No one is perfect and with the hindsight of history, it is a simple matter to question a commander’s battlefield decision or a president’s strategic direction. Given the unmistakable reality of human imperfection, some of history’s greatest figures can be defined by how they accepted their own imperfections and failures. Specifically, comparing Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s and General Dwight Eisenhower’s comments regarding some of their greatest battles, two very different pictures of these two leaders emerge with respect to responsibility.

Bernard Law MontgomeryMontgomery led the British Army during World War II. After the Allies invaded France in June 1944, one of Montgomery’s greatest operations was the planning and execution of Operation Market Garden. This complex operation combined Allied ground and airborne forces to secure key bridges and breakthrough into the German heartland. Operation Market Garden commenced on September 17, 1944 and terminated on September 25, 1944. Despite the gallant efforts of the soldiers employed to secure Market Garden’s objectives, the operation was not successful and the Allies suffered heavy losses.

Writing in 1958, Montgomery went into great detail about his views on the failure of Market Garden. In his memoirs,[1] he outlines four main factors contributing to the failure of Operation Market Garden. First, he notes that the “operation was not regarded at Supreme Headquarters as the spearhead of a major Allied movement.”[2] He continues to focus blame on the weather, German forces, and the effectiveness of the airborne drop.[3] A mere four lines over three pages documents any acceptance of responsibility for Market Garden’s failures by Montgomery.

eisenhower-and-d-dayContrast Montgomery’s statements regarding the failure of Operation Market Garden with General Dwight Eisenhower’s planned statements in the event the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings failed. As is forever memorialized in history, the landing of Allied forces in Normandy on this day represents the greatest maritime operation of all time. In twenty-four hours, nearly 175,000 soldiers were landed and Allied operations commenced in France.

By no means, however, were the results of the D-Day landings guaranteed. In fact, the actual landings had already been delayed a day due inclement weather in the English Channel and the progress by the end of June 6 were no where near what Allied planners had predicted. As in any endeavor, success was “up in the air.”

Eisenhower was well aware of this reality. In addition to authoring a message of encouragement to the troops who were about to deploy to Europe, Eisenhower drafted a second message to be released in case the D-Day landings failed. This short statement is very different than Montgomery’s comments on the failure of Operation Market Garden:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Harve area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attach at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

This short message, available on the National Archives’ website, is so striking as it contains no attempt to shift blame for the failure. Eisenhower did not blame the weather, enemy forces, the commitment of other Allied forces, or any other element affecting the invading Allied armies. As the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Eisenhower assumed all of the responsibility for failure on himself.

There are many facets to leadership and it is unfair to evaluation a leader on only a single element. However, Eisenhower’s ability to accept responsibility for his decisions paints a very different picture of a leader than Montgomery’s statements in his memoirs. Montgomery certainly deserves credit for what he accomplished as the commander of the British Army in North Africa and Europe throughout World War II. On the other hand, Eisenhower’s ability to accept responsibility illustrates his ability to get along well with others and highlights one of the many reasons he was named Supreme Allied Commander.

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[1] Montgomery, Bernard, The Memoirs of Field-Marshall Montgomery (Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company, 1958).

[2] Ibid., at 265.

[3] Ibid., at 266.