14

The Overlordship of Overlord: ‘A balance of disguised bribes and veiled threats’ June–August 1943

High level war planning is an awesome responsibility, yet the whole business is carried on in an impersonal way…Plans were made on the basis of numbers, not individuals.

General Charles Donnelly’s unpublished autobiography, 19791

At 5 p.m. on Tuesday 15 June 1943, Winston Churchill did something that would colour his relationship with Brooke for the next twenty years. Just before the War Cabinet that day, he told the CIGS that he wanted him to ‘take the Supreme Command of Operations from this country across the Channel when the time was suitable. He said many nice things about having full confidence in me, etc.’ This was the first of three occasions that Churchill expressly offered Brooke command of Operation Overlord. Sworn to secrecy, Brooke did not even tell his wife, although when Churchill next met Benita he mentioned it to her too. Brooke later wrote that the offer ‘gave me one of my greatest thrills during the war. I felt that it would be the perfect climax to all my struggles to guide the strategy of the war into channels which would ultimately make a reentry into France possible, to find myself ultimately in command of the Allied forces destined for this liberation!’2

Yet from the very beginning, Roundup and then Overlord–as distinct from Sledgehammer–was always going to have significantly more American than British Commonwealth troops, twenty-seven divisions to twenty-one at its first conception. Furthermore, the whole political impetus for early implementation of the operation had come from Washington, indeed from Marshall personally, while the incubus had always been seen to be Brooke. Although senior Americans such as Leahy were calling him ‘Brookie’ by 1943, they still thought him ‘a somewhat forbidding personality’, something Churchill can hardly have failed to spot.3 Whereas Eisenhower, Montgomery, Bradley, Clark, Patton and Alexander had all commanded troops successfully in North Africa, Brooke had not taken the field since the two ill-fated BEF campaigns in 1940. He was undoubtedly qualified for and equal to the task of Overlord, but it was hardly a recommendation.

The Americans had not been officially consulted by Churchill about Brooke’s appointment, but the post of supreme commander of Torch and Husky had gone to Eisenhower after Marshall refused them. In retrospect, therefore, it seems surprising that Churchill should have built up Brooke’s hopes without first clearing the appointment with Roosevelt and Marshall, and almost incredible that Brooke did not spot that the job was certainly not by then in Churchill’s sole gift.

Perhaps Churchill offered it in the hope that Brooke would become more enthusiastic about Overlord as a result. The Briton Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Morgan had been appointed chief of staff to the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC), at Casablanca. Although there was still no supreme allied commander appointed, he had got on with drawing up the plans for Overlord at Norfolk House in St James’s Square in London. His first set were ready by July 1943 and approved the following month. With remarkably few alterations, these were the plans that were put into operation on D-Day the following year.

The American view of Brooke was represented by Elliott Roosevelt, who wrote in Rendezvous with Destiny:

The overall commander of the operation would not be Churchill’s candidate, General Sir Alan Brooke, who did not want a second front anyway. Marshall was the man who could be counted on to hold his own against Winston and strike at Germany where the Nazis were strongest, not temporize, as the British would have preferred, and delay landings in France until the Reich had been brought to its knees.4

This was a completely inaccurate representation of Brooke’s view: he believed an eventual Overlord was necessary, and had accepted May 1944 as its launch date at the Trident Conference. Yet it does help explain why he would not secure its command.

Operation Citadel, the Germans’ fifty-division assault on the Kursk salient in Russia, was launched on Monday 5 July 1943 and became the largest single battle in history, with more than two million men engaged on both sides. The German forces facing Kursk comprised nine hundred thousand troops, two thousand seven hundred tanks and assault guns, ten thousand artillery pieces and two thousand aircraft. Marshal Zhukov decided to reply with Operation Kutuzov, aptly named after the hero of the 1812 campaign since it involved allowing the Germans to attack first before unleashing a massive counter-stroke a week later, on 12 July. The mammoth battle continued over an area roughly the same size as the United Kingdom, before it was finally won by the Russians on 17 August. During a key moment of the Kursk struggle, on 17 July, Hitler withdrew II SS Panzer Corps from an important part of the line and sent it to Italy, striking confirmation of Brooke’s hopes for the Mediterranean strategy.

