- 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decline Churchill’s offer of the Middle East Command, and again in 1944, when, under American pressure, Churchill had withdrawn his promise that Brooke should command the cross-Channel invasion (Overlord).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.
Sir David Fraser deals only briefly with Brooke’s position in the great debate on mechanisation which went on throughout the inter-war period. Brooke interpreted the ‘lessons’ of the First World War from a narrow Artilleryman’s angle, and as late as 1935 was telling his subordinates that tanks would only play a subsidiary role in a future war. He denounced General Fuller’s advocacy of a predominant role for armoured forces as a heresy: but Fuller, for all his exaggeration and inconsistency, was a visionary whose ideas about the decisive role of armour in the next war proved more accurate than Brooke’s more conservative, professional view. Sir David seems rather reluctant to admit Brooke’s limitations in this respect. His was a dubious appointment to command Britain’s only Mobile Division in 1937, given that several armoured specialists were available.
In dealing with the Hore-Belisha-Liddell-Hart partnership in 1937-38, Sir David is less generous than he might be to the War Minister’s efforts to revitalise the Army and its officer corps. Hore-Belisha turned increasingly to unofficial advisers when he found Deverell, the CIGS, and other senior officers obdurately opposed to necessary reforms and even unwilling to discuss their views with him. Liddell Hart’s influence on senior appointments was indeed bitterly resented by some officers, but those of his proposals which were adopted for the most part proved sound, and it was not his fault that some (for example, Wavell as CIGS) were not accepted. More important, the introduction of a new team was merely the first step in a wide-ranging programme of reforms: examination of the Liddell-Hart-Hore-Belisha files shows that the topic most discussed was not appointments but anti-aircraft defences. There are a few mistakes in this section which suggest an imperfect grasp of the historical background, including a misleading summary of the Ten Year Rule and the erroneous statement that conscription had been accepted by the Government in 1938.
One may have reservations about Sir David’s handling of the military politics of the Thirties, but as a biographer he succeeds very well in bringing out the sharp contrast between Brooke the austere, impatient professional soldier and the reserved but emotional and sensitive individual. Brooke concealed a melancholy disposition behind his charm and gaiety. He was heartbroken by his wife’s death in 1925, a tragedy made all the more unbearable by the fact that he held himself responsible for the car accident which caused it. Four years later, however, he was fortunate to make a happy second marriage to Benita Pelly. As well as writing to her daily when absent from home, Brooke also began a diary essentially as a means of communicating with her. Many extracts are quoted, including an arrangement during the phoney war months for each partner to read the same passage in the Bible every day at the same time. In addition, the diaries became increasingly an outlet for tensions and frustrations – but they do not provide a fair, objective account either of the man or of his opinions on individuals. It must be said, in parenthesis, that both in his diary-keeping and in his correspondence with his wife, Brooke displayed an astonishing disregard for security. There is a hair-raising reference to a wartime letter to his wife describing a visit to Bletchley Park.
Special reference must be made to Brooke’s interest in ornithology – not a casual hobby but a passion. The importance of his bird-watching, photography and book-collecting is properly emphasised by Sir David. In June 1941, for example, he discovered a wryneck nesting in his garden and this ‘put the war and all its troubles right out of his mind for a few hours’. Just after the Casablanca Conference Brooke was distracted at a meeting with the Turkish Chief of Staff by the possible sighting of a rare pallid harrier outside the window and found it difficult to explain his inattention to the interpreter. In 1944 Portal, another enthusiast, agreed to divert RAF practice bombing from an island off the Norfolk coast to avoid disturbing the nesting season of the roseate tern.
In 1939-40 Brooke commanded II Corps in the BEF under Lord Gort. He respected his junior, Gort, as a brave, upright soldier but believed he had been promoted well beyond his ceiling: he firmly refused Churchill’s proposals to give him another field command later in the war. Brooke’s Corps did extremely well in the final stages of the retreat to Dunkirk during the Belgian collapse, but Sir David Fraser does not exaggerate his role in ‘saving the BEF’. A few weeks later, Brooke was given the dubious honour of commanding the Second BEF west of the Seine. He was probably justified in his decision to detach British units from nominal French command and save as many troops as possible, but the precipitate evacuation did result in heavy losses of stores and equipment. Whether some of these losses were unnecessary, as a subsequent military inquiry reported, is not discussed here. Had the Germans invaded Britain in 1940 or 1941 Brooke’s chance of glory would have come as Commander-in-Chief Home Forces but, the crisis past, he succeeded Dill, whom he revered, as CIGS in November 1941. In retrospect, he seems the only possible choice but at the time Churchill had characteristically toyed with the idea of appointing the much younger and less experienced Archibald Nye. The bulk of the book (12 chapters out of 21) is justly devoted to Brooke’s term as CIGS (1941-46) and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee from March 1942. Brooke’s personal contribution to winning the war is clearly and expertly presented in three contexts: within the COS; in his relations with ministers (i.e. Churchill); and in his relations with allies (i.e. the United States).
