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Johnny Henderson spent four years during the Second World War as aide-de-camp to one of Britain's most famous soldiers of the twentieth century, General Bernard Montgomery - or 'Monty' as he was popularly known. Shortly before he died in 2003, Henderson wrote about his time with Monty at Tac HQ. His account takes the form of a series of insightful anecdotes and brief pen sketches that give a fascinating and often humorous window on life with Monty and those with whom he worked, or came into contact with, during the war years. These people range from King George VI, Winston Churchill and Sir Alan Brooke, to Eisenhower and the German surrender delegation on Luneberg Heath. Drawing on his own unpublished private photograph albums and the photographic collections of the Imperial War Museum, Johnny Henderson relates his time as Monty's ADC, from the Western Desert to Berlin, in the form of a photographic anecdotal scrap book. His pithy observations of life at Tac HQ make a unique contribution to our understanding of what made Monty 'tick', and shows us a less well-known but lighter side of the great man.
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Read an Excerpt
By Johnny Henderson, Jamie Douglas-Home
The History PressCopyright © 2013 The Estate of J.R. Henderson, Jamie Douglas-Home
All rights reserved.
With the Eighth Army in the Desert
November 1942–June 1943
When I joined Monty's Tac HQ, the Eighth Army was chasing Rommel's retreating forces into Libya and the Allied invasion of Morocco and Algeria under Eisenhower had just begun. So the depleted German and Italian Army was now facing a war on two fronts.
The Libyan port of Tobruk was recaptured on 12 November 1942. Then Monty won an important victory on 17 December at El Agheila on the coast road in between Benghazi and Tripoli, where some Eighth Army soldiers had been twice before. Monty then prepared to advance on Tripoli. We entered the Libyan capital on 23 January 1943 and stayed there for a few weeks to open up the harbour and build up our supplies for the next stage of the journey towards Tunis.
While we were in Tripoli, Rommel's attention turned to the other Allied front, and he attacked the Americans. The First Army was in considerable danger in late February, so Alexander, Eisenhower's Deputy Commander-in-Chief, asked Monty to put some pressure on the Afrika Korps from the other direction. Monty moved fast, and Rommel soon called off his assault on the Americans.
Monty guessed that Rommel's sights would now be set on the Eighth Army. As expected, the German commander attacked at Medenine inside the Tunisian border on 6 March. Rommel's forces were driven back, losing 52 tanks, but Monty declined to follow as the Germans withdrew. He knew that Rommel would stop at the great defensive obstacle, the Mareth Line, south of Gabes, which had been constructed by the French in case of an Italian attack from Tripolitania. Monty knew that the Mareth Line would be difficult to pierce and was ready for a hard fight. There were many anxious moments during the battle of a week, but a concerted blitz of air and ground forces on 27 March eventually won the day.
It was clear that the war in North Africa would finish soon, as the enemy was now hemmed in on both sides. Monty won a stiff one-day battle at Wadi Akarit, north of Gabes, on 6 April, and the Eighth Army joined up with the Americans, who were moving east from Gafsa, on 8 April. The city of Sfax was captured two days later. On 7 May the British forces took the capital, Tunis, and the Americans captured the port of Bizerte on Tunisia's northern tip. Six days later, on 13 May, all enemy forces surrendered and the Desert War was over.
My Arrival at the Eighth Army TAC HQ
It was 10 November 1942 and the historic battle of Alamein was over. The pursuit of the retreating German Army along the Egyptian coast towards the Libyan border was now on.
My regiment, the 12th Royal Lancers, was part of the 1st Armoured Division and was not involved. So, for once, there was peace and quiet, but we always had to have our wirelesses ready for any orders from our squadron or, less likely, from regimental headquarters. My corporal arrived and said that there was a message to report to the colonel. We did not like these sorts of message as they invariably meant that we were to be sent on a nasty mission. The colonel, George Kidston, however, came quickly to the point, 'You are to go off to be ADC to the Army Commander.' 'Help, you mean, Monty' said I. 'Yes,' he replied. After a few minutes' thought, I asked if I could take Charlie Saunders, my wonderful soldier servant and, by now, friend with me.
