Bernard Montgomery, the son of a bishop, was born in London on November 17, 1887. He was educated at St Paul's School and Sandhurst Military Academy and after graduating in 1908 joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
Montgomery served in India before being sent to France at the beginning of the First World War. He was seriously wounded when he was shot in the chest in October 1914 and was hospitalized in England. He returned to the Western Front in 1916 and by 1918 was chief of staff of the 47th London Division.
Montgomery remained in the British Army and in 1926 became an instructor at Camberley. Promoted to the rank of major general he was sent to command British forces Palestine in October, 1938.
On the outbreak of the Second World War Montgomery was sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force. He led the 2nd Corps but was forced to retreat to Dunkirk during Germany's Western Offensive and arrived back in England on 1st June, 1940.
Montgomery was placed in command of the 5th Corps (July 1940-April 1941), the 12th Corps (April 1941-December 1941) and the South-Eastern Army (December 1941-August 1942).
In July 1942, Erwin Rommel and the Deutsches Afrika Korps were only 113km (70 miles) from Alexandria. The situation was so serious that Winston Churchill made the long journey to Egypt to discover for himself what needed to be done. Churchill decided to make changes to the command structure. General Harold Alexander was placed in charge of British land forces in the Middle East and Montgomery was chosen to become commander of the Eighth Army.
On 30th August, 1942, Erwin Rommel attacked at Alam el Halfa but was repulsed by the Eighth Army. Montgomery responded to this attack by ordering his troops to reinforce the defensive line from the coast to the impassable Qattara Depression. Montgomery was now able to make sure that Rommel and the German Army was unable to make any further advances into Egypt.
Over the next six weeks Montgomery began to stockpile vast quantities of weapons and ammunition to make sure that by the time he attacked he possessed overwhelming firepower. By the middle of October the Eighth Army totalled 195,000 men, 1,351 tanks and 1,900 pieces of artillery. This included large numbers of recently delivered Sherman M4 and Grant M3 tanks.
On October 23, Montgomery launched Operation Lightfoot with the largest artillery bombardment since the First World War. The attack came at the worst time for the Deutsches Afrika Korps as Erwin Rommel was on sick leave in Austria. His replacement, General George Stumme, died of a heart-attack the day after the 900 gun bombardment of the German lines. Stume was replaced by General Ritter von Thoma and Adolf Hitler phoned Rommel to order him to return to Egypt immediately.
The Germans defended their positions well and after two days the Eighth Army had made little progress and Montgomery ordered an end to the attack. When Erwin Rommel returned he launched a counterattack at Kidney Depression (27th October). Montgomery now returned to the offensive and the 9th Australian Division created a salient in the enemy positions.
Winston Churchill was disappointed by the Eighth Army's lack of success and accused Montgomery of fighting a "half-hearted" battle. Montgomery ignored these criticisms and instead made plans for a new offensive, Operation Supercharge.
On November 1, 1942, Montgomery launched an attack on the Deutsches Afrika Korps at Kidney Ridge. After initially resisting the attack, Rommel decided he no longer had the resources to hold his line and on the 3rd November he ordered his troops to withdraw. However, Adolf Hitler overruled his commander and the Germans were forced to stand and fight.
The next day Montgomery ordered his men forward. The Eighth Army broke through the German lines and Erwin Rommel, in danger of being surrounded, was forced to retreat. Those soldiers on foot, including large numbers of Italian soldiers, were unable to move fast enough and were taken prisoner.
For a while it looked like the the British would cut off Rommel's army but a sudden rain storm on 6th November turned the desert into a quagmire and the chasing army was slowed down. Rommel, now with only twenty tanks left, managed to get to Sollum on the Egypt-Libya border.
On November 8, Erwin Rommel learned of the Allied invasion of Morocco and Algeria that was under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. His depleted army now faced a war on two front.
The British Army recaptured Tobruk on 12th November, 1942. During the El Alamein campaign half of Rommel's 100,000 man army was killed, wounded or taken prisoner. He also lost over 450 tanks and 1,000 guns. The British and Commonwealth forces suffered 13,500 casualties and 500 of their tanks were damaged. However, of these, 350 were repaired and were able to take part in future battles.
Winston Churchill was convinced that the battle of El Alamein marked the turning point in the war and ordered the ringing of church bells all over Britain. As he said later: "Before Alamein we never had a victory, after Alamein we never had a defeat."
