Roosevelt and Churchill drafted the Atlantic Charter in August 1941.
Yet while the relationship between the two armies continued in new directions during the Cold War and beyond, the memory of the cooperation during the Second World War was soon shaped by the burgeoning public interest in memoirs and histories of that conflict. Unfortunately, in the conditions of the Cold War, the importance and contribution of the Red Army to the defeat of Hitler’s Germany came to be overlooked or ignored. This was as much due to the fact that it had been very difficult to gain accurate information about the Red Army’s campaigns during the war as it was impossible afterwards. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that any real information began to be available in the West about the vast scale of the war in the East. This meant that the focus of the books about the war was almost exclusively Anglo-American, and they generally focussed upon personalities rather than broader issues. This trend was set early with the publication in 1946 of Ralph Ingersoll’s Top Secret, and Harry Butcher’s My Three Years with Eisenhower. Ingersoll’s book was inaccurate, sensational and highly critical of both Eisenhower and the British, and thus sold very well. Butcher, however, possessed a distinct sales advantage in that he had worked directly for Eisenhower and had kept Eisenhower’s headquarters diary for much of the war. His book gave a glimpse into the higher counsels – and the disagreements – of the war, which was not what Eisenhower had intended. While Eisenhower later argued that he had had nothing to do with the production of the book, it is clear that he did read the manuscript, and even insisted that a passage concerning Churchill was rewritten before publication. He cautioned Butcher to reconsider any mention of foreign officials, including General de Gaulle and Field Marshal Montgomery, ‘where the promotion of bad feeling would be to defeat the very purposes that I strove so hard to advance during the war’.
While Ingersoll’s book could be dismissed as a piece of sensational journalism, Eisenhower was much exercised by the publication of Butcher’s, which became an instant best-seller. He went so far as to write to Brooke to tell him that he had been upset by these ‘so-called “war histories”’, which were as concerned with selling their stories as with accuracy. A recent headline had claimed that ‘Eisenhower nearly sacked Montgomery’, and Eisenhower stressed that he had not collaborated with Butcher and that he did not want ‘either to lose personal friends through no fault of my own, or to appear in the light belittling the war effort of the British Fighting Forces or of the individuals composing them’. In his reply, which was probably the warmest letter he sent to Eisenhower, Brooke reassured him:
You need have no fear, no number of Captain Butchers, or of so called ‘war histories’ could ever begin to affect the opinions we all formed of you during the war. We know only too well that your main objective has always been to promote a practical basis of co-operation between all Commands, regardless of nationalities. We also know that the successes you achieved could never have been realised without the wonderful qualities you showed in this respect.
You can therefore rest fully assured that your old friends on the Chiefs of Staff Committee completely understand the facts, and will do all in their power to remove any misunderstandings with reference to this matter that they may come across.
Yet in many respects, the damage had been done. Montgomery had been greatly annoyed by Butcher’s account and the attention-grabbing headlines in the press. In a letter to Eisenhower, he declared that this exposure of Allied disagreements was all ‘a terrible pity. And the repercussion is bound to be that some British author will retaliate by getting at you.’ What he did not inform Eisenhower of was that he had given Alan Moorehead, an Australian journalist, access to his papers. Moorehead’s biography of Montgomery was published later that year.
These early war books, for all their inaccuracies, were popular, sold well and were a gift for newspaper editors looking for lurid headlines. Millions of men and women had served in the Allied armies and there was a ready market for books about the recent conflict. With their focus on personalities, controversies and disagreements, these publications, which were often serialised in newspapers, exposed to an eager reading public glimpses of the war that had been unknown at the time. Eisenhower bemoaned this fact in a letter to Montgomery in 1946 when he wrote that:
It seems too much to hope that so-called military writers will ever come to understand that the great story of the Allied operation in Europe lies in the essential unity that was achieved; committed to the theory that only in clashes and quarrels is there any interest for the public, they magnify every difference of opinion into a worldshaking battle.
