IN the last few years there has been a spate of books written by men who took a leading part in the war. Nearly all of these have been autobiographical, giving an account of the events which took place as known to the author, but also including criticisms and judgments made at the time or subsequently. There is good reason to suppose that the people who read these books find themselves somewhat confused. First of all, they have been surprised by the strength of the criticism levelled by the writers at other leading military and political figures, many of whom occupied, and now occupy, dominant positions. It is true that these criticisms have not aspersed their characters; but they have called in question their strategic grasp and their military skill. Secondly, many people find it difficult to draw a clear picture of what really happened from accounts which differ, if not about the basic facts, at any rate about the surrounding circumstances. Thirdly, people become confused about the relationship between the various military authorities and between the military leaders and their political masters. They find it difficult to understand the respective roles of the statesmen, of the chiefs of staff and the commanders in the field. Let us try here to sort out the responsibilities and throw light on the methods which were adopted by those who conducted these great affairs.


No one should be surprised by the fact that there were differing opinions, arguments and deep personal rifts. A great war is no light matter. The whole existence of the nation is at stake. As time goes on, the weaker men are eliminated and those who achieve and retain power, either civil or military, are the tough and the strong. Such men have powerful convictions, both personal and national. They have thousands of lives in their hands. It is not surprising, then, that there should be controversy, particularly within an alliance.

While the war is still in progress most of this controversy remains secret, especially when the outcome of the operations is seen to be successful. This was true in the last war, particularly from 1942 onwards, when the Allies held the initiative. It was not so true in the First World War. Then the lack of success, the enormous casualties and the changes that took place at the top revealed a good deal of what was going on. After 1942, however, what the public saw was a series of apparently harmonious conferences followed by victorious operations. The war ended with a blaze of adulation for the triumphant victors. Only now do the controversies come fully into the light of day.

On the question of what really happened, and why, many years will pass before final assessments can be made. Both official histories and numerous individual accounts are being published, and as time goes on further documentary sources will become available. Eventually historians will establish an approximation to the truth. They will always be confronted, however, with two difficulties.

First, they cannot recapture the atmosphere of the time or evaluate the pressures bearing at any given moment on the principal actors. It is here that the accounts of individual participants may help, because each makes some contribution to the ultimate truth and paints in a fresh piece of the canvas of human action.

Secondly, there cannot be a totally objective observer, or even historian. Each is bound to see things through his own national spectacles. Each is unconsciously governed by historical modes of thought and the judgment of each is to some extent swayed by considerations of national interest. For this reason, even though they may come very close to accuracy on the main facts, they will find it exceedingly difficult to weigh the great strategic controversies and arrive at definite judgments on the merits of the views so strongly expressed by the leading figures. Furthermore, they and their readers alike now see the results that flowed from the decisions actually reached; what might have happened if other decisions had been taken can only be the subject of conjecture.

The difficulty can be illustrated by reference to one of the great controversies which arose after the successful breakout from the Normandy beachhead. After a crushing defeat, the Germans were in full retreat, pursued by the Allied armies. Up to this moment General Montgomery had been exercising command of the British and American armies. Now he was relieved of this responsibility, which was assumed by General Eisenhower. Montgomery held the view that the war could be brought to a rapid conclusion if one strong thrust were made by a single Army Group, all other forces being halted so that the logistical resources could be concentrated to maintain the momentum of the thrust. General Eisenhower, on the other hand, decided that the advance should continue on a wide front until all the armies had closed up to the Rhine, after which a powerful attack would be made across the river to isolate the Ruhr and drive on into the heart of Germany. The British Chiefs of Staff supported Montgomery. The American Chiefs of Staff thought that the question should be decided by General Eisenhower as Supreme Commander, and they were not prepared to interfere with his conduct of the battle.

