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The Alliance That Held

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Andrew Roberts. Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West. Allen Lane. 672 pages. £25

Winston churchill was not the easiest of bosses to work for, as the memoirs and reminiscences of those who were close to him during World War II testify. An incident recorded by Churchill’s secretary, Elizabeth Nel, provides some of the flavor: We are in Churchill’s bedroom in the No. 10 annex in Whitehall, just above the Cabinet War Rooms, where Churchill spent most of the war. The prime minister lounges on his bed together with his Persian cat, Smokey, while on the phone with Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff and Britain’s top soldier.

Mr. Churchill sat on the bed and Smokey sat on the blankets watching him. The pm’s telephone conversation with [Brooke] was long and anxious; his thoughts were far away; his toes wiggled under the blankets. I saw Smokey’s tail swish as he watched, and wondered what was going to happen. Suddenly he pounced on the toes and bit hard. It must have hurt, for Mr. Churchill started, kicked him right into the corner of the room shouting ‘Get off, you fool’ into the telephone. Then he remembered and he said, ‘I didn’t mean you,’ and then seeing Smokey looking somewhat dazed in the corner, ‘Poor little thing.’ Confusion was complete, the cigs hung up hastily and telephoned the private secretary to find out what was happening. It took a long time to get it all sorted out, and Sir Alan Brooke assured that it was not his fault.

This is pure comedy, but often the disagreements between Churchill and Brooke, later ennobled as 1st Viscount Alanbrooke, were heated; on several occasions, Brooke snapped his pencil in two in disgust, while during one clash Churchill shook his fist at Brooke and accused him of crippling initiative. Brooke notes in his diary that the prime minister was “infuriated, and throughout the evening kept shoving his chin out, looking at me, and fuming at the accusation that he ran down his generals.”

When the Alanbrooke diaries were published in their entirety in 1994, they created a sensation. Brooke detested Churchill’s work habits, particularly these late night sessions often lasting past two in the morning, which Brooke termed the “Midnight follies” and at which Churchill’s fertile imagination was apt to come up with all manner of new schemes for winning the war — some good, others less so — which then had to be rendered harmless.

Churchill, of course, had total faith in his powers as a strategist, in fact seeing himself as having inherited his ancestor Marlborough’s genius in that department. And he took a dim view of the War Office and the top brass, which he saw as bereft of imagination and resistant to innovation, even accusing the Chief of Staffs Committee of being governed by “the sum total of their fears.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, Brooke’s counterpart, George Marshall, the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, had a marginally easier time with his master, Franklin Roosevelt, who at least kept decent hours. But despite claiming no special expertise in military strategy, Roosevelt, like Churchill, was prone to getting ideas of his own. Marshall referred to fdr’s “cigarette lighter gesture,” a casual wave of the hand, suggesting bold new operations. “The President shifted, particularly when Churchill got hold of him . . . The President was always ready to do any sideshow and Churchill was always prodding him. My job was to hold the President down to what we were doing.”

The interaction between these four men is the topic of Andrew Roberts’s splendid Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West, from which the above incidents are taken. As loaded with color as was Roberts’s earlier Napoleon and Wellington, his new book details how the protagonists performed a delicate minuet, linking up in various combinations, sometimes ranging the politicians against the military men, sometimes dividing along national lines, Brits versus Americans, and sometimes crossing both national and professional lines, all depending on the issue at hand.

The book incorporates material from previously unpublished verbatim reports of Churchill’s war cabinet meetings written by assistant secretaries. Keeping notes and writing diaries was of course strictly forbidden under Britain’s Official Secrets Act, but then everybody who had contact with Churchill seemed to be doing it, “forming a vast cloud of witnesses,” in the words of one such diarist. They knew they were part of history being shaped.

Having initiated their exchange of letters and telegrams at the very end of Chamberlain’s prime ministership, when Churchill had returned to the Admiralty, the first face-to-face meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill as war leaders took place in Placenta Bay, off the southern coast of Newfoundland, where they met onboard the USS Augusta in August 1941. A solid working relationship was established, and one of their first decisions was to provide military supplies to Russia.

