Alanbrooke and Churchill
A Study in Contrast
By LORD TEMPLEWOOD C IR ARTHUR BRYANT is a past master at dealing °with famous diaries. He knows what to select from them, he knows also how to fill in the back- ground without obtruding himself into the pic- ture. This niceness of choice and touch are every- where apparent in The Turn of the Tide*. The result is an account of the war between 1939 and 1943 as enthralling as anything that has yet been published, whilst from it emerge in impres- sionist colours the contrasting figures of the Prime Minister and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
There has never been better material for a book of this kind. For Lord Alanbrooke has left a day-to-day account of his impressions that was not originally intended for publication. Unlike Julius Caesar, Marshal Saxe and Sir Winston Churchill, he was not thinking of posterity. He was bent only on giving his wife a running story of his war experiences—in his own words 'an evening talk with her on paper.' This he accom- plished by sending her a series of tiny notebooks, each under lock and key, containing without any thought of style or effect, his innermost thoughts upon the course of the war. Later on, when the war ended and General Lunt of the Royal Artillery was planning the official biography of this greatest of gunners, Alanbrooke added some further comments that, without altering their sense, amplified and sometimes modified certain of his earlier statements. Thanks to these little volumes, we can follow in the most intimate way the hopes and fears of the man who saved the remnants of the British Army in 1940, who was mainly responsible for the higher strategy of the war in 1941 and 1942, and who was three times offered by the Prime Minister the highest com- mands in the field, including the command of Overlord, the culminating invasion of France.
The Turn of the Tide, to be completed by a sequel that will take the diaries to the end of the war, covers the critical period between the out- break of war and the start of the Italian cam- paign. Alanbrooke, or as he then was, Sir Alan • Brooke, first as an Army Corps Commander in France, then as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and finally as Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, was able to watch from the best possible observation post every phase of the struggle. His mind was as carefully trained as his sight was acute. For just as he had an eye that was celebrated in the world of bird-watchers, so his expert mind missed nothing of any importance in the war. His story is all the more striking as it runs on continuously without long documents to hold it up, or any attempts at self-defence to give it the impression of partiality.
The first chapter centres round the collapse of the French army and the British retreat from the Continent. !Acre clearly than anyone, he realised our many military weaknesses. Unlike the majority of military experts, including Churchill, * THE TURN OF THE TIDE, 1939-43. By Arthur Bryant. A Study Based on the Diaries and Auto- biographical Notes of Field-Marshal The Viscount Alanbrooke. (Collins, 30s.) he saw how fundamentally weak was the French army. Also, unlike Churchill, he saw that however great were our military needs in 1939, we were notably stronger than in 1938. The new Hurri- canes and Spitfires and the extension of radar round the British coast were already making pos- sible the victory of the Battle of Britain in the early autumn of 1940. If we had gone to war at the time of Munich, we should indeed have been defenceless. Gort, the Commander-in-Chief in France, the French Staff, and most notably, Hitler himself, were all agreed upon this. Indeed, there has recently been published in the last volume of the official Documents on German Foreign Policy a remarkable statement by Hitler in his interview with Mussolini on March 8, 1940, to the effect that he was forced to go to war in 1939 as the situation was changing so much in favour of Great Britain, and that any delay would work against the Reich. This unanimity of expert opinion should be remembered when it is claimed that we should have done better to fight in 1938.
This is the period when Gort was still Com- mander-in-Chief in France, and Alexander and Montgomery were making their reputations as Divisional Commanders. Gort, according to Alanbrooke's notes, lacked the necessary staff training for his high post. The criticism is a fair one, but it should never be forgotten that it was Gott's decision, made on May 25, 1940, to march his divisions to the coast that made possible the Dunkirk evacuation.
As to Alexander and Montgomery, like Alan- brooke himself great Ulstermen, the notes from the start bring out the contrast of their personali- ties—Alexander, smiling, imperturbable, retiring, quietly efficient, and Montgomery, irrepressible, poised like an athlete for a quick start in a race, ready to adapt himself to any surroundings, knowing what he wanted, and by no means hesi- tant in insisting on it. Of Montgomery's resource- fulness, Alanbrooke gives a picturesque example. In the inevitable confusion of the forced march to the coast, he found him not only confident, but optimistic, and driving a herd of horned cattle before his retreating units in order to make sure that he could feed his men.