Controversy did indeed sell, and these early books set a pattern that continued for many decades. The first few books of 1946 soon turned into a flood, as many people began to write memoirs and histories of the war. These included Freddie de Guingand whose reasonably balanced Operation Victory was one of the first memoirs written by a wartime chief of staff; and Kay Summersby, whose Eisenhower Was My Boss angered Eisenhower. Summersby had been Eisenhower’s driver and secretary, and, it was rumoured, his lover.
It was partly in response to the flood of books, and partly due to the fact that any book he wrote would earn a substantial sum of money, that Eisenhower penned his own memoir, Crusade in Europe, which was published in 1948. While Basil Liddell Hart, the British military writer, considered it the ‘most fair-minded book that any great soldier of any country has written about either of the last two wars’, it reopened the arguments concerning command and strategy in 1944 and clearly angered Montgomery. When a hostile review was published in the Sunday Times, Ismay moved to ensure that favourable reviews were printed in other newspapers.
Further books, most notably Bradley’s memoir, A Soldier’s Story, published in 1951, brought another storm of headlines and wounded feelings on both sides of the Atlantic. Bradley justified his decisions during the war and did not refrain from making observations about Montgomery and the British.
It was in response to the new Soviet threat that the United States and Britain began to synchronise their military efforts once again. A series of diplomatic initiatives coalesced in 1949 with the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, which was established as a collective defensive security body to prevent Soviet encroachment in Europe. It has been argued that the United States’ ratification of this treaty marked a revolution in US foreign affairs – for the first time, America entered into a permanent ‘entangling’ alliance. In 1950, Eisenhower was appointed as the first Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO. His deputy was none other than Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who had been working as the military chairman of the Western Union Defence for the previous three years. Eisenhower’s prestige and experience, combined with Montgomery’s influence, undoubtedly set NATO’s military alliance on a firm path in a period when the Soviet challenge seemed very real indeed.
Eisenhower went on to become President of the United States, while Montgomery went into retirement to write his memoirs, the publication of which, in 1958, set in train a number of controversies with former British as well as American generals. Montgomery’s memoirs certainly painted Eisenhower in a poor light while justifying his own actions and decisions. Unfortunately, with the publication of his memoirs, and his continued criticisms that a soldier should never dabble in politics, the rift between Montgomery and Eisenhower became permanent. The claims and counter-claims that had characterised the publication of each man’s memoirs built up a confusing and overlapping series of arguments about what had actually happened during the campaigns of 1944–5. These controversies also had the effect of placing in the spotlight the personalities and relationship of Eisenhower and Montgomery almost to the exclusion of every other issue. Ultimately, the debates surrounding the two men as commanders during the Second World War came to represent a multitude of opinions and views about Britain and America in the very changed conditions of the 1950s and 1960s.
Of course, the controversy over command and strategy in 1944 was only one of many debates between the Allies during the war. While it was of great personal importance to the protagonists – and indeed to their many supporters – the inordinate focus upon this issue came to dominate but also obscure the reality of what had happened during the war. Through their service in the founding years of NATO, but more particularly through the battle of the memoirs, the persons and, later, the memories of, Eisenhower and Montgomery became archetypes for the relationship between the United States and Britain in a strikingly similar fashion to the way that Braddock and Washington were remembered in the eighteenth century. Over the ensuing decades, the memory of the Anglo-American alliance of the Second World War was distorted by an increasing wave of nostalgia, particularly in a Britain that had lost its power, but also by an increasing focus on the personal rivalries of the commanders.
The Anglo-American alliance had always been more than the sum of its parts and far greater than the relations between a few men. It had been born in the great emergency of 1940–2, and the spectre of seemingly imminent defeat had been a spur to cooperation in a bewildering range of fields. Its strength had rested on both the breadth and depth of that cooperation, ranging from an unprecedented sharing of scientific and technical information to British and American soldiers eating the same rations and firing the same ammunition. Much of the success of the alliance had actually been based on innovation far from the battle fronts. In this wider context, the actions and collaboration of the two armies was only one part of a much wider whole, which encompassed navies, air forces, industries, transport, governments and people of both countries.
