Masters and Commanders by Andrew Roberts
Masters and Commanders, Andrew Roberts (Harper-Collins, 2009)
One of the Allies’ most difficult tasks in responding to the aggression of the Axis Powers in World War II was to organize and maintain the alliance itself. General George C. Marshall, US Army chief of staff, described that achievement of organizing, planning, and implementing military effort as “our greatest triumph.” Knowing that such coordination would be difficult for his diverse adversaries, Adolf Hitler counted on political weaknesses in the alliance to be one of his most important weapons. Meeting rooms may seem to be less dramatic places than battlefields, but what goes on in the former determines to a large extent what happens on the latter.
At the core of the Alliance were the US and Great Britain. In Masters and Commanders (Harper-Collins, 2009, 674 pp.), author Andrew Roberts portrays the four key leaders of these democracies– President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and their military chiefs General Marshall and Field Marshall Sir Alan Brooke — and how they overcame their countries’ conflicting interests and their personal differences, developed and coordinated strategies, and cooperated to win the war. The politician-statesmen, Roosevelt and Churchill, provided the vision, energy, and leadership, which the warrior-statesmen, Marshall and Brooke, channeled into military plans and action. These men and their associates worked together with sufficient harmony to achieve victory, but there were plenty of discordant and heated disagreements along the way.
One of the major disputes concerned whether and when to assault Germany’s forces directly on the European continent, as the Americans preferred, or to chip away at the enemy’s position on the periphery in North Africa, the Balkans, and Scandinavia, as Britain favored. Marshall advocated continental landings as early as 1942, but the British, remembering their large losses at the hands of the Germans in World War I and mindful of their limited resources in the present, convinced Roosevelt that the Allied forces were not yet sufficiently prepared. Roosevelt, judging that the American people were impatient to take some action, agreed to join with the British to fight first in North Africa, Sicily, and then Italy, where the Germans’ strength was less formidable. By 1944, however, the American buildup in England, participation through Italy and elsewhere, and success (jointly with Britain) in reducing German’s submarine threat in the Atlantic, were sufficient to persuade the British to make the attempt in Normandy.
Drawing upon recently discovered notes from Churchill’s war-cabinet meetings and the private papers of many participants in Allied meetings, Roberts reconstructs the debates over this and other major strategic issues. The result includes useful perspective on a range of topics, such as the impact of personalities on history, and the disadvantages of dictatorship where decisions are made with little feedback and restraining influence.
The book review above was originally published in a feature titled “Book Notes”, published in the September, 2009 edition of Amitié, the newsletter of Normandy Allies, Inc. This note was written by Walter Ford Carter, member of the Normandy Allies Board and the team that leads its history-study experience each summer. Walter, the son of Captain Elmer Norval Carter, a US Army battalion surgeon in the 29th Division who was killed in action on June 17 1944, is the author of No Greater Sacrifice, No Greater Love: A Son’s Journey to Normandy.