On the 60th anniversary of El Alamein, Adrian Mourby finds historical opinion divided on General Montgomery's part in the crucial Allied victory
I'm worried that he is after my job," Churchill confided to George VI during General Montgomery's post-Alamein victory tour of Britain. "Thank goodness," the King replied. "I thought he was after mine."
It was a dramatic, if costly, victory over Germany's Afrika Korps that had catapulted Bernard Law Montgomery to superstar status in Britain. "Before Alamein we had no victories," ran a saying of the time. "After it no defeats."
Some 60 years on, the view of military historians is, inevitably, more complex. Belatedly, recognition is being given to Monty's predecessor, Claud Auchinleck, who was the first to check Germany's advance on Egypt during the summer of 1942.
David Zabecki, an adviser to the Pentagon and assistant professor at the American Military University, says the Germans "tend to give Auchinleck the credit for stopping Rommel", seeing El Alamein as the last in a logical chain of events and Auchinleck's previous victories as giving Monty "an upper hand, going into Alamein, that was pretty hard to squander".
Montgomery's legacy has been reinterpreted many times, with critics claiming his war strategy was outdated and overly cautious, but many military historians now believe that this assessment is unfair. Matthew Hughes, senior lecturer in military and international history at the University of Salford, says critics see El Alamein as "a classic example of Montgomery's lack of understanding of the modern battlefield", labelling it "a first world war-style slugfest". But Hughes argues that this ignores Monty's skill at making the most of the tools at his disposal. "The British army in the second world war was a fragile force, suffering from a lack of prewar planning and preparation. It was having to learn on the job."
Russell A. Hart, associate professor of history at the College of Liberal Arts at Hawaii Pacific University, agrees. "Monty was concerned about the morale and capabilities of his mass conscript force when compared with one of the finest military forces anyone could face."
Monty scheduled his attack for the night of October 23, not only a full moon but the date by which he believed he would have completed his build-up of vastly superior odds (the 8th Army fielded five times as many tanks as the Germans). Monty's insistence on heavily weighting the odds has provoked some postwar historians, particularly in the US, to criticise him for excessive caution. Stephen Hart, senior lecturer in the war studies department at Sandhurst Military Academy, says this ignores the importance of casualty-avoidance issues for the British. "Partly this was sensible pragmatism because even in 1942 the British army had a manpower problem, and this would grow as a problem until it haunted British fighting strategy and created a policy of relying on firepower to achieve modest victories at a low cost in casualties," he says.
Richard Holmes, professor of military and security studies at Cranfield University, concurs. "There was abundant evidence of what went wrong if you were not properly joined up facing an opponent such as [Field Marshall Erwin] Rommel. If you took the Germans on when you were badly balanced, even at that stage in the war, you got bitten."
Recent research into the politics of warfare has also helped to provide positive reasons for Montgomery's strategy. Hughes puts his caution down to forward-thinking about a possible postwar settlement. "The need to conserve British strength... became most apparent in Northwest Europe after the Normandy landings in June 1944 as growing numbers of American forces dominated operations," he says. "Monty did his best to punch above his weight, and by pushing British operations helped to give Britain maximum bang for bucks. This helped turn Britain into one of the victors of the war, so preserving for her a place at the postwar high table."
The battle of El Alamein lasted 12 days, leaving 13,500 killed or wounded. Another big question is whether Montgomery would have pulled it off if Rommel, who was convalescing in Europe on October 23, had been in charge, rather than his deputy, General Stumme.
Holmes thinks Rommel's presence would not have made much difference. "Rommel had gone home because he was worn out, and, given the political need to hold positions as far forward as possible, the Germans, regardless of the commander on the day, had few real tactical alternatives at Alamein."
Hughes agrees. "Rommel was good but his supply lines across the Mediterranean had been cut by Allied forces and Hitler sent him little in the way of reinforcements. In this respect German strategy was flawed."
Russell A. Hart also believes that little could have been done to prevent a general as painstaking as Montgomery from winning the field at El Alamein. "The Germans fought as well as they could in the circumstances, but accelerated their own exhaustion by repeatedly counterattacking Allied penetrations in accordance with their own standard defensive doctrine, thereby dissipating their meagre strength. Montgomery's skill was in recognising the causes of earlier offensive failures and avoiding repeating them, leaving as little to chance as possible. Of course, he had arrived when the war had already turned against the Axis. Mounting Allied mastery of the seas and skies certainly made his task easier than the one that had faced his unfortunate predecessors, Auchinleck and Wavell."
Hart sees the battle as "demonstrating" rather than achieving Allied superiority. "The victory of El Alamein proclaimed to the world that the war had really turned against the Axis. The importance of El Alamein was that the Allies finally proved that they had learnt how to translate strategic advantage into military success on the ground. It served notice to the Axis that they would pay an ever greater price in human and material terms for their aggression."
Although today's historians tend to give a more favourable assessment of Montgomery than those 20 years ago, Stephen Hart says the victor of El Alamein still attracts a remarkable amount of flak, mainly from Americans. Some of this may be attributable to his legendary arrogance, but Hart believes this has been overrated. "Monty was very professional and if he had been influenced solely by the need to grab glory he would have abandoned his cautious strategy when he got to Normandy and tried to break out earlier, just as his critics demanded. Monty knew the capabilities of his side, and that of his enemy... The Yanks did not work under the same constraints because they had greater resources so that they could be bold and risk big losses. Put simply, if British forces had charged off into the sunset beyond the range of massive Allied artillery fire support they would have been exposing themselves to the risk of defeat."