"I made the soldiers partners with me in the battle. I always told them what I was going to do and what I wanted them to do. I think the soldiers felt that they mattered, that they belonged."
In August 1942 Lt. General Bernard Montgomery took command of the British 8th Army in North Africa. After a series of military catastrophes, administrative fiascoes and leadership disasters, Churchill had insisted that its Commander, General Auchinleck, be dismissed and replaced by General Gott. Soon afterwards, Gott died when the air transport carrying him on leave was shot down by German Fighters. Montgomery was appointed to replace him.
Here are selections from his address to senior officers of the demoralized 8th Army on 13 August 1942:
"I want first of all to introduce myself to you. You do not know me. I do not know you. But we have got to work together. Therefore we must understand each other and we must have confidence in each other. I have only been here a few hours. But from what I have seen and heard since I arrived I am prepared to say, here and now, that I have confidence in you. We will then work together as a team. And together we will gain the confidence of this great Army and go forward to final victory in Africa.
I believe that one of the first duties of a commander is to create what I call 'atmosphere', and in that atmosphere his staff, subordinate commanders, and troops will live and work and fight.
I do not like the general atmosphere I find here. It is an atmosphere of doubt, of looking back to select the next place to withdraw, of loss of confidence in our ability to defeat Rommel, of desperate defense measures by reserves in preparing positions in Cairo and the Delta.
All that must cease. Let us have a new atmosphere.
...Here we will stand and fight; there will be no further withdrawal. I have ordered that all plans and instructions dealing with further withdrawal are to be burned, and at once. We will stand and fight here. If we can't stay here alive, then let us stay here dead.
...Our mandate from the Prime Minister is to destroy the Axis forces in North Africa. I have seen it, written on half a sheet of note paper. And it will be done. If anyone here thinks it can't be done, let him go at once. I don't want any doubters in this party. It can be done, and it will be done, beyond any possibility of doubt.
Now I understand that Rommel is expected to attack at any moment. Excellent. Let him attack.
I would sooner it didn't come for a week, just to give me time to sort things out. If we have two weeks to prepare we will be sitting pretty. Rommel can attack as soon as he likes after that and I hope he does.
Meanwhile, we ourselves will start to plan a great offensive. It will be the beginning of a campaign which will hit Rommel and his Army right out of Africa.
...I have no intention of launching our great attack until weare completely ready. There will be pressure from many quarters to attack soon. I will not attack until we are ready and you can rest assured on that point.
...I understand there has been a great deal of 'belly-aching' out here. By 'belly-aching' I mean inventing poor reasons for not doing what one has been told to do. All this will stop at once.
If anyone objects to doing what he is told then he can get out and at once. I want that made very clear right down through the Eighth Army.
What I have done is to get over to you the atmosphere in which we will now work and fight. You must see that that atmosphere permeates right down through the Eighth Army to the most junior private soldier. All the soldiers must know what is wanted. When they see it coming to pass there will be a surge of confidence throughout the Army. I ask you to give me your confidence and to have faith that what I have said will come to pass
...The Chief-of-Staff will be issuing orders on many points very shortly and I am always available to be consulted by the senior officers of the staff. The great point to remember is that we are going to finish with this chap Rommel once and for all. It will be quite easy. There is no doubt about it."
Matching his words with actions, Montgomery rapidly restored the energies and skills of the people in his command. Inevitably, many senior officers resented this revolution. Some were dismissed for incompetence or failure to obey orders.
The changes he demanded were finally vindicated at the Battle of Alamein, beginning 23 October 1942 and lasting twelve days. Large German and Italian armies led by General Irwin Rommell were defeated. Six months later all Axis forces had been removed from North Africa. Between Alamein and the end of World War II the 8th Army never lost a battle.
Major Sir William Mather commented on Montgomery:
"Soon after his arrival at the Eighth Army HQ we all started to call him 'Master'. He walked up and down just like Napoleon with his hands behind his back for three days. Then he went into his caravan and wrote out what was really the order of battle for the battle of Alamein on fourteen pages of foolscap note paper. There was very little change thereafter. He expounded exactly how the battle would take place. What amazed all of us was that it was so easy to remember what he said. It was so clear. And it all happened."