UK publisher: Penguin
Data: 464 pages, 60 photos
Hardback (2008): £25.00
Paperback (2009): £8.99
Website © Terry Brighton
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In the Second World War, Great Britain, the US and Germany each produced one land force commander who stood out from the rest: Bernard Montgomery, George Patton and Erwin Rommel. These three armour-plated egos were, in their own opinion but also in the judgement of their contemporaries, the greatest generals of the war.
All three were arrogant, publicity seeking and personally flawed, but with a genius for the command of men and an unrivalled enthusiasm for combat. All had spectacular success on the battlefield. Each understood the war in terms of his own ambitions and the attempts of the other two to thwart them. Rommel became the only German general known by name in Britain and America before most had even heard of Montgomery and Patton. They had to compete with him as larger-than-life personalities in whom their armies could believe before they could beat him on the battlefield. Yet as they fought for the headlines the hostility expressed by the two allies was directed, not at their mutual enemy, but at one another. Rommel, aware that the men and armour under their command outnumbered his own, remained confident that his superior tactical skills could defeat both of them.
It was a very personal contest: the clash of mighty armies perceived as a bout between three men. In Masters of Battle, for the first time in the literature of the Second World War, all three are 'put in the same ring' and allowed to 'go at it' against a backdrop of the great tank battles of North Africa, the invasions of Sicily and Italy, the Normandy landings and the push through France and Belgium into Germany.
Montgomery, Patton and Rommel were all born in November in different years between 1885 and 1891, and under the same astrological sign: Scorpio, from the scorpion, known for its venomous sting. Each of the three was to live up to that.
Montgomery was a small man with a shrill voice but his appearance belied the size of his ego. Convinced that only he knew how to conduct the war he treated his superiors with contempt and snubbed even Churchill. His victory at El Alamein against the previously invincible Rommel inspired the British press to compare him with Wellington, a sentiment he heartily endorsed. King George VI, visiting him in North Africa, said he was delighted to discover that Monty was not after his job. Montgomery led British forces in the invasion of Sicily, and rewrote the plan for the D-Day invasion, during which he commanded all Allied ground troops and attempted once more to outsmart Rommel who commanded the coastal defences.
Patton was nicknamed 'Old Blood and Guts' because of his enthusiasm for battle, and General Eisenhower joked that he probably wore his combat helmet in bed. He certainly wore an ivory-handled Colt revolver everywhere and put on what he called his 'warrior face' to deliver obscene and profane speeches to the troops. He led American troops to their first victory in North Africa and commanded US forces in the invasion of Sicily. After D-Day he led the breakout from Normandy, the only Allied commander to emulate Rommel's blitzkrieg (lightning war). As his armoured columns raced towards the Rhine he boasted that he would be first into Berlin and 'personally shoot that son-of-a-bitch Adolf Hitler'.
Rommel's firm-set face and goggled cap became an icon of the desert war after Hitler personally gave him command of the Deutsches Afrika Korps. He pressed the British back to El Alamein, defeated the Americans at Kasserine, and was nicknamed W?stenfuchs (Desert Fox) for the uncanny brilliance of his battle tactics. General Auchinleck found it necessary to tell his beaten British army that 'Rommel is not superhuman . . . it would be undesirable to attribute supernatural powers to him'. After his defeat and pursuit across North Africa by Montgomery, Rommel was put in charge of defending the French coast. There he planned to beat back the Allied invasion and win the war for Germany.
Both Montgomery and Patton described their battle with Rommel as a personal contest. Monty chose a metaphor from the tennis court: 'I feel that I have won the first game when it was Rommel's service. Next time it will be my service, the score being one-love.' Patton likened it to a medieval joust mounted on tanks: 'The two armies could watch. I would shoot at Rommel. He would shoot at me. If I killed him, I'd be the champ. America would win the war.' Both men had the greatest respect for their enemy. Monty kept a portrait of the German in his command caravan while Patton studied Rommel's book on tactics. Rommel returned the compliment: 'Montgomery never made a serious strategic mistake [and] in the Patton Army we saw the most astonishing achievement in mobile warfare.'
In a surreal counterpoint to their respect for Rommel, the allies Montgomery and Patton loathed each other with a rare intensity. Monty told his staff officers that Patton was 'a foul-mouthed lover of war' who lacked his own military insight. Patton called Monty 'a cocky little Limey' and claimed he could 'outfight that little fart anytime'. When they were thrown together for the invasion of Sicily, each commanding their nation's forces, the island proved too small for two such egos and the campaign was determined more by the fight between them than by their fight with the enemy. When they clashed again in Normandy, competing to break through Rommel's defences, the very outcome of the war was at stake. Monty's advance faltered and Patton, leading the breakout, said American troops would 'save the face of the little monkey'. Monty planned his own strike inland and demanded that men and fuel be transferred from Patton's army to his own as they raced to be first across the Rhine.
Masters Of Battle brings together not only the mutual respect of the foes and the furious animosity of the allies, but also the volcanic relationships of the three generals with their chiefs. Monty attempted to keep 'Winston's podgy finger' out of his battles. Patton believed that Eisenhower had his eyes on the White House rather than the war. Rommel realised, too late to save himself, the truth about the Führer he once idolised.
Montgomery, Patton and Rommel were students of war before they were warriors and all three were familiar with Carl von Clausewitz's The Principles of War first published in 1812 and still the primary text for would-be military leaders when Monty was at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, Patton at the US Military Academy at West Point, and Rommel at the K?nigliche Kriegsschule (Imperial War School) in Danzig. Patton bought his copy of the book while honeymooning in London in 1910 and may have ignored his new wife to read it, incurring her suggestion that he preferred Clausewitz to her own charms.
Clausewitz argued that in every battle situation the military leader must choose between 'the most audacious' and 'the most careful' action and concluded that 'no military leader has ever become great without audacity'. He might in evidence, had he been able to observe the Second World War, have pointed out Rommel, noting his fingerspitzengefuhl (the instinctive and immediate response to battle situations) and talent for blitzkrieg, and also Patton, the only Allied commander to match Rommel at his own game and whose motto was borrowed from Frederick the Great: L'audace, l'audace, l'audace - tout jour l'audace.'
Montgomery made 'carefulness' his primary battle-plan and his victories depended on it. Only his genius for materialschlact (the slow build-up of superior manpower and supplies before engagement) could have defeated Rommel at El Alamein and on the Normandy coast. The qualities that make a great military leader are then perhaps more complex than Clausewitz allowed, and in Rommel and Patton (well matched in audaciousness) and Monty (the master of carefulness) we can observe these two command styles brought face-to-face in the most crucial campaigns of the war.
Masters Of Battle tells the story of three extraordinary men, each central to the war effort of Great Britain, the United States and Germany respectively. The explosive passions of their relationships with each other and with their political masters rival the pyrotechnics of their tank battles in determining the conduct and outcome of the war. Through the mutual respect of the arch-enemies Monty and Rommel, and the mutual animosity of the allies Monty and Patton, this book presents the Second World War as it was seen and experienced by three of its most flamboyant, controversial and influential commanders.
© Terry Brighton 2008