The Guns at Last Light: Monty in Full

Even Brooke felt uneasy, telling a colleague that Montgomery “is probably the finest tactical general we have had since Wellington. But on some of his strategy, and especially his relations with the Americans, he is almost a disaster.”

Rick Atkinson
The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945

Rick Atkinson’s Guns at Last Light, the capstone book of his trilogy on the liberation of Europe, comes to the reader’s hands with great expectations set by the author himself. In the two previous Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes, An Army at Dawn  and The Day of Battle, Atkinson offered narrative histories of the U.S. Army’s role in North Africa and the Italian campaigns respectively, narratives that surpass in research, detail, and scope, and clarity any that had come before, and that guide the reader to rethink all he or she had known about those periods.

That said, North Africa and Italy both begged for such treatment. Long seen as extended if bloody overtures to the main event in France, they had not been covered in popular history to the depth of the key events in the allied drive from Normandy to the Elbe. As I waited for Atkinson to complete the third book, I wondered what new insights he could possibly bring to D-Day or the Bulge, two of the most studied battles in history.

As I began The Guns at Last Light, my concerns were deepened rather than diminished. It felt like I had walked this ground before: the sealift, the gliders, the paratroops, the beaches, the hedgerows. But at some point – and I don’t know exactly where – Atkinson begins to weave in threads that, subtly at first, begin to change the way I saw the whole campaign.

By the time Georgie Patton, despairing to the point of paranoid distraction at being left out of the fight, is brought in to take Third Army and execute the breakout from hedgerow country, I felt like I was watching the battle from a newer, more deeply embedded set of eyes. The battle for the Falaise pocket jumped from the pages, and the operations in Southern France attained such a dimension – and an urgency – that I almost threw the book down, feeling like I had been cheated all my life by the overwhelming focus on the fight in the north.

And that sets the tone for the entire book, a series of revelations that we have been treated to a very skeletal, incomplete, and two-dimensional history of the liberation of Western Europe. In fact, there are so many such epiphanies that I am going to cover them over the course of several posts.

I have to start, though, with Monty.

I grew up an unabashed fan of General George Smith Patton, Jr. I saw some of me in him – the loner, the obsession with war, the comfortable upbringing in Southern California. And my mother in particular was an admirer, naming him to be the finest tactician we had ever produced. So I was a Patton fan. Patton and Monty were rivals. So I grew up disliking Monty, abetted by Michael Bates’ superb portrayal of the man in the film Patton. 

Atkinson’s examination of Montgomery, deeply in the context of the milieu and the moment, is sure to disappoint Monty and Patton fans alike. The author neither pulls punches or crucifies the field marshal. Instead he gives the man his full due as the British Empire’s finest tactician, recounting his victories, giving him credit for his drive and vision, and recognizing that in this way he was exactly the commander the British Army needed in North Africa, and probably in Sicily as well.

When it comes to Montgomery’s faults, Atkinson neither embellishes nor opines: he lets the words of his fellow leaders, his juniors, and his superiors tell the entire story. And what emerges is that while Monty was a fine commander when he had is own theater of operations to control, he was a disaster when it came to either taking orders or playing nicely with others.

Funny, isn’t it, that we can say the very same things about Georgie Patton. But Eisenhower had advantages with Patton that made it easier form him to control Georgie than Monty. Patton trusted Ike – their military pedigrees were similar, and they had shared many of the same ideas about combined arms combat together when serving as colonels in the 1930s. Ike also had a leash on Patton, handed to him by Georgie’s extensive off-plan freelancing in Sicily (the left-hook to Palermo and the manic drive to beat Monty into Messina) and the slapped soldier fiasco during the same campaign. Patton was on his last leg with Ike and George C. Marshall, and he knew it. Finally, Patton was a US Army officer: the chain of command was clear, and Ike was boss.

Eisenhower’s ability to command Montgomery was decidedly more tenuous. The trust was not there, Monty thought Ike a buffoon, and the British seemed intent on doing everything to abet Monty’s independence from American command. According to Atkinson, upon Eisenhower’s naming as supreme commander:

Churchill, “as a solace,” promoted Montgomery to the rank of field marshal on September 1, giving him the equivalent of five stars to Eisenhower’s four. This, as the prime minister said with no little spite, “will put the changes in command in their proper perspective.” Although Eisenhower praised Montgomery to reporters as “not only my very close and warm friend, but … one of the great soldiers of this or any other war,” the promotion went down badly at SHAEF.

Little wonder. It was a move that would dog the allied effort through V-E Day, and that gave Montgomery all the license he needed to make himself the largest thorn in Eisenhower’s side for the duration. Throughout the book, you can feel that Atkinson does not want to belabor the Monty problem, but it continues to emerge and rises to the fore in the Ardennes and throughout the Bulge.

Over time, though, Montgomery seemed to fall slowly into line, perhaps realizing that Ike was going to get his way of a unified front moving across Europe rather than letting Monty lurch across northwest Germany with an armored pincer aimed at Berlin.

***

The media, in cooperation with the Allied governments, turned many star-bedecked victors into heroes in World War II. It is perhaps worthy to beatify a living commander in the heat of battle: the exigencies of war in a democratic society seem to demand such heroes.

But in the cold light of history, we owe it to ourselves and to the men and women who will one day assume command to take a hard look at these leaders, warts and all. We Americans were taught to cordially dislike Monty: among all of our Allied generals, he ranks alongside De Gaulle as an egotistical martinet, and alongside Zhukov as one who postwar history did not treat particularly well.

But he had his virtues alongside his vices, and an appreciation of both will give us all a better idea of how to train for and conduct war under combined command in the future.

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