War is a business of terrible pressures, and persons who take part in it must fail if they are not strong enough to withstand them.
Winston Churchill, The World Crisis: 19151
Winston Churchill, a man who was said to have ‘won the decathlon of human existence’, did not impress any of his fellow Masters and Commanders on first acquaintance.2 On Monday 29 July 1918, Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the US Navy, was asked to speak impromptu at a dinner of Allied war ministers at Gray’s Inn, one of London’s ancient legal Inns of Court, and years later he recalled that Churchill had ‘acted like a stinker’ and was ‘one of the few men in public life who was rude to me’.3 They then did not see each other again until August 1941, when–to Roosevelt’s evident chagrin–Churchill had to admit to having completely forgotten the occasion. He later remembered it for the benefit of his war memoirs, however, writing of how he had been ‘struck’ by Roosevelt’s ‘magnificent presence in all his youth and strength’.4
George Marshall was similarly underwhelmed by Churchill on their first contact in 1919, at a great Allied victory parade in London, and twenty-two years later regaled a Sunday luncheon party at the British Embassy in Washington with the story. There had been three thousand American troops present, ‘all picked men of about 6'2'', with every kind of decoration’, yet every time that Marshall tried to make any observations to Churchill about them, all he elicited was gruff silence. Prohibition had been ratified by the US Congress that year and finally, after all the dignitaries, including King George V, had processed around the rear rank and back up the flank of the parade, Churchill turned to Marshall to make his only remark of the day: ‘What a magnificent body of men, and never to look forward to another drink!’5
Alan Brooke’s first personal encounter with Churchill came down a crackling telephone line between his headquarters at Le Mans in France and 10 Downing Street in June 1940, and was to be the worst by far.
By contrast with Churchill’s behaviour at the parade, the one adjective constantly employed to describe George Catlett Marshall was ‘gentlemanly’. Good-natured, charming, with fine manners, Marshall was nonetheless a tough man, and knew it. ‘I cannot afford the luxury of sentiment,’ he once told his wife Katherine about his job as US Army chief of staff, ‘mine must be cold logic. Sentiment is for others.’6 She agreed, writing in her autobiography, Together: Annals of an Army Wife, of how she had read many articles and interviews that mentioned her husband’s retiring nature and modesty, but she added: ‘Those writers have never seen him when he is aroused. His withering vocabulary and the cold steel of his eyes would sear the soul of any man whose failure deserved censure. No, I do not think I would call my husband retiring or overly modest. I think he is well aware of his powers.’
There was self-effacement nonetheless. Marshall’s friend and diligent biographer Forrest C. Pogue noticed that Marshall deprecated the use of the word ‘I’ and tended to adopt the first person plural in describing the actions of the War Department or the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even when he had been the driving force behind them. In a passage accusing Anthony Eden, Bernard Montgomery and others of vanity, Churchill’s doctor Sir Charles Wilson (later Lord Moran) wrote: ‘To remain gentle and self-effacing after climbing to the top of a profession’, as Field Marshal Lord Wavell and George Marshall had done, ‘is to me an endearing trait.’7 It is one thing to be thought of as self-effacing, but altogether another to be regarded as an exemplar of it.
Alone among the four subjects of this book, Marshall–born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania on the last day of 1880–did not come from the upper classes. His father was a prosperous co-owner of coke ovens and coalfields, at least until December 1890 when an unwise investment in a Shenandoah Valley land promotion brought him to the brink of bankruptcy. Marshall nonetheless had a happy childhood, and his family could still just about find the $375 per annum (plus $70 for uniforms) to send him to the prestigious Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia.
Years afterwards, Marshall recalled that he had overheard his elder brother Stuart, who had himself graduated from VMI, begging their mother not to allow George to enrol there because his lack of intellect would disgrace the family name. ‘Well, that made more impression on me than all the instructors, parental pressure, or anything else,’ Marshall recollected. ‘The urgency to succeed came from hearing that conversation; it had a psychological effect on my career.’8 Sure enough, he became first captain of the Corps of Cadets, played All-Southern football, and graduated high in the class of 1901.
Although it had ended thirty-two years before Marshall arrived at VMI in 1897, the American Civil War still dominated the ethos of the Institute. The building itself had five or six cannonballs from the conflict still sticking out of its walls. Marshall’s hero and role model was the Confederate leader Robert E. Lee; watching Stonewall Jackson’s widow at a memorial anniversary of the battle of New Market, and seeing the graves of its young dead, made a profound impression on him.
The Spanish–American War broke out in the spring after Marshall joined VMI, and as he told the cadets there fifty-three years later, on what was by then called Marshall Day, ‘For the first time the United States stepped into the international picture. At that period, there was not a single ambassador accredited to the United States. We were recognized in the world largely as a country of Indians and buffalo, crude and remarkable manners, and the sudden wealth of a few.’9 By the time Marshall himself became secretary of state of the United States in 1947, it was indisputably the most powerful country in the world, partly because of what it had achieved during his time as Army chief of staff.
On leaving VMI, and having personally lobbied President McKinley in the White House for the right to sit his lieutenant’s examination early–not the action of an overly modest lad–Marshall married his sweetheart, the belle of Lexington, Lily Carter Coles. He had been courting her ever since his last year at the Institute, where he had risked expulsion in order to meet her in the evenings. ‘I was much in love,’ was his explanation for the risks taken with his nascent military career. They married on 11 February 1902 and he managed to extend his honeymoon from two days to one week before reporting for duty in the Philippines.
Although America’s instantaneous victory over Spain meant that Second Lieutenant Marshall served in the Philippines only in peacetime, his career was meteoric after his return in 1903. As senior honor graduate of the Infantry–Cavalry School at Fort Leavenworth, Marshall won promotion to first lieutenant in 1907 and became an instructor there. Fort Leavenworth was then, and was to remain, a centre of advanced military thinking in the Army, and it was there that Marshall formed many of his assumptions about strategy and tactics. During another tour of the Philippines in 1913–16 he organized, as chief of staff for a US field force, a defence of the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor against a mock Japanese invasion.
As a captain assigned to the General Staff, Marshall sailed to France in 1917, in the first convoy of troops to go there, and was reputedly the first man to alight from the first boat.10 He found a conflict of deadlock and attrition, very different from the war of movement seen in the last few months of 1914, and then again in the last three months of 1918. Marshall participated in the first entry of US troops into the Allied line, in the Luneville Sector, and–as a Staff officer–in the victory at Cantigny on 28 May 1918, the first American offensive of the war.
After the repulse of the German offensive of June 1918, Marshall was detailed to the Operations Section of US General Headquarters at Chaumont, and in August was attached to the Staff of the First American Army, of which he became chief of operations before the Armistice. General John ‘Black Jack’ Pershing, the Commander-in-Chief of American forces in Europe, eventually promoted him to colonel. Crucially, in May 1919 Marshall became aide-de-camp to Pershing, under whom he served for the next four years. Although he had not seen action in the field, therefore, Marshall was held to have had an extremely good war. He had witnessed the mutual slaughter of 1917 give way, in the late summer and autumn of 1918, to the open war of manoeuvre that the Allies won. It was to have a profound effect on his strategic thinking.
Alan Francis Brooke was born on 23 July 1883 at Bagnères-de-Bigorre near the French Pyrenees, a fashionable area around Pau where his parents went for the hunting–it was known as ‘the Leicestershire of France’–and for the fine climate. He was the seventh and much the youngest child of Sir Victor Brooke, who had inherited, aged eleven, the title of third baronet and the estate of Colebrooke Park in Brooke-borough, County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. Alan’s mother was Alice Bellingham, the daughter of another Irish baronet.
On both sides of Brooke’s family lay deep roots in Ireland’s Protestant Ascendancy. Nicknamed ‘the Fighting Brookes of Colebrooke’, they had been soldiers of the Crown for centuries. One had defended Donegal Castle during the English Civil War, another took over Lambert’s Brigade to hold the centre of Wellington’s line at the battle of Waterloo. No fewer than twenty-six members of the family served in the First World War, and then twenty-seven in the Second, of whom twelve died in action. Yet it was to be the sensitive youngest sibling Alan who was to become by far the greatest soldier of them all.
