|Terry Brighton writes on military history. His work is published in the UK and the US, and in translation around the world.|
Masters of Battle - Introduction to UK edition
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In the Second World War, Great Britain, the US and Germany each produced one land force commander who stood out from the rest: Bernard Montgomery, George Patton and Erwin Rommel. These three armour-plated egos were, in their own opinion but also in the judgement of their contemporaries, the greatest generals of the war.
All three were arrogant, publicity seeking and personally flawed, but with a genius for the command of men and an unrivalled enthusiasm for combat. All had spectacular success on the battlefield. Each understood the war in terms of his own ambitions and the attempts of the other two to thwart them. Rommel became the only German general known by name in Britain and America before most had even heard of Montgomery and Patton. They had to compete with him as larger-than-life personalities in whom their armies could believe before they could beat him on the battlefield. Yet as they fought for the headlines the hostility expressed by the two allies was directed, not at their mutual enemy, but at one another. Rommel, aware that the men and armour under their command outnumbered his own, remained confident that his superior tactical skills could defeat both of them.
It was a very personal contest: the clash of mighty armies perceived as a bout between three men. In Masters of Battle, for the first time in the literature of the Second World War, all three are 'put in the same ring' and allowed to 'go at it' against a backdrop of the great tank battles of North Africa, the invasions of Sicily and Italy, the Normandy landings and the push through France and Belgium into Germany.
***Montgomery, Patton and Rommel were all born in November in different years between 1885 and 1891, and under the same astrological sign: Scorpio, from the scorpion, known for its venomous sting. Each of the three was to live up to that.
Montgomery was a small man with a shrill voice but his appearance belied the size of his ego. Convinced that only he knew how to conduct the war he treated his superiors with contempt and snubbed even Churchill. His victory at El Alamein against the previously invincible Rommel inspired the British press to compare him with Wellington, a sentiment he heartily endorsed. King George VI, visiting him in North Africa, said he was delighted to discover that Monty was not after his job. Montgomery led British forces in the invasion of Sicily, and rewrote the plan for the D-Day invasion, during which he commanded all Allied ground troops and attempted once more to outsmart Rommel who commanded the coastal defences.
Patton was nicknamed 'Old Blood and Guts' because of his enthusiasm for battle, and General Eisenhower joked that he probably wore his combat helmet in bed. He certainly wore an ivory-handled Colt revolver everywhere and put on what he called his 'warrior face' to deliver obscene and profane speeches to the troops. He led American troops to their first victory in North Africa and commanded US forces in the invasion of Sicily. After D-Day he led the breakout from Normandy, the only Allied commander to emulate Rommel's blitzkrieg (lightning war). As his armoured columns raced towards the Rhine he boasted that he would be first into Berlin and 'personally shoot that son-of-a-bitch Adolf Hitler'.
Rommel's firm-set face and goggled cap became an icon of the desert war after Hitler personally gave him command of the Deutsches Afrika Korps. He pressed the British back to El Alamein, defeated the Americans at Kasserine, and was nicknamed W?stenfuchs (Desert Fox) for the uncanny brilliance of his battle tactics. General Auchinleck found it necessary to tell his beaten British army that 'Rommel is not superhuman . . . it would be undesirable to attribute supernatural powers to him'. After his defeat and pursuit across North Africa by Montgomery, Rommel was put in charge of defending the French coast. There he planned to beat back the Allied invasion and win the war for Germany.
Both Montgomery and Patton described their battle with Rommel as a personal contest. Monty chose a metaphor from the tennis court: 'I feel that I have won the first game when it was Rommel's service. Next time it will be my service, the score being one-love.' Patton likened it to a medieval joust mounted on tanks: 'The two armies could watch. I would shoot at Rommel. He would shoot at me. If I killed him, I'd be the champ. America would win the war.' Both men had the greatest respect for their enemy. Monty kept a portrait of the German in his command caravan while Patton studied Rommel's book on tactics. Rommel returned the compliment: 'Montgomery never made a serious strategic mistake [and] in the Patton Army we saw the most astonishing achievement in mobile warfare.'
In a surreal counterpoint to their respect for Rommel, the allies Montgomery and Patton loathed each other with a rare intensity. Monty told his staff officers that Patton was 'a foul-mouthed lover of war' who lacked his own military insight. Patton called Monty 'a cocky little Limey' and claimed he could 'outfight that little fart anytime'. When they were thrown together for the invasion of Sicily, each commanding their nation's forces, the island proved too small for two such egos and the campaign was determined more by the fight between them than by their fight with the enemy. When they clashed again in Normandy, competing to break through Rommel's defences, the very outcome of the war was at stake. Monty's advance faltered and Patton, leading the breakout, said American troops would 'save the face of the little monkey'. Monty planned his own strike inland and demanded that men and fuel be transferred from Patton's army to his own as they raced to be first across the Rhine.
Masters Of Battle brings together not only the mutual respect of the foes and the furious animosity of the allies, but also the volcanic relationships of the three generals with their chiefs. Monty attempted to keep 'Winston's podgy finger' out of his battles. Patton believed that Eisenhower had his eyes on the White House rather than the war. Rommel realised, too late to save himself, the truth about the Führer he once idolised.
***Montgomery, Patton and Rommel were students of war before they were warriors and all three were familiar with Carl von Clausewitz's The Principles of War first published in 1812 and still the primary text for would-be military leaders when Monty was at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, Patton at the US Military Academy at West Point, and Rommel at the K?nigliche Kriegsschule (Imperial War School) in Danzig. Patton bought his copy of the book while honeymooning in London in 1910 and may have ignored his new wife to read it, incurring her suggestion that he preferred Clausewitz to her own charms.