So we set off, full of apprehension, and got to the Eighth Army Tac HQ near Mersa Matruh about 4.30 p.m. As John Poston, his other ADC, was out with Monty, I waited in the mess tent, feeling mighty lonely. Then a senior officer walked in, whom I later discovered was Brigadier Kirkman. He said, 'Hello, are you the new temporary ADC?' That made me wonder how temporary my new appointment was to be!
Monty and John soon arrived. John introduced me to Monty, who, after a very short conversation, said, 'I will see you at dinner. John will look after you.' John had been ADC to General 'Strafer' Gott, who had been killed in an aeroplane crash soon after taking over command of the Eighth Army. Monty, of course, was Gott's successor.
Monty, Freddie de Guingand, Bill Williams, John and I dined together that evening. Dinner had hardly started when Monty began to fire questions at me. 'How long have you been in the desert? Why did you join the 12th Lancers? Where did you go to school?' 'Oh, Eton,' he exclaimed, 'and what do you say to that as John was at Harrow?' Well, I trotted out the usual old response: 'The one good thing about Harrow was that you could see Eton from it. Now, John, what about that?' That was the taste of dinner every night with Monty. He relaxed for an hour by starting an argument with us. We soon learnt we had to answer back.
I was glad when that ordeal was over, but, later that evening, John Poston gave me an invaluable bit of advice – to always tell the truth to Monty. If you did not and he found out, that was likely to be the end of you. So, John and I talked into the night in our beds in the tent let down off the side of Monty's caravan. John assured me that life there was much easier than I might have imagined.
Key Staff at Monty's TAC HQ in North Africa
Monty surrounded himself with a small number of key personal staff at his desert Tac HQ. I soon realised how efficiently they went about their business and also what a good picker of men the Eighth Army commander was.
Freddie de Guingand, who was 42 and then a brigadier, was already at Eighth Army HQ when Monty arrived in Egypt. Monty knew him previously and had always admired his ability. So he interviewed Freddie immediately and made him his Chief of Staff. Monty had decided to have a small forward HQ (Tac HQ) in order to be in close touch with the fighting line. He was determined that his experience as a divisional commander during the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 – communications broke down completely – should not be repeated. Also, as he was away from Main HQ, he did not get bogged down with unnecessary detail. Therefore Freddie was in charge of all that went on at Main HQ.
Freddie was mighty clever, very quick and full of ideas – many of which Monty took on as his own. He lived on his nerves and consequently had health problems. But, unlike Monty, he appreciated the good things in life. As Freddie completely lacked pomposity, everyone, and I mean everyone, admired and loved him.
Monty had the amazing gift of simplifying any problem and making himself absolutely clear. So, when he made a plan, he always left Freddie to make the necessary arrangements. Freddie's talent for thinking of everything and putting a plan into action fast still makes the mind boggle. But, it made a huge difference that he was always cheerful and a friend to one and all.
Monty knew how lucky he was to have Freddie. Although he did not often sing men's praises, he did as far as Freddie was concerned. In fact, he later wrote, 'He was a brilliant Chief of Staff and I doubt if ever before such a one existed in the British Army or will ever do so again.'
Furthermore, because he was friendly with the American commander, Eisenhower, and Bedell Smith, Ike's Chief of Staff, Freddie smoothed over many a difficult situation. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that had it not been for Freddie's intervention, Monty might well have been relieved of his command in Europe in the tricky period in the autumn of 1944 after the liberation of Brussels.
Freddie spent half his time at the Tac HQ in the desert and had a caravan there. He would sit up in the evenings playing his favourite card game, chemin de fer, for small amounts of money. I never thought that a person in his position would become such a good friend in so short a time.
