Student Question

Was Bernard Mongomery, the British army leader in the 1942 war, a hero or a villain?

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Good answer.  Montgomery's only real deficiency as a commander was an unwillingness to move until absolutely ready.  This led to his success in Africa and much of his success in Europe, but it also led to his failure to end the war in 1944.

Patton's success in breaking out of Normandy was planned by Montgomery, who chose to use his own (British and Canadian) troops to tie down the majority of available German troops to Patton's north and west.  However, Montgomery's most ambitious plan didn't turn out as well, Operation Market Garden.  The plan was to drop paratroopers on a succession of four bridges across the Low Countries and drive a motorized column through to seize the bridges and relieve the light troops on the ground.  The objective was to force a decision by Christmas.

Unfortunately, the plan depended on using all available air transport for the drop, and although Eisenhower initially agreed he was worried.  Patton persuaded him to cut the transport, so the paratroops were landed over three days instead of one.  But all four bridges had to be assaulted at once for the plan to succeed, so all four targets were attacked with insufficient force

The farthest bridge was at Arnhem, in the Netherlands.  The first air assault was made 17 September, but Mongomery's lack of speed finally caught up with him.  Although the paratroopers at Arnhem held out until the 25th the Allied forces could not reach them in time to secure the crossing.  The pace of warfare in the Second World War had simply sped up so much that even those commanders thoroughly familiar with mechanized forces were sometimes too slow, although Patton and Eisenhower must take some of the blame for the insufficient air transport.

Motgomery was an excellent field commander, but his personal manner put many off, and his failure to cut the war short at Arnhem tarnished his reputation somewhat.  He was still one of the most perceptive and successful commanders of the war.

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In the desert campaign of North Africa in the early stages of the war, the British had been struggling against the enigmatic German commander Rommel, 'The Desert Fox.' Faced with the possible loss of Egypt Churchill sent Montgomery in to counteract the German advances and open up a front against the Germans. His successes there culminating with the victory of El Alemain led Churchill to declare that 'we never had a victory before it and never a defeat after it.' The BBC history site states that the victory 'also established Montgomery as a shaman whose spells actually worked. As a man who, at least for the moment, could make the current of war flow his way. It deserves remembering, and with justifiable pride.

However in the later stages of the war, at the time of the Normandy landings Montgomery angered the Americans. He has wished to seize Caen on the first day but lacked the troops needed for the operation, or the personnel carriers to get his troops ten miles inland to the major city within a day. He also found the British hemmed in by the german panzers. So the British failed to advance far enough to build the airfields they had as an aim. By anchoring the German panzers it enabled an American break through to the west, but the Americans were angry with Montgomery feeling the British were not taking risks or making enough of an effort. So there was for a time a crisis in Anglo-American relations.

Montgomery is seen as a hero in Britain, less so elsewhere. He was certainly vain and would never admit he was wrong about anything. He was also at times an insisive and inspirational commander loved by his men.

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