It is not hard to see from where Alan Brooke’s utter fearlessness was derived. Even if his DNA had not included generations of warriors, his father was a Victorian hero–adventurer, as well as that most unusual of phenomena–a genuinely popular Irish Protestant absentee landlord. Born in 1843, Sir Victor Brooke was named after his godmother Queen Victoria. His dead-eye shooting abilities–he could split a croquet ball thrown in the air with one shot and then split the largest fragment with the second–stood him in good stead hunting in India, where ‘his life depended more than once upon making no mistake’.11
From floor to ceiling at Colebrooke, in halls and passages and many of the rooms, there were heads of every variety, including two tigers and a black panther, and vast elephant tusks were piled up under the billiard table. Handsome, fair-haired, 6 foot tall and 45 inches around the chest, Sir Victor resembled a John Buchan hero. Along with strength of character, an ‘open-hearted Irish nature’ and immense charm, he was an assured public speaker and universally popular. At the London Fencing Club, he once jumped 5 feet 10 inches in the high jump, and could lift enormous weights. Hearing that a local policeman had won a reputation as an undefeated wrestler, he issued a challenge and duly beat him. He then outran a Canadian champion hurdler. His sporting feats were well known in Ulster, and having such an extraordinary father must have had an effect on his youngest son. When Alan Brooke showed great moral courage at various moments of his military career, it should be recalled that his father had tracked tigers, wolves and bears, and had crossed jungles and deserts in order to do so. He was also a noted biologist with intellectual attainments to match his physical ones. Sir Victor died aged only forty-eight, from fatigue induced by tracking ibex across an Egyptian desert when he was supposed to be convalescing from a lung that he had punctured while hunting in France. Alan was eight years old.
As a child, Alan Brooke lived a self-contained life, close to nature and to his mother.12 Growing up for most of the year in the Pyrenees, he spoke French (with a heavy Gascon accent) before he learnt English, and spoke both languages very fast, something that some Americans were to come to dislike and mistrust later on, fearing that a fast-talking Limey was trying to get something over on them. Educated at a day school at Pau, Brooke was never sent to an English boarding school, further removing him from the then prevailing Spartan culture of heartiness, but also from interaction with contemporaries of his own age, nationality and social background. In contrast to Marshall’s success at football, Brooke did not play team games. Quite how little of a team-player he would turn out to be later in life had yet to make itself known.
For all that he later seemed to others to be cold, restrained, tough and on occasion heartless, Brooke was in fact an emotional man. Churchill’s secretary Elizabeth Nel wrote that he ‘always seemed to me something of an enigma; he seemed so calm and well controlled, and yet the expression of his face sometimes betokened that he had strong feelings beneath the surface.’13 He did indeed; Brooke was a loner who had all the self-assurance of the British upper classes of the day. From an early age he knew where he came from, what he liked, what he wanted and how to get it. Class was a vital factor for late Victorians such as Churchill and Brooke. Churchill’s aristocratic credentials as the scion of a dukedom created in 1702 impressed and sometimes overawed his contemporaries, though not Brooke, whose ancestors had served the Crown for a similar length of time.
After a short period at a crammer, Brooke entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, but only just, coming sixty-fifth out of seventy-two in the entrance exam (he passed out seventeenth). Had he done any better he would have qualified for a commission in the Royal Engineers, and he would probably not have wound up on the General Staff after the Great War. Lack of success at a crucial moment in life can sometimes prove invaluable later on, however frustrating it might seem at the time. As well as being fluent in French and German, Brooke was soon expert in gunnery. After four years in Ireland with the Royal Field Artillery, he served in India for six years after 1906, showing an aptitude for military life and a natural propensity to command. The outbreak of the Great War found him on honeymoon, having married ‘the beautiful, affectionate, vague, happy-go-lucky’ Janey Richardson, to whom he had been engaged–secretly, due to lack of money–for six years.
Brooke began the Great War as a lieutenant in command of an ammunition column of the Royal Horse Artillery on the Western Front, and ended it as a lieutenant-colonel. He fought on the Somme and was afterwards appointed to serve in Major-General Sir Ivor Maxse’s 18th Division, then as chief artillery Staff officer to the Canadian Corps, where he co-invented the ‘creeping barrage’, the method by which enemy machine-gun posts were bombarded just as troops attacked them, with the process moving steadily forward as further ground was gained. It was said that fewer casualties were suffered in those units to which Brooke was attached than in similar engagements.14 Like Marshall, Brooke had had a good war, and he was selected for the very first post-war course at the Staff College at Camberley.
Winston Churchill was fascinated by strategy, tactics and soldiering all his life. When he wasn’t actually fighting wars, he was generally thinking and writing about them. He had played with toy soldiers as a child, joined the Army Class at Harrow aged fourteen, and entered the Royal Military College at Sandhurst (on his third attempt) at nineteen. Five hours a day there were devoted to the subjects of Fortifications, Tactics, Topography, Military Law and Military Administration. This involved studying the theoretical and practical side of military engineering, explosives, field guns and ammunition, the penetration of projectiles against defensive structures, the construction of obstacles and stockades, fields of fire, the tactical use of defensive positions, bivouacking, water purification, the importance of terrain in determining tactics, the optimum combination of artillery, cavalry and infantry, the measurement of slopes and embankments, cartography, recruitment, pay and allowances, quartermastering, and the movement of men, horses and equipment.15
Yet this was not enough for the young Winston, who recalled in his autobiography My Early Life that no sooner had Lord Randolph Churchill instructed his bookseller to send his son any books he might require for his studies than the cadet ordered Lieutenant-General Sir Edward Hamley’s Operations of War, Prince Kraft zu Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen’s Letters on Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery, and Infantry Fire Tactics by an author named Mayne, ‘together with a number of histories dealing with the American Civil, Franco-German and Russo-Turkish wars, which were then our latest and best specimens of wars. I soon had a small military library which invested the regular instruction with some kind of background.’16 When invited to dinner at the Staff College at Camberley, Churchill was able to talk to the top military experts in Britain about ‘divisions, army corps and even whole armies; of bases, supplies, and lines of communication and railway strategy. This was thrilling.’
His early studies imparted to Churchill a thrill that never left him, not as a war correspondent in Cuba, nor during his time with the Malakand Field Force on the North-west Frontier of India, especially not during the Sudanese campaign in 1898. He continued to read widely and voraciously on the subject of grand strategy, and wrote about Marlborough’s wars, the American Civil War, the River War in the Sudan and several other conflicts with the self-assurance of an expert military historian. Long before the Great War broke out in 1914, in which he was to have a leading role in the creation of British grand strategy, Churchill had immersed himself in the subject, and even the staggering reverse represented by the Dardanelles disaster in 1915 failed to dent his ardour for it. During the inter-war period, his ‘wilderness years’, Churchill stayed avidly abreast of all the new technological and intellectual developments regarding military equipment and strategic thinking. By the time Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939–he was appointed first lord of the Admiralty that same day–Churchill was supremely confident of his ability to discuss grand strategy with the General Staff as much more than an interested and occasionally inspired amateur: he saw himself as their equal.
Once asked which department he disliked more, the Foreign Office or the Treasury, Churchill replied: ‘The War Office.’17 It had been the River War that had left him convinced that the Army’s bureaucracy was inefficient and also that the Army General Staff were incompetent, something that was regularly confirmed for him by contact with both in the Boer War and subsequent conflicts. In his book about the Great War, The World Crisis, Churchill indicted the General Staff for having narrow vision and rigid minds. He was angered by how long technical innovations, such as the tank, took to gain acceptance, and described Staff officers as men ‘whose nerves were much stronger than their imaginations’ and whose sang-froid in the face of catastrophe was ‘almost indistinguishable from insensitivity’. During the Second World War, Churchill also believed the War Office to be generally ‘hidebound, devoid of imagination, extravagant of manpower and slow’.18 The scene was thus set for titanic clashes with its senior serving officer, Sir Alan Brooke, who was infuriated by his criticisms and sought to refute them at every opportunity.
