Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Marshall and Alan Brooke met for the first time in the Oval Office of the White House at noon on Sunday 21 June 1942. Scheduled as a routine strategy session, it was to turn into one of the most significant moments of the Second World War.

Roosevelt and Churchill had arrived in Washington on the presidential train from Hyde Park, FDR’s family estate in upstate New York, soon after 9 a.m. Having breakfasted and read the newspapers and official telegrams in the White House, at 11 a.m. the Prime Minister summoned Britain’s senior soldier, General Sir Alan Brooke, to come over from the Combined Chiefs of Staff offices on nearby Constitution Avenue. Lieutenant-General Sir Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay, Military Secretary to the War Cabinet, who was as usual with the Prime Minister, warned Brooke that Churchill was ‘very upset’ by some recent decisions taken in his absence by the Combined Chiefs–that is, by the British Chiefs of Staff and their American counterparts the Joint Chiefs of Staff sitting in a powerful new Allied committee. But when he got to the White House Brooke found the Prime Minister ‘a bit peevish, but not too bad and after an hour’s talk had him quiet again’.1

Since Brooke had not expected to visit the White House that day, he was wearing an old suit, and asked to be allowed to change into uniform before he met the President for the first time, but Churchill would not hear of it. They went to the Oval Office together and found Roosevelt, who had been afflicted with poliomyelitis since 1921, seated behind the large desk that had been given to his predecessor Herbert Hoover by the Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturers Association.

The desk itself was cluttered with knick-knacks and mementoes, many of which can be seen at Hyde Park today. There was a half-dollar commemorative coin in its box, a Lions Club International lapel pin, a stuffed elephant toy and carved wooden donkey, a capstan-shaped paperweight, a tape measure, a novelty figurine of an ostrich, a nail file, an enamelled copper ashtray made in Buffalo, NY, and a bullet about which nothing is known. It seemed more like a bric-a-brac store than the desk of the chief executive of the United States of America, and visiting a year later Brooke ‘tried to memorize the queer collection’, which also included a blue vase lamp, a bronze bust of Mrs Roosevelt, another small donkey made of hazelnuts, a pile of books, a large circular match stand, an inkpot and a jug of iced water. Colonel Ian Jacob, Ismay’s assistant, while admitting that the President’s study was ‘a delightful oval room, looking south’, uncharitably equated Roosevelt’s ‘junk of all sorts piled just anyhow’ with a ‘general lack of organization in the American Government’.2

After being introduced to the President, Brooke began by apologizing for his informal dress. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Roosevelt replied jovially. ‘Why not take off your coat like I have, you will feel far more comfortable.’ It was an oppressively hot day, and the flinty Ulsterman was understandably charmed, later writing in his diary: ‘I was much impressed by him–a most attractive personality.’3 The Chief of Staff of the US Army, the courtly but steely Pennsylvanian General George C. Marshall, then arrived, and talks began over the various alternative strategies for a major Allied attack against the Germans in 1942.

Discussions stopped for lunch with Mrs Roosevelt at one o’clock, at which the President reminisced that Brooke’s father and brother had stayed at Hyde Park half a century earlier, which the general had not known. Sir Victor Brooke had visited America looking for investment opportunities, and had written to his wife of the ‘glorious, wooded cliffs and rolling forests’ of the Hudson Valley, as well as of the Roosevelts’ kindness in putting them up for three days in their ‘dear little house, with a verandah all around it’. Brooke confided to his diary that night that he ‘could not help wondering what father would have thought if he had known then the circumstances in which Roosevelt and his youngest son would meet in the future!’

Back in the Oval Office after lunch, as they returned to their deliberations, a pink slip of telegraph paper was brought in and handed to the President, who read it and, without saying a word, gave it to the Prime Minister. It announced that the Mediterranean port of Tobruk, the British Eighth Army’s stronghold in Libya that had for months been a potent symbol of resistance to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, had surrendered without warning to the 21st Panzer Division. Tobruk’s garrison–including two South African brigades and one from a British Guards regiment, as well as sixty tanks–had been captured en masse, and German radio broadcasts were claiming twenty-five thousand prisoners-of-war. (Rarely for him, Dr Goebbels had underestimated; the true figure turned out to be almost thirty-three thousand.)

‘This was a hideous and totally unexpected shock,’ recalled Ismay, ‘and for the first time in my life I saw the Prime Minister wince.’ Neither Churchill nor Brooke had foreseen what Brooke called this ‘staggering blow’. Marshall later spoke of how ‘terribly shaken’ Churchill looked.

Ismay, whose fifty-fifth birthday it was, left immediately to try to get confirmation of the news from London. As he walked down the corridor, he remembered that it was also the birthday of his friend General Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East. ‘Poor Claude,’ he later recalled thinking to himself. ‘What a horrible anniversary!’ He soon returned with a copy of the message that the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, had sent to the Admiralty, stating: ‘Immediate. Tobruk has fallen and situation deteriorated so much that there is a possibility of heavy air attack on Alexandria in near future and in view of approaching full moon period I am sending all eastern Fleet units south of [the Suez] Canal to await events.’

