The Men Behind Monty – The Staff and HQs of Eighth Army and 21st Army Group (Book) Review
by Richard Doherty
Publisher: Pen and Sword Books
Author: Richard Mead
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Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, Monty, had the highest profile of any British commander of the Second World War and, in the years since that cataclysm, has probably generated more books and comment than any of his contemporaries. Indeed, so much has been written about Monty that it would seem that there was neither anything new left to explore nor any fresh way in which to approach this major figure in twentieth-century British history.
Step forward Richard Mead, author of the outstanding biography of Sir Richard McCreery, to demonstrate that there is another avenue along which Monty could be studied: how and with whom Monty staffed his HQs in Eighth Army and 21st Army Group. Although the names of some of his senior staff are well known, at least to military historians, with de Guingand, Richardson and Williams foremost, those of other senior staff and his many junior staff are not well-known. There are some exceptions, Mather and Poston being the most notable.
Monty’s command and control system used junior officers to liaise between his own HQ and those of subordinate formations to obtain up-to-date information on the battlefield situation. These liaison officers – LOs – have a parallel in Wellington’s young ADCs and a further similarity is that both men chose these staff members personally. In both cases, the young officers carried the authority of their masters as they visited battlefield formations. And ‘Each evening at dinner they provided a much needed safety valve for their commander, who enjoyed their company enormously.
It would seem that Montgomery was emulating Wellington. In fact he wasn’t and believed that he had created an ‘entirely new system of operating command’. However, as the author points out, it was the quest for ‘tight control over the battlefield’ that led both commanders to adopt what was ‘an identical solution’. In Monty’s case, of course, the LOs had vehicles, either jeeps or scout cars, and sometimes aircraft to cover the much greater distances involved in the campaigns of Eighth Army and 21st Army Group.
The most prominent figure in this study is Freddie de Guingand who served as Monty’s chief of staff from his appointment as commander Eighth Army in August 1942 until the end of the war. As with most of Monty’s staff, de Guingand was devoted to ‘master’ and, indeed, saved Montgomery from himself on more than one occasion.
While there is no doubt that Monty was also devoted in his own way to de Guingand and the other members of his staff, one cannot help feeling that such devotion depended solely on the staff member being useful to Montgomery. Somehow he never seemed to appreciate fully what de Guingand and others achieved for him. Nor did he seem to appreciate the strain placed on them. (De Guingand, in particular, suffered severe nervous exhaustion in the service of his commander.) Perhaps Monty was the very first person to accept fully the ‘Monty legend’?
We learn much of the inner workings of an army and an army group HQ from this book. The scale of an army group HQ is also clear and Monty’s system of operating with a Tac HQ, a Main HQ and a Rear HQ is explained clearly and in detail. A wide range of responsibilities was dealt with at 21st Army Group HQ which broadened as the north-west Europe campaign developed. Not only did the HQ have to deal with such matters as the day-to-say provisioning of two armies on active service, but it also had to deal with the civilian populations of liberated and, later, occupied territories which required a large Civil Affairs branch. Three clear diagrams of the G, Q and A staffs of the army group HQ, and a list of the officers of Tac HQ, are included, with the diagrams indicating just how wide was the range of duties performed.
A constant factor was the friction that existed between Montgomery and his immediate superior, General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander. There were times when this friction had reached a point where Eisenhower’s patience with his subordinate was close to exhaustion, and it was only the diplomacy and wise counsel of de Guingand that saved Monty.
This book illuminates a lesser-known aspect the Monty story and of the subject’s character. It thus deserves to find a place on the shelves of anyone interested in the military history of the twentieth century, especially that of the British Army. As a study in command and control, it is also valuable with its many lessons for the professional officer. Above all, it is a human story that is both thoroughly researched and very well written.
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