Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945

by Andrew Roberts

Hardcover, 2009




Harper (2009), Edition: 1, 720 pages


A joint profile of Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and their armed forces commanders Alan Brooke and George C. Marshall evaluates the pivotal ways in which they determined the strategies of allied forces during World War II, in an account that reveals their divergent agendas and tense efforts to collaborate or outmaneuver each other.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This is an excellent book, studying in good detail the meetings between amrerican and British leaders during World War Ii. There ar eineffect biographies of the four "titans" FDR, Cchurchill, George Marshall, and Alan Brooke. Th author is English but I thought he was pretty objective, and often pointed out where the British were wron. I thought Brooke came off as insolent and wrongly judgmental, and I did not think he was a titan, myself.… (more)
LibraryThing member Chris469
I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in strategic planning by the Western Allies in World War II, in particular the personalities and details of the wartime conferences of the top American and British leaders: Roosevelt, Churchill and their top generals and admirals (The "Masters and Commanders" of the title). The author has thoroughly researched the subject matter, quoting extensively from contemporaneous diaries, letters and memoranda. Among the illuminating items in this regard are excerpts from first-drafts of Churchill's six-volume History of World War II, showing sentences that were dropped from the final published version. The subtitle of Masters and Commanders is "How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945" and the book's cover displays their four photos: FDR, Churchill, Marshall and the less well known British General Alan Brooke. The book's title is a bit of a case of mis-labeling because the book has Brooke as very much the protagonist. He is a more fully developed flesh and blood character while the other three are more like card-board cut-outs. It's closer to being "The Alan Brooke Story." The book is not only centered on him but it is largely sympathetic to his point of view. Although not quite a hagiography, it still seems to seek to portray him as a strategic genius. In my view the supporting evidence for that verdict is mixed. Churchill seems to come off as a boob in much of the book and the author, seemingly realizing this, unconvincingly declares Churchill "a genius" in his epilogue. The book might be annoying to some of my fellow Americans because it is a pretty Anglocentric. A number of American officers (King, Stillwell, Wedemeyer) are dismissed as "anglophobes" as if that explains everything you need to know about them. He also argues that Brooke and the British were correct to delay the Normandy Invasion until 1944 since earlier than that would have risked disaster. He does acknowledge that, while the Brits were correct to want to invade southern Italy, they were misguided in their desires to fight their way up the peninsula instead of just stopping after the southern sector including the Foggia airfields had been secured. Overall, very good.… (more)
LibraryThing member RobertP
Great view of how strategy was made by the Western Allies.
LibraryThing member Jared_Runck
The focus of Roberts' work is the complex interrelationship of four key leaders: Roosevelt and Churchill (the "Masters," i.e., the political players) and Brooke and Marshall (the "Commanders," i.e., the military leaders). He presents these four figures (along with a distinguished supporting cast of notable figures) as ultimately responsible for what he calls WW2's "grand strategy." The story that Roberts tells is one of a rather sobering struggle for power between Britain and the US. On Britain's side, the struggle largely comprised attempts to maintain a relatively equal position as American contributions of personnel and materiel began to far outstrip Britain's own contributions. On America's side, the struggle took shape as a fight against an at least perceived (if not actually real) British "craftiness" in pursuing its own political ends.

I suppose, at one level, Roberts' book could be considered a jaundiced reading of United States-Great Britain relations during WW2; however, it avoids a cynical tone, maintaining a sense of sympathetic realism. One thing Roberts finely elucidated is the subtle but significant differences in the relations of political and military power in the US and Great Britain which, in many ways, accounted for the differences of each nations' final objectives and methods. My impression is that there was a decidedly greater separation of political and military power within the American system than within the British system, though that may simply be what we could call the "Churchill effect." If anything, Roberts does a terrific job of painting Churchill as the "madcap genius" he was--equal parts brilliant, annoying, suave, and, at the end of day, absolutely inimitable as a national and international figure.

For me, however, the best part of Roberts' telling is how he showcases the key sacrifices that George Marshall, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Sir Alan Brooke, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, made for their countries. Every general dreams of leading an army into a field of battle and yet, both Marshall and Brooke were forced to surrender their dream of leading the D-Day invasion because they were more valuable in their administrative roles. The history that Roberts relates, though, convincingly demonstrates that, without them, final victory would never have come to the Allies.

Much of what makes Roberts' work so compelling is his access to the "unofficial" (and technically illegal on the British side) diaries of the military and political advisors who orbited around these four. He uses these sources to read "against" the official stories that have been published, most vigorously it seems against Churchill's own later accounting. Fortunately, he does this in a way that doesn't turn the work into a salacious and sensational kind of "World War 2: The Unauthorized Biography"; rather, he remains grounded in the established facts of actual events, which allows the unofficial sources to enrich and enliven the official history rather than simply to overturn it. Where the "official" story is wrong, Roberts' use of diaries and letters often led him to offer very plausible reasons why later retellings diverged from what we now know of the actual course of events. These, as often as not, were rooted in a touching and deeply human concern for the feelings and reputations of other significant leaders.

I suppose the only real disappointment I had was the fact that, though Roberts referred several times to a great "falling out" after the conclusion of the war between Churchill and Brooke, he never really took the time to tell that story. The reason is simple: once Roosevelt died, the "Big Four" that were the focus of his narrative were no longer, so the story had to end. I would like to hope that Roberts will one day write about that.

It never seems to fail that, no matter how "distant" a book may seem from my own expressed interests or current circumstances, I find within it something that seems to miraculously speak to my current "Sitz im Leben." The story of Marshall's and Brooke's sacrifices of personal glory for the greater good of the war effort was, for reasons that would be too convoluted to explain here, a very important story for me to hear at this particular life juncture. Perhaps it's a stretch to say that God "led" me to read this particular book, but it is no stretch at all for me to say that I'm grateful to God that I DID read it.

For those fascinated with the astounding history of World War II or those who find themselves in unexpected and, to be honest, sometimes unwanted positions of leadership and responsibility, this book has many important lessons to teach. Roberts is a fine storyteller and a master of the complex characterization, which serves him well in this story of four of the most significant leaders of the 20th century.
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