The controversy was naturally vigorous and prolonged. I say naturally because great interests were at stake and powerful men held deep and sincere convictions which they were bound to express. What happened is there for us all to study. What we can never know is whether any other course of action would have produced better results. Each one of us must draw his own conclusions, and these will inevitably be influenced by personal and national considerations. Most of the principal actors have recorded their opinions. Although, as in all human affairs, personal relationships to some extent colored their judgments at the time, their main motive was quite simply the desire to bring about victory as quickly as possible. They certainly thought that their own views were soundly based and it is no discredit to them that they criticize the perspicacity and skill of the colleagues with whom they shared the responsibility and with whom they disagreed.


To understand the individual accounts that are appearing, one needs a clear grasp of the status and responsibilities of the various authorities, civil and military, who participated in the conduct of the war. Who were these authorities and how did they interact? Let us look first at the national arrangements in the United Kingdom.

There were three principal British authorities. In the first place there was the Cabinet, answerable to Parliament and to public opinion. The essence of the British political system is that the Cabinet is collectively responsible for all the deeds of the Government. It holds power for as long as it can retain the support of the majority in Parliament. In the Second World War the Cabinet possessed two characteristics not normally present in peacetime. From May 1940 onwards it contained members drawn from all parties in Parliament, and was therefore unlikely to fall unless the great body of public opinion turned against it. Then, it had at its head Mr. Churchill, who not only was Prime Minister but was also Minister of Defense. By virtue of this combination of offices Churchill was in a position to ensure unified control over the whole war effort, to inject political policy into the field of military operations and to interpret military strategy to the Cabinet. As time went on and confidence developed, the Cabinet increasingly devolved their collective responsibility for the conduct of the war to Churchill, who dealt personally and directly with the Cabinet's military advisers.

These military advisers were the three professional heads of the Navy, the Army and the Air Force. Together they constituted the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Not only did they have a collective responsibility for strategic advice to the Cabinet, but they also had the responsibility for carrying out the strategy which they had recommended, once it had been approved by the Cabinet or by the Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, acting for the Cabinet. The Chiefs of Staff Committee had come into existence after the experience of the First World War had shown the fatal results that flowed from diverse and sometimes irresponsible advice reaching the Cabinet from uncoördinated sources. When the Second World War broke out it had been in existence long enough to have "run itself in" as a piece of machinery, and was in a position to create and execute a military policy with an efficiency unknown in our previous history.

The Chiefs of Staff Committee had the duty to survey the whole scene of military activity, and, subject to the supreme civil authority of the Cabinet, to issue instructions to the commanders of all three services in all parts of the world. From this it follows that the responsibility of the commander in a particular theater of war lay in planning and conducting operations so as to give effect to the directives received from the Chiefs of Staff, using to the best of his ability the resources allotted to him. The degree of control exercised by the Chiefs of Staff over a commander-in-chief might vary according to circumstances. There might be occasions when this control would be more rigorous than usual because the Chiefs of Staff would have to insist on a given line of action based on their wide view of the whole military situation and their knowledge of the state of the national war effort, or in order to secure compliance with conditions imposed on political grounds by the Cabinet. In general, however, the aim of the Chiefs of Staff would be to give the commander-in-chief in the field freedom of action, and to refrain from back-seat driving.

It can be seen that things have greatly changed since the days of Napoleon, or, to take a British example, from the days of the great Duke of Marlborough. Then the commander-in-chief would visit the capital during the winter lull in operations and take an active part in framing political policy. He would then return to conduct the summer campaign, and would himself carry on political and military negotiations with allies. Since Napoleon was omnipotent, after he had decided upon political policy and resolved on military action he would himself take the field and conduct the campaign. Today the three levels of responsibility are clearly defined. The Government takes care of all political action; the Chiefs of Staff formulate grand strategy; and the commanders in the field conduct the operations in their respective theaters.

