Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit, and a ‘confusion’ of pollsters.


Well, I drafted this a couple of weeks ago, but got distracted and didn’t publish it until it’s too late (at least to be predictive). Shame really, I probably like being able to say ‘I told you so’, even more than the average egotist. Still, some of the points still have some relevance…

The reason pollsters get so much so wrong, is that they are just a subset of the chattering class.

They are university educated, inner urban, part of the ‘knowledge’ economy, and try to look like they are actually trendy. They hang out with the latte set, circulate mainly within the ‘goat-cheese circle’, and spend as much time as possible doing media commentary with like minded chattering class loonies.

The idea that their privileged, insular existence, leads them to fail to communicate with the great unwashed, pretty much fails to occur to them.

(Which could be why the Brussels bureaucrats, British chattering classes; conga line of international political twats from Obama to Turnball; and big business PR faces: all worked so hard to convince themselves that British voters would ignore Angela Merkels unilateral announcement of the collapse of the EU - when she announced an open door to Europe…  NOTE: I have long since been fond of saying that eventually the Germans would find their third attempt to take over Europe in a century might end no better than the other two… perhaps worse. Well now we’re going to find out.)

I occasionally succumb to curiosity about pollsters, and actually let a cold caller or an on-line survey through, just to see how unthinkingly biased the questions are. The sad fact is that I, like most people NOT of the chattering classes (despite the fact that I am a university educated inner urban professional with no kids) would usually hang up on such callers.

The other exceptions, who will actually answer questions, often being so bored and lonely, or starving for attention, that they will talk to anyone… often agreeing with whatever crap the interviewer clearly favours just to get approval.

When I do bother to answer, I am amazed at how clearly the preconceptions of the questioner come through.

Sometimes it is just the dreadful phrasing… Instead of saying ‘do you favour Brexit or Bremain?’, the question is actually more likely to be ‘are you willing to take the risk of flushing everything you have ever known down the toilet, or do you prefer stability?’. Amusingly, they usually don’t even realise this might be a problem.

I had enormous fun playing with these sorts of phrasings in first year Psychology class… it was great how you could – Yes Minister like – order 3 or 4 leading questions to get any answer you like…”

[Sir Humphrey demonstrates how public surveys can reach opposite conclusions]
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think there is lack of discipline and vigorous training in our Comprehensive Schools?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think young people welcome some structure and leadership in their lives?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do they respond to a challenge?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Might you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?
Bernard Woolley: Er, I might be.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Of course, after all you've said you can't say no to that. On the other hand, the surveys can reach opposite conclusions.
[survey two]
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Are you unhappy about the growth of armaments?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think there's a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think it's wrong to force people to take arms against their will?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Would you oppose the reintroduction of conscription?
[does a double-take]
Sir Humphrey Appleby: There you are, Bernard. The perfectly balanced sample.

The problem is, of course, that most modern pollsters don’t even realize that they are biasing the responses. They are simply convinced that ‘ALL RIGHT THINKING PEOPLE BELIEVE X’, so their questions are rarely phrased in a way that doesn’t assume that anyone who believes anything else must be a moron or a criminal deviant.

Even when the questions are actually better phrased, you can usually tell by the tone of voice how you are expected to respond.

I once tried saying the absolute opposite of whatever the pollster clearly wanted to one of these phone callers. You could hear the strain in his voice as he tried to sound as though he was just calmly going through questions while really thinking ‘this guy is a f******* idiot’.

Try it sometime, it can be fun... If you're really, really bored.

So the pollsters managed to avoid the obvious response of the huge number of people who are sick of politicians talking down to them, and convince themselves that their preferred outcome was obvious.

They managed to ignore the fact that all the Bremains Chicken Little Act (yes I mean you David ‘the sky will fall’ Cameron), was so clearly manipulative crap, and assume that people would be scared for it on mass. The obvious response – that people would be so pissed off at the lies they might revolt – apparently didn't occur to them. 

(Amusingly, the only ones to take it seriously appear to be… the chattering classes! Despite the fact that this is a tactic they themselves invented to manipulate the unwashed?)

You might imagine that the fact that they got last years British election so wrong (or the Scottish referendum so wrong, etc) by only listening to the feedback their prejudices demanded, might have had an effect? Apparently not.

It’s not that they are too wedded to their failed models, its that they are too wedded to their pre-conceptions.