Equally, the relationship between the two armies in the Second World War was actually deeply rooted in a distant past. Neither army was a stranger to the other in 1941, but the long absence of meaningful contact during the interwar years certainly made the resumption of contact more awkward than might have been the case. Neither understood the other nor saw clearly how the war should be prosecuted together. Once the United States joined the war, the cooperation between the armies developed at breakneck speed and soon took unforeseen forms. The early reports and debates from military attachés in London and Egypt, as well as the US Observer Mission, helped to establish contact and develop meaningful avenues of collaboration. The British Tank Mission ultimately not only primed the pump of American tank production but also helped to ensure that both armies had a viable combat tank in 1942–3. Thus the American observer missions and the British Army Staff in the United States had acted as enablers for an unprecedented level of cooperation, just as the Combined Chiefs of Staff had enabled the Allies to thrash out in heated argument the agreed strategy for a global war.
Even on the battle fronts, the personal rivalries and disagreements between generals were only ever part of a wider and more detailed picture. The relationship between the two armies was never perfect. Prejudices, rivalries and political and military differences remained between the two forces to the end of the conflict, but this should not obscure the very real cooperation that was achieved. The campaigns in North Africa, Tunisia and Italy were hard fought – and sometimes desperate – battles in their own right but also served as vital testing grounds to enable the final amphibious assault on the shores of France. Ultimately, while the campaigns in Normandy and north-west Europe saw the culmination of the Anglo-American alliance under very different circumstances to those of 1941, and sparked controversies that continue to this day, they were highly successful military operations that resulted in the achievement of the alliance’s ultimate political objectives. Eisenhower’s Victory Order of the Day on 8 May 1945 counselled against ‘the profitless quarrels in which other men will inevitably engage as to what country, what service, won the European war’. While the majority of the fighting in Europe undoubtedly took place on the Eastern Front, it is not too much to say that without the industrial, economic and military contribution of the Anglo-American alliance, Nazi Germany could not have been defeated.
The secret of the Anglo-American success was not the fact that the two allies often held competing national interests, or approached strategic questions from different directions. In these circumstances, and given the enormous stakes, it was not surprising that there were heated arguments and disagreements and that these played out at every level of the respective governments and armies. Equally, the record of the war proved that there was no monopoly of effective strategy-making or thought on either side of the Atlantic. Indeed, what have often been considered to be British or American strategic perspectives were in fact multi-faceted, with politicians, officials and officers from both sides taking different positions on what were complicated, intractable and dynamic problems. It was the collective nature of Allied planning and the unified execution fusing the power of the two armies together that made Anglo-American strategy effective.
Perhaps it is, after all, human nature to focus on argument and disagreement rather than cooperation. Yet it seems regrettable that in remembering the relationship between the British and American armies in the Second World War, Eisenhower’s firm vision of honesty, frankness and wholehearted cooperation between the two nations and armies in spite of their differences tends to be overshadowed by arguments about personalities. Just as importantly, as the events of the Second World War receded into the past, the success of the Anglo-American alliance came to be taken for granted, as if the campaigns that had begun in North Africa were simply part of the inevitable triumphant march of the democracies towards victory. Eisenhower summed up his views in a letter to his confidante, Pug Ismay:
While it is true that during the war we had the compelling motive of a common fear to stick together, the fact is that we had present in early 1942 and during most of that year, all of the ingredients for a profound pessimism and for mutual recrimination. In spite of the black outlook we buckled down and did the job. Extremists on both sides of the water can indulge in all the backbiting and name-calling that they please – they can never get away from the historical truth that the United States and the British Empire, working together, did a job that looked almost impossible at the time it was undertaken.
For too many years, this pre-eminent fact has been obscured by the emphasis placed upon the command controversies. Collaboration, not conflict, was the touchstone of this alliance. Even in the face of rivalry and suspicion, the American and British armies combined their efforts and won the hard-fought battles of the Second World War together.