Needed A SINGLE COMMAND
This writer says that on the Western Front the Allies have everything—but a single ground command
L. S. B. SHAPIRO
Maclean's War Correspondent.
PARIS (by Cable). On Dec. 19, 1943, the tents and caravans of General Montgomery's Eighth Army command post were bivouacked near the
little town of Paglietta on the Sangro River. It was approaching 8 p.m. and darkness had fallen over the growling battlefield of the Sangro. In a marquee where the General and his small personal staff had their meals—even in the Italian winter Montgomery preferred a tent to a house—the seven officers of his household idled over their whisky as they waited for Monty to appear for supper.
The men had much to talk about. The Cairo conference had just ended and the Teheran conference was in progress. There were the usual rumors about the Second Front and some had heard that General Alexander was on his way to see Monty.
Promptly at eight Montgomery stepped briskly into the tent, glanced around with the trace of a smile on his face, and said: “Everybody had a drink? Good! Let’s go in.” Although he never drinks himself Monty always has a supply on hand for those of his staff who do. After Monty had seated himself the men took their places at the table.
As coffee was poured, after a Spartan meal, Montgomery broke the news to his staff. “I’m leaving for England,” he said quietly, “to take over a new command.”
That was the first anyone outside the closely guarded doors of the Cairo conference knew of the great decision. Ten days later the General was en route to join Eisenhower in London. The wheels of the Second Front operation had begun to turn.
Thus Montgomery stepped out of the bleak Italian setting into the adventurous campaign which was climaxed by the Battle of Normandy and the sweep to the German frontiers. Thus, also, was touched off a sequence of events which will furnish war historians with provocative material for years. How great a field commander was Montgomery? Why was Allied ground command in western Europe changed at the very pinnacle of his success? What degree of real unity was practiced by the Allies in conduct of the Western Campaign? How deeply did domestic politics and national rivalries cut across Eisenhower’s honest and unselfish effort to wield his forces with the greatest possible effectiveness?
Field Marshal Montgomery must be the central figure in any future discussion stemming from these questions. This brilliant, eccentric, curious and colorful man has won for the Allies their greatest victories in the West and he has involuntarily revealed their most persistent weakness—the lack of pure unity, something apparently as unattainable as perfection itself.
By the time Montgomery arrived in London his
appointment had been announced to the world with deliberate inaccuracy. On Christmas Eve of 1943 a joint statement from Downing Street and the White House named him to command the British group of armies for the Second Front. Only a few knew that in fact his job was ground commander of all Allied forces in the West. He was saddled with full field responsibility for what looked to be the most hazardous operation in modern military history.
Reasons for Choice
IT IS pertinent to this discussion to examine the reasons for his selection to the post. Certainly he was not personally very popular either in Whitehall or with his colleagues in the Mediterranean military hierarchy. His selection was patently based on the
fact that he had proved himself the most successful general in the British and American forces. He was right for the job in many respects: he was known to be a careful commander, one who refused to be hurried by extraneous circumstances and who never attacked until he had made every preparation humanly possible to attain success; this was particularly important at a time when political pressure for launching of a Second Front was becoming unbearably heavy. Montgomery also brought with him to England a legend of unbroken successes. This was highly valuable to the morale of all troops training for the operation. Too long had they heard that the Second Front was going to be a slaughterhouse; Monty’s arrival gave them new confidence, a fact which was quickly recognized and implemented by Eisenhower when he appointed Montgomery a sort of travelling cheerleader in the encampments of England.
Once he was established in England Montgomery and his brilliant chief of staff, Major General Francis de Guingand, drew up a new plan of battle based on the disposition of forces prepared in advance by the War office. The plan had Eisenhower’s approval and it incorporated his advice, but it was essentially Montgomery’s conception. He made it clear that if he
was to fight the Battle of Normandy he would brook no interference during the various stages of its development.
This insistence on complete control became a matter of urgent importance during the battle. When the assault was successfully made in June, with British and Canadian forces approximately equal in numerical strength to American forces—about four division each — the British War Office was not worried. But when July moved into its third week and thè battle was obviously not going according to plan, Churchill began to wonder exactly how good this man Montgomery was. The Prime Minister’s responsibility weighed heavily upon Churchill. Here was a British general in charge of an Allied force containing a rapidly increasing percentage of American troops, and the battle had reached a critical and costly stage. Progress was very slow and Montgomery was extraordinarily silent.
