tisdag 19 februari 2013

Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke: War Diaries 1939-1945. Edited by Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman

So, if you were an island of competence in a sea of incompetence, politics, and deadly threats against against the realm, what would you do?

If you were General, later Field Marshal, Alan Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke), you'd write about it in the war diaries you created for your dearly beloved wife to read, that's what you'd do.

Gen. Brooke started his war diaries on September 28th, 1939, when he went to France to command a corps in the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force. Brooke is very clear about his misgivings from the beginning – he doesn't feel the politicians have given the military enough time to train the BEF to the level needed to be able to handle the Germans, and he is also quite critical of the French forces and the competency of their generals. He is furthermore deeply suspicious of the plan to move into Belgium to meet the Germans Army there – after all, they finally have excellent positions in France after having worked for months to improve them! (He's not a fan of the intervention in Norway, either: "I don't much like our prospects there, and feel that matters are so very confused that we shall end by being pushed back into the sea with heavy losses.")

Then the Germans strike in May 1940, and Gen. Brooke's life turns quite hectic. We do not get a full picture of the actual fighting, however, the confusion and pressure is quite evident in the diary. Among the positives in the whole corps commander period is Major-General Bernard Montgomery, then a division commander, later one of the most successful generals of WWII, and also one of the most successful at getting people absolutely furious with him. Montgomery's people skills when handling colleagues and superiors seem to have been rather atrocious, and I get a (decidedly amateur psychologist's) sense of an Aspberger personality from his genuine inability to understand how others will react to his actions and statements. In the latter stages of the war, when Montgomery has reached the highest levels of command, on several occasions Brooke has to have stern talks with him, and "Monty" – as he's called – seems genuinely appreciative for having other people's reactions explained to him.

Anyway, the BEF is pushed out of France in less than a month, and Gen. Brooke is told to leave his corps in the able hands of Montgomery and return to England ahead of it for a new task – turns out he's supposed to go back to France to reform a BEF in the part of France not yet lost to the Germans. Brooke holds no optimism that France will be able to last long, and is also unafraid to tell the Secretary of State for War (Anthony Eden) that the mission he's being sent on has no value from a military point of view, and no possibility of accomplishing anything, so it was basically an exercise in futility that held a very high risk of disaster. He thereby starts his war-long personal tradition of speaking military truth to too-hopeful political power, something he'll have ample cause for, and opportunity to, later on when serving as Prime Minister Winston Churchill's foremost military advisor.

I'll make a personal note here: among the things I tend to respect with a lot of the military officers I've met – which aren't all that many and not really at the highest level of command, either (I hasten to add lest somebody think I'm a person of any particular importance myself) but still possessing solid military educations – is their lack of sentimentallity when appreciating situations. "This isn't going to work, give it up. Move back and save what you can actually save instead" isn't a particularly easy position to make, but I've often found captain-to-major-level officers quite clear on that sort of judgements. Being a bit on the sentimental side myself, I appreciate and admire their clarity. (Not that they're always correct, mind you, but far more frequently than the non-militarily-trained. I attribute that not so much to their training in military tactics, but to their training to see and appreciate the logistics of a situation; as the saying goes, amateurs study tactics, but military professionals study logistics.)

Anyway, Brooke goes back over the channel, takes charge of the remaining British forces in France, and in less than a week has to evacuate the country again. He then briefly takes over southern Britain's defences and sets about improving them as best can be done before the coming German invasion, before he is apponted Commander-in-Charge Home Forces and gets to do the very same job but for all of Great Britain. This entails buzzing about all over the country to inspect preparations and units' readiness. He wants to move the defense strategy towards one of light defenses on the beaches to merely delay the invading forces, and highly trained and mobile forces to then kill whatever comes off the beaches in aggressive counter-attacks. (This to be complemented by heavy air attacks on the landings, as well as mustard gas against the landing beaches.)

Finally, November comes and Gen. Brooke starts to really believe that Britain has weathered the threat of invasion. But there are still worries aplenty, like the Mediterranean/North Africa, and the government wanting to divert scarce resources to help Greece agains the German invasion: "Why will politicians never learn the simple principle of concentration of force at the vital point, and the avoidance of dispersal of effort?"

