The rivalry between Montgomery and Patton

The unofficial race for Messina

Bernard Montgomery and George Patton near Palermo, Sicily (Photo: : National Archives and Records Administration)

Bernard Montgomery and George Patton near Palermo, Sicily
(Photo: : National Archives and Records Administration)

Today’s newsletter is about a series of events that shaped the invasion of Sicily. A race between two strong-willed generals, George S. Patton (Read our earlier article – The wars of George S. Patton) and Bernard Law Montgomery, hindered collaboration among the Allies. In Sicily, they had to work together in the same operation, a hard task for two such egocentric leaders. In this article, we are going to take a look at how their decisions shaped the outcome of this very operation, for better or worse.

Montgomery and Patton with a map of Sicily (Photo: Naval Historical Foundation)
Montgomery and Patton with a map of Sicily
(Photo: Naval Historical Foundation)

Both figures fought in World War I, an event that profoundly shaped their future outlook on warfare and military leadership. The two commanders cooperated indirectly for the first time in North Africa in 1943, and would work together again in Sicily, and later still in France after D-Day in 1944. To understand the rivalry between them during World War II, we must take a quick look at their careers from the very beginning.

Bernard Law Montgomery (Photo: Maxwell Support Division)
Bernard Law Montgomery
(Photo: Maxwell Support Division)

Bernard Law Montgomery was a highly skilled British general who gained international recognition during World War II, but already had a significant service history before that. Prior to the war, he already served in India, World War I and the Irish War of Independence. In World War I, he fought at the Battle of Ypres, where he was shot through the lung by a sniper. His injury was so severe that they even dug him a grave, but he made full recovery and served as a staff officer for the rest of the war. His new position allowed him to observe the thinking of British generals of the time and became critical of their strategic approach and willingness to accept high casualties.

Captain Montgomery (right) with Brigadier-General J. W. Sandilands during World War I (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Captain Montgomery (right) with Brigadier-General J. W. Sandilands during World War I (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Upon completing his studies at the Staff College, Montgomery was promoted to brigade major (the chief of staff of a brigade in the British Army) of the 17th Infantry Brigade in January 1921. He was sent to County Cork in southern Ireland, where he participated in counter-insurgency efforts against Irish freedom fighters during the late days of the Irish War of Independence. He believed that the war couldn't be won without harsh tactics, but also that granting Ireland self-governance was the only way to achieve permanent peace.
 
His experiences in World War I gave him the caution which he was known for during World War II. Nicknamed ”Monty” or the ”Spartan General” for forgoing comfort and preferring the same simplicity of quarters his soldiers also had, he always prioritized the safety of his men over victories through losses. His approach was slow and methodical; partially because he did not want to suffer the consequences of poor planning and hasty decisions he saw during World War I, but also because he knew the United Kingdom’s limited manpower meant the nation could not afford heavy casualties. He was stubborn and unwilling to attack if he did not see it as necessary, even if Churchill urged him to do so.

Montgomery in North Africa (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Montgomery in North Africa
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Nevertheless, Montgomery had already earned his fame leading the British 8th Army and stopping the advance of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in North Africa (Read our earlier article – The accomplishments and legacy of the Desert Fox). Despite his reputation as a difficult person, he was well-liked and respected by his subordinates. While some critics question his abilities as a commander, it is undeniable that his methodical tactics were effective.

George S. Patton (Photo: War History Online)
George S. Patton
(Photo: War History Online)

George S. Patton became an action-focused leader during World War I while serving as a personal aide to General John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force. He carefully studied German command style and military literature and later led a tank brigade in the war. He received recognition in the form of the Distinguished Service Medal and a Purple Heart. In the years between the wars, he dedicated much of his time to improving the armored warfare capabilities of the U.S. Army. He wanted to prevent a repetition of the massive casualties suffered in World War I and believed tanks would be the solution. He saw tanks as a superior form of cavalry, with unparalleled strength and the ability to break through enemy defenses.

Patton planning as a major general (Photo: U.S. Army)
Patton planning as a major general
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Patton was known as a soldier’s soldier with an unconventional personal style, effective tactics and speed. One example of his ability to get things done despite difficulties was the way he took a demoralized American force after its defeat at the Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia and turned it into a capable and victorious fighting force by pushing the men hard and also rewarding them for their successes. While Montgomery’s attitude was all about caution and safety, George S. Patton followed a much more aggressive approach to warfare, which was the main difference in their leadership styles. While Montgomery’s military approach was slow and methodical; Patton's was characterized by his emphasis on relentless, energetic advance. He believed in a ceaseless drive; he once said: “My motto in battle is GO FORWARD!”

