- Alanbrooke by David Fraser
Collins, 604 pp, £12.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 00 216360 8
While walking down Sackville Street in London in 1942, Nicholas Jenkins’s attention was
unequivocally demanded by the hurricane-like imminence of a thickset general, obviously of high rank, wearing enormous horn-rimmed spectacles. He had just burst from a flagged staff-car almost before it had drawn up by the kerb. Now he tore up the steps of the building at the charge, exploding through the inner door into the hall. An extraordinary current of physical energy, almost of electricity, suddenly pervaded the place. I could feel it stabbing through me. This was the CIGS.
Thus Anthony Powell brilliantly evokes the dynamic personal impact of General Sir Alan Brooke in his novel The Military Philosophers. Brooke held positions of critical responsibility and as CIGS was titular head of the Army for the greater part of the Second World War, yet his career and achievements have never been widely appreciated: indeed, the biography under review refers to him as ‘the unknown field marshal’. The explanation is straightforward. Brooke, a modest and privacy-loving man, showed no wish to join in the post-war battle of the memoirs, even though his own role had been grossly understated in Churchill’s account; more significantly, he had spent most of the war as a ‘Whitehall warrior’ and the glory naturally went mainly to the field commanders. Brooke was too big a man to lament this, but he was bitterly disappointed that marvellous opportunities to command had twice narrowly eluded him: first in 1942, when he had felt constrained to decline Churchill’s offer of the Middle East Command, and again in 1944, when, under American pressure, Churchill had withdrawn his promise that Brooke should command the cross-Channel invasion (Overlord). It was surely for the best, as this study amply demonstrates, that he stayed at his post.
Alan Francis Brooke came from an Ulster family with a remarkable record of military service. Twenty-six Brookes of Colebrooke in County Fermanagh served in the First World War and 27 in the Second: 12 of them died in action. Even at the moments of greatest tension between the Prime Minister and CIGS, the former’s anger would be softened by memories of military service with two of Alan’s brothers, Ronnie and Victor. Alan was born (in 1883) at Bagnères-de-Bigore in the French Pyrenees, where his parents habitually wintered both for its agreeable climate and its hunting – the fashionable area around Pau was known as ‘the Leicestershire of France’. He spoke French before he learnt English and retained several Gallic traits, including an extremely rapid manner of speaking. He was also educated privately and so, unlike the great majority of officers, escaped the conditioning of the public schools. After the usual spell at a crammer he passed into the Royal Military Academy Woolwich 65th out of 72 and passed out 17th, providentially just missing a coveted commission in the Royal Engineers which would have restricted his later career prospects. His pre-1914 regimental service in Ireland and India was dominated by his love of sports and hunting, but Sir David Fraser rightly demolishes the conventional assumption that such interests are incompatible with professional zeal. In fact, Alan Brooke took soldiering extremely seriously, especially the acquisition of languages and every aspect of gunnery. He married on the eve of the First World War and served with distinction on the Western Front in a succession of Artillery appointments. He was among the distinguished group of experienced officers to be nominated for the first post-war Staff College course at Camberley, where he soon returned as an instructor. He was establishing a reputation as among the best of the younger generation of gunners and his postings seemed to be leading inexorably to high positions on the general staff.