In Monty’s Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe, John Buckley offers a radical reappraisal of Great Britain’s fighting forces during World War Two, challenging the common belief that the British Army was no match for the forces of Hitler’s Germany. Following Britain’s military commanders and troops across the battlefields of Europe, from D-Day to VE-Day, from the Normandy beaches to Arnhem and the Rhine, and, ultimately, to the Baltic, Buckley’s provocative history demonstrates that the British Army was more than a match for the vaunted Nazi war machine.
In this extract from the introduction to Monty’s Men, Buckley sets the scene for the conclusion of the war in Western Europe. The imperious Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery receives the German surrender from Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg and the negotiations designed to reconstruct a shattered continent begin.
“At 8 A.M. on Saturday 5 May 1945 the British Army won its greatest victory of the Second World War, for on that day all the forces of the Third Reich confronting it in Northern Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark surrendered. In the space of a little less than a year, since 6 June 1944, the British and their Allies had driven the much feared and lauded German Army back from the beaches of Normandy, across France, through the Low Countries and into Germany itself. By May 1945 the British had reached the Baltic and captured Hamburg, the largest port in the disintegrating Third Reich, while American armies had struck deep into Central Germany and Austria and linked up with Soviet troops advancing from the East. Hitler was dead, the German government was in hapless disarray and the destruction of the Third Reich was all but complete.
For Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, commander-in-chief of 21st Army Group to which British troops in Northwest Europe had been allotted, this was the finest moment of his career, the validation of his philosophy and approach to command and leadership. Over the previous few days he had driven the one-sided negotiations with the Germans completely in the direction he desired, and was now intent on maximising the impact of the signing of the document of surrender in front of the press and camera at 6 p.m. on 4 May. Monty was never a man to miss an opportunity to self-publicise, and certainly not the moment when the German Army was going to surrender, particularly as that capitulation would be to him and not to his rival American colleagues, Eisenhower, Bradley or Patton. Now firmly established in Northern Germany, Montgomery had set up his HQ on Lüneburg Heath, within sight of the town’s two church spires and nestled against the nearby forest. When the German delegation first arrived on 3 May, led by Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg and General Hans Kinzel, they received a frosty reception from Montgomery. After initially keeping them waiting, when he did emerge from his caravan he had changed from his usual sweater and cords into a battledress and beret. One officer on the 21st Army Group staff recorded that Monty spoke to them as if they were vacuum-cleaner salesmen and snapped, ‘What do you want?’ He became terser still when it emerged that the delegation was merely attempting to buy more time for German civilians and troops to flee westwards from the advancing Red Army. Montgomery made a big show of their desperate state and demanded that unconditional surrender of all German forces facing 21st Army Group was the only realistic option: ‘No alternative . . . Finish!’ he barked at them. For Montgomery there was nothing to negotiate about and therefore he made little use of his intelligence officer and translator, Colonel Joe Ewart. Such a demonstration reduced Friedeburg, head of the German Navy, to tears and he left Lüneburg Heath later that day to consult with his seniors. He returned the following afternoon on 4 May to sign the document prepared by the British, the terms and conditions of which had been broadly cleared by General Eisenhower, Monty’s superior at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF).
Montgomery relished every moment of this denouement and few had seen the Field Marshal so upbeat and jocular. Bristling with confidence that the deal would be done, he held an unusually lively press conference at 5 p.m. to update the media representatives, during which he was informed that the Germans had returned as expected. Montgomery finished his briefing and then, standing outside his tent with the Union flad fluttering above, met the German delegation. First he received Friedeburg in his caravan to ensure that the Germans were willing to comply with the conditions demanded, after which, and with RAF fighters roaring overhead to emphasise Allied supremacy to the subdued Germans, he and the signatories moved to a prepared tent for the coup de grâce. Montgomery peremptorily instructed the Germans what to do and where to sit, glowering at one who took out a cigarette; the man in question quickly put the offending article away. Then, in front of the press and the BBC microphones, and with the rain pattering against the canvas roofing above, Monty, wearing his tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses, read out the Instrument of Surrender, prompted the Germans to sign it, and then did likewise on behalf of Eisenhower. Curiously, Montgomery initially dated the document incorrectly and had to scribble out the date and amend it; he nevertheless retained the version sent only Photostats to Eisenhower, despite being asked to send the original. Someone looking for a souvenir snaffled the pen used to sign the surrender. After the ceremony Montgomery sighed, relaxed, took off his glasses and said: ‘That concludes the surrender.’ This was met by an eruption of cheers from the British troops outside the tent, surreptitiously alerted by a confident inside. The war for the British Army and its Allies in 21st Army Group would come to an end at 0800 on 5 May….”