The Sicilian campaign was the first time these two Allied generals had to directly cooperate in the same area of operations: Montgomery was leading the British 8th and Patton the U.S. 7th Army. These two armies were selected to conquer Sicily, but it was not yet known how the two leaders would be able to cooperate with each other. They both had very strong ideas on what to do and they both had a very unique and different personality and leadership style. In Sicily, General Harold Alexander, the superior of both, lacked a firm grasp on these two individuals, which resulted in a lack of unity.

General Harold Alexander and Montgomery during the campaign in North Africa (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
General Harold Alexander and Montgomery during the campaign in North Africa
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The amphibious landing launched on July 10 was successful and Montgomery landed the next day. His report to General Alexander came across as rather arrogant: “Everything going well here… No need for you to come here unless you wish.” Patton also landed that morning, and, ignoring his superiors' orders, started to push inland instead of clearing out a remaining pocket of resistance. Later that day, he noted in his diary “This is the first day in this campaign that I think I earned my pay.”

Troops unloading supplies from landing craft on the first day of the invasion of Sicily (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Troops unloading supplies from landing craft on the first day of the invasion of Sicily (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

On July 12, with no further orders from Alexander, Montgomery devised his own strategy. Due to the mountainous terrain, only a few roads were accessible. He proposed moving north to divide the island and capture Messina, an important objective in the northeast of Sicily. The port of Messina served as the main transit point between Sicily and the mainland of Italy. It was a crucial target during the campaign as the loss of Messina would isolate Axis forces and disrupt their access to supplies and reinforcements. However, the terrain surrounding Messina was difficult, with narrow beaches and strong fortifications around the city.

Map of the Allied advance across Sicily (Photo: U.S. Army Center of Military History)
Map of the Allied advance across Sicily
(Photo: U.S. Army Center of Military History)

Meanwhile, Montgomery’s plans called for Patton's army to move north parallel to his and defend it against attacks from the west. When Montgomery received no response, he moved his troops to the northbound highway.  Patton was already using that route, but now found it blocked by British troops. Alexander approved a new boundary to divide the area between the two armies that forced the Americans off their planned route, pressuring Patton to return to the coast and take a different road.

Alexander's decision to give Route 124 to Montgomery was driven by the fear of repeating the American defeat in the Battle of Kasserine Pass in February. Montgomery criticized the American soldiers for not being able to fight due to lack of confidence in their generals. Adding to the issue of anti-American prejudice was the fact that Alexander, despite his commanding appearance, was weak in his command skills and was not capable of effectively leading the campaign. He lacked a solid plan and was unable to control his subordinates whose personal rivalry led to a situation where they pushed for divisive and conflicting maneuvers. Patton expressed dissatisfaction with the decision in his diary; „[Sir Harold Alexander and his staff] gave us the future plan of operations, which cuts us off from any possibility of taking Messina. It is noteworthy that Alexander, the Allied commander of a British and American Army, had no Americans with him. What fools we are.”

Sicilian peasant telling an American officer which way the Germans had gone (Photo: Robert Capa, International Center of Photography)
Sicilian peasant telling an American officer which way the Germans had gone
(Photo: Robert Capa, International Center of Photography)

The boundary change let Montgomery’s British 8th Army take Route 124 which Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley’s U.S. II Corps originally planned to use to reach Messina. Patton was bristling at the decision, as he felt that his supporting role to protect the 8th Army’s left flank wasn’t utilizing his resources well enough. He was also visited and scolded by Eisenhower for a recent friendly fire incident which probably added fuel to his fire and on July 14, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Knowing that Montgomery ran into fierce resistance, he convinced the ever-swayable Alexander to split the American forces in two, with one clearing western Sicily and the other capturing the town of Termini on the north coast. Alexander agreed, but only on the condition that Patton’s movements must not leave the 8th Army’s flank unprotected. Patton, however, kept his true intentions hidden from him and directed the western force towards Palermo, the capital of Sicily – technically in western Sicily, but some 20 miles (32 km) further west than what Alexander had in mind. When the other force reached Termini, Patton ordered them to turn east and beat Montgomery to Messina.

Patton advancing toward Messina, trying to beat Montgomery (Photo: National Archives & Records Administration)
Patton advancing toward Messina, trying to beat Montgomery
(Photo: National Archives & Records Administration)

The split-up between American and British forces meant that Patton and Montgomery engaged in separate battles on the island. Monty progressed steadily along the east coast while Patton executed an unexpectedly quick left turn to reach Palermo and then wheeled around and continued to Messina along the northern coast. Patton visited Montgomery and Alexander after the fall of Palermo and was angry about the way he was treated. According to his diary, he wasn’t upset about the discussion but rather the circumstances; “I made the error of hurrying to meet him. He hurried a little too, but I started it.” He also resented the cheap cigar lighter he got from Montgomery as a gift, and the fact that he did not even get lunch. A few days later, when Montgomery visited Patton, the latter showed his resentment by only sending his aide to meet him at the airfield. To Patton's surprise, the meeting took a dramatic turn when Montgomery, instead of being hurt, he offered him to take Messina.