But it was the first Washington conference, known as Arcadia, which took place during December 1941 and January 1942, that saw the adoption of the Allied strategy that was to win the war: the so-called Germany First policy. According to this plan, Hitler’s armies had to be defeated first, while a naval holding strategy would be employed against the Japanese in the Pacific after the initial onslaught had been stemmed. Contrary to later claims by some of Britain’s top brass that Roosevelt and Marshall had had to be talked into this strategy by the British, the two men had in fact come to the same conclusion on their own and over the protests of Admiral Ernest King, the abrasive American navel chief, who viewed the Pacific as the primary theater of war.

Two other ideas were established at the conference, notes Roberts. A crucial lesson Marshall had drawn from Pearl Harbor was the importance of the principle of unity of command — i.e., that a theater of war needed one individual in sole charge. On the soundness of this concept Marshall had managed to convince Roosevelt, who in turn got Churchill’s reluctant consent, though Churchill at first deemed the Pacific too vast an area for one man to master. To make it go down easier, Marshall suggested the British commander in India, General Archibald Wavell, take on the task as supreme commander.

Brooke, who had just been promoted to Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was not present at Arcadia, having been left behind in London to settle into his new job. He disapproved of the whole notion and merely regarded it as a setup that would leave Wavell holding the bag in the face of looming disaster. But since Brooke was not there to defend his views, he had to acquiesce.

He was not alone in objecting to the idea. So, too, did the Royal Navy, as this would mean that the Senior Service would have to give up its cherished near-autonomy and submit itself to “horrendous concept of having their ships ultimately commanded by Wavell, a soldier,” in Roberts’s words. Wavell’s command proved short-lived. After Japan’s sweeping victories, he was forced to evacuate his headquarters in Java and return to India. But the principle had been established.

The other outcome of Arcadia was the setting up of the Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee, to be based in Washington, whose task was to conduct the global war and streamline decisions. The British service chiefs would be represented by senior British officers, and as a group by Sir John Dill, Churchill’s personal representative in Washington. On this point, Marshall first had to persuade Roosevelt, who initially thought his general was accumulating too much power, and then he and Marshall had to talk Churchill into trying it out. As Roberts notes, to have such a body based outside the uk, a body the decisions of which would affect the lives of millions of British soldiers, was indeed revolutionary. Again, Brooke disapproved of the idea. He favored a parallel group that would be set up in London, but being new at the job, he lacked the clout to overturn the decision.

While agreement had been reached on the main principles, there were differences: Favoring a classic Clausewitzian approach in Europe, one that would seek to engage and destroy the enemy’s main force at the earliest possible moment, Marshall pushed for an invasion across the English Channel in 1942. The British side, remembering the horrors of World War I, and having recently experienced the full furor of the German panzers, thought it suicidal to reengage so soon with the Germans in France. The British leaders at this point simply did not have faith in their own troops, let alone green American troops, and they certainly had no illusions about the French rising.

Rather than Marshall’s Clausewitzian approach, Roberts writes, Churchill and Brooke favored a more indirect, Sun Tzu-style method, attacking round the edges of the enemy’s empire until his center had been sufficiently weakened, much like the picadors prepare the bull for the matador. But contrary to the later claims advanced by Elliott Roosevelt’s Rendezvous with Destiny and Dwight Eisenhower’s At Ease: Stories I tell to Friends, both Churchill and Brooke realized that the allies would have to take on the Germans in France at some stage; the situation, however, had to be ripe for it.

At the same time, they had to be very careful in not seeming dismissive of American demands for the cross-channel attack, as they were always concerned that the Americans would drop the Germany First policy in favor of the Pacific. They urgently needed to secure a large American presence in Britain to help fend off a German invasion, in case Russia was defeated. So the British agreed in principle — at least that was how Marshall interpreted it — with Churchill carefully hiding his reservations about an early invasion. The depth of the British doubts also had to be kept hidden from Joseph Stalin, who was clamoring for the opening of a second front.

In these talks, there were certainly plenty of mutual suspicions that had to be overcome. The U.S. side contained its share of Anglophobes, headed by Admiral King, the man about whom his sister famously stated that he was a most even-tempered man — “he was always angry.” According to Roberts, King gave the Brits more headaches than any other commander, constantly pressing to have resources transferred to the Pacific. Marshall himself conceded that there was too much anti-Britishness among American officers, while on their end, the British could be awfully condescending, as only they know how.

Dill, the head of the joint-staff mission, played a key function in reducing these frictions by acting as “an oil can,” one of those essential people in transatlantic relations that always seem to be in such short supply. Dill became very close to Marshall, explaining the motives of the Brits to the Americans and vice versa, sometimes to the extent that he was being suspected of having “gone native” by his colleagues back in London.

