Richard Mead tells all about The Men Behind Monty

Posted on Tuesday 12th April 2016

As a military historian and biographer I had hitherto always, like most of my fellow authors, focused on field commanders. Whilst casting around for a suitable subject for a new book, however, I was offered access to the papers of General Sir Charles Richardson.
Richardson was one of those who had been at Eighth Army HQ when Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery arrived to take command in August 1942 and had then accompanied him all the way from El Alamein to the Baltic, except for a brief period when he was lent to General Mark Clark.
He had written his own autobiography and, just as importantly, was the biographer of Monty’s Chief of Staff, Freddie de Guingand, so his papers were of potentially considerable value.
Freddie de Guingand, Monty’s Chief of Staff
The germ of an idea began to take shape that I could explore many aspects of the staff in the field, built around the figure of Britain’s best known general of the twentieth century. I took the idea in the first instance to Monty’s son, David, whom I already knew well, not only because he was an authority on his father, but also because he had met many of the key members of his staff.
Further investigation showed that there was no lack of source material. As they were required to do, each of the staff branches and sub-branches kept war diaries, which are varying in quality, but nevertheless full of day-to-day information which throw some light on their activities. There is no lack of other official and semi-official documents bearing on the subject. Perhaps more importantly, many of those who had belonged to the HQs subsequently went into print, de Guingand, Richardson and several more by way of published autobiographies, others through rather more informal reminiscences. The officers at Montgomery’s Tactical HQ were particularly prolific, possibly because their very closeness to the C-in-C meant that their experiences went well beyond those of the average staff officer. Many of the key figures also recorded interviews, now in the archives of the Imperial War Museum.
Monty was fortunate to have inherited a talented group of individuals at Eighth Army HQ. That they had yet to be welded into a cohesive team was the result both of weak command in the past and, more recently, of extreme confusion. Monty, for his part, knew a great deal about staff work, both theoretical and practical. He had served on the Western Front in the Great War as a Brigade Major, as a GSO2 in both a division and a corps and briefly as the GSO1 of another division.
Monty with the senior staff officers of Eighth Army shortly before the invasion of Sicily
He had attended the post-war course at Camberley in 1920, when it still lasted for a single year, and followed this with three successive staff appointments. He was on the Directing Staff at Camberley for three years in the late 1920s and Chief Instructor at Quetta in the mid-1930s. He had commanded successively a brigade, two divisions, one of them in action, two corps and a Home Forces command, the last the equivalent of an army. There was little he did not know about the work of the General Staff branch, but he was also very familiar with A and Q, the Adjutant General’s and Quartermaster General’s branches, and had strong views on administration.
This might have been intimidating within his HQs, but in fact Monty, or ‘Master’ as he was called behind his back, never interfered with staff work. His style of leadership was to select the best people, inform them fully of his plans and then let them get on with the job. If they were good, and most of them were, they survived. If not, and there are relatively few examples, they left. His insistence on running his campaigns from a small Tac HQ meant that he actually distanced himself physically from what was happening at his Main and Rear HQs. The key members of the staff were required to visit him frequently, but even in North Africa, once the army was on the move, Monty rarely spent time at his Main HQ and almost never visited his Rear HQ, whilst at 21st Army Group he knew few below the heads of branches and those at Tac HQ.
Monty briefs his Personal Liaison Officers
Whilst the main objective of the book is to shine a light on Monty’s staff, it is inevitably just as much about him. The story of the staff can only be told in the context of the events in which he played the leading part, but what it attempts to do is to describe how those events were influenced by their work and their advice. Several thousand officers and men served in the HQs of Eighth Army and 21 Army Group between 1942 and 1945, but the focus must inevitably alight on relatively few of them, broadly divided into two groups. The first of these consists of the major players, headed by de Guingand and including the heads of the various staff branches and functions and the senior advisers. The second group contains those much more junior officers who were physically close to Monty, his personal staff and personal liaison officers, the latter something of an innovation and a most important ingredient of Monty’s approach to running a campaign.
In order to appreciate how all these men made their individual contributions, it is also necessary to understand something about their work. The organisation of Eighth Army HQ was relatively straightforward. Its strength fluctuated, rather depending on what the Army was doing at the time. At its peak it had over 200 officers and 1200 other ranks, but in the quiet patch between the end of the Tunisian campaign and the invasion of Sicily, the numbers dropped to 67 and 323 respectively. There was always a superior HQ to look after much of the logistics and take over the rear areas once these were liberated.
King George V with members of his household and Monty’s ADCs in the Netherlands
By contrast, 21st Army Group HQ was huge. It was itself the superior HQ for between two and four armies and, although Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters sat above it, in practice it handled all its own administrative requirements, which were highly complex. Among many other activities it constructed and ran long pipelines to carry petroleum and aviation fuel and it operated its own general hospitals. Unlike in Italy, where an organisation divorced from military command relieved those doing the fighting as early as possible, 21st Army Group remained directly responsible for Civil Affairs in its rear areas and, from early in 1945, for Military Government in its sector of Germany. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that by VE-Day the combined Tac, Main and Rear HQs of the Army Group numbered over 1,000 officers and 3,500 other ranks.
I also thought that it would be essential to look at Eighth Army before Monty’s arrival. Although he was the agent of considerable change in the army itself, at Army HQ the detailed staff work continued much as before and there were few changes in personnel. The contrast, on the other hand, between the ways in which Monty and General Auchinleck, his predecessor, used their staff was substantial.
Whilst Monty dominates the story, the ‘hero’ of the book is really Freddie de Guingand, the man who made it all happen. He was the antithesis of ‘Master’, most noticeably because of his emollient character: if Monty ruffled feathers, de Guingand smoothed them, and on at least one occasion he saved Monty from the potentially disastrous consequences of his actions. The members of the staff were devoted to him at a much more personal level than they were to Monty. They also admired him hugely for his professionalism and his dedication.
On 8 June 1946, a great Victory Parade was held in London, with representatives of the Armed Forces and Civilian Services and detachments from the British Empire and most of the United Nations. The members of the Chiefs of Staff Committee had a prominent role both in the parade and on the saluting base, whilst field commanders were present in abundance, including Monty, who was rapturously received by the crowd.There was, however, no representation from the staff of any of the various formations which had done the fighting. Lieutenant General Sandy Galloway, who had not only served as the very first BGS of Eighth Army, but had also succeeded Freddie as Chief of Staff of 21st Army Group immediately after the end of the War, wrote to him two days earlier:
"I should have thought that they might have included some of the staff who played a part in all the immense work that went on. This war has not only been a war of commanders, but of intense and brilliant staff work."
My hope is that The Men Behind Monty demonstrates the truth of Galloway’s words.
Educated at Cambridge University, Richard Mead is a chartered accountant with wide commercial experience. As a military historian he specialises in the Second World War.

Further Reading

The Men Behind Monty
(Hardback - 290 pages)
ISBN: 9781473827165

by Richard Mead
Only £25.00

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…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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