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Fall 2015

Fighting Cousins

book cover imageYanks and Limeys: Alliance Warfare in the Second World War.
by Niall Barr.
London: Jonathan Cape, 2015.
Hardcover, 548 pages, $30.

John P. Rossi

It is generally agreed that World War II was a victory of Russian numbers and American industrial output. True enough. But it was also a victory of the most successful alliance in military history. What the Americans and the British established in the darkest days of the war turned out to be the engine that enabled the Allies to prevail over the powerful military threat that Nazi Germany presented.

Many books have analyzed the Allied victory, and a few have focused on the Anglo-American alliance, but none can match in thoroughness of detail and lively writing Niall Barr’s aptly titled Yanks and Limeys.

Barr is the Senior Lecturer on Defense Studies at King’s College, London and the author of the best study of the desert campaign in World War II, Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein. In his new book he tells the story of British and American armies as they fought in the largest war in history, and how they sought to learn from each other—often with painful results. Unlike other studies of the Anglo-American alliance Barr focuses not on the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship but rather on the interactions developed during the war by British and American military figures.

Barr begins in an unusual way, tracking the first attempt by the British and Americans at working together during the French and Indian war, a conflict that brought out the distinct differences in culture between the British and the their cousins in the New World. The two later conflicts between the two peoples, the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, only heightened the hostile view of each branch of the Anglo-American world for the other. Although both Americans and British were influenced by Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini’s ideas on military education, Barr notes that neither side learned much from the other’s wartime experiences. The American military studied the Napoleonic wars but focused on Napoleon’s victories, not the disastrous Russian campaign or the reasons for Wellington’s ultimate defeat of the Corsican adventurer in Spain and at Waterloo. Generally the British found the American Civil War unworthy of much examination. When the British did analyze that American conflict, they concentrated on Confederate victories and Lee’s brilliant grasp of strategy while denigrating the bloody, decisive all-purpose war as waged by Grant and Sherman. An examination of the latter might have proven valuable for the British in World War I. In his History of the English Speaking Peoples, Winston Churchill reflected this attitude, admiring Lee’s dashing military leadership while regarding Grant’s strategy as sheer bloody-mindedness.

America’s brief experience in World War I did not lead to greater contact with the British. For Barr one of the tragedies of the war was that the two armies emerged as strangers to one another. For British military thought, the Great War constituted the formative experience. The lesson learned was to avoid another bloodletting—750,000 English were killed in the war—at whatever the cost. For the Americans, whose experience of fighting in World War I was limited, two ideas emerged. To ensure victory in any future conflict massive numbers would be necessary and the entire economy would have to be mobilized. These concepts were passed on from General John J. Pershing, U.S. commander in World War I, to General George Marshall, who in a strange coincidence became Chief of Staff on the day World War II broke out. The clash of these differing military visions of warfare set the stage for the stresses and strains of the Anglo-American partnership in World War II and constitutes the heart of Barr’s study.

Barr credits a number of individuals for making the Anglo-American coalition a success. Among the most important contributors he singles out President Roosevelt, General Dwight Eisenhower, and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. Churchill and Field Marshall Alan Brooke, Chief of Staff of the British Army, do not figure as prominently in Barr’s study, which is unusual in English-authored histories of the war.

Barr admires Roosevelt for his instinctive belief that the British would survive the terrible crisis of the summer of 1940 following the withdrawal from Dunkirk at a time when many American military and political observers believed England had lost the war. He also credits Roosevelt with the wisdom to override General Marshall’s advice, after America’s entry into the war, that the Allies should launch an invasion of Europe in the fall of 1942 as a way of relieving German pressure on the Soviet Union. Barr notes that such an invasion at that time would have been disastrous, given the small number of Allied troops available to confront the Wehrmacht at any time before 1944.

