Book: The Economist - 2016-01-09

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Britain and America

The slog of war

Triumph and rivalry in the second world war

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Eisenhower’s Armies: The American-British Alliance during World War II. By Niall Barr. Pegasus; 544 Pages; $35.

MANY writers have explored the relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Just as rich, but sometimes overlooked, are the complexities of British and American military co-operation during the second world war. Niall Barr, a military historian at King’s College London, sifts through the squabbles and triumphs; his is an authoritative and highly readable account.

It was, he writes, the first time that two armies had worked together so closely in wartime. During the first world war, America’s top general had irked Britain and France by insisting on maintaining a separate army. In the second world war the British and the Americans adopted a unified command structure, clearing the way for the appointment of Dwight Eisenhower (pictured) in 1943 as Allied Supreme Commander. However, one lingering benefit of the earlier structure, Mr Barr notes, is that it gave American officers like George Marshall and George Patton an independence and authority that would prove invaluable in the strike against Hitler.

The transatlantic military alliance did not restart auspiciously. As Hitler rolled through Europe, some Americans wondered if Britain could hold out. One military observer questioned whether the British army could handle the “high centralisation and co-ordination demanded by the machine age.” Britain urgently sought American aid, which often fell short. Even before Lend-Lease, America sent Britain rifles leftover from 1919, still packed in grease, with bullets of the wrong calibre, which made them useless.

“Eisenhower’s Armies” is packed with such nuggets. When cultures mixed, the British came across as snobby, the Americans as braggarts. Tensions grew in England as better-paid American soldiers arrived ahead of the cross-Channel invasion, depressing local troops. “Morale is a psychological problem like sex, and therefore the Britisher is almost ashamed to talk about it,” said one anxious British general.

On the battlefield, British troops often shaved daily; Americans grew stubble. British drinks baffled the Americans. “All they seem to be doing is brewing tea,” stormed one American officer in the Netherlands, incredulous that British troops had been made to pause rather than push forward to aid another division.

Among the generals, rivalries ran deep. Commanders from both nations wanted to be the first to grab big prizes such as Berlin. America’s swaggering General Patton disliked Brits, including Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, a vital but flawed commander. Montgomery in turn scorned Eisenhower, who for his part had the unenviable task of soothing egos and balancing political concerns with military ones. Eisenhower had to deal with Churchill, who nosed into military affairs more than American politicians did. Disagreements arose over strategy, most prominently over whether to make the first big joint operation a cross-channel invasion (the Americans’ choice) or a strike into the Mediterranean (Britain’s choice).

The rise of America is a prominent theme. Before the war, its army was smaller than Romania’s. But as the nation rearmed and GIs poured overseas, Britain felt its standing begin to wane. British brass felt “pipped at the post”, Mr Barr writes, by their huge, ever-more-powerful ally. In August 1944 Eisenhower was forced to reassure Churchill that America had no desire to “disregard British views, or coldbloodedly to leave Britain holding an empty bag in any of our joint undertakings”.

Tensions were clearly rife. But in the end, Mr Barr offers high praise for the fundamentals of the partnership. The “sheer depth, scale and scope of the alliance between Britain and the United States during the second world war is hard to comprehend, even now,” he writes. Seven decades into the special relationship, no test as grave as a world war has resurfaced; but on countless vital matters, from Afghanistan to Syria, the alliance endures, made stronger by discussion and debate.


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