’s gunners could produce a divisional concentration in five to ten minutes. By July 1943 gunners in Sicily had cut the time to only two minutes, and, even in the more difficult terrain of Italy, company commanders could summon a divisional concentration and expect to receive it in ten minutes. Moreover, in more mobile operations, by mid-1943 improved command and communications systems made it possible (although each battalion could have its own affiliated battery and each brigade its own affiliated field regiment) for the divisional CRA to exercise almost instantaneous control over all the guns in his division when necessary. This produced a real camaraderie between the infantry and their supporting gunners. The Russian army also employed massed artillery in support of its ground operations. But by 1944–5, in the opinion of at least one senior German gunner, the British artillery outshone it both in tactical flexibility and the speed with which it could lay down effective fire. Rommel himself was impressed, not just by the weight of fire that British gunners could deliver but by their ‘great mobility and tremendous speed of reaction to the needs of the assault troops’.

Montgomery’s interpretation of the principle of concentration also meant attacking on much narrower fronts than the BEF had employed in the First World War. Rawlinson’s 4th Army attacked on a front of 15,000 yards at Amiens on 8 August 1918; a month later it broke the Hindenburg Line on a front of 11,000 yards. By contrast Operation LIGHTFOOT, the opening stage of the Alamein offensive, was mounted on a front of about 7,000 yards. On 26 March 1943, the 8th Armoured Brigade led the assault on the Tebaga Gap to outflank the Mareth Line on a front of less than 1,000 yards. On 6 May 1943, Anderson mounted his final thrust in Tunisia on a front of only 3,000 yards. The opening phase of Operation GOODWOOD was mounted on a front of only 2,000 yards. From 1942 onwards, the British also mounted their offensives in considerable depth in order to sustain the momentum of the advance. Anderson employed two armoured divisions to exploit the gap he expected his infantry to make. For GOODWOOD, Dempsey’s spearhead, 11th Armoured division, was followed by no less than two other armoured divisions.

Air superiority was an essential pre-requisite because attacks on the narrow fronts that Montgomery favoured required a very high density of troops to space. They were only possible from late 1942 onwards because allied air superiority denied the Germans the possibility of disrupting British forces before they attacked. Montgomery recognized that it could only be secured if ground and air force commanders worked in the closest co-operation. He strove to secure that by preparing his plans from the outset in co-operation with his air commander. Air superiority prevented the Luftwaffe from interfering with his own operations. It supplied reconnaissance reports, and, either in the form of tactical air support or, less frequently, support provided by medium and heavy bombers, it supplemented the fire-power of his artillery. The latter could produce fire-support in all weathers and at any time of the day or night. But its range and the destructive power of its projectiles were limited. Air power could not operate at night or in bad weather. But when it was available, it enabled Montgomery to fight the kind of ‘deep battle’ that had been denied to Haig. It could hit the enemy far behind his front line, isolating the battlefield by destroying the enemy’s supply lines, and delaying the arrival of his reserves. It also played a major role in reducing the tempo of German operations relative to that of the British by disrupting German communications. Closer to the front line, when appropriate command and control techniques were in place, air power could deliver a demoralizing weight of high explosive onto enemy front line troops. In Normandy, the 2nd Tactical Air Force, sometimes assisted by the heavy bombers of Bomber Command and the US 8th Air Force, inflicted heavy losses on the Germans and denied them a large measure of tactical and operational mobility by forcing them to abandon movement in daylight. But air attacks not only inflicted heavy material losses on the Germans. By investing their ground forces with a sense of their own inability to hit back, their morale was also undermined. By Normandy, adding direct air support to the land operations, making a single integrated plan, had become a fundamental part of 21st Army Group’s operational technique. Captured German officers frequently remarked that ‘our overwhelming air superiority was one of the most, if not the most, important factor of our success’.

