Military history

GOODWOOD

On 7 July, the eve of CHARNWOOD, Montgomery’s chief planner, Brigadier Charles Richardson, submitted a report on more far-reaching objectives than Caen. He argued, first, that it was necessary for Second Army to embark on a major offensive rather than merely to pursue a succession of limited operations; second, that in view of the desperate need to avoid heavy infantry casualties, the obvious course was to embark upon an armoured assault. Tanks were one commodity with which the British were amply provided. Indeed, there was scarcely sufficient fighting room within the beachhead for the proper employment of all the armour they possessed. At that date they outnumbered the Germans by four to one in tanks and two to one in infantry, while on the American front the ratios were eight to one and three to two. Bradley’s men were holding a line 108,000 yards long, compared with the 77,500 yards in the hands of the British. On 10 July, Dempsey outlined for Montgomery a plan to employ massed armour in an attempt to break through the German defences from the constricted Orne bridgehead, still little larger than that gained by 6th Airborne Division early in June. Montgomery approved. The details of Operation GOODWOOD were settled two days later: all three British armoured divisions would attack, under the command of General O’Connor’s VIII Corps, along a corridor blasted open by massed bomber forces. The aim was to strike fast through the German defences while the enemy were still reeling from the air bombardment, seize the Bourguébus Ridge in the first hours and thence race on across the great sweep of open country beyond. The tanks would drive headlong for Falaise. Meanwhile, Simonds’ II Canadian Corps would attack south from the centre of Caen in an effort to secure the rest of the city. I and XII Corps would launch subsidiary infantry attacks, with support from the independent armoured brigades, on the flanks.

‘The Second Army is now very strong,’ Montgomery wrote to Brooke on the 14th, ‘it has in fact reached its peak and can get no stronger. It will in fact get weaker as the manpower situation begins to hit us. Also, the casualties had affected the fighting efficiency of divisions; the original men were very well trained; reinforcements are not so well trained, and the fact is beginning to become apparent and will have repercussions on what we can do . . . So I have decided that the time has come to have a real “showdown” on the eastern flank, and to loose a corps of three armoured divisions into the open country about the Caen–Falaise road.’1 Eisenhower wrote to Montgomery of the GOODWOOD plan: ‘I am confident that it will reap a harvest from all the sowing you have been doing during the past weeks. With our whole front acting aggressively against the enemy so that he is pinned to the ground, O’Connor’s plunge into his vitals will be decisive . . . I am viewing the prospects with the most tremendous optimism and enthusiasm. I would not be at all surprised to see you gaining a victory that will make some of the “old classics” look like a skirmish between patrols.’2 It is interesting and important to notice that after the war Bradley, the most unlikely man to provide spurious alibis for Montgomery, declared that he had never expected GOODWOOD to be anything other than a supporting operation for the American COBRA, which was originally scheduled to jump off at much the same time. Yet if Montgomery’s hopes and objectives were really so limited, it was politically suicidal for him to allow Eisenhower, Tedder and even Brooke to be deluded about them. There was a perfectly sound military argument for the British to mount only a limited offensive. But there is no hint of evidence that Montgomery sought to explain GOODWOOD in these terms to any of his patrons in England, above all Brooke.

Every previous operation that Montgomery had mounted in Normandy was skilfully conceived, soundly based, offering a real prospect of success at its H-Hour. By the time GOODWOOD was launched, for political and moral reasons he was more seriously in need of a victory than at any time since D-Day. Yet from its inception the operation was flawed. It relied heavily upon surprise to gain the high ground which dominated the British line of advance, yet called for the movement of 8,000 tanks and armoured vehicles across the Orne to the assembly points. Until the armour had cleared the start-line, the artillery could not deploy to provide the massive bombardment which was such an important asset to any operation. Days before GOODWOOD was set in motion, 51st Highland Division’s engineers had sown new minefields to cover their own positions, which could not now be properly cleared for the armoured advance. Only narrow corridors would be available through which the tanks could progress. Most damning of all, the Germans were expecting them. Sepp Dietrich claimed after the war that he had heard the British tanks coming by using an old trick he had learned in Russia, of putting his ear to the ground. Perhaps he did. But long before the tanks began to roll from the start-line, German intelligence had achieved one of its few important battlefield successes in Normandy, by alerting Rommel to the imminent British move against Bourguébus. General Eberbach of Panzer Group West reacted by adopting perhaps the most formidable defensive deployments of the entire campaign: five lines of tanks and anti-tank guns, directly confronting VIII Corps’ axis of advance. 36 hours before GOODWOOD was set in motion, Ultra interceptions revealed to the British that Field-Marshal Hugo Sperrle of Luftflotte 3 had signalled a forecast of a major British attack, ‘to take place south-eastwards from Caen about the night of 17–18th’.

