Finest Hour 112, Autumn 2001
By CHRISTOPHER C. HARMON
Easily visible on secure plinths above all swirls or pettiness are two heroes. One is a first-class general, probably the best Chief of Imperial General Staff Britain ever knew. The other, looming even larger, is a soldier-turned-statesman, who probably saved the West.
Alan Francis Brooke1 served for five years as Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Britain’s highest-ranking army officer, he was the closest military adviser to Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill. Accordingly, in the late Fifties, when he published his World War II diaries, The Turn of the Tide and Triumph in the West, they were something of a scandal for their pungent, even brutal words about Churchill. Many were offended that so famous a statesman could be accused of boorishness, peevishness, and strategic lunacy by a general who had served him so long.
Historians had a different criticism of the original volumes, notably their heavy editing by the historian Arthur Bryant. Experts have long wondered what had been cut, what had been changed or obscured.2 Now they know.
In the new War Diaries, editors Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman include the full original diaries and the short passages Alanbrooke added after the war. Inevitably the new edition renews British attentions to the differences between the Field Marshal and Prime Minister.
Read anew, however, the entries seem to show that it was the strains and storms of war—more than Winston Churchill—that made these times so hard on Alanbrooke, whose utter exhaustion seeps through his prose. Penned for his wife, ostensibly with no intent of publication, the diaries were a steam vent for dealing with pressure.
He was known for self-control, power, and determination; but writing privately, in late hours of interminable days, Alanbrooke permitted himself anger, fatigue, and despair. The result is deeply personal, and sometimes petulant, as full of grousing as a book of Ernie Pyle cartoons, but with little saving humor. Churchill’s “black dog” of depression was a pup compared to Alanbrooke’s.
So “uncut” an edition fails to show the full man. While doing great things, Alanbrooke wrote often of petty things—and a few major obsessions. The difference between the significant Field Marshal and the introspective diary writer is due in part to the “vent” the diaries provided, and in equal to the “friction of war.” And Alanbrooke’s private whinings involved many impressive figures besides Churchill.
George Marshall may be America’s senior military man, but in these pages it is “almost impossible to make him grasp the true concepts of a strategic situation.” Instead he will “hedge and defer decisions until such time as he had to consult his assistants. Unfortunately, his assistants were not of the required calibre ” The assistants included Dwight Eisenhower, a charming, adept and “hopeless” general. “He literally knows nothing of the requirements of a commander in action,” wrote Alanbrooke: “…a very, very limited brain from a strategic point of view.”3
More upsetting, at least to the British, battle-hardened UK officers are equally inept at strategy. John S. V. Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force rushed to France in 1939, is charming and good, but his “brain has lately been compared to that of a glorified boy scout!….[H]e just fails to be able to see the big picture.”4
General Sir Harold Alexander, who was admired by Churchill, has “many fine qualities but no very great strategic vision….It was very doubtful whether he was fit to command his Army” in North Africa. What about a secondary theater like India? No—he “has not got the brains.” Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, is “quite irresponsible, suffers from the most desperate illogical brain, always producing red herrings.”5
With senior military men so appalling, one must expect a mere politician to be still worse, and Churchill obliges: “temperamental like a film star” and “peevish like a spoilt child,” often picking up on “some isolated operation and without ever really having looked into it, setting his heart on it.” Churchill presses so hard for invading Sumatra (as a first step to recapturing Singapore) that Alanbrooke begins “to wonder whether I was Alice in Wonderland, or whether I was really fit for a lunatic asylum I don’t know where we are or where we are going as regards strategy, and I just cannot get him to face the true facts!” WSC has “no long term vision….In all his plans he lives from hand to mouth. He can never grasp a whole plan His method is entirely opportunist. My God how tired I am of working for him.”6
No one has doubted that Alanbrooke himself had a strong sense for military strategy. No one says otherwise. Of Germans he was usually an astute judge: of when they would move on Belgium and Holland; when they might strike East at “Russia” (as he and Churchill invariably called the USSR); and how Hitler would sequence the use of air bombing and amphibious forces against England. Towards the end he suggested that Hitler might commit suicide (ten days before it happened).7 His approach to strategy was sober, thoughtful, and successful, and should be respected today for its pragmatism and internal logic.
An important consequence of Alanbrooke’s approach was to slow down the Americans, and even Mr. Churchill, from too early a launch of the cross-Channel invasion.8 The Prime Minister’s ugly memories of the inadequate landings in World War I at the Dardanelles have often been mentioned as the reason he slowed down the Americans; these diaries depict Alanbrooke as even more cautious, slowing down Churchill.
