At 9:40 p.m. on Friday, October 23, 1942, the night sky on the Egyptian coast west of Alexandria was suddenly lit by three red flares, followed, a moment later, by the unearthly screech of 882 phosphorus-shell launchers and other heavy-artillery pieces coming to life.  The guns lined up virtually wheel to wheel, one every seven yards, 200 guns for every mile of land, providing a truly stupefying concentration of firepower.  “The peaceful stars were shaken in their heavens,” recalled 2nd Lt. Heinz Werner Schmidt, who had the misfortune to be serving in a German antitank battery directly in the path of the assault.  “The earth quaked . . . far back from the front line, men were jarred to their teeth.”  Overhead, British Wellington and Halifax bombers circled, unimpeded, silhouetted by a full moon, to lay further waste to the scene.  Adding to this nightmarish vista, a sudden desert wind scorched across the earth, whipping up dust and debris, bending trees and bushes.  To the terrified Heinz Schmidt, it seemed as though a vision of apocalyptic disaster had arrived out of the night.  The combined bedlam was enough to shake the windows of Cairo, some 90 miles to the southeast.  After five hours the barrage, known euphemistically as Operation Lightfoot, suddenly ceased, but resumed again at first light, now accompanied by the mournful wail of bagpipes, played by Scottish battalions, in full Highland regalia, as they marched abreast through a landscape as arid and barren as the surface of the moon.  The 12-day action known as the Battle of El Ala­mein had begun.

Commanding the British Eighth Army at the spearhead of the battle was 55-year-old Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery, known universally as Monty, a wizened, hawk-faced man who was dressed for the occasion in a black beret, sweater, and corduroy trousers.  He had arrived in the North African theater only ten weeks earlier, and had not been the first choice for the position.  His nominated predecessor had been shot down and killed while flying to meet Winston Churchill in Cairo before taking up his post.  Montgomery brought with him a reputation for meticulous planning and preparation, which some of his detractors were apt to say crossed over into that less desirable quality, obsessive caution.  Writing after the war, Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of the 12th U.S. Army Group, derided Monty’s “stagnating conservatism of tactics,” accusing him of becoming “quite panicky initially” following the D-Day landings and, in general, denigrating his role in the fall of Germany.  These were not entirely isolated views within the American high command.  Montgomery himself made no bones about the fact that he saw his twin strategic priorities as being to organize his troops and materiel to their peak efficiency before testing them in battle and, once so engaged, to do everything within his power to limit the number of those under his command who lost their lives.  Grotesque though it is to use the word “only” in relation to casualties, on a comparative basis it has to be applied during the 12 days of continuous fighting at Alamein: In all, the Eighth Army lost 13,500 killed or wounded, or some 7.5 percent of its strength, slightly higher than the number of total Allied casualties, but with a significantly lower proportion of fatalities, on D-Day.  Even these relatively moderate figures preyed on Montgomery’s mind.  A month before his death in 1976, he summoned a wartime colleague named Denis Hamilton to his bedside.  Hamilton could see that his old chief was agitated, and asked what the trouble was.  “I couldn’t sleep last night,” Montgomery said, without self-pity.  “I can’t have very long to go now.  I’ve got to go to meet God, and explain all those men I killed at Alamein.”

Every English schoolboy of my generation was brought up to thrill to the story of Montgomery’s ultimately decisive victory in North Africa over the wily Colonel-General (later Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel, the iconic Desert Fox whose Panzer divisions in June 1942 had swept into Tobruk, in what Winston Churchill regarded as “one of the worst blows to befall British troops”—35,000 of whom were captured—in World War II.  In fact, Rommel was not even on the African continent when the Battle of El Alamein began.  The launch of Operation Lightfoot found him on medical leave at home in Germany, suffering from a variety of stomach and liver complaints.  In his absence, his deputy Gen. Georg Stumme commanded some 49,000 German and 55,000 Italian troops, compared with Montgomery’s 196,000 forces—a nearly two-to-one Allied numerical advantage.  Shamefully, some of us grew up thinking of the Italians as a faintly comic fighting force, obsessed with their physical comfort, but Monty himself remembered them as brave and bloody opponents at Alamein—“man for man, they were the toughest soldiers we ever fought.”  The disparity in numbers is striking, and a tribute to Monty’s insistence on consolidating his resources before giving battle.  As Michael Carver, later the head of the British General Staff but then a lieutenant in the Royal Tank Corps, would write, “It may have been expensive and unromantic, but it made certain of victory, and the certainty of victory at that time was all-important . . . [Montgomery] had the determination, will-power and ruthlessness to see [such a battle] through.”  As well as his customary planning, Monty had a certain degree of luck on his side.  The overweight General Stumme died of a heart attack in the first hours of Operation Lightfoot, and a Panzer commander named Wilhelm von Thoma took over posthaste.  It was to be two more days before the Axis troops in the field received the signal: “I have taken command of the army again.  Rommel.”

