Monday, October 31, 2011

Uselessly comparing Patton and Montgomery

One of the things I most dislike about bad comparisons from World War Two, is romantic comparisons that take the public imagination, but serve no useful relation to reality. The Western Allies tendency to idealise Rommel as the best German general for the simple reason that he was the sexiest or most dramatic general THEY fought is such a useless statement. In practice they were beaten by von Runstedt and Guderian and many others in 1940, and had a hard time matching the far less resourced von Kluge and Model in 1944. Still it hangs around more for its popular romance than any useful purpose.

Such is the idea that Patton and Montgomery were the great rivals of the war. Please!

The great rivalries amongst the Allies that made a real imact were Marshall and Brooke over war policy, Nimitz and MacArthur over resources, Eisenhower and Montgomery over strategy; and then between Percival and MacArthur for incompetence, Patton and O'Connor for aggressiveness, MacArthur and Clarke for vainglory, (and possibly Clarke and Wavell for the stupidity of letting defeated enemies escape), were the issues that defined the war for the Western allies. The idea that a competition between Patton and Montgomery was more important is cute, but niave.

I am not even sure where the idea comes from. Much is made of the bet between Patton and Montgomery over reaching Palermo in Sicily first, but in practical terms that was the only time in the war that Patton ever appeared on Montgomery's radar. For the rest of the war Monty was so much higher up the food chain than Patton that he was unaware, or disinterested in Patton's opinions.

Montgomery was, by 1944, an experienced general who very successfully fought extensively in both combat and staff roles for 4 years throughout World War One. (Patton got a combat command for a few weeks when the Germans were already collapsing.) Montgomery led a division very successfully through the Battle of France, and a corps through the crucial Battle of Britain training and rebuilding years. He led an army in combat for two years, through many successful battles both on defense and in attack. By 1944 Patton had led a corps for a few months, and an army for a few weeks. For the very brief period of the Sicily compaign they were theoretically equals in command, but probably only in Patton's mind. (Montgomery saw Patton as an enthusiastic if amateurish old man.)

Montgomery saw his HQ 'betting book' as a bit of fun (and was delighted when bet a B17 by someone who should have known better). When he and Patton met and co-ordinated the Sicilian campaign Alexander seemed not interested in co-ordinating, Monty saw Palermo as a similar bit of fun to pursue, no bigger or smaller than the hundreds of other bets in the book. Patton saw it, as he saw anything relating to his persona, as the most vitally important challenge of his whole life... up until the next one. Montgomery lost a bet and moved on to the next challenge. Patton won but didn't. (Or at least that is what bad writers have tried to suggest. I think he moved straight on to the next challenge anyway.)

That was the last time Monty and Patton were in direct competition, no matter what revisionists or romantics would say. The next time Patton was allowed in the field he was one of half a dozen army commanders in Monty's Normandy army group, and, familiarly, he did not arrive until the Germans in Normandy were already collapsing. Very soon afterwards Eisenhower split off Bradley's army group, and Monty had no control, nor much interest, in what Patton was up to thereafter.

The romantics like to suggest that therafter Monty railed against Patton's supplies, and that Patton railed against Montgomery's caution. The truth is less foolish for both of them.

In fact Montgomery railed against Eisenhower's broad front strategy regardless of which of the other sub-commanders was benifitting (to the point of Montgomery making an offer to serve under Bradley as long as someone got single control to pursue a single strategy). He railed against the diversion of resources anywhere not at the main point where a thrust might have achieved early victory. Leaving aside whether that victory could have happened, Montgomery's beef was with Eisenhower first, his appalling chief of supply Lee second, fellow Army Group Commanders who couldn't control the excesses of their subordinates like Bradley (and to a lesser extent) Devers third, and only then with the several army commanders who each tried to do their own thing.

In practical terms Montgomery seemed more appalled by the negative effects of the incompetence of Hodges (1st US Army,) and the obnoxiousness of De Gaulle's orders to 'his' army (French First Army), and perhaps even the ineffectiveness of his own subordinate Crerar (Canadian 1st army) , than he did by Patton's enthusiasms. There is hardly a mention of Patton in his diaries through this period, compared to several comments on Bradley and De Gualle, and endless ones on Eisenhower.

