June 5, 2013

Finest Hour 143, Summer 2009

Page 46

The Stuff of History

Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West, by Andrew Roberts. Harper, 720 pages, illus., $35. Member price $28.

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This immensely readable book tells a long tale of frustration and cooperation–often more the former than the latter—in the strategic planning of World War II. Here are four quite different personalities; Roberts considers how they interacted and struggled to establish the priorities that would eventually win the European war.

This is ground treated by many others—including multiple biographies of each man discussed here—but nowhere else is the material as clearly focused on how their relationship evolved, and they only met face-to-face in mid-1942. Much of their communication before and after was by means of tenuous telecommunication links, or through aides sent on perilous flights across the Atlantic. What they wrought was the stuff of history.

Drawing on a host of diaries, many heretofore unpublished, Roberts provides an almost over-the-shoulder view of his subjects in action. (Indeed, his very effective use of these diaries makes me wonder how future historians will ever write of present-day events when so few keep diaries anymore.) Thanks to the pictures he paints in words, we are silent observers of exchanges by which the masters (Churchill and Roosevelt) and their commanders (Alanbrooke and Marshall, respectively) developed a winning strategy. The depth, high quality, and working habits of each of these leaders comes through clearly—as do their disagreements.

So do their huge frustrations, especially early on, as the British and U.S. leadership teams struggled to carry out the policy of “Germany First.” The give-and-take on how to create a “second front” to siphon off pressure against the Soviets is a farrago of code-name references to potential military actions: “Bolero,” “Roundup,” “Sledgehammer,” “Gymnast,” and— eventually—”Torch,” the invasion of North Africa in November 1942. At times the four men did not even use the terms to refer to the same things, muddied the waters with “Super Bolero” and other variant code names.

At the heart of the decision-making was tension between the newly arrived Americans, who wanted to attack via France as soon as possible, and the battle-tested British, who felt the need to wear Germany down at the margins (North Africa, Italy, maybe Norway) before a make-or-break cross-Channel invasion. The British desire to strike at North Africa won out.

As important was the very different working relationship between each “master” and his commander. Marshall sometimes went six weeks without seeing FDR directly, while Alanbrooke complained he rarely got six hours without some (often difficult) interaction with Churchill. As we know from many accounts, FDR didn’t like writing things down, preferring oral communications. Churchill on the other hand, while sometimes pushing odd tangential actions, committed his final orders to writing. Neither master directly overruled his senior commanders, especially when they presented a unified front. Out of such seemingly minor matters of communication and consistency arose some of the wartime controversies so well related and accessed here.

Roberts capably reviews the emotional ups and downs for Brooke and Marshall concerning the coveted command of the Overlord invasion. Churchill promised Brooke the role on at least three occasions, though it was clear even by mid-1943 that it was not his to confer. Roosevelt, in his oblique fashion, considered Marshall but then he couldn’t be spared from his existing post. Eisenhower got the nod based on his experience with the North African, Sicilian, and Italian campaigns. Brooke never got over the slight, made worse in his mind because Churchill seemed not to notice.

Roberts makes clear the constant and never-ending strategic debate between the British and Americans, which no one else has so clearly described. Every decision was battled out, the Americans steady winning the arguments by late 1943, since they had more men, aircraft, and supplies to bring to bear. Churchill is seen as petulant and argumentative as his secondary role to Roosevelt and Marshall. Fights over proposed south-east Pacific ventures to free occupied British colonies were refought, as were the August 1944 landing in southern France (Anvil, later Dragoon), because they pulled American troops from the difficult Italian theater. Reading about these conflicts today, the reader can’t conceive of just how tired all the principals were as the war wore on. Churchill’s famous long nights (he, of course, took naps others couldn’t) didn’t help the outlook of Brooke and his colleagues, all of whom made that clear in their ever-present (though illegal) diaries.

This is a long book, but one filled with insight. Roberts’ extensive use of sources is evident but does not dominate the narrative. He clarifies many of the war’s strategic turning points with an even hand. He is eminently fair in his judgments about who said what to whom, and who was right. Sometimes the British come out on top; at least as often the Americans win, especially late in the war, when the American strategic view, so often dismissed by Brooke in the privacy of his diary, came to dominate events.

This is a book to own. No matter what you think you know about Churchill or the war, you will learn fascinating new things here.

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