AoH Book Club: Andrew Roberts on Masters & Commanders

The acclaimed historian discusses his book on the four main conductors of Allied strategy during the Second World War.
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Masters & Commanders, when published in 2008, offered a new perspective on the grand strategy between the allies, but what also comes through is the personalities of the four men directing that strategy. Was there anything that surprised about the four in your research?

The most surprising thing was that there was anything new to say about such a well-trawled subject as the creation of the Western Allies’ grand strategy in the Second World War. I was incredibly lucky to discover the verbatim accounts of the War Cabinet  between 1941 and 1945 taken down by a hitherto-unknown assistant secretary called Lawrence Burgis, who secretly kept copies of his shorthand notes, completely against the provisions of the Official Secrets Act 1911 . He was supposed to have burnt the notes in the Cabinet Office fireplace after typing them up, but instead he took them home and stored them away.

Masters & Commanders was therefore able to reveal exactly what Churchill, Brooke and others actually said word-for-word during these vital meetings that decided British wartime strategy. They had never been used before, because when I discovered them in the Churchill Archive Centre in Cambridge, no previous historian had deciphered Burgis’s personal shorthand hieroglyphics. I has also made extensive use of the recently-released notebooks of the Cabinet deputy secretary Norman Brook (later Lord Normanbrook), which had so far not been reproduced in book form. I also worked the Roosevelt Papers owned by Conrad Black, which have not been seen by outside scholars, and the diaries of Maj-Gen John Kennedy, which are full of new insights into War Office decision-making, as well as over sixty other contemporaries. As well as having a new ‘take’ on the Second World War, therefore, this book was packed with brand new Churchill quotations, jokes and apercus.

I was also surprised how often Churchill – at least in the early part of the war – admitted that the Germans were, unit for unit, better soldiers than the British. In the Far East he began by acknowledging the Japanese as superior jungle fighters. Never in public, of course, but at one point Brooke said he must ‘have a word’ with the PM over his habit of praising the German fighting man over the British.

In your introduction you mention a google search on WW2 strategy returns 1.64million. The same search now weighs in at 453million. What is it about the Second World War that continues to fascinate?

I suppose it must be the sheer evil that Adolf Hitler and Nazism represented that continues to interest us so deeply, even nearly three-quarters of a century after his suicide. He had only been dead eighteen years when I was born, and so along with my whole generation I grew up with an ever-present sense of what the world escaped because of the Second World War. Yet surprisingly  that sense has not appreciably dimmed in the intervening years. Of course, recently we have seen a distinct echo of the same kind of mentality in Continental  Europe, but by every possible metric the Nazis were far worse than even Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine. The historian John Lukacs used to say that the evil of Hitler would fade over time, and eventually he would be seen as no worse than the Emperor Hadrian, but I’m unconvinced.

I also suspect that the moral complexities of allying ourselves with Joseph Stalin, who was in some ways as evil as Hitler, and as terrible a killer because his rule lasted twice as long, is something else that fascinates us. The personalities and decision-making of the good guys – Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt – and especially their personal/political/strategic friendship is also something that I think will continue to interest and inspire future generations.

How effective do you think Marshall would have been if he had served as CiC on the ground, instead of Eisenhower?

I suspect that George C. Marshall would have made an excellent Commander in Chief of Operation Overlord. He had an excellent analytical brain; his innate decency would have made him popular with the troops, as with Eisenhower; he would have brooked no more dissent from lieutenants wile George Patton and Omar Bradley than Eisenhower did. But he knew that he could not leave Washington, as Roosevelt needed him there. If Marshall had been commanding in Europe, there would have been no-one to take his place as the key decision-maker on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Churchill, Marshall and Brooke each had competing strategies about how to win the war, but it was Roosevelt – the man who knew the least about grand strategy – who turned out to be the ultimately arbiter between them, and so it was effectively his strategy that was adopted. FDR first supported Churchill and Brooke’s policy of wearing down the Germans in North Africa and Italy before suddenly changing to support Marshall’s policy of attacking in Normandy.

The personal relations between these four men – although they tried to hide the fact after the war – were fiery but tempered by moments of altruism and humour. Strategy on which the lives of hundreds of thousands depended were often decided as a result of hard-fought compromises between highly stressed, exhausted Chiefs of Staff, often after shouting matches, standoffs and fists being banged on tables. In April 1942, Churchill and Brooke deliberately misled Roosevelt and Marshall about their readiness to undertake the cross-Channel attack, leading to intense mutual distrust and personal resentments.

If you could have attended any one of the major conferences covered in the book, which would it have been and why?

The Casablanca Conference of January 1943 was the moment where the British sold the idea of a Mediterranean Strategy to the Americans, and was the last conference at which they exhibited much better staffwork. It would have been fascinating to see how that was done, assuming I’d be allowed to be a fly-on-the-wall. Having interviewed quite a few people who were at the ten key wartime conferences – sadly all of them now dead – I recognised how important was the work of the deputy, assistant and vice chiefs of staff in preparing the ground for these conferences. Casablanca would also have been fun to attend for the exotic location, and watching the  personal relations between the Masters and Commanders.

For the most part the strategy pursued by the four was hugely successful, but would you agree the imposition of the Iron Curtain and the subsequent Cold War can be said to have been their main failure?

I don’t believe so, for the simple reason that the Red Army had far more boots on the ground in that part of Eastern Europe where the Iron Curtain fell than the Western Allies, and nothing much could have changed that. Churchill wanted a Balkan strategy, but for all the reasons I give in my book, it was never really a runner. He was the only one of the three Masters and Commanders who wanted it, and the Germans could have defended the Ljubljana Gap for weeks or even months on end, as they had at Monte Cassino. We too often blame ourselves for events that were clearly not within the purview of the West. The imposition of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War was Stalin’s fault, and no-one else’s.

Of the four men, Alanbrooke is the least known, but his abilities really shine through in the book, and he was vital in keeping some of WSC’s more outlandish schemes within the War Cabinet. Did anything about Alanbrooke surprise you during your research?

What surprised me most was Alanbrooke’s sense of disappointment at not being chosen to command Operation Overlord, which Churchill had to break to him at the Quebec conference in May 1943. Of course he was disappointed, as his remarkable diaries superbly edited by Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman show so well, but how could he not have realised that with the Americans by then providing the lion’s share of the men and materiel, of course it was going to be an American in command? It was as though he had wilfully ignored the obvious implication of the United States’ preponderance in almost every area by that stage in the war. In the calendar year 1944, to take one of any number of examples, while Britain produced 28,000 warplanes and Russia and Germany each produced 40,000, the United States produced 98,000. It was obvious that FDR was going to impose an American overall commander, initially intended to be Marshall but subsequently the choice falling upon Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Do you think the influence of alcohol on Churchill during the war is exaggerated?

Yes, wildly exaggerated, and not least recently by President Zelensky, who, when his leadership was compared to Churchill’s joked that at least he drank less than Churchill. In fact there was only one occasion when Churchill was the worse for wear for alcohol during the whole of his Second World War premiership, which is astonishing considering the stress he was under, year after year. On that occasion, in March 1944, the Defence Committee of the Cabinet was held again the following morning in a much more sober atmosphere. The portrayal of Churchill as habitually drunk during the war is generally confined to Nazi propaganda and the truly dreadful 2017 movie Churchill, in which Brian Cox plays an intoxicated prime minister praying on his knees to God that D-Day will be a failure!

Andrew Roberts is an acclaimed historian and author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny and Napoleon & Wellington. Masters & Commanders is highly recommended.