28-29th July 1943
For the past month, Montgomery had pestered British and American military chiefs to have his prize possession, a Flying Fortress, fitted with new engines and returned to him immediately.
He had won the aircraft in the spring, in a bet on the Eighth Army’s progress in Libya. Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, had rashly promised to give him anything he liked if the Eighth Army managed to conquer Mareth and reach Sfax within six weeks. Without hesitation, Montgomery asked for a Flying Fortress together with an American crew which the Americans would pay for – the package to be his private possession until the war’s end. Montgomery had part of the plane fitted up as a small comfortable study with two armchairs and a table to use as a desk. ‘It is a great thing to have your own aeroplane, to start when you like and go where you like,’ he enthused to a friend, Tom Reynolds.
Shortly after the plane was returned in mid-July complete with new engines, Montgomery sent a cable to Patton in Palermo suggesting they meet on 28 July for what would be their second meeting in just four days and ending: ‘Would arrive airfield 1200 hours in my FORTRESS. Query, is this convenient to you.’
For John Henderson, Montgomery’s aide-de-camp, the message was like saying: ‘Can I come to lunch in my Rolls Royce?’ Despite his ascetic exterior, Montgomery did have a swashbuckling side – rather like Patton’s own more bombastic posturing.
Patton did not take kindly to Montgomery’s talk of the Flying Fortress and did not bother to answer Montgomery who asked, in another message, whether the runway was long enough for it.
The result was that when the aircraft touched down in Palermo at about midday as planned, Henderson found himself staring in horror through the perspex canopy of the bubble under the Flying Fortress’s nose, where he usually sat, as it charged towards some hangars at the end of the airfield. The strip wasn’t long enough for such a huge aircraft, he realised with mounting panic.
Just as Henderson was thinking his end had come, the pilot put all the brakes on one side, revved one engine and swung the aircraft to the right so that it collapsed on the ground. The coveted Flying Fortress was a write-off. Moments later, Montgomery emerged, his face showing no hint of concern – nor frustration – whatsoever.
From Follain: - Mussolini’s Island.