On the same day that Hitler launched Citadel, Churchill telegraphed Roosevelt to protest against his proposed draft proclamation to the Italian people on their liberation, stating that it did not mention the British contribution enough, and that, although he had acted as ‘your Lieutenant throughout’ Torch, as far as Husky and post-Husky were concerned ‘we are equal partners’ in terms of numbers of troops, ships and aircraft, and ‘I fully accepted your dictum that “There should be no senior partner”.’ The amendments Churchill suggested–‘in all the frankness of our friendship’–were minor, such as adding Alexander’s name to the proclamation as Eisenhower’s deputy and asking that the last three words in the phrase ‘the vast air armadas of the United Nations’ be replaced with ‘the United States and Great Britain’, explaining ‘After all it is the United States and Great Britain who are virtually doing the whole thing.’ Roosevelt concurred in these various alterations, and forwarded a copy to Marshall with the message ‘I think the Prime’s point is well taken.’5

The next day Churchill invited John Kennedy and Major-General Francis Davidson, Director of Military Intelligence at the War Office, to discuss troop strengths, although he was not up from his afternoon nap when they arrived at the No. 10 Annexe at 6 p.m. After talking about Kursk, which took precedence, he asked about Husky, and was told that the British and Americans would each land a quarter of a million men on Sicily in four days’ time. ‘The enemy forces should be outclassed quickly once we get a footing on the island,’ said Kennedy, which is indeed what happened.

Churchill didn’t like the way Syracuse was printed ‘Siracusa’ on the map that Kennedy produced, and as a great stickler for English pronunciation of foreign place-names he said ‘he didn’t like it and we should change it or the BBC would be getting hold of it next’.6 Later on in the campaign he objected to the foreign pronunciation of any place-names, as Cadogan noted, ‘calling it Pantellārea, and ridicules Pantelleíra; asks if we are going to talk about Afreéca and Parée! CIGS plays up nobly by calling Porto Empedocle Porto Empedoakle. PM didn’t bat an eyelid.’7

In a Cabinet discussion on war criminals on 7 July, Churchill reported that ‘FDR [was] inclined to let our troops shoot them out of hand! I suggested the United Nations [should] draw up list of fifty or so who would be declared as outlaws by the thirty-three nations. (Those not on the list might be induced to rat!) If any of these were found by advancing troops, the nearest officer of Brigade rank should call a military court to establish identity and then execute without higher military authority.’ The Lord Chancellor Lord Simon pointed out that Roosevelt had signed an Allied public declaration which said that the terms of an armistice would include provisions for surrender. ‘My scheme would be a refinement on that,’ argued Churchill. This did not persuade Simon, who mentioned that there was a UN Commission for Investigations of War Crimes. Attlee thought it might be convenient to hand over the worst Nazis to the ‘most injured nations like Norway and Poland’ for their own form of (rough) justice.8

After a dinner for the King at Downing Street that evening, Churchill took Brooke into the large garden of No. 10 at 1.30 a.m. and, standing ‘in the dark’, again told him that he wanted him to be the supreme commander for Overlord, this time even naming January or February 1944 for an announcement. ‘He could not have been nicer and said that I was the only man he had sufficient confidence in to take over the job.’ In fact Churchill could not have been more heartless. After the war, Brooke recalled that he had been ‘too excited to go to sleep when I returned home, and kept on turning the thought over and over in my mind. Was fate going to allow me to command the force destined to play the final part in the strategy I had been struggling for?’ This time, however, Brooke ‘realized well all the factors that might yet influence the final decision and did not let my optimism carry me off my feet’.9

On Saturday 10 July 1943 the Allies landed eight divisions across a 100-mile front in southern Sicily, using several new kinds of landing craft which were successful despite rough seas. By nightfall the beaches were secure and the campaign against the 230,000 German and Italian defenders could begin in earnest. Some advocates of an early Overlord point out that the Allied sea invasion force for Husky was larger than that for D-Day, and the Allies took fewer casualties than at Salerno that September. Once it became clear by the second half of July that the Allies would win in Sicily, the next issue was whether the enemy could be prevented from fleeing the island over the 2-mile Strait of Messina.

Churchill welcomed the ‘Great Husky success’ at the War Cabinet on 12 July. ‘Generally speaking,’ he said, ‘we are over the first and most deadly phase. A letter from Eisenhower says after first 48 hours most critical time will come…Think myself very satisfied indeed. Syracuse captured before daybreak yesterday. Nothing like it I’ve ever read of.’10 Brooke was particularly delighted with the progress as he had strongly pushed for Husky at Casablanca against Portal, Pound, the British Planners, Mountbatten, Ismay and many American Planners, though not Marshall himself. Later in the Sicilian campaign, especially once the Allies got to Catania, they met tough German resistance, but the opening salvoes of it merited Churchill’s and Brooke’s satisfaction.

The next day Churchill’s thoughts moved towards the boot of Italy. ‘Why should we crawl up the leg like a harvest bug from the ankle upwards?’ he asked the Chiefs of Staff. ‘Let us rather strike at the knee…Tell the Planners to throw their hat over the fence; they need not be afraid there will be plenty of dead weight to clog it.’11 This idea, of leapfrogging up the leg of Italy, was one that Marshall also supported, albeit without the gloriously clashing Churchillian metaphors. On 16 July he suggested to the Combined Chiefs of Staff that Eisenhower should take Naples with an amphibious operation, which should then turn into a march on Rome. An attack on Salerno, just south of Naples, was immediately put into planning mode, codenamed Operation Avalanche.

