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Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945 Paperback – May 4, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Roberts offers an outstanding example of a joint biography in this study of the actions and interactions of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Marshall and Alan Brooke. The president, the prime minister and their respective army chiefs of staff were the vital nexus of the Anglo-American alliance in WWII. The path was anything but smooth. London-based historian Roberts (A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900) demonstrates his usual mastery of archival and printed sources to show how the tensions and differences among these four strong-willed men shaped policy within a general context of consensus. The politicians had to master strategy; the soldiers had to become political. The result was a complicated minuet. The increasing shift of power in America's direction coincided with the achievement of the central war aims agreed on for the Mediterranean and with the viability of a cross-channel attack. Last-minute compromises continued to shape grand strategy, a good example being the choice of Dwight Eisenhower over Brooke to command Operation Overlord. Flexibility and honesty, Roberts concludes, enabled focus on a common purpose and established the matrix of the postwar Atlantic world. 16 pages of b&w photos, 7 maps. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
As the post-war battle of the memoirs revealed, the World War II Anglo-American alliance wasn’t one of unbroken harmony. Its acrimony over grand strategy bursts forth in this history of the four men responsible for final decisions: FDR, Churchill, and their top military advisors, George Marshall and Alan Brooke, respectively. Both to humanize the pressure on figures now memorialized in bronze and to serve as Clio’s arbiter of impassioned disagreements over the optimal strategy to defeat Nazi Germany, Roberts examines how arguments played out amongst the quartet and those in their orbit. Suspicious that the British weren’t dedicated to launching a cross-channel attack, the Americans had no appreciation, felt the British, for the risk of a premature D-Day. Assessing the strategic correctness of what ensued—the campaigns in North Africa and Italy, followed by Operation Overlord—Roberts splits the difference by validating both Mediterranean operations up to fall 1943 and American resistance to them thereafter. Roberts reinforces his reputation for high-quality military history with this comprehensive synthesis of primary sources about the fundamental strategic decisions of WWII. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
As with many authors the emphasis is on the war with Germany. Some space is made for issues around keeping China supplied, liberating British Asian colonies, the role the Royal Navy will play in the Pacific after the defeat of Germany and the amount of war effort that will be devoted to the Pacific war, the majority of the book is devoted to American and British cooperation in defeating Germany and the arguments about how best to do that. As the last line of the introduction makes clear: “This then is the story of how the four Masters and Commanders of the Western Allies fought each other over how best to fight Adolf Hitler.”
And there was a lot of fighting and arguing. The early years of America’s involvement in the war saw nothing but squabbles, some very heated, over where America’s newly forming army would engage the Wehrmacht. It is well known that in first months of America’s involvement in the war General Marshall insisted on Europe while the British favored N. Africa. It all revolved around the question of how best to engage the German Army so as to provide the most help to the Soviets. The struggle to persuade Marshall to change his mind on invading Europe in 1942 and to convince him that N Africa was the best choice for the US Army’s first engagement with Germany takes up a large part of the opening year of the war and the opening chapters of the book. We all know that Roosevelt was the decider there. Roberts really does a wonderful job investigating and describing the conferences and meetings that decided the strategy for the war with Germany. Using private diaries and notes of War Cabinet meeting that violated strict rules prohibiting such things, Roberts presents a fascinating narrative of how the Masters and Commanders devised the Western Allied strategy that resulted in victory in Europe. I really did enjoy this book, it covers much more than the strategy meetings, conferences, disagreements and the compromises, also covering the creation of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Combined Chiefs of Staff and how those bodies functioned. I couldn’t give it less than 5 stars even though I have some gripes with some of the author’s opinions.
I was disappointed that Roberts seems to place so much reliance on the work of Trevor Dupuy, his work has been largely discredited. There is a large body of much more recent work that Roberts could have investigated but it is clear that he is using Dupuy to support his personal feelings and biases.
I largely agree with Roberts’ assessment of the successes and mistakes of the grand strategy hammered out by the Masters and Commanders with the exception of Operation Dragoon. While it is true that the Germans decided not to contest the landing, began an immediate retreat and Dragoon did not draw German Divisions from Normandy, that does not mean it was a failure or a wasted effort. Yes, the French Riviera is a long way from Paris (as Roberts points out) but the Dragoon forces were not headed to Paris. The Allies needed to get two armies into France to extend the front to the Swiss border and the Channel ports and beaches were crowded with supplies, reinforcements and replacements for the 21st and 12th Army Groups. The 6th Army Group moved into France quickly and they were supplied entirely through Marseille and Toulon. Roberts does touch on the difficulty in moving infantry and armor divisions into Europe then ignores the success of the 6th Army Group in doing just that. He gives a very weak criticism of that operation that I interpreted to mean that he just did not like the operation. He indicates that it took resources from Italian operations after he criticizes the effort made in advancing to Rome. It all seemed very wishy-washy.
While Roberts points out certain mistakes in strategy that I largely agree with he completely overlooks Operation Market Garden. That was a disappointment. I would think Winston and Brookie would have had some very interesting comments about the destruction of the British 1st Airborne Division, a waste of manpower the British could not afford. Newly promoted Field Marshal Montgomery’s single thrust to jump the lower Rheine and attack the Ruhr was a massive failure and I have always suspected that is why Eisenhower would no longer entertain any notions of another single thrust into Germany commanded by Monty or anyone else.
