Allied Master Strategists: The Combined Chiefs of Staff in World War II – David Rigby

This book is an analysis of the men that ran the war. Though Churchill and Roosevelt provided the general direction of the Allied war effort, and the public face, it was the men of the Combined Chiefs of Staff that turned ideas into solid strategy.

The Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) was the supreme military staff for the western Allies during the Second World War. It emerged from the meetings of the Arcadia Conference of December 1941 and held its first formal meeting on 9 February 1942.

This book opens with the biographical details of the individuals that comprised the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS). Surprisingly, there is no unanimity of opinion on which persons were actually full members of this body. Whilst certain persons were unquestionably full members, such as Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Sir Charles Portal and Sir Dudley Pound on the British side and General George Marshall notably for the Americans, the status of others, such as Ismay, Mountbatten and Field Marshal Sir John Dill is less certain. Nevertheless all those that sat in on meetings of the CCS are given biographical sketches.

As would be expected, Allied Master Strategists explains not only the role of the CCS but also the decisions which it took – decisions of a monumental nature affecting the lives and destinies of millions of people.

Amongst those decisions was that regarding the bombing campaign against Germany. The targeting of the aerial bombardment was much debated by the CCS. It was believed by many influential individuals outside the CCS, Air Chief Marshal Harris and Lord Cherwell the Paymaster General, in particular, that area bombing was for more effective than attempts at striking specific targets. The latter, a close advisor to Churchill, was an advocate of the night time bombing of German cities with the express intention of “dehousing” the civilian population. The effects it would have on the morale of the German people, Cherwell argued, would be so significant that their will to continue the war would be broken.

The opposing view, put forward by the US members of the CCS, was that it was far more productive to conduct day-light precision raids on factories, and in particular oil refineries and depots. According to David Rigby, post-war analysis determined that the British area bombing caused heavy German casualties, did a great deal of damage and tied up a considerable amount of German resources for such things as anti-aircraft defence and large labour detachments needed to repair damage after each raid. However, the effect of such attacks tended to stiffen, rather than weaken morale, as had been witnessed in Britain during the Blitz. The US campaign of precision, on the other hand had much greater consequences for the German war effort, in destroying factories and industrial plants.

The degree of influence exerted by Churchill is one subject of considerable interest. In an interview in 1949, the US Admiral King remarked that “the British Chiefs of Staff had to do what Churchill wanted done, whether they liked it or not. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had little trouble with President Roosevelt … If one would fight F.D.R. he would quit.”

This book provides us with an intriguing glance at the decision-making process at the very highest level during the war. Just a few men held the fate of nations in their hands, particularly from 1943 onwards, when an eventually Allied victory seemed certain. The decision on the date of Operation Overlord, exactly what forces and how many troops could be made available and how many would actually be needed to secure success, were probably the most notable decisions, and ones that were ultimately proved correct.

In fact, as David Rigby concludes, in assessing the CCS’ contribution to the Allied victory in the Second World War, all the operations that were planned and conducted under its auspices were successful. This was because the CCS did their utmost to support their field commanders by providing them as much as they possibly could in the way of solid advance planning, adequate troops and supplies, and air and naval forces.

Too little attention has been given to the CCS in favour of the more dramatic role of the front-line leaders. This well-considered book redresses the balance.

Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.

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