The Men behind Monty

men-behind-Monty

The Men Behind Monty examines the role played by the staff in the victorious campaigns of Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery, Britain’s most successful field commander since the Duke of Wellington.

When Monty took command of Eighth Army in August 1942, he inherited the staff of his predecessor. He retained all the key members and most of them stayed with him not only from El Alamein to Tunis, but also in Sicily and Italy.

When he took command of 21st Army Group in January 1944, many accompanied him to take up the most prominent positions on the HQ staff and the majority remained until the German surrender in May 1945.

This fascinating work focuses not only on the senior officers responsible for the various staff branches, and notably on Monty’s outstanding Chief of Staff, Freddie de Guingand, but also on his personal staff, the ADCs and personal liaison officers.

The book sheds light on the work of the staff generally, and on their direct contribution to Monty’s decisions, his sometimes difficult and controversial relationships with his superiors and allies.

This extract describes the situation in the desert just after Montgomery had arrived. The British knew that an attack by Rommel was imminent

Alam Halfa and After

Monty’s first battle was fought less than three weeks after his arrival, much as he had been briefed by Freddie to expect. Although Rommel would be constrained for space by the Qittara Depression, intelligence from ULTRA, which was received on 17 August, confirmed that he would mount an attack from the southern end of his front in the full moon period at the end of the month, using the traditional right hook.

There was subsequent controversy as to whether or not Auchinleck and Dorman-Smith had planned much the same battle, and there is certainly evidence that they realized the vital strategic position of the Alam Halfa Ridge. It is equally clear that, apart from digging defences for a brigade on the ridge, no further action had been taken by the time Monty arrived; indeed, two days beforehand Belchem had found only two Cypriot labour companies there.

Monty immediately assessed the situation and, together with Mainwaring and the Operations team and the recently arrived Horrocks, now commanding XIII Corps, began to make his dispositions. The Alam Halfa Ridge, 12 miles behind and almost at a right angle to the British front line, represented an obstacle to any attempt by the enemy to hook widely in a north—easterly direction and a threat to his left flank if he decided to advance directly to the east.

Strongly garrisoned and with artillery and tanks covering the exits, it would constitute a considerable barrier. Monty’s first move was to ask that 44 Division, newly arrived in Egypt, should be sent up immediately to provide the static garrison. There was some resistance from GHQ on the grounds that the division was still untrained, an observation which went down badly with both Monty and Horrocks, as it had been under their command in both XII Corps and South- Eastern Army.

Accounts differ as to what happened, with both Monty and Freddie writing subsequently that Monty telephoned Alexander directly, whilst John Harding, still the DCGS, maintained that it was he who had spoken to the C—in-C and obtained his approval for the move. Either way, 44 Division arrived very quickly, Belchem having spent a whole night making the necessary arrangements, and its infantry brigades were positioned on and to the east of the ridge, with both the divisional artillery and additional guns from XIII Corps placed within the divisional perimeter.

The main fighting force, however, came from Eighth Army’s armoured brigades. The most important position, on the south—western end of the ridge, was held by 22 Armoured Brigade, its Grant tanks dug in on broken ground on the slopes, with anti-tank guns concealed on an area of flat ground in front of them. Pip Roberts, the brigade commander, was given explicit instructions to remain in his positions and to resist the temptation to attack if the Germans showed signs of retreating.

The Grants of 8 Armoured Brigade were located to the east to forestall any attempt to move around that side of the ridge, and both brigades came under the command of 10 Armoured Division. Meanwhile, 7 Armoured Division, holding the southernmost sector of the front, was instructed to withdraw in the face of an attack, but to harass the attackers as they advanced. Finally, 23 Armoured Brigade, equipped with Valentine infantry tanks, was positioned to the north—west of the ridge to forestall any attempt to reach the sea along the rear of the British front line, as had been tried by Rommel at Gazala.

Freddie now made what proved to be a significant contribution to the battle by deploying a ruse to deceive the Germans. All the units in the desert were equipped with ‘going maps’ showing the surface conditions, which varied from gravel, providing a firm and fast base for vehicles, to soft sand, which was next to impassable, with variable conditions in between.

Freddie arranged for a false ‘going map’ to be produced, on which one area running across a route which Monty did not wish the Germans to take was shown as bad going, whilst an area of very soft sand south of the ridge was shown as satisfactory for tracked vehicles. This was then left in a rucksack in a scout car, which was ‘blown up’ on a mine near an enemy position, its crew being evacuated intact. The car was duly ransacked and it was discovered by a subsequent patrol that the map had disappeared.

Rommel launched his offensive in great strength at 23.00 on 30 August from the position anticipated by ULTRA, where a very strong force consisting of the Afrika Korps of 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions, together with 90 Light Division and the Ariete and Littorio Divisions began to move through the British minefields. Initially, 7 Armoured Division put up resistance, before withdrawing to the east, while 4 Armoured Brigade’s Stuart tanks harassed the right flank of the Afrika Korps as it turned north.

The much improved liaison with the RAF now came into its own as a force of Wellington bombers attacked the Axis troops when they were still tied up in the minefields, scoring immediate successes when General Nehring, commander of the Afrika Korps, was badly wounded and Major General von Bismarck, commander of Zl Panzer Division, was killed along with his chief of staff.

Freddie was woken just after midnight to be told that the attack was under way and went immediately to inform Monty ‘I told him what was happening and all he said was “Excellent, excellent,” and then turned over and went to sleep, breakfasting at his usual time.”

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