A Very Chilly Victory

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.

Thereafter, he displayed a clear-sightedness, lacking among much of Britain’s ruling class, about the need to engage both the United States and the Soviet Union in the closest possible embrace. Loathing for the bloodstained Soviets ran so deep among British politicians and senior soldiers that many clung to a hope that somehow both Stalin and Hitler might lose the war.

Cadogan recorded Brooke’s attitude toward the Russians in April 1942, finding him “rather impatient with our attitude of giving everything the Russians ask and getting nothing in return. Of course the Russians are fighting—but for themselves and not for us.” Nor were the British much more enthusiastic about the Americans, so complacent in their wealth and their homeland’s immunity from bombardment. Churchill grasped the imperatives of the Grand Alliance better than almost any of his countrymen.

Leading a coalition government, he was able to adopt a much more cavalier attitude toward his legislature than Roosevelt could toward his. Churchill often underrated the difficulties that the President faced in managing Congress, and the hatred that a significant minority of Americans nursed toward him. It has often been said that Roosevelt, understanding little of military affairs, was ill-suited to directing strategy, and indeed he delegated much more than Churchill did.

But Roosevelt displayed more wisdom than his service chiefs, first in committing US resources to aid Britain and the Soviet Union; then in his support for the 1942 North African landings. Marshall admitted after the war that he and his colleagues did not understand, as did Roosevelt and Churchill, the importance of military theater: of commitments that might not be strategically decisive or even relevant, but that sustained a semblance of momentum in the Western Allied war effort.

George Marshall was a superlative organizer, an austere, gracious, humorless man of the highest principles. When he built a chicken run behind his quarters at Fort Myer, he insisted upon paying personally for the materials used. He deplored confusing business with pleasure, so he always rejected the President’s invitations to Hyde Park. He was correspondingly disgusted by the manner in which Churchill at every opportunity closeted himself alone with the President, pressing upon him in the midnight hours military proposals that, the American chiefs believed, might serve the purposes of the British Empire, but did nothing for those of the United States. “I cannot afford the luxury of sentiment,” Marshall once told his wife, Katherine. “Mine must be cold logic. Sentiment is for others.”

Marshall formed a close friendship with General Sir John Dill, Brooke’s predecessor as Chief of the Imperial General Staff who became head of the British Military Mission in Washington. The chief of the army found it humiliating that he often learned of Roosevelt’s strategic exchanges with Churchill from Dill, whom Brooke in London informed of his talks, rather than from his own commander in chief. Marshall told Forrest Pogue, his postwar biographer:

Dill would come over to my office and I would get Mr. Roosevelt’s message…. Otherwise I wouldn’t know what it was. I had to be careful that nobody knew this…because Dill would be destroyed in a minute if this was discovered.

Despite Churchill’s erratic habits, his conduct of his nation’s war machine was much more disciplined than that of Roosevelt. The President declined even to have minutes taken of cabinet meetings. For all his geniality, he was naturally secretive, indeed duplicitous, with even his immediate subordinates. British staff work, especially in 1942–1943, was much superior to American. Thus some of the British, including Churchill, Brooke, and Ian Jacob of the War Cabinet Secretariat, condescended to Marshall. Jacob wrote:

He was essentially a staff officer rather than a commander, an organizer rather than a director of operations. He had little sense of strategy and no “feel” for operations…. He…was rather difficult to penetrate through his reserve.

But disdain for apparent American amateurishness caused the British to underrate the national genius of their ally, as well as its stupendous resources. On the American side, a veneer of courtesy masked a contempt for British military failures. Al Wedemeyer of the War Plans Division, a passionate Anglophobe and repellent personality, was among Marshall’s staff officers who regarded with scorn British policy and military performance alike.

Marshall never directly acknowledged that he was wrong, in 1942–1943, to press for an early landing in France. He failed to understand, first, the staggering combat power of Hitler’s armies; and second, that once committed on the Continent, the scale of engagement was beyond Allied power to determine. What the Anglo-Americans might wish to perceive as a limited operation to relieve pressure on the Russians, the Germans could meet in overwhelming strength, without much weakening their forces on the Eastern Front. Even when the US Army was fully mobilized in 1944–1945, it never became large enough to face the full weight of the Wehrmacht. All Western Allied strategy had to rely upon a reality, recognized by the British, that the Russians must do most of the fighting necessary to destroy Nazism.

Alan Brooke is Andrew Roberts’s hero. A dour, harsh Ulsterman of deep Christian beliefs, he displayed a tenacity in opposing Churchill matched by no other British general or minister. Brooke was not as clever as he thought. He flattered himself by claiming in his 1945 diary that Allied strategy had unfolded in accordance with his own aspirations. Roberts recognizes Brooke’s postwar claims to omniscience as “unsustainable.” But like the hedgehog, Brooke understood one big thing: that the Western Allies must engage the German army only on overwhelmingly favorable terms. The Americans owed Brooke and Churchill a considerable debt for forcing the Mediterranean strategy upon them in 1942–1943.

Thereafter, however, the balance of wisdom as well as influence shifted decisively to Marshall and his colleagues. They insisted upon D-Day in 1944, while the British still ducked and weaved. Brooke horrified the Americans by blithely asserting as late as the May 1943 Combined Chiefs of Staff conference in Washington that an invasion of France would probably not be possible until 1945 or 1946. Roberts pinpoints October 19, 1943, as the date when the prime minister and Brooke lost the argument. Churchill then persuaded Brooke to support him in seeking a postponement of Overlord. “Small wonder,” writes the author, “that Roosevelt and Marshall lost their patience, with the 150,000 men of the first wave already in full-scale training for the operation.”