For Marshall, Avalanche was intended solely to remove Italy from the war and make the Germans draw away forces from their Western and Eastern Fronts towards the Southern, to defend against a serious attack that was not in fact going to come. For Churchill and Brooke, by contrast, such an attack most definitely was contemplated. ‘I will in no circumstances allow the powerful British and British-controlled armies in the Mediterranean to stand idle,’ the Prime Minister told Smuts. ‘I shall go to all lengths to procure the agreement of our Allies. If not, we have ample forces to act by ourselves.’12 This was sheer bravado; by that stage of the war an all-Commonwealth invasion of Italy without American participation was unthinkable.

On his trip to London in the second half of July, Henry Stimson found plenty of support for his view that a cross-Channel operation was feasible sooner rather than later. (Marshall told Pentagon historians in 1949 that the US War Secretary had quite literally included the early adoption of the cross-Channel operation in his nightly prayers.) Stimson spoke to Lieutenant-General Morgan and his American deputy, Major-General Ray W. Barker, both of whom feared that the Mediterranean campaign might well delay Overlord, which Stimson very confusingly called ‘Roundhammer’, yet another hybrid name despite the official change of nomenclature. He also met American Planners who said that Overlord was achievable as it stood, and that the RAF were confident of being able to drive off any German counter-attack against the Normandy bridgeheads.

Stimson accompanied the Churchill family on a weekend trip to Dover in the Prime Minister’s special train on Saturday 17 July to visit the Overlord preparations. As he reported to Roosevelt on his return, Churchill had brought in ‘with evident delight’ a telegram from Dill telling him that Marshall had proposed that a study be made of Avalanche. Churchill took this, according to Stimson, ‘as an endorsement by Marshall of his whole Italian policy and was greatly delighted’. Stimson was not about to permit this interpretation to be put on Marshall’s action, however, and as he told Roosevelt, ‘I pointed out to him that it probably meant that Marshall had proposed this as a shortcut intended to hasten the completion of the Italian adventure so that there would be no danger of clashing with the preparations for Roundhammer.’13 The use of the word ‘adventure’ was an indication of Stimson’s feelings about any more diversions from Overlord.

Speaking to Marshall by scrambler telephone, Stimson established to his own satisfaction that Avalanche was only being investigated in order ‘to obviate the danger of a long slow process “up the leg” which might eliminate Roundhammer altogether’. When he reported to Churchill that Marshall had supported his interpretation of the Avalanche message, and that therefore the Salerno landings were not intended to spearhead a full-scale invasion of Italy, the Prime Minister immediately ‘broke out into a new attack’ on Overlord, referring to a setback the British had received at Catania in Sicily during the past few days. Churchill even ‘praised the superlative fighting ability of the Germans. He said that if he had fifty thousand men ashore on the French Channel coast…the Germans could rush up sufficient forces to drive them into the sea.’ The Prime Minister then resurrected an image he had used before with Stimson and Marshall, the haunting one ‘of having the Channel full of corpses of defeated Allies’.14

This started an outright row, and ‘for a few minutes we had it hammer and tongs’, as Stimson proudly reported to Roosevelt. Churchill denied Stimson’s accusations that he opposed Overlord, asserting that Britain would ‘go through with it loyally’, which was hardly a ringing endorsement. He added that he was not insisting on going further north than Rome, ‘unless we should by good luck obtain a complete Italian capitulation, throwing open the whole of Italy’. He also–at least according to Stimson’s contemporaneous report–said ‘that he was not in favour of entering the Balkans with troops but merely wished to supply them with munitions and supplies’.15 Was Churchill deliberately misleading the US Secretary of War about his true intentions? Or did he merely wish to wait and see what the next stage might bring? To discuss the Balkans before Palermo had even fallen was more phantasmagorical than foresighted, and the whole conversation was later to have deeply baleful long-term effects, especially for Alan Brooke personally.

Stimson flew on to see Eisenhower in Algiers. He found the general in favour of a limited attack on mainland Italy, one which captured the air bases in the Foggia Plains that were needed in order to prosecute the bombing campaign against south-eastern Germany and Roumania, which could not easily be bombed from Sicily owing to the distance and lack of airfields. He concluded to the President that the American and British conceptions of the Italian operation were wildly at variance, that the British were hoping to ‘supplant’ the cross-Channel operation altogether and ‘neutralize’ any invasion of France, and that the two invasions could not be conducted simultaneously. Subsequent events were to prove him wrong, but there can be no doubt that when his report was delivered by Harry Hopkins to Roosevelt at Shangri-La, it caused great consternation.

