As a student of history, focusing for at least 60 years on FDR, the New Deal, 20th Century American History and WWII, I am always trying to recoup the knowledge I have already forgotten, by re-reading current perspectives on past events. Some recent books are revisionist and written to fit the current reality of our times, and others try to replicate events “on the ground” as they existed or were thought to exist. Seeing the whole picture, without prejudice or pre-conceived feelings, is not only a great, but an elusive art.
Over the years, as memories grow dim, interests wane and new generations emerge, who couldn’t care less as events become a blurring mélange of facts, figures, and dates. Of course, over the past two millennia there are only a few names that really standout. Aside from Julius Caesar, Joan D ’Arc, Napoleon, Grant, Lincoln or our modern political standouts: FDR, Churchill, Kennedy, and in an ignominious way; Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, how many names come to mind for most Americans?
Of course, every D-Day, or VE, or VJ Day the news broadcasts are consumed for a day or two about the memories of WWII, the great war to liberate the world from the heinous grasp of the megalomaniacs. In that context, there are always new books being written about those titanic days when the whole world was consumed in flames. This incredible event, which has never been duplicated in recorded history, resulted in the deaths of between 60-70 million people, along with 100s of millions who were wounded and dislocated, along with 100s of millions who suffered the loss of their loved ones and their homes. No time in the history of the world were so many people involved in one collective tragedy!
“Patton, Montgomery and Rommel, Masters of War,” by Terry Brighton, is a reasonably-sized, comparative biography of the three most famous WWII field commanders who fought in Western Europe. Of course, of the three, only Bernard Law Montgomery, really survived the war.
Rommel was implicated in the “July 20th Plot,” (the Claus von Stauffenberg effort) to kill Hitler, bring an end to the war with the Western Allies, and make a separate peace. But, before that happenstance, while he was riding east to address this issue with Hitler (the potentiality of a negotiated peace with the western Allies) regarding the tenuous to grievous situation that faced the German Army, in the wake of the Normandy landings, he was strafed by two British Spitfires and grievously wounded. While he was recovering at home from his grievous wounds, the Nazi dragnet of plotters, regarding the failed attempt to kill Hitler, encircled Rommel. Eventually, forced confessions implicated Rommel. He was summoned to Berlin, but in his comments to his wife, he assumed he would be murdered along the way and refused to leave his home, claiming his continued need to recover. When two generals, backed up by SS troops, arrived at his home, he knew the worse was at hand.
Rommel had been an important field commander in the Blitzkrieg in Poland, the conquest of the Low Countries and the fall of France. He later gained international fame, as the Desert Fox, and commander of the Afrika Korps and the 10th Panzer Division in North Africa and was the personal favorite of Hitler, but not the German High Command (OKW). His victories in the desert included the surrender of Tobruk, and a series of hit and run desert victories, which eventually caused the replacement of two well-respected British Generals, Wavell and Auchinleck.
On October, 14, 1944, he was offered a bitter deal, either face a trial for treason and risk the future of his family, or commit suicide and be offered a state funeral with honors. He chose the latter. His wife and his son attended the state funeral. They knew the truth that he had not died naturally, as all who had seen his body. They wanted to speak up, but, as they say, “discretion was the better part of valor.”
Rommel’s “end of the war” rival, Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt survived the war, lived to age 77 and died in 1953, and Field Marshall Gunther von Kluge, who replaced Rundstedt, was also implicated in the July 20th Plot, and at the age of 61, committed suicide in August of 1944. Eventually, over 20,000 individuals would either be killed or imprisoned as a result of the failed plot. Later, over the years, both Rommel’s wife Lucie and their son Manfred had to deal with his legacy, and over time, their views shifted from the earliest years after the war to the modern era. In the beginning, because of post-WWII German nationalism, the family denied he was a plotter, and was loyal to Hitler and the state. Later on, as the political climate shifted and the collective guilt of the Hitler Era penetrated into the consciousness of the German Volk (people), they shifted their public reflections, to his being part of the resistance. Frankly, neither worked, and a plaque that honored him, was finally replaced, as the German government wanted no trace of any person who fought for Hitler and the Nazi regime.
