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Posted on Aug 25, 2005 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Monty: World War II’s Most Misunderstood General, Part 2

By Carlo D'Este

None of the words of praise and self-congratulation that followed could mask the hollowness of the victory in a campaign beset by military blunders, controversy and indecision. The Allies needlessly prolonged the campaign by fighting a frontal battle of attrition, with the result that a veteran German Army corps that never exceeded 60,000 men, devoid of air and naval support, managed to delay for thirty-eight days two Allied armies whose combined strength exceeded 480,000 troops – adding the final insult by carrying out one of the most successful strategic withdrawals in military history.5

Sicily has been aptly described as “an Allied physical victory, and a German moral victory.” The reasons included Alexander’s failure to take charge of the battle; his unjustified mistrust of American fighting ability; Montgomery’s changes of strategy; the failure of the air forces to make more than a token effort to impede the German evacuation, and the navy’s failure to block the Strait of Messina. Eisenhower played no role, made no important decisions and had virtually no impact on Operation Husky. Eisenhower’s three force commanders ran the show without a helmsman with utterly predictable results. Montgomery’s verdict was unsparing, “Alexander’s plan for Sicily was idiotic,” he said after the war.6


With the invasion of Northwest Europe (Operation Overlord) delayed to the late spring of 1944, the Allies were committed to an invasion of Italy following the fall of Sicily. The Italian campaign that followed presented an entirely new set of challenges for Eisenhower, beginning with the decision to invade Italy at two different points in early September with Mark Clark’s Fifth U.S. Army and Montgomery’s Eighth Army. In effect, Eisenhower was directed to fight a war in Italy with no identifiable or stated strategic goal, rapidly diminishing assets, and only the vaguest prior planning. To make matters worse, a great many of his existing military assets were due to be sent to England by the end of 1943 to support Overlord.

Montgomery believed that a costly and laborious drive north through southern Italy was pointless and said so unequivocally. “Before we embark on major operations on the mainland of Europe we must have a master plan and know how we propose to develop these operations,” he said. “I have not been told of any master plan and I must therefore assume that there was none.”7 His chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Francis de Guingand, asked the question no one seemed willing to address: “If [Operation] Avalanche [the Fifth U.S. Army invasion of Salerno] is a success, then we should reinforce that front for there is little point in laboriously fighting our way up Southern Italy. It is better to leave the enemy to decay there or let him have the trouble of moving himself up from the foot to where we are concentrated.” 8 Yet, neither Eisenhower nor Alexander ever delineated who was going to do what in Italy, or to what objective. Thus, before it even began the Italian campaign was already adrift.9

There was little Montgomery could do to alter Allied thinking or persuade Eisenhower to cancel an invasion of the Italian boot (Operation Baytown) and use the threat of landings in Calabria as a means of tying down enemy forces which might otherwise imperil Fifth Army at Salerno. His uncompromising stand over Husky, and now over Italy, wore out his welcome as an arbitrator of Allied policy even though in both instances he was right. Consequently, his complaints about the futility of Baytown were not only ignored, but also provided additional ammunition to those anxious to discredit him. Eisenhower was infuriated by the time it took Montgomery to launch Operation Baytown. He wanted action and complained, “I told General Alexander I believed we could do it in a rowboat. We sat there in Messina from 17 August until 3 September.”10

The crux of the great dilemma facing Eisenhower and the Allies in Italy was one that plagued them throughout the entire war: namely, that the Germans usually failed to co-operate with Allied assumptions about what they would do. In Italy, it was Hitler and Field Marshal Albert Kesselring (the German C-in-C in the Mediterranean) who determined the course of events. As Alexander later described it, “we had the initiative in operations but the Germans had the initiative in deciding whether we should achieve our object since they were free . . . to refuse to allow themselves to be contained in Italy. Had they decided to withdraw altogether, for instance, they could have defended the line of the Alps, or one of the strong river lines in northeastern Italy, with the minimum of forces and, instead of us containing them, they would be containing us.”11

M-10 Tank Destroyers pass by the Roman Coliseum on 5 June 1944.
(National Archives)