In Montgomery’s directive to Dempsey before the battle, all mention of Falaise as an objective had vanished; a sudden onset of caution seemed to have overcome him. But Dempsey himself was still full of brilliant hopes as he transferred his Tactical HQ to a position alongside that of O’Connor, where he could oversee the battle at close quarters. ‘What I had in mind was to seize all the crossings of the Orne from Caen to Argentan,’ Second Army’s commander said after the war.3

Carlo D’Este, the author of an important recent study of the Normandy battle, pays tribute to General O’Connor’s understanding of the vital need for close armoured–infantry co-operation in GOODWOOD. O’Connor sought to employ some of the gunners’ self-propelled chassis as infantry personnel carriers for the battle, and was much vexed by Dempsey’s refusal to let them be used. Yet General ‘Pip’ Roberts of 11th Armoured, probably the ablest British divisional commander in Normandy, suffered deep misgivings when he studied O’Connor’s plan for GOODWOOD, and discovered that the armour and infantry had been given separate objectives. He felt so strongly about the error of this decision that he recorded his view in writing, which caused O’Connor to reply that if Roberts lacked the conviction to lead the attack according to his plan, one of the other armoured divisions could relieve the 11th as spearhead. Robert reluctantly acquiesced. But he believed that O’Connor did not understand the proper handling of armour on a European battlefield.4 Other senior officers echoed Roberts’s lack of confidence not only in the corps commander himself, but also in his staff.

Between 5.30 and 8.30 a.m. on the morning of 18 July, one of the greatest-ever air bombardments of ground forces was unleashed upon Panzer Group West by heavy and medium bombers of the RAF and USAAF. In three waves they attacked the German positions confronting O’Connor’s armoured divisions: tanks were hurled bodily into the air or buried by earth and rubble; men were deafened and stunned for days or blasted into fragments; guns were wrecked and twisted on their mountings; fuel and ammunition exploded. Shortly after H-Hour, a scout car of the Inns of Court Regiment reported exultantly that it was well on the way to 11th Armoured’s objectives, and could see no evidence of opposition. ‘I said “Jolly good show” and didn’t believe a word of it,’ said Roberts tersely.5 His scepticism was rapidly justified.

One of the great surprises of warfare in the twentieth century has been the power of soldiers to survive what would seem to be overwhelming concentrations of high explosive, and emerge to fight with skill and determination. So it was now with the men of Panzer Group West. The leading units of 11th Armoured Division jumped off promptly at 7.30 a.m. and made rapid progress for the first two hours, before meeting heavy and stiffening resistance. Around the village of Cagny, just four 88 mm flak guns of the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division had escaped the air bombardment. At pistol point, Colonel Hans von Luck of 21st Panzer Division compelled their commander to abandon his delusions about his anti-aircraft role, and to engage the advancing British tanks at once. 16 of 11th Armoured’s Shermans fell to these guns alone. It was 4.00 p.m. before the Guards Armoured Division entered Cagny. As other British units crossed the Caen–Vimont railway embankment and attempted to push on towards Bourguébus, they met ruthless German tank and anti-tank fire. The vehicle carrying 11th Armoured’s sole RAF Forward Air Controller was knocked out in the first two hours, with the result that close air support for the advance was lost. Meanwhile, in the rear, the Guards Armoured and 7th Armoured Divisions had been seriously delayed by the huge traffic jam of vehicles moving along the corridors through British minefields. Without support, the British spearhead of 29th Armoured Brigade was already in serious trouble, only 12,000 yards from its start-line and scarcely through the crust of the deep defences. Trooper John Brown was driving a 17-pounder Sherman Firefly of the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry. He and his crew left the start-line in a mood of excited optimism, after watching the vast air bombardment, convinced that no German position could have survived such appalling punishment.

