Montgomery and the ‘Defence’ of the West

Hidden in the depths of the archives of the Ministry of Defence is an interesting memorandum that was sent by Field-Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery to the British Chiefs of Staff not long after he became Chairman of the Western Union’s Commanders-in-Chief Committee. The memo lamented the parlous state of the newly established NATO alliance’s defensive preparations in Continental Europe and warned that the West was ‘drifting to disaster’ if nothing was done to alleviate the situation. Dated 30 March 1950, three months before the outbreak of the Korean War, the document reveals in candid detail the private thoughts of an international soldier, a Cold Warrior, during an uneasy period of international tension when the world’s gaze fixated on the cockpit of the Cold War in Europe.

‘Today, the prospects for the future… are gloomy’ the memo began, in that forthright manner so typical of Montgomery. ‘If responsible Ministers knew the true facts they would have cause for the gravest anxiety. If the peoples of Western Europe, and the Press, knew the true facts the results would be catastrophic’. Clearly, not all was well on the Western Front. The problem, Montgomery believed, was a lack of effective mechanisms for joint defence. This was due in large part, he argued, because HM Government was reluctant to state its intentions with regards to European defence. Indeed, the major strategic debates that raged throughout Whitehall during this period centred on the question of what level of military commitment, if any, Britain should make to Continental defence. Britain had agreed to deploy token land and air forces in Germany with the signing of the NATO treaty in 1949 (with, of course, a number of get-out clauses) but, in essence, this was a hollow commitment to protect the peoples of Western Europe if the Red Army rolled across the intra-German border, and had the more politically shrewd intentions of keeping the Americans in Europe, the French happy, and the Germans down.

This was not lost on Montgomery: ‘Europe still waits to know what the British intend to do and, not being able to find out, she assumes they do not mean business’. What the Chairman wanted was a firm commitment from British Ministers that they would dispatch reinforcements if the Cold War heated up. Yet, this would cost money, a commodity in short supply, and it would take more than the pleas of a mere soldier, however decorated and respected, to loosen the Treasury’s grip on the public purse. There were also sound strategic reasons that would make it difficult to dispatch troops to a beleaguered Europe if World War III commenced (see the post on plan SPEEDWAY), but these were by no means insurmountable; the proverbial money talked, and strategic sense walked in 1950s Britain. Ultimately, nobody knew what would happen if the Kremlin ordered its armies to march to the Channel. As Montgomery succinctly puts it in the memo, ‘we have a paper plan. But it is of no practical value and is completely inoperable’.

To make matters worse, the French Army, long seen as being the hard core of the West’s land forces, was in disarray. Here, Montgomery saved his most cutting remarks. The French Army, he stated, still operated on the outdated concept of the levee en masse,was riddled with corruption, possessed senior officers that were completely ignorant about the conduct of modern warfare, and had a training organisation that ‘would be laughable, if it were not pathetic’. Not until a ‘national figure with knowledge, experience and prestige is placed in charge of it’ did Montgomery believe the French Army would ever improve. For those reasons, Montgomery made the bold suggestion that the Alliance’s only hope was to raise national German armed forces. Of course, this did eventually come about five years later, but in 1950 this was unthinkable. If anything, this illustrates how dire the situation really was.

I think this document illustrates the mismatch between official British government policy vis-à-vis European defence in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the military reality on the ground. During this period national resources for defence, rightly or wrongly, were channelled into the development of an independent nuclear deterrent. Conventional forces contracted considerably and deterrence, not defence, became the cornerstone of British defence policy. Thankfully, Montgomery need not have worried, for the Russians never did put to the test the defensive preparations of the West. Yet, I certainly, like Montgomery, would not have liked to be sat in Brussels if they had.

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