Monty's Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe


Historian John Buckley offers a radical reappraisal of Great Britain’s fighting forces during World War Two, challenging the common belief that the British Army was no match for the forces of Hitler’s Germany. Following Britain’s military commanders and troops across the battlefields of Europe, from D-Day to VE-Day, from the Normandy beaches to Arnhem and the Rhine, and, ultimately, to the Baltic, Buckley’s provocative history demonstrates ...
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Historian John Buckley offers a radical reappraisal of Great Britain’s fighting forces during World War Two, challenging the common belief that the British Army was no match for the forces of Hitler’s Germany. Following Britain’s military commanders and troops across the battlefields of Europe, from D-Day to VE-Day, from the Normandy beaches to Arnhem and the Rhine, and, ultimately, to the Baltic, Buckley’s provocative history demonstrates that the British Army was more than a match for the vaunted Nazi war machine.
This fascinating revisionist study of the campaign to liberate Northern Europe in the war’s final years features a large cast of colorful unknowns and grand historical personages alike, including Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery and the prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill. By integrating detailed military history with personal accounts, it evokes the vivid reality of men at war while putting long-held misconceptions finally to rest.
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Editorial Reviews

Jeremy Black

‘Taking forward his excellent work on the Normandy campaign, John Buckley’s new book provides a well-grounded examination of the role of the British army in the defeat of Hitler, moving beyond earlier interpretations to offer an effective account of how the Germans were outfought. Ranging from soldiers to strategy, this is an exemplary study.’ – Jeremy Black, author of World War Two: A Military History
Literary Review - Alan Allport

“It is a worthy and ultimately convincing argument.”—Alan Allport, Literary Review
Military History - Jonathan Eaton

“A valuable addition to our understanding of the role of British forces during the final stages of the conflict.”—Jonathan Eaton, Military History
Army Historical Research Society

Winner of the Society for Army Historical Research Templer Medal. The medal is awarded annually to the author of the book that has made the most significant contribution to the history of the British Army.
Library Journal
The British effort against the Germans after the June 1944 Allied invasion has been criticized as too cautious, especially by U.S. historians. Buckley (military history, Univ. of Wolverhampton; British Armour in the Normandy Campaign 1944) takes issue with the criticism, providing a thorough reassessment of the British war effort from D-day onward. He points out that the British military adopted an operational approach reflecting its circumstances as the limited manpower of a small nation needing to fight not only the Germans but likely the Japanese later as well. Using artillery firepower and its own special skills in intelligence, logistics, engineering, and medicine, the British 21st Army Group under Sir Bernard Montgomery was able to marshal its forces to confront the German army at numerous points during those final months in the European theater. Buckley argues that the British military minds took a broader view of the fighting front and concentrated their resources at a strategic rather than a tactical level, enabling them to remain an effective fighting force through May 1945. VERDICT This highly engrossing history is an outstanding account of British actions in the post-D-day period and merits inclusion in all World War II collections.—EG
Stephen Bungay

"From June 1944 to May 1945 the British Army contributed significantly to defeating the most formidable land force fielded by any European power since Roman times. John Buckley cogently explains how it did so. It is a telling example of coherent strategy and logistical capability more than compensating for operational limitations and tactical weaknesses which were themselves improved through organisational learning. This is a book not just for those with an interest in military history, but for anyone who wants to learn about strategy and organisational behaviour. It incidentally contains one of the best short accounts of Operation Market Garden ever written."—Stephen Bungay, author of The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain
Country Life - Barney White-Spunner

“I. . .enjoyed John Buckley’s Monty’s Men, a reappraisal of the British campaign in Europe, from D Day to VE day. It is refreshing to read a book that actually gives the British army credit for what it achieved and its respect for soldiers’ lives”.—Barney White-Spunner, Country Life
Britain at War Magazine - John Grehan

“Buckley has taken an interesting approach to a familiar subject and he argues his case well.”—John Grehan, Britain at War Magazine
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300134490
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/30/2013
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 352,632
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

John Buckley is professor of military history at the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom and the author and editor of six books on the military history of the Second World War.
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The British Army and the Liberation of Europe, 1944â?"5

By John Buckley


Copyright © 2013 John Buckley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-13449-0



The Test of Time

At 8 A.M. on Saturday 5 May 1945 the British Army won its greatest victory of the Second World War, for on that day all the forces of the Third Reich confronting it in Northern Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark surrendered. In the space of a little less than a year, since 6 June 1944, the British and their Allies had driven the much feared and lauded German Army back from the beaches of Normandy, across France, through the Low Countries and into Germany itself. By May 1945 the British had reached the Baltic and captured Hamburg, the largest port in the disintegrating Third Reich, while American armies had struck deep into Central Germany and Austria and linked up with Soviet troops advancing from the east. Hitler was dead, the German government was in hapless disarray and the destruction of the Third Reich was all but complete.

For Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, commander-in-chief of 21st Army Group to which British troops in Northwest Europe had been allotted, this was the finest moment of his career, the validation of his philosophy and approach to command and leadership. Over the previous few days he had driven the one-sided negotiations with the Germans completely in the direction he desired, and was now intent on maximising the impact of the signing of the document of surrender in front of the press and cameras at 6 p.m. on 4 May. Monty was never a man to miss an opportunity to self-publicise, and certainly not the moment when the German Army was going to surrender, particularly as that capitulation would be to him and not to his rival American colleagues, Eisenhower, Bradley or Patton. Now firmly established in Northern Germany, Montgomery had set up his HQ on Lüneburg Heath, within sight of the town's two church spires and nestled against the nearby forest. When the German delegation first arrived on 3 May, led by Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg and General Hans Kinzel, they received a frosty reception from Montgomery. After initially keeping them waiting, when he did emerge from his caravan he had changed from his usual sweater and cords into a battledress and beret. One officer on the 21st Army Group staff recorded that Monty spoke to them as if they were vacuum-cleaner salesmen and snapped, 'What do you want?' He became terser still when it emerged that the delegation was merely attempting to buy more time for German civilians and troops to flee westwards from the advancing Red Army. Montgomery made a big show of their desperate state and demanded that unconditional surrender of all German forces facing 21st Army Group was the only realistic option: 'No alternative ... Finish!' he barked at them. For Montgomery there was nothing to negotiate about and therefore he made little use of his intelligence officer and translator, Colonel Joe Ewart. Such a demonstration reduced Friedeburg, head of the German Navy, to tears and he left Lüneburg Heath later that day to consult with his seniors. He returned the following afternoon on 4 May to sign the document prepared by the British, the terms and conditions of which had been broadly cleared by General Eisenhower, Monty's superior at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF).

Montgomery relished every moment of this denouement and few had seen the Field Marshal so upbeat and jocular. Bristling with confidence that the deal would be done, he held an unusually lively press conference at 5 p.m. to update the media representatives, during which he was informed that the Germans had returned as expected. Montgomery finished his briefing and then, standing outside his tent with the Union flag fluttering above, met the German delegation. First he received Friedeburg in his caravan to ensure that the Germans were willing to comply with the conditions demanded, after which, and with RAF fighters roaring overhead to emphasise Allied supremacy to the subdued Germans, he and the signatories moved to a prepared tent for the coup de grâce. Montgomery peremptorily instructed the Germans what to do and where to sit, glowering at one who took out a cigarette; the man in question quickly put the offending article away. Then, in front of the press and the BBC microphones, and with the rain pattering against the canvas roofing above, Monty, wearing his tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses, read out the Instrument of Surrender, prompted the Germans to sign it, and then did likewise on behalf of Eisenhower. Curiously, Montgomery initially dated the document incorrectly and had to scribble out the date and amend it; he nevertheless retained that version and sent only photostats to Eisenhower, despite being asked to send the original. Someone looking for a souvenir snaffled the pen used to sign the surrender.

After the ceremony Montgomery sighed, relaxed, took off his glasses, and said: 'That concludes the surrender.' This was met by an eruption of cheers from the British troops outside the tent, surreptitiously alerted by a confidant inside. The war for the British Army and its Allies in 21st Army Group would come to an end at 0800 on 5 May. For the German officers tasked with signing the document there was little to cheer about, and within weeks three of them were dead: von Friedeburg took poison, Kinzel shot himself along with his mistress, whilst another was killed in a car crash.

Though the moment of the German armed forces' humiliation arguably belonged to Montgomery, it was also a poignant time for all his soldiers, officers and men alike. He issued messages of congratulations and thanks to his senior commanders, troops and the other services:

It has been a privilege and an honour to command this great British Empire team in Western Europe. Few commanders can have had such loyal service as you have given me ... We have won the German war. Let us now win the peace.

It was their triumph as much as his, and the manner in which the victory had been achieved was testimony to their resolve, determination and character. Meanwhile, as Monty was lapping up the act of surrender and the media attention, his men were experiencing and enjoying those days in their own memorable ways. Warrant Officer Arnold Johnson was at Second Army cipher HQ in Lüneburg itself when the message came through about the surrender. Just as the team was decoding it, the power supply failed and the most important message of the war had to be completed by candlelight. 'I was flabbergasted when I saw what it said. "This is it!" I shouted to the other men on the shift.' Eddie Slater was on Griselle, one of Hitler's recently captured luxury yachts:

Everything that could be screwed off the boat we unscrewed as a souvenir. I still have a few spoons with swastikas on the handle. My eldest sister's toilet has a beautiful enamel doorknob from Hitler's yacht. We celebrated by letting off the ship's emergency rockets.

