Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Oct 12, 2005 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Monty: World War II’s Most Misunderstood General, Part 3

By Carlo D'Este

Montgomery’s first decision in his new role as commander of the northern sector was to visit First Army to meet with Hodges and Simpson in order to assess for himself what needed to be done. He deliberately flew British pennants on the hood of his staff car that was surrounded by motorcycle outriders. An aide to Hodges described his arrival as like "Christ come to cleanse the temple," a remark that Bradley would later gleefully repeat in his memoirs. Monty’s object, however, was simply to restore confidence in an organization where morale was bereft. Flying the British flag was his means of demonstrating no one had anything to fear.

Although Montgomery appeared imperious to his new American subordinates his need to exude confidence in the presence of Hodges and Simpson, his demeanor was no different than with his British subordinates. The line between confidence and arrogance is thin and his no-nonsense, take-charge approach to generalship was certainly open to misinterpretation. Montgomery’s intentions, however, were clear enough. First and foremost it was to restore the flagging morale that existed at First Army. Hodges was not without resolve, but what he and Simpson lacked was guidance from Bradley. Thus, it was clear to Montgomery that his first task was to provide the necessary leadership to stabilize the front and halt the German attack. What is equally clear is that Montgomery’s air of confidence was misinterpreted as censure.


Soldiers of the 4th Armored Division on outpost duty outside Bastogne, Belgium. Date is 3 January 1945. (National Archives)

Montgomery found Hodges in a near state of exhaustion and had he been British, would have relieved him of command; as it was he tactfully suggested to Bedell Smith that it might be necessary to relieve Hodges. Smith did not disagree but said if it were necessary, SHAEF would do it. Montgomery suggested waiting twenty-four hours before any decision was made. The following day Montgomery’s chief of staff telephoned Smith and said that, "Hodges is not the man I would pick, but he is much better [today]." Eisenhower later confirmed he would have agreed to Hodges’ relief.

The First Army staff, already resentful of the change of command, is alleged to have been less than pleased to be under British command. Such resentments, and many seem to be of postwar creation, were not evident to James Gavin, the 82d Airborne commander, when he dined with Hodges and his staff several days later. "The staff spoke of Montgomery with amusement and respect. They obviously liked him and respected his professionalism." For his part, Gavin was impressed with Montgomery as a soldier. "I took a liking to him that has not diminished with the years." 6

With the exception of Patton, Montgomery was the only senior commander to regularly visit his troops at the Ardennes front. Montgomery’s presence and his decisions to reassign responsibilities and realign units of both First and Ninth Armies was precisely the fitting remedy. For American commanders, to cede ground was considered sinful, however, after visiting St. Vith and determining that if the 7th Armored remained it would be annihilated, Montgomery decreed that further defense of the town was futile and, with Hodges’s concurrence, ordered what was left of the division to withdraw to new positions on December 22. The 7th Armored’s brilliantly orchestrated defense of St. Vith against near-impossible odds had stemmed the advance of Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army until December 23, when the last elements evacuated the shattered town. The defense of St. Vith was a key factor in the German failure in the Ardennes. The official U.S Army historian wrote that Montgomery’s decision reflected his "ability to honor the fighting man which had endeared him to the hearts of the Desert Rats [of the British 7th Armored Division] in North Africa: ‘They can come back with all honor. They come back to the more secure positions. They put up a wonderful show.’" 7 The defenders of St. Vith were unambiguous about their feelings toward the field marshal. "Montgomery saved the 7th Armored Division," said Robert Hasbrouck. 8

In a photograph taken on 4 March 1945, Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery (left) is seen here talking to Lieutenant General William H. Simpson (2nd from right), commander of the U.S. 9th Army. Simpson is flanked by Major General Raymond McLain (center of photograph) and Major General Gillem (far right). (National Archives)

