It’s easy to dislike Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. He was a pompous blowhard, an egotist, and a braggart, and lot of Americans grind their teeth at the mention of his name. To hear him tell it, he was the man: the wise father of the victorious Allied campaign plan in Normandy, the calming presence who had to prop up a panicked U.S. command structure in the Bulge, and the grim warlord who oversaw the final drive over the Rhine and into Germany in 1945. It didn’t stop after the war, either. In 1957, he famously abused the hospitality of President Eisenhower during a Gettysburg battlefield tour by lecturing Ike on the course of the battle and the quality of both Lee and Meade’s generalship. Like many Americans confronted by Monty before and since, Ike seethed, and who can blame him?
And yet, I can’t help but admit a strange admiration for the man. His generalship was not impeccable. He was cautious, so much so that it sometimes looked like timidity. Military historians are probably never going to warm to a commander who once summed up his art of war as “an infinite capacity for taking pains.” We prefer our hard-chargers, our Norm Cotas, our George Pattons, our Erwin Rommels. Given the perilous–indeed, disastrous–situation facing the British army in 1944, however, with infantry replacements all but dried up, it is hard to imagine aggressive Pattonesque leadership achieving much of anything. Monty led Britain’s last army, he knew it, and he led it pretty well, all things considered, from Alamein to the end. He knew the limitations of his force, he knew how to fight a managed, set-piece battle, and he understand the danger of getting into a maneuver contest with the Wehrmacht. As to his braggadocio and his tendency to see the war as nothing more than a line in his resumé, sure they were obnoxious, but let’s just say that “alpha male” behavior on this pattern is hardly uncommon among history’s great captains. It might even be a necessary attribute.
This brings us to the battles for Caen in the summer of 1944, usually “exhibit A” in the anti-Monty indictment. It’s easy to build a case: the failure to take the city on D-Day (as he had promised), then a pair of disastrous right hooks at Villers-Bocage and Operation Epsom, and finally the ignominy of two breakthrough attempts that failed even though they were spearheaded by massive carpet bombings (Operations Charnwood and Goodwood). But even here, let’s be fair. Challenge to the reader: get out a Normandy situation map from July 1944. Then count the Panzer Divisions in each sector, the U.S. and the British. Then come up with a plan that would have worked better than Goodwood.