On visits to MOD Main Building in Whitehall or when just walking past, I invariably stop a while to honour the statue of one of the, in my view, unsung heroes of the Second World War – Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke (1883 -1963) – ‘Master of Strategy’.
Far less well known than General’s Alexander, Ismay, Slim or Montgomery, it was Alanbrooke, the master strategist, who as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) from December 1941 until the end of WW2, the soldier who most historians of his day regarded him to have been the absolute ‘military purist’ whilst also being the antidote or as someone once said, handler of Churchill.
A dominant and forceful character, a brilliant mind and yet at the same time, cool and collected Alanbrooke had little time for politicians. He wrote this in his war diaries:
‘‘The more I see politicians, the less I think of them. They are seldom – he said – influenced by the true aspects of the problem and are usually guided by some ulterior political reason. They are, he said, terrified of public opinion as long as the enemy is sufficiently far away – but when closely threatened by the enemy they are rather inclined to lose their heads and then blame all their previous errors on the heads of the military – whose previous advice they had singularly failed to follow”.
Well, intelligence they say is no barrier to stupidity. That is not to suggest for a moment that politicians are stupid – far from it – but it does serve to remind them that policy is born out of strategy and that history constantly reminds us that strategy is not something that politicians do well – unsurprisingly, they tend to be more interested in politics!
So where does this relate to today? In respect of current defence policy I suspect that today’s politicians are little different than those past in that they are in no mood to be influenced by those that really do strategy – unless of course that any such strategy accepts from the outset that in order to pay for whatever additional capability the military might believe to be required is accompanied by the equivalent amount of savings from somewhere else.
One secretly admires the battle that the present Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson is trying to do by attempting to persuade the Treasury and Cabinet Office to increase spending on defence. It is an uphill struggle and he may well yet come a cropper but those of us who work within or aside defence admire him for trying. Sadly, the bottom line remains that although there will be some exceptions and some battles won, not until the enemy is once again at the gate in my view will we win the argument over defence capability and capacity requirements.
Back to Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke. Winston Churchill fully realised that he needed someone to argue with and to challenge him and he certainly found his match in Alan Brooke. While the two men were poles apart and would constantly clash there was also mutual respect. It is to his great shame that Alanbrooke was probably never given or should I say, allowed to be given sufficient public credit, by Churchill for the brilliant part that he played in the war. For all that, they never allowed their differences to hinder the prosecution of the war. Alanbrooke can also be regarded as one of the most important buffers between Churchill and his Generals.
As Churchill’s principle military advisor and as someone also once said, “chief antagonist” during his period as CIGS, Churchill chose a man in General Alan Brooke as he was then, that he well knew would challenge his very authority.
Brooke was the perfect soldier whereas Churchill, great though he was as leader was never the perfect politician. One did strategy well and was also a brilliant operational planner while the other provided the leadership and the motivation to succeed albeit that Churchill didn’t really do politics that well. Few will knock him for that. But for all that, Churchill and Alan Brook tolerated each other and just as well that they did as there was no one else of the stature of Churchill at the time and no other generals the stature of Alan Brooke.
Having made his mark in bring soldiers back from Dunkirk, following his appointment as CIGS by Churchill, Brooke would be both the main architect and proponent of Mediterranean strategy. Bernard Montgomery was his protégé and it is said that Alan Brooke was probably the only general or politician that could silence him when required!
Whilst he also thought Churchill a genius, in his ‘War Diaries 1939 – 1945’ which I cannot recommend highly enough Lord Alanbrooke, as he was by then, made no attempt to hide his other views about Churchill as Prime Minister. One particular antithesis stands out: “God knows where we would be without him, but God knows where we shall go with him,” he said in an entry for 1941. Three years later he wrote in his diary: “Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again” adding that Churchill “displayed many faults as a war leader, he neglected logistics, failed to appreciate the role of naval aviation” but also that “Never have I admired and despised a man simultaneously to the same extent”.
Of Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, Alanbrooke is reported to have said that he is “quite irresponsible, suffers from the most desperate illogical brain, always producing red herrings”. On another occasion he said of Mountbatten that he was a “crashing bore” who lacked judgment – “Seldom has a Supreme Commander been more deficient of the main attributes of a Supreme Commander than Dickie Mountbatten”. Well said!
Of Churchill’s great and hugely influential friend who he had appointed Minister for Aircraft Production, the media magnate Lord Beaverbrook and who also served as an adviser to Churchill, Alanbrooke derides him as a” political hack whose interventions in cabinet are self-interested and slippery—almost devilish”.
Of George Marshall, America’s most senior military officer Alanbrooke had this to say “it is almost impossible to make him grasp the true concepts of a strategic situation.” Instead he will “hedge and defer decisions until such time as he had to consult his assistants. Unfortunately, his assistants were not of the required calibre” The assistants included Dwight Eisenhower of which he said, “a charming, adept and hopeless general. He literally knows nothing of the requirements of a commander in action…a very, very limited brain from a strategic point of view.”
CHW (London 25th October 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd
M: +44 7710 779785