‘Hello, Monty. Glad to see you.’ The Governor of Gibraltar, Rusty Eastwood, held out his hand as the car door opened and a distinctive black beret became visible.
‘Hello, Rusty. How are you?’ A thin-faced man with a trim moustache stepped out of the car and was quickly ushered out of sight.
But not quite quickly enough. The governor’s visitor was seen by a Nazi spy who happened to be visiting the colonial secretary at that very moment. ‘Surely that cannot be Field Marshal Montgomery?’ the spy asked.
The colonial secretary looked embarrassed and tried to hide the fact that the hero of the famous 1942 Second Battle of El Alamein was in Gibraltar. It was supposed to be a secret that Montgomery was not in the North African desert.
It was 26 May 1944. The allied invasion of Europe was about to begin. As soon as the spy left, he phoned Berlin to tell them that something was about to happen in the Mediterranean region of Gibraltar.
Based on this military intelligence, the Nazis quickly diverted troops to repel the expected southern landing in the Mediterranean.
But it never happened.
The spy had been tricked by one of the biggest hoaxes of the war. He hadn’t seen any top British generals. Instead, he’d been fooled by the Australian actor Clifton James impersonating Field Marshal Montgomery. The allies did not want the Nazis to know that they were actually planning to land on the beaches of Normandy (the event known as ‘D-Day’), a very long way from Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Sea, so they devised an elaborate deception.
Like Clifton James, Bernard Law Montgomery (‘Monty’) had an Australian upbringing. His father had been appointed Bishop of Tasmania in 1889 and Monty had spent over a decade there. Perhaps his time in Australia gave him a unique understanding of the Australian forces in the Middle East. He swapped his Field Marshal’s cap for an Aussie slouch hat when he arrived in the desert, then changed to the black beret for which he became famous.
The moment he arrived to take command in the desert before the Battle of El Alamein, he made his determination and his orders very clear: ‘I have cancelled the plan for withdrawal,’ he told his officers. ‘If we are attacked, then there will be no retreat. If we cannot stay here alive, then we will stay here dead.’
One of the things that made Monty stand out to people as different from other officers was his Christian faith. He read two Bible chapters daily. One journalist wrote after El Alamein:
This was total war, waged with more weight, power and concentration than the Nazi war machine ever had encountered and directed by a master of total war – a man who said his prayers in his desert tent night and morning and quoted the Bible to his troops to make them better fighters.
Monty’s wife said in a booklet published in 1945:
I wonder how many of my readers have been brought up to learn a verse from the Bible every day? I was … and as a consequence know nearly all the Psalms and … New Testament by heart. And I brought my children up to learn a verse from the Bible every morning before breakfast. It may be that Field Marshal Montgomery’s knowledge and love of the Bible starts from this fact. As is well known, the two books he carries with him are the Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress.
The Bible was a constant source of encouragement and a moral compass for Montgomery in his vital leadership role. Like Joshua, who had commanded the desert troops of Israel over three thousand years before, Monty knew the importance of being single-minded and wholehearted. God had told Joshua, ‘Do not fear … be strong and courageous!’
Within a week of Monty’s arrival, the atmosphere of defeat changed to hope. The Second Battle of El Alamein became the first decisive major allied victory. At a time when high-ranking officers tended to issue orders from well behind the front lines, Monty’s personal appearances among his troops greatly encouraged and heartened them.
Written by Annie Hamilton.