The Alliance That Held

By Bering, Henrik | Policy Review, April-May 2009 | Go to article overview

The Alliance That Held


Bering, Henrik, Policy Review


ANDREW ROBERTS. Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West. ALLEN LANE. 672 PAGES. [pounds sterling]25

WINSTON CHURCHILL was not the easiest of bosses to work for, as the memoirs and reminiscences of those who were close to him during World War II testify. An incident recorded by Churchill's secretary, Elizabeth Nel, provides some of the flavor: We are in Churchill's bedroom in the No. 10 annex in Whitehall, just above the Cabinet War Rooms, where Churchill spent most of the war. The prime minister lounges on his bed together with his Persian cat, Smokey, while on the phone with Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff and Britain's top soldier.

  Mr. Churchill sat on the bed and Smokey sat on the blankets watching
  him. The PM'S telephone conversation with [Brooke] was long and
  anxious; his thoughts were far away; his toes wiggled under the
  blankets. I saw Smokey's tail swish as he watched, and wondered what
  was going to happen. Suddenly he pounced on the toes and bit hard. It
  must have hurt, for Mr. Churchill started, kicked him right into the
  corner of the room shouting 'Get off, you fool' into the telephone.
  Then he remembered and he said, 'I didn't mean you,' and then seeing
  Smokey looking somewhat dazed in the corner, 'Poor little thing.'
  Confusion was complete, the CIGS hung up hastily and telephoned the
  private secretary to find out what was happening. It took a long time
  to get it all sorted out, and Sir Alan Brooke assured that it was not
  his fault.

This is pure comedy, but often the disagreements between Churchill and Brooke, later ennobled as 1st Viscount Alanbrooke, were heated; on several occasions, Brooke snapped his pencil in two in disgust, while during one clash Churchill shook his fist at Brooke and accused him of crippling initiative. Brooke notes in his diary that the prime minister was "infuriated, and throughout the evening kept shoving his chin out, looking at me, and fuming at the accusation that he ran down his generals."

When the Alanbrooke diaries were published in their entirety in 1994, they created a sensation. Brooke detested Churchill's work habits, particularly these late night sessions often lasting past two in the morning, which Brooke termed the "Midnight follies" and at which Churchill's fertile imagination was apt to come up with all manner of new schemes for winning the war--some good, others less so--which then had to be rendered harmless.

Churchill, of course, had total faith in his powers as a strategist, in fact seeing himself as having inherited his ancestor Marlborough's genius in that department. And he took a dim view of the War Office and the top brass, which he saw as bereft of imagination and resistant to innovation, even accusing the Chief of Staffs Committee of being governed by "the sum total of their fears."

On the other side of the Atlantic, Brooke's counterpart, George Marshall, the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, had a marginally easier time with his master, Franklin Roosevelt, who at least kept decent hours. But despite claiming no special expertise in military strategy, Roosevelt, like Churchill, was prone to getting ideas of his own. Marshall referred to FDR'S "cigarette lighter gesture," a casual wave of the hand, suggesting bold new operations. "The President shifted, particularly when Churchill got hold of him ... The President was always ready to do any sideshow and Churchill was always prodding him. My job was to hold the President down to what we were doing."

The interaction between these four men is the topic of Andrew Roberts's splendid Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West, from which the above incidents are taken. As loaded with color as was Roberts's earlier Napoleon and Wellington, his new book details how the protagonists performed a delicate minuet, linking up in various combinations, sometimes ranging the politicians against the military men, sometimes dividing along national lines, Brits versus Americans, and sometimes crossing both national and professional lines, all depending on the issue at hand. …

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