Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West

Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West
Andrew Roberts    Allen Lane 2008   584 pages, £25  ISBN 978-0-713-99969-3

‘I have decided to get rid of Brooke. He hates me. You can see the hate in his eyes.’ Thus Churchill to General Ismay who then told Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke) that ‘the PM is terribly upset and says you hate him.’ Brooke replied: ‘I don’t hate him; I adore him tremendously; I do love him, but the day that I say that I agree with him when I don’t is the day that he must get rid of me because I am no use to him any more.’ ‘Dear Brookie ...’ Churchill exclaimed. This is how one of the many rows between Churchill and Brooke ended. They form part of Andrew Roberts’ study of the stormy relations between the civilian and military commanders in Britain and the U.S.A. From these confrontations emerged the grand strategy which won the war. A fallible system operated by fallible men was immensely superior to Hitler’s treatment of his professionals. Roberts shows how the allies deserved to win.

This long, dense, detailed, demanding book is based, among other sources, on recently unearthed correspondence and diaries, many of them illegally composed immediately after the events and therefore valuable to the historian. Roberts is fascinated by the four men in the title. Churchill and Roosevelt based their power on their leadership of democratic governments while Marshall and Brooke were the dominant, unofficial spokesmen of the committees consisting of the professional heads of the armed forces on both sides of the Atlantic: the British Chiefs of Staff (Brooke, Portal and Pound, succeeded after his death by Cunningham) and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff (Marshall, King, Leahy and Arnold). Brooke was loyally backed by his colleagues, Marshall rather less loyally, for instance by the difficult and irascible Admiral Ernest J. King whose daughter’s description Roberts does not quote in full: ‘The most even-tempered man in the navy because he was always in a rage’. Apart from Brooke and Marshall, whom Roberts admires, the hitherto unsung hero is Brooke’s predecessor as CIGS, Field Marshal Sir John Dill who served as the British military representative in Washington. His tact, good sense and cordial relationship with Marshall defused innumerable minefields. Roberts effectively describes other prominent characters such as Eisenhower and Mountbatten, who is treated surprisingly mildly when one recalls Eminent Churchillians

The most controversial aspect of the book is the postponement of D-Day in favour of the Mediterranean, first from 1942 to 1943 and then finally until 6 June 1944. This was a British triumph over the Americans. Certainly Marshall was clear from the word go that the quickest way to defeat Germany was to invade France. Churchill and Brooke preferred the Mediterranean because the link with Britain’s far-eastern empire had to be preserved and because they worried about the success of a crosschannel invasion. It is a strange story that Roberts tells, of the Americans being inveigled into the invasion of French North Africa, then Sicily and then Italy. Curiously Britain’s ally was Roosevelt, who connived with Churchill against his own military advisors. The Americans never forgot or forgave this Limey con-trick. As a result British attempts to keep the Russians out of the Balkans were stymied by American noncooperation – including Roosevelt’s at the Teheran and Yalta conferences. And D-Day happened, even though right up to the last minute Churchill preferred Anglo-American involvement in the Balkans. 

‘Who was right?’ is a question which Roberts faces. He is a convinced Churchillian/Brookian. While he is too intelligent to deny that this is a ‘might-have-been’ to which no answer can be given, he bases his conclusion on the failure of the Dieppe raid in 1942, the fraught campaign against the Wehrmacht in Italy in 1943 and the terrifyingly successful Runstedt offensive of winter 1944, all of which episodes prove that any given number of German soldiers could outfight a similar number of Americans, Russians and British – a conclusion to which Churchill subscribed. Still, Roberts admits that the Atlantic Wall had not been constructed in 1942. And he recognises that if Stalingrad had ended differently, Torch (the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa) would have looked a feeble second front. Without doubt a happier and healthier Europe would have emerged from an earlier Anglo-American liberation. 

What charges does Roberts ignore? To my mind, the Battle of the Atlantic was an unnecessarily fine-run thing. Churchill admitted that the struggle against the UBoats worried him more than any other campaign. And Roberts admits that not until July 1943 was a greater tonnage of merchant ships launched than was sunk. But this statistic displays a failing both by Roberts and by his hero. To Churchill’s credit he defended his dotty project to invade Norway as ‘it would incur the Merchant Navy taking fewer risks every two months’. But this was a rare recognition of the suffering endured by merchant seamen. In other words, it was not just a matter of ships. Why did Roberts’ heroic quartet not insist on Air marshal Harris releasing Liberatorbombers to police the mid-Atlantic gap where until mid-1943 U-boats were able to operate with impunity or impose convoys on the moronic Admiral King who would not adopt a Limey idea? Or why was Harris not forbidden to waste 50,000 RAF lives on the futile massacre of German civilians while Speer actually increased arms production? Only a historian who has never fought could make the curious assertion that Pound, Dill and Roosevelt were as much victims of warfare as those who perished in combat. I disagree. Still, this is a questionable criticism of a fine book.

Richard Wilkinson is the author of Louis XIV (Routledge, 2008)

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