Masters and Commanders

How constant behind-the-scenes bickering helped Britain and America win World War II.

Masters and Commanders By Andrew Roberts HarperCollins 720 pp., $35

So much has been written about World War II. Is it possible that another 700 pages is warranted or welcome? British historian Andrew Roberts makes a compelling case for the affirmative with Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945.

Using wartime diaries and meeting notes (some newly discovered), unpublished memoirs, as well as more readily available sources and historical accounts that he has clearly mastered, Roberts chronicles in novelistic detail the battles that the Americans and the British fought ... among themselves.

Before Allied bullets flew in 1942 and beyond, American and British leaders often exchanged barrages of memos, full of acerbic talking points and bombastic opinions on strategic questions great and small. Internecine battles were frequent, too, with fellow nationals depicting one another, generally behind each other’s back, in the most appalling language.

The stakes, after all, were about as high as they get.

Focusing his narrative on President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and their respective top military advisers, Gen. George C. Marshall and Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Roberts takes the reader on an invigorating, intellectual march from North Africa and Italy to France and finally into Germany.

What unfolds is not just what happened but why. For example, why did the Americans, who were attacked by the Japanese, launch their first major action of the war in North Africa?

This English-speaking alliance had to decide not only who to fight first and foremost (Germany), but how, when, and where to make war. Early on, Churchill and Brooke tended to win the arguments, steering the conflict into North Africa and then Italy – away from an invasion of occupied France in 1942 or 1943 when the Americans were keen to strike.

Throughout, the United States was champing at the bit to cross the English Channel and begin the mother of all battles. Roberts argues convincingly that the British oblique strategy was the right one at the start, but that the Americans got it right after 1943, insisting on a second front without delay despite the continued qualms of their allies.

If Roberts has left a stone unturned, it would have to be a small pebble indeed. The reader comes away not only with a vivid sense of the battles and balance of forces, but also with such striking images as Brooke snapping pencils in staff meetings, behaving as if he wished they were Churchill’s neck.
And for all of Roberts’s voluminous words, he can be quite pithy when he puts his pen to it. All of the democratic bickering and transatlantic office politics had a point, Roberts helps us to see, a vital check on impetuous ideas and flights of strategic fancy.

Germany, on the other hand, had a dictator and, by Roberts’s reckoning: “The lack of a collegiate Chiefs of Staff system was one of the major reasons Germany lost the Second World War.”

David Holahan is a freelance writer in East Haddam, Conn.

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