I am irresistibly reminded of Australia’s referendum on a republic a while back. 

Every single member of the chattering class - every newspaper, every commentator, every radio program – was absolutely convinced the referendum would walk it in, in a land slide. The confusion when not a single state supported it. (I don’t count Hot Air Central as a useful political division, seeing the entire town is designed and built for the chattering classes to gorge themselves at the taxpayers trough.)

The only sad part is that the markets are so prone to gullibly swallow what the chattering commentators say, that they had their normal panick about the sky falling.
How dare people do what their betters have told them is wrong!

(I am actually going to the UK in a couple of weeks, and my wife is there now. Wish I had the organizational ability to jump on the exchange rate when the markets did their initial panick. Could have saved a fortune on what things will be back to almost immediately.)

Still it gives one to think about a few other things the pollsters are likely to screw up.
Donald Trump definitely won’t get anywhere in primaries… Well he won’t win the candidacy…. Well he can’t win the presidency…

Keep talking guys. The more you put down your own voters, the better he will do.

(Not saying that’s a good thing… the man’s a protectionist moron. But Obama and George W and Clinton and… well you get the idea… are not exactly sensible coherent internationalists are they? As a side comment, the US now is going through the weariness and incompetent insularity that led British interwar voters to simultaneously vote for more action to enforce peace, and disarmament, and believe both were not mutually exclusive! Possibly with similar consequences long term?)

Pollsters, if they want to reclaim any relevance, need to stop acting like those sad universities who actually sack anyone who dares to question the accepted orthodoxy just because it is based on distorting the facts to fit.

They have to actually accept that people who aren’t the elite few might have opinions that have value.

But that would require them to accept that their limited insular clique is not the one true holder of the truth?

The nobility managed it, eventually (well, after the occasional revolution). The clergy managed it, a bit (after enough child abuse scandals). The Marxists have gone underground (or to the Greens, or to anti-bullying programs). Perhaps the chatterers might manage it too?

Or will that require its own bloodletting?

Let’s ask the bureaucrats in Brussels? 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The General Needs a Break

There is an excellent, if somewhat accidental, section on Generalship in one of Tom Clancy’s earliest and best books Red Strom Rising (from the Cold War period he understood, not the post Cold War world he doesn’t have a clue about).

His Soviet ‘hero’, Pavel Leonidovich Alekseyev, the Deputy Commander of the Southwest Front is exhausting himself preparing troops for battle, when his boss points out that in actual combat, hard learned experience would ensure that senior officers get enough regular rest to allow them to make good and clear decisions. Pavel admits the point, and is fast asleep before his vehicle gets back to HQ. 

The implication being that this common sense approach by his superior is what leaves Pavel functional at the critical point a few weeks later when everyone else’s responses are lethargic and doctrinal.
It is an excellent point for short term command decisions, but equally important for the long term durability of generals.

Historically, generals can function in the heat of battle successfully for months at a time… as long as they get sufficient rest during proceedings, and then a significant break before taking on the next major battle. But any general, no matter how good, will reach a point of decline in health, morals, leadership and decisiveness, if he tries to stay at peak performance for too long.

In his 20’s Alexander the Great made himself function for months at a time over several years… but the decline towards the end was very obvious. His men wanted out and his officers were revolting (literally as well as figuratively).

Napoleon achieved similar results as a younger man, but the sick old man who returned to power – lasting barely 100 days before spiraling out of control – was in no shape to command at Waterloo.
Worse is the list of previously great generals who were far too old when thrust back into command. Petain, the great hero of France of the Great War, was representative of too many old generals as a washed out shell in World War Two. Kitchener and Cardigan are other samples, and I am sure you can think of many more.

The number of generals, particularly junior generals, who drove themselves to physical collapse, is also well recorded in history. In World War Two, any numbers of generals were incapacitated at crucial moments, from Germans on the Eastern front, to Australians in New Guinea. In North Africa alone, physical or mental collapses by: Cunningham (General not Admiral), Gott, Rommel, Stumme, Rommel again, Gort, and a number of lesser generals, were reflective of overwork and exhaustion. 

Admiral Pound and Genreal Dill both died in harness, and both were clearly performing far less than optimally towards the end of their service. And then there is Roosevelt...

Wavell too was exhausted when he left the Middle East, and his lack of rest before being thrown into the ABDA command was a large part of the cause of some of the disasters there.

