The Leadership Journeys of George Patton, Bernard Montgomery, and Erwin Rommelby Lloyd Clark
From an acclaimed military historian, the interlocking lives of three of the most important and consequential generals in World War II
From an acclaimed military historian, the interlocking lives of three of the most important and consequential generals in World War II
Born in the two decades prior to World War I, George Patton, Bernard Montgomery, and Erwin Rommel became among the most recognized and successful military leaders of the 20th century. However, as acclaimed military historian Lloyd Clark reveals in his penetrating and insightful braided chronicle of their lives, they charted very different, often interrupted, paths to their ultimate leadership positions commanding hundreds of thousands of troops during World War II and celebrated as heroes in the United States, Britain, and Germany.
Patton was born into a military family and from an early age felt he was destined for glory; following a disjointed childhood, Montgomery found purpose and direction in a military academy; Rommel’s father was a former officer, so his pursuit of a military career was logical. Having ascended to the middle ranks, each faced battle for the first time in World War I, a searing experience that greatly influenced their future approach to war and leadership. When war broke out again in 1939, Montgomery and Rommel were immediately engaged, while Patton chafed until the U.S. joined the Allies in 1942 and the three men, by then generals, collided in North Africa in 1943, and then again, climactically, in France after D-Day in 1944.
Weaving letters, diary extracts, official reports, and other documents into his original narrative, recounting dramatic battles as they developed on the ground and at headquarters, Clark also explores the controversies that swirled around Patton, Montgomery, and Rommel throughout their careers, sometimes threatening to derail them. Ultimately, however, their unique abilities to bridge the space between leader and led cemented their legendary reputations.
“In The Commanders, Mr. Clark fixes his focus on the intersection of personality and military leadership through the prism of three individualists. Details such as teaching styles, sense of theater and interactions with soldiers create wonderful three-dimensional models of the war’s iconic leaders.”—Jonathan W. Jordan, Wall Street Journal
“A fascinating group portrait of three of WWII’s most innovative and illustrious generals . . . Brimming with incisive character sketches and strategic analysis, this is a captivating study of leadership in action.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Engaging . . . Military history buffs and those wanting to learn about leadership and management styles from three important men of the 20th century will likely eagerly consume this tremendous work.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“A veteran military historian delves into the leadership qualities of three iconic World War II commanders . . . Astute and entertaining.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Utterly fascinating. Lloyd Clark demonstrates his deep and wide-ranging knowledge in this compelling new look at three of the most iconic commanders of World War II. With genuinely fresh insights, immense wisdom and thought-provoking analysis, this is a superb account of these three men, divided by different nationalities but with uncanny similarities in ambition, character and motivation.”—James Holland, author of Normandy ’44 and Brothers in Arms
“Lloyd Clark continues his run of first-class military history with this insightful investigation of the best three generals from each of the major armies on the Western Front in the Second World War. This treble-biography highlights both the interaction of these commanders with each other, and where they stood in the constantly shifting command structure of their own sides. It’s intensely readable, well-researched and stuffed full of leadership lessons for the modern day, plus the intense rivalry of Monty and Patton is one of the great stories of the war, and has never been told better.”—Andrew Roberts, author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny
“Lloyd Clark is a skillful raconteur weaving together the military biographies of three of WWII’s crucial commanders. Through new scholarship and expert analysis, Clark provides a fresh look at these men and their leadership that changed history. Fast-paced, vivid, and compelling, the book belongs in the hands of anyone interested in the importance of leadership in the midst of conflict.”—Patrick K. O’Donnell, bestselling author of Dog Company and The Indispensables
“Provides a good battlefield view of a crucial phase of World War II . . . More than earlier studies, like Alistair Horne’s To Lose a Battle, Clark focuses not on generals and premiers but on the voices and experiences of the soldiers involved.”—New York Times Book Review
“A particularly successful synergy of correspondence and interviews, archival material from four countries, and the massive body of published literature . . . Lloyd Clark—a prolific military historian and a master of sources—makes a strong case for an alternative perspective . . . Emphasizes operational and tactical evidence to persuasively argue that the 1940 campaign was decided not by tanks and dive-bombers alone, but through an updating of German military experience infused, but not dominated, by technology.”—World War II Magazine
