Andrew Roberts is one of those prolific and popular historians that Britain seems to produce in almost as great an abundance as the plastic poppies that are worn on Remembrance Day (Veterans Day to us Yanks). Since his first book came out in 1991--a biography of Lord Halifax, the British foreign minister in the late 1930s--he has written nine others and edited four more. That works out to one volume every 16 months.
You might expect that this Stakhanovian pace would endanger the quality of the finished product. Yet to judge by "Masters and Commanders," that's not the case. Given the amount of research that has gone into this book, you would hardly know it's been little more than two years since the appearance of his last one, "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900."
In his preface, Roberts emphasizes the fact that he has made extensive use of documents that were "previously quoted from only on the Internet." This is a reference to the "verbatim notes" of British war cabinet meetings prepared by Lawrence Burgis, known as "Thrushy," the assistant secretary of the cabinet office. "There were strict rules against officials keeping diaries," Roberts notes, but Burgis did so anyway in violation of the Official Secrets Act. He wasn't alone. Just about everyone involved in high-level negotiations somehow found time to write an account of what transpired, and Roberts appears to have digested all of their notes, diaries and memoirs.
While there are no big revelations here, Roberts succeeds in deepening our understanding of the complex interactions between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt (the "masters" of the title) and their senior military advisers (or "commanders"), Field Marshal Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Gen. George C. Marshall, the United States Army chief of staff who was primus inter pares on the Joint Chiefs. Although everyone involved later boasted of how harmoniously they had worked together--and on the whole they did--there were plenty of rough patches. At the end of one particularly rancorous session with his American counterparts, Brooke wrote in his diary, "Another poisonous day!"
One of the longest-running and most contentious disputes concerned when and where to open a second front in Western Europe. Marshall and his protégé, Dwight Eisenhower, argued for an invasion in 1942 or 1943 because they believed that the West was the only place where Germany could be defeated. Churchill and Brooke, who had developed a healthy respect for the fighting prowess of the Germans in World War I and the early years of World War II, wanted to postpone a Channel crossing until the enemy had been softened up. They won Roosevelt over to their cause. He, alone of the four men, admitted he was an "amateur strategist," but as a professional politician he calculated that the American people would not tolerate indefinite inaction. So along with Churchill he pushed for an American-led landing in North Africa in 1942 over the initial opposition of both Marshall and Brooke, who viewed it as a sideshow.
After Rommel's Afrika Korps had been defeated in May 1943, the question was where to strike next. Once again Churchill and Brooke argued against an invasion of France, and once again they got their way with Roosevelt's blessing. British and American forces landed first in Sicily, then on the Italian mainland. These operations drove Marshall to distraction because he feared they would lead to a morass similar to Gallipoli in 1915, another operation that Churchill had championed. "I was furious when he tried to push us further into the Mediterranean," the normally placid general later recalled. In a rare use of profanity, he told the prime minister that "not one American soldier is going to die on that goddamned island," thereby scotching a proposal to invade Rhodes.
Marshall finally got his way in 1944 when, with Churchill's reluctant acquiescence, the decision was made to launch Operation Overlord. Marshall did not, however, get his wish to lead the D-Day landings, because Roosevelt deemed him too valuable in Washington. Brooke was equally disappointed not to be chosen, but the job was slated to go to an American. Like Marshall, he bore his acute disappointment with, in Churchill's words, "soldierly dignity," at least in public. In private Brooke seethed over this "blow," made worse because the prime minister had previously promised him the job.
As Roberts points out, the Normandy landings would probably have failed if they had taken place earlier in the war, as Marshall had desired. The seasoning that American troops received in North Africa was critical to their ultimate success. It also helped that many German divisions were tied down in Italy. But, Roberts argues, the Italian offensive became counterproductive once the Allies proceeded beyond Rome, which contributed little to Germany's ultimate defeat. It is to Roberts's credit that he realizes neither Americans nor Britons had a monopoly on military wisdom. Too many writers, then and now, are wont to champion their own nation's strategists.
Brooke, for one, dismissed all who disagreed with him as simpletons. Of Marshall, he wrote in his diary, "A big man and a very great gentleman, who inspired trust, but did not impress me by the ability of his brain." Such sniping was a reflection of Brooke's acerbic personality. A subordinate called him "ruthless, decisive, short-tempered to the point of rudeness, remote." He met his match in the American chief of naval operations, Adm. Ernest J. King, a hard-drinking Anglophobe who was described by a British officer as "tactless, petty and parochial; and a hot-tempered and rigid disciplinarian." At one meeting, a participant recalled, "King almost climbed over the table at Brooke. God he was mad."
The clashes between the two men might have seriously damaged Allied unity were it not for the interceding influence of the war's unsung hero, Field Marshall John Dill, the senior British military representative in Washington. Noted for his "sincerity, modesty, frankness, integrity and self-discipline," Dill developed a close friendship with Marshall and played a vital role in smoothing out trans-Atlantic disagreements. After he died in November 1944, Anglo-American interactions became notably testier. But by then the war was well on its way to being won.
The ultimate triumph in the West had much to do, Roberts writes, with the Combined Joint Chiefs of Staff system that was set up in 1942 over Brooke's objections. This structure allowed British and American military planners to coordinate their efforts. Issues that could not be resolved at the staff level were kicked upstairs, which gave Marshall and Brooke an incentive to reach agreement on their own. A united front of senior officers could usually block ill-considered ideas like Churchill's enthusiasm for invading Norway. This provided the Allies a crucial advantage over Nazi Germany, where most of Hitler's mad schemes were implemented without military professionals being able to exercise much of a restraining influence. Committee work may not be terribly glamorous, but "Masters and Commanders" shows that it can be vitally important, and also surprisingly entertaining.
Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author, most recently, of "War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today."
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.