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 the army America has ever had, was still alive to read the above, he would say that explanations for the Allies’ belated appearance on the war’s big battlefields lay in London, not Washington. From the moment the US entered the war, committed to the strategy of “Germany First” because Japan was a much less powerful enemy, Marshall wanted an army landed on the Continent. In 1942, he was willing to take extraordinary risks and even accept the loss of an expeditionary force in France, in order to relieve German pressure on the Russians.
However, Churchill and his senior soldier, Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir Alan Brooke, refused to acquiesce in a sacrificial operation for which forces and losses would be overwhelmingly British. The prime minister persuaded President Roosevelt, against Marshall’s strongest wishes, instead to commit US troops to the November 1942 “Torch” landings in North Africa. The British, at the January 1943 Casablanca Conference, successfully pressed the case for a campaign in Sicily and Italy, averting a cross-channel attack for that year also.
Roberts’s book addresses the making of Anglo-American strategy from 1942 to 1945. His analysis of the shifts of Anglo-American sentiment, and above all his set-piece descriptions of the great Western Allied summit conferences of the war, are masterly. He emphasizes the deceits that the British employed toward the Americans in 1942. Churchill and Brooke were fearful that if they openly opposed Marshall’s desire for an early landing in France, the US would shift forces to the Pacific, as indeed the chief of the army once threatened to do.
The British asserted their principled enthusiasm for a Continental invasion. But they remained determined not to execute this prematurely—in other words, until they were sure of beating an enemy whom painful experience had convinced them fought better man-for-man than their own soldiers, and for that matter than the US Army.
The British never persuaded America’s soldiers to share their enthusiasm for Mediterranean operations. But in 1942–1943, they were able to get their way, because until the US Army attained its optimum strength in 1944–1945, most of the available ground forces in the West were British. If Churchill and Brooke refused to undertake an operation, it could not happen. The price they paid for prevarication was that Marshall and his colleagues acquired a lasting mistrust of their ally.
Roberts writes: “Perfidious Albion, good strategy, clever footwork—whatever it was, many key Americans were deceived about British intentions.” They found Brooke insufferably arrogant and Churchill chronically changeable. They believed that the British were so burned by defeats and so traumatized by the memory of their World War I losses that their leaders flinched from the decisive encounter with the enemy that lay at the heart of US strategic doctrine.
This view was by no means unfounded. But most historians, including Roberts, judge that, on the point of substance, Churchill and Brooke were right. An Allied landing in France in 1942 or 1943 would almost certainly have failed. In those years, Mediterranean operations represented the best option available. America’s soldiers, too, were given pause for reflection when they discovered for themselves in North Africa and Italy what it was like to fight the Wehrmacht, perhaps the finest fighting force the world has ever seen, however evil the cause to which it was committed.
But British credibility in Washington was further damaged by the fact that Churchill assured Roosevelt that occupying Italy would be relatively easy, whereas in reality the campaign proved hard and thankless. This was partly, at least, because the poor performance of the Allied armies caused Hitler to change his mind about defending it. In July 1943, German commanders opposed fighting a major Italian campaign. But in September, after witnessing the caution and bungling of Allied commanders and troops, especially at Salerno, General Albert Kesselring told Hitler that he believed he could hold a line against them. Thereafter, he defended the peninsula with skill and stubbornness. The best that can be said of the Allied commitment was that it provoked Hitler, after he lost the Battle of Kursk, to divert some troops from the Eastern Front.
Andrew Roberts is an exceptionally diligent researcher who has drawn upon a remarkable range of sources, some of them hitherto unexplored. He has unearthed notes of British War Cabinet meetings kept by an official, Lawrence Burgis. He has used to considerable effect the papers of two important US staff officers, Albert Wedemeyer and Thomas Handy, to bolster accounts of the wartime conferences by more familiar witnesses, notably Alan Brooke, Churchill’s doctor Lord Moran, British minister Harold Macmillan, and diplomats Sir Alexander Cadogan and Oliver Harvey.
He has made impressive use of the unpublished diary of General John Kennedy, Britain’s director of military operations, which provides insights into the thinking of the high command almost as significant as Brooke’s journal. The diary of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, First Sea Lord from 1943 to 1945, has also been little used by earlier historians.
Roberts’s new material does not significantly change the familiar picture of events. The overwhelming merit of his book lies in the quality of the author’s analysis and judgments. First, and most important, he is skeptical about the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt. A surprising number of historians continue to describe this as a friendship. Yet it seems better to call it, much more cautiously, a friendship of state. Roberts writes: “The realities of Realpolitik, often in the persons of Marshall and Brooke, constantly intruded on the relationship.”
From 1941 onward Churchill perceived, with a clarity that conspicuously eluded many of his fellow countrymen, that friendship with the US through the person of its president was indispensable to Britain’s interests. In no aspect of his wartime premiership did Churchill display a more steely self-discipline than in nurturing and cherishing the relationship. In Roosevelt’s company he strove to listen, when his own instinct was always to talk; to flatter; to indulge the President’s whims; to bear his slights; to respect his views. Only in 1944–1945, as tensions between the Allies mounted, did Churchill’s differences with Roosevelt become unbridgeable.
On Roosevelt’s side, like the rest of humanity he was fascinated by Churchill’s personality. But he found the prime minister’s company exhausting, and lacked the smallest sympathy for his promotion of British imperial pretensions. Roosevelt was committed to ensuring that Britain did not lose the war, but never cared a fig for its solvency or place in the world once the Axis was defeated.
Roosevelt was confident that the US would be overwhelmingly the greatest power in the postwar world. He intended to reorder that world in accordance with American ideas of morality rather than British notions of reality. As Roberts shows, Anglo-American relations were far chillier than contemporary rhetoric suggested. It becomes easier to understand them by accepting that they were founded, as relations between states in war or peace almost always are, on respective perceptions of national interest rather than upon sentiment.
That said, and if we acknowledge that all alliances are difficult, an amazingly effective partnership was sustained. Secretary of War Henry Stimson was almost justified in claiming in his autobiography:
When all the arguments have been forgotten, this central fact will remain. The two nations fought a single war, and their quarrels were the quarrels of brothers.
The British and Americans made strategy together, which the Russians were never willing to do, and such collaboration conspicuously eluded the Axis powers. It is only necessary to study the shambles of Germany’s supreme command under the dead hand of Hitler to applaud the partnership achieved by London and Washington. Happily for Western civilization, the tactical brilliance of the Wehrmacht on the battlefield was nullified by Hitler’s strategic folly.
“Cometh the hour, cometh the man” is a foolish proverb. It is notable how often in history, not least in our own times, those appointed or elected to address crises in human affairs have failed to match their gravity. But Roberts’s theme is that of how, during World War II, four extraordinary men indeed proved worthy of the roles in which destiny cast them. Churchill’s greatest contribution was, of course, in defying Hitler amid the logic of British defeat in 1940–1941.