It was not long after the earlier euphoria that we realised what was in store for us – 13 tanks, one of our squadrons knocked out, some burning and what remained of their crews either walking or crawling back from the front. Our tanks reached the Caen–Vimont railway close beside a level crossing in the Cagny area. From our position we knocked out two, probably three German tanks, but it was difficult to recognise this in the carnage. We were shooting over the rear of the tank when fire broke out and the order was given to bale out. I tried my hatch but was unable to get it open. Lying on my back over the ammunition in the co-driver’s position, a space of about eighteen inches between the shells and the hatch which I was able to open, I pulled myself out, falling to the ground. Lying beside the tank, we realised that it was only our equipment and bedding on the hull which was burning. Pulling this off, I said I would get back into the tank and bring it into the shelter of the house at the level crossing. I had got in and started the engine when suddenly a horrible eruption of molten metal came in through the side immediately behind the ammunition. This was like an acetylene cutter in action. Fortunately I was able to bale out faster than the first time. From there my crewmates and I made our way back to rear echelon in the glider landing fields near Ranville.6

Soon after noon, bitterly conscious that his attack was running out of steam, O’Connor organized a new two-pronged thrust to be carried out by 11th Armoured on the right, 7th Armoured’s Cromwells on the left.

We moved well for a while [wrote a British reconnaissance vehicle commander, Corporal Peter Roach], until we came to another flat stretch littered with knocked-out Cromwell tanks extending right away to the ridge in front. Delay, frustration, ignorance of what was happening . . . Some shells landed nearby; violent black smoke with a brilliant red centre and large jagged pieces of metal tearing at the unwary. The tank I was following stopped and the commander jumped down swearing. The driver, who had his head out, was hit. I got the lead from his headphones under his arms and we tugged him through the small hatch opening, floppy and inert. Our hands were wet with blood; we laid him on the ground; from his head oozed blood and sticky brains; he quivered and made quacking noises, and then mercifully died. The officer was crying . . .

The light was going slowly and the air warm. I sat on the top of the tank as we ate cold rice pudding from a tin. I looked at my hands gory with dried blood and brains. Nearby two flail tanks were talking on the radios and coming through on my set. The commanders were tired and their nerves were frayed. I could hear the scorn in the voice of A and the almost pleading voice of B as he complained bitterly that A had ‘pissed off without warning’. It was frightening to hear men so open in their dislike on the one hand and dependence on the other. UJ came up on the air, asking my position and then querying my reference. I too was frayed, so I asked if he thought I couldn’t read a map or didn’t know where I was.7

The only regiment of 7th Armoured to approach its point of attack, after escaping the chaos around the Orne, did not reach 29th Brigade’s battered squadrons until 5.00 p.m., by which time the latter had suffered 50 per cent tank losses, 11th Armoured losing a total of 126 tanks during the day. Guards Armoured Division lost 60 tanks in this, its first battle. Roberts’s foreboding about O’Connor’s separation of tanks and infantry had been entirely justified: his armour received no infantry support until 5.00 p.m. Although many officers liked O’Connor, and to this day there are energetic defenders of his conduct of the battles in Normandy, the evidence suggests that he never achieved the ‘grip’ of VIII Corps which had so distinguished his command in the desert. Montgomery’s public modifications of his ambitions for GOODWOOD can hardly have critically influenced O’Connor’s conduct, when Dempsey declared his own hope that VIII Corps would get to Falaise. Colonel Brian Wyldbore-Smith, GSO I of 11th Armoured, said flatly of GOODWOOD: ‘We really did think that this was to be the breakout.’8 Brigadier Richardson, 21st Army Group’s BGS Plans, said that ‘at the time, I thought Goodwood had been a tremendous flop.’9 He subsequently modified his view in the light of post-war evidence that Montgomery only sought to maintain pressure on the eastern flank. But it seems absurd to suppose that GOODWOOD could have been secretly transformed into a limited operation without the acquiescence of Dempsey, the army commander, or the knowledge of the senior staff officers charged with carrying it out.