As for George S. Patton, who had successfully re-organized the defeated American forces at the Kasserine Pass, in North Africa, led the victorious American forces there in Tunisia, and to victory in Sicily. His active career was almost ended by incidents caused by his lack of personal control. He was rightfully chastised for two “slapping incidents” of enlisted men in Sicily, and after the subsequent uproar in the American press over an article on the incidents, by Drew Pearson, he was removed from further command. Because of his outbursts, uncontrollable temper and vicious diatribes, Patton’s angst continued to grow over the selection of Lt. General Mark Clark’s to his command. Clark’s heroic efforts dealing with the Vichy French in North Africa, his being a favorite of General Marshall for his bravery and intelligence, along with his selection as the commander of the new Fifth Army in Italy, knew no bounds regarding the jealousy and hatred of Patton.
As a corollary to that reality, once the Germans and Italian forces were defeated, or evacuated, from Sicily, the campaign for Italy began with the invasion at Anzio. Lt. General Mark Clark, the commander of the US forces and the Firth Army, suffered criticism from his peers, especially from Patton. Much of it was personal and was more than veiled anti-Semitism. Even the so-called GI’s General, Omar Bradley said, the following, “I had serious reservations about him personally (he had not yet commanded large-scale forces in combat in World War II). He seemed false somehow, too eager to impress, too hungry for the limelight, promotions and personal publicity. General Patton didn’t trust him either. He thought Clark ‘too damned slick’ and ‘more preoccupied with bettering his own future than winning the war,’” In fact, Bradley stated, that “Eisenhower told him that if ‘should anything happens’ to Clark, I would replace him as the Fifth Army commander.” Was Eisenhower losing faith in Clark? Was Eisenhower affected by the carping of Patton? Was Eisenhower worried about Clark’s background? There was an interesting exchange reported by one of Clark’s biographers, Martin Blumenson, in the wake of his appointment to be second in command to “Operation Torch,” the invasion of North Africa. Patton met Eisenhower in Gibraltar, and Patton reported to his diary, that they talked of “trivial things.” Maybe Patton was experiencing Eisenhower’s attempt at bonding after his obvious disappointment. Patton wrote, “He asked me if Clark was a Jew, I said at least one quarter, probably one half.” Of course, according to Blumenson, it was idle talk.
Patton’s unhappiness with Clark and his command accelerated. He stated, “I doubt the wisdom of it.” (Clark’s appointment!) Patton later wrote in his diary, “He (Clark) may be too intrusive.” What Patton probably distrusted (or annoyed), about Clark, according to Blumenson, was his lack of combat and command experience, (Clark was a decorated veteran of WWI), his youth (he was later to be the youngest Lt. General, age 46, in the Army’s history), his brashness and his quick climb to equal rank with the older Patton. Of course, by being ”intrusive,” Patton meant “pushy” and not our kind, what the French called in a more general sense “arriviste,” a person who sought to get ahead by any means. This was a guarded intimation of anti-Semitism.
During this period Clark had to deal with the backbiting, jealousy, and seeming hatred of Patton. Carlo D’Este, in his monumental biography of Patton, A Genius for War, stated, “The only time I have felt worse, (commenting on Omar Bradley’s appointment to command US First Army, which would lead the Normandy Invasion) was the night of December 9th, 1942, when (General) Clark got the Fifth Army… “ Later D’Este wrote, “Some of his remarks were both outrageous and racist, including his repetition of a rumor that Clark had been given high command as a concession to American Jews, and some pungent observations about black troops who were tried by court-martial for capital offenses. When three men were tried for rape: Patton said, “I put two Negro officers on the court. Although the men were guilty as hell, the colored officers would not vote death – a useless race.” (Clark was Jewish on his mother’s side!)
