Montgomery had arrived back in England at the beginning of January to take charge of the 21st Army Group. This designation was based on the First United States Army and the Second British Army that were preparing to invade Europe. Deliberately confusingly there was also FUSAG – the First United States Army Group, supposedly under the leadership General Patton, based somewhere else in southern Britain. At least that’s what the Germans were led to believe.
Within five days of arriving Montgomery had decided that the invasion front was too narrow and added Omaha and Utah beaches to the targets for D-Day.
Then as the detailed planning got under way Montgomery embarked on a speaking tour of the British Isles – travelling around the country on his personal train with his staff officers working hard in the background. Montgomery sought to speak to as many troops as possible, starting with the Americans.
Alan Moorehead was one of the journalists who heard Montgomery speak, as he did after every formal inspection of troops:
And then Montgomery’s speech would go like this: ‘I wanted to come here today so that we could get to know one another: so that I could have a look at you and you could have a look at me – if you think that’s worth doing.
We have got to go off and do a job together very soon now, you and I, and we must have confidence in one another. And now that I have seen you I have complete confidence… complete confidence… absolutely complete confidence. And you must have confidence in me.’
That was the beginning. For a hundred yards all round him row after row of young upturned faces, an atmosphere of adolescent innocence and simplicity. They sat on the grass keeping utterly still lest they should lose a word.
‘We have been fighting the Germans a long time now,’ Montgomery went on. ‘A very long time… a good deal too long. I expect like me you are beginning to get a bit tired of it… beginning to feel it’s about time we finished the thing off.
And we can do it. We can do it. No doubt about that. No doubt about that whatever. The well-trained British soldier will beat the German every time. We saw it in Africa. We chased him into the sea in Tunisia… then we went over to Sicily and chased him into the sea again… I don’t know if there are any more seas…’
This was the point where the soldiers relaxed and laughed. Well, it was true, wasn’t it? The Germans had been beaten in Africa. They weren’t so wonderful.
‘The newspapers keep calling it the Second Front,’ Montgomery continued. ‘I don’t know why they call it the Second Front. I myself have been fighting the Germans on a nunber of fronts, and I expect a good few of you have too.
They should call it Front Number Six or Front Number Seven. As long as they don’t want us to fight on Front Number Thirteen…’
Most of the tenseness had gone out of the soldiers now. Monty was all right. He didn’t talk a lot of cock about courage and liberty. He knew what it was like. And perhaps one had been taking the whole thing a bit too seriously. It wouldn’t be so bad.
Then – ‘We don’t want to forget the German is a good soldier… a very good soldier indeed. But when I look around this morning and see the magnificent soldiers here… some of the best soldiers I have seen in my lifetime… I have no doubt in my mind about the outcome… no doubt whatever. No doubt at all that you and I will see this thing through, together.’
Finally – ‘Now I can’t stay any longer. I expect some of you have come a long way to get here this morning and you want to get back.’ (Some of them had been travelling since 4 am.) ‘I just want to say good-bye and very good luck to each one of you.’
That was the speech, followed by three cheers for the general. I listened to it four and sometimes five times a day for nearly a week. We went from camp to camp over southern England, sometimes standing on wet hill-tops, sometimes surrounded by civilians in city parks, sometimes on a football field or under the shelter of a wood.
Always the same rush to the jeep, the same tense attention. It fascinated me every time. Long after one knew the words by heart and had ceased to listen to them one was swept into the contagious and breathless interest of each new audience.
I suppose I have heard fifty generals addressing their soldiers, most of them with much better speeches than this. Indeed I suppose this speech in print is just about as bad as one could hope to read, outside the hearty naiveté of the kindergarten. Spoken by Montgomery to the soldiers who were about to run into the Atlantic Wall it had magic.
Whatever the post war criticisms of Montgomery, there are numerous reports, from the people who were there, of the very real impact he achieved with these speeches. He was genuinely inspiring – and that was a very rare and valuable asset in these times. See Alan Moorehead: Eclipse.