It becomes even more difficult to believe this in the light of Montgomery’s behaviour at the time. In an extraordinary moment of optimism that afternoon – of the kind that did so much to damage his credibility with less sympathetic recipients – Montgomery signalled Brooke: ‘Operations this morning a complete success . . . The effect of the air bombing was decisive and the spectacle terrific . . . situation very promising and it is difficult to see what the enemy can do just at present.’10 Far more serious, he read to the assembled press corps a disastrously optimistic bulletin about the progress of the attack. Brigadier Williams remembered seeing on Alan Moorehead’s face ‘this wonderful Australian disbelief’. Yet in consequence of Montgomery’s remarks, on 19 July The Times carried the headline, ‘Second Army breaks through’, and quoted the communiqué’s assertion that ‘early this morning British and Canadian troops of the Second Army attacked and broke through into the area east of the Orne and south-east of Caen.’ Another headline read, ‘British army in full cry’, followed the next day by ‘Wide corridor through German front’. A ‘Special Correspondent’ was ‘at pains to rebut suggestions of “setbacks” ’.

In reality, the Canadians had gained most of Caen, but the Germans remained in absolute control of the Bourguébus Ridge, which they reinforced strongly during the night. Crerar’s men were perhaps more angry and bitter about the disappontments of the battle than O’Connor’s patient and long-suffering British troops. ‘Goodwood had been sold to us as a big deal,’ said Corporal Dick Raymond of 3rd Canadian Division. ‘To see those Shermans puffing into black smoke gave us a sick feeling in the stomach. It seemed a futile, clumsy thing.’ ATLANTIC, the Canadian operation on the GOODWOOD flank, cost Crerar’s men 1,965 casualties. Two infantry battalions alone bore the brunt of these – the South Saskatchewans, who lost 215 men, and the Essex Scottish, losing 244. Two days later, after further brutal fighting, 7th Armoured Division had gained part of the ridge, but in the heavy rain and mud which now made the closure of the operation inevitable, the German line was still unbroken. The British had suffered 5,537 casualties and lost 400 tanks, 36 per cent of their armoured strength in France, of which only a proportion could be recovered and repaired. So prodigious were Allied reserves of matériel that replacements reached almost every armoured division within 36 hours. The restoration of Montgomery’s prestige would take a great deal longer.

In the post-mortems in the wake of GOODWOOD, all manner of suggestions were made about what had gone wrong and what could have been done better. Since the assembly of such a vast force had proved impossible to keep secret, could more have been gained by opening the attack in darkness? Would a shorter interval between the end of the air bombardment and the British approach to the German positions have been decisive? Was the Guards Armoured Division briefed to expect too easy an assault in this, its first battle, and were its units thus too readily overcome by the unexpected strength of the opposition? Could O’Connor have pushed 7th Armoured Division forward faster? Why was there still such lamentable cohesion between tanks and infantry?

The answers to all these questions partially explain the British misfortunes. Yet none of them can mask the bald truth that Second Army sought to attack powerful and skilfully-directed German defences. Major changes of British tactics would have been necessary to bring about a different outcome. A daylight infantry attack across open ground would have been cut to pieces, but a carefully-planned night assault might have yielded dramatic dividends. The airmen were vociferous in their anger about the army’s failure to gain a decisive result after calling upon a vast bomber force in support. Nothing, except their own parochialism, could justify such an attitude. Even if the air attack on Caen earlier in the month was misconceived, there were major enemy concentrations to be bombed on the Bourguébus Ridge, and substantial damage was inflicted upon these, moral as much as material. The GOODWOOD experience showed the limitations of massive air attack, but it also revealed its value. Only the airmen’s obsessive belief that all their squadrons could meanwhile have been better employed over Germany justified their furious reaction.

In the years since the revelation of the Allies’ breaking of German ciphers in the Second World War, it has sometimes been assumed that Ultra provided the Allies with absolute knowledge of enemy deployments and capabilities. This is a travesty of the truth. Ultra was of immense value, but its reliability and comprehensiveness varied greatly from day to day, according to luck, the extent to which local German units were signalling by radio rather than using land-lines, and the speed of the decrypters at Bletchley Park. O’Connor’s forces embarked upon GOODWOOD with no concept of the strength of the German defences they were to engage, while the Germans had been using observation posts, prisoner interrogation and aerial reconnaissance to powerful effect. This was the first and last occasion of the Normandy campaign on which von Kluge’s men were able to fight a battle on terms that suited them, albeit at a cost which they could much less well afford than the Allies.