E.T. 'Bill' Williams, also a brigadier, was only 29 years old when he became Monty's Chief Staff Officer of Intelligence. But, as he was already at Eighth Army HQ, he was well known to Freddie. When the war started he was a don at Oxford and left to join the King's Dragoon Guards. Bill was a brilliantly clever fellow with a lovely dry sense of humour and told his stories in a lugubrious manner. He proved his value soon after Monty's arrival in Egypt by predicting when and where the Germans would attack at Alam Halfa. Every night he would wire John Poston or myself the all-important positions of the two German Panzer Divisions and their 90th Light Division.
In the early days Bill always took the press briefings. Immediately after the victory at Alamein, a huge crowd of reporters rushed round to his caravan and an American journalist said, 'Gee, this is the greatest thing that has happened in this area since the Crucifixion.' Bill replied, 'And it only took four to report on that.'
Bill had Monty's ear and the Army Commander relied on what he had to say and would listen intently. He played a huge part in the Eighth Army's victories. He came to see Monty once or twice a week and invariably stayed the night. Bill went back to England with Monty and was on his staff throughout the European campaign.
Brian Robertson, another brigadier, who was a lot older than us at 46, was a highly competent head of the Quartermaster's Department (Q). Brian, the son of a famous field-marshal, was a dry character but incredibly efficient. His instructions usually came from Freddie, but Monty knew he could rely on Brian.
When the Eighth Army advanced towards Tripoli, the lines of supply got longer and longer and the port of Benghazi further and further away. So Brian had a huge and complicated task, supplying the troops with food, ammunition, fuel and water. Also, as there were long delays at Benghazi, which was over 700 miles away from Tripoli, due to bad weather and the damage left by the retreating German Army, Brian's problems were exacerbated. For example, the supply of petrol on the long journey to Tripoli produced untold headaches. Brian, however, dealt with and overcame all these difficulties with masterly calmness.
Brian only came to visit once a fortnight, so Freddie always kept Monty fully informed if there were major problems at Q. Brian left the Eighth Army after Sicily to join Alexander's HQ. He took over from Monty as commander of the Rhine Army in the British Zone in occupied Germany in 1946 and later became head of the British Transport Commission, which was then responsible for the railways.
John Poston, a captain and Monty's ADC, suited him admirably. Although he was only 23, he had been fighting with his regiment, the 11th Hussars, for two years and knew his way round the desert. My ability to read a map and use a compass helped to get the job with Monty, but, as we knew each other in Northamptonshire before the war, John was also partly responsible for my appointment. So that was marvellous for me and John quickly became a great friend. He was full of self-confidence, very competent and always ready for a bit of fun. As John was the leader in our early escapades, life was never the same for me after he left us in Sicily to attend the Staff College. It was a joy when he rejoined Monty's HQ as a liaison officer before the Normandy landings.
Geoffrey Keating, another captain, was a wartime soldier from the 60th Rifles. He was first in charge of the Eighth Army Film and Photographic Unit. Then he was made head of our public relations department, where he built up Monty as a figurehead and hero of the Eighth Army. Geoffrey travelled all over the desert in his jeep and was often in the front line. He soon became known to all the troops and was always ready for a challenge. He often called in to see Monty, who really valued his contribution to morale. We also greatly enjoyed his visits. This cheerful figure was always ready for a good gossip and invariably had a lively tale to tell.
Last but not least, a vital cog in the big wheel was the commander of the Desert Air Force. Up until the arrival in Tripoli, Air Marshal Sir Arthur 'Mary' Coningham, who had been in charge since the First Army landed in North Africa, held the position, but he was then transferred to Eisenhower's HQ. His successor was Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst, who had been a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain.
Harry, who was a wonderful person, was full of enthusiasm and always ready to try new methods to harass the enemy. When Harry took over, the Desert Air Force had won control of the skies. He continued, however, to support the troops on the ground. He got on superbly with Freddie and together they would formulate the role the Air Force would play in battle. The air support that Harry organised was an immense help at the battle of Mareth. The German defences were completely demoralised by wave upon wave of light Hurricane tank-busters, Kitty-bombers and Spitfire squadrons.
