MONTGOMERY, Bernard Law, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (1887-1976) a.k.a. Monty
Plaque erected in 1987 by English Heritage at 52-54 Kennington, Kennington Oval, London, SE11 5SW, London Borough of Lambeth
Field Marshal VISCOUNT MONTGOMERY OF ALAMEIN 1887-1976 was born here
Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, a.k.a 'Monty', was a celebrated British Army officer, best known for his leadership during the Second World War at El-Alamein and Normandy.
Montgomery was born in the substantial white-painted detached villa that bears his plaque. The house dates from the mid 19th century, and was once the vicarage of nearby St Mark’s Church. His father Henry was vicar of the church for ten years from 1879.
The family left here when Montgomery was just two years old, when his father became Bishop of Tasmania. He returned with his family to England in 1901, and – having joined the Army in 1908 – first showed his worth as staff officer during the First World War. At Marne he was shot through the right lung: a grave was dug for him, but he recovered.
Between the wars he served in India, Egypt, Palestine and Ireland. Montgomery’s family were, by origin, Irish Protestants, but he came to accept the case for Irish independence.
El Alamein and the Normandy Beaches
However, it is for his achievements during the Second World War that Monty is largely remembered. Given command of the British Eighth Army in north Africa, he was responsible for turning around its fortunes, and presided over the famous victory at the Battle of El-Alamein in October 1942. This – following a long series of British defeats – came to be seen as a turning point of the war.
In 1940, Montgomery had been a divisional commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France. Believing it to be a doomed mission, he gained credit for having rehearsed his forces in rapid retreat.
After leading the invasion of Sicily and Italy he went on to serve as the Allied land commander of the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944, under the supreme leadership of the American, General Dwight D Eisenhower.
Montgomery’s insistence on a bigger assault landing in Normandy than originally planned has been credited with getting the mission accomplished – the first successful cross-channel invasion against armed resistance since 1066, and arguably the greatest military achievement of the 20th century. Less fortunate was his command of the failed airborne attempt to capture a bridgehead at Arnhem in September 1944 – later depicted in the film A Bridge too Far (1977).
Tactics and character
After the landings, Montgomery was criticised for the slow advance through Normandy. Such caution was a feature of his battle tactics, and exemplified his belief that ‘the whole art of war is to gain your objective with as little loss as possible’. This genuine concern for the lives of his men made him popular with the ranks, who soon came to recognise his trademark black beret. Montgomery excelled as a communicator: each of his soldiers knew what was expected of him.
One such expectation was physical fitness. Montgomery – a teetotal non-smoker – once told an overweight colonel who protested at being asked to run 7 miles that his death in training would cause fewer administrative problems than it would in battle.
Such brusqueness did not endear him to his colleagues and superiors. His lack of tact was legendary and the confidence that won him battles often shaded into an arrogance that irritated the Americans in particular. ‘In defeat, unbeatable; in victory, unbearable’ was the verdict of Winston Churchill.
Montgomery served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1946 – the year he was raised to the peerage as a viscount – until 1948. He then served as Eisenhower’s deputy commander of NATO forces in Europe, before retiring in 1958 to Isington Mill, near Alton, Hampshire, where he later died.
Some of his later pronouncements did not benefit his reputation. He supported Apartheid in South Africa and (more surprisingly) the Mao regime in China. When decriminalisation of homosexuality was proposed, he commented ‘This sort of thing may be tolerated by the French, but we are British – thank God’.
As a military leader and tactician, Montgomery is rated by many as the best since Wellington: the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls him ‘the outstanding British field commander of the twentieth century’.