The British were attacking across more open country than in any battle of the campaign thus far. So much has been said about the difficulties of fighting amid the hedges of the bocage, that it seems worth emphasizing the equal difficulties of advancing against powerful defences over an unbroken field of fire. Tanks could use open country to great advantage if they could manoeuvre around enemy positions. But where they were confronted by a continuous line of defences, even a small number of well-handled German tanks and guns could do enormous execution. Here, perhaps more than in any other battle in north-west Europe, the British paid the price for their lack of a survivable battle tank; armour of the weight of the German Tigers and Panthers might have battered a path up the Bourguébus Ridge – a feat that the Shermans and Cromwells were too frail to achieve.

It has been suggested above that blame for the failure of some of Montgomery’s June battles in Normandy lay more with those charged with directing and fighting them than with the planners who conceived them. Yet GOODWOOD failed because the concept, the plan, the preparations were unsound. The British were sometimes accused of being unimaginative in their use of armoured forces by comparison with the Americans. Below Bourguébus Ridge in July, they attempted an extraordinarily ambitious massed tank operation which, had it succeeded, might have rivalled that of Patton a few weeks later. But there was an important difference between the British and later American operations: in the first, the German defence was unbroken: the old military axiom about the hazards of employing unsupported cavalry against an unbroken square still held good. Colonel Brian Wyldbore-Smith, GSO I of 11th Armoured, argued convincingly that it was a great mistake to launch the attack with massed tanks: ‘One squadron per infantry battalion would have been ample. More than that simply confused the issue.’ Here he touched upon the very heart of the GOODWOOD failure. The forces assembled for the operation were not those judged necessary to meet the ground or the nature of the defences, but those which the British then felt willing to expend – their tanks. The critical problem of manpower and infantry casualties thus directly influenced an important tactical decision.

As a result of GOODWOOD, Montgomery’s prestige within the Allied high command suffered damage from which it never recovered. Eisenhower was disappointed and angered by the gulf between Second Army’s promise and performance. His staff became genuinely concerned about the rise in the Supreme Commander’s blood pressure. Butcher wrote on the 19th, referring to the tragic sudden death in France of 4th Division’s deputy commander: ‘What a blow it would be to the world, not mentioning that to his personal followers, if he [Eisenhower] should pull a Teddy Roosevelt!’11

Tedder’s animosity was redoubled. He considered that the air forces had been the victims of a deliberate deception by Montgomery, who had exaggerated his expectations merely to ensure that he received the support of the strategic bombers. Tedder told Eisenhower baldly: ‘Your own people are thinking you have sold them to the British if you continue to support Montgomery without protest.’ Of all the criticism heaped upon Montgomery in the course of the war, that following his handling of GOODWOOD is the most difficult to refute. He sent a limited directive to Dempsey before the battle,12 a copy of which never reached SHAEF, who thus continued to expect more from GOODWOOD than 21st Army Group; this matter has been the subject of much speculation. Yet, directive or no directive, Montgomery could not escape the consequences of other grandiloquent declarations of expectation and achievement before and during the battle. Whatever written insurance policies he took out before 18 July, it is impossible to doubt that when he launched his three-corps attack, he hoped desperately to reach Falaise. He and his staff must have been aware of the expectations they had raised in London and Washington, and therefore of the inescapable cost of failing to meet these. After GOODWOOD, said Brigadier Richardson, 21st Army Group’s BGS Plans, ‘we were distinctly worried. We knew Monty put on this impenetrable act of confidence, whatever was happening. But below Freddy de Guingand’s level, it was difficult to judge whether this confidence was soundly based. My feeling was that we were getting into a bigger jam than he was prepared to admit.’13

