Masters and Commanders

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Masters and Commanders: The Military Geniuses Who Led the West to Victory in World War II By Andrew RobertsMasters and Commanders is a 2008 book by the historian Andrew Roberts about the Western Alliance between the United States and Great Britain at the highest level during World War 2. This is a comprehensive and absorbing study of the decisions that were made, the conferences, the disputes, the arguments over strategy, the friendships, the fractious relationships, and so on. It revolves around the four men who were key in the Anglo-American Alliance against Hitler; Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin Roosevelt, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, the head of the British Army, and General George C Marshall, his American counterpart. The interactions between and around these four very different men and the ever changing problems they faced are fascinating to read about. ‘In all they had met seven times,’ writes Roberts of them. ‘And at these hard-fought meetings had hammered out a victorious strategy. There had been some individual defeats and disappointments in battle against the Axis, of course, but no campaign reversals. Above all the timing of the greatest amphibious assault in history had been justified by the only truly unanswerable criterion of warfare: success. Through their rows, standoffs, fist-shaking, charm offensives, hard-fought compromises and occasional tantrums, the Masters and Commanders performed that miracle and won victory in the west.’

At the beginning of the alliance the United States had only a token army and was used to being isolationist in world affairs. General Marshall – ‘A courtly and reserved Pennsylvanian’ – had to quickly build an army of several millions capable of moving and fighting around the world and he duly did this with incredible skill and determination. We learn Roosevelt allowed Marshall more freedom and saw him much less than Churchill did Brooke. Much to Brooke’s constant annoyance, Churchill would bombard him with suggestions for new campaigns and operations, see him every day and frequently keep him up until the early hours with his penchant for late night meetings. Brooke, a formidable and rather stern looking aristocratic Ulsterman who didn’t suffer fools gladly, would snap pencils in half during meetings and firmly stand his ground when he disagreed on something. ‘In this scion of the fighting Brookes, the son of the intrepid Sir Victor,’ writes Roberts.

‘Churchill had at last found a man with the determination to match his own.’ When the two countries began meeting to plan how they would fight the war together the Americans found the British were far more organised, had a much larger delegation and usually left each conference with a vague feeling they had been outsmarted by their European cousins. The British in turn, Brooke especially, regarded the Americans to be rank amateurs in the field of military strategy and warfare. This would all soon change as American power, organisation and influence steadily increased.

By far the biggest dispute between the two Allies revolved around the second front in Western Europe and the timing of any re-entry into France. We know that it eventually occurred in 1944 but Marshall and the Americans wanted to invade in 1942 and largely saw North Africa and the Mediterranean campaigns as sideshows. They wanted to take the quickest and most direct approach possible to defeating Germany. Brooke thought this idea was utter madness and – along with Churchill – delayed it as long as possible, instead arguing strongly for a North African/Mediterranean strategy which the Americans were never particularly enthusiastic about. Brooke was still haunted by his memories of the first world war and had only recently been flung off the continent twice with the British Expeditionary Force. He had the upmost respect for the German Army and thought it practically suicide to try and land a force in France until the Germans had been sufficiently weakened by their campaign in the Soviet Union. On this point Roberts believes that Brooke was proved right by history although the campaign in Italy suffered from what today would be known as ‘mission creep’ and lost focus – its main goal becoming British prestige as British Commonwealth forces played a considerable role and General Alexander was in command. The British strategy was that of a bullfighter weakening the bull with numerous small attacks in different places before the kill whereas the Americans instinctively preferred a more direct approach. They even saw North Africa as a waste of time but landed there in 1942 because Roosevelt was anxious for American troops to start fighting Germans and this was more or less the only place to do it at that moment.

“Masters and Commanders is a fascinating and very readable book that anyone interested in the second world war will be happy to own.”

