August 15, 1942
Lieutenant-General Bernard Law Montgomery was a worried man.
The document in front of him was a detailed plan for retreat. There were 24 pages. He had counted them twice. Yet despite his best efforts he could not find a strategy for winning.
The Spartan General fumed with indignation.
“Gentlemen, we are going to defeat Rommel.” His staff had listened with rapt attention. “And we are going to win this war because we have better machines and better men.”
But now he wondered how.
“Corporal, I am going to need a pot of tea and a sheaf of papers.”
Montgomery was a private man. However, like many great leaders, he enjoyed working to an audience.
“Benson, what do we know about Rommel?”
The corporal had been with Montgomery since Dunkirk and knew the man well.
“His father was a school master and apparently the man loves books.”
The Lieutenant-General unscrewed his fountain pen and began to write.
“Rommel is a student of Hannibal,” he muttered. “What do you know about Hannibal, Benson?”
“He had elephants, Sir.” The stocky corporal replied.
“Exactly,” he continued. “And Rommel has tanks.”
It was midnight before Montgomery finished. Carefully arranging his notes he took one last page and set it before him. At the top he wrote THE COST.
“Tell me Benson,” he turned to his valet. “Are you willing to die for your country?”
Frank Benson was not surprised by the question.
“For England, Sir?”
“Yes, for England.” His commanding officer stared at him with fixed eyes. “Would you be willing to die for England?
This was a game they had played before.
“I have a son, Governor,” he replied. “He’s in the paras.”
Montgomery continued to stare.
“If it meant that young Billy could live free from tyranny, then yes. I would willingly die for England.”
“Bravo,” The Lieutenant General replied.
Montgomery unrolled a map of the area and pointed to Ruweisat Ridge. “This is what Rommel wants,” he said. “It is the highest point and gives an uninterrupted view for thirty miles.”
He tapped the map with his finger.
“We must take the fight to him.”
Montgomery wrote furiously and then tossed the paper across his desk.
“We will lose two thousand men, a further ten thousand will be wounded and half our tanks and guns will be destroyed.”
“But will Rommel be defeated?” Benson asked.
“Yes.” Montgomery was emphatic. “There is only one question.”
“Will our soldiers fight knowing that there is a 14 percent chance they will be killed or seriously wounded?”
There was a long silence as each man considered the odds. Finally Benson spoke.
“Well they started it, Sir.”
Montgomery poured two glasses of sherry and handed one to his valet. It was a tradition they each enjoyed.
“Good night, Benson.” They clinked glasses and threw back the drink.
“Good night, Sir.”
Montgomery took down his bible and quietly read a chapter. Then kneeling beside his bed he recited the Lord’s Prayer.
Lying in the dark he thought about his father who had been a vicar. What had he said?
“The difference between life and death are the sacrifices we are willing to make.”
Somehow it now made sense.
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