A Brief History
On September 4, 1944, the British 11th Armoured Division, part of the larger armies on the European continent commanded by Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, liberated the Belgian city of Antwerp, one more city liberated of the German oppressors by the victorious Allies, many of whom were ably led by the dashing Monty. Meanwhile, in the Pacific Theater of Operations, the Allied effort against Japan was split between Fleet Admiral Nimitz and General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur had been humiliated by being ousted from the Philippines in early 1942, but was well on the way to redeeming his stellar military career with victory after victory in the Pacific. Both of these famous generals have been the subject of criticism (see our previous articles, “10 Reasons People Have Called General Douglas MacArthur a ‘Jerk’” and “Top Ten Reasons Field Marshall Montgomery is Not so Great.”), and many of our readers have been quick to defend the honor of these fighting leaders, while others have taken serious shots at them. Today we take a look at the better sides of these 2 flamboyant and egocentric, though highly successful military men. Feel free to share your opinions of these 2 famous fighting men.
Montgomery always won.
Critics can complain all they want about Montgomery’s alleged slowness and deliberate moves (except Operation Market Garden), but the fact is the guy won time and again with boring consistency. Boring if you are the enemy, but quite satisfying if you are on his side! Both in the offensive and the defensive sides of battle, Montgomery was meticulous and demanded the same of his subordinates, which invariably resulted in victory. When Monty took over the sputtering British campaign in North Africa, the change in mood was palpable, with an almost immediate winning attitude instilled among the British troops. And they won.
MacArthur understood the Asian mind.
Sun Tzu tells us to “know your enemy,” and MacArthur was certainly in tune to the Japanese during World War II and to the Chinese and North Koreans during the Korean War. Mac knew the importance of taking back the Philippines as soon as possible, even if pure military strategy seemed to council bypassing those islands. The Filipino people expected American relief and were grateful when it came, greatly repairing Filipino-American relationships damaged by the early colonial struggles between the 2 nationalities. Additionally, MacArthur was a brilliant administrator of Japan after the end of World War II, allowing the Japanese to maintain “face” and to foster excellent relations between the former enemies of Japan and the US. In the Korean War, MacArthur was keenly aware that the North Koreans and their Chinese backers would see a stalemate as a mere pause in the longer war, and that only a resounding defeat would instill the sense of defeat upon the communists. His views may have been politically incorrect at the time, but history has proven that MacArthur knew exactly what he was talking about, and we are experiencing the protracted tension of an undefeated North Korea to this day.
Montgomery’s demand for professionalism instilled discipline and a winning attitude.
Monty may have been a bit conceited and maybe even “prissy,” but his impeccable appearance and professional bearing left no doubt in the minds of his peers and subordinates of what he expected of them. No smoking or even coughing in his meetings! The man was all business and never wavered with any moping about over stumbling blocks or extremely difficult tasks ahead. His confidence and competence was infectious, and his officers and men felt as if they could always win when led by Monty.
MacArthur’s Triumph at Inchon.
When the North Koreans overran almost all of South Korea, MacArthur mounted a bold move to strike the enemy deep in his rear area by mounting a surprise amphibious assault at Inchon well behind North Korean lines. Despite the quavering counsel of subordinates, MacArthur went ahead with the bold plan and enjoyed one of the greatest successes in US military history as all the American armed forces combined to pull off a devastating and incredibly effective amphibious assault under difficult conditions.
Montgomery was highly concerned about the welfare of his men.
Monty earned the love and respect of his troops because he obviously valued their lives. What other criticized as deliberate or overly cautious moves by Monty, he saw as taking great care with the lives of his men. Despite pressure to throw cannon fodder at the Germans to get quick results, Monty took great pains to minimize the number of casualties among his troops, something he deserves great credit for that many other “great” generals do no deserve. It is a crying shame more generals throughout history have not been similarly inclined.
MacArthur’s flamboyance and showmanship had a purpose.
Mac may have been somewhat of an egotistical sort, and he certainly knew how to dominate a scene with his presence, especially on camera. But all that showy stuff had a good reason, which was to effectively convey the idea that HE was the man in charge and that HE had the situation under control. His bombastic speeches were actually some of the most stirring by any general in history, including his “I shall return” promise and his “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away” speeches. These are just a couple examples of how MacArthur dominated the scene of wherever he was and left no doubt as to exactly whom was in charge while conveying confidence and competence to his subordinates. His Imperial demeanor and mannerisms served well in his capacity as administrator of post-war Japan, and the Japanese were quite amenable to Mac’s regal appearance and speeches. Effective leaders cannot appear weak or wishy washy, and MacArthur was neither.
MacArthur and Montgomery both had a keen sense of logistics and combined arms.
Both of these famous generals understood the complexities of logistics over long distances and under difficult conditions, a factor often more important in modern warfare than battlefield tactics. Both men, despite their famous egos, delegated authority in an effective manner to get the mechanisms of supply and support when and where it was needed. Both of these warlords were able commanders in combining the various aspects of modern warfare, including armor, mobile forces (trucks and the like), artillery and air support as well as the role of naval support of ground operations. Neither suffered from the myopia of their singular position as a ground commander, but understood and appreciated the other aspects of warfare on their commands.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite general in history? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Manchester, William. American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 – 1964. Back Bay Books, 2008.
Teague, Paul. Field Marshal Montgomery’s Professionalism and Its Effects on the Allied Campaigns. Koehler Books, 2019.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of General Bernard L. Montgomery watching his tanks move up in North Africa in November 1942, is a work of a U.S. military or Department of Defense employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.