Montgomery admitted in his memoirs that he had overdone his public comment, and been ‘too exultant at the press conference I gave during the Goodwood battle. I realise that now – in fact, I realised it pretty quickly afterwards. Basically the trouble was this – both Bradley and I agreed that we could not possibly tell the Press the true strategy which formed the basis of all our plans. As Bradley said, “We must grin and bear it.” It became increasingly difficult to grin.’14 It is almost tragic to behold a man of Montgomery’s stature so far diminishing himself as to write suchnonsense. GOODWOOD rendered great service to the American flank and to the Allied cause by maintaining pressure and by ‘writing down’ irreplaceable German forces. But to demand that history should accept that this alone was the sum of British ambitions is to suggest that a man sows wheat to harvest straw. Montgomery, under all the pressures building up around him since early July, must have known that, had the British embarked upon an operation with such limited objectives as he afterwards attributed to GOODWOOD, the anger and impatience of the Americans towards their British allies would have become uncontainable. The truth, which he never avowed even to Brooke, yet which seems self-evident from the course of events, was that in GOODWOOD, and throughout the rest of the campaign, Montgomery sought major ground gains for Second Army if these could be achieved at acceptable cost. He forsook them whenever casualties rose unacceptably. This occurred painfully often.

When Montgomery and Eisenhower met privately on the afternoon of 20 July – one of their nine personal encounters during the campaign – it seems clear that the Supreme Commander vented his distress. It is possible, even probable, that Montgomery emphasized to Eisenhower his concern over British manpower and casualties, and said something of the Americans’ greater ability to overcome these problems. For in Eisenhower’s subsequent letter to his Commander-in-Chief, written the following day, he reminded Montgomery sharply that ‘eventually the American ground strength will necessarily be much greater than the British. But while we have equality in size we must go forward shoulder to shoulder, with honors and sacrifices equally shared.’15 Confidence in Montgomery, and in the performance of the British Second Army, had reached the lowest point of the campaign in north-west Europe among the Americans, among the airmen, and even among some of the British, including their Prime Minister. ‘Whatever hopes he [Montgomery] had of remaining overall ground commander died with Goodwood,’ Bradley believed.16 He afterwards asserted his conviction that Eisenhower would have sacked the British general, had he felt able to do so.

Montgomery’s behaviour throughout this period seems dominated by the belief that he could afford to spurn Eisenhower, whose unfittedness for field command was so apparent to every senior officer. It is undoubtedly true that even Bradley, the most loyal and patient of men, was irked by Eisenhower’s inability to ‘read’ the battle that was taking place in Normandy. As early as 7 June, Bradley was irritated by Eisenhower’s sudden appearance aboard the Augusta in mid-Channel: ‘On the whole Ike’s visit had been perhaps necessary for his own personal satisfaction, but from my point of view it was a pointless interruption and annoyance.’17 The First Army commander, both then and later, acknowledged the justice of Montgomery’s claim that Eisenhower never understood the Allied plan in Normandy. The Supreme Commander laboured under a misapprehension that he himself could best serve the Allied cause by touring the touchline like a football coach, urging all his generals to keep attacking more or less simultaneously. Eisenhower’s personal life-style, journeying between fronts with a ragbag of sycophantic staff officers, his Irish driver and mistress, occasionally his newly-commissioned son and cosseted pet dog, was more suggestive of an eighteenth-century European monarch going to war than a twentieth-century general.

Yet Dwight Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of the Allied armies, upon whom hung the fervent hopes of two governments for the unity and triumph of their armies. His charm and statesmanship deeply impressed, even moved, all those who worked closely with him. Montgomery’s inability to establish a personal relationship with the American, to confide to Eisenhower his own private hopes and fears for the battle, cost him dear. 21st Army Group’s Commander-in-Chief made the immense error of believing that the Supreme Commander could be side-stepped, deluded, soft-talked into leaving himself, Montgomery, the supreme professional, to fight the war. He might indeed have been successful in this had his armies on the battlefield fulfilled his early hopes in Normandy. But when they did not, it was Eisenhower, fretting impotent in England, who bore the impatience of the American press, the doubts and fears of the politicians, the charges of failure of generalship which the ignorant associated with himself. Eisenhower might have been willing to ride passively upon a tide of success created by Montgomery. He was quite unwilling idly to accept responsibility for apparent failure and stagnation. At the time and for some years after the war, the extent of the breakdown of relations between Montgomery and Eisenhower was concealed. Today there is no doubt that by late July 1944, the American was weary to death of his ground-force commander.

