In August 1942, Montgomery was made commander of British forces in North Africa. There he turned the dispirited 8th Army into the greatest British fighting force of the war, in large part by selecting the best officers to command and then leaving them free to do their jobs. He defeated Rommel at Alam Halfa and El Alamein, becoming a national hero, but was criticised for not doing more to pursue retreating Axis forces.
As Americans joined the British in North Africa, Montgomery became part of the problem of Anglo-American relations. The British saw the Americans as incompetent, the Americans saw the British as rude, and it was only through General Eisenhower’s careful handling that they worked so well together.
Knighted and promoted to full general, Montgomery led the British through the rest of the North Africa campaign and then in the invasion of Italy.
At the end of 1943, Montgomery was withdrawn from Italy to take command of the 21st Army Group as it prepared for the long-planned invasion of occupied France. He was made Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces for Operation Overlord, with the intention that he would hand command over to Eisenhower once a foothold was established on the continent.
Montgomery revised the plans for Overlord and led the Allies to success in the D-Day landings of June 1944. But the British stalled in their efforts to take the strategically important city of Caen, provoking further criticism of Montgomery as a commander. Despite this, he was promoted to Field Marshal in September.
Over the course of nearly a year, the Allies fought their way through France, the Low Countries, and Germany. As commander of the British forces, Montgomery continued to create a mixture of success and controversy. He and his men fought well, but Operation Market Garden, his attempt to form a bridgehead across the Rhine, was a costly disaster.
As the Allies pushed into Germany, Montgomery became a central and contentious figure in the debate on how to advance towards Berlin. While others argued for a general advance, he wanted to focus effort in a narrow front along a northern corridor, in the area where he commanded. While Montgomery’s plan had strategic advantages, political considerations meant that it could not be adopted.
The ire Montgomery provoked among other commanders meant that Eisenhower considered removing Montgomery from command. However, by this point he was to many an international hero, popular among his men and an excellent leader. He therefore retained his position, led a large Anglo-American force through the last months of the war, and accepted the surrender of German forces at Lüneberg in May 1945.
After the War
Montgomery’s light never again shone as brightly as it had in North Africa, but he remained a leading figure in the British military, serving as Chief of the Imperial General Staff and as Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. He was the most celebrated British commander of the 20th century, and when he died in 1976 a nation mourned.