To the end of his long life, Montgomery sharply polarized opinion.  As he once remarked, with some pride, he “wasn’t one to elicit lukewarm feelings.”  About the one thing friend and foe alike could agree on was that he possessed supreme grip and tenacity in the field, and, whatever his other shortcomings, knew how to motivate his men.  A soldier’s soldier, on his first evening in Egypt, Montgomery jumped up on the hood of a jeep, gazed around at his troops, issued his customary ban on smoking or coughing, and then announced in his thin but pipingly clear voice,

I understand that Rommel is about to attack at any moment.  Excellent.  Let him attack.  I would sooner it didn’t come for a week, just to give me time to sort things out.  If we have two weeks to prepare we will be sitting pretty.  Rommel can attack as soon as he likes after that, and I hope he does.  Meanwhile, we ourselves will start to plan a great offensive.  It will be the beginning of a campaign which will hit Rommel for six right out of Africa . . . He is definitely a nuisance.  Therefore we will hit him a crack and finish him off.

Hackneyed as the lines may sound today, there’s no doubt of the effect they had 70 years ago in the Egyptian desert.  According to Maj. Freddie de Guingand, Montgomery’s long-time chief of staff and not a man given to hyperbole, “It was as if a bolt of electricity had passed through the scene.”  In the days ahead, Monty was similarly to speak of his plans for “biffing” Rommel’s armies with a huge initial barrage followed by a meticulously planned, and irresistible, advance, in what he called a “100 per cent binge.”  The quality of ego and conceitedness—perhaps most spectacularly seen in Monty’s extreme fondness for portraits of himself posed beneath the awning of a tent, or in some other regal attitude (“The painting is completely the cat’s whiskers; it will without doubt be the great picture of the year at next year’s Academy,” he wrote of one likeness)—ran in tandem with a genuine and practical concern for the men under his command, a concern which included both sharing their privations in the field, and not countenancing unnecessary risks merely to accommodate a timetable “imposed by some politician sitting many hundreds of miles away behind a desk.”  According to military historian Andrew Roberts, “Whereas in August 1942 Winston Churchill had privately described the Eighth Army as ‘a broken, baffled army, a miserable army,’ by October its huge reinforcement and strange but charismatic new commander had changed all that.”

The events that followed at Alamein can, perhaps, be quickly recalled: the Armageddon-like opening bombardment; the subsequent unhurried but steady march of four British infantry divisions over rocky, arid terrain sewn with half-a-million mines, and for good reason nicknamed the Devil’s Gardens; the feinting movement by a fifth division to the south; the counterattack by the Axis 15th Panzer division, and other units, with the resulting loss of more than half of their tanks; the attritional fighting that ensued, sufficiently prolonged to cause Churchill, in London, to berate Montgomery for waging “a half-hearted scrap”; the bustling return of Rommel, and his swift concentration of his forces on a vast depression known as Kidney Ridge, from henceforth the focal point of the battle; the boiling days and freezing nights; the continuing thrust and parry of the armies over a barren landscape infested by flies and scorpions, and described by the author Cecil Lucas-Phillips as “strewn with burning tanks and carriers, wrecked guns and vehicles, and over all the smoke and the dust from bursting high explosives and from the blasts of guns”; the constant, thunderous air cover by the RAF; the desperate, at times hand-to-hand combat pitting the exhausted German and Italian units on one side, and the British and Australian on the other; the climactic “Operation Supercharge,” in which the Allies finally punched a four-mile wide gap in the Axis line; a period of further bloody stalemate; the eventual decision by Rommel, by then critically short of ammunition, food, and fuel, to withdraw; the instant transmission of a “Stand or die” order from Hitler, which his commander in the field privately characterized as “subordinating military interests to those of propaganda,” and ignored; the westward retreat of the Axis forces, leaving some 30,000 men, including nine generals, to be taken captive.  Montgomery’s comparatively leisurely pursuit of his beaten enemy has been much criticized by armchair warriors; Monty himself always blamed a sudden and perverse monsoon rain that fell for three days for his calculated pace.  “The doom of the Axis forces in Africa was certain,” he wrote later, “provided the British and her allies made no mistakes.”  They didn’t.  The fact that Rommel was forced to leave nearly 500 tanks on the battlefield shows how desperate he had been, and how comprehensive was his defeat.  In May of the following year, the remaining German forces were either evacuated or captured, and the cable would go back to London: “We are masters of the North African shore.”  On Sunday, November 15, 1942, Churchill ordered the church bells in Britain to be rung in celebration—“It may almost be said, ‘Before Alamein we never had a victory: After Alamein, we never had a defeat,’” he later wrote.

