Review of <i> Masters and Commanders: The Military Geniuses who led the West to Victory in WWII </i> by Andrew Roberts

During the Second World War the American and British governments through the establishment of the Combined Chiefs of Staff achieved a practical mechanism for the formulation of strategy that has not been equalled in efficiency since. Andrew Roberts provides not only an overview of Anglo-American strategy but also a fully rounded portrait of the leading individuals and the impact their personalities had on the decision-making process.

Masters and Commanders by Andrew RobertsBy Dr Niall Barr, for

Even today, the Combined Chiefs of Staff, established by the British and American governments as they wrestled with the dilemmas of conducting the Second World War, seems an extraordinary experiment. It remains a truly remarkable matter of history that two such disparate nations with different problems, strengths and ambitions could decide to organise a body where their top military leaders and politicians met together – as equals – to discuss and jointly decide their response to the military problems of the war. It is this story which Andrew Roberts tells brilliantly in his magisterial survey of the Anglo-American relationship at war. However, such a tale could be dry indeed if it focused purely on the tangled processes of Allied decision making. Indeed, historians have returned again and again to describe this phenomenon but few have developed the story with such skill and verve. Roberts brings the whole fraught process of strategic decision making to life by providing an intimate and fully rounded portrait of the four main dramatis personae: Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Brooke. We learn not only of their background, upbringing and formative experiences but also of their very human flaws, frailties and hobbies. Brooke was an inveterate ‘birder’ and it is clear from Roberts’s sparkling narrative that his bird watching sessions acted as an important pressure valve from the intensity of running a global war. Roberts thus provides a very human dimension to their discussions and clashes around the conference table.

His assessment of these four men and their decisions which had such profound consequences on the conduct and outcome of the Second World War is never less than sure-footed. He provides very balanced judgements, clearly based on extensive and deep research, and never becomes an overly partisan advocate of either American or British strategic approaches. Instead, he demonstrates their roots and explains very clearly why each country maintained those different strategic objectives and priorities. He also does not follow the propaganda sown during or after the war: for example, he rejects Brooke’s claim that Marshall was a poor strategist and instead lays out very clearly just why Marshall was such an astute judge of character and indispensable to Roosevelt as Chief of Staff of the US Army and informal Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is also fair-minded enough to recognise that, while British strategic thinking was probably clearer and more realistic in 1942-43, from late 1943 American strategy was often better and more practical than that of the British. It is for these reasons, amongst many others, that Roberts’s book should come to be seen as one of the most balanced and realistic assessments of these four men and allied decision making that has been written.

Roberts does not neglect the full panoply of supporting characters either. He often provides telling details on the importance and contribution of these men, from Eisenhower, Marshall’s protégé, who, as Supreme Allied Commander, became far more famous than his patron to General Ismay, Churchill’s faithful military secretary. He handles American Anglophobes such as Albert Wedemeyer very well and is able to show how their thinking was often obscured by what they saw as ulterior British motives yet he is just as scathing on the occasions when the British wriggled from the terms of agreements they had signed in good faith. His narrative explores the shifting balance of the alliance through each of the major wartime conferences from the early tentative meetings to the bitterly contested discussions in 1942 and 1943 when Allied strategy was decided, altered and decided upon again. Roberts is a sure and perceptive guide through these perplexing meetings. He mentions and summarises the main points of each session of the ten or more days of each conference, and thus paints a vivid picture of the ebb and flow of the strategic arguments. Perhaps most revealingly, he is able to show that allied strategy was sometimes determined simply because a proponent of a particular view was willing or able to argue for longer than those who opposed it.

Perhaps most importantly, Roberts demonstrates the full complexity, frailty and energy of the joint American and British conferences and organisations. He recognises that it can be easy to overlook the remarkably co-operative nature of the Anglo-American alliance by focusing on the bitter strategic disagreements. The fact remains that the British and Americans argued with each other in open, full and frank discussions and eventually, often by seeming accident, came upon strategic solutions which won the war. The alternative was to present your allies with fait accompli in Hitler’s manner, or to treat your allies with threats, silence and suspicion like Stalin. It is sobering to note that today, when the world faces acute global problems no contemporary alliance or organisation has yet been able to develop as effective or practical a mechanism for the formulation of strategy as the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Roberts has provided us with a brilliant reminder of that remarkable organisation and the truly formidable men which charted Allied strategy during the greatest conflict the world has seen.

Dr Niall Barr is Reader in Military History, King's College London, based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College.

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