Temperamentally the two commanders, Brooke and Marshall, were very different men, Roberts notes. Brooke was a prickly and high strung Ulsterman, who during World War I had been one of the inventers of the creeping barrage, whereby the infantry will attack under the protection of the advancing artillery fire. In the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk he had performed magnificently, and was credited with having saved it from being wiped out by the Germans. In a final attempt to avert the fall of France, he was sent back there briefly to head the second expeditionary force, which soon had to be evacuated in the face of German superiority. From these debacles he deduced certain lessons which put him at variance with Marshall. As a result, many American officers considered Brooke defeatist, though Marshall was not among them.

Brooke’s diplomatic and social skills left something to be desired, however. Described by colleagues as “too abrupt, overforceful and tactless,” he was a fast speaker with a rasping voice, “hurling facts at them like hand grenades,” as Churchill’s personal physician Dr. Moran put it, and “it did not matter if they went off and left wounds.” Moran also remarked about Brooke that “he did not get on with the Americans.” It wasn’t so much a question of disliking them, but more one of having what Admiral Leahy called “a somewhat forbidding personality.” In his spare moments, he devoted himself to bird-watching and angling, not exactly team sports, as Roberts points out.

Restraining Churchill in his wilder schemes was Brooke’s main concern. While acknowledging Churchill’s inspirational leadership qualities, “his military plans and ideas varied from the most brilliant conceptions at one end to the wildest and most dangerous ideas on the other,” Brooke notes in his diary. Churchill’s plan of returning to Norway only months after British and French forces had been evacuated from Narvik and Trondheim was one such dangerous idea. But Brooke was smart enough to reserve the dustups for the big issues. To fulfill his role, Brooke never allowed himself to become part of Churchill’s favorites.

Marshall had a similar view of his job. Marshall had served as chief of operations of the First American Army in France during World War I at precisely the point when, at last, the long stalemate was broken and the element of maneuver was introduced. After the war, he became a protégé of General John Pershing. Marshall was very much a class act, unfailingly courteous, but steely, too. Roberts quotes his statement to his wife: “I cannot afford the luxury of sentiment. Mine must be cold logic. Sentiment is for others.”

With the president, he wanted to keep things on a formal basis. Aware of Roosevelt’s glad-handing ways, he made it clear that he preferred the president not to address him as “George,” and he chose not attend informal dinners at Hyde Park, Roosevelt’s country estate, on the grounds that it would be awkward to disagree with the president in such a setting. Marshall generally kept to himself, he wrote, “so as to be able to tell [Roosevelt] what was what, straight from the shoulder, and he knew I was not mixed up with any political clique or group.” Throughout the war, he managed to keep this distance without being insulting.

Invariably in accounts of World War II, Churchill steals the show, as when dressed in his famous siren suit (what Brooke referred to as his “child’s rompersuit”), he has everyone in stitches demonstrating bayonet practice with an elephant gun in the Great Hall at Checkers while martial tunes blare from a gramophone. Or when he acts like a barker at a market, showing off a stuffed flat-billed platypus, a gift from Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies, on display in the lobby of 10 Downing Street: “This way to the flat-billed platypus, gentlemen!” Or when he ruminates on his suitability as a parachutist: “I am not sure I should make a good landing by parachute. I’d break like an egg.” The list is endless.

Churchill’s work habits, as described by Colonel Aubertin Mallaby, the deputy director of military operations at the war office, were certainly unconventional: “There was no question of times on duty and times off. No curtain coming down and dividing work from leisure. There was fun and talk and food and drink and films, but all these fitted naturally into a very long working day. The only respite from work was a few hours of sleep.” This routine was very different from that governing Brooke, the stern military man.

But part of Churchill’s greatness was precisely that he kept a man like Brooke around him. As Sir Charles Portal, the Air Chief Marshal put it, “He wanted good hard stones on which to sharpen the knife of his ideas. . . . He knew his own weaknesses. And he knew that he needed to have around him men who from their experience and their expert training could keep his imagination in check.” And Roberts goes on to quote General Sir David Fraser, Brooke’s biographer: “Churchill’s and Brooke’s minds were complementary, with the former providing the visionary, the latter the prosaic elements.”