Of course, evidence of Patton’s anti-Semitism went way beyond the attitude, language and feelings of the typical white, upper middle-class, Anglo-Saxon officers that dominated the peacetime army. D’Este also reported “His (Patton’s) growing anti-Semitism coupled with despair over the fate of Germany became frequent, rambling topics in his diary. The dissolution of Germany was all a plot by America Jewish Leaders. He accused Treasury Secretary Morgenthau and Bernard Baruch of ‘Semetic (sic) revenge against Germany,’ and characterized the Jews who survived the death camps as ‘lower than animals.’”
All in all, Patton was very disappointed over his lack of overall command opportunities. Patton’s slapping incidents in Sicily, his constant carping, and his loose talk, all disturbed and worried Eisenhower. Ike had great confidence in Clark and therefore, that is why he turned over the training, development and leadership of the Fifth Army to him. Bradley went on to great success in Europe as the American counterpart to Field Marshall Montgomery. Patton was given the command of a FUSAG, (First United States Army Group) in East Anglia, England, which was a phony (paper) army established to create in the minds of the German High Command that the “real” European invasion would arrive at Pas d ’Calais, the narrowest crossing of the English Channel.
As a result of the inability of the British to take Caen and the difficulty the Americans had in securing Cherbourg, there was general re-organization regarding both the 21st Army Group, led by Montgomery and the 12th Army Group under the command of Lt. General Omar Bradley. With that shakeup, Patton was brought in to command the 3rd Army from his position as the head of fictitious FUSAG, (First United States Army Group). Patton successfully engineered a breakout from Cherbourg, raced all the way through, and around, the Falaise Pocket, and onto the Rhine River. He accomplished the relief of the siege Bastogne, broke the back of the German Ardennes offensive into Belgium, which threatened to split the allies and re-take the port of Antwerp, and certainly helped immensely with the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany!
Patton was described by Field Marshall Brooke, as “a dashing, courageous, wild and unbalanced leader, good for operations requiring thrust and push, but at a loss in any operation requiring skill and judgment.” According to war correspondent Leland Stowe, he called himself, “an obstreperous, fighting, cantankerous bastard and proud of it.”
With respect for Patton’s level of authority, his highest command level was head of the US Third Army, which was part of the 12th Army Group, commanded by Lt. General Omar Bradley. Bradley, who was previously his subordinate, was also under the overall command of Dwight Eisenhower the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the West (SHAEF.) He never reached the level of command that either Montgomery of Rommel achieved.
General George Patton’s fate was quite unusual. After being basically cashiered by Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the West, for his actions, intemperate and foolish remarks and criticism of his superiors, he was killed in a strange motor accident. Aside from the conspiratorial theories and moronic myths regarding his untimely death, the historic Patton, ironically, benefitted from his untimely demise. His expurgated diary, first cleansed by his estranged wife Beatrice, and edited by the military historian Martin Blumenson, entitled, “War as I Knew It,” was a best seller, sustained his myth, reinforced the public perception of him being a warrior without equal. That revisionist effort cleaned up his vulgarities, his incredibly offensive language, and his bigotry, which was extended to almost everyone, especially Jews, Blacks and Catholics. By the way, Patton, a notorious womanizer, was believed to have had affairs with his attractive niece (by marriage) Jean Gordon, who followed him to Britain as a member of the Red Cross. Whether their relationship was ever more than infatuation is not proven. His wife, Beatrice was extremely jealous of the much younger and attractive woman. Not long after his death, in December of 1945, she committed suicide. As for other officers, many of them had acquaintances of the opposite sex, because wives of officers were not allowed overseas. Kay Summersby, an English widow of a British officer, was more than Eisenhower’s driver and bridge partner. Rumor has it that he wanted to bring her to America, divorce his wife, the alcoholic Mamie, but George C. Marshall, the Chief of Staff, threatened Eisenhower with disgrace.
Not surprisingly, there were other officers of Patton’s rank that were anti-Semitic, as it seems were the majority of Americans of that era. But of course, few were as vocal as Patton. Almost no one in public life was as profane and vulgar as Patton. In fact, it would not be a stretch to label Patton as bordering on megalomania. He also hated the British, despised Montgomery, but his views of the campaign into Germany were quite similar to Monty’s and directly opposite of Eisenhower’s strategy of the broad thrust campaign. He hated the Russians more than the Germans and used former Nazis to administer the the towns and cities, when he was the Military Governor of Bavaria and commanding General of the 3rd Army.