Lord Halifax, who sat in several Cabinets with Churchill, found the Prime Minister’s working methods ‘exhausting for anybody who doesn’t happen to work that way; discursive discussions, jumping like a water bird from stone to stone where the current takes you’. He blamed Churchill’s ‘overwhelming self-centredness, which with all his gifts of imagination make him quite impervious to other people’s feelings’.19 Although this certainly had an element of truth to it, Colonel Aubertin Mallaby, the Deputy Director of Military Operations at the War Office, pointed out that with the Prime Minister:
every single thing in the life of each day was an integral part of a work pattern. There was no question of times on duty and times off, no curtain coming down and dividing work from leisure. There was fun and talk and food and drink and films but all these fitted naturally into the very long working day. The only real respite from work was a few hours’ sleep.20
By complete contrast with Churchill, Marshall and Brooke, Franklin Roosevelt did not seem to have any strongly held or closely thought-out views on grand strategy when the United States entered the Second World War, except the understanding that his country needed a vastly larger army, navy and air force as soon as possible. Apart from a profound love and knowledge of the US Navy that he contracted while its assistant secretary from 1913 to 1920, military affairs had not affected his career. It was perhaps this veryabsence of any overarching theory of grand strategy that made it possible for him to hold the ring so effectively during the hard-fought contests between the other three principals of this book.
An eighth-generation American of Dutch origin, Franklin Roosevelt was–like his fifth cousin President Teddy Roosevelt–‘of impeccable New York stock, with many generations of prosperity behind them. Insofar as there is an American aristocracy…both Roosevelts clearly belonged to it.’21 After qualifying as a barrister in 1907, Franklin became a New York state senator from 1910 to 1913 before being appointed assistant secretary of the Navy by Woodrow Wilson. He had been impatient for America’s involvement in the Great War long before her declaration in April 1917, and since the Navy Secretary, Josephus Daniels, was a ‘good-natured, paunchy, puritanical, languid North Carolina newspaper publisher with no maritime background but pacifist and internationalist leanings’, it was largely left to Roosevelt to prepare the department for war, which he did with gusto, and somehow without alienating Daniels.22 He enjoyed reminding people that his cousin Teddy–who had also been assistant secretary of the Navy–was the man who had ordered Admiral Dewey to attack Manila during the Spanish–American War and was the father of modern American maritime power.
From the age of sixteen Franklin Roosevelt was an admirer of the works of the American historian and geo-strategist Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, with whom he corresponded until Mahan’s death in 1914, and insofar as he can be said to have had views on grand strategy they derived from Mahan’s belief in the overwhelming influence of sea power on world history. Mahan had also been a friend and teacher of Teddy Roosevelt, but influenced his cousin almost as profoundly. (Nonetheless, Franklin was convinced that the development of air power meant that Mahan was wrong to claim that the Philippines could not be defended from Japanese attack. In the event the dead admiral would be proved right and the living President wrong.)23
A talented sailor who loved the sea, was never seasick, knew how to rig and change sail in all conditions, Franklin Roosevelt had to be persuaded by his father to attend Harvard rather than the Naval Academy at Annapolis and by President Wilson not to leave his Administration to join the Navy in 1917. ‘No American president’, writes his biographer, ‘came to office with as much knowledge of ships, the sea, and sea power and strategy as did FDR. In his first two terms as president he spent an average of forty-five days per year at sea, his preferred escape from the political hothouse of Washington.’24 Yet the Commander-in-Chief’s fascination with the Navy did not develop into a similar interest in America’s Army and Air Force or, per se, in military strategy during a war that, after all, turned out not to be decided by sea power in the Mahan tradition.
Where Roosevelt did have an acute strategic sense that was to serve his country well in the Second World War was in his appreciation that air power was going to be far more important than it had been in any previous conflict. At the time of the Munich Agreement in 1938 he had instinctively understood the need massively to increase the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), instituting a plan to build 15,000 planes a year. At the time of the fall of France twenty months later, he announced that this should be increased to 50,000, a proposal which Hitler greeted with incredulity but which ultimately, and especially after Pearl Harbor, the United States massively exceeded. (In the Willow Run factory in Detroit alone, Ford built more than eight thousand B-24 Liberator bombers in the last sixteen months of the war.)
Roosevelt’s appreciation of the central importance of air power to future operations came at the right moment. Many of the hardest-fought engagements of the war were finally decided by which side had superiority in the air, and Operation Overlord could not have been launched without complete domination of the skies. (As we shall see, whereas the Allies launched more than 13,000 sorties over the invasion areas on D-Day, the Luftwaffe managed only 319.) Although Roosevelt’s contribution to the planning of individual campaigns was minimal, his political sense of when it was right for the Allies to return to France was pitch-perfect, and his insistence on a greatly expanded American air force proved invaluable.
Roosevelt was the Democratic Party’s candidate for vice-president in 1920, running on the ticket of Governor James M. Cox of Ohio. It was no fault of his that they lost by sixteen million votes to nine million; Woodrow Wilson’s brand of liberalism and League of Nations internationalism was by then no longer popular. It was the following August that Roosevelt was stricken by poliomyelitis, leaving him paralysed from the waist down for life. The next thirty-five months were spent in semi-recovery, before he established himself firmly as a coming man at the Democratic convention of 1924, with a scintillating speech nominating Governor Al Smith for presidential candidate, albeit unsuccessfully. He later served as governor of New York between 1928 and 1932, and defeated Herbert Hoover in the presidential elections of November 1932.
Concentrating on the economic, political and legal aspects of his self-proclaimed New Deal to ameliorate the still-debilitating impact of the Great Depression, Roosevelt had little time to consider grand strategy, and since in the 1930s the United States was under no conceivable military threat, there was no reason for him to. Roosevelt had to face the rise of Hitler in his first Administration, although this did not require him to think too deeply about grand strategy either, because Nazi Germany still posed little direct threat to the United States. The Japanese had already invaded China by the time Roosevelt arrived at the White House, yet beyond criticizing their presence there it was eight years before his Administration took effective action against Japan, by imposing oil and other embargoes. It was not America’s duty to act as the world’s policeman in the 1930s, a role only thrust upon it in the following decade, and there seemed to be no need for him to master grand strategy or keep abreast of military developments as Churchill, Marshall and Brooke did–at least until 7 December 1941.
Just as the crisis of Churchill’s life had come in 1915 over the Gallipoli débâcle, and Roosevelt’s when he was incapacitated by polio in 1921, so the crisis in Brooke’s came in April 1925 when his adored wife Janey was killed in a car crash while he was at the wheel of their Bentley. Swerving on a wet road to avoid a bicyclist who had turned in front of him unexpectedly, the open-topped car skidded and overturned. Brooke broke his leg and several ribs, but Janey snapped her vertebra and died a few days later, having contracted pneumonia after an operation to save her from paralysis. Their young daughter and son were left motherless, and two years later Brooke–who used to drive too fast and blamed himself for the accident–wrote: ‘I very much wish I could have finished myself off at the same time.’25
Several diverse people in a position to know, such as Brooke’s biographer General Sir David Fraser, his subordinate General Sir Bernard Paget, Lord Mountbatten and the historian Nigel Nicolson, have seen in the death of Janey the moment when Brooke developed, as Paget put it, ‘two distinctive personalities’. One was Brooke the soldier: ‘ruthless, decisive, short-tempered to the point of rudeness, remote and in his military life, lonely’. Then there was Brooke the man: ‘emotional to the point of sentiment, a lover of nature (especially birds), a family man with deep roots in the past and a sense of responsibility for the future, an easy comradeship with all those who share in his loves and beliefs’.26 Mountbatten believed that because of his sorrow Brooke ‘never let drop the façade which he had created and behind which he hid his kind-heartedness and sensitiveness–perhaps deeming them weaknesses’.
Brooke’s emotional defence mechanism was ‘to immerse myself as soon as possible in work, and to let absorption in my profession smother pangs of memory’. Whether it worked emotionally is doubtful–Brooke became withdrawn and distant, and scarcely smiled for four years–but it certainly worked professionally. After instructing at Camberley from 1923 to 1926, where he met men such as the sixth Viscount Gort, John Dill and Bernard Freyberg, whose fates were to intertwine closely with his for good and ill, he became one of the first students at the prestigious Imperial Defence College (now the Royal College of Defence Studies), where he later returned for two years as an instructor. Dill was Army instructor there from 1926 to 1928. It was an elite organization intended for the senior officers of all three services as well as a few civil servants, and completion of the year-long course allowed one to put ‘idc’ after one’s name in the service lists. Among other students were Claude Auchinleck, Admiral Tovey, Canada’s General McNaughton and Air Chief Marshal Peirse.27 Alumni were both conscious of their exclusive status and loyal to Dill, their ‘headmaster’.
