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“To understand why men attacked in the places they did, you’ve got to look at the relationships between the political masters and the military commanders”

Andrew Roberts is multifaceted, authoring bestsellers like A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 and co-anchoring television coverage of Princess Diana’s funeral and Prince Charles’s marriage to Camilla Bowles. Now comes Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941–1945. The four: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, U.S. Army chief of staff George C. Marshall, and British chief of Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke.

For the inside scoop, the prizewinning historian burrowed through archival documents, especially diaries. His greatest coup: verbatim accounts of War Cabinet meetings by Lawrence Burgis, assistant secretary to the War Cabinet. “I’d like to pretend it was archival genius, but it was pure serendipity. I looked at the catalog because I thought, ‘Who’s he?’” Burgis didn’t burn his notes as ordered, but squirreled them away—a trove untapped till now.

Why this book?
It came from reading Alan Brooke’s diaries, specifically his over-the-top attacks on George Marshall, who I always saw as the sweetest, best-natured, charming man. I thought, “How on earth could you make a major enemy out of someone so completely courtly?”

Did your views of the four main characters evolve over time?
In all cases they moved pretty radically—except for Marshall, who I liked as much when I finished as I did when I picked up my pen. Brooke I’d always thought of as just being a tough man at home in his own skin, sitting in front of the prime minister breaking pencils in half, looking him right in the eye and saying, “Frankly, I disagree with you.” Of course I’ve written a lot about Churchill and adore him, but the ways he would manipulate pretty much everybody and everything in order to get his way was something even I wasn’t quite prepared for. And I was astonished at how he manipulated his memoirs of the war. So I’m afraid Churchill did go down in my estimation.

And FDR?
I’d always assumed he had a grand strategic plan for the Second World War, but in the course of writing the book it became quite clear to me he didn’t at all. He saw it in terms of politics. Everything was to be seen in terms of politics. And that was actually the right way to look at this war.

What powered the quartet’s interactions?
The terror of being caught out being the fourth one, the other three agreeing—and knowing if that happened, your view of how to win the war was not going to be adopted. Except for Roosevelt, they all had very strong views on what that strategy should be. That’s what kept this complicated minuet going.

How did it work?
The classic example is the attack on northwest France. They pretty much agreed where it should be from the earliest days. The timing, of course, was something quite different. The British didn’t agree with the Americans. At times Brooke didn’t agree with Churchill. Brooke very rarely agreed with Marshall. FDR changed his mind in 1942, after initially supporting Marshall, and supported Churchill. And that went on for another two years.

It was a political decision. When FDR realized Brooke and Churchill weren’t going to go along with Marshall’s plan [to invade France in 1942], he knew he had to get American troops fighting German troops somewhere. It was all very well having the USAAF flying very bravely and sinking German ships, but you really had to have people engaged on the ground—preferably, as far as FDR was concerned, by the midterm congressional elections.

Some criticize FDR for being so political. You don’t?
He was quite right. This isn’t an anti-Roosevelt book in any sense. It argues that even though he wasn’t a policy-wonk pointy-head obsessed with strategy, even though he was the least qualified and the least interested, Roosevelt was the man whose strategy was actually adopted by the western Allies. It’s an astonishing story.

You write, “Too much has been made of the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship.”
It’s an obsessive thing. The stories are so good; they were both aristocrats and wonderful phrasemakers. But to understand why men attacked in the places they did, you’ve got to go beyond that and look at the relationships between the political masters and the military commanders. Here the very fraught relationship between Marshall and Brooke comes to center stage.

How would you describe it?
Brooke liked and admired Marshall as a man and a gentleman, as he put it, but not as a strategist. Then again, Brooke didn’t admire anyone as a strategist. He liked [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur, because MacArthur and he never overlapped. He loved Stalin, even though Stalin completely disagreed with his central strategic thesis. And he loved Gen. [Jan] Smuts. Most of the British high command admired Smuts because he’d fought against us in the Boer War, and we have this thing about admiring our former foes as soldiers—after they’ve lost. Zulus, even the Taliban today: you’ll hear, “They’re monstrous but fine fighting men!”

But didn’t Americans feel the British looked down on them?
Well, of course, you won the Revolution. But seriously, this feeling came to the worst possible head with [Field Marshal Bernard] Montgomery’s press conference at Zonhoven. He praised the American fighting man, but didn’t mention Patton or Bradley or any American over the rank of captain. Understandably, the Americans took that sort of thing very seriously.

So FDR deflected all that for strategic reasons?
Adm. [Ernest] King, of course, wanted a Pacific war all along. But when Marshall wanted, in June 1942, to at least threaten a Pacific war to get the British onto an early cross-Channel attack, FDR said, “You’re being childish.” It takes fantastic self-confidence for a man like FDR, with no strategic background, to tell his Joint Chiefs, who’ve spent their lives studying precisely this, that they’re talking rubbish over a matter of grand strategy. It’s fabulously admirable in a way, but it’s also…well, mind-boggling.

He was right, and they were wrong. It would have been a terrible error to cross the Channel before June 1944; it was lucky enough we got away with it then. To try it, as Marshall wanted, in the fall of 1942, when the Battle of the Atlantic was still lost, when we didn’t have the pipeline or Mulberry harbors, when the Luftwaffe had command of the skies—it would have been a disaster.

What about the role of luck?
It’s vital. Look at Ultra. When the Germans introduced the fourth rotor to the Enigma machine in February 1942, it suddenly plunged our convoy system into darkness. The luck was that we happened to have the necessary Cambridge dons, eccentric to a man—Alan Turing wore a gas mask while cycling and tied his teacup to a radiator—who created the machine that broke the codes. What the hell would we have done without them? What would we have done if U-boat wolf packs operated into 1943 and 1944? When would we have ever crossed the Channel? Any historian writing of the Second World War without acknowledging the role of luck would be foolhardy.

You think democracies work better than autocracies in war. Why?
My next book looks at Hitler and his generals. There you see again and again that what they need is not necessarily democracy in the sense of one man, one vote, but a culture whereby you could look the top man in the eye and tell him he’s wrong without worrying your wife would be sent to a concentration camp or you’d be forced to take cyanide. Without that fear, there was much better and objective advice.

But you also write, “Hitler and Stalin influenced the war’s outcome far more than any Briton or American.”
The most important statistic of the war is that of every five Germans killed in combat, four died on the eastern front. That’s where the Allies bled the Wehrmacht to death. Had Army Group Center not been destroyed in July 1944, the Germans could have carried on fighting, no matter that we landed in Normandy.

What most surprised you?
British historians have long liked to pat themselves on the back about Yalta: FDR was taken in by Stalin, but Churchill wasn’t. In fact, it was completely clear from Burgis’s notes that Churchill was just as taken in by Stalin.

What do you hope readers discover?
That all humans are fallible. These men who for years were under the most unbelievable pressure, who argued to the nth degree with each other—as they bloody well should, with so many lives at stake—were giants who needed each other.