27th April 2008
As I described in my posting on 20th January, the approach I have adopted for my research on "'Winning the Peace': The British in occupied Germany, 1945-1951" is to 'Follow the People.' One of the people I'm following is Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Military Governor of the British Zone of Germany during the first twelve months after the end of the war, and better known, of course, as the victor of the battle of El Alamein.
In the two previous posts on this blog, I've written about Goronwy Rees, another person I'm following, who was, among many other things, a british army intelligence officer in Germany for six months after the end of war. One of the chapters in his book of autobiographical sketches A Bundle of Sensations, describing his part in the Dieppe Raid in 1942, includes a portrait of Montgomery which apparently attracted a great deal of attention at the time it was first published, nearly fifty years ago.
Although this episode took place during rather than after the war, and is therefore outside my own period of research, I still think it's worth covering here, as an introduction to writing more about Montgomery and his time in Germany in future postings.
Rees starts by describing how, when he was serving as an intelligence officer in the Home Forces in London, the brigadier told him he would be transferred to HQ South Eastern Command and this meant he would be on General Montgomery's staff:
"'He's a bit of a terror, you know', the brigadier said. "'Very keen on physical fitness, and all that. Makes all his staff officers do a five-mile run once a week'. He spoke as if it were an affront to the human race and gave a little shiver of distaste."
At first Rees saw nothing of Montgomery until one day an ADC told him he was to report personally to the Army Commander at 8.15pm, after dinner.
When he arrived at the "comfortable villa" near Reigate where Montgomery had his quarters, he was shown into a room. "Through the open French windows I could see a small, rather unimpressive figure walking on the lawn, head slightly bent and hands clasped behind his back."
When Montgomery entered the room, Rees described him as follows: "One saw a narrow foxy face, long-nosed, sharp and intelligent and tenacious, with very bright and clear blue eyes, and a small, light, spare body ... but what was impressive was an air he had of extraordinary quietness and calm, as if nothing in the world could disturb his peace of mind ... And to my surprise, after experience of many senior officers, though none so exalted as him, he was extremely polite, so that one almost forgot his rank ..."
"And as one talked to him, one was aware all the time of the stillness and quietness that reigned all around him, in the study itself, in the entire household, in the garden outside, as if even the birds were under a spell of silence; it was a kind of stillness one would associate more easily with an interview with a priest than a general."
The notes to my copy of A Bundle of Sensations (edited by John Harris) add at this point that: "Reviewers of A Bundle of Sensations were much taken by Rees' pages on Monty and Nigel Hamilton [Montgomery's biographer] agrees: 'Anyone who ever served or worked with Montgomery will testify to the accuracy of this portrait.'"
The next morning Rees was called to see Montgomery again and was told he was to act as his representative on the 'Combined Operations' group planning the Dieppe Raid. Since Montgomery "was formally responsible for the operation, it would be necessary for him to be kept informed of the progress of planning and training, of any needs or difficulties that might arise, or any decision taken that might require his approval."
During the following weeks, after the frantic activity at the Combined Operations headquarters, Rees wrote how different things seemed when he went to Reigate to report to Montgomery:
"It was never difficult to see him; when an appointment was made, he was always punctually available, and he always gave the impression that he had nothing in the world to do except the business which was in hand ... Most remarkable of all, to myself, was that he actually listened to what I said, gravely and politely, though very often I felt it was not worth listening to; and when he made comments, or issued any instructions, one felt that they had already been considered, calmly and dispassionately, in the cool of the evening in the garden, when he had given himself just the right amount of time required for reflection."
The day before it was due to take place, there was a gale and the expedition was cancelled due to unfavourable weather conditions. However, a decision was taken that the operation, now codenamed Jubilee, was to take place in a month's time, but as a large number of Canadian forces were involved, overall responsibility was transferred from Montgomery to General McNaughton, the Canadian Commander in Chief. Rees was immediately recalled and took no further part in the planning. However a few days later he was told he could take part as an observer, which he did on board one of the escort ships, the destroyer Garth.
The aim of the raid was to capture the town, hold it for 12 hours, and then stage an orderly withdrawal. According to Rees, the operation was a disaster, there was no orderly retreat, and he described the condition of some of the survivors, picked up by his ship as they tried to escape from the beaches:
"...many were badly wounded, all were suffering from shock and exhaustion. They had the grey, lifeless faces of men whose vitality had been drained out of them; each of them could have modelled a death mask. They were bitter and resentful at having been flung into a battle far more horrible than anything for which they had been prepared... I thought that this is what a beaten army look like, for no army is beaten until it has lost faith and confidence in those who command it."
"Plans for Jubilee had not provided for withdrawal under such conditions as these; elaborate as they were, they had not taken complete failure into account. The wounded lay stretched out side by side on bunks and stretchers and hastily improvised beds, none of them wholly conscious, mumbling words of shock and pain, their faces drained of blood and each with a look in his eyes of dumb surprise, as if each had a question to ask which no one could answer."
The notes to A Bundle of Sensations say that this interpretation has been much debated and adds that Allied losses amounted to 4,350 (with 1,179 dead and 2,190 taken prisoner) German losses were 591, including 311 dead and missing. The Allies lost 106 aircraft and the Germans 48.
The subject of this posting is Rees' portrait of Montgomery, not whether his description of the Dieppe Raid is correct or not, so I'll finish this posting with three personal comments Rees describes Montgomery making on his fellow officers:
Firstly, a comment generally taken to refer to Admiral Mountbatten. Rees had told Montgomery it was sometimes difficult to discover what decisions had really been reached at Combined Operations HQ, and Montgomery added reflectively: "Yes, Admiral - , Admiral - , A very gallant sailor. A very gallant sailor. Had three ships sunk under him. Three ships sunk under him. (Pause) Doesn't know how to fight a battle."
Secondly, of another general who was, according to Rees, "exceedingly brave, exceedingly competent, with the charm and panache of a Renaissance condottiere" he [Montgomery] said: "General - ? Yes. General -. A very brave man. Killed three men with his bare hands. The man's a brigand. Doesn't know how to wage war."
These two comments illustrate Montgomery's criticism of generals who, in his view, did not consider sufficiently the welfare of those who served under them, and who ignored the pain and suffering of war. According to Rees, who on his own admission idolised Montgomery at the time: "The Army Commander had a mind of classical directness and lucidity; when he talked of problems of war they seemed to assume an almost elementary simplicity, but this was only because of the strictness of the analysis which had been applied to them."
Third and lastly, Rees wrote how Montgomery could also be generous in praise of those of whom he approved, saying: "In later years, after he had won the victory of Alamein and had become famous, I often remembered his comment on General Alexander: 'The only man, yes the only man, under whom any admiral, general, or air marshal would gladly serve in a subordinate position.'"
Goronwy Rees: Sketches in Autobiography: 'A Bundle of Sensations' and 'A Chapter of Accidents' with 'A Winter in Berlin', a further autobiographical essay. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001). Edited with Introduction and Notes by John Harris
A Bundle of Sensations was first published by Chatto & Windus, London, 1960
Two extracts from the chapter on the Dieppe Raid, 'A Day at the Seaside', were serialised in The Sunday Times on 22nd and 29th May 1960 as 'Monty' and the 'Drama of Dieppe'.