Later, in 1941, Brooke will be appalled at the resources taken away from the British war effort to be sent to the Soviet Union. Initially, he (like apparently many others in his circles) doesn't think the Germans will take particularly long to finish that war, maybe 3-4 months, but as we now know, the invasion of the Soviet Union signalled the end of Hitler's dreams of world conquest. While the US and Britain made heroic efforts that helped defeat the Germans, what really broke the back of Hitler's war machine was the vast, and frequently muddy or deepfrozen, expanses of land that it had to cope with, to a large extent with a horse-powered army. And of course the enormous amount of soldiers in the enormous armies that kept being created when the German generals felt certain that surely there can't be much left of the Soviet army. Those soldiers faced not only the ruthless Nazi war machine, that didn't mind letting them starve and freeze to death when taken as prisoners of war, but but the equally ruthless and often incompetent war leaders on their "own" side.

Anyway, Gen. Brooke then gets a promotion. As Chief of the Imperial General Staff, he's basically the head of the British Army, which also puts him on the Chiefs of Staff Committee which in turn heads the war effort on the military side. Initially, it is chaired by the Navy representative, Admiral Dudley Pound, whom Lord Brooke levels a lot of criticism at in the diary for the slow pace and wasted time of the meetings. Later, when Gen. Brook takes over the chairmanship, he has a lot of criticism of Pound for not seeming to care for any other part of the war effort than the u-boat threat, and for regularly falling asleep at meetings. (Turns out the poor man had a hip problem causing him so much pain that he hardly got any sleep at night, so it's perhaps not all that strange of he tended to doze off now and then…)

Anyway, with the chairmanship, the diaries tend to settle into a pattern that will then repeat itself throughout the book. Basically, it is as follows:

• The strategy for winning the war should consist of a) defeating the Germans in North Africa, b) establishing control over the Mediterranean, thus releasing a lot of shipping which can be put to use for offensives, c) eliminating Italy from the war, d) some time in the future taking the war to the contintent and Germany, all the while e) hoping that the Soviet Union won't crumble.

• Winston Churchill is completely exasperating with all his wild ideas about strategy and raids and whatnot, and it's a terrible chore to try and hold him back, like when he set his sights on attacking Norway again, or with his incessant exhortations to North Africa commanders to start offensives. He doesn't understand military realities, and gets petulant when they're pointed out to him.

• Polticians in general don't understand strategy, and it's absolutely intolerable (and an utter waste of time) when they get it into their heads that they do. "Cabinet meeting at 5.30 pm. A dreadful exhibition of amateur strategy by Cabinet ministers! Bevin quite at his worst and posing as an authority! Eden and Cripps offering criticism as if they were leading authorities on strategy!"

• American officers don't understand strategy, either, so they need to be guided by somebody who does (that would be Gen. Brooke, by the way).

• There's an acute shortage of able British officers ready to step up to the next higher level of command. A lot of Brooke's problems as chairman of the Chiefs of Staff – apart from the stuff mentioned above, the others seeing things to near-sightedly from the perspective of their services' needs, and too much time altogether being wasted in meetings by people who don't keep the task at hand foremost in their minds – were about staffing important military leadership positions.

Anyway, it may seem as if Gen. Brooke comes off as a bit of a know-it-all, but I don't think he does. My impression is more of a man who has been put in a desperately difficult situation, devices the just about only way to get out of it, and realizes that even following that path, it's going to be desperately difficult – and, in the later half of the war, as a man who is desperately tired of fighting not just the Germans, but also all sorts of politicians and allies at the same time. The diary becomes his place to vent, it seems, as he has precious little other such fora; you can't have the top British military man not showing a stiff upper lip at all times in such dire straits, and he often comments on how trying it is.

The venting bit is particularly obvious in the case of Churchill; Gen. Brooke often speaks about his respect for the man and for all the things he did to keep Britain together and in the war, but man, does he ever get exasperated with the Prime Minister...

