Monday, 30 April 2018

Bernard Montgomery: An Insufferable Field Marshal

There can be no doubt that Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (1887-1976) was one of Britain’s greatest ever military commanders, but it is also beyond dispute that he was one of the most difficult people to work with, a view that was certainly held by his American counterparts during World War II, namely George Patton and Dwight D Eisenhower. Montgomery described himself as being “tiresome” and the epithet seems entirely apt.

Before World War II

Montgomery did not come from a typical British officer class background, being the son of an Anglican bishop who was reasonably well-off but by no means rich. At Sandhurst (the Royal Military Academy) Montgomery was the “odd one out”, especially as he was not afraid of questioning opinions with which he did not agree. Being both middle-class and independent-minded were not the best qualities for a career as an officer in the British army prior to World War I.

During the 1914-18 war, Montgomery served with distinction and was lucky to escape with his life after being shot in the chest by a sniper.
Between the wars he attended the Army’s Staff College at Camberley, firstly as a pupil and later as a teacher of army tactics. He used this pause from active service to very good effect, as he had been horrified by the tactics that had been practiced during World War I and was convinced that there had to be a better way of fighting wars in the 20th century. In particular, he deplored the “gung-ho” tactic of attacking en masse with a superior force that was bound to suffer a high casualty rate even if it won the encounter. Instead, he preferred to reconnoitre the enemy and identify his weaknesses before attacking where he was most vulnerable.

Egypt and El Alamein

In August 1942 Lieutenant General Montgomery was sent to Egypt to take command of the British Eighth Army, which was threatened by the progress of Rommel’s Afrika Corps as it advanced across North Africa. Montgomery did two things that were different from what had gone before. He coordinated the forces under his command, namely those on the ground and in the air, and he made himself known among his troops, which boosted their morale and led to them being intensely loyal to him. He knew that soldiers who trusted their commanders were far more likely to be victorious, and regarded high troop morale as “the most important single factor in war”.

On one occasion he was about to step into a tank when a soldier suggested that his broad-brimmed hat would get caught on the hatch and offered him a standard black beret in its place. Montgomery was for ever after proud to wear a soldier’s beret, on which he placed the badge of the Royal Tank Regiment alongside his officer’s badge.

The victory of the Eighth Army (together with the Australian 9th Division) at El Alamein was largely due to Montgomery’s superior tactics and his use of military intelligence (including decrypted German radio transmissions) to second-guess his opponent. He also tried to work out what Rommel’s tactics would be by understanding how the German commander’s mind worked. His ability to get inside the head of his opponent was one of Montgomery’s greatest strengths.
However, it has to be admitted that this victory, which many people (including Churchill) came to regard as the turning point in the War, went somewhat to Montgomery’s head, as he came to believe that only he had the right ideas about how the campaign should proceed from that point. In particular he had a low opinion of the efforts made by the American forces under George Patton, whom he despised and mistrusted (the feelings were entirely mutual on Patton’s part).

The Italian Campaign

The next phase of the war was the invasion of Sicily, as the first step in the long Italian campaign. This was to be an allied attack, involving both British and American forces, but Montgomery was keen to ensure that the main credit for victory would go to him. Patton, for his part, had little time for Montgomery, whom he regarded as being arrogant, brusque and standoffish, and in this assessment he was not wrong. Patton could also not stand Montgomery's tactic of meticulously planning every move, at one point calling him a "timid little fart".
When the Americans captured Palermo, which Montgomery had wanted to do, the latter was highly annoyed. He agreed to meet Patton at Palermo and Montgomery planned to fly there in an American Flying Fortress that he had won in a bet. Patton gave an evasive answer when Montgomery asked if the runway at Palermo would be long enough to land such a plane and it turned out that it was not. Montgomery was lucky to escape unscathed when the Fortress ran off the runway and was wrecked. He had no doubt who to blame for this incident.

The Invasion of Europe

During the invasion of mainland Europe that started with the D-Day landings in June 1944, Montgomery was again conscious of the need to be one step ahead of the Americans. What Montgomery most resented was the fact that Eisenhower was the Allied Supreme Commander and therefore his boss. Montgomery had been promoted to the rank of Field Marshal, which was not a rank used in the American army, and Montgomery assumed that this gave him overall permanent command of the ground forces in Europe, both British and American, which had been the case only on a temporary basis when the invasion was being launched.
Relationships between the two men continued to be fraught, with Eisenhower on several occasions having to appease Montgomery by letting him have his way in tactical matters. Sometimes this was a wise move, but not always.
For example, Patton wanted to advance against Germany via a southern route whereas Montgomery preferred a northern approach through the Netherlands. Eisenhower gave in to Montgomery, but the resulting campaign (Operation Market Garden) was, for once in Montgomery’s glittering career, a dismal failure.
As it happened, the Germans made things much easier for the allies by attempting a counter-attack through the Ardennes Forest not far from where the bulk of the American forces under Patton were stationed. The Americans turned the situation to their advantage and forced the Germans back. However, Montgomery was later to claim far more credit for this victory than he was entitled to do, British forces having only played a minor part in the Ardennes campaign. Not surprisingly, this attitude infuriated the Americans.
Montgomery now wished to claim the ultimate accolade of capturing Berlin itself, as did Patton, but Eisenhower decided that it would be politically expedient for that honour to fall to the Soviet forces that were advancing from the East. No doubt he reckoned that for either man to have been able to claim that particular credit would have made them even more insufferable than they already were.

