Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941–1945
by Andrew Roberts
Harper, 674 pp., $35.00
Even in the twenty-first century, almost seventy years after the outbreak of World War II, it is astonishing how much of its history is still written from nationalistic perspectives. Winston Churchill may be forgiven for telling the House of Commons in September 1944, at the height of the conflict, that the battle for Normandy had been “the greatest and most decisive single battle of the whole war.” But modern historians of every nationality need to see matters more clearly.
Consider, for instance, the strategic situation in July 1943. The US had been in the war for twenty months, Russia for twenty-five, Britain for almost four years. On the Eastern Front, four million men and 13,000 armored vehicles eventually participated in the Battle of Kursk and associated actions in the Orel and Kharkov salients. Hitler suffered a disastrous defeat and half a million casualties. Soviet losses were far higher.
The attention of the British and Americans, meanwhile, was fixed upon what was then their only significant ground effort, the campaign in Sicily. They committed to Operation Husky just eight divisions, and lost less than six thousand men killed. In the whole of 1943, US and British fatal casualties in operations against the Germans were around 60,000. Even in 1944, the Western Allies’ offensives in Normandy and Italy absorbed barely one third of Hitler’s forces, while the remainder continued to be deployed in the East.
This is why Andrew Roberts writes, in his excellent new study of wartime Anglo-American strategy: “In considering the roles of Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Brooke”—the “four titans” of his title—”it is important to remember that the decisions of Hitler and Stalin far more profoundly influenced the outcome [of the war] than those of any Briton or American.” Four out of every five Germans killed in action died on the Eastern Front.
Comparisons of national casualty figures should make British and American posterity grateful to their national leaders of that time, who husbanded the lives of their young men so effectively in the greatest conflict in human history. But they also go far to explain why Russians were, and remain, so contemptuous of the Western role in the war.
To be sure, the Allies provided the Soviet Union with vital material assistance. Quantities of weapons and supplies dispatched were marginal in 1941–1942, but from 1943 onward amounted to around 10 percent of the Russian war effort. Much of the Red Army advanced to Berlin in American trucks, eating American canned rations, and even wearing American boots.
But as Stalin often scornfully remarked, the Allies were much less generous with the lives of their soldiers. At every stage of the war, safely quarantined from the Wehrmacht by very serviceable expanses of water, the Americans and British waited until they had amassed prodigious superiorities of men, guns, tanks, and aircraft before engaging Hitler’s forces.
If George Marshall, probably the greatest chief of …