I became interested in the formidable character of Alan Brooke when researching for other books, and in the Kew National Archives stumbled upon references which at first sight were totally contradictory. On the one hand there is the ornithological fanatic with close friends, a wife and family he adored, and on the other side a person whom men like Montgomery and Mountbatten were cautious in his presence and sometimes nervous.
Even as a ‘minor general’ during the Battle of France he challenged Churchill over the phone and successfully made his point. It was probably this forthright approach which attracted Churchill to him as he made him responsible for national defence in the face of Operation Sea Lion, then promoted him to the top position of CIGS (Chief of Imperial General Staff). In doing this Churchill was willingly surrounding himself with powerful characters and not ‘yes-men.’
Churchill saw himself as a military expert, but the honesty of Brooke’s diaries and papers clearly indicate that had Churchill not been persuaded by Brooke, one disaster may have followed another. Whether it was a senseless attack on North Norway or expending life on capturing the useless island of Sumatra. It led to heated exchanges and some rancour between the two men, and as an historian I could not think of any other person who would challenge the indomitable Churchill head on.
It was not only Churchill that Brooke challenged, but he hotly contested the American urge to start Normand D-Day years before they were ready, a thankful note appearing in General Omar Bradley’s memoirs to this effect. The importance of a person was irrelevant, Brooke rarely allowed social importance to block his opinions if he thought himself right. Even Stalin admired him, Generals Eisenhower and Marshall held his opinions in regard, others detested him. Brooke was not infallible, but he stuck to his guns in a time of potential global disaster.
He held strong opinions about many of his colleagues and expressed them in the privacy of his diary. He detested Charles de Gaulle, was critical of Eisenhower’s military ability, and thought that Marshall ‘could not see beyond the end of his nose’. He admired Montgomery’s style of leadership but disliked his egotism and lack of tact and told him this without faltering. He also liked Mountbatten as a person but decided he was a ‘waste of everyone’s time’ and found Admiral Pound always asleep and in his own world, but regretted his comments when Pound died. Brooke was not a dictator and listened to others, especially junior officers returning from their frontline experiences, but having formed his opinion he could be stubborn and in his short-sharp language expressed his opinions in such a way that no one could be left in any doubt.
He was liked, trusted, and appreciated by many despite his strong character. His colleague General Kennedy was bemused that as soon as Brooke realised that Churchill liked an afternoon nap, he was off to the nearest bookshop for bird-books. When staying at the Kremlin he had to be accompanied by Russian guards as he went in pursuit of a black woodpecker. On one occasion, in a phone call with Churchill, he was told ‘not to be a bad pussy and go away’. He slammed the phone down and phoned No 10 to see what was going on. He discovered that Churchill had been dictating to his secretary while in bed and the cat had jumped on his bare feet and bitten his toe, leaving Churchill wondering why Brooke slammed the phone down. I mention these aspects because amongst all the heated debate and ghastliness of war, there is also considerable amusement. There is a sense of tenderness towards his family, and a good deal of fun with his ‘bird friends’.
The curious aspect is that popular history books barely mention him, the man who guided Churchill and others towards survival and success, whereas his pupil Montgomery remains a household name, which is why the original title of the book was the ‘Unknown Field Marshal’.
Andrew Sangster is the author of Alan Brooke – Churchill’s Right-Hand Critic: A Reappraisal of Lord Alanbrooke, published by Casemate.