Eventually what finally started to bring about the removal of Patton from his command was his conversation with General Joseph McNarney, who was Eisenhower’s Deputy and was in nominal command whenever General Eisenhower was not in Germany.
Patton: Hell, why do we care what those Goddamn Russians think? We are going to have to fight them sooner or later. Why not do it now while our Army is intact and the damn Russians can have their ass jacked back to Russia in three months? We can do it easily with the help of the German troops we have, if we arm them and take them with us. They hate the bastards.
McNarney: Shut up, George, This line could be tapped and you’ll be starting a war with the Russians with your talking.
Patton: I want it to get started some way. That’s the best thing we can do now. You don’t have to get mixed up in it if you are so damn scared of your rank. Let me handle it from here. In ten days I can have enough incidents happen to have us in a war with those sons=of-bitches and make it look like their fault, so we’ll be justified in attacking them and running them out.
McNarney hung up, Patton had said too much. Patton continued his diatribes to all who would listen. Eventually, Eisenhower decided that Patton might be mentally unbalanced, and he sent an “undercover psychiatrist” to be posted to his headquarters. Eventually, aside from these incidents, he had plenty of opportunity to condemn himself. When on September 22, 1945, at Bad Tolz, after he replied to reporters that he hated the Nazis as much as anyone, but to get things done in Bavaria, he had “compromise with the devil” and hire Nazis to run things, he was asked a loaded question, “After all, General, didn’t most ordinary Nazis join their party in about the same way that Americans become Republicans or Democrats?” Patton, who seemed to understand the explosive nature of the question, answered “Yes, that about it!” When that exchange hit the newspapers in America, the headlines roared, “American general says Nazis are just like the Republicans and the Democrats!” The final die was cast.
The last of this famed triumvirate was Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, who had a meteoric rise from almost nowhere, to fame at the 2nd Battle of El Alamein, which helped turned around the war in North Africa and fractured the iconic and invincible image of Rommel, the Desert Fox. He went on to dual command in Sicily, Italy and nominal command of all Allied forces in the field during the Normandy invasion. By the end of the war, he far outranked Rommel, who was nominally in joint command of German Forces in Normandy first with Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt and later with Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge.
After the war, Montgomery was afforded all the honors of a grateful nation could bestow on an individual. He was made Lord Montgomery and became the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), the name given to the British Occupation Forces, and was the British member of the Allied Control Council. Montgomery He was created 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein in 1946. He was Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) from 1946 to 1948, succeeding Alan Brooke.
When Montgomery’s term of office expired, Prime Minister Attlee appointed Sir William Slim from retirement with the rank of field marshal as his successor; when Montgomery protested that he had told his protégé, General Sir John Crocker, former commander of I Corps in the 1944–45 North-West Europe Campaign, that the job was to be his, Attlee is said to have given the memorable retort “Untell him”
Montgomery’s memoirs (1958) criticized many of his wartime comrades in harsh terms, including Eisenhower. He was threatened with legal action by Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck for suggesting that Auchinleck had intended to retreat from the Alamein position if attacked again, and had to give a radio broadcast (20 November 1958) expressing his gratitude to Auchinleck for having stabilized the front at the First Battle of Alamein.
The 1960 paperback edition of his memoirs contains a publisher’s note drawing attention to that broadcast, and stating that in the publisher’s view the reader might reasonably assume from Montgomery’s text that Auchinleck had been planning to retreat “into the Nile Delta or beyond” and pointing out that it had been Auchinleck’s intention to launch an offensive as soon as the Eighth Army was “rested and regrouped”.
He spoke out against the legalization of homosexuality in the United Kingdom, arguing that the Sexual Offences Act 1967 was a “charter for buggery” and that “this sort of thing may be tolerated by the French, but we’re British – thank God.” Many have suggested that he was a “latent” homosexual. Throughout his later years he did have an unusual interest in young men or boys, but there was never a report of any type of incident.
