Band of Bickering Brothers

By Lynne Olson
Sunday, August 9, 2009


How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945

By Andrew Roberts

Harper. 674 pp. $35

In the spring of 1943, Gen. Alan Brooke, the sharp-tongued chief of the British army, noted gloomily in his diary that he was to travel to Washington soon for a series of wartime strategy talks with his U.S. counterpart, Gen. George Marshall, and other American military leaders. "I do NOT look forward to these meetings," he wrote, "in fact I hate the thought of them." Having already participated in dozens of such sessions, many of them rancorous, Brooke would sit through dozens more before the end of the war. "The stink of the last one is not yet out of my nostrils!" he exclaimed before setting off for the Cairo and Tehran conferences in November 1943.

In "Masters and Commanders," British historian Andrew Roberts skillfully dissects the complex, contentious relationships among Brooke, Marshall and the other two key strategists of World War II's Western Alliance, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. In essence, Roberts tells the story of how the foursome "fought each other over how best to fight Adolf Hitler." For all the talk of the "special relationship" between the United States and Britain during the war, the partnership was fragile and fractious from the moment of its birth. American and British leaders agreed that the defeat of Germany must be the Allies' first objective, but they sharply differed throughout the conflict on how to accomplish that goal. The main American strategy was to go straight for the German jugular -- an invasion of France across the English Channel. The British believed in a peripheral approach, striking Germany in North Africa and other targets on the perimeter of Europe, to weaken the Reich before going in for the kill.

Brooke and Marshall, the "Commanders" of the title, were the chief standard bearers for these widely divergent plans, and Roberts's account of their duels with each other and with their "Masters" -- Churchill and Roosevelt -- is the most compelling part of the book. The two generals had much in common. They were the preeminent figures in their country's high commands and the closest and most trusted military advisers to their heads of government. Each was a superb leader who made a vital contribution to ultimate victory. They shared many of the same personality traits: They were brusque, stern, strong-willed, obstinate, intensely private, impatient and formidable.

But there was one important difference, of which both were acutely aware. Marshall, a brilliant manager who had overhauled the moribund U.S. Army, had never led troops in battle, despite his keen desire to do so. Brooke, by contrast, had fought in the cataclysmic Battle of the Somme in 1916 and commanded a British army corps in France in 1939-40. His leadership, by many accounts, was responsible for the successful evacuation of more than 200,000 British troops from Dunkirk.

Having experienced the German blitzkrieg firsthand, Brooke believed that Marshall had no idea of the fury that would lie in wait for inexperienced, ill-equipped Allied troops attempting an early landing in France. Scornful of what he viewed as the reckless amateurishness of the American plan, the acidic Brooke denigrated Marshall in his war diaries as a poor strategist, "rather over-filled with his own importance," and "a very dangerous man." In turn, Marshall and his lieutenants, several of whom were violent Anglophobes, were convinced that Britain's peripheral strategy was simply a scheme to safeguard the British empire. After the war, as military analyst Mark Perry has noted, Marshall acknowledged that "too much anti-British feeling [existed] on our side. . . . Our people were always ready to find [Great Britain] perfidious."

As it turned out, the final arbiter of the debate was President Roosevelt, who, of the four leaders, knew the least about military strategy and had little interest in learning more. To Marshall's dismay, FDR backed Churchill's proposal for an Allied attack on North Africa in late 1942. Not long afterward, however, the president sided with Marshall in demanding an invasion of France in the spring of 1944, when Churchill and Brooke were pressing for a continued focus on the Mediterranean. While Roosevelt's decisions were largely made for political reasons (he was concerned about the 1942 midterm elections and 1944 presidential race), they were, in Roberts's view, the right ones militarily as well.

As Roberts makes clear throughout the book, hammering out Allied strategy was an untidy, exhausting, sometimes debilitating process, replete with fist-shaking arguments and emotional tantrums. But the debates, ill-tempered as they often were, produced the searching questions and unsparing analysis needed to come up with a plan for victory, which, in the end, was the only thing that mattered. Feelings might have been bruised, but the alliance itself never fractured.

Writing in his autobiography about the wartime Anglo-American union, Roosevelt's secretary of war, Henry Stimson, observed: "When all the arguments have been forgotten, this central fact will remain. The two nations fought a single war, and their quarrels were the quarrels of brothers."

Lynne Olson's latest book, "Citizens of London," a behind-the-scenes look at World War II's Anglo-American alliance, will be published early next year.

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