At this point a stream of visitors, including Churchill, Eisenhower and Smuts, came across the Channel to visit Montgomery and try to discover what was in the General’s mind. Did he think the outlook was grave? Did he feel he should make a radical revision of his plan? Or was he still confident that he had the measure of Rundstedt and Rommel?
To all the visitors Montgomery presented a uniformly obscure attitude, which did nothing to relieve the anxiety in Whitehall. He adopted the façade of a mystic. He divulged neither his feelings nor his intentions. All he would say was that everything was fine, and would everybody be good enough to leave him alone to carry through his plans?
From Mystic to Genius
1ESS than a fortnight after the high point of J Whitehall’s anxiety, Montgomery’s program of constant regrouping of his armor bore its ripest fruit. The bulk of Rundstedt’s Panzers was attracted into the area of the Falaise Gap - just as if Montgomery had plotted its course -Bradley’s Army smashed a hole from Saint Lo to Avranches, and Patton’s Army streamed into the French hinterland. The plan suddenly became obvious; it was beautiful; it was effective. Montgomery the mystic had become Montgomery the genius.
Out of this victory spurted the great advance across western Europe to the Reich’s borders. But before another lightning thrust could be built on the momentum of this one, the over-all command of the Allies was changed on Sept. 2. Thenceforth the ground command was divided among three Army group leaders— Mongomery, Bradley and Devers—with ELsenhower assuming direct land command in addition to sea, air, and politico-military command.
Why was this done? It may be said, quite accurately, that this decision was taken in accordance with a prearranged plan. It was never intended that Montgomery should have indefinite command of all Allied ground forces. But this prearranged plan was based on the assumption that a decisive victory in France and Belgium would break the core of German resistance in the West, that routine pressure everywhere
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would collapse the surviving shell of the Nazi colossus, that there would he no need for a winter battle on a comprehensive scale requiring imaginative conception.
Test of Allied Unity
That this assumption was based on false hopes and a mistaken appreciation of the Germans’ power of recuperation became painfully evident when the thrust to Arnhem failed, possibly through lack of proper concentration of Allied strength. During October and November it became exceedingly clear that another campaign on the scale of Normandy would be necessary before final victory could be achieved. The demand grew, first in military circles then in the popular press, for a return to the single ground command system which had gained for the Allies victory in Africa and western Europe.
Here was a severe test of Allied unity. Would the British accept both Eisenhower as supreme commander and, let us say, Bradley, the outstanding American tactician, as Allied ground commander? Would the Americans, who could count by official announcement that they had 46 divisions in western Europe, against 17 British and Canadian divisions, accept Montgomery as ground commander?
Apparently Allied unity has failed in this test. Neither Bradley nor Montgomery has been given the big job. The upsurge of touchy national feeling was discouragingly demonstrated when the impact of Rundstedt’s offensive in the Ardennes gave Montgomery command of the American First and Ninth Armies. Eisenhower’s painfully laborious announcement of the necessity for this move revealed an apologetic hand. And when Montgomery held a press conference in which he stated a proprietory interest in the First and Ninth armies, Bradley lost no time in announcing that the whole arrangement was temporary. There was the faintest hint of bad manners -or extreme sensitivity—on both sides.
The temperaments of generals should not be important to the Allied peoples. What is important is a fast and economical finish to the war. And the circumstance persists that a bulky aud insensitive system of ground com-
mand remains on the Western Front. It is endowed with national jealousies and retained by the race for national credits.
There is no question of sincerity of Eisenhower’s performance as Supreme Commander. He is the perfect choice as Allied Chief. No other known man in Britain or America can claim the degree of confidence in which he is held by the soldiers and the peoples of the western Allies. If his authority were as supreme as his title indicates, Allied unity would be welded. But a system of checks and balances plays upon his decisions no less than on those of other war leaders. Completely unsullied personally by considerations of national prides and jealousies, he must still weigh them in making appointments of a semipermanent character. The fault, therefore, lies not so much with the military but with the people.
