Skip to main content

Comrade in Arms

December 2023
7min read

The senior British general in the invasion of Europe recalls his friendship with Ike during their service together.      

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein commanded the British Eighth Army in North Africa in 1942 and led Allied land forces in the invasion of Europe. He served with Eisenhower until the end of the war and again in 1951 as Eisenhower's Deputy Supreme Commander at SHAPE. Here, Montgomery recalls their friendship during their service together.      

During the last week in May, 1942, I was directing large-scale maneuvers in southeast England for the divisions under my command; it was a very tough exercise, code name Tiger, and it is remembered to this day. Two American major generals were in England at the time, studying training methods, and they asked if they might visit me to see what was going on. The two were Dwight D. Eisenhower (Director of Military Operations) and Mark Clark (Director of Military Training) —both from Army Headquarters in Washington. These two were both to play a prominent part in Hitler's war from the end of 1942 onwards, and both became my firm friends.

On 7th August, 1942, I was ordered to take command of the First British Army, which was to land in North Africa the following November under Eisenhower's supreme command. But fate intervened. At 7 A.M. the next morning, the order was canceled, and I left England on the 10th August to command the Eighth Army—then facing Rommel's army at Alamein. I next met Eisenhower on the 31st March, 1943; the Eighth Army had fought its way from Alamein to Tunisia and was now under his command. I myself was to remain under his command until the end of the German war in May, 1945. Historians will in due course evaluate Eisenhower's ability in the realm of high command in war; I can, of course, make a contribution to that investigation. But first let me tell of our friendship—how it began and developed, how it almost died in October, 1958, and how all became well in April, 1965.

Eisenhower's strength lay in his human qualities. In some extraordinary way he could instantly warm the hearts of all who came into contact with him.

Eisenhower's strength lay in his human qualities. In some extraordinary way he could instantly warm the hearts of all who came into contact with him. He had a most disarming smile, and it was impossible to become exasperated with him however much one might disagree with his opinions or actions. A simple man, he was utterly sincere in all he did. During our long wartime association he was my chief and I was his subordinate. I never really knew what he thought of me in those days, but when he came to Paris in 1951 to take command of the NATO forces, and during his eight years as President of the United States, we became close friends. I often stayed with him in the White House and in his home at Gettysburg. He was a very great gentleman, with all that that implies.

In September, 1958, I was to withdraw from employment in NATO, and in May of that year I paid a farewell visit to America. The Pilgrims of the United States gave a dinner for me in New York on the 25th May, and Eisenhower sent a telegram to be read out at the dinner: "Please give my greetings to the Pilgrims of the United States and their guests assembled in honor of Field Marshal Montgomery. . . . Across the face of the earth he has served faithfully and tirelessly in the cause of mankind. I am delighted to have another opportunity to salute my old friend and comrade in arms." I was given the telegram to keep. Few soldiers can ever have received such a tribute; it brought tears to my eyes.

During the years following the end of Hitler's war, many books were published in which writers, civilian and military, gave their views in no uncertain voice about, what went on during that war. Eisenhower was the first of the service chiefs to publish his account, in 1948; General Bradley followed in 1951. Although I came in for considerable criticism in both books, certain ungenerous statements being made, I remained silent. In October, 1958, having by then withdrawn from active employment in NATO and in the British Army, I thought it suitable to give my account of the military operations in which I had played some part, and I did so in my memoirs—where I published, with Eisenhower's written agreement, the correspondence which had passed between us during the campaign from Normandy to Berlin. His feelings were hurt; he ceased all communication with me; I was greatly distressed.

Then in April, 1965, the B.B.C. produced a television pro-gram, "Victory in Europe—Twenty Years After," in which the chief actors were to be Eisenhower and myself—he in New York and I in London—talking via the Early Bird satellite. I decided to use the occasion to try and re-establish our former friendship, and I wrote to him—saying we were both getting old, we could not go on any longer in this way, let us speak to each other over the air and become friends again. His reaction was immediate and typical of the man: he agreed at once. I am so very glad it happened before it was too late.