Sir David argues cogently that Brooke was Britain’s outstanding service leader because, in addition to his great personal qualities, as chairman of the COS he bore the major responsibility in representing their collective views both to the Prime Minister and to the Americans, and in upholding them in the endless late-night discussions which Churchill favoured. This gruelling routine had been too much for Dill, and Brooke also found the strain hard to bear. No direct comparison is made between Brooke and the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, whose biographer recently claimed him to be – citing Ismay in support – ‘quite easily’ Britain’s greatest commander of the war. It is a pity that Sir David has not allowed a little more space to discuss disputes among the Chiefs of Staff, in particular to expand his passing reference to Brooke’s reservations about strategic bombing and the excessive influence over Churchill enjoyed by ‘Bomber’ Harris. Brooke’s love-hate relationship with Churchill provides the major theme of the book. Brooke had ample warning of the Prime Minister’s exasperating tendency to interfere in operational matters even before he became CIGS. In October 1941, for example, Churchill suddenly proposed an attack on Trondheim, setting impossible deadlines for the completion of a plan and grilling Brooke and his colleagues for hours in an attempt to override their objections. Two further instances among many may be cited from Brooke’s period as Chairman of the COS. In February 1944 Churchill suddenly suggested that Overlord be directed to Portugal rather than France. Brooke was near the end of his tether at this time and, after being kept up until 2 a.m. discussing the strategic significance of Bali, he was in the mood for a showdown. He told Churchill in his most trenchant fashion what he thought of wasting time on such an idiotic idea – and no more was heard of it. In November 1944, Churchill attempted to outmanoeuvre the Chiefs of Staff in the matter of the command structure in Italy by sending a private wire to Alexander, in effect encouraging him to bypass the COS. Again Churchill eventually gave way. These examples may suggest an unduly simple relationship, with the professionals repeatedly demolishing the Prime Minister’s strategic fantasies. On the contrary, Churchill’s ideas were often valuable, and he and the Chiefs of Staff appreciated that their roles were complementary. Continual debate – no matter how heated and personal it became – was the best method of resolving the great issues of national strategy. This practice certainly gave the British a considerable advantage over the Americans in their early joint conferences. Sir David makes the interesting point that civil-military friction was probably as pervasive and intense as it had been in the First World War, but now it was less harmfully channelled into the Prime Minister’s dealings with the Chiefs of Staff. Brooke always strove to protect field commanders from harassment by the Prime Minister.
Brooke’s cautious, pragmatic approach to grand strategy was particularly evident in the discussions with the Americans in the spring and summer of 1942 which in effect determined the broad outline of the whole European war. Brooke inherited the Mediterranean commitment when he became CIGS and strove to continue it until he believed the cross-Channel invasion could be launched with the near-certainty of success. Marshall, whom Brooke underrated as a strategist, suspected that the British were not whole-heartedly in favour of a cross-Channel attack, and he quickly perceived that the joint landings in North Africa (Torch) would rule out such an invasion in 1943. Brooke and his colleagues got their way to a remarkable extent in 1942 and 1943: Torch was followed by the capture of Sicily, the invasion of southern Italy and the Anzio landings – but controversy continues as to whether or not the Allies became too heavily involved in the Mediterranean at the cost of a delayed Second Front. Sir David makes a strong case that the latter could not have succeeded before 1944, so endorsing Brooke’s strategy. He is rather less persuasive about the British preference for pressing on with the slow advance in northern Italy at the expense of the invasion of southern France. While it can’t be proved that the course followed was better than others merely projected, it ought to be possible to show precisely when, and to what extent, the Allied campaign in Italy diverted German divisions which could otherwise have been employed in France. This would require a careful comparison of relative strengths in Italy at different periods in 1943 and 1944 and an analysis of the composition of Allied and German divisions. Such an exercise, lacking here, would at least have tested Liddell Hart’s thesis that in the later stages of the Italian campaign it was the Germans who were successfully diverting the Allies.
Contrary to Marshall’s and Stimson’s suspicions, Brooke’s wish to persist in Mediterranean operations was wholly determined by military and not at all by political considerations. In this he differed sharply from Churchill; he never, for example, showed any enthusiasm for a possible drive through Yugoslavia to Vienna. Likewise, after the initial success of Overlord, the CIGS viewed the Allied advance towards Germany purely in operational terms, generally supporting Montgomery in his disputes with Eisenhower (whom Brooke also underrated). As the author stresses, in the final stages of the European war, Churchill’s perception of Soviet territorial ambitions and their likely effect on the post-war balance of power was much more acute than that of any of the Service leaders, so that many of their criticisms of him were ill-founded. This was also true of Churchill’s understanding of the immediate effect and long-term implications of atomic weapons.
Strategic issues relating to the Pacific War seldom featured in COS deliberations until the end of the European war was in sight, but then the nature of Britain’s contribution to the final drive against Japan caused the bitterest clash of all with the Prime Minister and one which took the Chiefs of Staff to the brink of collective resignation. The COS strongly supported sending a contingent of all three Services to participate in the American advance from Australia through the Central Pacific. Churchill wanted a British offensive, with British forces, in a British theatre of operations to liberate British possessions. In the event Churchill’s strategy largely prevailed as regards Burma, but the war ended before it could be fully implemented. Sir David allows that here again Churchill’s political arguments were more cogent than the Chiefs of Staff realised.
At its best, then, Churchill’s grand strategic vision was superior to that of his professional advisers. Brooke was not a visionary. ‘He saw the next step clearly, and those beyond only as far as they could be inspected and measured.’ He and his colleagues were an excellent foil to the more inventive but erratic Prime Minister. The latter never overruled his professional advisers provided they remained firm and united. We are still probably too close to the events and personalities involved to get a fully satisfactory critical biography of Alanbrooke – and Sir Arthur Bryant’s curious foreword and epilogue to this book reveal the drawbacks as well as the advantages of a close association with one’s subject. Scholars may wish that Sir David had provided more informative references to sources, but his book is nonetheless a considerable achievement: skilfully organised and lucidly written; cogent in its analysis of strategic issues; and most impressive in the depiction of Brooke’s personality and his relations with others. His is an appropriate tribute from a distinguished soldier to Britain’s greatest CIGS.