Barr also credits Roosevelt for pressing for action so that the new Army that General Marshall was creating could be tested under fire. This explains Roosevelt’s support for Operation Torch, an Allied landing in North Africa in November 1942, something which Marshall and most American military leaders regarded as a waste of resources, as well as a typical example of Britain’s preference for a peripheral strategy. Roosevelt was proved right and Marshall wrong, as Rick Atkinson has demonstrated in An Army at Dawn, his history of the American Army’s poor performance in the North African campaign. North Africa proved a costly learning experience for the American forces as demonstrated by their defeat at hands of the Wehrmacht in the Kasserine Pass. The campaign, however, gave Eisenhower an opportunity to develop the diplomatic and other skills necessary to lead the Allied coalition in the future. The North African campaign, as Barr notes, also saw the emergence of the key generals who would lead the American Army in the last years of the war: Omar Bradley, George Patton, Lucian Truscott, and Mark Clark. Barr has a low opinion of Clark, whose talents he believes lay more in boosting his reputation rather than providing effective military leadership.

Barr is a great admirer of Eisenhower, who comes close to being the hero of the book. In this Barr is following the revisionist interpretation of Eisenhower’s leadership in the Second World War, ground broken in recent years by Michael Korda’s Ike: An American Hero and Jean Smith’s Eisenhower in War and Peace. For Barr, Eisenhower did a brilliant job as Supreme Allied Commander “under very difficult circumstances. He knew that he needed to ensure that the Allied armies kept up momentum, maintained the cohesion of the alliance, and defeated the German army at the same time.” He did this by creating a unified command structure with alternating British and American personnel balancing each other. Barr credits Air Marshall Arthur Tedder, Eisenhower’s English Deputy Commander and his American Chief of Staff, General Walter Bedell Smith, known to all as “Ike’s son of a bitch,” for keeping the Anglo-American coalition working effectively. Barr is also impressed by how Eisenhower dealt with a number of British and American prima donnas who believed that they could run the war better than him—General Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, being the most prominent. Eisenhower also had to fend off suggestions from Churchill, whom he handled deftly.

Barr alternates praise and criticism of Montgomery. He gives him high marks for reorganizing the British Army after its defeats in the Desert War and his sure handed guidance of Allied land forces in Sicily and during the opening stages of the Normandy campaign. But he argues that Montgomery’s “abrasive egocentric personality was a real limitation.” Barr is particularly harsh on Montgomery’s failure to clear the Scheldt estuary after the capture of Antwerp in September 1944, which ultimately cost the Allies time and, what is more significant, a large number of casualties.

On the question of broad-front versus narrow-front strategy to follow in the last year of the war, Barr opts strongly for Eisenhower’s position that a broad front was the best choice for the Allies, a view contrary to what Montgomery and Patton favored. Montgomery wanted to place an emphasis on a narrow attack on the German heartland in the north where British numbers were the greatest. Patton favored a similar plan in the south where his American forces would play the decisive role.

Eisenhower initially approved a narrow thrust by Montgomery, Operation Market Garden, which aimed at breaking into the Ruhr through Holland. It proved a costly failure. Thereafter he argues that Eisenhower was correct to maintain a broad frontal attack on the German heartland, one that ultimately succeeded with fewer casualties. On the controversial issue of going on to Berlin, Barr also believes Eisenhower was correct. He writes that “Eisenhower saw no reason to suffer thousands of Allied casualties for an objective that could no longer affect the outcome of the war or alter agreed occupation zones.” The latter refers to the zones of occupation agreed to at Yalta in February 1945. Any territory conquered by the British and Americans in an attack on Berlin would have to be turned over to the Russians.

Despite all the flaws in the Anglo-American coalition, the differences in culture between the English and the Americans, the clash of egos on both sides, it performed better than other unions of forces in the past and set a precedent for such future coalition conflicts as the first Gulf War. Barr’s book is clearly written, based on solid sources, and can be enjoyed by lay students of World War II as well as by the specialist in that war—no mean feat in historical scholarship.  

John Rossi is Professor Emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

Posted: October 25, 2015

Did you see this one? book cover

The Awful Responsibility of Time
Mark G. Malvasi
Fall 2011

Mere unthinking negative opposition to the current of events, clutching in despair at what we still retain, will not suffice in this age. A conservatism of instinct must be reinforced by a conservatism of thought and imagination.

Russell Kirk

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