In the very short term, days, or at most weeks: adrenaline can keep most people functioning way beyond normal timespans… but the term is functioning. Performing it is not. Reactions slow, thought processes slow, creativity craps out, reflexive action becomes default, deeper reflection stops. Any sensible soldier would prefer a well-rested and thoughtful general in charge, which is why even Communist armies eventually learned to give up on idealistic claptrap and assign batmen and cooks and other support staff to their officers if they wanted any success at all.

Montgomery’s practice of going to bed at a reasonable hour and telling his staff not to wake him unless it was an emergency… and probably not then if there was nothing useful he could do about it: is an excellent example of a general maintaining his usefulness to his men in combat . It is particularly relevant to a 3 or 4 star general that someone commanding a Corps or Army – or even Army Group – should have distance and perspective.

On the other hand Montgomery was clearly emotionally exhausted by the time of the Battle of the Bulge, and in need of rest at that point. His ever increasing isolation at his forward tactical headquarters was starting to have a detrimental effect on his control of this Army Group, and both the failure to concentrate on Antwerp and the inadequate co-ordination of the Market-Garden operation were not up to the standards he had set himself in North Africa, Sicily, or at D-Day.

This leads to the interesting point that although Eisenhower was right to leave Montgomery in charge for the completion of the D-Day/Normandy campaign, he may have been right to not leave him as ground forces commander after the exhausting battle of Normandy was over. (In a similar fashion, Lee had undoubtedly been right to believe that Slim needed a rest after the conquest of Burma before preparing the next major operation… a fact pretty much proved by Slim’s unusually emotional response to being ‘sacked’.)

Mind you Eisenhower was wrong to imagine he could be his own Ground Forces commander at the same time as running the theatre as a whole; dealing with international and inter-service rivalries; and negotiating with difficult allies and collapsing enemies.

He was wrong for two reasons.

First, that no one man could do Eisenhower’s real job and still be a useful ground forces commander (which is why every single other theatre – even quite small and relatively simple ones like Burma or New Guinea –separated the roles).

Second, Eisenhower was already a chain smoking and exhausted wreck, who himself had failed to cope with the stresses of the Normandy campaign, and desperately needed a rest.

When I raise with people the idea that too much was being attempted by too few for too long, the initial reaction is, far too often’ ‘there was no choice’!

Poppycock.

Montgomery or Slim were no more ‘the vital and irreplaceable man’ than Eisenhower or MacArthur. There were certainly many choices.

Bradley spent the first part of the Normandy campaign as an Army Commander, and was then promoted to Army Group Commander. See, simple choice. He could just as easily, and probably more sensibly, have been left as an Army commander, under Devers or Patton as Army Group Commander. (He probably would have been better if not promoted too far too fast).

Or, the invasion army – 1st – could have been rested while 3rd and 9th armies did the pursuit, and brought up – reinforced and refreshed – when the advance ran out of steam a few months later. 

Patton's 'sulk' during the Metz stalemate, Hodges apparent physical collapse at the Bulge, and Bradley's increasingly irrational responses there and later: show how even a few months in unrelieved combat can have straining effects. Similarly Crerar's enforced 'rest' allowing Simpkin to excel.

Meanwhile after the breakout Alexander could have taken over as Ground Forces commander for the pursuit phase, leaving Montgomery a few months of recuperation to tackle the breakthrough fighting on the German frontier. Perhaps General Bernard Paget (the commander of the British Home Army who had trained the units for the invasion) could have taken over 21st Army Group for the pursuit. Or perhaps he could have been brought in for Ground Forces if Alexander was too vital in Italy? (Or Wilson, or Wavell, or Lavarack, or Devers, or Slim, or Eichelberger, or…. Plenty of choices.)

The simple fact is that Ike and Monty were tired, and both were working at less than peak performance. As Pavel Alekseyev’s superior would have noted, both needed a break.

It is an unfortunate truth that Western Democracies are terrible at giving generals a break to refresh. The Germans and Soviets and even Japanese rotated Army and Army Group commanders around all over the place, regularly pulling them back to ‘reserve’, and regularly re-assigning them to a new position a few months later. The British and Americans however, usually tried to persevere with the same leader until he failed… and I do mean ‘until’, because even the best ones – Wavell comes to mind – slowly lose ground over repeated years of stress, and eventually have to be sacked.

