Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Guest Post: Monty Remains in Command

This article first appeared on Today in Alternate History, a variant of Jeff Provine's scenario December 8, 1943 - Eisenhower Dies in Jeep Accident.

July 19, 1944

It was tragically ironic that General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, was killed in a non-combat related mechanical accident caused by an equipment malfunction in his signature Willy's 4x4 staff jeep. Rugged, reliable, and highly maneuverable, this famed workhorse of the American military had replaced equines in everything from cavalry units to supply trains and had been hailed by Ike himself as, alongside the Dakota and the Landing Craft, one of the three most important tools in the war.

A staff officer who had never seen combat in his 27-year career, Eisenhower had run Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) off-shore from England. The death of this soldier-statesman was a fateful act of destiny since Ike had been travelling to Tac to relieve General Bernard Law Montgomery of his command of the 21st Army Group, which comprised all Allied ground forces engaged in the Battle of Normandy (Operation Overlord). His mentor, Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Alan Brooke was sharply critical, observing that "Ike knows nothing about strategy and is 'quite' unsuited to the post of Supreme Commander. It is no wonder that Monty's real high ability is not always realized. Especially so when 'national' spectacles pervert the perspective of the strategic landscape."

Despite very clear explanations in written briefings, Ike had failed to grasp Monty's strategy. Worse still, Monty's desire to remain withdrawn at Tac created a communication gulf allowing misunderstandings to arise. The historic significance of this tragic event was that Monty was still in command during the American break-out, Operation Cobra. This precious victory was earned by the hard-fought, but woefully under-valued, Operation Goodwood, the frustratingly slow British break-out that had convinced his antagonists, Ike, his British deputy Tedder, and Churchill to sack Monty. In simple military terms, Goodwood had started surprisingly well but stalled at Caen, whereas Cobra started very badly but ended in glory. Misunderstood from the start, Goodwood was the launch platform for Cobra, bought in the heavy cost of British lives that proved Monty was a true coalition soldier in the tradition of Wellington, Marlborough, et. al, who had also commanded Allied forces dominated by non-British nationals.

Ever since the invasion of Sicily, the hero of El Alamein had taken damaging blows to his reputation, mainly due for his abrasive character enraging his superiors. Monty's standard bluff that "his plan was working" had carried him through the worst period of his illustrious career. Regardless of Brooke's observation on "national perspectives," the reality was that American troop count dominated the British who were at the limit of their manpower. Of course, Ike was only a puppet for Roosevelt who sought to sharply diminish British influence in military strategy. However, Monty's destruction of 23 of Hitler's 38 divisions was a towering accomplishment that simply could not be ignored, and so he continued as Allied Ground Forces Commander while the more-humble American General Alexander Patch was appointed to run SHAEF. The only realistic alternative would have been to send US Chief of Staff George Marshall to Europe, and as Roosevelt had told him, "I didn't feel I could sleep at ease if you were out of Washington." Even though Monty lacked the naked unchecked aggression of US generals, it would only be due to his meticulous defensive planning that the German counter-attack through the Ardennes would be anticipated and crushed in December before the line could even bulge.

Author's Note:

In reality, Monty negotiated a temporary relief for his command although Ike took over on September 1st when Churchill promoted him to Field Marshall as a consolation prize. In Generals: Ten British Commanders who Shaped the World, the author Mark Urban offers the perspective that the Battle of the Bulge was caused by Ike's broad front strategy and Monty's intervention was the approach he had been arguing for throughout the Second Battle of France.

Provine's Addendum (with input from comments by Stan Brin and Mike McIlvain):

The death of Eisenhower sent a wave of gloom through the Allied nations, especially the United States, whose propaganda machine worked to ensure Eisenhower was seen as a hero despite dying in a simple vehicular accident. It changed Army protocol, keeping officers out of jeeps and driving in more stable, secured vehicles. Patton himself may have become a casualty, but he lived long after the war as a military adviser for decades into the Cold War. Historians can only postulate how many other commanders lived from what could have been lethal accidents in the Korean War.

Monty's strategies were criticized as leaving much of the western front stuck between Belgium and Holland with the more southerly armies directed by American generals getting no farther than Baden-Wurttemberg before meeting the USSR troops pushing from the east. Still more criticism came that he was protecting English-speaking lives at the cost of Soviet soldiers, while others felt that he had deprived the western Allies of more victory. Monty himself defended his record and became an outspoken conservative as the Cold War expanded, especially in the People's Republic of Austria and the troubled multiple states such as the People's Republic of Bavaria after Germany had been "balkanized" with Soviet insistence.

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