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Overlords of World War II

Andrew Roberts' Masters and Commanders is the best kind of history, faithful to the past yet relevant to the present.

By From the July 2009 - August 2009 issue

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Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941–1945
By Andrew Roberts
(HarperCollins, 674 pages, $35)

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt first met Winston Churchill at the hastily arranged Placentia Bay conference in August 1941, he took an immediate liking to the British prime minister. “He’s a tremendously vital person,” FDR reported afterward to a friend, adding that Churchill reminded him of Fiorello LaGuardia, New York City’s energetic and eccentric mayor. In thus translating Churchill into the familiar idiom of Amer ican politics, FDR was paying Churchill the highest compliment as a man with whom he could do business. The feeling was reciprocated by Churchill, whose expressions of admiration for the American president during the war went well beyond what was required by the interests of his country. As things turned out, the bond of trust and friendship between Roosevelt and Churchill played a critically important role in the formulation of Allied military strategy between 1941 and 1945. That “special relationship” between Great Britain and the United States was personified in the bond between FDR and Churchill.

It was a good thing, too, because it neutralized and counterbalanced the stormy and often frosty relations between the military staffs of the two Allies. General Alan Brooke (later Viscount Alanbrooke), chairman of the Imperial General Staff from 1942 to the end of the war, disdained the strategic abilities of American military leaders, including General George C. Marshall, the Army’s chief of staff during the war and FDR’s trusted military adviser. At the same time, neither Marshall nor his colleagues among the ranking officers of the Army and Navy fully trusted the motives of their British counterparts, often suspecting that British strategic designs were formulated more to defend the empire in North Africa and the Middle East than to defeat Hitler as efficiently as possible.

The crucial interaction among and between these four men—Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall, and Brooke—is the subject of Andrew Roberts’s superb new book, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941–1945. Roberts, eminent historian and author of A History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900, Napoleon and Wellington, and Hitler and Churchill, along with a prize-winning biography of Lord Salisbury, has here assembled in a single detailed volume a comprehensive history of the making of Allied grand strategy in the western theater of Europe. The literature on this subject has grown to massive dimensions in recent decades and it is thus difficult to see how anyone could add much of value to the important works previously published by the likes of Sir Michael Howard, John Gaddis, B. H. Liddell Hart, and Churchill himself. Roberts, however, has succeeded in doing so, partly through his sheer skill as a historian, his penetrating judgment when presented with conflicts and contradictions in the documents, and a graceful writing style through which he assists the reader through one complex debate after another over wartime strategy.

Roberts has also drawn upon the private papers and diaries of more than 70 participants in the debates over Allied strategy, including previously unpublished verbatim reports of Churchill’s War Cabinet meetings that are here incorporated into the narrative for the first time. The keeping of notes and diaries was strictly forbidden in Great Britain under the Official Secrets Act of 1940, but this did not stop a number of Churchill’s colleagues and subordinates from doing so in the conviction that they were witnesses to history. As these documents have been gradually made available to the public, they have helped to fill out the story that Roberts is now able to tell.

Roberts is especially skilled in using this material to draw rounded biographical portraits of Marshall and Brooke, two figures not well known to the public today but whose contributions to the Allied effort were beyond measure. Marshall, modest, soft-spoken, and wary of publicity, frequently disagreed with his commander-in-chief about military strategy and always told him so, though he carried out FDR’s commands without hesitation. Roosevelt, somewhat like Churchill, was given to armchair strategizing about the war, a practice that annoyed Marshall because the plans were rarely thought through and often casually advanced with a wave in the air of the president’s ever-present cigarette. It was one of Marshall’s jobs to knock back or deflect as many of those designs as he could, which he generally succeeded in doing, albeit with some notable exceptions. Churchill would later describe Marshall as “the organizer of victory” for the operational genius he displayed in raising and supplying armies of unprecedented size.

Brooke, meanwhile, faced something of the same challenge in his relationship with Churchill, though magnified many times over due to the fertile imagination of his prime minister and Churchill’s self-regard as a military strategist. Churchill, after all, had written in The Great Crisis that in questions of military strategy during the First World War the generals usually got things wrong while the political leaders got them right. Brooke, while acknowledging that Churchill was a political “genius,” did not acknowledge his brilliance as a strategist. In his wartime diaries, which were published in the late 1950s and which challenged some of the themes developed in Churchill’s own prize-winning memoirs, Brooke wrote that “Winston never had the slightest doubt that he inherited all the military genius of his great ancestor Marlborough. His military plans and ideas varied from the most brilliant conceptions at the one end to the wildest and most dangerous ideas on the other.” There were times when Churchill and Brooke stood chin to chin in the War Cabinet rooms arguing about military plans. Brooke reported that more than once he snapped his pencil in half in frustration while listening to the prime minister advance another half-baked strategy that he and his military colleagues would be expected to implement. Brooke made certain, however, that in dealings with the outside world he and Churchill always presented a common front.

THE NUB OF THE STRATEGIC debate between U.S. and British planners had to do with the timing of the planned cross-Channel attack into France that would be required to mount a decisive invasion of Germany. Amer ican planners, following Clausewitz’s dictum of mounting overwhelming force to attack the enemy on the decisive front, pushed for an early invasion of the continent by late 1942 or early in 1943. This would require a massive buildup of troops and materiel in England in preparation for the invasion. Stalin also pushed for just such an attack to relieve German pressure on the eastern front. Churchill and Brooke, on the other hand, preferred an attack on the continent through a “peripheral” strategy that involved sending forces to northern Africa to clear out Rommel’s troops as a preliminary step for an attack across the Mediterranean Sea on what Churchill called “the soft underbelly of Europe.”