The First Crisis
I had only been in the job two days when Monty's Tac HQ had to move to keep in touch with the advancing British Army that had now driven the enemy forces over the Egyptian border into Libya. It was my task to be in charge of the transfer to a given map reference point about 60 miles up the road towards Tobruk. From there we were to turn off into the desert to the HQ's new resting place. Monty went off in the morning with John Poston but was due back at about 5 p.m. By then, the headquarters needed to be set up and ready.
We moved off with me in front in a jeep. There must have been about twenty vehicles in the convoy, but once we got to the coast road we could not lose our way. It was the only route and was nearly straight all the way. We had to go at the same pace as the slowest vehicle, a Sherman tank, whose top speed was about 20 mph. Thinking that was going to be pretty boring, I stopped and told the driver in the vehicle behind that I was going to travel about 30 miles ahead and then wait by the side of the road for the convoy to arrive.
So I buzzed off, and when I reached my destination I sat down to have my haversack lunch and a can of beer, which had no doubt been captured from a German dump. That was a mistake, as I fell asleep in the hot sun. Later I woke up in a terrible quandary, not knowing whether the convoy had gone by. I looked at my watch and realised I must have been there for an hour or so. Help – should I wait and see if the vehicles came along or should I rush off down the road and see if I hit the back of the convoy? I chose the latter course of action. After driving at great speed for around ten minutes, thank goodness the convoy appeared in the distance. The first crisis was over.
Daily Routine in the Desert
Monty would be called every morning at seven for breakfast at eight. He said he always used that hour to think about the current situation and to decide what was to be done. When Freddie de Guingand stayed the night at Tac HQ, Monty and he always had a discussion after breakfast.
By about 10 o'clock, Monty was ready to visit a divisional HQ and would call on Corps HQ on the way back. Sometimes he would go down to brigade level and, occasionally, even to regimental level. When we learned the identity of the HQ he was to visit and the spot on the map where we would find it, John Poston or I would drive him there. As the desert was so featureless and the troops were moving around so much, our job was not always easy.
Whichever one of us was not with Monty would be sent out to see a divisional commander, or, sometimes, a brigade commander, to find out exactly what was happening in his sector. To start with we found it difficult to communicate with the generals and brigadiers. They did not much like telling us about the situation. But this system of keeping Monty directly in touch was soon accepted and their confidence in us grew.
Monty, after perhaps visiting one of the Corps commanders, would return home at 5 p.m. Then, after being briefed by Bill Williams on the location of the German 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions and the 90th Light Division, we would mark up Monty's map.
This information was invariably correct, thanks in no small part to Enigma, which confirmed the overall picture in North Africa. At the time John and I had no idea of Enigma's existence. Indeed Monty,
Bill and Freddie were the only ones who knew about the legendary code-breaking machine that helped to win the war by deciphering secret messages from the German High Command. Obviously, it was a tremendous help for them to know what Rommel and Hitler were planning.
Dinner in the mess tent was at 8 p.m., and Monty used this meal as a time for relaxation, producing some subject for discussion. Freddie was a regular guest, and Bill and Brian Robertson often joined us. Also we would sometimes entertain one of the generals from our main HQ, or an outsider.
The Second Crisis
After ten days I went to Monty and said that I believed I ought to return to my regiment, which was in a forward armoured car reconnaissance role, and see some real action. As there was not much going on and our own advance was slowing up, I was bored and had started to miss being among friends of my own age. Monty just said, 'All right, but you'd better come along for the next fortnight while I find someone to replace you.' Two days later I flew back to Cairo with him for the Thanksgiving service for the victory at Alamein. After the service he said, 'You can have the rest of the day and evening off. Meet me at the Guard of Honour at the airstrip at 7 a.m.'
Excerpted from Watching Monty by Johnny Henderson, Jamie Douglas-Home. Copyright © 2013 The Estate of J.R. Henderson, Jamie Douglas-Home. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 With the Eighth Army in the Desert,
2 Storming Sicily,
3 Assault on Italy,
4 Planning for 'Overlord',
5 The Battle of Normandy,
6 Thrust into Germany,
7 The Challenges of Peace,