My last gripe is prompted by this quote from page 297. “In divisional terms, the US Army had 37 trained divisions at the time of Pearl Harbor, 73 by Operation Torch, 120 by the summer of 1943 and 200 by D-Day.” It is well known that the US Army produced only 90 divisions during the entire war and the 2nd Cavalry Division was deactivated after landing in N Africa in May of 1944. So the US had only 89 divisions to fight the war against Germany and Japan. That’s it! No more. And some did not see combat. All the numbers in that quote are wrong. The paragraph that quote comes from contains only one citation that is associated with the number he gives for the divisions of the British Commonwealth. How is it possible for a man who has spent so much time researching and writing about World War II to not have heard of the “90 division gamble?” Where could he have possibly come up with those numbers? 37 trained divisions by Pearl Harbor – 200 by D-Day! It must have been in his notes without a citation and he just went with it. Roberts does list “Command Decisions” edited by Kent Roberts Greenfield in the bibliography so he really has no excuse. This is especially true since he explains that the US was not prepared to engage a large portion of the Wehrmacht in 1942. In chapter 6 he discusses Marshall’s visit to London in April 1942 and on page 144 he quotes Brooke describing what took place during one of the meetings: “Marshall ‘gave us a long talk on his views concerning the desirability of starting [the] western front next September and [stated] that the USA forces would take part. However the total force which they could transport by then only consisted of 2 ½ divisions!! No very great contribution.’” So only 2 ½ divisions ready to engage Germany in September 1942. Not 37 that were supposedly ready by Pearl Harbor and certainly not the 73 he says were ready by Torch (November 1942). Roberts in fact spends quite a bit of time explaining that the US was very unprepared for major combat in 1942 so how in the world could he have written that nonsense about the number of trained divisions available at different points in the war on page 297? I just can’t let it go. I must remind myself that it has nothing to do with the development of strategy, he was trying to make a point about the phenomenal mobilization of US military and industry.
I would like to end this long review by saying that I do not think my gripes take away from the overall enjoyment of Roberts’ narrative. Even with that last one that still takes up space in my head he has produced a wonderful book examining how the Allies developed their strategy to deal with Hitler that is both incredibly informative and delightfully entertaining. I do not feel that he was biased against Roosevelt or Marshall. Each of the four gets a fair share of criticism and praise as well as many other Allied generals who come into the story. Some of the minor characters in the story do get more criticism than praise but I agreed with Roberts’ characterizations, or the quotes from some of the diaries about them, for the most part. I particularly enjoyed this one: “…Alexander [General Sir Harold Alexander] taking over as supreme commander in the Mediterranean, ‘a post for which he is totally unfitted’ in Cunningham’s [Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham – ABC] view, because he was ‘completely stupid’” (p. 530)
I would enthusiastically recommend this book to anyone interested in Allied grand strategy in World War II. It is a big story that Andrew Roberts is telling and I think that overall he has done a superlative job.
This is an authoritative and extremely detailed account of the strategic decisions behind mostly:
- North Africa (Operation Torch) and the Sicily/Italy follow-up
- Germany first vs. Pacific
- Keeping China in the war
As several reviewers have warned this is not an introductory book to WWII. Many critical battles like Midway are reduced to the briefest of mention limited to their fit into the book's narrative. This book mostly covers discussions among U.S. and British strategic leadership.
It is clearly the author's intent to immerse the reader in the moment, which will be a plus for some and a detriment for others. There is as a result so much detail with little added value other than to impress one with the personalities, friendship, and acrimony involved that this is certainly NOT a rolling, tight, easy read. The detail, however, does add to the authoritativeness of the material, a likely goal of the author. The author, for example, takes the time to put diary entries into perspective. For some that would be a trivial exercise deviating from the core presentation, for others that would be an informed preemptive strike on related material.
For me, given the book's focus, if the book has a failing it is probably in the coverage of Sir Alan Brooke. The author introduces him as the savior of Dunkirk and as a universally respected strategist, however for a book with this focus I can't say I learned what he did to become so respected as a strategist.
SOME THINGS I LEARNED:
(1) The U.S. strategic leadership wanted to enter France by the coast in 1942 or 1943, seeing it as the only way to impact Russian success at a time the Russian Front was at risk. It was in good part Churchill who sold FDR on the dangers of an early direct assault on Europe and how few if any German units would be diverted from Russia from such a small assault that redirected Marshall to North Africa.
(2) For 1944 British strategic leadership was still not very keen on a coastal invasion of France, it was U.S. strategic leadership that demanded it, provided the German air force was sufficiently reduced, as well as demanded the movement of significant resources from Italy to support it.
(3) The author makes a compelling case that the capture of Southern Italy and the Foggia air fields there, and thus the move into North Africa (Operation Torch) to get there, tied down sufficient German troops and introduced enough additional air power to significantly impact the Russian theater and D-Day. Not all authors share this assessment, of course, however his argument is well presented.
(4) Although no detail on the decision is presented, the author briefly introduced to me the argument that it would have been a better use of resources to have recovered the Estuary of Sheldt earlier on to free up Antwerp for support operations.
(5) Strategic leadership was very concerned that the Japanese Navy could have had a more direct strategic effect on the European Theater (up until Midway).