Montgomery and the Eighth Army continued to move forward and captured Tripoli on 23rd January, 1943. Rommel was unable to mount a successful counterattack and on 9th March he was replaced by Jurgen von Arnium as commander in chief of Axis forces in Africa. This change failed to halt the Allied advance in Africa and on 11th May, 1943, the Axis forces surrendered Tunisia.
At the Casablanca Conference held in January 1943, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to launch an invasion of Sicily. It was hoped that if the island was taken Italy might withdraw from the war. It was also argued that a successful invasion would force Adolf Hitler to send troops from the Eastern Front and help to relieve pressure on the Red Army in the Soviet Union.
The operation was placed under the supreme command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. General Harold Alexander was commander of ground operations and his 15th Army Group included Montgomery (8th Army) and General George Patton (US 7th Army). Admiral Andrew Cunningham was in charge of naval operations and Air Marshal Arthur Tedder was air commander.
On 10th July 1943, the 8th Army landed at five points on the south-eastern tip of the island and the US 7th Army at three beaches to the west of the British forces. The Allied troops met little opposition and Patton and his troops quickly took Gela, Licata and Vittoria. The British landings were also unopposed and Syracuse was taken on the the same day. This was followed by Palazzolo (11th July), Augusta (13th July) and Vizzini (14th July), whereas the US troops took the Biscani airfield and Niscemi (14th July).
General George Patton now moved to the west of the island and General Omar Bradley headed north and the German Army was forced to retreat to behind the Simeto River. Patton took Palermo on 22nd July cutting off 50,000 Italian troops in the west of the island. Patton now turned east along the northern coast of the island towards the port of Messina.
Meanwhile Montgomery and the 8th Army were being held up by German forces under Field Marshal Albrecht Kesselring. The Allies carried out several amphibious assaults attempted to cut off the Germans but they were unable to stop the evacuation across the Messina Straits to the Italian mainland. This included 40,000 German and 60,000 Italian troops, as well as 10,000 German vehicles and 47 tanks.
On 17th August 1943, General George Patton and his troops marched into Messina. The capture of Sicily made it possible to clear the way for Allied shipping in the Mediterranean. It also helped to undermine the power of Benito Mussolini and Victor Emmanuel III forced him to resign.
Montgomery, as commander of the 8th Army, led the invasion of Italy on 3rd September, 1943. When he landed at Reggio he experienced little resistance and later that day British warships landed the 1st Parachute Division at Taranto. Six days later the US 6th Corps arrived at Salerno. These troops faced a heavy bombardment from German troops and the beachhead was not secured until 20th September.
The German Army fought ferociously in southern Italy and the Allied armies made only slow progress as the moved north towards Rome. The 5th Army took Naples on 1st October and later that day the 8th Army captured the Foggia airfields.
In December 1943, Montgomery was appointed head of the 2nd Army and commander of all ground forces in the proposed invasion of Europe. Montgomery believed he was better qualified than General Dwight Eisenhower to have been given overall control of Operation Overlord. However, as the United States provided most of the men, material and logistical support, Winston Churchill was unable to get the decision changed.
Soon after the D-Day invasion Montgomery proposed Operation Market-Garden. The combined ground and airborne attack was designed to gain crossings over the large Dutch rivers, the Mass, Waal and Neder Rijn, to aid the armoured advance of the British 2nd Army. On 17th September 1944, three divisions of the 1st Allied Airbourne Corps landed in Holland. At the same time the British 30th Corps advanced from the Meuse-Escaut Canal. The bridges at Nijmegen and Eindhoven were taken but a German counter-attack created problems at Arnhem. Of the 9,000 Allied troops at Arnhem, only 2,000 were left when they were ordered to withdraw across the Rhine on 25th September.
After the failure of the operation, Montgomery began to question the strategy developed by Eisenhower and as a result of comments made at a press conference he gave on 7th January, 1945, he was severely rebuked by Winston Churchill and General Alan Brooke, the head of the British Army.
Although he came close to being sacked, Montgomery was allowed to remain in Europe and the end of the war was appointed Commander in Chief of the British Army of Occupation.
In 1946, Montgomery was granted a peerage and he took the title Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. He also served under General Dwight Eisenhower as deputy supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe.
Montgomery wrote several books on his war experiences, including El Alamein (1948), The Memoirs of Field Marshal Montgomery (1958) and Normandy to the Baltic (1968). Bernard Montgomery died on March 25, 1976.
Sources: Spartacus Educational