For anyone wanting an insight into the inner workings of the British political and military war effort in the Second World War, Dr Andrew Sangster’s re-appraisal of Field Marshal Alan Brooke, 1st Viscount Alanbrooke in his new book Alan Brooke : Churchill’s Right-Hand Critic is highly commended. It is a first-class analysis of the character of the man who played an understated, yet key, role in the Allied victory in the Second Wold War.
The book moves quickly through Alan Brooke’s formative years; his ancestry in Northern Ireland, schooling in France, and his time as a Royal Artillery officer in the First World War. Sangster devotes the majority of his book to Alanbrooke’s participation in the Second World War; his brigade and divisional commands in the BEF in France in 1939-1940, his Home Command during the ‘dark days’ of 1940-1941, when invasion by Germany seemed inevitable, and crucially the period when Alanbrooke was Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) between 1941-1946. The book is none the worse for such brevity about Alanbrooke’s earlier years. It’s true value is a fascinating insight into the machinations of the British political and military leadership during key periods of the Second World War.
The reader is given a valuable insight into the tensions, at a strategic level, between the Allies, as the war progressed: the American desire to invade France as early as 1942, their distrust of the British (Alanbrooke’s) intent that the Mediterranean and Italy had to be cleared of Axis forces first and misunderstandings of Stalin’s plans for post war Eastern Europe. The inevitable differences, at the tactical level, between Alanbrooke, as Head of the Army, and the other Service Chiefs are also covered well in the book.
A remote, aloof and obdurate character – once described by Churchill as “that stiff necked Ulsterman” – Alanbrooke was an extremely capable military strategist; a “thinker”, who saw the wider context of every scenario, in a way that many others didn’t, perceived as hard on those who didn’t share his gifts; yet, underneath the stern facade, Sangster’s book reveals a man who shouldered his wide responsibilities with considerable stress, and personal unhappiness. Not just a litany of facts and events, the reader can enjoy a deep analysis of Alanbrooke’s strengths and flaws, both as a soldier, and a person. This has been achieved through unedited use of Alanbrooke’s diaries, written by Alanbrooke during the war as his innermost thoughts to his second wife, Benita. When first used as heavily edited source material for Arthur Bryant’s book Triumph in the West and Turn of the Tide in 1960, the diaries were a source of much outrage. Alanbrooke had wanted them published to counter the perceived lack of recognition for his contribution by Churchill, and other contemporaries, in their memoirs. The diaries contain many criticisms of Churchill as a military strategist, and demonstrate, brutally, his lack of respect for the French, de Gaulle in particular, many of his senior colleagues in the British Army, and his American peers, in particular Marshall and Eisenhower.
Sangster’s book provides a more fulsome use of Alanbrooke’s diaries than the Bryant offering, hence the re-appraisal. Sangster reveals a man who was principled, honest and cared deeply about his friends and family. Inevitably, the book focuses on the relationship between Churchill and Alanbrooke. They were two completely opposite personalities, and that was the strength of their partnership. Churchill was charismatic, opportunistic, pugnacious and impulsive, yet astute enough to know that he needed someone like Alanbrooke, to act as a restraint. Alanbrooke was blunt, conservative, and structure orientated, spending many hours dissuading Churchill from “madcap invasions’ which had no military value. Churchill was also known to like interfering in tactical military decision making, such as the selection of military commanders, much to Alanbrooke’s annoyance. Their relationship was extremely rocky and fraught; Alanbrooke stood up to Churchill, which was never easy, and Churchill respected him for that.
A “re-appraisal” is an appropriate moniker for this book. Dr Sangster is to be commended for providing a rounded and balanced view of his subject matter.
Rupert Hague-Holmes is an amateur military historian, currently writing a biography about the life and career of Lieutenant General Sir George Lea KCB, DSO, MBE, one of the leading post WW2 British counterinsurgency warfare experts.