The Words of War

Field Marshal Lord AlanBrooke's War Diaries, 1939–1945 offers a glimpse into one long day of the exhausting planning for D-Day. 

9 February (1944)
    
“Another hard day. Started with a short COS (Chiefs of Staff) and then WO (War Office) work, followed by lunch 10 Downing Street. . . . The Dutch Ambassador came to see me.

“At 5:15 pm I was handed a 5 page telegram which PM had drafted for President covering the whole strategy of the war, and most of it wrong! He asked for it to be discussed with him at 10:30 pm. Unfortunately there was a Cabinet at 5:30 pm. There I had a royal battle with him concerning the imposition of a ban on visitors to the South Coast in anticipation of our proposed operation. For some unaccountable reason he was against the ban and supported Morrison. I had most of the rest of the Cabinet with me, including Stafford Cripps, Bevin, Oliver Lyttleton and P.J. We had a royal scrap and I think I had the best of it. At 7:30 pm we came out and had a hurried COS meeting to examine PM’s wire which required drastic amending. At 8:15 I had Eisenhower, Grigg and Andrew Cunningham to dine. At 10:30 back again for meeting with PM to get him to alter his wire. We expected a holy row! Luckily another wire from Roosevelt came in which cut right across the one we were considering and saved most of the trouble. Now midnight and I am dog tired.”

– Field Marshal Lord AlanBrooke, War Diaries, 1939–1945, page 520.

This passage by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, penned in his diary this week 75 years ago as planning for the invasion of Normandy between the Americans and British was proceeding, is remarkable and memorable for several reasons.

First, and what has attracted the most attention for those familiar with his wartime diary, is the considerable tension between General Brooke (he would receive the title Lord Alanbrooke after the war) and his boss, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. There are many different takes on why the two men clashed. Churchill was a man of Renaissance interests, a writer, painter, and aristocrat; Alanbrooke was committed to his profession, family, and bird-watching. Churchill was a politician who understood the ebbs and flows of democratic life; Alanbrooke was a soldier and professional strategist. Alanbrooke grounded his military strategies in earthbound logistical realities, such as when he patiently redirected General George Marshall’s wish for an immediate cross-channel invasion of France; Churchill envisioned imaginative operations that would yield dramatic results, which Alanbrooke would often have to negatively vet.  

A second element is the question of the purpose of the diary entry to the writer.  Alanbrooke’s diary is notable for its cutting takes and venting not only against Churchill, but against American leaders such as Generals George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower. Did the diary serve as a mental relief valve, a quick release of daily stress? Was it ever truly intended for publication? When Alanbrooke began the diary on September 28, 1939, he wrote in capital letters, “ON NO ACCOUNT MUST THE CONTENT OF THIS BOOK BE PUBLISHED.” In response to the histories and memoirs published by other Allied leaders, most notably Churchill’s, Alanbrooke relented to have edited versions of his diary appear in the late 1950s.  However, it was not until 2001 that a complete and expurgated version appeared, showcasing in full Alanbrooke’s wit, venom, trials, and frustrations.  

But thirdly, and I believe most importantly, what leaps out to the reader in this one casual diary entry (and lends support to the question of it being meant to relieve the diarist) is the enormous strain and activity that clearly enveloped the men planning for the invasion of Normandy. They worked constantly on the incredibly large and complex operation, every day all day and late into the night, through meeting after meeting, and even dining together in a nonstop whirl of action. What isn’t said in this passage, because all of the Allied leaders involved—Churchill, Roosevelt, Marshall, Eisenhower, Alanbrooke, and all the others—knew the stakes of the situation, is that if they failed at Normandy the war would be lost. In some form, Hitler’s regime would survive if the Allies were driven back into the English Channel.

With such a burden, it’s little wonder that Alanbrooke was dog-tired at the end of the day. But perhaps the biggest underlying lesson to students of history, who know almost 75 years later that the Normandy landings in fact succeeded, is that at the end of the day the Allied leaders were able to work together and surmount their personal animosities to succeed in a task that was greater than any one of them. 
 

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“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
 – Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum  
 

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Keith Huxen

Keith Huxen, PhD, is the Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII...
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