After the War

Patton died after a road traffic accident in Germany not long after the war ended, but Montgomery lived on into old age, dying in 1976 at the age of 88. His post-war work included helping to create NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that has done much to preserve peace in Europe and the wider world. 

“Monty” never lost his popularity with the British people, and made a number of appearances in television documentaries (etc) in his later years, in which he was always keen to praise the bravery and devotion of the troops under his command while also making sure that credit went where it was due. 

Bernard Montgomery had a remarkable talent for winning battles and planning campaigns, but along with that went the character flaws that made him a very difficult person to get along with, especially with regard to the military and political hierarchy. Winston Churchill, who had to be persuaded to appoint Montgomery to command of the Eighth Army prior to El Alamein, was famously quoted as saying of him: “In defeat, unbeatable; in victory, unbearable.”
© John Welford

Friday, 27 April 2018

Ndabaningi Sithole: one of the fathers of Zimbabwean independence

Men of the cloth do not often feature in struggles for black liberation or emancipation, although notable examples were Dr Martin Luther King and Rev Jesse Jackson in the United States. In Zimbabwe, Ndabaningi Sithole was such a man. A gifted orator, Ndabaningi Sithole was the brains behind the foundation of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) in 1963.
He was born on 21st July 1920 in the village of Nyamandlovu in Matabeleland (western Zimbabwe), but he was an Ndau by descent, the Ndau being one of the minority ethnic groups in Zimbabwe, found mostly to the south-east of the country. His early years were not easy because his father distrusted education and would not support his son’s endeavours to gain a good educational grounding. Blessed with immense intellectual abilities, young Ndabaningi defied his father and started to pursue his education through missionary schools just as most Zimbabwean revolutionaries did. He attended Dadaya School under the tutelage of Garfield Todd, a white New Zealander who was to become Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia from 1953 to 1958. 
His determination to be educated led to him gaining a National Junior Certificate and eventually a BA degree from the University of South Africa by private study. He returned to Dadaya School as a teacher, and in 1947 led a short protest strike in support of several girl students whom he believed had been punished in a degrading manner by Garfield Todd.
Sithole became a Christian and was uncertain for some time whether to pursue a career as a teacher or in the Church. In 1953 he was accepted by the American Board Mission and spent three years in the United States before returning to Rhodesia to become head of a primary school and to be ordained as a Methodist minister. His interest in politics arose when he became president of the African Teachers Association and wrote a short book with the title “African Nationalism”, which was published in 1959. Although he advocated a moderate and peaceful approach to reform, such views were dangerous in a country that was governed by the minority white population.
He soon realised that politics were his vocation and joined the National Democratic Party, led by Joshua Nkomo, in 1960. He soon reached a position of influence within the party and was forced to resign his teaching post, becoming a full-time time politician from that point on. The Government’s response to black nationalism was to become more authoritarian, proscribing the NDP as a criminal organisation in December 1962, but a new organization, the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) was declared very soon afterwards.
However, all was not well in the leadership of ZAPU, and Sithole and others split from Nkomo in July 1963. The new party was called the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), its leaders including, besides Sithole, Herbert Chitepo, Robert Mugabe, Edgar Tekere and Enos Nkala. In 1964 both ZANU and ZAPU were banned and many nationalists, including Sithole, were placed in detention camps. Sithole was detained for five years, after which he was arrested on a charge of plotting to assassinate the Prime Minister, Ian Smith, and sentenced to six years in jail. The evidence rested on a letter that Sithole was supposed to have written, but he always maintained that it was a forgery, stating at his trial: “I wish publicly to dissociate my name in thought, word and deed from any subversive activities, from any terrorist activities, and from any form of violence.”
On his release in 1974, Sithole lived in exile in Zambia with other ZANU leaders, one of whom, Herbert Chitepo, was killed by a car bomb in March 1975, an occurrence that led to the emergence of Robert Mugabe as the leader of ZANU with a more militant approach than that advocated by Sithole. Even before this event, Sithole had lost a vote of no confidence in his leadership, but Mugabe was still in prison at the time. ZANU split along tribal lines, with the Ndebele joining Sithole in ZANU-Ndonga and the Shona following Mugabe in his ZANU-PF (Patriotic Front).
Sithole’s moderate approach led to him being part of the four-man executive council to govern “Zimbabwe Rhodesia” under the “Internal Settlement” of 1978, in conjunction with Ian Smith, Bishop Abel Muzorewa and Chief Jeremiah Chirau. He also took part in the Lancaster House Agreement of December 1979 that was designed to reach a settlement for black majority rule that would be agreed by all the parties and recognised internationally. 
However, the militants in ZANU and ZAPU, who had been engaged in guerrilla-war tactics against the Smith government, were distrustful of Sithole for his presumed sell-out to the whites, and, although Mugabe had signed the Agreement, the solution was clearly not to his liking, involving as it did a guaranteed presence of white members in the new Parliament. Having failed to win a seat in the Parliament elected in 1980, and fearing for his life, Sithole left for the United States in 1983, where he stayed until 1992. 
At the age of 75 he attempted a political comeback by being elected to the Zimbabwe Parliament in 1995. The following year he stood against Mugabe in the election for president, but only gained 37,000 votes as against the 1.4 million won by Mugabe. However, he had withdrawn from the election before polling took place, his name remaining on the ballot, because he claimed that the election was being unfairly managed. Accusations of election rigging have been levelled at Robert Mugabe ever since, and with good reason. 
In 1997 Sithole was arrested, tried and convicted on a charge of attempting to assassinate Robert Mugabe, and he was also ejected from his parliamentary seat. As his appeal was never heard, it must remain technically uncertain whether there was any truth in the allegation, although the likelihood of the charge being entirely fictitious must be high, given the characters of the people involved. 
In June 2000, Sithole’s ZANU-Ndonga won his seat yet again. However, by this time Sithole himself was seriously ill and he left Zimbabwe for medical treatment soon afterwards. He died in hospital in Pennsylvania on 12 December 2000 at the age of 80.
Ndabaningi Sithole will always be seen as an important figure in the history of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle. Had he been able to prevail against the stronger and less principled Robert Mugabe, there is every possibility that much of the misery suffered by the people of Zimbabwe in more recent years might have been avoided.