“Paints a very different look at the German victory . . . Clark does an excellent job of describing the first critical five days of the campaign . . . A well-balanced narrative that highlights the knife-edge victory of the German forces.”—New York Journal of Books
“A masterly account teeming with vivid personalities and the usual mixture of heroism, incompetence, and luck . . . Clark provides plenty of juicy details and a mildly controversial reinterpretation.”—Kirkus Reviews
“This genuinely revisionist account of the Battle of France in 1940 proves a deeply shocking fact—we are essentially still in thrall to the view of Blitzkrieg tactics that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels wanted us to have, even over three-quarters of a century later . . . Clark is excellent at showing the interaction between decisions taken by staffs and the terrifying reality on the ground, and elevates the vital contributions of a number of German generals . . . Above all, this fine military historian satisfactorily answers for the first time the key question: Why did Blitzkrieg tactics work so effectively in May 1940 when the Allies had already seen the way they’d ripped through Poland’s defences a full nine months earlier?”—Andrew Roberts, New York Times bestselling author of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War and Napoleon: A Life
“A breakthrough book, bringing the drama of Hitler’s May 1940 offensive in France vividly to life—alongside a major re-appraisal of the campaign’s significance. Excellent.”—Michael Jones, author of After Hitler and Total War
“A lucid, intelligent and thought-provoking re-appraisal of a campaign never satisfactorily covered since Alastair Horne’s To Lose a Battle in 1969. His groundbreaking detailed research will make it the seminal work on the fall of France in 1940. The story of the break-through unfolds at a fascinating and cracking pace. His revisionist re-interpretation of an oft studied campaign skillfully interweaves tensions at staff with the brutal realities their decisions had on the ground. Blitzkrieg is a remarkable book that will reshape many of the traditional assertions made about this battle.”—Robert Kershaw, author of 24 Hours at the Somme, 24 Hours at Waterloo, and It Never Snows in September
Excerpted from The Commanders © 2022 by Lloyd Clark. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
Towards the end of his long and distinguished life I visited Field Marshal The Lord Bramall at his home in Hampshire. Although he was over ninety years of age, I found that Dwin, as he insisted I call him, had lost none of his passion for discussing military affairs and, in particular, leadership. His precise and persuasive arguments that morning about what he felt made an effective leader drew heavily from a career which began leading a 35-man platoon in Normandy on 8 June 1944 and ended forty years later as Chief of the Defence Staff, the professional head of the British Armed Forces. As the field marshal plunged deep into history to illustrate the importance of apt leadership styles and why it is vital to win trust, I began to understand more why he was one of the most accomplished military leaders Britain has ever produced.
Dwin deployed an argument as deftly as a general might manoeuvre his principle fighting division, as he expounded on the enduring nature of leadership across the millennia, referencing Bernard Montgomery heavily during our conversation. ‘Monty could be an exceptional leader,’ he explained, ‘with a great talent for putting his message across and getting things done how he wanted – but could also be extremely difficult.’
There was no doubt that Dwin admired much about Montgomery. The field marshal presented a young Lieutenant Bramall with the ribbon for a Military Cross awarded for his leadership in October 1944, when he cleared a German post with grenades and his Sten gun. Before Bramall met the great man at the presentation, one of Montgomery’s aides had given him some advice: ‘The Field Marshal will ask you whether you and he have ever met before. He will not mind if you say “Yes” or “No”, but he will mind if you say you can’t remember.’ Dwin chuckled at the memory, shaking his head.
As our discussion progressed, Dwin became keen to discuss what he termed ‘the privilege of responsibility’. Whether leading a small team in combat to seize tactically important ground, or clashing with Whitehall mandarins over the implications of budget cuts, ‘the personal sense of responsibility,’ Dwin expounded, ‘does not feel different and nor does the sense that one is extremely fortunate to be faced with such challenges and looked to by others for a way forward.’
Taking a pause to gather his thoughts but looking me straight in the eye, he continued: ‘It does not matter what one’s appointment is or the tests that one faces, leadership is essential. Leadership underpins everything the Army does and involves everybody. Success is always founded on good leadership while with failure the opposite is very often true. It is vital, absolutely vital, to find a way to inspire men to do the mundane as well as the extraordinary. Yes, inspire is the correct word – inspire and motivate.’ The field marshal then explained how he, and those who inspired him, encouraged men to follow. He emphasized his belief that the methods and style adopted by an individual leader have to take account of many variables if they are to be successful.
