Monty’s Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe – John Buckley

The author travels on much trodden ground in discussing the events from D-Day to the end of the war. Nevertheless, in its 370 or so pages, this is a worthy effort. John Buckley’s main intention, he declares, is to demonstrate that the British Army that fought through Europe under Montgomery was far more effective than has previously been thought.

As Buckley points out, Montgomery was given two basic objectives by Churchill before the Allies launched the liberation of Europe. These were that the British Army should make a significant enough contribution in the fighting to ensure that Churchill could sit at the negotiating table at the end of the war on equal terms with Roosevelt and Stalin, whilst at the same time avoiding as much as possible the bloodletting that Churchill recalled so well in the fighting in Europe against the Germans in the First World War.

These aims were self-evidently incompatible, yet Buckley argues that Montgomery was largely to achieve both. Having stated that, Buckley concedes that the bitter fighting in Normandy in the summer of 1944 saw casualty rates higher than those experienced at Passchendaele in 1917 and that a junior officer had only a one-in-ten chance of surviving from D-Day to the end of the war. According to Lieutenant Sidney Jary, his detachment was given the following information on arriving in Normandy in June 1944: “Gentlemen, your life expectancy from the day you join your battalion will be precisely three weeks.” Yet these losses were well within expectations and were considered by the War Office as “entirely acceptable”.

What Buckley attempts to demonstrate is that rather than throwing bodies at the Germans as was the 1914-18 fashion, the 21st Army Group instead relied on superior firepower and logistics. As Buckley puts it, British commanders wanted to deploy metal rather than flesh to win their battles.

The consequence of this philosophy was that the British were criticized for a want of aggression, particularly in failing to exploit breakthroughs when the opportunity presented itself. Buckley, whist accepting that this was the case, declares that the army was “conceptually unsuited to this type of dynamism because it had adopted operational and tactical methods that emphasised risk aversion”, and “where possible only committing to battle when the weight of Allied resources and firepower could reduce the likelihood of heavy casualties”. This, indeed, was the aim of generals before the First World War changed much military thinking. Commanders of the past would aim to commit to battle only when they felt that they had the odds stacked in their favour.

This approach, nevertheless, led to accusations that the British lacked aggression and were slow and plodding in their movements. Such complaints were voiced by Liddell Hart, who wrote in 1952 that this had been occasioned by a “national decline in boldness and initiative – from decreasing vitality or increasing domestication”!

Buckley particularly emphasises the resources put into the 21st Army Group’s logistical support. Montgomery was concerned with the morale of his citizen-based (or over-domesticated?) army and wanted to ensure that it was always well-supplied. This again meant that there were to be no rash advances beyond the reach of the supporting services. This ensured that the troops were always as contented as was possible in such circumstances. An army, after all, marches on its stomach.

Regarding their troops as their most valuable asset meant that the British officers treated their men with a degree of respect, refusing, as Buckley writes, to enforce compliance through fear alone and, at the same time, providing excellent medical care and logistical support and creating an atmosphere in which lives would rarely be wasted unduly in futile or risky operations. Montgomery may not have been universally popular with the troops, Buckley agrees, but most at least accepted that he knew what he was doing and would do everything to win with low casualties.

Buckley has taken an interesting approach to a familiar subject and he argues his case well.

Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.

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