Churchill stated his view to the Chiefs of Staff Committee on 19 July: ‘I have no doubt myself that the right strategy for 1944 is maximum post-Husky, certainly to the Po, with the option to attack westward in the South of France or north-eastward towards Vienna, and meanwhile to procure the expulsion of the enemy from the Balkans and Greece.’ This was very different indeed from what he told Stimson, if Stimson’s report to Roosevelt was accurate. However, Stimson would have recognized the next sentiment: ‘I do not believe that twenty-seven Anglo-American divisions are sufficient for Overlord in view of the extraordinary fighting ability of the German Army and the much larger forces they could so readily bear against our troops even if the landings were successfully accomplished.’16 Although twenty-seven was not the full complement of what was intended for Overlord, that was the number the Staffs thought would in practice be available by the target date.

Brooke spoke to Kennedy soon after the ‘harvest bug’ memorandum, believing there to be four or five German divisions in Italy. The Avalanche landings at Salerno just south of Naples would have limited air cover because of their distance from Sicily, and at Rome it would be non-existent, beyond what could be provided by aircraft carriers. The Germans were putting up strong resistance in Sicily–Catania didn’t fall until 7 August–which did not bode well for Italy either. ‘We might easily be outnumbered and outmatched in a landing as far north as Naples,’ feared Kennedy, and furthermore the Navy might suffer heavy losses. To lose large numbers of landing craft would also mean operations in the Mediterranean grinding to a standstill for months. Kennedy therefore preferred to land around the largely ungarrisoned toe of Italy or down by the heel and instep at Taranto.

‘Another great difficulty is that if we go for the mainland of Italy we shall have to break it to the Americans that resources will be swallowed up which they want directed to the problematical invasion of France next spring, and to operations against Burma,’ Kennedy warned Brooke. ‘Of course the correct strategy is to continue to hammer Italy till she drops out of the war. It is childish to give up this object for anything else at the moment. But the Americans will not take this easily and another conference is essential to flog it all out.’ Brooke told Kennedy that at a Chiefs of Staff conference the previous week, ‘Winston held forth on this and said the Americans considered we had led them up the garden path in the Med–and a beautiful path it has turned out to be. They have picked peaches here, nectarines there, and we have done it all for them, etc, etc.’17 It was a joke that Churchill was to make quite often, but inadvisedly not always to Britons.

‘We are prepared to jump a bridgehead on the mainland at the earliest opportunity,’ General Alexander wrote to Churchill and Brooke on 22 July. Yet Marshall had still not been persuaded. Alexander’s biographer believes that the absence of any agreed post-Husky strategy meant that the wholesale capitulation of huge numbers of Germans in Tunisia was not repeated at Messina. Forty thousand Germans could be prevented from escaping across the Strait of Messina only by occupying the toe of Italy behind them, but ‘agreement to overlap the end of one campaign by the beginning of the next was not reached in time’.18 Because there was no written commitment at Trident to invade the Italian mainland, and Marshall had been reserved and cryptic about it at Algiers, the Germans managed to cross the Strait and escape. On 14 August Eisenhower admitted to Butcher that he had made a ‘mistake’ over ‘our super-cautious approach to Italy’, where ‘we should have made simultaneous landings on both sides of the Messina Strait, thus cutting off all Sicily and obtaining wholesale surrender.’19

Such an operation would not have been too difficult, either. In late July there were landing craft available and Allied air superiority was complete; the toe was barely defended except by some coastal guns. Had a single Allied corps advanced across the narrow peninsula and seized the ferry terminals north of Reggio, the whole of the Sicily garrison might have been captured.20 Yet any such landing on the Italian mainland would have involved a psychologically new departure of the war, one that needed the full agreement of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, which in effect meant Marshall.

As it was, the American and British strategists did agree on joint planning for Avalanche, much further up the leg of Italy, which Eisenhower put into active consideration before Palermo fell to Patton on 23 July. That day, Churchill rang Kennedy for casualty figures for the Sicilian campaign. Kennedy got them from the Adjutant-General’s statistical branch and read them over to the Prime Minister–1,000 killed, 1,700 missing, 4,000 wounded–saying it made a total of 5,600. ‘No, it doesn’t,’ said the Prime Minister immediately. ‘It is one thousand out.’ In fact it was 1,100 out, but Kennedy was impressed that Churchill’s mental arithmetic was fast enough to add the figures up while he was reading them out. (It later turned out that only seven hundred men were in fact missing.)