Let me now turn to his military ability. By the very nature of things, skill in the profession of arms has to be learnt mostly in theory by studying the science of war—since practical experience in the art does not come often to the general. The great captains have always been serious students of military history. Whether Eisenhower had studied the science of war deeply, I do not know. But both are essential in order to exercise high command successfully—study of the science by reading, and practice of the art in battle. He most certainly lacked knowledge in putting the science to practical experience in battle: he had never seen a shot fired in anger until he landed in North Africa on 8th November, 1942, as a supreme commander, and he had never commanded troops in battle before that date. This I suppose is where we differed. I had been a serious student of the science of war and had also commanded in battle every unit and formation from a platoon to great armies. A clash of opinion was almost inevitable!

My first anxieties that some difficult times lay ahead were aroused during the operations in Sicily and Italy between July and December, 1943. Eisenhower seemed to me to lack the power of decision; he was dominated too much by his staff. The Allied campaign in Italy got into a mess—no grand design, no master plan, no grip on the operations, and a first class administrative muddle.

At the end of 1943, Eisenhower was transferred to London as Supreme Commander for the invasion of Normandy in June, 1944, and for the subsequent operations which were to bring about the defeat of Germany. I was delighted to be appointed to command the land armies under him. But my anxieties were increased when he himself went off to the United States, having first ordered me to go to London on the 1st January, 1944, and work out a plan for the Normandy invasion with the naval and air commanders in chief and have it ready for him later in the month. I was, of course, delighted, but it was not my way of exercising command. I reckoned he should have made the plan himself, or at any rate have directed the planning in its initial stages.

The story of the operations in Normandy is well known. I doubt if Eisenhower really understood the master plan for the Normandy battles. He was upset when his staff and the American press complained that British progress on the eastern flank of the bridgehead in the Caen area was too slow: why did not the British break out quickly towards Paris? He wasn't upset by the unfair criticism. Indeed, he agreed with it, and in July he went so far as to complain to Winston Churchill that the British and Canadians were not doing their fair share of the fighting on the eastern flank. He never could grasp the fact that the master plan was for the Americans to break-out on the western flank. The British task was to draw the maximum German strength on to their front so that the American break-out would be possible—and this the British army group most certainly did. The slowness was an American fault; it took them a long time to get poised for the break-out battle.

The proper strategy for the Western Allies after the great victory in Normandy will be argued by historians for many years; they will find it a happy hunting ground. My views have often been expressed; they have never changed. I argued that by early August, 1944, we had drawn into battle, and defeated, south of the Seine, every German division in the west; the German air force had been shot out of the sky. We must finish off the German war by Christmas in order to ease the burden of the British people and to avoid further loss of life. To do this, we must concentrate sufficient strength to get decisive results quickly and then deliver a drive in great strength to secure bridgeheads over the Rhine and seize the Ruhr. This would entail halting a proportion of our force and diverting the necessary logistic support to the offensive punch.

Eisenhower did not agree. He said the whole allied line must advance on a broad front, from Switzerland to the North Sea, until the situation became clear. I pointed out that our logistic resources could not nourish such a movement. We would nowhere be strong enough to get decisive results quickly; the Germans would be given time to recover, and our advance would peter out; the war would go on into 1945, with all that would entail politically vis-a-vis the Russians advancing from the east; the additional loss of life would be severe.

And so, while I had a tremendous affection and admiration for Eisenhower, and will always acclaim him as a very great human being, I find it impossible to include him among the great captains of history.

Then, after the victory in Normandy, Eisenhower descended from the lofty perch of a supreme commander and assumed the additional burden of direct command of the land armies, a post for which he was not qualified. From that day the operations of the Western Allies began to go off the rails. We became involved in a long winter campaign during which manpower problems became serious in both British and American armies because of casualties. The German war did not end until May, 1945. The Russians got to Berlin, Prague, and Vienna before the Western Allies, with all that that was to entail for the future peace of the world—and we could have grabbed all three of those great political centers.

And so, while I had a tremendous affection and admiration for Eisenhower, and will always acclaim him as a very great human being, I find it impossible to include him among the great captains of history. But this can be said, and in no uncertain voice—nobody else could have carried the burden of Supreme Commander in the West in the way he did and kept the nations and the warring tribes of generals and air marshals working together to the end. For this alone the free world will always owe him a deep debt of gratitude.


We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.