Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke War Diaries, 1939–1945.
University of California Press, 763 pages, $40
In 1980, in his valedictory lecture as Regius Professor of Modern History, Hugh Trevor-Roper discussed the events of 1940, when the world hung in a balance between very different futures. Drawing attention to the fallacy of historical determinism and Marxist historiography, he observed that
no one could rationally have assumed that at the precise moment of the fall of France there would be, in Britain, a statesman able to unite all parties, and the people, in the will and confidence to continue what could easily have been represented as a pointless struggle.
Trevor-Roper knows what our professors today seem to be too smart to grasp, that the “crisis does not always produce the man.” In 1940, Winston Churchill stood between day and night. It was all the more remarkable that in late 1941 at another moment of great military crisis—Russia near defeat; Japan overrunning Malaya, Hong Kong, and Burma; the Germans victorious in North Africa and threatening Persia and Britain’s irreplaceable oil supply—Britain produced the perfect complement to Churchill: General Sir Alan Brooke, the man who translated Churchill’s genius into workable military strategy.
Alanbrooke (Brookie, as all his friends knew him, was created Viscount Alanbrooke in 1946) was an artilleryman from an old military family—the Brookes of Ulster sent twenty-six men to fight in the First World War and twenty-seven in the Second. He served with distinction on the Western Front—arriving as a captain in September 1914 and rising to GSO1 Royal Artillery. Between the wars, he continued his quick advancement showing an immense competence at staff work and at training soldiers. In 1939, he took command of one of the two corps that comprised the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and molded it over eight months into a formidable fighting force.
Alanbrooke was a true savior during the disastrous retreats in June 1940. He calmly maintained an organized front that—it still seems miraculous—kept the Germans in front and the beaches (and possible evacuation) behind. He was made commander-in-chief of the short-lived second BEF and then after the capitulation of France was given the impossible task of C-in-C Home Forces when every day brought the prospect of a German invasion that probably could not have been repelled. This threat passed with Germany’s attack on Russia in June 1941, but when Alanbrooke became Chief of the Imperial General Staff—the operational commander of the whole British Army—in December, Britain seemed without hope.
This changed days later with America’s entry into the war and led to a plan for German encirclement now called the “Mediterranean Strategy.” The original vision seems to have been Churchill’s, but Alanbrooke was the first to grasp its implications. Winning the campaign in North Africa would take the Germans off the offensive, return control of the Mediterranean, and free up a million tons of shipping per year. Then invade and knock out Italy, forcing Germany to commit divisions to southern Europe and the Balkans. Invade Fortress Europa only when Germany was on the defensive and unable to resist. It was a Grand Strategy in the mold of Marlborough and Wellington, and it was a grand success. Historians are always fond of connecting the absolutists: Louis XIV to Napoleon to Hitler. Their overweening ambitions and great power were defeated by British generals who understood what was at stake and then acted deliberately to bring the enemy low.
Alanbrooke was instrumental in convincing the United States to adopt this strategy. While the American admirals were only interested in fighting the Japanese and the Army chiefs were desperate to get to fighting the Nazis on the European continent, Alanbrooke insisted on North Africa. When Marshall said that the quickest way to end the war was to invade France in 1942, Alanbrooke’s reply—not diplomatic but militarily correct—was “Yes, probably, but not the way we hope to finish it!”
Alanbrooke began his diary when he left England to take up command of II Corps of the BEF in September 1939. It was essentially a love letter to his wife and a reflection on his work, not events. From 1939 to December 1941, its keynote is the training of men and the general unpreparedness for war. Later, it is Alanbrooke’s struggles with Churchill. Alanbrooke was a tough man whose characteristic response to statements he found objectionable was “I flatly disagree.” Churchill wanted to micromanage the war, and he and Alanbrooke fought continually. In 1943, after a long day arguing with Churchill about his obsession with invading Sumatra, Alanbrooke got an invitation to dine:
I thought it was to tell me that he couldn’t stick my disagreements any longer and proposed to sack me! On the contrary we had a tête-à-tête dinner at which he was quite charming, as if he meant to make up for some of the rough passages of the day.
Earlier Alanbrooke had wistfully noted Marshall’s reaction to Churchill:
I remember being rather amused at Marshall’s reactions to Winston’s late hours, he was evidently not used to being kept out of his bed till the small hours of the morning and not enjoying it much! He certainly had a much easier time of it working with Roosevelt, he informed me that he frequently did not see him for a month or six weeks. I was fortunate if I did not see Winston for 6 hours.
Churchill and Alanbrooke nonetheless constituted a partnership of genius. Each had a method for dealing with the other: Churchill’s was repetitive argument, Alanbrooke’s is best summed up in the diary of his Director of Military Operations Major-General Sir John Kennedy,
Later I realized the wisdom of the technique which Brooke acquired after many stormy passages with the Prime Minister. Brooke found it an invaluable rule never to tell Churchill more than was absolutely necessary. I remember him once scoring out nine-tenths of the draft of a minute to the Prime Minister, remarking as he did so, “The more you tell that man about the war, the more you hinder the winning of it.”
Alanbrooke’s diaries are full of good lines. Explaining his task to F. E. Morgan, who was planning what became the D-Day invasion, Alanbrooke summed up with “Well, there it is. It won’t work, but you must bloody well make it.” “Lunched with de Gaulle a most unattractive specimen. We made a horrid mistake when we decided to make use of him.” On Anthony Eden:
As a late S of S [secretary of state] for war he must know well what the army’s situation is, and yet the proposals and suggestions he put forward might have been based on gross ignorance of the weakness of our defence of this country. If this is the best democracy can do it is high time we moved forward to some other form of government.
The diaries also give a very accurate picture of what it is actually like to be in strategic command of a modern war.
This is a book for anyone interested in the details of the prosecution of the Second World War. It is also a necessary corrective, since the earlier two-volume work based on the diaries by Arthur Bryant is both bowdlerized and out-of-date. There is a plaque in the floor of Westminster Abbey that reads “Remember Winston Churchill.” Let us also remember Alanbrooke.