Mussolini fell on 24 July; isolated, bitter and depressed since El Alamein, he was voted out of office by his own creature, the Fascist Grand Council, by nineteen votes to seven. When he reported the result to King Victor Emmanuel, he was arrested, and Marshal Pietro Badoglio was asked to form a government. This released Churchill from the obligation made to Stimson not to move further north than Rome, as suddenly there was indeed the prospect of being able to ‘obtain a complete Italian capitulation, throwing open the whole of Italy’. After tortuous negotiations with the Italians, in the armistice finally signed at Cassibile on 3 September both Churchill and Roosevelt insisted that the Badoglio Government declare war on Germany, which it did six weeks later, to Hitler’s great fury.

On 30 July Brooke received from Kennedy an appreciation of the size of the Allied forces required if from thirteen to eighteen German divisions chose to make a stand on the 100-mile-wide Ravenna–Pisa line. Kennedy estimated that sixteen Allied divisions would be needed for Italy, including one in Sicily, assuming that the Germans needed to keep four or five in the Po Valley guarding their lines of communication through a hostile Italian population. Brooke added six divisions to this total, on the basis that ‘We had a similar number on the Tunisian front’ which was roughly the same length, but here the Germans were fighting closer to home and therefore could more easily reinforce Italy. These calculations meant that he would have to discuss with Marshall the rescinding of their agreement to return seven divisions from the Mediterranean to the UK on 1 November. ‘He is certainly against taking any chance and no doubt he is right,’ thought Kennedy.

In early August Kennedy was worried that ‘it will be extremely difficult to get the Americans to agree to an advance to the north of Italy. Marshall has always held that it would be a bottomless pit into which to fling resources and is still obsessed by the idea of invading France.’ Brooke never accepted that Marshall understood the British concept for the Mediterranean. Even in 1958, when NBC made a radio programme about Marshall, Brooke told the interviewer: ‘I look upon him more as a great organizer than a great strategist.’ (He pronounced it ‘strateegist’, with a long ‘e’.) He did at least add: ‘He was amongst the biggest gentlemen, and using that term in its very best sense, that I’ve ever met. [He had] a sense of extraordinary integrity. One could trust him with anything, simply…He treated his inferiors almost the same as his peers.’21

The need to agree the next stage of the Italian campaign meant that another major conference was badly needed, and in July the long-serving Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King generously offered to host it in Quebec the following month, to be codenamed Quadrant.

The night before he left for Canada on the Queen Mary on Thursday 5 August, Churchill spoke after dinner to Eden, who said that he thought the conference would ‘infuriate Uncle Joe’. Churchill accepted that it would but thought that ‘If we could persuade the Americans to help us form a line in the valley of the Po…and thus open a real Second Front, Joe might become more amenable again.’22 In fact, as we have seen, Stalin took Anglo-American co-operation for granted. Churchill’s answer showed what he wanted out of Quadrant. It was very substantially what Brooke wanted too. On their five-day Atlantic journey, the two men reviewed every aspect of their plans, ‘knowing that their reception by their American colleagues, although physically warm, would not necessarily be strategically welcoming’.23 Churchill also brought the Chindit leader Orde Wingate along to persuade the Americans that the British were serious in Burma.

On the train to the port of Faslane, 25 miles west of Glasgow where they were to board the liner, ‘a furious’ Brooke told Joan Bright, who had organized the accommodation, ‘with sharp clarity never again to allocate him a sleeping compartment right above the grinding train wheels’. He did not give her time to reply that she had naturally accorded him Compartment A as the right one for someone of his seniority. Minutes later Portal complained that she had put Wing-Commander Guy Gibson VC, the hero of the Dambusters Raid, into a second-class compartment, but, as she recalled, ‘the effects of this attack did not last so long as those produced by General Sir Alan Brooke.’24

During the voyage, Churchill invited the War Office Planners to prepare a strategy for the invasion of northern Sumatra, codenamed Operation Culverin. This was to be a key aspect of his strategy centred on the Bay of Bengal, based on retaking Rangoon, northern Sumatra and Singapore, which was completely at variance with the Far Eastern strategy that Brooke and the Chiefs of Staff wanted to pursue, 2,000 miles to the east in the Pacific. ‘Great show,’ recalled one of the Planners, Captain C. E. Lambe RN, of Churchill’s request, ‘he was drinking white wine, dressed in black dressing gown with golden dragons. Gave us a fine feed–everything just right–then patted us on the shoulders and said be good boys and write me a nice plan.’ They delivered it when they got to Quebec, along with a covering letter to Ismay declaring that the scheme was ‘no good’, signed by them all. Somehow Ismay failed to detach the letter from the plan and both went on to the Prime Minister. ‘When Winston saw our names,’ recalled Captain Lambe, ‘he roared: “The Joint Planners are suspended.”’25 They asked Ismay what this involved, and learnt that they ought to carry on exactly as before, but just toregard themselvesas suspended. (As we have seen, this suspension story has also been told in relation to Jupiter. Whichever operation it was, the episode clearly didn’t affect the future career of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Charles Lambe, First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff in the 1950s.)