© John Welford

Monday, 2 April 2018

Mary Seacole: the forgotten "Florence Nightingale"

Mary Seacole is now being given proper recognition for her contribution to nursing and the welfare of soldiers during the Crimean War. Everyone has heard of Florence Nightingale, the "lady with the lamp", but nothing like as much fame has fallen on the shoulders of Mary Seacole, although this oversight is at last being corrected.

Mary Seacole – her early life

Mary was born in 1805 as Mary Jane Grant, in Kingston, Jamaica. Her father was a Scottish soldier, and her mixed-race mother ran a boarding house for British army officers. This lady had a smattering of nursing knowledge, as well as being well versed in the use of herbal medicines, skills which she passed on to her daughter.

Little is known of Mary's early life, although she visited London in the 1820s, and in 1836 she was married to Edwin Horatio Seacole, one of her mother's house-guests, but he died within a few years.

Mary ran the boarding house with her sister for some time, and also practised as a nurse, both in Jamaica and Panama, where she went to help her brother in running his hotel there.

The Crimean War

In 1854 the Crimean War broke out, with Britain and France in conflict with Russia, most of the hostilities being carried out near the shores of the Black Sea. The miseries suffered by the troops were partly the result of incompetence on the part of the generals and politicians, and partly due to the remoteness from Britain of the theatre of war. This was the first time that the British army had been called upon to fight so far from home or friendly territory.

Mary Seacole sailed to Britain with the intention of volunteering for Florence Nightingale's nursing corps. Whether it was the colour of her skin or her lowly social status that was the issue is a matter for debate, but the fact remains that her office of service was turned down.

Undaunted, she set sail for the Crimea at her own expense, arriving at Balaclava in February 1855. With a business partner, she did exactly what she had done back in Jamaica, and opened a boarding house that acquired the name "The British Hotel". From this base she offered a range of comforts for the troops, both officers and serving men.

Being independent, and not constrained by the authority of Florence Nightingale's official nursing corps, she was free to roam almost as widely as she wanted, and she became a familiar sight as she moved among the fighting men with her mules, taking them food, wine and medical supplies. She clearly did this work at considerable physical risk to herself, as she tended the wounded and dying while the fighting was still in progress.

On 9th September she obtained permission to accompany the army as it took control of Sebastopol, and was the first woman to enter the city.

After the War

In 1856 the war ended, leaving Mary Seacole with no customers at the British Hotel, but plenty of unsold stock and unpaid bills. She therefore returned to Britain in financial difficulties, especially as her venture to open an establishment at Aldershot, where much of the British army was based, came to nothing.

The Crimean War produced several remarkable people, one of them being William Howard Russell of The Times, who could claim to be the world's first modern war reporter (it was his account of the Charge of the Light Brigade that brought the true horror home to the British public). Russell was fully aware of Mary Seacole's activities in the Crimea, and his reports helped to win support for her financially. Queen Victoria came to know of her deeds, and gave her blessing to a "Seacole Fund" that recognised Mary's achievements and gave her some financial stability in her later years.

She was prompted to tell her own story, which she did in an autobiography entitled "The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands", which became something of a bestseller.

She died in 1881, in London, at the age of 76. However, after her death she faded from public memory and it is only in relatively recent times that her contributions to nursing and field care have been given their proper due.

In 2004, she was voted in an online poll as the greatest ever black Briton.

Following a 12-year fundraising campaign, in June 2016 a statue of Mary Seacole by Martin Jennings was unveiled in the grounds of St Thomas’s Hospital in London, looking over the Thames towards the Houses of Parliament. This is the first statue ever erected in the UK in honour of a black woman.

© John Welford