Patton too is being maligned by the pretense that his war was taken up with a vain competition with Montgomery. Patton, like Montgomery, was totally concerned with the main issue of defeating Germany. But unlike Montgomery, he did not have Brooke - the Chief of Imperial General Staff - to rely on for support against Eisenhower's broad front strategy. Patton too was convinced that this was the wrong way to go, but to get his version of a thrust (with him at the front) happening, he had to be a bit more manipulative than Montgomery.

Every word Patton used to wheedle and manipulate support, or at least a blind eye to what he was doing, was designed to get more resources from his superiors. Indeed, if he couldn't get them from Eisenhower, he was willing to steal them wherever he could, and then get Bradley to pretend to not know what he was doing. In this he was quite willing to encourage Bradley's inferiority complex in relation to Montgomery, and to happily manipulate Bradley into tantrums to get what they both wanted, but it seems likely that Patton was more interested in getting his way by making his superiors compete with Montgomery, than in competing with Montgomery himself.

Patton is actually a more complex and clever character than the romantics give him credit for. His 'kill them even if they try to surrender' speeches in Sicily were part of his stage management of troops, not part of his innate personality. HIs 'us against the world' propaganda was more manipulative, not so much like Bradley's inferiority complex. He wanted to win, and he would use anything to get what he needed to win, even ramping up his superiors to distrust their allies. But his genuine competitiveness with Montgomery at this stage was less about him and Montgomery, and more about him and how he could maneouvre others to support him. He would have shown the same level of competitiveness, and the same willingness to undermine, any competitor at this point. British, French, Russian or even American.

Montgomery on the other hand only saw Patton as one more junior general syphoning supplies from an inadequate source. Montgomery was in competition with Eisenhower for control, and possibly with Bradley for resources. Minor army commanders in other people's army groups only registered on his horizon if he could get their armies assigned to his army group.

Just for amusement, it might be fun to consider how Montgomery and Patton might have worked together?

Montgomery was notoriously superb to serve under, no matter what your nationality. British, Australian, New Zealander, South African, Indian, Canadian, French, Polish, and American troops who served under him were all very happy to do so. So were their generals. Bradley certainly learned more about being a field commander from a few months of Montgomery's distant mentoring than from anything Eisenhower ever did for him in their much closer relationship. There is no doubt that Montgomery preferred effective subordinates to ineffective ones, and it seems possible that Patton would have made a preferable subordinate to Crerar or Bradley in his mind.

As for Patton, he would have served anyone who got him what he wanted. Had Montgomery offered him the chance to spearhead the attack into Germany, there is virtually no doubt that Patton would have jumped at the chance. Patton was not the racist that Bradley or Eisenhower were, and was happy to have black troops. He was not the American supremacist that Roosevelt or MacArthur were, and worked well with others (as long as they let him have enough lime light). Had Montgomery been left as land forces commander, there is little doubt that he would have used Patton's aggression in a way that would have made Patton much happier than Eisenhower's broad front strategy ever allowed.

It is fun to imagine Montgomery as land forces commander using Patton's 3rd Army in conjunction with British 2nd to leapfrog ahead at top speed into Germany. The best British tactics were never the broad front strategy that the worst American's like Marshall and Eisenhower fancied. They were always the 'hold the enemy, crumble the enemy, breakthrough the enemy, and pursue with as much force as fast and far as possible' skills that had worked since the development of mechanised warfare in 1918. (As demonstrated by the Germans in Poland and France and Russia, the British and Germans in North Africa, the Japanese and British in Asia, and the Russians in Eastern Europe.) Montgomery would have used his traditional two corps up, one back, one resting deployment, adapted to armies, to keep up the momentum. Patton's preferred tactics were almost exactly the same, and he and his 3rd Army would have fit it like a glove into Montgomery's thrust strategy.

Personally I think that the limited reality behind their competitiveness paid trumps in Sicily, and I wish that it had been repeated in France. Patton could not have been a worse Army group commander than Bradley was, and would almost certainly have been better. It is amusing to think of him and Montgomery effectively conspiring to destroy the broad front strategy while they got on with winning the war in the best spirit of competition. Although I have a sneaking suspicion that one of Patton's biographers was right to suggest that by 1945 he had suffered a few too many hits on the head, there is little doubt that he would have been almost as valuable to the Allied cause in Bradley's place against Eisenhower's policies directly, as he would have under Montgomery's army group. That might have been a useful version of rivalry.

But I still wish people would get over the big Montgomery versus Patton beat up. By 1944 Patton would have competed against anything or anyone to get his way, and co-operated with anyone who would support him. Anyone. Aw for Montgomery, he simply did not see Patton as competition.