Since the arrangements in the United States were very similar to those in the United Kingdom it was comparatively easy to set up Allied machinery to conduct the war. We also had the advantage of a common language. But just as apparently identical words often had quite dissimilar shades of meaning, so although the American governmental organization and distribution of authority appeared to be the same as ours it had many subtle differences. These worked at times to make the solution of awkward problems between the two Allies more difficult.

The same three tiers of authority existed in the United States. The prime civil authority lay with the President. In some respects his position was more clearly defined than that of the Prime Minister. He had more complete executive responsibility and he was Commander-in-Chief of the American forces. He was also Head of State. But he had a far less organized and coördinated governmental machine through which to operate. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff corresponded almost exactly to the British Chiefs of Staff, and the two groups came together naturally and easily to form the Combined Chiefs of Staff. At the third level were the commanders in the field.

In the British view, the American authorities--including even the President--appeared to regard the war much more than we did as a purely military affair. Obviously the first aim in wartime is military victory. Indeed, Mr. Churchill, speaking to the House of Commons in May 1940, said: "You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory." Nevertheless, once it can be seen that victory is assured, political considerations must come increasingly to the fore. What finally matters then is that the outcome of the military operations shall have created a much more favorable political situation than that which existed when the war began. It seemed to us that the United States authorities were slow to realize this. Consequently we felt that the President was inclined to leave too much freedom of action to his Chiefs of Staff and did not inject into their thinking the vital political considerations which would so deeply affect the postwar situation. Similarly, the U.S. Chiefs of Staff gave great freedom of action to their theater commanders and were disinclined to impose conditions to govern their strategy. Right up to the end of the war they considered that purely military considerations must prevail, and that the judge of these must be the Commander-in-Chief. The immense and increasing military power developed by the United States produced a feeling of self-sufficiency and led to some disregard of the political necessities of the European situation. On occasion they produced those feelings of exasperation that now become so evident in the postwar accounts being published by British writers. Conversely, the views expressed by American military writers show their natural impatience with allies who, they felt, were introducing ideas the validity of which they did not appreciate and which merely tended to hamper the progress of the great tide of American military might.

These difficulties should not be exaggerated. There were irritations and arguments; there were misunderstandings and personal antagonisms. Nevertheless the simple combination of President and Prime Minister, with the Combined Chiefs of Staff guiding and sustaining largely integrated field commands, produced by far the most successful warfare-by-coalition known to history. Never have two such powerful nations combined in an alliance with such a degree of harmony and with such absolute success.

Apart from the benefits of an easy dovetailing of the two sets of organs of authority, other advantages were secured to the Allies by the nature of the two principals--the President and the Prime Minister. Both were determined to work hand-in-glove, and as time went on they developed a close friendship. Both saw clearly that the close combination of the powers of the English-speaking world was of an importance that over-rode all other considerations. Thus, although divergences of policy arose in relation to France and to China, and although their methods of handling Stalin gradually evolved on different lines, the structure of collaboration that these two men built did not break fundamentally. They were men who knew the value of loyalty and who put their trust in the military leaders they had chosen. Except for the replacement of Admiral Pound, who died in harness as First Sea Lord, the Combined Chiefs of Staff remained to the end as composed in January 1942.

It is evident that the President and the Prime Minister, starting with dominant constitutional positions and building up equally dominant personal positions, could have executed their power almost as they wished. They could, for example, have determined military as well as political policy by themselves issuing instructions to commanders in the field. They might have gone in the direction taken by Hitler, who assumed complete control of strategy, and in the end of tactics too. It was often suspected in England that Churchill, who had fought as a soldier in several campaigns in his youth, was bent on setting himself up as the supreme military authority. However, neither he nor the President did anything so foolish. Jointly they gave political guidance, where necessary, to the Combined Chiefs of Staff; they saw to it that the military strategy proposed was on a scale, and to a timetable, that they could approve; and they determined that it was likely to secure the results that would not only be militarily advantageous but would further the political interests of the alliance. It was the Combined Chiefs of Staff who drew up the military strategy and plans, who allocated the resources and who instructed the field commanders.

