Sunday, December 20, 2009

By Terry Brighton
Crown, $30, 426 pages, illus.

A warrior of ancient Greece, Chabrias, is credited with the aphorism, “An army of deer led by a lion is more to be feared than an army of lions led by a deer.”

British military historian Terry Brighton has written a biographical triptych of three of World War II’s most colorful commanders, none of whom could ever be called a deer. At one level the book is an extended essay on what constitutes military leadership. A secondary theme is a question: How did the victorious Allies overcome the constant feuding at the highest levels of command?

George Patton was born into a wealthy California family with strong roots in the Confederacy and a strong sense of place. A brother would recall that Patton learned, “through Papa’s genteel expressions of ingrained bigotry, that the Pattons and their Anglo-Saxon Protestant kind were better than other people.”

Bernard Montgomery was the strong-willed son of an official of a religious foundation. As a boy he showed no special interest in the military, but he entered the British West Point, Sandhurst, at the age of 19. There he was a loner — a young man who did not smoke, drink or have any apparent interest in girls.

Erwin Rommel was a schoolmaster’s son who showed no special aptitude for his studies. He became fascinated with gliders, however, and a job at the local Zeppelin works somehow led him to enlist in the army. Thus, among Mr. Brighton’s three protagonists, only Patton could be said to have been bred to the military life.

All three soldiers distinguished themselves in World War I, and all three were wounded. Rommel made a name for himself in both France and Italy, winning the Blue Max — Germany’s highest decoration — for aggressive action against the Italians. Patton’s arrival in France coincided with that of the tank, and the American became an early apostle of armored warfare. Yet the war may have had the greatest effect on Montgomery, who was so seriously wounded in 1915 that he was relegated to staff duty for the remainder of the war. In Mr. Brighton’s words, “Colonel Montgomery was the only one of the three to have witnessed the slaughter at the Somme and at Passchendaele.”

In the period between the wars, Patton and Rommel sought means to restore movement to the battlefield, primarily through armor. When World War II came, Rommel worked his way into Hitler’s favor and was given command of an armored division in Germany’s crushing victory over France in 1940. At the same time, Monty won praise for the manner in which he handled his division in the British retreat to Dunkirk. In America, the well-to-do Patton fretted at the possibility that he might be sent to London as a military attache.

“If we go to London,” he told his wife, “it stands to reason that one or both of [our daughters] will marry an Englishman. Englishmen are the most attractive bastards in the world, and they always need all the money they can lay their hands on.”

As the war progressed, it was Rommel who first made a name. Placed in command of an armored corps, Rommel was sent to North Africa to help Italy defend its colonies there. But Rommel was never an apostle of the defensive; he outfought one British army after another and came to be known as the Desert Fox. Hitler made him a field marshal, and the British worried that the eastward advance of his Afrika Korps represented a threat to the Suez Canal.

In August 1942 a desperate Churchill made Montgomery commander of the Eighth Army in Egypt. His reward was the battle of El Alamein in which the Eighth Army turned back Rommel’s fuel-starved, outnumbered Afrika Korps. It was the type of set-piece battle at which Monty excelled, the odds were greatly in his favor (he knew every detail of the German order of battle from decoded radio intercepts) , and he prevailed in one of the decisive battles of the war. But Rommel was unimpressed, writing, “The British commander showed himself to be overcautious. He risked nothing in any way doubtful and bold solutions were completely foreign to him.”

Once North Africa was secure, the momentum of the war shifted and the Allies could turn their attention to Italy and to an invasion of the Continent. But relations between the senior Americans and their British counterparts were rarely harmonious. Mr. Brighton writes, “Deep beneath the political and military foundations of the Anglo-American alliance … the tectonic plate of one (declining) empire rubbed against that of another (emerging) power. This friction, felt throughout the officer class, found its most volatile expression whenever Monty and Patton were thrown together.”

Disagreement often masqueraded as strategic differences, but nothing could disguise the loathing between the abrasive, meticulous Montgomery and the profane, publicity-seeking Patton. A “lion” outside Mr. Brighton’s triumvirate, Dwight Eisenhower, gains new respect for his skill in managing such quarrelsome subordinates.

Rommel — perhaps the ablest of Mr. Brighton’s three warriors — discovered only belatedly that his Fuhrer was not the man he had believed him to be in 1940. The author’s pages describing the marshal’s forced suicide are among his most gripping.

Mr. Brighton has written an engaging prospective on World War II in Europe.

Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

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