It was personal relationships that helped smooth over the cracks caused by some bitter disputes. ‘Another poisonous day!’ recorded Brooke after a heated row with Marshall who he described as ‘A big man and a very great gentleman, who inspired trust, but did not impress me by the ability of his brain.’ It was the friendship between Roosevelt and Churchill that was crucial early on Roberts explains. Churchill and Brooke were in Washington with Roosevelt when news came through that Tobruk had fallen, shattering both of them. ‘What can we do?’ said the President immediately and ordered 300 Sherman tanks to be sent to the desert. The bond between Roosevelt and Churchill was paramount although Roberts points out that the American Chiefs of Staff were often infuriated by the influence Churchill had on their boss with his charm and oratory and that towards the end of the war Roosevelt began to become more aloof and distance himself from Churchill. Equally important was the influence of Field Marshall Sir John Dill, the senior British military representative in Washington. Dill, who was known for his ‘sincerity, modesty, frankness, integrity and self-discipline’, became a very close friend of Marshall and served as a vital link between Marshall and Brooke and both countries generally, smoothing over disputes and potential hazards. That few people in Britain today know who John Dill or even Alan Brooke was is sad indeed.

Roberts details how Brooke turned down the chance to command the Eighth Army in North Africa because he felt only he could control Churchill in London. He was also passed over for the supreme command of Overlord because by that stage of the war it had to go to an American. The two men who took the jobs instead – Montgomery and Eisenhower – therefore became household names far more famous than Brooke, Eisenhower even becoming President on the back of his fame. Brooke preferred bird watching to warfare and was an accomplished orinthologist. After he had visited Sevastopol late in the war, a member of the British delegation once wrote, ‘I wish you could have seen Sir Alan Brooke, with a school history book in one hand, explaining the battle of Balaclava to an audience of field marshals.’ Roberts is very even handed and both Brooke and Marshall are judged fairly, both coming out as considerable figures. Americans like General Stilwell and General Wedemeyer were confirmed Anglophobes, Stillwell peppering his diary with sarcastic and insulting references to ‘Limeys’ while Wedemeyer even had a room used by the British delegation in Washington bugged to seek out indiscretions. Roberts points out that while there were Anglophobic Americans high in the chain of command – including Admiral King who insulted the Royal Navy and tried to keep it out of the Pacific – we should be thankful that Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Marshall were not among them.

Most of all it is Winston Churchill who is brought most vividly to life reading this book with countless Churchill stories/anecdotes. ‘Splendid looking man,’ says Churchill on meeting the King of Saudi Arabia. ‘Boasts of his virility and how often he attends to his harem. He must keep a card index.’ ‘Life would go on,’ he replies when asked what would happen if a V-2 hit the House of Commons. ‘I seldom go there myself.’ When Admiral Pound takes a tumble in the garden at Chequers, Churchill helps him up muttering, ‘Remember you are the Admiral of the Fleet not a mid-shipman!’ There are many great Churchill moments and quotes in Masters and Commanders and other amusing incidents. My own favourite is ‘Habbakuk’, a proposal by the somewhat eccentric Admiral Mountbatten. Habbakuk is a nutty plan to make floating airfields or artificial islands out of an ice and wood pulp mixture known as ‘Pykrete’. Mountbatten demonstrates by bringing a block of ice and a block of Pykrete into a conference room of British and American Chiefs and proceeds to shoot at each with his pistol to show how resilient the latter is. ‘As he now pulled a revolver out of his pocket,’ recalled Brooke. ‘We all rose and instinctively moved behind him. The bullet ricocheted off the Pykrete and buzzed round our legs like an angry bee!’ As this had been a very bad-tempered conference, one of the officers waiting outside was heard to declare, ‘They’ve started shooting at each other!’

Masters and Commanders is a fascinating and very readable book that anyone interested in the second world war will be happy to own. My paperback copy is over 580 pages long so this is good value and also includes a number of maps and interesting black and white photographs. Highly recommended.

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Masters and Commanders
by Andrew Roberts

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