It is fair to say that the Prime Minister seemed to take more hand in discussions with the British Chiefs of Staff in the formulation of military policy than the President did on his side. Roosevelt seemed more inclined to leave things in the hands of General Marshall. If this was so, it came partly from the different temperaments of the two men and from the disparity in the total resources that each could muster for the war. Up till 1944 this disparity did not effectively exist; but at that point the American potential was increasing by leaps and bounds whereas the British potential was stationary or declining. Churchill had to look more closely at the use which the military leaders proposed for the limited national resources. The important point, however, is that neither the President nor the Prime Minister ever over-rode his military advisers except for political reasons.

Another aspect of control that assumed increasing importance as the war came to a climax, and as the forces deployed in the various theaters of wars became increasingly powerful, was the degree of authority to be granted to a Supreme Commander. On this point there was some difference of opinion between the Americans and the British. The British held that the Chiefs of Staff, in close touch with their governments, must retain strategic control over all theaters, particularly as the approaching end of the war made political considerations of growing importance. The Americans preferred to give the Supreme Commander a broad directive and then leave him free to decide all points as they arose, military considerations being dominant. A good proportion of the disunity that prevailed from time to time stemmed from this divergence of outlook. On the landing in the South of France, on the organization of the command of land forces under Eisenhower, on the direction of the final advance and the liberation of Prague and Berlin--on all these points the British Chiefs of Staff, backed by the Prime Minister on occasion, sought to convince the U.S. Chiefs of Staff of the rightness of their view and to get them to join in instructing the Supreme Commander accordingly. In every case the U.S. Chiefs of Staff sought the opinion of the Supreme Commander, and then took the line that they saw no reason to question his right to decide the matter. They declined to exercise a close supervision over his military policy, nor were they pressed to do so by the President. Roosevelt's powers were failing as his end drew near, but in any case he preferred to be guided by General Marshall. It is a matter of opinion whether different decisions would have brought about a more favorable political situation in postwar Europe. The study of the art of control in war will dwell for long on these matters. We can at least be thankful that the divergences were no greater than they were, and that they were outweighed by the over-all harmony of the alliance.

One wonders how the strong-minded men who led the Allied forces in the war were able to bear the strain not merely of responsibility and hard work, but of interference, prodding, criticism and complaint coming from their political masters. How, in turn, could the politicians cope with the frustrations of ill-success and the heavy casualties in operations which they found difficult to understand and whose limiting factors they often could not appreciate? In the First World War the relations between the politicians and the soldiers were marked by ill-will and intrigue. Was it the same this time? Generally speaking, it was not, and the main reason for this was that as a result of the lessons of the past the correct functions of the civil and military authorities had been defined and machinery had been built up through which each could exert its proper force without disruption. One sees in Lord Alanbrooke's book how severe the strain became and how at times fatigue and exasperation grew to be almost more than he could bear. The dynamic concentration of his great master, who could never relax and who exerted constant pressure on every point, coming on top of his endless daily burden of work, was at once an inspiration and a penance. We must make allowances for the fact that we are reading a diary in which the impressions are immediate and not always balanced. Even so, one feels the atmosphere which always pervades the conduct of great affairs.

The fact is that powerful forces generate heat as well as motion, and only those men who can pursue their course without being bent and charred by the heat survive in their high positions. Nearly every great commander in history has been driven to the limit by the importunity of his government at home, and often by its lack of understanding and support. This is one of the hazards of high command. Fortunate were those commanders who served men who, while driving them hard, gave them consistently loyal support and encouragement.

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  • SIR IAN JACOB, Military Assistant Secretary to the War Cabinet, 1939-46; Chief Staff Officer to Minister of Defense and Deputy Secretary of the Cabinet, 1952; Director-General of the B.B.C., 1952-60
  • More By Ian Jacob