The Americans stuck to their guns, even as the British continued to find excuses for delaying D-Day. Roberts quotes John Kennedy’s diary before the November 1943 Cairo summit:

The coming conference will be a difficult one. The Americans seem to think we have acted in an almost underhand way over the Mediterranean and have been guilty of unilateral action to implement our belief that the Mediterranean should have priority over Overlord, in spite of signed agreements in the contrary sense. This is curious because we have felt exactly the same about them.

And now that the Americans’ forces approached predominance, at last they could impose their will, to the advantage of the Grand Alliance. Brooke diminished himself by his self-acknowledged pique about being denied the command of Overlord, which Churchill suggested might be his rather than Eisenhower’s. Only an American might conceivably have commanded this great US-driven operation to which the British displayed, until the last moment, a halfhearted commitment.

The right decisions were made, despite Churchill’s anger and frustration, to reduce the Italian commitment and throw almost everything into Eisenhower’s campaign in northwest Europe. Washington resolutely brushed aside British attempts to abort the August 1944 “Dragoon” landings in southern France.

On this, too, American judgment was surely right. Under the command of Churchill’s unworthy favorite, Sir Harold Alexander, the Allies were going nowhere fast in Italy, with or without the Dragoon forces. The capture of Marseille proved an important logistical asset for Eisenhower’s armies, at a time when the ports of northern France had been sabotaged by the Germans, and its rail network wrecked by Allied bombing.

In the last months of the war, Churchill’s relationship with Roosevelt became progressively poisoned. The prime minister chafed and fumed at the imposition of US wishes on decisions great and small; and he explicitly criticized the President’s indifference to the fate of Poland, which Stalin was determined to incorporate in his empire. The President was certainly brutal to Churchill, brushing him aside in a naive attempt to forge a bilateral relationship with Stalin.

But while the prime minister’s quest for Polish freedom was honorable, it was never realistic. The Western Allies fought their war at their own relatively leisurely pace, which enabled them to emerge in August 1945 having lost only 400,000 British lives and 300,000 American, against the Russians’ 28 million. Stalin was implacably determined to reap an appropriate return for his nation’s staggering blood-price. By the time his armies took Berlin they were militarily invincible on the Continent.

Churchill told Eden in December 1941 that he believed the US and Britain would emerge mighty from the war, while Russia would be vastly weakened by it. In reality, of course, despite Britain’s nominal place among the victors, it was almost as comprehensively ruined as the vanquished or occupied countries. Nothing that Churchill might have done would have averted this fate. His leadership had merely enabled the British to play a noble part, from which they have derived pride ever since.

In 1945, Stalin believed that he was the most successful Allied war leader, having gained an empire in Eastern Europe and further territorial prizes in Asia. Neither Russia nor the world would understand for several decades that Soviet military dominance was purchased at the cost of an economic sclerosis that eventually undid the Communist system.

US triumph was much more soundly based. The nation emerged from the conflict with unsurpassable wealth as well as strategic reach. Roosevelt and Marshall had brilliantly managed American emergence from pre-war isolation onto the world stage. Their only conspicuous failure was the attempt to make Chiang Kai-shek’s China an effective belligerent and a great power sympathetic to American policy objectives.

Two significant criticisms of Roberts’s book suggest themselves. First, though he clearly defines his own purpose of explaining strategy-making in the West, the Russians’ role in the defeat of Hitler was so predominant that they deserve a larger place in the narrative. Second, he says little about the limitations of the British army. The Royal Navy and RAF played distinguished parts in the war. Churchill’s army, however, deeply disappointed his hopes for it. Himself a hero, he wanted Britain’s warriors to show themselves heroes. The army disgraced itself for the first three years of the war, and seldom thereafter surpassed adequacy.

It may be argued, in the same vein, that the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force displayed greater prowess than the US Army. The consequence of the soldiers’ limitations, probably inevitable in citizen armies spared the draconian sanctions imposed on the legions of Stalin and Hitler, was a chasm between the strategic aspirations of Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall, and Brooke, and the performance of their commanders and soldiers on the battlefield.

The US and British armies did enough, in the end, to make a respectable subordinate contribution to the destruction of Nazism. But all the hardest fighting was done by the Red Army, in bloodbaths such as the battles at Kursk and Stalingrad that the American and British people were fortunate to have been spared.

It remains a persistent delusion on both sides of the Atlantic that World War II was won without the slaughter that characterized the 1914–1918 conflict. In truth, of course, the same ghastly attrition proved necessary to achieve victory, but it took place in the East. When Roosevelt and Churchill, Marshall and Brooke convened, they flattered themselves that they were planning a strategy for victory. In truth, they were merely shaping plans for helping Stalin’s people to win.

Andrew Roberts ends his book by describing how, at the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Churchill paused amid the procession of Commonwealth premiers up the aisle of Westminster Abbey to shake the hand of George Marshall, at the front of the choir representing the United States. It was a moving public gesture by one great man, recognizing another. In such a fashion, suggests the author, the leaders of the Western alliance showed that their wartime differences, “often deep and sometimes bitter,” had been laid to rest.

Some of us are more cynical, believing that national interest, rather than sentiment, has always driven Anglo-American relations. There is no evidence that either Roosevelt or Marshall much liked the British, for all Churchill’s passionate anxiety that they should. But Roberts’s portrait of the relationship between the four men who made Allied strategy through the war years is a triumph of vivid description, telling anecdotes, and informed analysis. His book reinforces his claim to stand among the foremost British historians of the period.