Alanbrooke’s views on other choices were often the result of his strategic focus. The British were pumping considerable military aid into Turkey, but when he attended a high-level covert visit to Adana in early 1943, Alanbrooke showed only modest interest in Turkish collaboration. While praising Churchill’s witty speeches and handling of the meetings, Alanbrooke scorned his opposite number, a Turkish field marshal, for having “no conception of the administrative aspect of handling armies.” Postwar additions to the diary pages dwell mostly on socially-awkward moments of that trip, including the time Alanbrooke annoyed his hosts by staring out the window at a wild bird.9
Encounters with birds often merited a sentence from this serious ornithologist and hunter. Such notes reflect his relief in the ways he could be diverted from his war, and doubtless they would interest his wife Benita. Certainly it was not because birds are a safer subject to write on than secret military matters. Each of the many little books making up this diary was illegal; top secrets dripped from all; any would have been a prize for an Axis intelligence officer.
Winston Churchill is the figure most often poked with Alanbrooke’s pen. There are at least three reasons for this. The first is bureaucratic: there was a civilian Secretary of State for War who outranked Alanbrooke, but this personage, Sir Percy James Grigg, appears remarkably uninfluential on war policy and was utterly ignored by war historians. Alanbrooke thought him a prince, but this could be in part because Grigg kindly left him alone.
That leaves Alanbrooke, Britain’s leading military adviser, with exactly two civilian bosses in direct line above him: Minister of Defence and Prime Minister, both of them with the same name: Winston S. Churchill.10
Another reason for the criticism of Churchill is high-minded and strategic, if not necessarily correct. Alanbrooke felt that this admittedly great man had no strategy; as late as December 1941, when Alanbrooke became C.I.G.S., he remained “appalled” by the “lack of a definite policy….Planned strategy was not Winston’s strong card. He preferred to work by intuition and impulse.”11 Proving he does possess a sense of humor, Alanbrooke twice formulates the problem as antithesis: “God knows where we would be without him, but God knows where we shall go with him,” says an entry for 1941. Three years hence he writes: “Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again.”12
A third irritation Alanbrooke had with the Prime Minister was quite the opposite of strategic indecision: in certain narrow corridors, Churchill was focused to a fault, sinking his bulldog teeth into a particular idea or operation that appealed to him. Whenever anyone pointed out how much this laser-focus neglected or damaged other important military matters, the bulldog would shake his head fiercely and keep grinding. Examples include snatching Greek islands and liberating Norway.
What Alanbrooke never adds to such accounts of conference room combat is that Churchill would never overrule the Chiefs of Staff when they agreed among themselves. Arguing, testing and debating were part of proper civilian oversight. Alanbrooke missed the point. He thought he was saving Britain from wild variants of harebrained strategies.
Alanbrooke’s diaries are remarkably silent about most of the many things these two war horses agreed about. Both believed Germany must be defeated before Japan. Both emphasized Mediterranean operations, where British and Allied troops retook North Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy. Both felt in 1943 and 1944 that Alexander’s army in Italy was neglected and condemned to fighting without real offensive power by various Pacific ventures and the unnecessary plan to invade southern France (Dragoon). Both believed in what is today called “joint warfare,” and pushed air power.
Churchill and Alanbrooke admired some of the same generals, especially Montgomery, and certain aggressive division commanders. They were alike in keeping Dominion politicians stewing on the back burner; each showed hostility toward any Dominion parliamentarian who seemed displeased by the direction of the war. And of course, Churchill and Alanbrooke both wearied of the war’s leading Frenchman, Charles de Gaulle.
Disagreements on strategy were but one part of the stiff-lipped Alanbrooke’s heavy censure. He was equally spicy about Churchill’s friends and associates. Media magnate Lord Beaverbrook, a long-time adviser to Churchill, is derided as a political hack whose interventions in cabinet are self-interested and slippery—almost devilish. Alanbrooke further disapproves of the Canadian’s love of strong whisky. Since Churchill himself drank daily, it is surprising that there are only three or four places where the diary criticizes his practice, while three other personages are labeled outright drunks: American Admiral King, Australian Commander in Chief General Blarney, and senior Soviet General Voroshilov. Among other Churchill cronies Alanbrooke cordially resented were Brendan Bracken, Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, and scientific adviser Frederick Lindemann. Friendly ministers such as the Conservatives’ Anthony Eden and Labour’s Ernest Bevin, or more supple men, were thought to be enlisted by the PM in using cabinet sessions to assail the military for doing too little or making mistakes.