From 1929 to 1932 Brooke commanded the Royal School of Artillery at Larkhill in Wiltshire and in 1934 he took over an infantry brigade. He became a major-general in 1935, after which he was appointed director of military training and shortly thereafter the commander of the British Mobile (that is, armoured) Division. This varied peacetime military experience on top of his wartime success implied that he was being groomed for the top. Away from work, Brooke managed to indulge his passions for ornithology and angling–as solitary occupations as it is possible to have–and he was to become one of the greatest nonprofessional authorities on birds of all kinds. ‘The indefatigable ornithologist is ready to spend hours motionless in a hide,’ wrote the Timesreviewer of Brooke’s biography in 1982, ‘and is possessed to a high degree of the gift of identifying an object precisely and then never losing sight of it.’28 Brooke’s zeal for bird-watching was all-encompassing: in 1944 he persuaded the RAF to reprieve an island off the Norfolk coast as a bomb-testing area because the roseate tern nested there, and close to D-Day he broke off a conversation with a member of his staff about landing preparations to talk about a photograph he had taken of a marsh tit. At the end of a long meeting at the War Office in August 1943, Brooke asked his director of military operations to stay behind. After everyone had left, he shut the door, opened a drawer in his desk and took out a book, saying: ‘Have you read this? It is most remarkable.’ It was Edgar Percival Chance’s The Truth about the Cuckoo.29 (After the war, the historian Kenneth Rose asked Brooke whether he had ever been tempted to take Churchill bird-watching with him. ‘God forbid!’ the field marshal replied. As Lady Soames has pointed out, ‘Can you imagine Papa ever wanting to go bird-watching?’) Brooke’s ability to relax–through ornithology, bird-photography and fishing–was, according to his deputy CIGS Sir Ronald Weeks, ‘his saving, for he was always highly strung’.
Brooke’s grief and sense of guilt over Janey’s death were also partly assuaged by his marriage in December 1929 to Benita, Lady Lees, the daughter of one Dorset baronet and widow of another who had died of wounds received in the Dardanelles. We are fortunate that Brooke’s second marriage was blissfully happy, since it was partly to inform and amuse Benita that her husband wrote his daily diary throughout the Second World War. (Benita, by then Brooke’s widow for five years, also died as a result of a car crash, in 1968.) There are any number of reasons why one might wish to keep a daily record of one’s life, which must include narcissism, historical interest, self-justification, financial recompense, to assuage the curiosity of one’s children, to amuse oneself in one’s dotage, and doubtless many other, darker psychological impulses. It would be naive to believe that none of these (or others) actuated Brooke, but he was certainly also writing for Benita. Brooke’s diary acted as a powerful emotional safety-valve too, allowing him to make remarks about colleagues that he might well otherwise have made to their faces, to potentially devastating effect. ‘Whatever doubts or fears Brooke may have had,’ recalled the politician David Margesson about Brooke’s wartime poker-face, ‘he kept them from his colleagues.’ Projecting confidence in victory was a vital attribute of any Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and confiding his fears to his journal allowed Brooke the more easily to hide them from his colleagues, whose morale was sustained by the sight of a consistently sanguine commander.
Brooke seems to have taken a strangely inconsistent attitude towards security; he would severely admonish anyone giving classified information over non-scrambler telephones, yet he posted his diaries to his wife by Royal Mail.30 Whether the many journals kept by senior British officials would have helped the Third Reich much had it successfully invaded Britain might be doubted, but they undoubtedly help historians. When the American historian Forrest C. Pogue was researching for his official biography of Marshall, no fewer than four British officers allowed him to use material from their diaries, each on the condition that he never revealed the fact that they had kept them.31
In 1942, a Dr Freeman wrote to Marshall to encourage him to ‘keep a memorandum of momentous daily happenings’, but the general replied that his policy was not to do this. ‘Such a practice tends to cultivate a state of mind unduly concerned with possible investigations,’ he replied, ‘rather than a complete concentration on the business of victory.’ He also suspected that diaries might lead ‘subconsciously to self-deception or hesitations in reaching decisions’, and he reacted ‘explosively’ when he discovered his subordinates were keeping them.32
Having succeeded his friend Archibald Wavell as commander-in-chief of Southern Command in August 1939, the outbreak of war the following month saw Brooke appointed to command II Corps of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that was being sent to France under his fellow Irishman Lord Gort in anticipation of a German attack in the west. Brooke chose Bernard Montgomery and Harold Alexander as his divisional commanders, both Ulstermen like him.
At that stage Brooke had not yet met or spoken to Winston Churchill, although he had followed his political career with interest. Two of his elder brothers, Ronald and Victor, had served with Churchill, but such was the multiplicity of Fighting Brookes in the British Army that that was almost a statistical likelihood. Ronald had fought in the River War and on the North-west Frontier in the late 1890s, and was wounded in the Boer War with the 7th Hussars, before commanding the 11th Hussars in the Great War. At the battle of Spion Kop in January 1900, he accompanied Churchill on a dangerous observation mission. ‘We crawled forward a short way on to the plateau,’ Churchill recalled in My Early Life, ‘but the fire was much too hot for mere sight-seeing.’33 The next month three shrapnel shells burst directly above them, killing or wounding nineteen men but leaving them unscathed. Alan’s other brother Victor was also wounded in the Boer War, serving with the 9th Lancers, and was killed in action only fifteen days after the Great War broke out. Eighteen years later Alan’s second son, who was to become the third Lord Alanbrooke, was christened Victor after his grandfather and uncle.
Having left Pershing’s staff in the summer of 1924, George Marshall served for the next three years with the US Infantry at Tientsin in China. On his return in May 1927, his wife Lily, who was afflicted with health so bad that the couple could not have children, was diagnosed with a goitrous thyroid that was found to be strangling her windpipe. After a thyroidectomy in late August she seemed to recover, but then on 15 September she died suddenly of a heart attack while composing a letter to her mother, the last word of which was ‘George’. She was only fifty-three.
Writing to his mentor General Pershing–who had himself lost his wife and three daughters in an hotel fire in San Francisco in 1915–Marshall admitted that his twenty-six years of intimate companionship with Lily, ‘ever since I was a mere boy, leave me lost in my best efforts to adjust myself to future prospects in life. If I had been given to club life or other intimacies with men outside of athletic diversions, or if there was a campaign on or other pressing duty demanding a concentrated effort, then I think I could do better. However, I will find a way.’34
It was Marshall’s Army superiors who found the way to concentrate his formidable capacities, by appointing him assistant commandant and head of the infantry school at Fort Benning in Georgia for five years between 1927 and 1932. It was there that Marshall showed his capacities as a reformer. His experience of the later stages of the Great War had convinced him that, in any future conflict, officers would not be able to wait for perfect orders written out over four pages of single-spaced foolscap sheets, such as the ones GHQ had provided then, especially with the unreliable intelligence reports that might be expected from a fast-moving battlefield. He therefore took his officers for long morning rides over many miles, and then at lunchtime required them to draw maps of where they’d been. Since no fewer than two hundred of the twelve hundred generals who served in the US Army during the Second World War attended Fort Benning, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Marshall was able to assess the abilities of many of America’s future military leaders for himself. It was reputed that he kept a black book listing the best and worst, which he later drew upon extensively as US Army chief of staff.
On 15 October 1930, three years after Lily’s death, Marshall married Katherine Tupper Brown, of Baltimore, with Pershing standing best man. The daughter of a Baptist minister, she graduated from Hollins College in Virginia and moved to New York in order to become an actress. Working for Sir Frank Benson’s English Shakespearean Company, she dropped her Southern accent to take roles as important as Ophelia, Portia, Juliet and Viola. In 1911 she had married a Baltimore lawyer, Clifton Stevenson Brown, who died in 1928 (shot by a client, so it was rumoured). Just as Brooke had lost his wife tragically and subsequently remarried in his forties, having flung himself into his military career during the period of maximum grief, and found profound happiness with his second wife, so too did Marshall.