On the journey over, Brooke persuaded Churchill not to present their Po strategy in terms of ultimately going either to Vienna or into the Balkans, which would only result in Marshall turning against the concept completely. The British argument for the advance to the Po was thus made on the sole ground of drawing off German divisions from Normandy. It was a sensible recommendation, and served Churchill well.

The Queen Mary docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the afternoon of Monday 9 August, and the British party took a special train to Quebec, arriving at 6 p.m. the next day. They occupied the fifteenth floor of the Château Frontenac hotel, a magnificent edifice which still completely dominates the Quebec skyline, and then every odd-numbered floor down to the lobby; the Americans took the sixteenth floor, and then every even-numbered floor downwards. The Combined Chiefs met in the Salon Rose on the second floor, a pink room with a fine view over the St Lawrence River, and press conferences were convened in the ground-floor coffee shop. Oranges were flown in from New York for the delegates’ juice, and the Canadian Government paid for everything. ‘We were spoiled,’ recalls Joan Bright, ‘even to a running buffet being set up in the foyer of the dining room for all those who could not forgo their tea and coffee breaks.’26

With a few days to go before the conference opened, Churchill headed off to Hyde Park for three days between 12 and 14 August, via the Niagara Falls. Since all three of the British Chiefs of Staff and Mountbatten were keen fishermen, they went to the lakes north of Quebec. At one point Mountbatten (he claimed) saved Dudley Pound from falling into a ravine. It was on that trip that the First Sea Lord’s failing powers became unavoidably apparent. ‘On the way back we had great difficulty in getting him back to the car,’ noted Brooke. ‘He seemed completely exhausted.’ It was considerably worse than that.

‘Both sides approached Quadrant in an exasperated mood,’ Field Marshal Lord Bramall and General Sir William Jackson write in their authoritative history of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, ‘verging upon outright mistrust of each other.’27 It was the third major Anglo-American strategy conference in only seven months, so exasperation might have played a part. That was no excuse for the unnamed Planner, however, who absent-mindedly left a file of top-secret strategy documents in the Salon Rose after a meeting. All the hotel employees had already been security-screened by the Canadian intelligence services, but nonetheless the blameless hotel bell-hop, Frank Brettle, who had found the file and immediately handed it to a Mountie, noticed that he was being followed for months afterwards.

One of the few fictional accounts of the Combined Chiefs of Staff to appear in literature can be found in the American author J. G. Cozzens’ 1949 novel Guard of Honor. In it, a USAAF general Joseph Nichols watches Roosevelt and Churchill confer with their Staffs at Quadrant, and notices how:

The object could not be simply to concert a wisest and best course. The object was to strike a bargain which was the congeries of a thousand small bargains wherein both high contracting parties had been trying, if possible, to get something for nothing; and if that were not possible, to give a little in order to gain a lot…Agreement was ordinarily resisted by mutual misrepresentation, and obtained by a balance of disguised bribes and veiled threats.28

This might have seemed a cynical view so soon after the war, but it was surprisingly accurate. Indeed, one of the complaints that Brooke made about Churchill’s sudden volte face on the penultimate day of Trident had been that by questioning his small deals the Prime Minister was jeopardizing the larger concessions he had wrung from Marshall.

Stimson, the US Secretary of War, was scheduled to be on holiday during the Quebec Conference, which shows how completely he had been eclipsed by Marshall in strategic decision-making. But he was due to meet Roosevelt at 1 p.m. on Tuesday 10 August, before the conference opened. After breakfast that day, he dictated a memorandum to Roosevelt which might have doubled as a resignation letter had discussions gone awry. It repeated the conclusions of the memorandum drawn up after the disastrous Dover train journey with Churchill, and insisted that Marshall rather than Brooke be given command of Overlord. ‘We cannot now rationally hope to be able to cross the Channel and come to grips with our German enemy under a British commander,’ the War Secretary wrote. ‘The Prime Minister and his Chief of the Imperial Staff [sic] are frankly at variance with such a proposal. The shadows of Passchendaele and Dunkerque still hang too heavily over the imagination of his government. Though they have rendered lip service to the operation, their hearts are not in it.’ By total contrast, ‘General Marshall already has a towering eminence of reputation as a tried soldier and as a broad-minded and skilful administrator.’29

Once the letter was typed up he signed it, and then showed it to Marshall, ‘in case he had any objections to it’. Marshall merely said that ‘he did not want it to appear’ that Stimson had consulted him about it, and the War Secretary replied that that was why he had signed the paper before showing it to him and he would not show it to anybody else. So armed, Stimson went to the White House and had ‘one of the most satisfactory conferences I have ever had with the President’. The reason was obvious: Roosevelt also preferred Marshall to Brooke.