It fell to Alanbrooke, as the Commander of the First Army Corps, to direct the withdrawal, and his daily notes describe how he rushed from point to point, and, having no time to issue written orders, gave his directions by word of mouth. Thanks mainly to his efforts, 366,000 men, of whom 244,000 were British, were brought safely from France to England.
There followed the first of his many disputes with Churchill. Churchill wished him to re- form the army on British soil, and then return to France to hold Brittany as an Allied redoubt. Alanbrooke considered the proposal to be im- practicable, and eventually persuaded the Prime Minister to drop it, and let him go back to the Continent for the sole purpose of extricating the remaining British troops left behind in the centre and south of France. This second evacuation he carried out no less successfully than the first, with the result that a further 140,000 British troops were rescued.
Two such achievements inevitably marked him out for the post of CIGS when Ironside retired. There then began one of the most interesting and important chapters in British military history., From the first, Alanbrooke was fully aware of the startling contrast between his own and the Prime Minister's temperaments. On the one hand, there was Churchill, rejoicing in the extent of his military knowledge, stimulated by an inspiring imagination of almost boundless scope, blessed with a constitution that ignored all the conven- tional precautions of weaker men and gained strength from the superhuman strains that he put on it; on the other hand, there was Alanbrooke's reserved nature, his passion for detail, his con- viction that the war could never be won by any diversion of effort. No two men could have been more unlike. The book tells how for four years they faced together a long series of searching problems that might well have broken up, the duumvirate, but how, in spite of apparent incom- patibility of temper, their discords were trans- muted in the end into an impressive harmony that would never have been possible if either of them had merely said Yes to the other.
They met at a critical moment. The year of the so-called 'phoney war' had just ended. How well I remember the sittings of the War Cabinet during the depressing months between August, 1939, and the summer of 1940! The only right course to pursue at the time was to build up our grow- ing strength and avoid any premature adven- tures. But we were a moribund government and nearing our constitutional end. We had not been created for war, and had almost finished our full term of office. Whilst, therefore, most of us realised that a policy of waiting was the only wise one, we were not strong enough to say No when the House of Commons and the public clamoured for action. Churchill stood out as the inspiring leader of a more active policy. Doubts and diffi- culties faded before him. The result was the inva- sion of Norway and the strengthening of Hitler's position at the very moment when a reaction against the war was beginning to show itself in Germany. What we then lacked was a Chief of Staff to say No. There was then no one to say it. The need was to find this resolute man, not, indeed, to cramp Churchill's genius as a great national leader, but to insist upon the hard facts of war, and to confine military policy within the strict boundaries of existing conditions. Cavour had rightly insisted that politics was the art of the possible. Even more necessary was it to remember that military strategy should never break loose from the solid framework of ineluctable facts. Alanbrooke's relentless logic was the exact anti- dote required for Churchill's brilliant improvisa- tions. With a mind as well equipped as any staff officer's in the world, a character built firmly on the foundations of Ulster steadfastness, and a nature that, though outwardly rigid, inwardly comprehended Churchill's idiosyncrasies, he could say No to schemes that were not possible, and at the same time—such was his transparent sincerity—retain the Prime Minister's confidence and friendship.
The need in the autumn of 1940 was for a strategical plan upon which every Allied effort could be incessantly concentrated. The new Chief of the Imperial General Staff had seen enough of German military strength to realise the immense risks that stood in the way of any British return to the Continent. Yet without the return an Allied victory was impossible.
When he first took office we had just suffered a tremendous catastrophe. When, a year later, Admiral Pound retired from the chair of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and he succeeded him, we had suffered another just as great. Our best and newest battleship, the Prince of Wales, and one of our only two battle cruisers, the Repulse, had been sunk by the Japanese, and Singapore, the key to our Far Eastern power, had fallen almost before the world realised that it was threatened. These calamities had left a writing on the wall that the CIGS could never forget. Their inescapable lesson was the necessity of con- centrating upon the great objective in the West, and of never underrating the military strength of the enemy, particularly their strength in the air. Two facts stood out in hard relief. The invasion of Europe was impracticable until the Allies were much stronger and the German power of resis- tance in the West had been weakened by a care- fully planned strategy.
