Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, the soldier who, though he did not fight famous battles, did much to win the Second World War.
Field Marshal Alan Francis Brooke (23 July 1883 – 17 June 1963), 1st Viscount Alanbrooke, KG, GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO & Bar. He was Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), the professional head of the British Army, during the Second World War, and was promoted to field marshal in 1944. As chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, Brooke was the foremost military advisor to Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, and had the role of co-ordinator of the British military efforts in the Allies' victory in 1945.
Churchill came to him in dressing gown and slippers, begging him to take the post, confessing that he himself would be an awful Prime Minister to work for but that the country couldn't manage without Alanbrooke.
Churchill was right on both counts; Alanbrooke's statue outside the Ministry of Defence is justly inscribed "master of strategy". The Americans reckoned he did more than any man in uniform to defeat the Germans; he was one of few with the intellect and temperament to face down Churchill; he alone could silence his own protege, Montgomery, sending him pale and tight-lipped from the room.
As a First World War gunner, he evolved the battle-winning "creeping barrage" and as an immaculately turned-out general, with a ferocious grasp of detail and a simultaneous broader view - though not lacking individual sympathy - he became the acknowledged conscience of the army, the man in whom every other recognised the soldier he should have been.
He hardly features in the public mythology of the Second World War because he didn't fight famous battles. Churchill preferred him in charge of those who did, and Alanbrooke himself put duty before martial ambition: it could have been Alanbrooke, not Montgomery, of Alamein, if he had chosen.
Alanbrooke's War Diaries
The welcome publication of his unexpurgated diaries - (earlier versions were censored) - should make him more widely known, and prove a valuable companion to David Fraser's admiring and compelling biography and an essential tool for students of the war.
These diaries, addressed to his wife, were part safety valve during years of desperate pressure, part dialogue with himself and part an extended, deeply affectionate, marital conversation about what was going on around him. Alanbrooke in public was formidable: generals ran down corridors when he summoned them, Churchill ranted and railed but never once overruled him, the Americans complained of his brusque logic but found it unanswerable.
However, Alanbrooke in private was a loving and loved husband, a passionate ornithologist and a sensitive - perhaps ultimately lonely - man. The novelist Anthony Powell left a vivid evocation of his presence, quoted here in the introduction: ". . . the hurricane-like imminence of a thickset general . . . burst from a flagged staff-car . . . tore up the steps of the building . . . exploding through the inner door into the hall. An extraordinary current of physical energy, almost of electricity, suddenly pervaded the place . . . having no cap, I merely came to attention. The CIGS glanced for a split second, as if summarising all the facts of one's life. 'Good morning'. "
The asperity of Alanbrooke's remarks on Churchill and others he worked with will claim most immediate attention. He was revolted by Beaverbrook's "monkey-like hands as they stretched out to grab ice-cubes"; he was "not much impressed" by the megalomania of De Gaulle or the poltroonery of Herbert Morrison. Eisenhower was a "hopeless" general who "knew nothing of the requirements of a commander in action" and Mountbatten a "crashing bore" who lacked judgement - "Seldom has a Supreme Commander been more deficient of the main attributes of a Supreme Commander than Dickie Mountbatten."
It was Churchill, however, who attracted his most bitter criticism. The intuitive, impulsive, bullying, interfering Prime Minister had chosen as CIGS his own perfect foil, the ideal "no" man - resolute, logical, intolerant of foolishness and possibly the best strategic brain since Marlborough. It would need a Shakespeare fully to evoke the depths and shallows of their relationship, for which the euphemism "creative tension" might almost have been coined. Alanbrooke raged against Churchill's late-night tantrums and vanities, while recognising that he was usually right about the big things: "God knows where we would be without him, but God knows where we shall go with him!"
Churchill firmly promised Alanbrooke the post of Supreme Commander for the invasion, then, with wounding casualness, withdrew the offer in favour of Eisenhower. He never gave Alanbrooke the public credit that was so obviously his due; he probably couldn't bring himself to do it since the CIGS was the rock on which so many of his enthusiasms foundered, yet also the rock upon which he based his triumph. It is to Churchill's credit that he knowingly appointed his match, and to the credit of both that they never allowed the volcanic private tensions these diaries reveal to disrupt their public prosecution of the war.
It is also to the credit of the editors, Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman, that we see beyond the fascinatingly personal to the truly historical. It is easy now to take the progress of the war against Germany for granted, as if the liberation of North Africa, the freeing of the Mediterranean, the elimination of Italy, the propping up of Russia and only then the invasion of France were an inevitable sequence. As these invaluable diaries show, the sequence was not only far from inevitable but was from the start the strategic vision of one man who, at various stages, had to fight virtually everyone to ensure that that, and only that, is what happened. And we should also be grateful that this perfect soldier, the conscience of the army, nightly broke his own Army Council instructions - by keeping a diary.