Albert Ricketts was attached to Monty's HQ and flew staff officers to various locations for meetings and conferences. Far from being able to relax and enjoy himself on 8 May, designated as Victory in Europe day, he was ordered to collect Major General Templar from First Canadian Army HQ, who sardonically quipped, 'We must be the only silly buggers working today!' Ricketts recalled, 'I found myself warming to a man of his understanding.' Peter Hall, 1st Worcesters, recalled of VE day:

It was a memorable moment and, I'm afraid, I got very drunk. I was not the only one in 21st Army Group to overindulge on this occasion. The next two weeks were wonderful. No more wondering if we would survive to see the sun come up another day.

For the great majority of Montgomery's charges the cessation of hostilities in Europe was greeted with a mixture of relief and pride in a job being successfully completed. Many would continue to play a key role in controlling and administering Germany for some time to come, an essential and crucial role for a modern army to carry off effectively. For most the German surrender brought the welcome likelihood of a return home to Civvy Street and the prospect of a normal life once again. As an army constituted predominantly of citizen conscripts (around 75 per cent) rather than volunteers and professional military men, and unimbued with extreme political or racial ideologies, the priority had always been to get the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible, preferably with limited and tolerable casualties, and return home.

The achievement of the British Army in 1945 was something the troops and commanders were suitably proud of. Albeit as a junior member of a grand alliance, and supported by American finance and resources, the British Army had delivered a complete victory in the final campaign against Germany. Losses had still been heavy, particularly by our twenty-first-century standards, with 141,646 British soldiers becoming casualties, of which 30,276 paid the ultimate price. The bitter fighting in Normandy in the summer of 1944 had exacted the highest toll in lives with casualty rates in excess of those endured even in the Passchendaele battles of 1917, regarded as the nastiest campaign the British Army had fought in the Great War. Each of the seven British infantry divisions in Normandy in 1944 suffered the loss of almost three-quarters of their initial strength by the end of August, and throughout the entire campaign the life of a rifleman remained the most dangerous of all. Although constituting less than 15 per cent of the entire army, the humble front-line soldier endured 70 per cent of the losses, and a junior infantry officer had only a one-in-ten chance of making it from June 1944 to May 1945 unscathed. It was no wonder that Lieutenant Sydney Jary's detachment was informed on arriving in Normandy in June 1944: 'Gentlemen, your life expectancy from the day you join your battalion will be precisely three weeks.' Yet, although stark and discomforting as these figures appear, the losses were well within expectations and were considered by the War Office in London to be entirely acceptable, particularly as the final victory had been won ahead of schedule. Most importantly of all, by May 1945 the German forces had been soundly beaten and given little or no opportunity to determine or impose any meaningful strategic influence over the campaign.

The British Army had played a crucial role in the fighting, particularly in the summer of 1944, and yet Montgomery and his staff had delivered victory without recourse to the sustained and deep bloodletting of the First World War, or that of the Eastern Front where the Germans and Soviets had locked horns in the bitterest of campaigns between 1941 and 1945. Consequently, in July 1945 Britain was able to sit confidently at the conference table in Potsdam alongside its more senior partners, backed by having made a meaningful contribution to the defeat of Germany's armies, whilst still retaining a battle-hardened, functioning and capable army. The dark days of the ignominious Dunkirk evacuation in 1940 through to Lüneburg Heath may have been littered with mistakes, errors and blunders, but the British Army had rebuilt and reinvented itself. Though the campaign in Northwest Europe had been hard fought, the Allies had won their victory against what many then regarded, and indeed still regard very questionably, as the greatest army ever.

Yet, by the twenty first century, the reputation of the British Army in the Second World War, including the victorious forces that contributed so much to the overthrow of Hitler's Third Reich in the campaign waged across Northwest Europe in 1944–5, has been severely tarnished by the passage of time and the ebb and flow of history. Despite the victory, many popular writers, historians and military professionals have been increasingly, openly and often stringently critical of the conduct and prosecution of the campaign by commanders and soldiers alike. Such was the weight of this criticism that, by the 1980s, an orthodoxy had emerged, one that identified the British Army as ponderous, predictable and heavily reliant on the Americans, and one which compared most unfavourably to the dynamic, blitzkrieging Germans. A cursory glance at contemporary military history writing offers a flavour of modern thinking. Max Hastings, for example, is deeply critical of the British Army's performance in the Second World War:

The British had fought workmanlike campaigns in North Africa, Italy and France since their victory at El Alamein in November 1942. But their generals had nowhere shown the genius displayed by Germany's commanders in France in 1940, and in many battles since.

