Book Review: The Yishuv’s unlikely guardian angel

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery twice played a central role in protecting the Jewish community in Palestine in the pre-state years.

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (center right) arrives in Cairo following his victory in the battle of El Alamein in 1942. (photo credit: BRITISH INFORMATION SERVICES)
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (center right) arrives in Cairo following his victory in the battle of El Alamein in 1942.
Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery was the outstanding British military commander of World War II and Britain’s greatest general since the Duke of Wellington. And his victory in the Battle of Normandy in 1944 dwarfed Wellington’s crowning triumph at Waterloo, in 1815.
Montgomery has been out of fashion with both British and American historians in recent generations.
US military historians cannot forgive him for not being American and having vastly superior combat command records than their heroes Eisenhower and Bradley. British writers cannot forgive him for despising his fellow British generals as stupid, amateur, useless losers, though in this he was almost entirely correct.
Montgomery was given his unfashionable due in historian Nigel Hamilton’s giant, three- volume biography published from 1981 to 1986. It remains the definitive work on Montgomery and one of the most detailed and authoritative military biographies ever published in the English language.
Monty’s Men by John Buckley, professor of military history at the University of Wolverhampton, England, is a solid, worthy, and well-written reminder of Montgomery’s achievements. In fact, the much despised (especially by British writers) combat record of the British Army in Europe, in 1944-45, was outstanding.
They played the key role in preventing the fearsome Wehrmacht, at full army group strength, from smashing the enormously outnumbered Allied bridgeheads after D-Day, kept the Germans off-balance and unable to organize any coherent attack of their own, and ground down their infantry and tank forces, opening the way for US General George S. Patton’s far more famous dash across northern France.
By the end of the war, Montgomery’s army, together with the (eventually far larger) US Army, had utterly destroyed in Western Europe the most formidable fighting force since the Mongols of Genghis Khan, at a total cost to the British of 30,000 dead and 100,000 injured. This was only a small fraction of the two million dead, wounded and missing, suffered by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig’s legions fighting over the same battleground in World War I.
The British under Montgomery were vastly superior to the Nazis in their artillery concentration and devastating tactical air-ground support, both crucial sectors of land war ignored by British and American romantic theorists of tank “dashes” and “blitzkriegs” then and now. Unlike Eisenhower and Bradley at the Battle of the Bulge, Montgomery was never taken by surprise and even his one failure, the drive to Arnhem in September 1944, cost only a fraction of the casualties Bradley, Hodge and Patton suffered in their fruitless winter 1944 campaigns.
In addition to these stunning achievements, Israelis have never woken up to the crucial fact that Montgomery twice played a central, critical role in protecting the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine in the pre-state years. Firstly, he saved them from massacre by suppressing the 1936-39 Arab uprising, the first true intifada. Then he rescued them from total genocidal extermination by annihilating the Nazi drive to conquer the entire Middle East at the Battle of Alamein, in November 1942.
His second achievement is, of course, much better known. Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein over Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the legendary “Desert Fox,” made him at the time the most popular and famous Allied general in the world. In 1942, when his Afrika Korps was still riding high, Rommel did not object to the deployment of an Einsatzgruppe – a special genocidal mass killing squad – in the rear of his army to wipe out the Jewish community of Palestine once the Nazis got there.
Montgomery’s previous crucial intervention in Jewish history is less well known (Buckley makes no mention of it) but almost as important. As a major general he was the military commander of northern Palestine in 1938-39 in the service of the British mandatory power, and played a decisive role, skillfully and ruthlessly using the reinforcements with which he was provided in crushing the Arab revolt.
Popular credit for this is given to that romantic captain (later major general), Orde Wingate. Wingate’s legendary Special Night Squads (SNS) gave early frontline military experience to some of Israel’s greatest generals, most notably Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon. Dayan later famously said, “Every leader of the Israeli army even today is a disciple of Wingate.”
However, the impact of the SNS on the uprising was marginal at best. Also, Montgomery, who had originally authorized the SNS, told Dayan in 1966 that he considered Wingate to have “been mentally unbalanced and that the best thing he ever did was to get killed in a plane crash.” (Field Marshal Bill Slim, Britain’s 14th Army commander in Burma, where Wingate was killed, concurred with Montgomery’s opinion.) After World War II, Montgomery, as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, notoriously tried and failed to crush the guerrilla campaigns of the Irgun and the Lehi. He wrongly expected and predicted that the Yishuv would catastrophically lose the War of Independence and he offered similar dire and false prophecies of Israeli defeat before the 1956 and 1967 wars.
Yet Monty was no anti-Semite. One of the closest and happiest friendships of his later years was with the famous Anglo-Jewish journalist Bernard Levin. He was a humane and generous protector of the hundreds of thousands of Nazi concentration camp victims liberated by his forces.
Buckley’s book breaks little new ground but revives Monty’s many unjustly forgotten achievements and explains how they were won. It is a most valuable addition to World War II historiography and to the memory and record of a great and admirable man.