On this day in 1887, Bernard Law Montgomery, British general and one of the most formidable Allied commanders of the war, as well as one of the most disliked, is born in London.
A graduate of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Montgomery fought in World War I with distinction, leading an infantry platoon in an attack at Ypres, Belgium, the site of three major battles and many British casualties. Between wars, Montgomery stayed in the army as an instructor, rising in reputation as a tough-minded leader.
During the Second World War, Montgomery took command of the 3rd Army Division as part of the British Expeditionary forces in France, but had to be evacuated at Dunkirk. Two years later, in August 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave Montgomery command of the British 8th Army, which had been pushed across North Africa into Egypt by German General Erwin Rommel. Needless to say, British morale was low-but not for long. “We will stand and fight here. If we can’t stay here alive, then let us stay here dead,” Monty declared in his typical braggadocio style, and proceeded to push Rommel into retreat at the Battle of el-Alamein–all the way to Tunisia. Rommel was finally recalled to Europe, and the Germans surrendered their position in North Africa altogether in May 1943.
It was during preparations for Operation Overlord, the D-Day invasion of France, that Montgomery’s prickly personality ran straight into Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the operation. Montgomery and his 21st Army Group performed admirably in France, keeping the Germans turned in one direction as American forces attacked from the other. But Eisenhower often rejected many of Monty’s strategic proposals, deeming them overly cautious (he was unwilling to move until all the resources and men necessary for optimum results were in place). Ike also thought Montgomery unable and unwilling to strain every last bit of advantage from every strategic gain.
Monty, for his part, did little to hide a haughty disdain for Eisenhower-not to mention his desire to take complete control of land forces. After receiving the surrender of the German northern armies in 1945, Monty held a press conference in which he all but took credit for salvaging a disintegrating American-led operation. He was almost removed from his command for this outrageous, and groundless, contention. By war’s end, virtually no American commanding officer, including Generals Omar Bradley and George Patton, was speaking to Montgomery.
After the war, Monty was made a viscount and a knight of the garter. Among the offices he held was deputy commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers in Europe. He also went on to write a number of treatises on warfare, as well as his Memoirs (1958). He died in 1976 at the age of 88. He would be remembered as one of the most gifted British commanders of the war-but more by his troops than by his American counterparts.