During the Great Depression, Marshall embraced Roosevelt’s New Deal, of which many of his brother officers heartily disapproved and considered near-revolutionary. He devoted himself to the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, training tens of thousands of young men to plant trees, cut firebreaks, clean beaches and rivers, build reservoirs and generally improve America’s infrastructure.35 In the course of this work, which helped him to understand the mentality of American youth and gave him useful insights into how to motivate them–which was to become invaluable when he needed to train eight million of them a decade later–he was finally raised to a substantive colonelcy. Marshall did not win his general’s star until 1 October 1936, however, when he assumed command of the 5th Infantry Brigade at Vancouver Barracks, Washington.
Marshall was still only a one-star general in 1938. His career had seemed to plateau, and he readied himself for the disappointment of seeing younger men outstrip him in promotion. Yet owing to an extraordinary confluence of domestic and international circumstances, his own strength of character, Pershing’s support and the President’s acute judgement of personality, within three years he had become a four-star general and Army chief of staff. He was also helped by the fact that Douglas MacArthur, one of the most prominent and decorated soldiers in America, was widely thought too vain, ambitious and difficult a person to return to the post of Army chief of staff which he had held from 1930 to 1935, and was probably too politically conservative to get on successfully with the President.
In July 1938, having successfully commanded the ‘Red’ Forces in the Fourth Army manoeuvres at American Lake, Washington State, Marshall was ordered to Washington DC to become assistant chief of staff in the War Plans Division of the War Department. This was a key position, overseeing all the future offensive operations of the United States. Three months later, and a fortnight after the Munich Agreement, he was appointed deputy chief of staff. It was in this post that he attended a conference at the White House on 14 November 1938 to discuss the President’s plans to build fifteen thousand warplanes. Others attending included some of the most senior officials in Washington, such as the President’s friend and close confidant Harry Hopkins, the Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, the Assistant Secretary for War Louis Johnson, the head of the USAAF General Henry H. ‘Hap’ Arnold, and Marshall’s own boss, the Army Chief of Staff General Malin Craig.
If Marshall was going to make a good impression on the President, here was his perfect opportunity. Marshall had met Roosevelt for the first time in 1928 at Fort Benning, which was close to the polio convalescent clinic of Warm Springs, Georgia, and five years later Marshall had been present at his first inauguration. They had spoken briefly in 1937 on the President’s visit to Oregon, but otherwise they were strangers.
According to Arnold’s notes of the White House meeting, the President did most of the talking, emphasizing that ideally he would have liked to build twenty thousand warplanes and create an annual capacity for twenty-four thousand, but acknowledging that this would be cut in half by Congress. He also argued that a large air force would be a greater deterrent to would-be enemy powers than a large army. Marshall was unhappy with this reasoning and the way that Roosevelt was concentrating on having more aircraft instead of more soldiers, ammunition and military equipment, especially since the planes seemed mostly destined to be sent overseas. Against Germany’s ninety field divisions, Japan’s fifty and Italy’s forty-five at the time, the USA had a total of only nine, of which not a single one was at full operational strength.36
As Marshall recalled of the meeting years later, most of the aides and advisers present ‘entirely agreed’ with the President, ‘had very little to say and were very soothing’. Yet when Roosevelt finally came round to Marshall, saying of his own opening remarks, ‘Don’t you think so, George?’, he replied: ‘I am sorry, Mr President, but I don’t agree with you at all.’ The President gave Marshall ‘a startled look’ as he outlined his objections. As they left the meeting, the other officials chaffed the Deputy Chief of Staff, saying that they thought his tour in Washington was as good as over.37 They were probably only half joking. In fact Marshall’s calculated risk was perfectly justified. He disagreed with the President’s view that a large ground army was not vital, but he must have also reasoned that big men–and FDR was undoubtedly such–surrounded by yes-men can sometimes appreciate an honest foil. It was also part of his job to argue for a large army, and that would have been understood too. Few people outside Marshall’s immediate circle ever called him by his Christian name, and he called his associates and subordinates by their ranks or surnames, in the formal Army manner. He disliked being called ‘George’, even by the President, later recalling: ‘I don’t think he ever did it again…I wasn’t very enthusiastic over such a misrepresentation of our intimacy.’38
Marshall well understood Roosevelt’s way of suborning people in this way, and refused to be drawn into it. As chief of staff he did not visit Roosevelt’s country estate at Hyde Park, saying that he ‘found informal conversation with the President would get you into trouble. He would talk over something informally at the dinner table and you had trouble disagreeing without personal embarrassment. So I never went.’ Surprisingly, there are also no known photos of FDR and Marshall on their own together. General Thomas Handy described how his boss ‘very definitely’ and deliberately observed a formality with Roosevelt ‘so that he wouldn’t be manipulated as “one of the boys”’.39 He did not want to be drawn into the vortex of Roosevelt’s charm, and didn’t feel it incumbent on him to laugh at the President’s jokes in the way that the press corps and some Cabinet ministers did, yet neither was he stand-offish. (It was also suspected in the Churchill family that Marshall disapproved on moral grounds of the President’s affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd.)
Whatever Marshall might have privately thought about Roosevelt at this time, he was chosen by the President to follow Craig as Army chief of staff–the professional head of the nation’s military establishment and commander of its field forces. Although Marshall stood no higher than thirty-fourth in Army seniority at the time, with no fewer than twenty-one major-generals and eleven brigadier-generals outranking him, there was an unwritten rule that a chief should be able to serve a four-year term before the age of sixty-four, which made him the fifth-ranking soldier eligible for promotion for the top post. Of those five, Marshall was the President’s personal choice. He put his selection down to Roosevelt knowing he ‘would tell him what was what, straight from the shoulder, and he knew I was not mixed up with any political clique or other group’.40
Marshall also attributed the President’s decision to the advocacy of Harry Hopkins, with whom he had worked closely over the issue of aircraft procurement since Christmas Eve 1938–when Hopkins became commerce secretary. Because he was not seen as a front-runner he had few enemies, but he did have some very powerful supporters: besides Hopkins, they included Malin Craig, Louis Johnson and especially General Pershing, recognized as the greatest living American soldier. Handsome, just shy of 6 foot tall, grey-haired with fine blue eyes, Marshall certainly looked the part.
When Marshall became chief of staff, the forces under his command stood at only two hundred thousand strong; America’s was the seventeenth largest army in the world. When Otto von Bismarck was asked what he would do if the British Army ever landed an expeditionary force on the north German coast, he joked that he would send the police to arrest it. Hitler would have been justified in making such a quip about the US Army of 1939. Within six years, however, Marshall had turned it into a fighting force of more than eight million.
In one of those coincidences of which history is replete, Marshall became Army chief on the very same morning that Adolf Hitler unleashed the Second World War. At 3 o’clock on the morning of his swearing-in, 1 September 1939, Marshall was telephoned with the news that German dive-bombers were attacking Poland. ‘Well, it’s come,’ he told Katherine, and put on his uniform. After the swearing-in ceremony, Marshall went to the White House to brief the President. Except for Hap Arnold, Marshall was the only member of the American and British higher directorate of the war to serve in the same post from Hitler’s invasion of Poland all the way through to the surrender of Japan.
Marshall soon established a reputation as a straight-talking Army chief. Despite being, in the words of one of Roosevelt’s biographers, ‘a courtly and reserved Pennsylvanian’, he could be exceedingly blunt when necessary.41 To a politician who rang up asking for a certain officer to be promoted, he replied: ‘Mr Senator, the best service that you can do for your friend is to avoid any mention of his name to me.’ Yet when the wife of Teddy Roosevelt Jr asked Marshall to put her husband back into a combat unit after he was hospitalized, but apologized for using her position to get what they wanted, Marshall replied that it was ‘always alright to pull strings and favors if what you wanted was a more dangerous job than the one you had’. (Teddy Jr was in the first wave to alight on Utah Beach in June 1944 and the only general to see action that day; he died of a heart attack a month later.)