Although Montgomery was forever to be associated with Alamein, it was very far from the end of his successes.  He was in command of 21st Army Group on D-Day, where he was again to show his trademark combination of strategic acumen and almost comical self-regard.  Referring to his famous black beret, Montgomery wrote to King George VI’s private secretary, “My hat is worth three divisions.  The men see it in the distance.  They say, ‘There’s Monty,’ and then they will fight anybody.”  Although Montgomery was no martyr to false modesty, his reputation with the Germans also stood high.  In the weeks before the Normandy landings, an actor was sent to Gibraltar to impersonate Monty, with the idea of persuading the enemy that no full-scale invasion of northern France could possibly take place while its main executor was hundreds of miles away on the Mediterranean.  (The actor concluded that Monty, too, was a born showman.)  Space prohibits a full treatment of events that included the subsequent breakout from the Normandy beaches, the only mixed tactical success of what became known as Operation Market Garden—the attempt to cross the Rhine at Arnhem—and the bloody Ardennes offensive of December 1944, but it could fairly be said of all three actions that they failed to advance Anglo-American relations as represented by Montgomery, on one side, and generals Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton, on the other.  Events perhaps reached their nadir with a press conference Monty held in the field on January 7, 1945.  “General Eisenhower placed me in command of the whole northern front,” he blithely remarked.  “You have this picture of British troops fighting on both sides of US forces who had suffered a hard blow.  [My] power was put into battle with a bang.  This is a fine Allied picture.”  The overall impression was that Montgomery had single-handedly saved the day, a view not entirely in accord with the American perception.  Bradley informed Eisenhower that Montgomery was “all-out, right-down-to-the-toes mad,” and that in future he would prefer not to serve with him.  Patton, for his part, called Monty “that cocky little limey fart.”  In time, the most celebrated British field general since Wellington was obliged to send a cable protesting his “100 per cent allegiance” to the supreme Allied commander.  “You can rely on me and all under me to go all out to implement your plans,” Monty assured Eisenhower.  “You can be certain of the personal devotion and loyalty of myself and all those under my command.  We will follow you anywhere.”

Four months after sending this cable, on May 4, 1945, in a tent on Lüneburg Heath in northern Germany, Montgomery accepted the surrender of Gen. Admiral von Friedeburg and the million men under his command, thus effectively bringing the war in Europe to an end.  “I had the document all ready,” Montgomery recalled.  “The arrangements in the tent were very simple—a trestle table covered with an army blanket, an inkpot, an ordinary army pen that you could buy in a shop for two pence.  There were two BBC microphones on the table.”  Dressed in his battle blouse, a pair of severe tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses on his sharp nose, Montgomery read out the terms in his most clipped, businesslike voice.  At the end of the recitation, he added simply that, unless the German delegation immediately sign the paper in front of them, he would order full hostilities to resume without delay.  They complied.  “Now I will sign on behalf of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower,” Monty declared, signing and dating the seven-point, single sheet of paper.  At that he sighed faintly, sat back, and removed his glasses.  “That concludes the surrender,” he said, and the Germans were marched away.

Famous generals have naturally attracted the interest of psychiatrists, and the literature on George Patton (imbued with the belief that he was reincarnated) alone constitutes a small industry.  It is possible that the most interesting case study, and suitable candidate for the couch, is still that of Bernard Law Montgomery.  Born in London in 1887, he was the fourth child of an Anglo-Irish priest who eventually became the bishop of Tasmania.  In later life, Montgomery made no pretence of the fact that he had “despised” his mother, who he said had either “ignored” or “viciously beaten” all her children, and in time refused to allow his own son to have anything to do with her.  Joining the army, he served first in India and then in the trenches of northern France.  According to Andrew Roberts, Monty “had a good First World War, leading an attack at Ypres in which he took one German prisoner by kicking him in the groin.”  On another occasion, he was shot through the lung by a sniper and left for dead, but survived to return to the front and win the Distinguished Service Order.  In 1927, Montgomery met and married an attractive young war widow named Elizabeth Carver.  Ten years later, she died in his arms, from an insect bite that had led to septicemia.  Montgomery’s heart had never been worn on his sleeve, but from this moment on he would close down the personal side of his life entirely, and, as he said, “never allow anything to interfere with the normal routine of military work.”