The term Murphy’s Law had yet to be coined but if it had, it certainly would have applied to Italy where, during the twenty months from September 1943 to the end of the war in May 1945, the Allies fought one bloody battle after another for reasons no one ever fully understood. Allied strategy in Italy never seemed to be to win, but rather to drag out the war there for as long as possible and in so doing to keep Kesselring’s army group from being dispersed to fight in France. Eisenhower was among the first to learn that the war in Italy bore scant resemblance to the pre-campaign ivory tower that dominated Allied conceptions. As one historian has written, “Few soldiers of World War II experienced the kind of deadening, soul- destroying fighting that characterized” World War I. “most of those who did experience it fought in Italy.”12 Italy also proved the accuracy of Montgomery’s warnings that the Allies had no discernible strategy. He had seen death and futility during World War I and like any good commander was determined never to needlessly sacrifice the lives of his men on futile or unnecessary battles. The crux of his dissention revolved around this point.

One digression before concluding this installment: when Patton got into serious trouble after slapping two soldiers for what he believed was malingering in U.S. field hospitals, an unfavorable remark about Patton appeared in the Eighth Army newspaper. Montgomery’s policy was to give his editor complete freedom from command interference, however, after the story about Patton appeared, Monty summoned the editor for a chat with his very displeased commanding general. As Montgomery’s official biographer has written: “Monty had been genuinely impressed by Seventh Army’s mobility, speed . . . rugged determination and professionalism – and he would have nothing derogatory printed in Eighth Army newspapers [about Patton].”13

When Eisenhower, Montgomery and Bradley were summoned to England to play key roles in Operation Overlord, the cross-Channel invasion of France, the divisiveness that occurred in Sicily would persist in England and Northwest Europe, much of it focused Bernard Montgomery.

[Reminder: This is part 2 of a three-part article. The first installment can be found here. Part 3 can be found here.]

References – Monty: World War II’s Most Misunderstood General, Part 2

1. Omar N. Bradley, with Clay Blair, A General’s Life, (New York, 1983), p. 189.
2. Ibid., pp. 188-89.
3. Dominick Graham and Shelford Bidwell, Coalitions, Politicians and Generals, (London, 1993), p. 219. Lt. Gen. Oliver Leese, one of Montgomery’s corps commanders, later conceded it was “an unfortunate decision. We were still inclined to remember the slow American progress in the early stages in Tunisia, and I for one certainly did not realize the immense development in experience and technique which they had made in the last weeks of the North African campaign. I have a feeling now that if they [the 45th Division] could have driven straight up this road, we might have had a chance to end this frustrating campaign sooner.” (See the author’s 1988 account of the Sicily campaign, Bitter Victory: The Battle for Sicily, 1943, pp. 332-33.)
4. The German XIV Panzer Corps successfully evacuated 9,789 vehicles, 51 tanks, 163 artillery weapons and some 40,000 tons of precious supplies.
5. A full account of the German evacuation and its consequences is in Bitter Victory, Chap. 30. Eisenhower’s intelligence officer was Brigadier Kenneth Strong, a British career intelligence officer in whom Ike placed great confidence. Strong’s performance in Sicily, however, was inept. Although he had strong evidence of Axis intentions, until their evacuation of Sicily was actually completed, Strong denied an evacuation was even taking place. His predictions ran counter to those of the astute Seventh Army G-2, Col. Oscar Koch, and Montgomery’s intelligence officer, Brig. Edgar Williams, both of whom accurately predicted the evacuation. (Bitter Victory, Chap. 31, passim.)
6. Montgomery interview with Samuel Eliot Morison, circa 1957, Morison Papers, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
7. Ibid.
8. War Diary, Eighth Army, Minutes of Planning Conference, Aug. 10,1943, British National Archives, (formerly called the Public Record Office [PRO]), file WO 169/8494.
9. The U.S. Army chief of staff, Gen. George Marshall, for example, believed Allied operations in Italy should have been limited to securing airfields around Foggia and tying down as many German troops as possible without undertaking an advance into northern Italy. He deplored the pressures by Churchill and the British chiefs of staff to advance deeper into Italy.
10. Alexander dispatch, published as a supplement to the London Gazette, June 12, 1950.
11. James L. Stokesbury, A Short History of World War II (New York, 1980), p. 299.
12. Ibid.
13. Nigel Hamilton, Monty: Master of the Battlefield, 1942-1944 (London/NY, 1983), p. 374.

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1 Comment

  1. The Tiger is outside 47 Corso Indipendenza, Acate, Sicily. It appears to have been destroyed by its own crew.


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