Meeting Montgomery

“Your driver failed to pick up my flight crew on time and delayed my departure," Montgomery barked. "I want the man court-martialed and reduced in rank.”

As a U.S. Army draftee, I’d been assigned to "SHAPE Headquarters": in the autumn of 1957, serving as chauffeur for Air Vice Marshal Hector McGregor of the Royal Air Force. The hours were long, but he considered my needs and respected my service. I enjoyed the privilege of meeting famous generals and even a United States president—Dwight Eisenhower. I knew several general officers and enjoyed a mutual respect with some. One notable exception was "Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery":

Each evening about 5:00, Montgomery strutted from the Chief of Staff’s entrance to his waiting limousine. His driver opened the rear door and saluted. The big car then cruised past a group of drivers standing near their staff cars, waiting to pick up VIP passengers. Everyone snapped to attention and saluted when the famous warrior—who’d chased General Rommel across North Africa—passed by.

About a year later, Montgomery made a trip to England, and a driver friend of mine was ordered to pick up the field marshal’s flight crew at a Paris hotel and take them to Orly Field. The hotel was almost impossible to locate in a maze of one-way streets. He searched frantically for an hour before finding it. Despite his best efforts, the flight crew arrived at Orly a half-hour late.

The airplane wasn’t ready to depart when Montgomery boarded, and he became furious and berated the crew. The pilot explained that their driver had been late in picking them up. That didn’t mollify the big man. He placed an in-flight call to the colonel in charge of American troops supporting the headquarters.

“Your driver failed to pick up my flight crew on time and delayed my departure," Montgomery barked. "I want the man court-martialed and reduced in rank.”

The colonel gave the only acceptable answer: “Yes, sir.”

The driver, a career soldier, was convicted of failure to perform his duty by a U.S. Army court, despite lack of any evidence of intent on his part. He was reduced in rank from specialist to PFC.

As a specialist, he had the right for his wife to accompany him on a foreign assignment, and she was in the process of joining him in France. A PFC was not eligible to bring his family. My friend was devastated when her authorization was canceled, and he served another year in Paris, separated from her.

Our group of drivers got the word and reacted to the injustice, starting the next day. We watched Montgomery climb into his limousine and pull away from the entrance. When he approached the drivers, we scrambled into vehicles to avoid saluting the tyrant. We repeated this performance every evening for the six months I remained at SHAPE.

Field Marshal Montgomery always stared straight ahead when he passed our display of disrespect. He never gave me the satisfaction of seeing him acknowledge our protest of his abuse of power.


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