General John Edwin ‘Ed’ Hull, of the Operations Division of the War Department, recalled how Marshall worked. When his staff came to him with a problem, they would also have to bring him the various alternative solutions, and their own recommendation. ‘He never nodded his head one way or shook it to indicate he agreed with what they were saying until they had finished. Then he’d say yes or no and that was it.’42 It must have been a nerve-wracking way to work. Hull added, ‘When you went into his office he expected you to walk in, sit down in the chair directly across from his desk and sit there while he finished reading whatever he had in his hand…and he didn’t want you to open your trap about anything until he was finished.’ When he looked up he expected his interlocutor to start speaking and he would give a definite decision before the visitor left the office. ‘There were never two ways of interpreting his instructions, there was only one.’ Hull believed Marshall had an almost photographic memory, and his mind worked fast; he dictated at 150 words a minute. He also had a volcanic temper.43 Nevertheless, he was constitutionally unpompous: even as a four-star general he drove himself into the Pentagon, stopping to give workers lifts, and when he mislaid his spectacles–which he did often–he bought batches of replacements at dime stores.
In 1940 Marshall bought Dodona Manor, a modest four-bedroom house set in 4 acres on the outskirts of Leesburg, Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and 35 miles from Washington DC. Built in 1786 by a nephew of George Washington, it was a charming, though almost Spartan dwelling, seating a maximum of eight around the dining-room table. Marshall slept in a single bed, with his boots and bright mauve dressing gown–his sole Churchillian affectation–in one small closet, and sharing a tiny bathroom with his wife. Pictures of his heroes Robert E. Lee and George Washington adorned the walls of the house, as they do today. In his retirement Marshall added photographs of Pershing, Dill, Bradley, Mountbatten, Churchill and Roosevelt, but the only one featuring Brooke was a group shot taken at the Quebec Conference.
Because no president had served more than two terms, and in September 1939 Roosevelt apparently had only sixteen months left in office, it would have been inadvisable for Marshall to have become too closely associated with him. The job of Army chief of staff demanded political and diplomatic antennae at least as much as military skill, and in Marshall it found someone preternaturally endowed with them. He understood that the best way of dealing with Roosevelt was through a good-natured but not over-cordial formality, which chimed in naturally with his own personality. ‘I often saw the President and Marshall together and was left with the impression that FDR held Marshall in something like awe,’ Churchill’s confidant Brendan Bracken told Philip Graham, the owner of the Washington Post. ‘In George Marshall’s presence wisecracking and other flippancies were as much out of place as they would be at a solemn service in Washington Cathedral.’ (For his part, as late as 1949 Marshall couldn’t remember Bracken’s name, calling him ‘that tousle-headed Information minister’, and complaining that he had once congratulated him in front of an elevator operator on getting the Overlord command.)
Marshall’s preferred form of contact with Roosevelt was by letter and memorandum. Subjects on which they corresponded during the war were, as one would expect, immensely varied, and included the use of hotels as military hospitals, press leaks from the staff of the Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle, the policy of bombing Germany during daylight, British demands for the recall of General Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell from Burma, civil disorder during the Puerto Rican elections, parachute release harnesses, protection against jungle-scrub typhus, the discontinuation of Lend–Lease after the German surrender, senior promotions (which were always agreed to by the President), the frontal armour on German Tiger tanks, relations with the Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, length of tours of duty in Iceland, Turkish neutrality, German reprisals against American pilots, the defence of the Panama Canal from Commando raids, Congressional appropriations, the best way to contact Archduke Karl-Ludwig von Habsburg, whether Marshall should accept the Soviet Order of Suvorov (he did), presidential visits to Army camps, manpower bills, the morale division of the Office of Civil Defense, British pilot training in the US, the financing of Pan-American Airlines to build Latin American airfields, and very much else besides (although Marshall did not pass reports of Lieutenant Joseph W. Alsop Jr’s long and very painful-sounding history of syphilis on to the President, as Alsop’s mother was a niece of Theodore Roosevelt).44Despite Marshall’s dislike of the use of his first name in professional situations, Roosevelt did sometimes write ‘Dear George’. More often a typed ‘Memorandum for General Marshall’ would have ‘FDR’ jotted at the end. Marshall would reply to ‘My dear Mr President’, although usually it started simply ‘Memorandum for the President’ and was signed ‘G. Marshall’ above the designation ‘Chief of Staff’. On occasion a proposal was approved with the simple note ‘GCM–OK go ahead–FDR’.
Despite deliberately keeping a personal distance from his commander-in-chief, Marshall acknowledged the dangers of being professionally remote. Writing to Harry Hopkins in November 1942, he contrasted the British system–where Churchill saw his chiefs of staff almost daily–with the way that the President saw the Joint Chiefs separately, ‘and then the problem is, who summarizes what has occurred and provides a check to see the necessary instructions are sent around. I have often done this on my own initiative and later found out that someone else had been similarly active.’ Potentially worse were the ‘troubles we get into when we are not aware of what has happened between the President and the Prime Minister’, because ‘the British here are immediately informed of every detail’. Marshall also worried about ‘not knowing the nature of the President’s revisions of the drafts of messages we submit to him. All of these things may easily lead to tragic consequences.’45 Roosevelt conducted his own discussions on military strategy, sometimes without reference to Marshall, who resented it but who saw that the President–charming, organizationally haphazard, brilliant and extremely wily–needed very careful handling.
An early insight into the way that Marshall did this is afforded by a private letter he wrote on 22 November 1939 to Major-General Asa Singleton, Commandant of the Infantry School, with suggestions for how to manage the President’s forthcoming visit there. ‘Whatever arrangement is made,’ Marshall counselled, ‘no one press him to see this or that or understand this or that; whatever is furnished him in the way of data [should] be on one sheet of paper, with all high-sounding language eliminated, and with very pertinent paragraphed underlined headings.’ If anything needed to be explained, ‘a little sketch of ordinary page size is probably the most effective method, as he is quickly bored by papers, lengthy discussions, and by anything short of a few pungent sentences of description. You have to intrigue his interest, and then it knows no limit.’46 It was the formula Marshall himself stuck to, even though it seems to apply more to a child with attention deficit disorder than to the chief executive of the United States.
It certainly helped Marshall that Roosevelt’s first love and primary interest was the Navy, indeed on one occasion he remonstrated jokily: ‘At least, Mr President, stop speaking of the Army as “they” and the Navy as “we”.’47 FDR was far more willing to defer to Marshall than to his admirals, recognizing the limits of his own military competence. On the rare, but always significant, occasions that Roosevelt actually overruled Marshall, the reason was always political.
The first thing that the new US Army Chief of Staff needed as the Wehrmacht blitzkrieged its way across western Poland was a US Army. One week into his new job, on 8 September, Marshall drafted a letter to the President arguing that in order to maintain ‘peace and neutrality in the midst of our troubled world’ the Regular Army had to be increased to 227,000 men and the National Guard reservists to 235,000 by immediate executive order. He warned that the Army’s first four infantry divisions were one-quarter under complement, and the remainder mere ‘skeleton organisations’. Furthermore, ‘Essential Corps troops are essentially non-existent.’ The National Guard was at half its regulation peacetime strength.48 Roosevelt was very receptive to Marshall’s demands, but hamstrung by a Congress that was still largely isolationist in temperament.
If the occasion demanded it, especially after Hitler had attacked France and Belgium, by which time he had been in the job for eight months, Marshall was willing to take risks with the President. One such occurred on 11 May 1940, after Congress had decided to cut $10 million out of a$28 million appropriation budget for equipment to detect Japanese aircraft off the western coast of the United States. Marshall visited Henry Morgenthau to apprise him of the supreme importance of getting the full amount and, as he later recalled, ‘We went to see the President who, it was quite evident, was not desirous of seeing us.’ FDR gave Morgenthau some ‘rather drastic handling’, which Marshall assumed the President was laying on for his benefit, ‘because they [Roosevelt and Morgenthau] were old friends and neighbours’. When finally Morgenthau asked the President whether Marshall could put his case, Roosevelt replied: ‘Well, I know exactly what he would say. There is no necessity for me hearing him at all.’
‘Well, it was a desperate situation,’ remembered Marshall.
I felt that he might be president, but I had certain knowledge which I was sure he didn’t possess or didn’t grasp. I thought the whole thing was catastrophic in its possibilities and this last cut just emphasized that point. So, recalling that a man has a great advantage, psychologically, when he stands looking down on a fellow, I took advantage, in a sense, of the President’s condition.
