1st February 2009
Field-Marshal Montgomery was the first Military Governor of the British Zone in Germany after the war, for just under a year from May 1945 to April 1946.
Surprisingly his Wikipedia entry makes no mention of this, skipping straight from his accepting the surrender of all German forces in Northern Germany, Holland and Denmark, on Lüneburg Heath on 4th May 1945, to his appointment as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) in 1946.
Montgomery is best known, of course, for his wartime victories, notably at El Alamein and as Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces at the Battle of Normandy. After the war he was wildly popular at home in England, both among soldiers who fought under him, and among civilians, thousands of whom cheered him in the streets. In later life though, and especially after his memoirs were published in 1958, he attracted a great deal of controversy and criticism.
As my research is on the British in occupied Germany after the war, I am not so interested in the debates on how the war was fought – on whether Montgomery was right or wrong at, for example, El Alamein, Normandy, Arnhem (‘A Bridge Too Far’), or the Battle of the Bulge. I am more interested in how influential he was as Military Governor of the British Zone of Germany and how he reacted to the transition from war to peace.
In my post a couple of months ago on Turning Points; when and why did British policy change at the end of the war, I wrote about a clear change in British policy towards Germany, as shown in the weekly PR Directives issued by the British 21st Army Group, which coincided with Montgomery’s return to Germany from England on 26th May, after confirmation of his appointment as Military Governor.
Why did he react to the end of the war in the way he did? And what did he really mean when he spoke of “fighting a battle to save the soul of Germany” (see my previous post on the book ‘Darkness over Germany’ by Amy Buller)? Montgomery’s father had been Bishop of Tasmania and was later secretary of the Christian missionary Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. To what extent was the ‘missionary idealism’, so evident in the words and actions of some British people in Germany after the war, inspired directly by the first Military Governor?
One insight into his character can be obtained from Goronwy’s Rees’ description of him at the time of the Dieppe Raid in 1942 (which I wrote about some months ago on this blog). Another fascinating account of Montgomery, this time as an old man, is on the BBC WW2 People’s War website.
As far as I know, no-one has attempted an assessment of Montgomery’s time as Military Governor of Germany. His biographer, Nigel Hamilton, appears to take two quite different views. On the one hand, he interpreted this period as the start of the decline of a great military commander, who “failed to grow in stature commensurate with his high office … That Monty could have achieved such undoubted greatness as military commander in war, yet failed to rise to an equivalent greatness of spirit or stature in peace, was a strange paradox.”
On the other hand, Nigel Hamilton wrote elsewhere in the book in more favourable terms of his time in Germany:
“Critics of Montgomery would later claim that he was a general who, by virtue of his prickly personality, could only perform in war. While it cannot be denied that Monty’s generalship was uniquely suited to war, his military governorship of Germany was without doubt the least ‘sung’ and yet, in many ways, the most successful of all Monty’s campaigns. Under his personal leadership, administering the most populous and industrialized zone of Germany, seeds were sown that later resulted in the world’s most astonishing industrial revival within a free and liberal society.”
In another passage, on Montgomery’s personal character rather than on his military or political achievements, Hamilton appears to try (in my view not very successfully) to have it both ways:
“What emerged [after the war] was, increasingly, an overwrought, lonely tyrant without family or real friends, unable to share as once he had shared the fellowship of desert warriors. Whether any other commander could have done as well, let alone better, in ruling Germany is doubtful …. To complain that he was not, at the same time, a great statesman or diplomat, that he did not rise to the stature, say, of MacArthur in Japan or even Eisenhower in Europe, is wilfully to overlook his achievement and belittle his profoundly Christian charity.”
Montgomery himself clearly considered his time in Germany to be significant and devoted four chapters to this in his memoirs, but to try to gain a better and more detailed understanding of what he aimed to achieve, I’ve been reading his unpublished ‘Notes on the Occupation of Germany’ held, together with his other papers, at the Imperial War Museum. It’s not entirely clear who wrote them, or exactly when they were written, but (unlike his memoirs published in 1958) they do appear to be contemporary, and were probably produced soon after the events they describe by one of his staff, in consultation with him, (in much the same way as a narrative of events was compiled by his military assistant, Kit Dawnay, between D-Day and the end of the war in Europe). They are in four parts, each comprising a typewritten chronicle of events with introduction and commentary, 14-25 pages long, and a number of appendices comprising relevant documents – such as memos, directives and speeches – and finally a brief diary listing his movements and meetings with visitors. The introduction and loose-leaf documents for each of the four parts were originally hand bound with a board cover with the title, a hand coloured map of the British Zone, and marked ‘TOP SECRET, Personal for C-in-C, copy no. 3’.
In my next post I’ll describe some of the things I discovered in his ‘Notes on the Occupation of Germany'.
The Memoirs of Field-Marshal The Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (Collins, London: 1958)
Nigel Hamilton, Monty: The Field-Marshal 1944-1976 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986)
The ‘Notes on the Occupation of Germany’ are part of the Montgomery papers at the Imperial War Museum, reference BLM 85, BLM 86, BLM 87 and BLM 88.