This was in keeping with Britain’s traditional maritime strategy by which she tried to deploy naval power against adversaries while avoiding direct military clashes on the continent. From the British point of view, the wisdom of this strategic precept had been confirmed by the lessons of the previous war when British forces were bogged down for four years in a stalemate on the continent. Churchill, moreover, recalling the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, feared that a premature clash with the experienced German army could lead to another disaster in France, which might then leave Britain defenseless against a reverse cross-Channel attack by the Germans. Roberts disputes the claims of some American generals and postwar historians that Churchill never wanted to mount the cross-Channel invasion. He shows convincingly that Churchill knew throughout the war that the cross-Channel attack would be necessary eventually in order to defeat Hitler, but he wished to put it off until he was sure that German forces had been weakened sufficiently to guarantee victory.

At the Arcadia conference held in Washington just weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had brought the United States into the war, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to a “Germany first” strategy that gave priority to the war in Europe over that in the Pacific. This meant that the bulk of American troops and supplies would be sent to the European theater of action. Once Germany was knocked out of the war, the Allies would turn their attention to an invasion of Japan. Marshall and his military colleagues left the conference in the belief that they had an agreement with Churchill and Brooke to give priority to an early cross-Channel invasion. Yet soon afterward, Churchill raised the issue of an attack on German forces in North Africa and by June 1942 he succeeded in selling his strategy to Roosevelt on the grounds that the lack of troops and landing craft made it impossible to carry out an invasion of France before mid-1943 at the earliest. Roosevelt, looking to the midterm elections that year, wanted an early engagement with the German army, even though it was understood by everyone that deployments to the Mediterranean needed to carry out Churchill’s plans would further delay Operation Bolero, as the buildup for the cross-Channel invasion was then called. Thus was launched Operation Torch, the attack on German forces in North Africa in November 1942, followed then by the bloody campaign in Italy that began in 1943.

By late 1943, as Roberts tells the story, pressure was building both from Stalin and from Marshall to carry out the invasion of France rather than to continue to expand operations in the Mediterranean as Churchill and Brooke wished to do. After the Allied successes in Italy, Churchill proposed new operations in Greece and the Balkans that would have further delayed Operation Overlord, the code name given for the invasion of France. By this time, Soviet forces had turned back the German army on the eastern front, presenting Roosevelt and Churchill with the prospect that Stalin might defeat Hitler before their forces could gain a foothold on the continent. It was at this point that Roosevelt swung his influence in the dir ection of the cross-Channel attack. At the Teheran conference in November 1943, Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt decided to curtail further operations in the Mediterranean and to begin plans in earnest for an invasion of France in May 1944.

Marshall could have had the operational command for Overlord if he had asked for it, which his sense of honor and rectitude forbade him to do. Roosevelt was prepared to offer it to him, but feared that he could not find a successor with Marshall’s immense operational skills and political support in Congress. Thus, on Marshall’s recommendation, the command of Overlord was given to General Eisenhower, who had distinguished himself in the campaign in Africa. Because of this, the military figure that emerged from the war with the highest public profile was neither Marshall nor Brooke but rather Eisenhower, who commanded the greatest amphibious assault in the history of warfare.

THE MASTERS AND COMMANDERS met seven times in all between 1942 and 1945—twice at Washington and Quebec, and once at Casa blanca, Teheran, and Yalta—and despite much disagreement they managed to hammer out a strategy that won the war for freedom and democracy in Europe. These conferences, as Roberts writes, “brought the British and American armies to Africa, Sicily, Rome, Normandy, Paris, and (as of early 1945) almost into the heart of Germany.” It was a stupendous achievement, and one that should not be taken for granted. In the beginning, when the British faced Hitler alone, and then later when the United States entered the con- flict, the odds against any success on this scale were daunting. Churchill, after seeing Roosevelt at Yalta, knew that he was not well. He would not live to see the end of the war, though by the time the Allied leaders finished their meeting at Yalta the eventual outcome was no longer in doubt.

Churchill and Roosevelt were criticized harshly after the war for the concessions they made to Stalin at Yalta. Roberts acknowledges that both men were naïve or optimistic about the prospect for postwar cooperation with Stalin. Roosevelt actually believed that Stalin liked him, which, even if it had been true, meant nothing to Stalin insofar as geopolitical calculations were concerned. Nevertheless, there was little Churchill or Roosevelt could have done in 1945 to prevent Soviet occupation and control of Eastern Europe. Soviet troops occupied the area by virtue of their hard-fought campaign against the Germans and there was nothing, short of continued warfare, that the Western allies could have done to dislodge them. A cross-Channel attack launched a year earlier—in mid-1943—might have brought U.S. and British troops much further east to meet advancing Soviet troops, but this would have been undertaken (as Churchill knew) against the great risks of a costly defeat on the beaches of France, which might have left the entire continent open to the Soviet advance.

Like all outstanding works of history, this one is written with a purpose to instruct the present through an understanding of the past. In this sense, Masters and Commanders is the best kind of history, faithful to the past yet relevant to the present. Democracies, as these wartime debates demonstrate, have the means of finding common ground by facing up to their internal conflicts and differences. Churchill and Roosevelt understood that they represented millions of their countrymen and were ultimately answerable to them, in contrast to Hitler and Stalin, who made decisions on their own, tolerated no opposition or debate, and brought ruin to their respective countries. As Roberts reminds us, more than 80 percent of the casualties in the European theater occurred on the eastern front. Most of all, Masters and Commanders reminds us that the survival of freedom in the first half of the 20th century was brought about by the indispensable alliance between Great Britain and the United States—and that this alliance, frayed though it now may be, remains the main and indispensable obstacle to the enemies of freedom in a new century.

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About the Author

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of Camelot and the Cultural Rev­olution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism (Encounter Books).