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Book Review: Masters and Commanders — How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945 by Andrew Roberts

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“There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them!” — Churchill to Brooke, April Fool’s Day 1945.

Odd man out?Time and again, Churchill seems like the odd man out in a foursome that would probably not have enjoyed golf together. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill are paired with their military counterparts, George C. Marshall and Alan Brooke, as the Masters and Commanders. Author Andrew Roberts weaves biographical information and stories of his four subjects with historical information about the progress of the war and decisions made not only by themselves, but by other world leaders as well. He reminds us that as brilliant and important as history has remembered these four men, statistics lean toward more significant choices made by Hitler and Stalin. (Four of five German casualties were on the Eastern Front at the hands of Russians.)

Right from the preface and the introduction, Roberts addresses the fascination of how historical truth defies explanation and how years add to the distorted memory of the participants when they write their memoirs. He calls it “post war fiction.”  It would have been interesting to have heard Hitler’s spin on all the events as he remembered it. Even with the luxury of over five hundred pages (including an extensive section on notes and bibliography), Roberts had to be selective and difficult choices were made on what to include. Each of the four principle subjects of Masters and Commanders — How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941 – 1945 had their fair share of controversy, coincidence, redemption, and success. Readers will be both pleased and disappointed with Roberts’ choices that ultimately do not detract from the book, but make it more, as he said, “fascinating.”

Unlike his peers in this group, George Marshall was the only one who did not come from the upper socio-economic class.  Except for FDR, he probably had the least experience in battle and in command of men on the field.  In fact, other writers have pointed to Army records that make you wonder how Marshall rose from a dismal performance at Fort Screven, GA to Army Chief of Staff.  Churchill had studied military strategy since the age of fourteen while FDR relied on his military advisers.  Both sides of Brooke’s family had deep Irish roots and had been considered “soldiers of the Crown” for centuries.  Churchill and Brooke had both seen action in The Great War, and lots of it.  By contrast, Marshall had graduated from Virginia Military Institute, his hero was Robert E. Lee, and he had met the widow of Stonewall Jackson.  When Douglas McArthur was Chief of Staff of the Army, instead of commanding soldiers, Marshall was busy with FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps.

Late in the book, Roberts says that in spite of his criticisms of Churchill, “The obvious fact emerges that he was a genius.”  The master of strategy had gone so far as to send a spy network led by the infamous “Intrepid” to assure U.S. involvement in the war; an episode that is curiously missing here.  Roberts does tell us about Churchill’s desire (prior to December 7) for an incident such as the attack on the Lusitania that would motivate the Americans into the fray.

Roberts moves the narrative along with interesting stories in an engaging prose that holds the reader’s attention.  Although the book is focused on “the war in the West,” in the end, it was difficult to isolate theaters because of the influences each had on the others.  After Midway, it was viable to deploy more troops and landing vehicles back to Europe.  Securing “the Hump” in the Burmese theatre was essential to supporting the air war in the Pacific from the Chinese mainland. Throughout the book, plans for an invasion of Normandy across the channel from England maintained a constant presence like a fog that kept reappearing. Marshall wanted to go in 1942 and frustrated his English counterparts to the point that one said, “All this ‘Overlord’ folly must be thrown ‘Overboard.’”

The four men met seven times during the war and corresponded frequently in writing. Churchill sent FDR more than seven hundred letters and Roosevelt responded with around four hundred.  Interesting alliances that crossed professional and national lines led Roberts to say, “just as politicians had to master strategy, so the soldiers were forced to become political.”  Indeed, Marshall certainly did.  He went on to become Secretary of State, was responsible for the controversial “Marshall Plan”, and won a Nobel Peace Prize.

Would I buy Masters and Commanders — How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941 – 1945?  Yes.  For a history buff, it is a thoroughly enjoyable book that leaves you with as many questions as it answers.  I was surprised to see how many notes I had written in the margins and to realize how motivating this book was.  I’m ready to watch Patton again!
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