The President invited Stimson to stay for a meeting with the Joint Chiefs at which he ‘went the whole hog’ on the subject of Overlord, insisting that ‘We should have more soldiers in Britain dedicated for that purpose than the British.’ They then discussed the best stance to take at Quebec, and Roosevelt made it clear that he wished to go ‘no further into Italy than Rome and then for the purpose of establishing [air] bases’. He confirmed that he wanted an American commander for Overlord, which must have pleased Marshall, who knew what Stimson had been discussing with FDR only moments earlier.

The Joint Chiefs emerged from the meeting ‘astonished and delighted at his definiteness’, upon which Stimson naturally congratulated himself. Brooke seems to have had no comprehension of this lobbying for a position he hoped was his, even though Frederick Morgan, who ran COSSAC, recalled that ‘throughout the summer there was continual hardening of unofficial opinion that the Supreme Commander would be George C. Marshall’, opinion of which Brooke could not have been unaware.30

The first Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting at Quadrant took place on Saturday 14 August, before which Dill had given Brooke prior warning that Marshall and both the other American Chiefs of Staff had ‘a feeling that the British are not standing firm enough to considered decision of Trident, and are tending too readily to depart from these decisions and to set aside the operations already agreed upon’. In particular Dill wanted Brooke to appreciate that, although the Joint Chiefs of Staff wished to force Italy out of the war, they would not countenance Pacific or Overlord operations suffering because of it. The conference thus started off with a Joint Chiefs of Staff position paper demanding a reiteration of the Trident promise to pull out the seven divisions by 1 November 1943, and stating that ‘The US Chiefs of Staff believe that the acceptance of this decision must be without conditions and without mental reservations.’31 For Brooke, the next day was even worse. Indeed, apart from the death of Janey, it was most probably the worst of his life.

Just before lunch on Sunday 15 August, Churchill sent for Brooke to come to the Citadel, where he was staying for the conference. Not far from the Château Frontenac, the Citadel was a military stronghold from the eighteenth century, 200 feet above the St Lawrence River with magnificent views. To the south-west are the Plains of Abraham, where Wolfe defeated the Marquis de Montcalm in twenty minutes in a surprise attack that won Canada for the British Empire in September 1759, both of them dying in the process. Neither the view nor the glorious history was to provide much comfort to Brooke, however.

Churchill had just returned from a meeting with Roosevelt at which Hopkins had pressed hard for the appointment of Marshall as supreme commander for Overlord. ‘As far as I can gather Winston gave in,’ Brooke told his diary, ‘in spite of having previously promised me the job!!’ The Prime Minister asked Brooke how he felt about it and was told, with some understatement, that he ‘could not feel otherwise than disappointed’. They then discussed other appointments, including Eisenhower’s becoming US Army chief of staff in Marshall’s place, and Brooke said that he thought Mountbatten ‘lacked balance’ for the job of supreme commander of the newly formed South-East Asia Command. Brooke then realized that Mountbatten’s appointment had actually been aquid pro quo for his not getting command of Overlord, which only made the situation worse, as the two posts were in no way analogous.

After the war Brooke wrote of this shattering blow to his hopes, which had been so assiduously stoked by Churchill for so long. ‘I remember it as if it was yesterday as we walked up and down on the terrace outside the drawing room of the Citadel,’ he recalled. ‘Looking down on to that wonderful view of the St Lawrence River, and the fateful scene of Wolfe’s battle for the heights of Quebec. As Winston spoke all that scenery was swamped by a dark cloud of despair.’ He remembered how two months before El Alamein he had given up the chance of taking over Auchinleck’s command because he needed to guide Churchill, but with the broad global strategy now agreed he ‘felt no longer necessarily tied to Winston, and free to assume this Supreme Command which he had already promised me on three separate occasions’.32

Nor had Brooke ever been philosophically opposed to the Roundup–Overlord operation, as Americans like Stimson, King, Handy, Wedemeyer, Hull and Elliott Roosevelt alleged; he had just been opposed to crossing over too early. Furthermore, he had resolutely not done what a number of other generals might have in his position, which was to change his tune and extravagantly champion Overlord in the hope of securing its command for himself. He had put his professional judgement first, and had paid a very high price for it. If he had commanded on D-Day, it is likely that the name of Brooke would be as famous as that of any Allied general of the Second World War, indeed as famous as Marlborough’s or Wellington’s.