Montgomery visiting Patton at Palermo (Photo: United States Army Signal Corps)
Montgomery visiting Patton at Palermo
(Photo: United States Army Signal Corps)

Mount Etna proved to be difficult to take because of the fierce German resistance, which greatly benefited from the rocky, mountainous terrain. Despite his wish to capture Messina, Montgomery placed a lower priority on the race compared to Patton and was willing to forfeit it if it meant reducing casualties and securing a more prominent role in the future invasion of Italy.

Patton remained suspicious of Montgomery's intentions and was determined to get to Messina first. He instructed Bradley to prioritize speed over avoiding casualties. On his way eastward to Messina along the island’s northern coast, 7th Army ran into heavy Axis resistance. Patton launched a series of “end runs”: smaller amphibious assaults that landed behind enemy lines, catching the defenders between the main American force in their front and the freshly landed units behind their backs. The later landings at Anzio on the Italian mainland
(Read our earlier article – Anzio: “a vain-glorious blunder”) was a fundamentally similar idea, only executed on a far larger scale and with far worse results. Through his relentless push, Patton emerged victorious at 10 a.m. on August 17 when he finally entered Messina, with artillery shells from the Italian mainland still exploding nearby. The first British units, consisting of a commando force and the 4th Armoured Brigade, arrived about half an hour later. Upon encountering the American troops in the main square, Brigadier J. C. Currie of the 4th Armoured Brigade saluted Patton and exclaimed, "General, it was a jolly good race. I congratulate you."

Allied soldiers looking at mainland Italy from Messina (Photo: IMS Vintage Photos)
Allied soldiers looking at mainland Italy from Messina
(Photo: IMS Vintage Photos)

Despite getting to Messina first, Patton’s most famous (or rather, infamous) moment in the Sicilian campaign was not about beating the Germans but rather two of his own hospitalized soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), commonly called “battle fatigue” at the time, and then sending them back to the front. Patton suffered serious public and media backlash, and General Eisenhower, who was Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in the North African Theater of Operations at the time, relieved him. Following the capture of Messina in August 1943, Patton spent 11 months without a combat command. He was eventually given command of the U.S. Third Army, and participated in the Battle of Normandy.

Patton and Eisenhower in 1945 (Photo: public domain)
Patton and Eisenhower in 1945
(Photo: public domain)

The tension between Patton and Montgomery played a major role in the outcome of the Sicily campaign. While Montgomery's military strategy was sound and may have reduced casualties, his poor interpersonal skills often caused friction, particularly with Patton who was quick to react emotionally. One positive outcome was the restoration of the American forces' reputation after the defeat at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. Their successful conquest of the mountainous and well-defended island of Sicily helped rebuild the tattered prestige of American forces and demonstrated that the American military had successfully learned the lessons of North Africa. Montgomery expressed admiration for U.S. troops after their performance in Sicily, writing in his diary: “Their troops are quite first class and I have a very great admiration for the way they fight.” Even Patton’s and Montgomery’s adversary in Africa, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, recognized American skill; “In Tunisia the Americans had to pay a stiff price for their experience, but it brought rich dividends… The Americans, it is fair to say, profited far more than the British from their experience in Africa, thus confirming the axiom that education is easier than re-education.” The relationship between Patton and Montgomery might have been frayed, but their ability to nevertheless achieve results in a difficult campaign is proof of their skills as commanders.

Two British soldiers chatting with an American paratrooper in Avola, Sicily (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Two British soldiers chatting with an American paratrooper in Avola, Sicily
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Although Sicily has changed the way Montgomery looked at American troops, Alexander's prejudices remained. He and U.S Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall had a heated exchange at a meeting in early 1945, when Alexander spoke down to Marshall saying, "Of course your American troops are basically trained." Marshall, who had no fondness for Alexander, snapped back, "Yes, American troops start by making mistakes, but they learn and don't repeat them. British troops make the same mistakes repeatedly for a year." Churchill, who was present, quickly intervened to steer the conversation to a different topic.
 
If you would like to learn more about the Allied commanders who led the invasion of Sicily and the eventual liberation of Italy, you can do so on our Italian Campaign Tour.

Patton’s jeep in Sicily today (Photo: Author’s own)
Patton’s jeep in Sicily today
(Photo: Author’s own)
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