Marshall walked over to Roosevelt’s desk and stood looking down at him, saying, ‘Mr President, may I have three minutes?…I don’t quite know how to express myself about this to the President of the United States, but I will say this, that you have got to do something and you’ve got to do it today.’49
Of course these types of anecdotes have only one outcome, otherwise they would not be told by their heroes any more than by historians: Marshall got all he wanted and more. Equally obviously–in the light of what happened the following year–equipment for detecting incoming Japanese aircraft in the Pacific was about as prescient a spending priority as it was possible for Marshall to promote at the time. His direct method nonetheless shows his confidence by this point, as well as an element of ruthlessness in consciously taking advantage of the President’s disability. It was a tactic he was also to employ in a future encounter against an ill Winston Churchill.
The case against Marshall, insofar as there is one, was neatly put by Colonel Ian Jacob, the Military Assistant Secretary to the British War Cabinet, who told the Australian historian and broadcaster Chester Wilmot in 1948:
Marshall had been spotted as a bright boy when he served on Pershing’s Staff in World War One, but 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’ of operations. He was a man of great integrity, high character and firmness of purpose. He automatically commands the respect of everyone. His modesty made him reserved and it was rather difficult to penetrate through this reserve.50
Whether Marshall had a ‘feel’ for operations and a sense of strategy is a central question that this book will seek to answer.
From June 1940, the US secretary of war was Henry L. Stimson, with whom Marshall built a close and strong working relationship. Stimson was seventy-seven and a strong advocate of military aid to Britain and of American military preparedness. As he was a leading member of the New York Republican establishment, a former secretary of war under Taft and secretary of state under Hoover, it was a clever bipartisan appointment by the President. In November 1942, by which time it was clear that Marshall completely dominated strategy-making at the War Department, ‘one of the less tactful hangers-on of the Administration’ asked Stimson how he liked being relegated to the position of ‘housekeeper’ for the Army.51 Stimson retorted that ‘the question was a foolish one, betraying a fundamental ignorance of the functions of a secretary of war’, but in fact it was fair, if a touch cruel. Marshall had effectively removed from the War Secretary the role that the incumbent had enjoyed since before Lincoln, that of being the president’s principal military adviser and a central contributor to strategic decision-making.
The same month that Marshall was writing to General Singleton–November 1939–Franklin Roosevelt inaugurated a correspondence with Winston Churchill that was to have world-historical significance, and in the finest passages of its three published volumes attained far greater significance than those ‘pertinent paragraphs’ and ‘few pungent sentences’ that Marshall had recommended to the Infantry School commandant. Writing while Neville Chamberlain was still prime minister and Churchill was first lord of the Admiralty, Roosevelt said: ‘What I want you and the PM to know is that I shall at all times welcome it, if you will keep me in touch personally with anything you want me to know about.’52 Grasping the opportunity with fervour, and signing himself ‘Former Naval Person’, Churchill responded with the first of 944 letters and telegrams over the next five and a half years. In all, Roosevelt sent 743.
The publication the previous month of a new edition of Churchill’s book Great Contemporaries would have confirmed to Roosevelt that he was writing to an avowed admirer. In 1937, Churchill had originally published the collection of twenty-one witty and concise potted biographies of famous people, most of whom he had known personally, including figures as diverse as Kaiser Wilhelm II, George Bernard Shaw, Lawrence of Arabia, Marshal Foch, Clemenceau, Adolf Hitler (whom he twice nearly but never actually met), King George V and Lords Rosebery, Asquith, Birkenhead, Haig, Balfour and Curzon. For the October 1939 reissue, however, Churchill added four more essays, the last of which was entitled ‘Roosevelt from Afar’. ‘A single man whom accident, destiny or Providence has placed at the head of one hundred and twenty millions’, wrote Churchill, ‘has set out upon this momentous expedition.’ He prophesied that Roosevelt’s ‘success could not fail to lift the whole world forward into the sunlight of an easier and more genial age’.53 (Had Churchill genuinely recalled meeting Roosevelt at Gray’s Inn, he would surely have mentioned it in this essay, and possibly not used the words ‘from afar’ in the title.)
Though it was more a gushing fan letter than an objective analysis of the New Deal, the piece did nonetheless contain very occasional barbs. In one sentence Churchill suggested that ‘the policies of President Roosevelt are conceived in many respects from a narrow view of American self-interest.’ As so often in Churchill’s writing there was also a detectable (and delectable) element of self-reference, especially in his description of Roosevelt as ‘trained to public affairs, connected with…history by a famous name…he contested elections: he harangued the multitude…He sought, gained and discharged offices of the utmost labour and of the highest consequence.’
What Churchill admired above all in Roosevelt was his courage, the attribute that he exalted above all the others. At thirty-six, wrote Churchill, Roosevelt had been ‘struck down with infantile paralysis. His lower limbs refused their office. Crutches or assistance were needed for the smallest movement from place to place.’ Churchill also had a high regard for luck, and claimed–wrongly in fact–that at one moment in his 1932 race for the Democratic nomination, FDR’s victory had turned ‘upon as little as the spin of a coin’. This led Churchill to reach for hyperbole: ‘Fortune came along, not only as a friend or even as a lover, but as an idolator.’ Fortune and Churchill both, it seemed. Within a month of publication, this very public lauding of Roosevelt had paid off superbly with the arrival of Roosevelt’s first letter at the Admiralty.
In another of history’s regular but nonetheless remarkable coincidences, Churchill became prime minister on the same day that Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg in the west, Friday 10 May 1940. As Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal, the head of Bomber Command since April, later recalled, the effect of having Churchill at No. 10 was instantaneous: ‘He put a bomb under Whitehall. From then till the end of the war he was constantly urging, driving, probing, restless in his search for new ways for getting at the enemy.’ Churchill would ring Portal up at all times of the day or night ‘and you had to be continually on your toes, always searching into your own mind for the means of improving the job you were set to do.’ Portal added that Chamberlain had had one telephone at Chequers, the prime ministerial country house in Buckinghamshire, and that was to be found in the kitchen, whereas Churchill ‘at once installed a whole battery on his desk and had them in constant use’.54
On the same day that Downing Street braced itself for its new resident, Brooke was facing the whirlwind attack that hit his II Corps on the Franco-Belgian border. Although he had had eight months to prepare his largely raw and under-equipped divisions, and did so as well as possible, he was profoundly sceptical about the proposed strategy–codenamed Plan D–which required the Allied left wing, including the BEF, to advance into Belgium in an attempt to extend the Maginot Line of defence northwards along the River Meuse right up to the sea, to protect Antwerp and the Channel ports. What to do should the Germans attack around the western flank of the Maginot Line, and wheel through Holland and Belgium into France? Brooke thought that Gort (the plan’s originator) had been wildly over-promoted and regretted that the job had not gone to the commander of I Corps, his friend and mentor Sir John Dill (yet another Ulsterman). Brooke had confidence in his divisional commanders, Montgomery and Alexander, but not in the leadership, doctrine or morale of the French Army, an organization his upbringing allowed him to understand intimately.
In his diary–which of course he ought not to have been keeping–Gort’s chief of staff Lieutenant-General Henry Pownall reported that his boss was ‘a bit depressed about [the] Corps Commanders, especially Brooke who has got a very defeatist frame of mind. I fancy he needs a rest, having done so much work in so many different capacities in the last four years.’ Pownall thought that Brooke was ‘always looking over his shoulder now and shows no confidence that he can withstand attack, especially by tanks’.55The word ‘defeatist’ is a harsh one for one senior officer to use about another in wartime, but Brooke was certainly very doubtful about Plan D. ‘From the first Brooke disliked the concept of moving from prepared positions and meeting the German army in open warfare,’ records his biographer General Sir David Fraser, ‘for which he believed neither the Allied left wing’s equipment nor its tactical expertise to be adequate.’56
The story of the May–June 1940 campaign is too well known to be rehearsed at length here, and the confusion over it is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that two of the best books on the Dunkirk evacuation are entitled Strange Defeat and Strange Victory. On one aspect of it, however, there are no two views: Brooke performed superbly. The collapse in the French sector around Sedan by 15 May and the extraordinarily rapid thrusts of the Wehrmacht panzer divisions, combined with the sudden capitulation of the Belgians on 28 May, left Brooke’s corps in serious danger of wholesale capture, from which he–through what Fraser describes as ‘a series of hazardous manoeuvres of great ingenuity and boldness’–managed to extricate it. In order to cover the gap left by the Belgians, he extended his left flank north of Ypres by sending Montgomery’s 3rd Division from south to north in darkness along minor roads close to the front. It got there just in time. He then defended the shrinking perimeter around Dunkirk, handing over his command to Montgomery–tears streaming down his cheeks–only when ordered to return across the Channel before the rest of II Corps, even though he ‘felt like a deserter not remaining with it till the last’. London needed him too much to risk his capture. Brooke was taken off the beach at Dunkirk on 30 May, along with 53,820 men that day, and over 338,000 in total.
