He may not be very well known, but Lord Alanbrooke was one of most important figures in World War 2.
Born into the Anglo-Irish gentry, Alan Brooke, or 1 Viscount Alanbrooke as he was also known, was both the head of the British Army (the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, or CIGS) and the chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee. In this capacity, he was effectively the lead military advisor to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Meticulous, highly competent and reputedly very direct, even with other important social figures, Lord Alanbrooke was a fascinating and important man.
Here, historian Andrew Sangster sheds light on this comparatively unknown yet crucially important member of the Allied cast of Second World War leaders.
Article by Andrew Sangster
Any soldier, sailor, or airman, commissioned or otherwise, is obliged to trust in those above them.
This is especially true for those at the very top because their decisions make the difference between success or failure, and, more to the point, between life and death.
It takes little imagination to understand how a Wehrmacht soldier fighting at Stalingrad would have felt when he received the command to hold firm and fight to the last man, but befehle sind befehle (‘orders are orders’) is understood by all those serving in the forces.
The need to be victorious means sacrifices must be made, but a good commander, in every sense of the word ‘good’, must strike a delicate balance between the military objective and the potential loss of life necessary to achieve it.
When I wrote my biography of Field Marshal Alan Brooke, a figure largely ignored in popular histories of World War 2, it became clear to me just how hard he had worked to get this balance right. The need to minimise the loss of life when achieving military ends was constantly at the forefront of his thinking, and although often regarded as a fierce personality, he was in fact a kind and ‘good’ man.
As a fighting general who returned to Britain after the 1940 Battle for France, he was sent back to France to form another battle line even as the evacuation from Dunkirk was drawing to a close. He quickly understood that, with French resistance collapsing, fighting on would have been fruitless, leading to the unnecessary capture or deaths of scores of British troops.
He challenged his then superior, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) in London, Field Marshal Sir John Dill, and, when Churchill interrupted, Brooke did not hold back his staunch views from him either. Churchill eventually agreed and the men under Brooke’s command were withdrawn for the defence of the realm.
Churchill was no doubt impressed by Brooke’s candid assessment and he soon promoted him. He subsequently made Brooke the head of Southern Command, then military commander for the whole of Britain, and later the replacement for Dill as CIGS, the head of the British Army.
In this sense, Churchill could not have been more different to the textbook dictator who ends up surrounded by cowering sycophants who will only tell him what he wants to hear. The Prime Minister knew he needed to work alongside strong personalities like Brooke and not yes-men. Yet, this approach also had its difficulties since it led to constant friction, and both Churchill and Brooke came to regard each other as burdens.
The pair had several disagreements about what to do in the wake of the defeats in France and Malaya and Singapore. Churchill, who liked the notion of punching the Nazi regime on the nose with commando raids, suddenly developed the idea of attacking in the north of Norway. It would have achieved extraordinarily little and cost precious lives and resources, and Brooke hotly contested this venture and eventually won, as he did later when Churchill wanted to invade the (strategically) useless island of Sumatra.
It was also Brooke who later persuaded the Americans not to commit too early to D-Day, with the American general Omar Bradley admitting in his memoirs that Brooke had been right. US encounters with German forces in North Africa in 1942 and 1943 were difficult and proved to the Americans that they would not have been ready for the invasion of France at that point.
Brooke was essentially a thinking, non-political soldier who had no fear of pushing his military views, even if it meant clashing with the likes of Churchill, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D Eisenhower, US Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, or others.
He liked British General (and later Field Marshal) Bernard Montgomery, thinking that “Monty” led his men well, though Brooke also treated him as his pupil. Time and time again he reprimanded Montgomery, not just over a ‘silly’ venereal disease letter he sent to the troops, his habitual rudeness, and total lack of diplomacy following the Battle of the Bulge, but also when he questioned Brooke about the conduct of the war.
At the same time, Brooke also defended the commanders serving under him when Churchill criticised them. This was the case even though he had his own serious concerns about their tactical and strategic abilities.
He was, for instance, aware that Montgomery moved slowly, taking care of his reputation. He also thought that Operation Market Garden was an error of judgement, and that it would have been more useful for Monty to have secured the port at Antwerp in Belgium rather than trying to drive through Holland and into Germany. He also worried, to give another example, that Churchill would eventually see that Mediterranean theatre commander Field Marshal Harold Alexander was not always ‘switched on’.
At the same time, Brooke’s criticisms extended to the Americans and he never hesitated to voice his dissatisfaction with Eisenhower’s military ability.
This boldness even extended to the Royal Family. Churchill was always conscious of the fact that Lord Louis Mountbatten (the Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command) was King George VI’s cousin, but Brooke never deferred to him in any way. In fact, in a reversal of what might be expected, Mountbatten’s official biographer mentions that Mountbatten was extremely cautious in Brooke’s presence, rather than the other way around.
Brooke was not fearful of his own reputation or social standing either and, despite liking him on a personal level, he openly regarded Mountbatten as a waste of time. The pair even fell out over Mountbatten’s supervision, as head of combined naval and army operations, of the unsuccessful Dieppe Raid.
In the end then, Alan Brooke came to be a bit of an historical paradox, a curious blend of controversy and obscurity. Though the real man was certainly not defined by his sometimes bold nature, nor has he received the attention his abilities should have earnt him.
In many ways, the real Brooke was an ideal commander. He had gained important battle experience in both the First World War and in the Battle of France, yet he was not arrogant or self-important, and he always made a point of speaking to men of all ranks who were returning from distant fronts.
The lives of those fighters were important to him, which is why he was so maddened by what happened at Dieppe, disappointed by Operation Market Garden and critical of those who proposed ‘mad ideas’, especially and including Mountbatten’s scheme for aircraft carriers made of ice.
The historical irony is that whereas Montgomery and Mountbatten are household names, Brooke is hardly known, being rarely mentioned in popular histories.
And yet, within the British political and military command structure, it was he who was Churchill’s main burden, and his bulwark.
To learn more about Lord Alanbrooke’s remarkable military career and important role in the Allied war effort, read ‘Alan Brooke: Churchill’s Right-Hand Critic – A Reappraisal of Lord Alanbrooke’ by Andrew Sangster.
The book is being sold with £5 discounted from the normal retail price on Casemate’s website.
Image of Lord Alanbrook’s statue outside the Ministry of Defence Building in Whitehall by David Holt.