Regarding the American officers, Gen. Brooke always seems to dread the big strategy meetings with the Americans, not just because of the chore of trying to persuade them to see the waging of the war his way, but because he could never trust Churchill to not go off on a tangent and either upset the Americans, or undermine the previously-agreed-upon British strategy, or both. He found both Gen. Eisenhower and Gen. Marshal to be personally most pleasant and admirable, he just doesn't think they understand the military strategic situation properly. (British generals come in for that sort of criticism as well, like Louis "Dickie" Mountbatten – "in the COS, [...] he frequently wasted both his own time and ours" – and Harold Alexander – "[w]henever I meet him again my first impression is one of marvelling at what a small calibre man he is!".)

As hinted at above, it is often the logistics that is at the core of Gen. Brooke's strategic thinking. You need to take control over the Mediterranean to free up shipping. You need to really wear down the Germans before you can do the cross-channel invasion, because otherwise, they're going to be able to reinforce France via interior lines and railway far faster than you're going to be able to reinforce your bridgehead. You shouldn't move troops from Italy to invade the southern French Atlantic coast to increase the pressure on the Germans, because they're still siphoning off German troops in Italy, and it'll take more than a month to move them from there to France; a month during which they'll have no effect on the fighting at all. Etc. I don't pretend to be knowledgeable enough to properly evaluate his arguments, but for us amateurs, learning what the arguments actually are is still a pretty decent start.

An Amazon reviewer made a good point about Gen. Brooke blaming WWI for killing off so many potential leaders: didn't the same thing happen to the Germans? It's a good point; maybe the Germans compensated by not being tied down by a class system as rigid as the British one, thus opening up for competent people who didn't happen to belong to the old elites? The vicious anti-semitic laws locked out the supposedly "inferior" Jews, but let most other kids join the Hitler-Jugend where they could go scouting and learn to work together with their fellow Germans (well, not all of them, as noted). Somehow I doubt that the British youth generally got the same sort of excellent pre-soldier training that the German youth got (at least the supposedly "Aryan" ones), and I wouldn't be surprised it that made a difference. Expanding the pool of potential leaders generally tends to pay off in more and better leaders.

Anyway, this is an excellent book. You get a glimpse into the mind of a man who had to carry an impossibly heavy burden for several years, and how it affected him, and you also get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the British and Allied decision-making during that terrible time. Also, Lord Alanbrooke later on wrote a fair bit of commentary on many of the diary entries as part of preparing for writing his memoirs or perhaps for a future biographer, and they certainly add to the reader's understanding. However, I wouldn't really recommend this for somebody who hasn't already read quite a bit about WWII; I think you often need to know what he is referring to in more detail to fully appreciate his thoughts on various developments and people, and quite frankly, if you're not a bit of a WWII nerd you probably won't make it through the whole book, as it weighs in at a hefty 700+ pages.

Recommended with the above caveat. (You might also want to send a thought to all those men – and women – who who risked their lives and mental health to defeat the Axis in WWII. It's a long time since, now, but the ramifications of a Third Reich allowed to run rampage in Europe for, say, 5-10 more years than it historically did are just about too horrible to contemplate. They sacrificed a lot for us.)

For another review, see for example http://www.mindef.gov.sg/imindef/publications/pointer/journals/2005/v31n3/book_review.html. (Though most reviews I've seen seem to be pretty much agreed on the value of this book.)

I'll just round this off with a couple of fairly representative quotes:

"One of those awful Chiefs of Staff meetings where Mountbatten and Dudley Pond drive me completely to desperation. The former is quite irresponsible, suffers from the most desperate illogical brain, always produces red herrings, the latter is asleep 90% of the time and the remaining 10% is none too sure what he is arguing about." (Jan 8, 1943)

"My purchase of 'Gould's Birds' was a big venture (...) and at the end of the war I sold these books for twice the original cost. Meanwhile I had had wonderful value from them as an antidote to the war and to Winston!" 

"Perhaps one of the most nerve-wracking things when watching an operation like this unroll itself is the intimate knowledge of the various commanders engaged. Too good a knowledge of their various weaknesses makes one wonder whether in the moments of crisis facing them they will not shatter one's hopes."

"3/4 of the population of the world imagine that Winston Churchill is one of the Strategists of History, a second Marlborough, and the other 1/4 have no conception of what a public menace he is and has been throughout this war! (...) Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again."

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