There are several intriguing omissions. For all the arguments during and after war provoked by Churchill’s fascination with “the Ljubljana Gap,” Alanbrooke says almost nothing about it. There are only three days when he mentions the strategic concept, which envisioned landing near Trieste and marching northwest into Slovenia, skirting the highest Alps, entering the Danube Valley, and reaching Vienna. This could be a fine end run on the Germans, Churchill thought, and a way to save Austria from Soviet occupation. When the Soviets surprisingly support the Gap proposal in February 1945, Alanbrooke writes with relief that he was able to suppress further discussion!13 The Ljubljana Gap proposal was thus another case in which the Prime Minister yielded to his generals.
Another absence in the diary is unsurprising, for it was not debated by military men during the war. It does point to the differences in viewpoint which may grow up after a war is safely won. Dresden was familiar to the educated as a marvel of architecture and high German culture, and is familiar to late 20th century Westerners as a symbol of wartime apocalypse, or “war crimes,” described with astonishment by novelist Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five. But in the Diaries, Dresden appears only once: two months after the firestorm made by British and American bombers, on 20 April 1945, Alanbrooke wrote that “The Russians are now moving properly and it should not be long before we meet up with them on the Berlin-Dresden front.” In length and meaning, this quiet sentence carries the full view of most military men working over maps at the time. Much earlier the town had been identified as one of 58 “built-up areas” to be attacked. Then it appeared on a January 1945 short list of cities in the way of the advancing Red Army. Intelligence reports differed as to whether Axis armor was transiting the Dresden area, before or after its leveling. If soldiers saw the damage, they probably thought of how bombers could do in safety the grim work of urban war that might have killed thousands of Allied infantrymen.14
Despite being Churchill’s senior military commander and adviser, Alanbrooke seemed disinterested in the political issues of the war. As he was absent at the early summits with Americans, it is not surprising that he makes no mention of the Atlantic Charter or the Declaration of the United Nations. But he also has nothing to say about the early 1943 Casablanca trip and its “Unconditional Surrender” declaration, which concerned Eisenhower, Churchill, and others during the war and later became the subject of books.15 There is nothing about concentration camps or genocide, nor on the contentious plan by the U.S. Treasury Secretary to “pastoralize” postwar Germany. Poland’s agony is reflected, though narrowly, in frequent short notes about military-to-military dealings with such Poles as Lt. General “Wladyslaw Anders. Alanbrooke gives Stalin reserved expressions of admiration—very defensible if one writes only as an analyst of strategy, and only about the years after 1941. Most of the Asian side of the war gets short shrift. In that it mirrors the British sense that they should focus on the European theater. The same concentration is evident in Churchill’s own papers of the period 1942-1946.16
Perhaps the explanation of Alanbrooke’s view on politics is that he was a very traditional military man. He longed to leave things political to politicians, while he breathed and fought in the realm of high strategy—where he expected full support from ministers. This is somewhat predictable for a military purist; it is also good doctrine according to SunTzu (The Art of War). But it is bad Clausewitz.
A successful general and a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, the Prussian Clausewitz, in his famous book, On War, warned officers that all war operations are to some degree permeated by political factors. What modern history appears to suggest—what even Mao Tse-tung accepted—is that Clausewitz had the best advice for states whose entire populations are being mobilized for war, at least on matters of civil-military relations and the making of strategy. In this matter, Winston Churchill was Clausewitzean and well ahead of Alanbrooke. “The distinction between politics and strategy diminishes as the point of view is raised,” Churchill wrote. “At the summit true politics and strategy are one.”17
Alan Francis Brooke was a splendidly able soldier. Ironically, irritated with others for not seeing the big military picture, he himself erred in thinking it was his duty to control “grand strategy.” That requires the involvement of dozens of foreign governments, armies, and navies, and nearly all branches of government. On every working day from 1943 through 1945, committees around Whitehall toiled over vexed issues: housing, food imports, currency, governing postwar Germany, captured war materiel, repatriation of prisoners, France, even the fate of Istria atop the Adriatic Sea. Wanting little part in such things, Alanbrooke absorbed himself in the making of British interservice consensus, the arranging of military partners, and crushing the Axis everywhere it dared fight on.