Having learned his lesson from the Dardanelles operation in World War I, which had gone forward against military advice and ended in catastrophe, Churchill refrained from overruling the Chiefs of Staff Committee on any decision in World War II, even though he could have done so and “even when,” as the military historian Basil Liddell Hart noted, “his views were most clearly right.” The committee had been set up as advisers to the prime minister expressly to avoid a repeat of the World War I split between politicians and military men. But to preserve a sense of proportion, Roberts reminds us that Churchill’s wilder schemes were but a “tiny portion of inevitable detritus that floated in the wash of his greatness.”

Similarly, Roosevelt was big enough to have Marshall around. What made Roosevelt so well-suited for the role of referee was perhaps “the very absence of any overarching theory of grand strategy.” Among Roosevelt’s correct calls, Roberts numbers his realization that the U.S. needed to rearm and fast, and his awareness of the coming crucial role of air power. (Personally, of course, he always had a soft spot for the navy, indeed leading Marshall jokingly to tell him to “at least stop speaking of the Army as ‘they’ and the Navy as ‘we.’) Aware of the political need to demonstrate success against the Germans somewhere in 1942, he agreed to Churchill’s North African scheme, thereby saving the Germany First policy. And, most vitally, his sense of the timing for returning to the continent was “pitch perfect.” On the few occasions where Roosevelt overrode Marshall, the reasons were almost invariably political, as in the case of the North African campaign.

Roosevelt of course was less impressive in his dealings with Stalin, whom he foolishly thought he could charm and trust (as did Churchill for a brief moment, as Roberts demonstrates). Indeed, while Roosevelt seemingly harbored no suspicion of Russian motives, Roberts notes that he “was deeply suspicious of Britain often on absurdly illogical grounds.”

But rather than refighting the old debate of who lost Eastern Europe, Roberts argues, it is important to recognize the limited options facing Western leaders. Stalin once stated that he expected each side to extend its system of government as far as its troops would reach. Only by taking on the Russians in Poland could the Western Allies have prevented Russian domination of Eastern Europe, and no one except George Patton was prepared to do that.

As for the soldiers, for all his brilliance, it is hard to warm to Brooke, who in his diary comes across as an ungenerous and unpleasant man. In his defense, Roberts notes that the diary was written by someone working under immense pressure. He sees the diary as a form of therapy, “a safety valve,” helping Brooke to keep up a facade of calm confidence, which is essential for a commander, especially when things at the front are not going well.

Still, these allowances made, there is a little too much bitterness here, as when Brooke describes Churchill as “a public menace. Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again.” Or when he repeatedly complains about Churchill, “I am convinced that he is mad.” Indeed, at one point Churchill was about to fire Brooke, because “You can see the hate in his eyes. He hates me.”

Equally important, to the historian, Brooke’s assessments of his fellow combatants are of limited value. For instance, Brooke writes of Marshall, “I saw a great deal of him throughout the rest of the war. And the more I saw of him, the more clearly I appreciated that his strategic ability was of the poorest. A great man, a great gentleman and great organizer, but definitely not a strategist. I found his stunted strategic outlook made it very difficult to discuss strategic plans with him, for the good reason that he did not understand them personally, but backed by the briefs from his staff.”

The problem here is that pretty much everybody Brooke comes into contact with is written off as being severely deficient in this sense. After a while this becomes tedious. Only South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts, Stalin, Douglas MacArthur, and he himself seem to be blessed with strategic foresight. Significantly, Roberts notes, the ones he singles out for praise are people he did not work with directly.

Unlike Brooke, Marshall of course did not write a diary. He disapproved of the practice, believing that it would adversely influence his decision-making, leading “subconsciously to self deception or hesitation in reaching decisions,” and encourage him “to cultivate a state of mind unduly concerned with possible investigations rather than a complete concentration of the business of victory.”

Throughout, despite being pulled from all directions, with everybody clamoring for planes, ships, and landing craft for their particular theater of war, Marshall managed to retain his equanimity and courtesy, with very few exceptions. But as Roberts notes, he was not above seeking to exploit his height in his dealings with the wheelchair bound Roosevelt to get his way: “So recalling that a man has a great advantage, psychologically, when he stands looking down on a fellow, I took advantage in a sense of the president’s condition.” He tried the same trick with Churchill when the prime minister was in bed with angina, though Roberts very much doubts that such stratagems could work on such “stratospherically self-confident” leaders as Roosevelt and Churchill.

