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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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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).
It is commonly asserted that about two-thirds of business mergers ultimately fail, usually because of an inability to mesh the cultures of the new partners. True in business, that seems also true in politics, especially when several nations, each with its own interests, attempt to work together in war to defeat a common enemy. Thus it was no easy task for the British and Americans to merge their forces in order to defeat their deadly foes in the Second World War. In this meticulously documented, but engagingly written book, Andrew Roberts explains how the two heads of state, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and their two senior military advisers, Generals George Marshall and Alan Brooke, charmed and debated and disparaged each other, but ultimately arrived at a consensus that allowed them to set out consistent policies and, ultimately, to win the war.
Roberts is British, and his account has a British perspective perhaps, but that is understandable since the two democracies began their alliance before America had been attacked, and when the immediate threat came from Nazi Germany, which had almost effortlessly gobbled up western Europe and was preparing to swallow the "sceptred isle" as well. Much emphasis is given to the development of the "Germany first" policy, which was a tough sell to America after the assault on Pearl Harbor.
Roberts does a good job of describing the character and traits of his four protagonists, none of them a shrinking violet. They emerge from his pages as powerful personalities who did not submerge their own ideas readily, but could eventually put the broad interests of their military enterprise ahead of personal pride. Their German opponent, Adolf Hitler, considered himself omniscient and never had to defend his ideas against the differing opinion of a subordinate. He ruled supreme, commanded without regard for his generals' apprehensions and concerns, and...lost.
The author has recently published (in Britain, not yet in America) The Storm of War, a one-volume account of the Second World War. Masters and Commanders makes an excellent prelude to the new book. For those who enjoy the first book as much as this reviewer, it will be pleasing to know there will be another, for dessert.