That Alanbrooke was a superior warrior we know from his achievements. His diaries show deep concern and thoughtful judgment on many difficult military problems. It is unseemly to be overly fascinated by the diaries’ underside. His whinings do not make him a child, any more than his ejaculation about Churchill being childish make the Prime Minister less of a man. Each deserves his statue.
And Alanbrooke knew it. One of the things the diaries show, in original form and when their author added to them after the war, is how often he checked his own worst passions, and implored the reader to pardon his harshness about Churchill. Typical of such interventions are words of 30 August 1943: after strong criticism of Churchill, he reflects that future historians will have trouble squaring such failings with this man of “…most marvelous qualities and superhuman genius….”18
On VE Day, as a happy mob filled London, Alanbrooke and other senior leaders were received at Buckingham Palace. He then rode in a staff car which inched along to the Home Office. There a balcony had been readied so the crowds could cheer the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, Alanbrooke and the other Chiefs of Staff. A longtime friend told him: “I watched you getting into your car this morning from the window with a crowd looking at you, and none of them realizing that beside them was the man who had probably done most to win the war against Germany… [But] I do, and lots of people do….” Alanbrooke records this with gratitude and then deftly adds: “[T]he public has never understood what the Chiefs of Staff have been doing in the running of the war. On the whole the PM has never enlightened them much.”19
Some say Churchill’s celebrated war memoirs did not adequately praise Alanbrooke. The point is a sensitive one given that, already in 1944, the Prime Minster had hurt him by withdrawing earlier assurances that Alanbrooke would command “Overlord.” When war ended (under Attlee’s Labour government) he was given a very small monetary reward; later, per custom, he retired at half a field marshal’s salary. Quickly he was reduced to living in a cottage beside what had been his home. He had to sell his precious illustrated books on wild birds.20 Little wonder that the field marshal later decided to edit his diaries with Arthur Bryant and publish their inner thoughts. They sold well, and added to his fame. But it is less clear if they added to his respectability.
These diaries are an important possession and enlightening to read. Their strength however is the significance of Alanbrooke, not the introductory materials of editors Danchev and Todman. They make several useful observations, including the point that Churchill and Alanbrooke had a tragic tendency to underestimate each other. They observe that the diary was a tool for Alanbrooke’s “recovering possession of himself” and soldiering on into another day.
But the editors also commit some blunders. Which of them imagined that it would be funny to follow up their twelve well-composed pages on “The Cast”—mini-biographies of important figures like Molotov, Harriman, Eden, and Attlee—with similar paragraphs in the same typeface on five of the wild birds mentioned by Alanbrooke? The reader thus moves with incredulity from subsections on “The Soldiers” to “The Politicians” to “The Birds.” This is flippancy, not history. And there is more to come.
Danchev and Todman do not adequately address the character of the “restored” materials in the diaries. They scorn Bryant, who, they say, “emasculated” the record and made “artful confections.” But they say little to nothing about what this full text tells us that we did not already know—beyond indicating Bryant dropped the worst personal attacks. Is that all? Probably there is more. Here, systematic analytic work would have helped the new edition much more than forays into disparagement of the first editor and the fashionably-modern hunt for “feet of clay” on politicians and generals.
Another problem with the introductory materials is that they may well make errors at the very moment they boast of straightening out the record. The editors flatly declare Gen. Montgomery and Churchill “infantile tyrants.” It is not that they acted intemperately at some midnight meeting, or that Alanbrooke considered one or the other ‘puerile’ on some occasion, but that they are “infantile tyrants.” There is an unqualified editors’ reference to “Churchill’s moral degradation.” That is not anything Alanbrooke said, but words of the editors about a man whose seven decades in the public eye included fewer questionable moments than many congressmen or parliamentarians have in no time. We are told of Churchill’s “black dog” but we are not told the words don’t appear in this diary. The editors say Churchill “scrambled into supremacy” in 1940, a brainless untruth that should not efface the drama of just how Britain’s government did change in those remarkable days of May.
Some of these excesses may be the editors’ real views; some could be the strained interpretation of a chance remark by Alanbrooke. An example of the latter is the editors conclusion that Alanbrooke wished Churchill dead. They write a paragraph,21 shaping insinuation until it begins to look like an argument, and then spring their odd conclusion. The reader waits, entry after entry, for the diaries to reveal evidence that could have inspired their fantasy. There is none.