Brooke urgently warned Montgomery on 19 July to drop his objections to a prime-ministerial visit to Normandy, and use the opportunity to rebuild a little of Churchill’s flagging faith. The CIGS warned his friend ‘of the tendency of the PM to listen to suggestions that Monty played for safety and was not prepared to take risks’. Brooke wrote in his diary:

Winston had never been very fond of Monty; when things went well he put up with him, when they did not he at once became ‘your Monty’. Just at this time Eisenhower had been expressing displeasure and accusing Monty of being sticky, of not pushing sufficiently on the Caen front with the British while he made the Americans do the attacking on the right. Winston was inclined to listen to these complaints.18

Brigadier Richardson said that ‘in strategic terms, things were going according to plan. In tactical terms, they were not.’ It is much easier to understand the criticisms made of Montgomery by the Americans than those made by his fellow countrymen. Until the very end of the war, the British demanded that they should be treated as equal partners in the alliance with the United States, and vied for a lion’s share of Allied command positions. They could scarcely be surprised if the Americans showed resentment when the British flinched before heavy casualties, and fought on the eastern flank with less apparent determination and will for sacrifice than the American army in the west. Whatever the Americans’ weaknesses of command and tactics, their willingness to expend men to gain an objective was never in doubt. ‘On the whole, they were prepared to go at it more toughly than we were,’ said Brigadier Carver of 4th Armoured Brigade.19

Montgomery, however, was never allowed to forget that he was charged with responsibility for Britain’s last great army, her final reserves of manpower in a struggle that had drained these to the limit. With the constant admonitions reaching him from England about casualties, he would have faced bitter criticism – from Churchill as much as any man – had losses risen steeply. It is indisputable that this knowledge bore hard upon the British conduct of operations in Normandy, from the summit to the base of the command structure. Butcher wrote on 24 July, after visiting Southwick House for an hour when Eisenhower drove there to see de Guingand:

Bill Culver, de Guingand’s American aide, in response to my pointed question as to what really stopped Monty’s attack, said he felt that Monty, his British Army commander Dempsey, the British corps commanders and even those of the divisions are so conscious of Britain’s ebbing manpower that they hesitate to commit an attack where a division may be lost. When it’s lost, it’s done and finished . . . The Commanders feel the blood of the British Empire, and hence its future, are too precious for dash in battle.20

With hindsight it may be easy to suggest that a more ruthless determination to break through on the British front earlier in the campaign would, in the end, have cost fewer lives. Tedder’s allegation that Second Army was not trying hard enough had some foundation, but it was much easier to take this sanguine view from the distance of SHAEF – or from the perspective of history – than for Montgomery and his commanders in Normandy, who had to watch their precious army take persistent punishment. Tedder’s attitude proved his claim to be an outstanding Alliance commander, with a truly Anglo-American perspective, but it showed little sympathy for valid if more parochial British sensitivities. If the British army was to achieve major ground gains on the eastern flank against the powerful German forces deployed before it, the evidence suggested that the cost would be terrible.

Montgomery is entitled to the gratitude of his country, as well as of his soldiers, for declining to yield to the temptation to mount a ruthlessly costly attack merely to stave off the political demands made upon him. He judged, correctly, that if the Allies persisted with their existing plan for pressure in the east and breakthrough in the west, the Germans would eventually crack without a British bloodbath. Yet in July as in June, he denied himself the goodwill of either American or British sceptics by creating a smokescreen of distortion and untruth to conceal his disappointment with the failure of Second Army to gain ground at acceptable cost. It is a measure of the criticism now directed against him, and of the political pressure within the Alliance, that as late as 28 July, when the American breakout was already making good progress, Brooke was writing to him:

Now, as a result of all this talking and the actual situation on your front, I feel personally quite certain that Dempsey must attack at the earliest possible moment [emphasis in original] on a large scale. We must not allow German forces to move from his front to Bradley’s front or we shall give more cause than ever for criticism.21

It is impossible to imagine that Montgomery could have been sacked – whatever Tedder’s delusion on that count – without inflicting an intolerable blow to British national confidence. He whom propaganda has made mighty, no man may readily cast aside, as Portal was compelled to acknowledge a few months later in his difficulties with ‘Bomber’ Harris. But it is difficult to guess what new pressures and directives might have been forced upon the Commander-in-Chief of 21st Army Group had not the perspective of the Normandy campaign now been entirely transformed by the American Operation COBRA.

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