Charles Forrester
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
This book seeks to answer an intriguing question: given his superiority in firepower, equipment and intelligence, how did Montgomery experience such difficulty in breaking out of the Normandy beachhead after the D-Day landings. The Wehrmacht, despite the odious regime it defended, is widely accepted to have been the most professional fighting force in the Second World War and was in terrain suited to the defence. Yet the author of this book contends that the combat effectiveness of the German army was only part of the answer.

Montgomery’s combat experience was in North Africa, Sicily and the landings in the toe of Italy, before he returned to the UK to take overall command of the ground forces for the Normandy invasion in December 1943. His first battle, Alam el Halfa, was a purely defensive battle that blunted Rommel’s last, despairing attempt to capture Egypt. By the time he fought El Alamein, Montgomery had a major numerical, material and logistic advantage over Rommel. Coupled with complete air superiority, he was able to fight the type of careful, methodical battle that was his forte.

The invasion of Sicily was fought against Italian troops who has lost heart in the war and German troops who knew Sicily could not be held and sought only to fight a delaying action. The invasion of the ‘heel’ of Italy was carried out after Italian surrender and against only light German opposition, who intended to make a stand in the mountainous territory further north.

This is to take nothing away from Montgomery, who proved highly effective in planning set piece battles or opposed landings. But in none of those battles was close cooperation between infantry and armour required to defeat the Germans. Both arms cooperated, often quite effectively, but they were not intimately coordinated. Nor did either arm fully understand the strengths and limitations of the other.

Therein lay the British 2nd Army’s (and later 21st Army Group’s) weakness. Under Montgomery, its tactics had proved effective enough to defeat the Germans in North Africa, Sicily and the heel of Italy. In the dense hedgerows of Normandy, against a German army that knew its only hope of winning the war was to defeat the Allied landing and throw it back into the sea, those same tactics were found wanting. Montgomery – and every soldier under him – had to relearn their tactical doctrine while actively engaged in combat.

The book proceeds through the changes in the British Army’s methods in a logical manner, starting with pre-war doctrine, then moving to the Western Desert and the methods used before Montgomery took command. The book then moves on to Montgomery’s pre-1944 thinking, taking as its starting point Monty’s early writings in the 1920’s and tracing the evolution of his thinking as he gained practical experience in the Battle of France and in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.

From there, the book moves on to the battles in Normandy and the realisation that there were significant deficiencies in doctrine; what had proved adequate in North Africa was not suitable for the terrain of Normandy. From there came the realisation that infantry and armour needed to be far more closely integrated. So, for instance, divisions moved from having separate armoured and infantry brigades to brigades that contained a mixture of infantry and armour – in effect, the emergence of battlegroups.

The book makes the point that change evolved in a two-way process: the new doctrine being handed down by Montgomery to his senior commanders, while Montgomery himself was simultaneously being influenced by those same senior commanders who had in effect trialled those concepts on the ground in a series of set piece actions. This eventually resulted in two official publications in November and December of 1944: ‘Some Notes on the Conduct of War and the Infantry Division in Battle’ and ‘The Armoured Division in Battle’. These became the official guidance for senior officers and resulted in far better coordination of infantry and armour for the remaining months of the war.

The book makes the point that Montgomery coordinated the change in doctrine, but he was flexible enough to listen to and learn from those of his senior commanders whom he respected. The book also argues that some of the commanders whom Montgomery sacked were not necessarily directly sacked because of poor performance, but because of their unwillingness to adapt to Montgomery’s changing methods and conform to his broad system.

The book is an interesting read, but it will mainly appeal to a specialist audience interested in the underlying reasons for the British Army’s performance in the Second World War; there are no pages devoted to the detail of the 2nd Blankshire Regiment storming village ‘X’ in Operation Goodwood. Instead, the book focuses on doctrine, the influence of Montgomery and his senior officers on tactics and on Montgomery’s relations with his immediate subordinates.

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