Their best hope is an incident in the Canadian wilderness, 25 August 1943. An overworked CIGS, thrilled by the prospect of several days of quiet fishing, is thunderstruck to see the Prime Minister and a colonel amble out of the woods. Telling the story marvelously, the diary says, “I could have shot them both.” This can be read as a joke or a cuss. It is inconceivable diat so slender a line could allow Alanbrooke’s new editors to write, as a general proposition, that by 1943 “the diarist had wished him dead.” But that is what the editors tell us.22
Is their grave statement hanging on that one fishing line? Probably, for nothing else in these diaries can pretend to justify the obscene thought that Alanbrooke truly wished Churchill dead. Three pages after the story about the fish that got away, Alanbrooke states that not for anything on earth would he have missed the chance to work for Churchill.23
Readers might expect any edition of a historical figure’s private diaries to be a little too generous to their subject. This 2001 presentation will never be called generous to anyone, including Alanbrooke. That may save Danchev and Todman from the criticism leveled at Bryant’s edition; but they have made mistakes of their own. Perhaps they believe that since Alanbrooke’s words expose him, in certain moments, as nasty, or “all too human,” he will look relatively better if the introduction depicts Churchill as far worse? If that was the intended approach, it fails.
Easily visible, on secure plinths above all swirls of pettiness, are two heroes. One is a first-class general, probably the best Chief of Imperial General Staff Britain ever knew. The other, looming even larger, is a soldier-turned-statesman, who probably saved the West.
Dr. Harmon is an academic adviser to The Churchill Center, a board member of the Washington Society for Churchill, and a Professor of International Relations at Command & Staff College, Marine Corps University. He thanks Drs. Mark Jacobsen, Larry P. Arnn, and Patrick Garrity for their improvements to this essay.
1. Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, War Diaries, 1939-1945, eds. Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001, £25), pp. 249, 360; hereinafter Diaries. The title of Field Marshal was earned in January 1944. Later his given proper names were collapsed into “Alanbrooke” when he was made a Viscount, after the war. Members may purchase the book for $28 from The Churchill Center Book Club, PO Box 385, Contoocook NH 03229.
2. Two examples of historians criticizing the Bryant edition are the fine talk Dr. Williamson Murray offered to the Washington Society for Churchill in that city on 2 April 1998, and the relevant paragraphs of Gerhard Weinberg’s impressive essay “Some Thoughts on World War II,” in The Journal of Military History, 56 (Oct. 1992), pp. 659-68; my copy was courtesy of Mr. Mark Whisler.
3. Diaries, pp. 351, 350, 669.
4. Diaries, pp. 18, 7, 14.
5. Diaries, pp. 384, 216, 357, 715.
6. Diaries, pp. 450, 532, 515; see also 521.
7. Diaries, pp. 12, 15, 30, 35, 145-46, 685.
8. Diaries, pp. 284-85 et. seq.
9. Diaries, pp. 373-75.
10. When Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he came to know Grigg, a proficient civil servant, and may have made him Secretary of State for War to handle the finances of that department while the P.M./Defence Minister managed the larger matters.
11. Diaries, p. 207
12. Diaries, pp. 207, 590. One could say the entire war was the verge of disaster.
13. Diaries, pp. 591-92, 655-56.
14. Diaries, p. 685. There is also remarkably little about Dresden in the official British or American strategic bombing surveys; Christopher C. Harmon, “Are We Beasts?” Churchill and the Moral Question of World War II “Area Bombing,”Newport Papers #1 (Newport, RI: Center for Naval Warfare Studies, Dec. 1991).
15. There is nothing in the Diaries except a late, vague reference at p. 703. The books are by Everett Holies (1945); Anne Armstrong (1961); and Raymond O’Connor (1971).
16. My statement about Churchill does not apply to his WW2 history, but to his papers of the years specified and held in The Churchill Archives Centre at Churchill College, Cambridge. On a second matter: David Fraser, Alanbrooke’s biographer, sees a difference between Alanbrooke and Churchill on Asian strategy, described in his essay “Alanbrooke,” in Churchill’s Generals, ed. John Keegan (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991), pp. 98-99.
17. This passage could have been written by Clausewitz or Churchill; it appears in Churchill’s The World Crisis, vol. 2: 1915 (London: Thornton Butterworth Ltd., 1923), p. 21.
18. Diaries, p. 451.
19. Diaries, pp. 688-89.
20. Introduction to the Diaries, p. xxiv.
21. Danchev & Todman, introduction, p. xviii. It is clear their argument is failing when instead of evidence they tell us to accept an “unspeakable corollary of the unspoken thought…”
22. See the introductory essay, p. xviii, and the fish tale on p. 448 of the Diaries.
23. Diaries, p. 451.