Where should be the first step in this grand strategy? The Prime Minister and the Chiefs of Staff were agreed that the, blow should be made in North Africa on what Churchill called the 'under-belly of the monster' and a German General called 'the groin of Fortress Europe.' But within this general agreement there were many differences of opinion. Churchill's rest- less imagination was constantly suggesting diversions. Now, it would be for another Norwegian campaign, now for a landing in the Baltic, now for a campaign in North Sumatra. Time after time Alanbrooke had to insist upon the difficulties and dangers of these wanderings from the central path. Where was the shipping, where, again, was the air protection that was essential? Questions such as these were apt to irritate Churchill's 'impetuous nature.' And yet they had to be forced on him time after time. '1 was quite clear in my own mind,' writes Alanbrooke on December 3, 1942, 'that the moment for the opening of the Western Front had not yet come and would not present itself during 1943. 1 felt that we must stick to my original policy for the conduct of the war, from which I had never departed, namely, to begin with the conquest of North Africa, so as to re-open the Mediterranean, restore a million tons of shipping by avoiding the Cape route; then eliminate Italy, bring in Turkey, threaten southern Europe, and then liberate France. . . . When I drew his attention to the fact that when he put his left foot down, he should know where the right foot was going to, he shook his fist in my face, saying: do not want any of
your long time projects, they cripple initiative.'
There was an even more formidable difficulty than any that Churchill's exuberant mind might create. There was the deep-seated suspicion of the American staff, particularly of the American naval staff, of a campaign that seemed to them to threaten another Salonika stalemate. Salonika had been an impasse, Torch, as the North African campaign was called, was on the other hand to be the beginning of the road that led directly to the Western Front. The difference between the two was fundamental, but it took days and months to persuade the doubters, and it needed all Alanbrooke's persistence and patience to bring our Allies into line.
Even when some kind of agreement had been reached, it looked as if the Americans were going to run out in the end. For instead of wish- ing to exploit the victories of Alexander and Montgomery for a swift campaign on the Italian mainland, they drifted back to the conception of a self-contained operation that would end at the toe of Italy, or at most at the Foggia aerodrome on the western coast. In the meanwhile the land- ing craft sent for Torch should go to the Pacific, the Italian campaign should be halted, and, at the same time, the invasion of France begin in 1942 or 1943 rather than 1944. There came a day at the Quebec Conference when it looked as if Alanbrooke was defeated. To make things even blacker, it was at this moment that Churchill, who had already promised him on three occasions the command of the army of invasion, told him that he had agreed with Roosevelt to give the supreme post to an American. In Alanbrooke's own words: Not for one moment did he realise what this meant to me. He offered no sympathy, no regrets at having had to change his mind, and dealt with the matter as if it were one of minor importance.
Deprived of the crown of his military career, impeded in the conduct of his military strategy, August 15, 1942, was a very black day in Alanbrooke's life. A flicker of comfort suddenly came from an unexpected quarter. I quote his note of August 16. 1942:
'Just as we had settled down at our morning C.O.S. meeting to decide our plan of action for the Combined C.O.S. meeting Winston sent for us. He wanted to discuss a telegram from Anthony Eden forwarded on from Sam Hoare. In it he gave an account of an interview with a general sent by Badoglio to settle peace-terms
with us on the basis of proposed co-operation of Italian troops with us in assisting in clearing the Germans out of Italy.'
The news [this is Sir Arthur Bryant's comment] had arrived at a most dramatic moment. It came just in time to prevent the abandonment, when its first fruits were waiting to be gathered, of Brooke's Mediterranean strategy.
With the possibility of the. Italian army coming over to us, and the way through Italy being left open, the picture looked very different even to the American staffs. The critics of an Italian cam- paign could no longer maintain that Italy was a blind alley. The opposition weakened and a decision was reached for certain specified land- ings on the Italian mainland.
What then followed will form one of the main subjects of the next volume of Alanbrooke's notes. Perhaps, however, it is worth supplement- ing his account of the Quebec Conference, at which these discussions took place over the Italian campaign, with a note about one of my telegrams from Madrid that seems to have had so con- siderable an effect upon the Conference.
As British Ambassador in Spain, I had found myself at a strategic point as soon as the war moved to Africa and the Mediterranean. Gibraltar, our last foothold on the Continent, was of vital importance to Torch. Without its air- field, air cover for the Allies would have been impossible. More than once I had been brought to London to give my views as to what was likely to happen in Spain if the Allies landed on the African coast. Alanbrooke alludes to one of these interviews when he asked me whether Franco would take the opportunity of closing the Straits and decapitating the Allied armies, when once they had been committed to the North African coast. Knowing the Generalissimo's proclivities and be- ing painfully aware of the fact that Spain was a German semi-occupied country, my answer was that his attitude would depend upon what hap- pened in the first few days after the landing. If the Allied fortunes went well, he would not intervene, but if they went badly, he would certainly seize the heaven-sent opportunity to attack Gibraltar and its key airfield. My forecast was justified. Torch went well for the first few days, and as the result Franco did not intervene against us.