In the end, both Brooke and Marshall suffered similar disappointments. Churchill on three occasions had promised Brooke command of Operation Overlord, but withdrew the offer when it became clear that an American would have to be in charge. Though a blow to British prestige, for Churchill, this had the advantage that there could be no recriminations if things went wrong.

And for all his experience in the field, Roberts notes, Brooke would probably have been a poor choice to head the invasion, considering his lack of charisma and his shortcomings as a conciliator. His habit of disclosing his plays bit by bit was driving the Americans especially nuts, furthering American suspicions that the British were pursuing their own ends. But Churchill’s manner in withdrawing the offer was certainly too casual, and Brooke resented it to the end of his days.

Similarly, on the American side, it was taken for granted that Marshall would lead the invasion. But as Marshall’s old mentor Jack Pershing argued in a letter to Roosevelt, “in a global war, the country’s best soldier ought to be Chief of Staff.” And Roosevelt could not spare Marshall, partly because he needed to protect his right flank — Marshall was regarded as a more conservative figure — and partly because he needed someone “who could handle MacArthur,” as he put it. So the job went to Eisenhower. Not getting command of Overlord must have been as much of a disappointment to Marshall as it was to Brooke, but Marshall was too much of a gentleman to air his disappointment publicly.

Throughout the book, the author displays admirable fairness and soundness of judgment. He refutes the notion that Churchill never wanted to invade Normandy by pointing to the amount of construction going on in the south of England, which could serve no other purpose than making it the launch pad for an invasion of France: The whole region was turned into a no-go area. At the same time, the Royal Air Force was hammering away at the European railway nodes.

What was at issue was the timing. Initially, Roberts notes, Churchill and Brooke were right in balking at Marshall’s calls for an early invasion of France. The Western powers were simply not ready for large-scale amphibious landings, as proved by the Dieppe raid in August 1942, when the Canadians were severely mauled, and by the close call of the Salerno landings in 1943. Both operations suggest that an Allied invasion of France in 1943 would have met with disaster, and 1942 doesn’t even bear thinking about.

On the frightening efficiency of the Wehrmacht, Roberts cites the figures of historian Trevor Depuy, according to which in 1943–44 the individual German soldier was 20–30 percent more effective than his American or British counterpart, and German forces regularly inflicted 50 percent higher casualties than they incurred, whether on the attack or on the defensive, whether winning or losing.

“Mr. Churchill was sure that only by the premature invasion of France could the war be lost. To postpone the evil day, all his arts, all his eloquence, all his great experience was spent,” Moran stated. Thus, writes Roberts, by almost superhuman willpower, Churchill managed to redirect the whole war effort from northwest Europe to northwest Africa, and from there to Italy. From the Foggia airfields near Naples, all of southern Germany came within bombing range and the Allied presence in Italy forced Hitler to draw forces away from France and Russia to protect his southern flank.

Later, the Americans were right. By going beyond Naples, Churchill and Brooke were pursuing their Italian strategy way past its effectiveness, to a point where it merely settled into a deadly slog — a case of what today would be termed mission creep, Roberts notes.

Roberts pinpoints the moment when the British started getting it wrong as mid-October 1943, when Churchill talked Brooke into attempting to postpone Overlord and instead go into places like Greece and the Balkans. The Sun Tzu approach can only accomplish so much in conventional warfare. Here the author quotes the rear admiral and historian Samuel Eliot Morrison: “The elephant does not like mice, but a thousand mice cannot kill an elephant.” As Roosevelt and Marshall insisted, taking on the German elephant in France had now become necessary.

As to the accusations from some of Marshall’s lieutenants that American forces were just being used to protect British interests in North Africa and the Middle East — of course the British wanted to protect their empire, notes Roberts. After all, as Churchill once put it, he had not become prime minister to preside over the empire’s dissolution. But such accusations totally ignored the common strategic interest of preventing the oil fields in the Middle East from falling into German hands.

And when General Albert Wedemeyer later accused the British of being reluctant in their bombing of the Ruhr District because of “a considerable amount of British investment in German industry in the Ruhr during World War II,” we are deep in cuckoo land. The Royal Air Force rained bombs on the Ruhr every night, and they did their level best to flood the entire region, and partially succeeded.

The miracle, according to Roberts, of course is that despite all these tensions and mutual suspicions, the Allies prevailed. Or as Marshall put it, “Our greatest triumph really lies in the fact that we achieved the impossible, Allied military unity in action.”