While on the Western Front, Montgomery came under the command of Gen. Herbert Plumer, a stereotypical British officer to look at, with richly tinted cheeks and a bristling mustache, but more pertinently an imperturbable and conscientious planner.  A prolific writer of training manuals, Plumer insisted that whenever possible his men rehearse for a battle on ground resembling the actual terrain that was to be attacked, and, as often as not, that they then repeat the whole exercise several more times, while he watched from a platform to detect any errors.  It would be fair to say Montgomery favored much the same patient, bricklaying approach in the field, though, unlike Plumer, he also had a concept of himself as a conquering hero who bore comparison to the warlord-kings of former times.  It’s unsettling to observe Monty’s ability to turn his mind from the tactical nuances of a battle, and a very genuine concern for his troops, to such matters as the exact time and place of exhibition of his latest portrait, or the specifications of the fully staffed American troop aircraft he demanded of Eisenhower for his personal use.  The usually genial supreme commander later went out of his way to praise Monty the soldier, while making a sharp distinction between that and his less attractive qualities.  “First of all, he’s a psychopath,” Ike told an interviewer in 1963.  “Don’t forget that.  He is such an egocentric that the man—everything he has done is perfect—has never made a mistake in his life.”

Following the war, Montgomery became commander in chief of the British occupation forces in Germany, and proved to be a firm but often magnanimous military ruler of some 12 million wretched civilians.  With customary clarity, he immediately announced his priorities as “A) To disarm and disband the German armed forces” and “B) To re-establish civil control sufficiently to enable the [people] to live decently, and without disorder and disease.”

In 1948, Montgomery became chairman of the Western European Union’s commanders-in-chief group, and thus one of the prime movers behind first creating NATO’s European forces, and then co-coordinating their command and deployment with a large, multinational committee.  It has to be said that he was not well cast for this latter part of the job.  When on exercises, Monty was known to summon senior Allied officers to frequent tactical briefings by ringing a bell or blowing a whistle, as always first crisply informing his audience—whether it be composed of common soldiers or the highest military brass—that “no smoking, or interruptions of any kind” would be tolerated.  Montgomery retired, after 50 years’ service, and full of honors, in 1958.  His mother died in 1949; Monty did not attend the funeral, claiming he was “too busy.”  His son, David, was largely brought up by friends.  More than once, Monty sent him a signed photograph of himself as a birthday present.  In retirement he produced his memoirs, in which, among other things, he accused Eisenhower of having needlessly prolonged the war by “weak battlefield ability” and “muddled command” over the winter of 1944-45.  Monty appeared genuinely puzzled when “No Christmas card then came from the White House,” where the former Allied supreme commander was then resident.  Promoting his book on CBS Television in April 1959, Monty, always with a low tolerance for infirmity of any kind, said,

My observation would be that your leaders over here are people who are not awfully well.  Foster Dulles . . . in hospital with cancer.  Your President has had three very serious illnesses—very serious.  A heart attack, this ileitis, and a stroke.  The head of your State Department, today, walks about on two crutches.

Ike himself was to write to an intermediary that “it would likely be bad judgment, at this particular time, for Monty to make any attempt to visit me.”  The two wartime leaders never spoke again.

As Montgomery’s official biographer notes, “His platonic infatuation with a 12-year-old Swiss boy [and] romantic friendships with children generally [showed] the two sides of Monty’s strange personality—the cold, merciless pursuer of professional excellence and the simple, emotionally retarded adult.”  In a small way, I was one of those children.  In the 1950’s, my father had some professional dealings with Monty at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and some years later the then-elderly retired field marshal agreed, amid great local excitement, to come to my boarding school and review our annual parade.  I have a memory of a small, immaculately uniformed man with a sharp, foxish nose and a ringingly clear voice.  He could not have been more gracious toward the ragtag troop of 11- and 12-year-olds who shambled past him in our gray shorts and schoolcaps.  In his address, Monty spoke movingly about a recent visit to Alamein on the 25th anniversary of the battle.  He told us that war was not a nice business, and that it was our generation “in whom so many of us invest our hopes.  By hard work and concentration, you will achieve great things.”  In his final years, he spoke continually of his essential confidence in a better future, as well as on subjects as diverse as the Channel Tunnel, the American campaign in Vietnam, and pop music, all of which he opposed.  I later wrote to Monty thanking him for his visit, and mentioning, since he had asked me to tell him of my hobbies, that I was a keen autograph collector.  By return, he sent me a handwritten note from Winston Churchill to him, which he hoped “might make a nice little piece for your album.”  It was worth several hundreds of pounds.

Following the war, Montgomery inquired of the King if he might allow him to live in one of the several large houses around the country in his bequest.  The King declined, nor was any grant made to him, so in time Monty bought a derelict water mill in the south of England and converted it into a home.  Never a wealthy man, he continued to go to his local post office and draw his weekly state pension to the end of his life.  Following his 80th birthday party in London, Montgomery returned to find that his house had been burgled and many of his wartime trophies, including his field marshal’s baton, stolen.  Later that week, he was heard on the radio forlornly appealing for their return.  After a brief illness, Bernard Montgomery died on March 24, 1976, aged 88.  His last recorded thoughts were of his soldiers.