British Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery (1887-1976) was among the most decorated military leaders of World War II. Tapped to take command of the Eighth Army, he earned renown for his part in the first major Allied land victory at El Alamein, Egypt, in 1942. Montgomery became ground commander of the Anglo-American forces under Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his insistence that invasion forces be increased from three to eight divisions was essential to the Allies’ success on D-Day in 1944. After the war, Montgomery served as chief of the Imperial General Staff, and later as deputy to Eisenhower at NATO.

Contenders for the title are few, but “Monty” was indisputably Britain’s greatest soldier since Wellington. He was better known for his outstanding professionalism and sense of “balance” than for his talents in getting on with his contemporaries–notably the American ones.

Fourth of nine children in a clerical Irish family of modest means, his early life suffered from a domineering mother. In October 1914, at the First Battle of Ypres, Montgomery, a young lieutenant, was shot through the lung and nearly died. He received the Distinguished Service Order (an unusually high distinction for a junior officer). His wound led to an aversion for smoking–one of the first causes of friction with the chain-smoking Allied supreme commander in World War II, General “Ike” Eisenhower; he was also a strict teetotaler. The horrendous British casualties in 1914-1918 help explain Montgomery’s caution as a commander twenty-five years later. (This once caused George S. Patton, who hated him, to damn Monty as a “tired little fart.”)

In the interwar period, Monty stood out for his dedication to professionalism. His uncompromising standards, and abrasiveness, were to affect his promotion. In 1927, at age thirty-nine, he married a war widow, Betty Carver, who tragically died of a rare blood infection in 1937. Monty never recovered, throwing himself even more fiercely into preparing for the new war with Germany.

In 1940, he led the Third Division, one of Britain’s few elite formations, intact from Dunkirk. The next two years he spent retraining the British army, with utmost rigor, in southern England. When appointed to command the defeated Eighth Army in Egypt in August 1942, he was only Winston Churchill’s second choice. El Alamein, in October, the first major land victory the Allies won against Adolf Hitler, made him a hero both in Britain and the United States; it also went to his head. Nevertheless–sporting the famed black beret with its unorthodox twin cap badges–he exploited popularity to inspire his men as did perhaps no other commander of World War II.

His insistence that the initial invasion forces be increased from three to eight divisions, of which three were airborne, was a historic contribution. It was essential to success on D-Day in 1944–as was his role as ground commander of the Anglo-American forces under Eisenhower as supreme Allied commander. But failure to capture Caen in the first days marred his reputation in U.S. eyes. Rashly he insisted that everything was going “according to plan”; yet it was his basic strategy of wearing down the Germans on the left (British) of the line while Bradley’s U.S. forces broke out in the west that led to victory in Normandy.

Relations with Ike, remarkably good up to D-Day, deteriorated beginning in September 1944, following Eisenhower’s assumption of overall command over strategies to end the war. The bold but disastrous airborne coup at Arnhem, the only battle Monty ever lost, further dented his reputation. In turn, he was tactlessly critical of the American reverse in the Ardennes of December 1944.

After 1945, Montgomery became chief of the Imperial General Staff–Britain’s top military post–and later deputy to Eisenhower at NATO. The gulf between the two widened irretrievably in later years as both indulged in mutual recriminations on wartime strategy in their bitter “Battle of the Memoirs.”

The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.