Haig has been much criticized for the ways in which he employed intelligence material. With the exception of a handful of occasions, such as the opening of his offensives at Cambrai and Amiens, surprise and deception had rarely formed a central plank of his operations. In the second half of the Second World War, accurate intelligence, and the willingness to act upon it, and the use of security and surprise as a force-multiplier were vital components of British operational doctrine. On 29 October 1942, for example, Montgomery decided to shift the thrust line of Operation SUPERCHARGE further south when his intelligence discovered that Rommel had brought up the 90th Light Division to hold the line where he had originally intended to attack. In February 1944, ‘sigint’ gave allied commanders in the Anzio beachhead ample warning of the timing and direction of a major German counter-offensive intended to drive them back into the sea and enabled them to mass sufficient forces to repulse it. In Normandy the combination of signals intelligence and aerial reconnaissance enabled the British successfully to practise C31 warfare. They killed or captured some twenty German army, corps, or divisional commanders. At the divisional level, the British improvised an intelligence organization to locate the numerous German mortars that caused them such heavy casualties. At the unit level, they patrolled energetically to ascertain the position of the enemy’s defences. General von Obstfelder, GOC of LXXXVI Corps, warned his troops in July 1944 that the enemy employed ‘tricks and is very cunning. During his attack he stages feints to provoke our anti-tank guns to open fire. If an anti-tank position is discovered it is as good as lost before it has a chance to fire.’

Montgomery believed that surprise was second only to high morale as a factor making for success. In January 1944 he told his senior officers that achieving surprise was an essential element in the stage management of battle. The British multiplied the effectiveness of their own forces by combining surprise, achieved by security, and active deception. By 1943–4 the British had effectively blinded most German intelligence sources. Allied air superiority meant that the Luftwaffe was able to provide few reconnaissance reports. Although the Germans continued to capture POWs, most knew little about anything other than their own sub-unit’s activities. The result was that the British could practice a successful deception policy and were repeatedly able to achieve tactical, operational, and sometimes even strategic surprise. The deception techniques that 8th Army successfully employed before Alamein to hide the direction, weight, and timing of the initial assault were not in themselves new. What was new was the thoroughness with which camouflage schemes were co-ordinated by the General Staff and incorporated into the main plan for the battle from the very beginning. Before D-Day, not only had the allies persuaded the Germans that they had far more divisions in Britain than was actually the case, but they had also convinced them that the main allied landing would take place in the Pas de Calais. The result was that prisoners captured from 716th Infantry Division on D-Day complained bitterly that they had been utterly surprised by the allied landing.

The British army that landed in Normandy in 1944 was not the sole creation of Montgomery. It was an amalgamation of formations that had fought under his command in the Mediterranean and the formations that had trained in Britain since Dunkirk. However, just as it would be wrong to attribute the causes of its successes and failures to one man, it would be equally wrong to ignore the fact that Montgomery made a major contribution to enhancing its combat effectiveness. He did not create the army’s operational doctrine, but he did insist that formations under his command practised a common interpretation of it. The outcome was that by the second half of the war, the British possessed what was in some respects a military machine capable of considerable flexibility on the battlefield. Auchinleck had employed a series of thrusts along alternative axes to destabilize Rommel’s army during the first battle of Alamein. But he had failed to break through in July partly because he lacked sufficient reserves and partly because, although he had concentrated his artillery, he continued to employ his infantry in brigade groups rather than divisions. Montgomery also attacked along a series of different thrust lines, but, unlike Auchinleck, took care to ensure that he had the reserves necessary to exploit success. The first thrust compelled the enemy to begin to commit his reserves, the second, coming from an unexpected direction, left him unbalanced, and the third was a decisive break-through operation on yet another part of the line. Montgomery employed this technique at Alamein in October-November 1942, at Mareth in March 1943, and again around Caen during his attempts to encircle the town between June and August 1944. His obsession with remaining ‘balanced’ throughout his operations was a product of his need constantly to create new reserves so that he had troops on hand to mount the next thrust. The essence of Montgomery’s generalship was to defeat his enemy by unbalancing him. This was an appropriate operational technique, because the combination of deception and security that the British practised plus allied air superiority meant that Montgomery could switch his main thrust lines far more speedily than could the Germans. Supplied with a sufficiency of equipment and an insufficiency of men, Montgomery’s operational techniques were chosen to exploit the strengths and weaknesses of the army he commanded.

The ability of the British army to overcome the Germans in the second half of the war continued to depend, as it had done before Alamein, on its ability to mount successful combined arms operations. ‘It cannot be emphasised too strongly’, Montgomery insisted in August 1942, ‘that successful battle operations depend on the intimate co-operation of all arms, whether in armoured or unarmoured formations. Tanks alone are never the answer; no one arm, alone and unaided can do any good in battle.’ Montgomery and his acolytes continued to reiterate this until the end of the war. The level of operational and tactical co-operation of British formations was undoubtedly better after 1942 than it had been earlier in the war. However, there is ample evidence that also points to continued serious shortcomings.

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