There followed a chapter in which the Italians were constantly putting out peace feelers in Madrid. It was not, therefore, any surprise to me when, on August 13, General Castellano, the head of the military department of Marshal Badoglio's Chief of Staff, broke in upon me one hot Sunday morning and offered me the capitulation of the Italian army. As soon as he left me, my staff and I coded a most urgent telegram to London. It was this telegram that Churchill produced at Quebec. Until I read the statement in Alan- brooke's diary, I had no idea that my message had arrived so opportunely. All that I subse- quently knew was that three precious weeks were allowed to pass before the terms of capitulation were accepted. Was it Churchill's and Roosevelt's insistence upon unconditional surrender, and their opposition to Eisenhower's proposal of an easy and honourable way out for the Italians, 'a white alley' in his own words, for helping their speedy withdrawal? Or the lack of landing craft for an invasion? Or the persistent belief in the American naval staff that only the Pacific really mattered? In any case, the days passed, the German reinforcements were given time to arrive, and the Italians ceased to be. masters in their own house.
Even so, although the result of the delay was the costly campaign up the Italian mainland, an essential part of the grand strategy had been achieved. The campaign was allowed to con- tinue, and every German division that Hitler threw into Italy meant one fewer in the final act of German resistance in the west.
It is at this point that the first instalment of the diary ends. The tide of battle has turned in our favour, but the wave of victory will still be slow in arriving. Before, however, I finish my account of the book, 1 must add some ,account of the personal relations that existed between the Prime Minister and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
There never has been a modern war in which the politicians and the soldiers have not had their acute differences. The politicians are always in- clined to think that the soldiers, are prejudiced and unimaginative, the soldiers that the politicians are ignorant and irresponsible. In the First World War Lloyd George was constantly at issue with Haig and Robertson, although he never involved himself with them in a frontal battle. In the second, Churchill and Alanbrooke were more often than not in disagreement. But in this latter case their differences were finally settled by frank and often fierce argument, rather than by the devious expedients to which Lloyd George had such frequent recourse.
The most intriguing part of Alanbrooke's diary tells of these battles, and how in the end the Prime Minister almost always accepted the view of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and the Chiefs of Staff Committee.
It was obvious from the start that the new CIGS and the Prime Minister would not see alike.
'I don't know how he is going to get on with Winston,' said his hosteis just after Alanbrooke had succeeded Ironside, 'but he spent all the afternoon on the sofa, and seemed all the time to be saying, "No, no, Sir, you can't."' The lady surmised correctly. For from then onwards, one of. Alanbrooke's main tasks was to warn the ' Prime Minister off dangerous courses, and to induce him to concentrate his unique powers upon what really mattered.
In the course of their long companionship Alanbrook came to understand the strength and weakness of his chief's character as no one else could. With anyone less sensitive than the CIGS this would never have happened. Several notes show how nearly they sometimes came to an open rupture. For instance, there is this entry in October, 1940: Our talk lasted for close on half an hour, and on many occasions his arguments were so formed to give me the impression that I was suffering from 'cold feet' because I did not wish to comply with his wishes. This was so infuriating that 1 was repeatedly on the verge of losing my temper. Here is another example of these disputes from the note of January 17, 1942: It happened at a midnight Chiefs of Staff meet- ing with the Lord Privy Seal, Mr. Attlee, and the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, in attendance, when the Chief of Air Staff had tried to .stop the Prime Minister from committing himself irrevocably to, a promise to transfer ten squad- rons from North' Africa to Russia at the end of the Libyan.offensive. This produced the most awful outburst of temper. We were told that we did nothing but obstruct his intentions, we had no ideas of our own, and whenever he produced ideas, we produced nothing but objections.. . .
His military plans and ideas varied from the most brilliant conceptions at the one end to the wildest and .most dangerous ideas at the other. To wean hint away from these wilder plans required superhuman efforts and was never entirely successful in so far as he tended to return to these again and again.