Academics David Day and John Antonakis concur, having written that leadership is shaped by ‘the leader’s dispositional characteristics and behaviours, follower perceptions and attributions of the leader, and the context in which the influencing process occurs’. Yet while obvious attributes such as moral courage, decisiveness and calmness under pressure are essential for leader effectiveness, it is leadership skills – such as the ability to communicate, empathize and create an esprit de corps – which will make a leader potent. Successful military leaders therefore need to possess both intra and inter personal skills if their leadership is to work, and this requires constant attention to the art of leading and constant attention to how they might improve their abilities. As Harry S. Laver and Jeffrey J. Matthews note in The Art of Command, a study of nine commanders from George Washington to Colin Powell: ‘Their careers demonstrate that the quality of one’s leadership ability develops over years, even decades. None of them began their careers in the military as exceptional leaders. They did, however, have the good fortune to serve under effective mentors, and, more significantly, each had the good sense to learn from the examples set by these role models.’
With each new role, every advance in rank and each new context, it is particularly important that officers and soldiers think again about their leadership and what is demanded of them. While an army will do what it can to prepare individuals for the next stage in their career (for traditionally armies grow their own leaders), self-development remains indispensable because there is always a need to translate organizational training and education into something that reflects the leader as an individual. Even if enlisted soldiers make up by far the greater proportion of an army, finding time to improve one’s leadership is particularly important to officers because they dominate command appointments in which they have legal responsibility for the ‘direction, coordination and control of military forces’. Leadership is an indispensable constituent of command – which makes its own heavy demands on an individual’s professional and personal competencies – but no matter what role or context an officer happens to be working in, proficient leadership drives military effectiveness, for as the ancient Greek writer Herodotus wrote nearly two and a half thousand years ago, ‘Circumstances rule men; men do not rule circumstances.’ In being recognized as the personification of an army’s values, standards and leadership philosophy, a leader not only creates a positive local climate but helps to reinforce the healthy organizational culture upon which the army’s fighting power depends. It is a poorly advised army, therefore, that does not take heed of Jörg Muth’s assertion in his book Command Culture that ‘troops fight the way they are led’ and, ultimately, fighting is what an army exists to do.
During our discussion about military culture, Dwin Bramall began to speak with great knowledge about the impact of three particular leaders: George Patton, Bernard Montgomery and Erwin Rommel. Born between 1885 and 1891, they came into the world at the height of an industrial revolution which powered the Age of Empire in Europe and the Gilded Age in the United States, and fuelled the First World War. All three officers participated in the 1914–18 cataclysm, and like millions of others, the field marshal emphasized, were so affected by their wartime experiences that it became a fundamental influence on their lives. Yet neither Patton, Montgomery nor Rommel were dissuaded by the carnage from seeking military careers when the guns finally fell silent, and in time the army became their great passion. Each became wholly dedicated to the profession of arms and, being exceptional officers and leaders, they prospered. Yet despite the broad similarities between the three men, there were marked differences in their approaches to leadership due to the individuality bestowed on them by their genes, upbringing, life experience and relationships. Together, these stimuli created three unique personalities – which, in turn, determined each man’s leadership style.
During our discussion about the complex and nuanced web of what makes one man willingly follow another, the field marshal suggested that I use the lives of Patton, Montgomery and Rommel to reveal ‘the short steps on the long journey of leadership’. The result is this book, which seeks, through the eyes of a military historian, to explore the many and various influences that shaped Patton, Montgomery and Rommel as men, as soldiers and, principally, as leaders. It will chart their leadership development through war and peace and through good times and bad. It is a military biography of three officers, viewed through the prism of leadership as they became among the most prominent officers in their armies and, eventually, in early 1943, all fought in Tunisia. North Africa, however, did not mark the end of the leadership odyssey for Patton, Montgomery or Rommel; it instead acted as a waypoint on the route to a final confrontation in northern Europe, at the end of which, two of these remarkable men would be dead.