Tag Archives: montgomery

When Generals fall foul of the Politicians

The recent sacking of General Stanley McChrystal has got me thinking about other Generals who have fallen foul of their political masters. Its by no means a new story – we only need to think back to the ‘frocks and hats’ arguments during the First World War.

During the Korean War President Harry Truman was forced to sack the Supreme Allied Commander in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur was seemingly untouchable, having been a formed head of the US Army, Supreme Commander in the Pacific War and Commander of the occupation forces in Japan. MacArthur publicly criticised Truman’s policies, and wanted to extend the Korean War to mainland China. He also apparently wanted to use nuclear weapons. This was unacceptable to Truman, and he was advised by his cabinet colleagues and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that MacArthur should be relieved. Yet MacArthur remained a national hero, and Truman’s poll ratings nosedived.

During the Second World War Winston Churchill made a habit of sacking Commanders, particularly in the Middle East. Both Wavell and Auchinleck fell foul of Churchill’s lack of patience, even though both were probably doing as well as they could have done in the circumstances. The problems with Britain’s Army were not confined to its Generals, after all, and it would not be until later in the war that Britain’s Army would mature from its weak state of 1939. But this was not enough for Churchill.

Although Montgomery initially pleased Churchill with his victory at Alamein, he received criticism for his perceived slowness in Normandy. A powerful lobby at Supreme Headquarters actively sought for Monty’s sacking, and it was only through the ardent support of General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, that Monty was not dismissed. Even Churchill could be hostile to him, for example after Montgomery banned Churchill from visiting his HQ in Normandy. Brooke persuaded Montgomery to write and apologise, thus saving his job.

Matters with Montgomery came to a head after Arnhem. There was deep mistrust between Montgomery and his American counterparts. For his part, Montgomery did not help matters with an outrageous press conference he gave shortly after the Battle of the Bulge, belittling the Americans. Eisenhower was very close to asking for his sacking, before Brooke managed to smooth things over. It seems that the large part of Brooke’s job was to act as a buffer between Churchill and his Generals.

In more modern times, General Sir Richard Dannatt was effectively blocked from being promoted to Chief of Defence Staff by Gordon Brown, due to a number of statements critical of the Government. Although Dannatt was right in his comments, it could be argued that he should not have made them. Given his post-retirement support for the Conservative Party, the line he took while still in command of the Army does seem un-constitutional. There is a long held convention that Generals do not get involved in politics, they are civil servants as much as any other Government employee.

While Generals are often held up as national heroes, and to themselves and their men they are the closest thing to god, McChrystal’s sacking is a reminder that there is a bigger picture – just as in any line of work, it doesnt pay to criticise your boss in public!

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RSM Frederick Barlow

The Regimental Sergeant Major of a Battalion is the closest thing to god for the men in that unit. In a peculiar, British kind of way, the RSM has an almost holy position as the senior NCO. Responsible for discipline and morale, it is not unknown for the RSM to tick off junior officers.

Frederick Barlow, 33 and from Portsmouth, was the RSM of the 7th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade during the Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942. At the age of 33 and as the RSM he was probably a pre-war regular who had been promoted to be RSM of a war-raised Battalion. The Rifle Brigade was also a fine Regiment to join, one of the most prestigious Infantry units in the Army after the Guards.

The 7th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade were serving with the 7th Motor Brigade. the 7th Battalion were serving as mobile infantry in support of the tanks – a role that light infantry units of the Rifle Brigade and Kings Royal Rifle Corps in particular exceled at. The 7th Motor Brigade formed the infantry support for the Armoured units in the 1st Armoured Division.

The Second Battle of El Alamein came at a pivotal point. Montgomery had just taken over command of the Eighth Army. Rommel, commander of the Afrika Korps, was away in Italy.

When the battle began on 23 October 1942, the initial assault was made in the north. By 25 October the Eighth Army had made a thrust of several miles into the Axis positions. However the battle reached a standstill. In the coming days Montgomery succesfully fended off a counter-attack by the returned Rommel, and then ground the Axis forces down so badly that they had no option but to retreat.

