'Monty' - a Royal Irish Appreciation

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General Montgomery reads the 'Packing List' for a 2 RUR Rifleman preparing for the D-Day landing, Operation OVERLORD. Rfn McCracken stands before him, wearing and carrying the contents of that list.

[This tribute was written by the late Major General H E N (Bala) Bredin and published in our Regimental Magazine, 'The Blackthorn', in 1978.]

As I write I have in front of me a letter which the Field Marshal wrote to me on 24 September 1958. In it he said 'They were great days in Palestine twenty years ago and the Royal Ulster Rifles were second to none in the operations we had to carry out against the Arabs at that time. I have always had a great affection for your Regiment and that has not diminished as the years go by.'

I believe that second sentence summed up the fact that he found by experience that good Irish infantry in general and the 2nd Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles in particular, because he saw so much of them, were amongst the elite weapons in his armoury.

It was in the Palestine troubles in 1938 and 1939 that Monty first found any part of the Regiment (2 RUR) under his command. Being an Irishman himself he was very much at home with our soldiers and was impressed and affectionately amused by their humour, their independence, and the way they got on with the job. He appeared to be impressed also by the young officers, two of whom, Charles Sweeney and Desmond Woods, became his ADCs later. During this period he also had the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Fusiliers under his command.

He often recalled an incident when his car got bogged down and soldiers of 2 RUR carried him across the floods to safety. Once when inspecting some soldiers he asked Rifleman 'Jimmy' Dempster whether he had ever been an NCO as he seemed an experienced soldier. The reply was, 'Yes, sir, five times, sir'. To Monty's query as to why he was not an NCO now Dempster replied 'Bust for drunk, sir'.

Those who heard Monty's farewell speech to the 2nd Battalion in Palestine when they were due to move to the Isle of Wight will never forget it. He made three main points in his usual crystal clear style. First he said that we could go home with our tails up because we had done a good job, 'and if anybody asks you why you've got your tails up, you can say I said so'.

Secondly, he said that he knew all about the area we were going to as he commanded the brigade there and knew the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth well. And he said that if we wanted to know who was going to win the FA Cup for that year (it was February 1939) he could tell us for certain that 'Pompey will win the cup this year'. And they did. Thirdly, he said we should all enjoy our leave when we got home as much as possible because when we got back from leave we must forget much of what we had learned in Palestine and 'get down to learning very quickly - very quickly because you haven't much time - how to fight Germans'. And we all know now what good advice that was.

In the autumn of that year the 2nd Battalion RUR went off to France as part of the 3rd Division whose commander was now Monty. We caught glimpses of him during the Dunkirk campaign. He knew most of our officers by name and many of our sergeants and his brisk 'Hullo, what are you doing here' when he visited forward elements of the rearguard at tricky moments in the withdrawal was a marvellous tonic and made one feel that this was just a bigger and better training exercise.

At this time Charles Sweeney was his ADC, later to become one of Monty's famous Liaison Officers, and sadly to be killed on the last day of the war escorting a German admiral. Monty's appreciation and obituary on Charles Sweeney is a most moving piece of writing.

No battalions of the Regiment were in the Western Desert with Monty but when he got to Tunisia he found 38 (Irish) Brigade which consisted of the 6th Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion The London Irish Rifles and 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Fusiliers.

I can not find on record that he visited them* during the Sicily or early Italian campaigns though I am sure he did. He certainly visited the battalions of 2 Parachute Brigade in Tunisia before the Sicilian campaign and took a great interest in the many Irish soldiers serving there. At the point in Monty's address to the 4th Parachute Battalion where he said 'Where do the best soldiers come from?' an old ex-Faugh soldier remarked audibly in an unmistakable Irish voice 'All the best soldiers is dead'. He had a long and friendly talk with the Field Marshal after the address.

IWM H 38645In North West Europe he had both regular battalions of the Royal Ulster Rifles serving under his command. He continued to take the greatest interest in their fortunes and even involved himself in the personal problems of the officers. As his letter quoted at the start of this appreciation shows, his affections did not diminish as the years went by.

[Above left, General Sir Bernard Montgomery standing on the bonnet of a jeep speaking to troops of 2 RUR, after carrying out an inspection of the battalion near Portsmouth in the run-up to D-Day.(© IWM (H 38645).]

He understood so well the particular spirit and relationship between officers and soldiers that prevails in a good Irish Regiment. Besides believing implicitly that no soldier can prosper without the old fashioned virtues of duty, loyalty and courage he was deeply religious.

In particular he liked the young. He could forgive a young officer or lance corporal most things as long as their misdemeanours were not dishonest or in bad taste. If you were over the age of 25 you were expected to know better and could expect little mercy.

The young (and when I was 21 he was 50) listened to what he said, watched what he did, and examined events to see whether he stuck to what he had said. He told us the plain and unvarnished unpalatable home truths and he never deviated or did what would now be called U-turns. As a result he gained the complete confidence of the young because he gained our trust as an honest man. He made us feel equal to any task - 'if you do what I say, nothing can stop you, nothing at all - nothing'.

I feel there may be a moral in this for anyone aspiring to leadership in our country today.

H E N B (1976)

IWM H38644[Right: General Sir Bernard Montgomery talking to Company Sergeant Major Kelly during a visit to 2 RUR on 19 May 1944, at Droxford, Hampshire in the run-up to D-Day (Image © IWM H38644). He arrived at 1100 hours, addressed the Battalion (image above) and, following lunch in the Officers Mess, departed at 1415 hours. The length of this visit by the General demonstrated his readiness to visit The Royal Ulster Rifles in particular. During the Retreat to Dunkirk in 1940, his reply when asked if a sector of his defence line would hold, was 'It's all right, the Rifles are there'.]

*
[Montgomery did visit the 2nd Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers on the slopes of Mount Etna, Sicily.]