History might have been kinder to Monty’s achievements in the Ardennes had it not been for some ill chosen remarks at a press conference in early January 1945 when he inflamed the already strained relations between himself and the senior American commanders. In a case of good intentions gone badly awry, it was Montgomery’s choice of words and the manner in which he uttered them that reopened fresh wounds. Instead of smoothing troubled waters, what came across to the correspondents smacked of arrogance and the impression that it was Montgomery and the British army that had saved the day in the Ardennes. Bradley, who was still smarting over having been compelled by Eisenhower to cede control of First Army to his nemesis, was infuriated. Monty’s staff had unsuccessfully attempted to dissuade him from ever giving the press conference. Daily Express correspondent Alan Moorehead later exclaimed, "Oh, God, why didn’t you stop him? It was so awful." At a stroke, Montgomery had turned possibly his finest hour as a military commander into an unmitigated disaster. He later candidly admitted in his memoirs that it was "probably a mistake to have held this conference at all." 9

Montgomery’s words were broadcast over the BBC and several days later a German propagandist broke into a BBC broadcast channel and, in the guise of being a genuine BBC announcer, mocked American generalship in the Ardennes. Embarrassed, the British press chief, Brendon Bracken, attempted to smooth over the matter, but the damage had been done. Churchill attempted to redress the damage in a speech to the House of Commons noting that, "what was done to meet von Rundstedt’s [sic] counterstroke was resolute, wise, and militarily correct . . . Let no one lend themselves to the shouting of mischief makers when issues of this momentous consequence are being successfully decided by the sword."

The battles that raged for six weeks in the frozen hell of the Ardennes were among the bitterest and bloodiest of any fought by the Allies in northwest Europe during the campaigns of 1944-1945. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery played what is now a largely forgotten but enormously important role. His military legacy has always been marred by a lifelong tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Few remember Monty’s superb generalship in the bloody Ardennes; many remember his disastrous press conference.

Recommended further reading:

John S.D. Eisenhower, The Bitter Woods (New York: Putnam, 1969).

David W. Hogan, Jr. A Command Post at War: First Army Headquarters in Europe, 1944-1945 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 2000)

Jerry D. Morelock, Generals of the Ardennes (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1994).

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

1. Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, (New York: 1984), p. 205.

2. David W. Hogan, Jr. A Command Post at War, p. 212.

3. Ibid., Chap. 7.

4. Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Betts oral history, Eisenhower Library.

5. Without their own on the spot evaluations the 12th Army Group was of little help to First Army. The fact that the two staffs held each other in contempt was equally unhelpful. In particular, the respective G-2s, First Army’s Dickson and 12th AG’s Edwin Sibert never saw eye to eye on intelligence matters.

6. James M. Gavin, On To Berlin (New York, 1978), pp. 244 and 184.

7. Hugh M. Cole, The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge (Washington, D.C., 1950), p. 413.

8. Jerry D. Morelock, "Darkest of Times," A Critical Analysis of Bradley’s Leadership in the Battle of the Bulge." Brig. Gen. Bruce C. Clarke who organized the defense of St. Vith was equally impressed with Montgomery. "From Hasbrouck, Clarke later learned what Montgomery’s attitude was: the 7th Armored mission was to delay the Germans three days. They had delayed them now a full working week, accomplishing the mission beyond the call of duty. These troops would be needed later. They should be pulled out immediately." (William D. Ellis and Thomas J. Cunningham, Jr., Clarke of St. Vith [Cleveland, 1974], 128.)

9. Montgomery of Alamein, Memoirs (London, 1958), p. 314.

Pages: 1 2 3

1 Comment

  1. Carlo D’Este wrote this? Mr. D’Este is a person whose work I continue to view as one of the standards of USA layman’s military history. Yet this work, “Monty: World War II’s Most Misunderstood General”, isn’t even remotely of such a quality. My words to follow are critical of Mr. D’Este’s effort…but frankly, am far more critical of the editor who chose to allow this to go to print. Essentially, Editor, what were you thinking? The topic of Monty’s career is certainly worthy of thought. And engaging Mr. D’Este to share his thoughts on the matter is without question a valuable addition to Armchair General’s body of work…so, one must ask, other than the title, Editor, where might you point to such a discussion? Mr. D’Este effort might well be published, but for Pete’s sake, change the title….


  1. Worst General in History - Page 16 - Historum - History Forums - [...] [...]
  2. Greatest American General - Page 9 - Historum - History Forums - […] For example Gavin on the claimed 'resentment' of Monty taking command of Hodges during the Bulge: Monty: World War…
  3. Market Garden, 1944, was it really "90% successful"? - Page 13 - Historum - History Forums - […] as a soldier. "I took a liking to him that has not diminished with the years." from Monty: World…