In 1959, Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks recalled that the surrender of the Belgians on 28 May had suddenly opened up a 20-mile gap on the British left flank, and that ‘If the Germans had got into it, there might have been no evacuation from Dunkirk. It was thanks entirely to Alan Brooke that the gap was closed. He was more responsible than anyone else for the BEF getting back successfully.’ The Secretary of State for War between 1942 and 1945, Sir James Grigg, agreed, telling the Sunday Times in 1946: ‘By almost universal testimony it was due largely to [Brooke’s] skill and resolution that, not only his own Corps, but the whole…BEF escaped destruction in the retreat to Dunkirk.’57 Even Pownall admitted in June 1940 that Brooke ‘came out trumps’. As we shall see, the experience of the campaign taught Brooke a number of important lessons about how he believed the rest of the war should be fought, lessons that diverged sharply from the ones that Marshall had learnt at Fort Leavenworth, Chaumont and Fort Benning.
On 6 June 1940, only three days after the last troops returned from Dunkirk, Churchill asked the War Office Planners for ‘proposals for transporting and landing tanks on the beach’, and a fortnight later wrote to suggest ‘a Corps of at least five thousand parachute troops’.58 A fortnight later he set up the Special Operations Executive, whose object, as well as general sabotage in Occupied countries, was to assist future invasion forces. It was an astonishing set of priorities for the leader of a country whose army had only days earlier been flung ignominiously off the Continent, and which must shortly itself face the threat of invasion, but was a sign of Churchill’s invincible optimism.
In that same spirit, no sooner had Brooke returned to Britain than he was sent off to command a new BEF which would operate further south on the west coast of France, in Normandy and Brittany, alongside the French Army under General Maxime Weygand. The former CIGS, then Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, General Ironside, wrote in his diary, which he should not have been keeping, ‘It has been decided to send to France two Territorial divisions to add to the 51st [Highland Division] already there with the Armoured division. Brooke…seemed very distraught over the thought and considered that the Terrier divisions would never stand up to the bombing.’ The central question that worried Brooke was: ‘Will France stand up long enough to allow us to get them out?’59 Soon after landing in Cherbourg late on the night of 12 June 1940, he took command of this Second BEF west of the Seine–a total of one hundred thousand line-of-communication troops stretched between Normandy and the Loire, plus the crack 52nd Lowland Division–and made contact with Weygand. ‘Refugees again swarming everywhere,’ he wrote to Benita, ‘and heartbreaking to find oneself back amongst them.’60
It soon became clear that the French had lost all will to fight. Indeed at breakfast two days later the seventy-three-year-old Weygand, looking ‘very wizened and tired’ and nursing a stiff neck from a car crash the previous night, told Brooke: ‘he would speak very frankly…the French army had ceased to be able to offer organized resistance and was disintegrating into disconnected groups…Paris had been given up and…he had no reserves whatever left.’61 Brooke concluded that his own army needed to get back to Brest and Cherbourg for embarkation to Britain as soon as possible. Grigg recalled that Brooke ‘had been appalled and distressed at being ordered back to France’, believing the mission impossible, but once there he was going to make the best of bringing home as many troops as possible, just as he had at Dunkirk.
This was to be the occasion on which Brooke first came into contact with Churchill. It was also still officially the policy of the Anglo-French Inter-Allied Council to keep an Allied bridgehead in Brittany. Although both Weygand and his second-in-command, General Alphonse Georges, whom Brooke likened to ‘a great pink jelly fish–absolutely finished’, agreed with him that ‘the Brittany Defence Scheme was quite impossible owing to lack of troops’, Churchill did not accept this, and a very difficult telephone call resulted. It was the worst possible way for Brooke to be introduced to the Prime Minister’s sense of strategy and tactics.
On the evening of Friday 14 June, Brooke told Sir John Dill, who had recently taken over as CIGS, that he had given orders at 4 p.m. that the 52nd Division must ‘proceed as soon as possible to Cherbourg’. At 8 p.m. Dill called from Downing Street on a very bad telephone line to ask him about the dispositions of the 52nd. After Brooke repeated what he had agreed with him four hours earlier, Dill said, ‘The Prime Minister does not want you to do that.’ ‘What the hell does he want?’ asked Brooke. ‘He wants to speak to you,’ said Dill, handing over the receiver. Brooke later recalled of Churchill: ‘I had never met him, I had never talked to him, but I had heard a good deal about him!’62 In this, of course, Brooke was no different from any other sentient Briton over the previous four decades; but, as we have seen, Churchill had also fought alongside two of Brooke’s brothers, and Benita’s first husband had died of wounds sustained at Gallipoli.
Churchill told Brooke that he had sent him to France ‘to make the French feel that we were supporting them’, and so the 52nd Division must not be evacuated. ‘It was impossible to make a corpse feel,’ Brooke replied, ‘and…the French army was, to all intents and purposes, dead, and certainly incapable of registering what had been done for it.’ Both men were confirmed lifelong Francophiles, but the facts of the situation were immediately clear to Brooke on the ground, and ought to have been to Churchill in London also. The argument went on for nearly half an hour, with Churchill seeming to imply that Brooke was ‘suffering from “cold feet”’ because he refused to comply with his wishes. ‘This was so infuriating that I was repeatedly on the verge of losing my temper,’ Brooke noted afterwards. The idea that one of the Fighting Brookes of Colebrooke was even implicitly being accused of having ‘cold feet’ must indeed have been fabulously galling. Standing by a window at his headquarters in Le Mans, Brooke looked out and saw two senior officers of the 52nd Division, James Drew and John Kennedy, sitting in the sunshine on a garden seat under a tree, waiting for his decision. The sight of these men ‘acted as a continual reminder of the human element of the 52nd Division’, and stiffened his resolve not to ‘sacrifice them with no attainable object in view’. He was in ‘an exhausted condition’ by the end of the conversation, when finally Churchill said: ‘All right, I agree with you.’63 Although it had nothing to do with Brooke, the 51st Highland Division were captured virtually en masse at Saint-Valéry that same day, although the 52nd Division were evacuated successfully. Brooke sailed back from Saint-Nazaire to Plymouth on the morning of 18 June aboard the trawler Cambridgeshire.
In the second volume of his war memoirs, Churchill wrote (quite wrongly) that Brooke had rung him up to ‘press’ the evacuation view upon him, and that ‘after ten minutes I was convinced that he was right and we must go’. Brooke later commented that, although Churchill was largely ignorant of the prevailing conditions and was attempting to interfere with the judgement of the commander in the field, ‘The strength of his power of persuasion had to be experienced to realize the strength that was required to counter it!’ In Brooke, however, as we will see repeatedly throughout this book, Churchill’s unstoppable force had met its immovable object.
Ten years later, while unveiling a portrait of Churchill at the Junior Carlton Club in London in December 1950, Brooke recalled that ‘I had never met Churchill at that time, but even at that distance and through this faulty line, I was at once aware of his dynamic personality and of his dominating influence. It was a useful experience as it gave me an insight into the influence that his magnetic personality might exercise on commanders at a distance.’64 The intervening decade had lent some enchantment to his views. ‘Winston never had the slightest doubt that he had inherited all the military genius from his great ancestor Marlborough!’ was a regular Brooke reprise to his diary at the time. ‘His military plans and ideas varied from the most brilliant conceptions at one end to the wildest and most dangerous ideas at the other.’65 Yet against that must be set the equally powerful sentiment he expressed at the Junior Carlton Club, which he believed with equal conviction: ‘I shall, till my dying day, thank God for the great privilege of having been associated with him during those momentous war years.’66