What made it worse for Brooke was Churchill’s reaction. ‘Not for one moment did he realize what this meant to me,’ he wrote afterwards. ‘He offered no sympathy, no regrets at having had to change his mind, and dealt with the matter as if it were one of minor importance!’ Churchill, who always wanted to lead great armies himself, simply must have felt Brooke’s disappointment, not least because it was verbally expressed to him on the Citadel terrace that afternoon. Stiff-upperlipped, upper-class, Ulster-born senior soldiers of the early 1940s were perhaps the very last people in the world ever to allow their emotions to show; they were about as far from the touchy-feely as it is culturally, socially and generationally possible to be. Yet Churchill cannot have failed to notice Brooke’s profound dismay just because he did not remonstrate with him, or remind him that he had thrice offered him the post.

Of course we only have Brooke’s word for it that the Prime Minister offered no word of consolation, but it is clear that the CIGS deeply resented it. For him the incontrovertible fact that many more Americans were due to take part in Overlord, and should therefore be commanded by one, ‘did not soften the blow, which took me several months to recover from’. In fact Brooke never truly recovered from it at all, certainly not by the time of the publication of The Turn of the Tide in 1957, which contained severe criticisms of Churchill that effectively severed their relations. For the legendarily tough-minded ‘Colonel Shrapnel’, who suffered fools not at all, it might be thought that he only received what he had spent years dishing out, but as Moran put it: ‘In that moment there was revealed to Brooke the crushing indifference of these monolithic figures to the lower forms of life.’33

It was not only the deed itself that Brooke minded so much, but the fact that ‘the only reference to my feelings’ in the fifth volume of Churchill’s war memoirs, Closing the Ring, published in 1952, was the single phrase that he ‘bore the great disappointment with soldierly dignity’.34 In an earlier draft Churchill had written: ‘I had to break the news to Brookie. He was bitterly pained, but bore it all as a soldier should. Not one word escaped him.’35 Churchill explained in his memoirs that politically Roosevelt could not have allowed a foreign commander for an army that was expected to exceed two million men, a majority of them American. As Leahy put it in his autobiography, ‘I would have had no personal objection to Brooke, but if he or any other Englishman had been named to the post, there would have been a storm of criticism in our country.’ In the earlier draft of his memoirs, Churchill also gave a more Machiavellian explanation for the decision:

I had the fear that if a bloody and disastrous repulse were encountered, far bigger than the first day’s battle in the Somme in 1916, there might be an outcry in the United States. It would be said that another result would have attended the appointment of an American general. I therefore made my mind up on the voyage over to propose to the President that he should choose the general to whom so much would be confided. If he refused, our position would be invulnerable.36

These two passages were edited out just before publication, which was very damaging to Brooke’s subsequent relations with Churchill.

Stimson, called from vacation to Quebec on 22 August, was told by Roosevelt that ‘Churchill had voluntarily come to him and offered to accept Marshall for the Overlord operation.’ In another conversation, Churchill ‘said he had done so in spite of the fact that he had previously promised the position to Brooke and that this would embarrass him somewhat, but he showed no evidence of retreating from his suggestion.’ Stimson recalled, ‘I was of course greatly cheered up.’37

Would Brooke have made a good supreme commander? Sir James Grigg was doubtful, telling an interviewer after the war that his utter disdain for popularity or public relations–let alone public opinion–would have counted against him. ‘A successful commander in the field must be able to command the imagination of his troops and impress his personality on them,’ argued Grigg. ‘It was doubtful if Brooke had the patience or understanding to do this; rarely did he inspire affection because he was too insular and rarely proffered friendship.’38 The lengths to which some commanders went to create charismatic personae for themselves–Montgomery, Mountbatten, MacArthur and Patton foremost among them–were always dismissed by Brooke as mere ‘stunts’. Meanwhile, several rumours went around the War Office about why Brooke had not been chosen, the most fanciful of which was recorded by Kennedy, who wondered ‘if it can be true that’ Brooke had ‘offended Mrs Roosevelt by some remark about niggers. Less surprising things have happened before.’39

Four decades after the decision, Jock Colville recalled that ‘Roosevelt was determined the commander should be American, even though neither Marshall nor Eisenhower had Brooke’s experience or strategic brilliance.’ A devil’s advocate–and there was no shortage of them in the Pentagon–might have pointed out that Brooke’s last two forays on the Continent had both ended in humiliating evacuations. The restriction of the choice of supreme commander of Overlord to Americans was a clear signal that the Atlantic balance of power had shifted, and for all his enthusiasm and bulldog spirit, Churchill was simply not in a strong enough political position vis-à-vis Roosevelt to award the post to Brooke, even though he had thrice promised it him. When it came to the ultimate decision-making moment, however, as is clear from several sources, including Ismay’s interview with Pogue–‘Churchill on his own initiative told FDR that the commander should be an American’–there was no contest.40 Brooke’s subsequent behaviour at the time of the publication of his memoirs was self-defeating–even, to some, reprehensible–but it was entirely understandable.

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