Montgomery, Air Power, and the Battle of the Mareth Line

[Cross-posted from Thoughts on Military History]

Is it not always the case that once you have written something and it has gone to the publishers that you find something that would have added tot he depth of the piece in question. Well that is what happened this past Thursday when I was doing some research at the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives. In my ever expanding quest to uncover information about the career of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory I was looking through the papers of Field Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke. In particular I was looking at the correspondence from Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery, which is particularly illuminating. Montgomery kept up a constant demi-official correspondence with Brooke who was very much his patron throughout the Second World War. In this correspondence he is very forthright in his views on certain issues, and the correspondence from the Normandy Campaign has some interesting insights into the air problem. However, I also found some interesting comments relating to the Battle of the Mareth Line and issues relating to the command set-up for Operation HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily.

Letter from Montgomery to Brooke, 15 April 1943

The more one considers the Mareth battle, and the Gabes gap battle on the Akarit the more one realizes what amazing victories they were. You have to see the ground to understand this. They were terribly strong positions. How the N.Z. Div. and 1 Armd. Div. got through S.W. of El Hamma on 26 March is amazing; you would think it was impossible; it was the closest integration between the air and land battles. We lost 4000 casualties all told in the Mareth battle.

His comment on the geography of the battle is very interesting as the Gabes Gap acted as a funnel through which the New Zealand Division and 1st Armoured passed. This was facilitated by direct air support provided by the Western Desert Air Force, which launched and ‘Air Blitz’ because the geography created too many problems for the artillery. This was a unique part of the battle as air power had not been used in this manner up until this point in the campaign.

The second interesting piece comes from a letter five days later when Montgomery writes:

12. Another point is the air problem. Eighth Army and Western Desert Air Force is a magnificent fighting machine. Even our enemies admit this; see the official Italian Report on the Mareth Battle. But it has now been decided that Park of Malta will be my AOC for the initial party. They propose in fact to split up this fighting machine which I have spent months creating, and introduce new personalities and untried methods. Our present methods have been proved in battle; complete confidence exists between the staff and the two HQ. We are an amazing people.

I would like to see this Italian Report. There must be a copy in the National Archives. So I shall have to go digging. The other issue is one of the command set-up for HUSKY. The changes in the higher command of air power that occurred in early 1943 was an important development and had important implications for future operations. Indeed the framework created in North Africa would be transported to OVERLORD in the guise of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, commanded by Leigh-Mallory. The problem here is that Montgomery does not agree with the imposition of an air commander who he does not know. He would have preferred Harry Broadhurst whom he had built up and effective working relationship over the previous months. Indeed on 28 December 1943 he wrote to Brooke asking to ensure he was brought back to North-West Europe for Overlord:

Do you think you could ask Portal to bring Broadhurst home for the party; his great knowledge of fighters and fighter-bombers would be invaluable.

During Normandy Montgomery would avoid coordinating with Arthur Coningham whom he had long since lost respect for, though this was reciprocal, and he would rely on Broadhurst, who was technically Miles Dempsey‘s opposite number. For example, he wrote to Brooke on 27 June 1944 that:

5. My main anxiety these days is the possibility that we should not get the full value from our great air power because of jealousness and friction among the air “barons”. The real “nigger in the woodpile” is Mary Conningham; I know him well and he is a bad man, not genuine, and terribly jealous. There is constant friction between him and L-M. L-M does not know much about it; but he is a very genuine chap and will do anything he can to help win the war; he has not got a good staff and he fiddles about himself with a lot of detail he ought to leave alone; but he does play the game.

Of course here we see some of the internal issues that plagued Leigh-Mallory’s command of AEAF and his relationship with some of his key subordinates. While it can not always be claimed that Montgomery was always straightforward in what he wrote after the war his writing’s to Brooke on the ‘Air Problem’ make for interesting reading.

By Ross Mahoney

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