As the famous 3rd Division made preparations to go to war in Europe as part of the British Expeditionary Force in 1939, the hunt began to find the right commander.
Never one to hide his light under a bushel, Major-General Bernard Montgomery is reputed to have said: ‘There is only one man fit to take the Third into battle. That is myself.’
First, of course, he had to convince the military that he would be the best man for the very difficult mission that lay ahead, not least as he had been taken ill only months earlier in Haifa and had been invalided back to England.
After ‘pestering’ the War Office, Montgomery got his wish and assumed command of the ‘Iron Division,’ a nickname thought to date back to Cromwellian days, on August 28 1939.
Patrick Delaforce’s riveting account of the only division to participate in the savage fighting from D-Day all the way through to VE-Day brilliantly evokes the Iron Sides’ immense contribution to victory in Europe.
Here he concentrates on one very dangerous year of action – 1944 to 1945 – from the bloody assault on the Normandy beaches to the Rhine crossing and the capture of Bremen.
The men’s brave efforts earned them two Victoria Crosses, but the price was high – the division, which included the South Lancashire regiment, suffered 15,000 casualties including 2,586 killed in action.
Back in October 1939, Montgomery’s arrival at the Franco-Belgian frontier was very much an anticlimax for the enthusiastic new commander.
Singularly unimpressed by what he found, he quickly sent off a strong personal memorandum deploring the lack of discipline.
Lounging about in the streets with tunics open, hats on backs of heads, hair disgracefully long and cigarettes behind ears was not what he had expected from members of one of Britain’s most illustrious infantry divisions.
As part of Monty’s deliberate campaign to instil pride in his troops, he devised a new divisional sign of three black triangles surrounding an inverted red triangle.
With the new logo, a trademark routine of jumping onto the bonnet of his jeep with a loud hailer in his hand shouting ‘come closer, boys, I’m not going to bite you’ and a day-and-night training programme, Monty soon had his soldiers fighting fit.
It was just what they needed for the long road ahead, not least the trial by fire in May 1940 when the German panzer blitzkrieg tore through the French, Belgian and British Armies and their role in spearheading the Allied attack on the Normandy beaches in June 1944.
Delaforce, who fought with the 11th Armoured Division as a troop leader in Normandy during the Second World War, draws on the personal accounts of privates, NCOs and young officers from the dozen fighting regiments of the 3rd Division.
Using the words and experiences of soldiers on the frontline, his well-researched and revealing book presents war in all its grim and grinding reality.
(Amberley, paperback, £14.99)