- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 4, 2001

Edited by Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman
University of California Press, $40, 763 pages, illus.

Before he became Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, Gen. Alan Brooke was a diarist who diligently recorded nearly every day of World War II. As Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), his views on his times and the people he worked with are fascinating reading. The book is the first complete publication of those diaries that include not only the entire transcript plus his comments on his own comments after the fact.
Brooke was one of the few senior British generals to perform competently, if not brilliantly during the failed defense of France in 1940. He came back to take over the forces defending the homeland after Dunkirk and was eventually promoted to wartime Chief of the Imperial General Staff. As such, he acted as the senior British member of the allied Combined Chiefs of Staff. In this position, he interacted intimately with the great, near great, and infamous of the war. The diaries, written to his wife, are brutally frank and represent perhaps the most controversial of memoirs of the great leaders of World War II. Although he later tempered the manuscript with retrospective postscripts, they remain particularly vindictive in regards to those who crossed him.
Winston Churchill is the most frequent victim. Alanbrooke gives him credit for being a great war leader, but the cost of greatness came with drunken tirades, peevish acts of petulance, and general misbehavior on a number of levels. Living legends are seldom easy to live with and Churchill was a true living legend. The Americans come off slightly better and are generally portrayed as a group of strategically naive amateurs. British military leadership fares worse. On several occasions Alanbrooke expresses the opinion that the best leaders of his generation were killed off in World War I. Joseph Stalin comes off as the most competent among leaders of the war.
Like war itself, Alanbrooke's account is a series of tedious events interspersed with great and terrifying moments. He acidly recounts the great wartime conferences and debates along with shopping trips, bird watching forays, and moments with family. His views are often refreshingly different from the stereotype of the staid and conservative picture often presented of British officers of his era. Prior to the German invasion of France, he expressed private concerns that French strategy was not up to the task. His fears proved chillingly prophetic. He readily grasped new concepts such as airborne operations and was justifiably skeptical of Churchill's enthusiasm for pinprick raids on occupied Europe no matter how much they might build morale at home.Although he disparaged many others for lack of strategic vision, Alanbrooke showed very little wartime thought for shaping the postwar world for the British Empire. In fact many of Churchill's wilder schemes were based on his postwar vision.
Much of what the diarist describes as strategy is actually what we today call operational art. In this Alanbrooke was truly visionary. In the end, virtually every senior civilian leader in the war, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had more long-term grand strategic vision. Despite this, the diarist comes off as a truly competent leader and a good military counterpoint to the sometimes brilliant, but often erratic Churchill.
The flyleaf of "War Diaries" describes it as "unexpurgated." I would almost describe it as unedited. Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman appear to have put in little work in trying to make things easier for the reader. With the exception of a listing of names and nicknames at the beginning of the book, the reader is largely left to his own devices to wade through a sea of "Dickies," "Berties," and the like.
At the beginning of the account, we find our hero in France. He is obviously a general, but the reader is left to his own devices to figure out if the command is a brigade, division, corps, or army. I finally cross-referenced with my dictionary of military biographies to determine that he was leading a corps. This lack of editorial context continues throughout the book and is broken largely by Alanbrooke's own postscript notes. This leaves the diarist to largely carry the ball himself. I found him to be a fascinating character. Although caustic to those who didn't measure up to his military standards, he comes across as a loyal friend, father and husband.
The book is not recommended to the casual reader given the editorial deficiencies, length, and depth of subject matter. However, it is recommended as a research source and as an addition to the library of serious students of conflict and strategy. Alanbrooke helped to direct a great worldwide coalition against a monstrous evil. In a time when evil has again raised its head, any lessons learned from the masters should be examined.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who regularly writes on militiary affairs.

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