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Eisenhower’s Armies: The American-British Alliance During World War II, by Niall Barr, Pegasus Books, New York, N.Y., 2015, $35

Although unique in history, the cooperative relationship between Britain and the United States during World War II was not the wholly harmonious crusade of a band of brothers often portrayed on the History channel. The reality was frequently disagreeable but always entertaining, and Barr, senior lecturer in defense studies at King’s College, London, makes that clear in 500 pages that never flag.

Passing lightly over the history of tumultuous relations between the two nations, he pauses for a long chapter on the painful lessons of World War I, during which the Allies didn’t appoint a commander in chief until the last year of the conflict. Thereafter Barr delivers an astute, detailed and engrossing account of how President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill—with their respective chiefs of staff, General George Marshall and Field Marshals Sir John Dill and Alan Brooke—oversaw the formation, training and deployment of their nations’ immense armies across half the world.

After the war’s outbreak in 1939, America’s industry and president were helpful, but by 1940 Marshall was complaining that military exports were hobbling rearmament. After Pearl Harbor, much secret activity (consultation between military leaders and actual construction of facilities in the United Kingdom) became public. Atop the Allied command structure were the Combined Chiefs of Staff, which established strategy with FDR’s support but much interference from Churchill. Historians, Barr included, largely approve of Maj. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1942 appointment as commander in chief in Europe.

Barr makes it clear reality trumped the grand design. Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed to prioritize Germany’s defeat, but the strike on Hawaii turned Americans’ attention toward the Pacific, and the stubbornly anti-British Admiral Ernest J. King (appointed to the Combined Chiefs in 1942) dug in his heels. As a result the United States ended up devoting equal resources to the fight in the Pacific (where General Douglas MacArthur’s contempt for British and Australian forces went unchecked), but it was wealthy enough to manage.

The respective armies and navies preferred to fight separately, as integration of units caused technical and supply difficulties in addition to persistent national biases. Americans disliked British food, while Britons resented U.S. soldiers’ comparatively high salaries and indulgent amenities. American generals tended to dislike their British counterparts and vice versa—never mind Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, whom almost no one except Churchill liked. Few argue Eisenhower handled these personality clashes with aplomb.

It’s de rigueur to fill military histories with voices from the ranks, and Barr’s excerpts from personal writings and newspapers are especially revealing. But while national prejudices figure prominently, officers and men were more likely to be amused than repulsed.

American-British cooperation from the outset of World War II limited the frustrating quarrels that had complicated Allied strategy in World War I. Barr never makes a case this shortened the war, but readers will enjoy his detailed, opinionated history of the effective, if surprisingly turbulent, alliance.

—Mike Oppenheim