Hastings also castigated British soldiers for their 'lack of aggression' and for their overt caution, a by-product and 'a price for the privilege of the profoundly anti-militaristic ethos' of the nation. But of the enemy, he referred to the 'glory of German arms in Normandy' (albeit in an evil cause), and of the German Army's 'extraordinary fighting performance in the last year of the Second World War'.

More recently, Antony Beevor concluded that the British Army had lacked ruthlessness, whilst academic studies have questioned the operational and tactical abilities of the British Amy. In 2004, Robert Citino, the noted American military historian, offered a severe indictment of British effectiveness in Normandy:

The real link between D-Day, Villers-Bocage, Epsom and Goodwood [Normandy operations] is that none of them was carried out within the spirit of mobile warfare ... What the British army lacked were officers who could recognize such momentary opportunities when they arose and a military culture that encouraged them to seize those golden moments.

Critics have also focused closely on high-profile failures in the British Army's conduct of the campaign, to illustrate crucial weaknesses and deficiencies. As early as the first few hours after landing on the beaches in Normandy on 6 June 1944, the British Army was supposedly fluffing its lines as it failed to capture the crucial city of Caen and make the most of the surprise and confusion caused by D-Day. The lightning strike on Caen ended up as a plodding advance by just a few hundred riflemen, as Alexander McKee described it. The lack of drive and dynamism shown that morning and early afternoon on 6 June brought about the stalemate that followed, forcing the British into fighting a series of attritional and costly battles around Caen for many weeks afterwards.

Just a week after D-Day the British bungled matters again, suffering a bloody nose at Villers-Bocage when the veteran 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats) was stopped dead in its tracks, apparently by the action of a single Tiger tank. In the following weeks, and despite holding a considerable advantage in resources, the British battered away at the Germans defending the Caen sector in Normandy, but seemingly made little headway. Further west, American troops also struggled but nevertheless captured the crucial port of Cherbourg and the Cotentin peninsula, and manoeuvred their way southwards prior to the launch of Operation COBRA on 25 July, which broke the front wide open and threw the Germans into headlong retreat. The British attempt to blast their way through a week earlier with Operation GOODWOOD resulted in humiliating failure, with 400 tanks being knocked out, leading one historian to describe it as the death ride of the armoured divisions.

Even when the Germans were driven back from Normandy all the way to the Low Countries, the British apparently made a hash of the pursuit. Though they seized the vital port of Antwerp intact, they did not press on to trap the German Fifteenth Army north of the River Scheldt or secure the use of the port for many weeks afterwards. The supply headaches created by this failure afforded the Germans enough time to recover and fight on into 1945. Most infamously of all, the British-led attempt to secure a crossing over the Rhine at Arnhem in the eastern Netherlands in September 1944 resulted in disaster, with almost an entire airborne division being written off the order of battle. Despite all the supporting resources the operation, MARKET GARDEN, was badly botched and much of the blame was directed at British commanders such as Frederick 'Boy' Browning, Brian Horrocks, Roy Urquhart, Allan Adair and Montgomery himself. American airborne troops who had carried out a desperate and courageous opposed river crossing over the Waal were excoriating about the subsequent limp British effort to push out of Nijmegen and rescue the beleaguered troops hanging on at Arnhem. Even when the Rhine was crossed in March 1945, the moment when the knockout blow was delivered to Germany, the British made a hash of things. The operation was unnecessarily complicated, slow and ponderous, while the use of airborne forces was castigated as 'a spectacular shambles' and 'a folly for which more than a thousand men paid with their lives'.

Excerpted from MONTY'S MEN by John Buckley. Copyright © 2013 John Buckley. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations and Maps....................     vi     

Acknowledgements....................     viii     

1 Introduction – The Test of Time....................     1     

2 Preparation – The Road to D-Day....................     19     

3 Bridgehead – The First Step to Liberation....................     47     

4 Caen – The Cauldron....................     72     

5 Stalemate? – Frustration in Normandy....................     113     

6 Breakout – Victory in Normandy....................     146     

7 Pursuit – The Race to the Frontier....................     184     

8 Arnhem – Conceptual Failure....................     208     

9 Winter – Frustration and Anxiety....................     232     

10 Victory – The Rhine to the Baltic....................     265     

11 Retrospective....................     296     

Notes....................     304     

Bibliography....................     338     

Index....................     353     

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