Alamein was a significant victory. Perhaps it was a sideshow compared to the Eastern Front, but for a Britain that been under severe strain it was a much needed boost to morale. Winston Churchill described it thus:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But perhaps it is the end of the beginning”

RSM Frederick Barlow was killed on 25 October 1942. Having looked at events surrounding Alamein, I suspect that he was killed during the heavy fighting when the 1st Armoured Division were attempting to break through the Axis defences. He is buried in Alamein War Cemetery Egypt.

Frederick Barlow’s medals are in the care of Portsmouth City Museums and Records Service, and are currently on display at the D-Day Museum, Southsea.

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British Generalship

I’ve almost finished reading The Making of the British Army, by Allan Mallinson. I will be writing a review in full course, but I’m more than happy to give away a few glimpses now.

Think of great British Generals. Cromwell. Marlborough. Wellington. You can probably add Wolfe, and maybe Kitchener, to that list. But in the twentieth century, nothing. If anything, we tend to think of amateurish fumblings in the Crimea, Haig’s indifferent and incompetend leadership on the Western Front, and evacuation at Dunkirk and surrender in Singapore.

Why is it that we generally can’t offer up a great British General since Waterloo? Especially as in that time we have fought a multitude of colonial wars, won two world wars, and then a plethora of difficult conflict around the world? Certainly, it would take a very brave person to argue that any great leaders came out of the Crimea or the First World War.

Or is it that British Generals have suffered from History? The longer ago a commander died, the more that their faults and vices tend to pale into insignificance. It is often said that the best career move anyone can make is to die – if we look at a comparable military figure, such as Nelson, all becomes clear. To die in battle absolves you of pretty much any drawbacks, even infidelity and vanity.

Nelson brings us on to another theme. Britain, as a country, has always admired sailors. There is something noble about going to the sea, even as a Jack Tar. Yet soldiers have long been thought of as ‘the scum of the earth’. The Royal Navy is the senior service, yet the Army – note the absence of a royal prefix – itself is only a loose collection of tribes. The Royal Navy has a pantheon of greats, from Howe, Anson, St Vincent, Nelson, Collingwood, Fisher, Jellicoe, Beatty, Cunningham, and … and I would also argue Henry Leach… plenty more besides.

I have always thought that in Montgomery Britian did in fact have a 20th Century General who may rank just below Marlborough and Wellington. He probably doesnt deserve to rank alongside them, the debacle of Arnhem put paid to that, as well as his prickly character which won him few friends. But his military record speaks for itself. He saw active service in the first world war and was severely wounded. Then in the Second World War he managed to extricate his Division from Dunkirk, and gained a strong reputation as a trainer of men. When he was finally called to command the Eighth Army in North Africa, he put together a sound plan that turned the course of the Desert War. And only Montgomery could have overseen D-Day so succesfully.

For almost half a century it has been fashionable to knock Montgomery. Perhaps this stems from his abrasive attitude. But on the other hand, Wellington was a notoriously cold character too. Or it may stem from the fact that historical views of Wellington tend to polarise on US-British lines. This arose from the deep dislike that American generals had for Montgomery. But were they right to be so bitter? Montgomery had seen more action than all of them put together. At the start of the war, Eisenhower was a Colonel. Patton was good at driving forward in a straight line very fast, but came unstuck when he faced strong opposition. And to my knowledge, Montgomery cared too much for his men to slap any of them. If he had, he would have been sacked and retired from the Army. And for all his faults, Montgomery always followed orders. Perhaps his greatest fault was that he was right, and was not afraid of saying so.

American Historians – and not a few British ones too – have dominated the military historiography of the second world war. It has almost become an orthodoxy that Montgomery was over-rated. Saving Private Ryan said as much. In America, every general seems to be respected as a matter of course. Whilst I would not go this far, it is frustrating that in Britain we do not stand up for our military figures as much as we should. We love to knock our heroes, and especially our Generals. The late Robin Neillands wrote some very positive books about Montgomery, so hopefully in time historians will come to realise that his perceived faults have been exaggerated, and by comparison his strengths have been overlooked.

It seems that it is not so much what happened during the war that matters, but how it has been written about. It might be quite possible that had American Historians had found reason to denigrate Wellington, he would not be regarded as being as important as he is now. And that would completely change our view of leadership in the British Army. Are we missing out by not holding up Montgomery as a more important figure?

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