Clausewitz argued that in every battle situation the military leader must choose between 'the most audacious' and 'the most careful' action and concluded that 'no military leader has ever become great without audacity'. He might in evidence, had he been able to observe the Second World War, have pointed out Rommel, noting his fingerspitzengefuhl (the instinctive and immediate response to battle situations) and talent for blitzkrieg, and also Patton, the only Allied commander to match Rommel at his own game and whose motto was borrowed from Frederick the Great: L'audace, l'audace, l'audace - tout jour l'audace.'
Montgomery made 'carefulness' his primary battle-plan and his victories depended on it. Only his genius for materialschlact (the slow build-up of superior manpower and supplies before engagement) could have defeated Rommel at El Alamein and on the Normandy coast. The qualities that make a great military leader are then perhaps more complex than Clausewitz allowed, and in Rommel and Patton (well matched in audaciousness) and Monty (the master of carefulness) we can observe these two command styles brought face-to-face in the most crucial campaigns of the war.
***Masters Of Battle tells the story of three extraordinary men, each central to the war effort of Great Britain, the United States and Germany respectively. The explosive passions of their relationships with each other and with their political masters rival the pyrotechnics of their tank battles in determining the conduct and outcome of the war. Through the mutual respect of the arch-enemies Monty and Rommel, and the mutual animosity of the allies Monty and Patton, this book presents the Second World War as it was seen and experienced by three of its most flamboyant, controversial and influential commanders.
Reader FeedbackI've just plunged through your book - the most thrilling days of concentrated, headlong reading I can remember in years. Your narrative pulls us into the minds, the lives, the wars of these men - your book made me feel part of that valiant, desperate time in the world. Peter M Webster (US)
Masters of Battle - Author Interview
Alan: A great deal has been written about these three men. What makes Masters of Battle different?
Terry: This is the first time all three have been brought together. This triangular relationship - Monty's and Patton's respect for Rommel, and their passionate distaste for each other - sets up a tremendous dynamic for the book. A single-life biography finds space for its subject's self-justification. My three subjects have a lot to say, but their every comment is challenged by one of the other two! This is not a leisurely history. It is war as they experienced it - hectic, crude, often contradictory, always moving on. And it is in that melee, caught in Masters of Battle, that we see these three great commanders as they really were, rather than the careful portraits their official biographers paint.
Alan: How did you go about researching these three men?
Terry: From the Sherman that Montgomery used as his command tank, now at the Imperial War Museum, London, to the pearl-gripped pistol at the General George Patton Museum at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and the photographs Rommel took with his Leica, now in the Rommel Museum in Herrlingen, there's a popular "museum trail". But I found that the true insights are elsewhere, and particularly in the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King's College, London, the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, Washington DC, and the Bundesarchiv Militärarchiv, Freiburg. What these three men said and wrote has to be the starting point. But then it must be used critically. Biographers can become so immersed in the material that they are hoodwinked by their subjects. The advantage of writing about Monty, Patton and Rommel together is that the comments of each one are continually brought into question by the other two. I believe this very active dynamic enabled me to get closer to the truth about each of them - because it is precisely in this triangular relationship that each is most clearly revealed.
Alan: So who will buy Masters of Battle?
Terry: There's an insatiable interest in each of these three generals that reaches far beyond any specialist military history readership. Most readers are fascinated by personalities rather than politics or strategy, and this book is about three outstanding and controversial military leaders at the sharp end of the Second World War. It's an accessible account and assumes no specialist knowledge. But its extensive use of original source material will also attract the military enthusiast who knows the period well, but who wants to get closer to the action and learn more about the fiery affairs that embroiled these three.
Alan: What will readers be most surprised by in Masters of Battle?
Terry: Readers probably know that Montgomery was not a nice guy, but they will be shocked by how very badly he behaved, lying even to Churchill, and undermining the Americans whenever he could. He single-handedly brought about a rift in the Anglo-American alliance that could have won the war for Hitler. His antics certainly cost a good many American lives. If that sounds like an exaggeration, read the book - it isn't! Readers will also be surprised by the extent to which Eisenhower, with the full support of his President, handed the fruits of the Allied victory to Stalin. Patton predicted the Cold War in words that proved to be uncannily accurate, but no one was listening because he wanted to fight the Russians there and then. Churchill saw the danger too, and felt that Stalin had outsmarted them all, but by then Britain was a junior partner in the Alliance and the Americans were not listening to him either. Patton was a hothead, but he assessed the political situation correctly while the whole American leadership got it wrong.
Alan: Any surprises about Rommel?
Terry: Monty was so obviously duplicitous, and Patton always said exactly what he thought, but Rommel was more careful - because he had to be. So it's more difficult to know what he was really up to. Towards the end he disagreed strongly with Hitler, and was forced to commit suicide, and because of that he's still seen as a sympathetic character. But Masters of Battle reveals a darker Rommel. He never carried a Party card, but he was undoubtedly a true Nazi.
Alan: Which of the three was the greatest general?
Terry: Patton quipped that he could 'outfight that little fart Monty anytime'. That was probably true. On the other hand, only Monty could have planned the D-Day landings so meticulously that they actually succeeded. But if Hitler had not overuled Rommel's plans for the defence of occupied France, the landings might have failed. All three were truly "Masters of War", but in very different ways.
Alan: It sounds almost as if you came to "like" them?
Terry: They lived extreme lives at the most critical of times. Each clashed violently with the other. But they were men like us. They loved, they were fallible, they cried. I got to 'know' them, to the extent that it's possible, and in Masters of Battle they were in a very real sense my co-writers. But I wouldn't want to live next door to any one of them!