I quote again from a later note of August 30, 1943: The Quebec Conference has left me absolutely cooked—Winston made matters almost impos- sible. . . . He has an unfortunate trick of pick- ing up some isolated operation, and without ever really having it looked into, setting his heart on it. When he once gets into one of these moods he reels everybody is trying to thwart him and to produce difficulties. . . . Perhaps the most remarkable failing of his is that he can never see a whole strategical problem at once. His gaze always settles on some definite part of the canvas and the rest of the picture is lost.
But then at the end of the note there is a very revealing sentence : He is quite the most difficult man to work with that I have ever struck, but I would not have missed the chance of working with him for any- thing on earth.
For although the Prime Minister was 'sticking his fingers into every pie' and running after different 'hares behind everyone's back,' Alan- brooke knew that he was dealing with one of the world's great men. And what was more, a great man who could strike the imagination of his fellows, find splendid words for human emotions, control Parliament by his eloquence, appeal to the men who were fighting by his dramatic per- sonality, and keep alive the Coalition of Great Britain, the United States and Russia. These were qualities never before gathered together in the person of a British Prime Minister. How worth while it was to put up with all the great man's faults when they were counterbalanced by these essential gifts!
These differences were not made easier by the personal habits of the two men. Churchill, revived by art after-luncheon siesta, wished to work through the night. Alanbrooke liked to finish his office work at eight in the evening and to begin it punctually at 9 a.m. Churchill did not get up until late in the morning, liked his meals every four hours, and would on occasion have two whiskies and sodas and a bottle of champagne before a breakfast of eggs and white wine. Alanbrooke, left to himself, would have kept to the early hours and conven- tional fare of a family home. 'My stomach is my clock,' the Prime Minister told him in the flying boat that was taking them to America in June, 1942. 'As I had to share every one of these meals with him,' adds the CIGS, 'and as they were all washed down with champagne and brandy, it became a little trying to the constitution.'
The Prime Minister's unconventional habits often had a humorous side.
P.M. is . , . confined to the house for security reasons [this is a note on the landing at Gibraltar on August 24, 1943]. He discussed disguising himself as an Egyptian demi-mondaine or an American suffering from toothache so as to be allowed out.
Here is another example taken from the diary of March 24, 1943: During the meeting the P.M. sent for me. By the time I . . . reached him in the Annexe he was in his bath. However, he received me as soon as he came out, looking like a Ruman Centurion with nothing on except a large bath-towel draped round him. He shook me warmly by the hand in this get-up and told me to sit down while he dressed. A most interesting procedure. First he stepped into a white silk vest, then white silk drawers, and walked up and down the room in this kit looking rather like 'Humpty-Dumpty,' with a large body and small thin legs. Then a white shirt which refused to join comfortably round his neck and so was left open with a bow- tie to keep it together. Then the hair (what there was of it) took much attention, a handkerchief was sprayed with scent and then rubbed on his head. The few hairs were then brushed and finally sprayed direct. Finally trousers, waistcoat and coat, and meanwhile he rippled on the whole time about Monty's battle and our proposed visit to North Africa.
Incidents such as these add up to something more than bright gossip. They have a real impor- tance. The Prime Minister's odd habits were an essential part of his personality. And more than that, they helped to build him up as a national figure. Ordinary men and women liked to think of him as different from other people. They applauded his particular turns and expected them on every great occasion. The turns definitely contributed to his popularity, and through his popularity to his influence. It was in this respect that he had so marked an advantage over his pre- decessor, Neville Chamberlain. No one possessed a better mind for the administrative details of a war than Chamberlain. But his very gifts for detailed administration disqualified him as a popular leader. Unlike Churchill, he had no stage properties or special tricks for exciting and hold- ing the public's support. In the drab days of war the people clamoured for colour, and Churchill was able to give it to them. In spite of, or, as the world would have said, because of, his vagaries, Churchill was in Alanbrooke's description 'irre- placeable.' And it should be added that not only was he irreplaceable, but that the partnership between the Prime Minister and the CIGS was equally irreplaceable. Churchill's abounding versatility needed Alanbrooke's constant scrutiny as a check. And may it not also have been true that the accurate, intense and reflective Chief of Staff needed the stimulus of the Prime Minister's lively imagination? In any case, the partnership worked marvellously. For both were great enough men to understand each other, and because they understood each other, to work together for victory, though they had many arguments as to lum to obtain it.