Montgomery was not a likable individual, who had few friends and less admirers of his peers. The great military writer, historian and WWII expert, Basil Liddle Hart, wrote to him in 1946 to point out that “your poor manner has always been your worst handicap.” No one defeated Montgomery more conclusively than he himself.
As for Erwin Rommel, his men basically said of him, “he shared the shit!” Basil Liddle Hart, who knew everyone and wrote a definitive history of the Second World War, and was also the author of the remarkable book, “The German Generals Talk,” wrote, that “his successes were achieved with inferiority of resources and without command of the air, No other general on either side won battles under that handicap.”
In conclusion, “all three were accused of showmanship” by their contemporaries. Whether it was Montgomery’s flamboyant hats, and his personal arrogance and brusqueness to everyone, or Rommel’s self-promotion and request that his wife cut out and save every article about him along with his feelings of a personal insult when a plan, or an operation, suggested by von Rundstedt, was chosen, or Patton’s bravado, Colt 45 ivory-handled, revolvers and his feeling that every reversal inflicted on him by the Allied Command was a personal attack by Eisenhower, Bradley and Montgomery. All three were willing to sacrifice men for their military objects. Certainly Rommel, from all accounts, respected Hitler to the end, but believed that the war was lost in the West in the weeks after the Normandy invasion. He never seemed to indicate that Hitler should be removed or assassinated. At one time, he regarded Hitler as the greatest German general of all, and it was his failings of a man, rather than a failure as a student of von Clausewitz (Carl Gottlieb von Clausewitz, 1780-1831, his book “On War” were widely influential in military theory and have had a strong influence on German military thought specifically).
Generally speaking, all three of these field commanders believed in tank warfare and the use of combined forces; armor, artillery, air support and infantry. Both Patton and Rommel were bolder and were more willing to take chances as advocates of the Blitzkrieg, or Lightning War. Montgomery, on the other hand, was more cautious, looked to build up his forces to superior levels of his adversary, but all three believed in the single, concentrated thrust of power, as opposed to the broad front, espoused by Eisenhower. As for Montgomery and Patton, they actively disliked their superiors, demeaned them, and this included Eisenhower, who had to deal with the political problems that always plagued allies. Rommel, who started the late 1930’s as basically a junior officer in the Wehrmacht (German Army), curried favor with Hitler and he therefore advanced well beyond what the German General Staff would have expected. He was also admired by Hitler for his efficiency, verve and ability to command men. In a sense, he had a greater connection, for better or worse, with the real seat of power, than his two rivals. Montgomery’s mentor was Field Marshall Alan Brooke, who was head of the Imperial General Staff and the highest ranking British soldier in the 2nd World War and the personal military adviser to Winston Churchill. George S. Patton, was a career soldier, an elitist, but never the favorite of General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the US Army and nominal head of the unofficial American Joint Chiefs. He had no relationship with Franklin Roosevelt and was never considered by the Joint Chiefs as anyone but a field commander. As for Montgomery, with all of his personal limitations, insecurities, and possible inferiority complex, he was raised to mythic status after El Alamein and became the leading British soldier of the war, aside from his disappointments and excuses in Sicily, Italy, at Caen, and with Arnhem and the failed Market-Garden fiasco. He was actively disliked by all of his peers, and for sure the Americans, who felt the constant sting of his criticisms. Later on, in the Patton diary, which became, “The War I knew,” and Eisenhower’s “Crusade in Europe” along with Bradley’s “A Soldier’s Story,” as with Montgomery’s memoirs, there was plenty of criticism to go around, with each one justifying their own actions, strategies, and results, by more or less demeaning their rivals.
But, reflective of the thoughts of the author, if neither Patton nor Montgomery had been available to the allies, and if Hitler’s mental decline had not broken his trust in Rommel, the war in the West might well have been won by Germany on the sandy beaches of Normandy.