Montgomery makes his mark in the desert

Montgomery’s chance to command a modern battle army came in 1942 when he was sent to Eygpt to replace the commander of the Eighth Army. He was photographed shortly after his arrival by air in Cairo.

A British soldier with his rifle and kit, newly-arrived in Egypt, 19 August 1942.

The Corps of Military Police training a Boxer dog to attack, 15 August 1942.

Bernard Montgomery had arrived in North Africa on the 13th August, immediately appointed following the death of Gott. While some experienced desert officers felt that he needed to wait ‘to get his knees brown’ before delivering a new strategy, he very soon demonstrated who was now in charge and what he expected. It was readily apparent that Rommel would be preparing his next move and there was little time in hand.

David Belchem was one of the senior officers who witnessed the change:

The first task which he undertook was to tour the whole of the El Alamein region, and to visit every formation in the Army, studying the ground and defences at the same time.

Wherever conditions permitted, he gathered officers and men about him and personally explained to them his new defensive policy. There would be no withdrawal from El Alamein; he used to say,

‘As long as you are still able to use your finger on the trigger, stay put and keep firing.’

To give effect to this decision, orders were given to stock ammunition, supplies and drinking water in the forward area, and the defended localities were strengthened by additional mines and wire: the El Alamein position was prepared for protracted defence.

At the same time, Monty made it very clear that all belly-aching was to cease. This was a favourite phrase of his, by which he meant that orders are orders, and not a basis for discussion. Since General Ritchie’s days, the tendency had crept in for subordinates to query their instructions when they thought they knew better; with Monty this was an anathema.

Another favourite expression of his was ‘no wet-henning’, which meant that the troops were to remain firm in their positions, and not be ordered constantly to change them whenever some local situation appeared to demand reaction by the defenders to an enemy movement.

See David Belchem: All in the Day’s March

Lieutenant General Montgomery, the new commander of 8th Army, discussing troop dispositions at 22nd Armoured Brigade headquarters, 20 August 1942. The brigade commander, Brigadier ‘Pip’ Roberts is on the right (in beret).

A Grant tank loaded onto a Diamond T transporter, 13 August 1942.

A Jeep being tested on sharp gradients in the Western Desert, 13 August 1942.

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