Worse was to come: a telegram from Richard Casey, the British Government’s Minister Resident in the Middle East, marked ‘Most Secret. Most Immediate’, reported that although it had been proposed ‘to fight as strong a delaying action as possible’ on the Egyptian border, it was concluded that ‘The forces at our command in this theatre are inadequate to enable us to cope with the enemy.’ There was every prospect, therefore, that Egypt might fall to the Axis powers of Germany and Italy. It later also transpired that the great bulk of stores for Tobruk’s defence–vast quantities of oil, petrol, aviation fuel, ammunition and food–had inexplicably not been destroyed, but had fallen virtually intact into the hands of the Germans, who would now be using them for their march on Cairo.

A year earlier, when Tobruk had previously been under siege, Churchill had sketched out to Roosevelt’s special representative Averell Harriman ‘a world in which Hitler dominated all Europe, Asia and Africa and left the United States and ourselves no option but an unwilling peace’. He argued that this was only preventable because Tobruk ‘still resists valiantly’, for if Egypt and therefore the Suez Canal were to fall to the Nazis, then the whole of the Middle East would collapse, after which Spain, Vichy France and Turkey would embrace the Axis powers and Hitler’s ‘robot new order’ would inevitably triumph. Tobruk was thus far more than a strategically important Mediterranean arsenal for Churchill: it was a shibboleth of survival, and its fall correspondingly dire.

At this point in the war, Britain had been defeated by the Germans wherever the two had fought on land: in Norway in April 1940, in France and Belgium the following month, in Greece in April 1941 and in Crete the following June. In May and early June 1942, Lieutenant-General Sir Neil Ritchie had been defeated by Rommel in the Gazala area, forcing a withdrawal towards Egypt and leaving Tobruk to defend itself. Alongside this debilitating series of defeats on land, Allied shipping losses in the Atlantic had doubled since January 1942; the Arctic convoys were coming under heavy pressure from the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe in northern Norway; the convoy route around southern Africa was increasingly threatened by U-boats, and the expansion of Bomber Command seemed to have stalled. Seven years later, Brooke summed up the global situation they had faced by saying: ‘German Forces were through the Caucasus, Japanese forces were threatening Australia and India, the Mediterranean was closed, and Persia had been entirely depleted of forces to save threatened points. The whole of the oil reserves in the Middle East in Iraq and Persia were at Hitler’s mercy.’4

Furthermore, Churchill knew he would now come under renewed political pressure back in London, and a motion of no confidence in his government was indeed tabled in the House of Commons soon afterwards. ‘I am ashamed,’ he confided to his doctor at the time. ‘I cannot understand why Tobruk gave in. More than thirty thousand of our men put their hands up. If they won’t fight…’ The Prime Minister then ‘stopped abruptly’, since what followed was ‘too ghastly to articulate’. As Churchill himself recalled in his memoirs: ‘This was one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war…Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another.’5

It was at this desperate juncture that there began the three-year relationship between the four chief strategists of the Western Allies, the quartet of power that ultimately crafted the victories that were to come. Although it is taken for granted that emotion, persuasiveness and charisma have a large part to play in politics, the same is not generally thought to be true of grand strategy. Intelligence reports, weather forecasts, hard facts about opposing forces and objective military assessments are believed to decide when, where, why and how great offensives are launched. Yet, as I hope this book will show, the two political Masters and two military Commanders of the Western powers who ultimately took these decisions together were flesh and blood, working under tremendous stress, and prey to the same subjective influences as everyone else.

Why, if the USA was attacked by the Axis in the Pacific Ocean, did she devote such effort to counter-attacking in North Africa? Why, if the most direct route to Germany from Britain was via north-west France, did the Western Allies march to Palermo and Rome? Why, if Operation Overlord was intended to drive into Germany via north-west France, did four hundred thousand men land 500 miles to the south more than two months later? Why did the Allies not take Berlin, Vienna or Prague, but allow the Iron Curtain to descend where it did? One of the aims of this book is to show the degree to which the answers to these questions, and many more, turned on the personalities and relationships of the four key figures who are its central focus: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George C. Marshall and Sir Alan Brooke.

The lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians ultimately rested on the deliberations of these four: two Americans and two Britons, two politicians and two soldiers. Each of the four men was strong willed, tough minded and certain that he knew the best way to win the war. Yet, in order to get his strategy adopted, each needed to ensure that he could persuade at least two of the other three. Occasionally the politicians would side together against the soldiers, and vice versa. (Up in Hyde Park the day before the Tobruk news arrived, for example, Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed to oppose Marshall’s plan for an attack on France in 1942.) More often the Britons and Americans would take up positions according to nationality, but sometimes alliances were formed across both professional and national lines; just as politicians had to master strategy, so the soldiers were forced to become political. Once made, such groupings were always likely swiftly to reconfigure, as the four Masters and Commanders danced their complicated minuet, each fearing the potentially disastrous consequences of getting out of step with the others. When that happened to any one of the four–as it did to Churchill, Marshall and Brooke at different stages of the war–his views were overruled by the opposing trio. Each Master and Commander was thus constantly manoeuvring for position vis-à-vis the other three, and only one of them never found himself isolated.

Both real and feigned anger was seen at their many wartime meetings, as well as immense moral and political pressure, threats and cajolery, deliberate misleading of each other on occasion, high rhetoric masking low politics, shouting matches followed by last-minute compromises, mutual suspicion and exasperation, and even one near nervous breakdown. Yet charm, humour and good-fellowship could sometimes lift the mood at key moments too. There were titanic rows and emotional reconciliations, and at the end of it all there was, of course, Victory. This then is the story of how the four Masters and Commanders of the Western Allies fought each other over how best to fight Adolf Hitler.

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