There are only two field commanders in our western forces who, on the basis of their known ability, can be entrusted with planning and carrying through the western Battle for Germany. They are Montgomery and Bradley. Of the two it can hardly be denied that Montgomery’s record of achievement is the more impressive. In the perfect alliance of powers he would undoubtedly be selected to command the final assault.
This correspondent can hardly he called Montgomery’s most enthusiastic admirer. But Montgomery was superb beyond measure in the Normandy battle, in which he was opposed by an enemy determined to stand and fight. In this campaign I have rediscovered Montgomery.
He is not a brilliant man in the accepted way of assaying a man’s brain power. He would make a poor lawyer; he would probably make a hash of high finance; certainly he would have been a failure if he had set out as a young man to be a writer this despite my certainty that any book he writes henceforth will sell 5 million copies. But he approaches genius in his chosen profession—soldiering. He combines training and instinct and that delicate balance which makes for success on the battlefield. He likes fighting but he does not let his enthusiasm run away with his judgment. He has both the equipment and the urge.
He may be likened to Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion. He is scientifically sound and instinctively almost faultless. Given the proper
strength he sizes up his opponent and never makes a mistake.
Like all men who attain greatness, his success is the product of time and circumstance. He was given his opportunity to show his ability at the turning point of Allied fortunes. He was the first Allied general of this war to hold a preponderance of men and materials, as he faced the enemy at Alamein. Since then he has never gone into battle without the sure knowledge that he had more of everything than his opponent. And possessing superior power, he knew instinctively how to use it successfully. He is no leader of forlorn causes—no Waved, who could daringly challenge 180,000 Italians and beat them with 40,000 men. By character and training Montgomery is geared to superior power and victory.
Had he been assigned to a fighting command in the Desert War of 1941 he might have been relegated to the rank and file of indifferent generals. But he emerged in late summer of 1942, when America was beginning to pour its products into the British arsenal, and he was discovered as the man who could best fashion strength into victory. Thereafter he gained stature, confidence and superior resources, and now he has become the perfect illustration of the axiom that a good big man can always beat a good little man.
Unity Is Necessary
But it may be asked: what is wrong with the present system? Isn’t Eisenhower the single commander of all Allied ground forces? The short answer is that Eisenhower bears the same relationship to Allied ground forces as Commander-in-Chief Franklin Roosevelt bears to the armed forces of the United States. Eisenhower’s responsibilities are so vast that it is hardly possible for him to undertake command of a battle. He must delegate his authority, and in western Europe he has delegated it to three Army group leaders, which is a departure from his own successful system in Africa, Sicily and Italy, where he appointed one man to handle all Allied forces in battle.
The principal weakness in having the Army group leaders control a battle front lies in losing a sensitive feel of the enemy. Each Army is a world of
its own, and although there is almost instantaneous exchange of intelligence reports between groups, there is no single individual who has both the opportunity to collate the facts and the authority to react quickly to them. The feel of the enemy is half information and half hunch. It is a thing of instinct which every field commander must have if he is to be suceessful. One of the causes of Rundstedt’s successful break-throughs in the Ardennes was that Allied Command temporarily lost this feel of the enemy. One of the reasons for the Normandy victory was that Montgomery had the feel at every moment of the battle.
If the reader reaches the conclusion that this correspondent is stumping for the appointment of Montgomery as Allied ground commander, he or she will have interpreted wrongly. I am stumping for the appointment of a single ground commander and I think the wisest choice would be Bradley. In my opinion Montgomery is by far the best choice from the strictly military point of view, but it has become evident that Anglo-American relations have not yet attained the happy state in which a British general can take command of a preponderantly American force. The best choice, if I may fizz a bromide, is not always the wisast choice. In this case the best would place an overpowering strain on the bonds that cross the North Atlantic.
By the time this article sees publication the whole delicate problem of Allied Command may have been solved for us by the Russians. At this writing Zhukov is on the Oder and the days of organized resistance within Germany seem to be numbered. But the end of the European war, while solving the problem of Allied command, will not solve the larger proglem of Allied unity. Indeed the peace will require a higher degree of Allied unity than does the war. It is for this reason that I have written with blunt frankness—if only to demonstrate that the Englishspeaking powers have still to attain that unselfish unity which reflects a purity of purpose. We have not been purged by the ugliest war of all time. It is a grim warning as we approach the problems of peace.