Alan Brooke, on the brink of being appointed British CIGS, was not opposed to the replacement of Wavell in 1941, but felt it ridiculous to ‘sack’ him. Brooke wanted him bought home for a few months rest and recuperation before re-assignment. But Churchill didn’t want him in London where he might cause trouble, and banished him to India… Unfortunately there he was thrown straight back into a role as CIC India, and was barely getting on top of that when he was dragged back into service against the Japanese WITHOUT the benefit of having had a few months rest.

There is no doubt that if Brooke had given him 6 months off, Wavell would have been in much better shape for another active role later in the war. Wavell as either Supreme or Land Forces commander of the invasion of North Africa (or Italy) is by no means unrealistic. Wavell as Churchill’s representative to Stalin (he spoke superb Russian) would have been fascinating. Wavell on the Combined Chiefs of Staff is harder to imagine, but not impossible. But Wavell – unscarred by ‘sacking’ – taking over as CIGS if Brooke had been released for field command in 1944 – in France or Italy or Asia – was also possible.

Which leads us to Brooke and Churchill.

Brooke had carried the can for Allied strategy from November 1941 to the invasion of Italy in 1943, and both needed and deserved a break. There is no doubt that he had achieved his greatest impact on the war by steering Allied strategy successfully to the point where the surrender of Italy and clearing of the Mediterranean had finally made an invasion of France possible. His strategic impact was already in decline by that point (partly because most of the strategy to see out the was already set, and partly because Marshall and and others just didn’t want to be steered by him anymore): but it is arguable that this decline in influence was at least as much because of increasing tiredness as anything else.

Brooke needed a break, and to be re-assigned to a fresh job where he could do most good. Preferably six months off before taking over as Supreme Allied Commander for the Invasion of France; but also possibly as SAC Med if Alexander continued to serve as Ike’s Land Forces Commander; or as SAC South East Asia to deal with Burma, Malaya and the East Indies.

Either way Brooke’s impact on the war might have been increased, and his replacement as CIGS might have brought in renewed perspectives and energy.

The same applies, I am afraid, to Churchill. He too needed a break for a few months between the surrender of Italy and the invasion of France. This would of course have been much harder for a politician than for a military man, but it ids nonetheless true. One of the reasons Churchill was so shattered by his loss of the 1945 general election was his exhaustion… and in fact one of the reasons for that loss was his exhaustion. Had he been able to take a few months off in late 1943 or early 1944, he would have faced the end of the war with renewed energy. (And faced the almost inevitable loss of the following election with far more realism and stoicism.)

It is hard to imagine how such a break could have been managed under a system where it was not understoof that generals needed breaks. But it is interesting to imagine how it might have worked had that principle been understood. If the CIC of the British military – King George VIII – had been in the habit of accepting rest periods for his generals, it is easier to imagine him suggesting (or even ordering) rest periods for his Prime Ministers! An amusing side thought, but certainly not beyond the realms of possibility in the Westminster system…

Eisenhower is another person who desperately needed a rest. He went from running the invasion of North Africa, and the resulting political settlements there (while others largely dealt with the military issues); to running the invasion of Sicily and then Italy, and the resulting political settlements there (while others largely dealt with the military issues); straight to running the invasion of France, and the resulting political settlements there (while imagining he could simultaneously deal with the military issues): without much of a break. This was extremely foolish, and arguably had a very negative effect on Allied operations in France, and on the political outcome in Europe (which saw much of central Europe unnecessarily fall to the Soviets).

In fact it is hard to imagine that anything except exhaustion affecting his judgement could have led him to imagine he could suddenly combine both the political and military roles effectively, when his previous history had seen such poor outcomes when he tried to concentrate on a single job. It is possible that he had such an outbreak of overwhelming hubris and arrogance that he might have tried to do the same thing even if rested… but lets be kind and suggest that his decision sounds more like exhaustion overcoming common sense.

Again, he needed a good few months break – preferably at home resting in the US – before being re-assigned to D-Day: rather than being thrown straight back in. He was clearly approaching an exhausted nervous wreck by the time the invasion began, and his testy and emotional responses to any delays, countered by his delirious over confidence when things seemed to be going well: give a poor impression of someone at their best performance.

Paget should have been left to plan the invasion while Ike rested. If Ike was to command, he should have taken over fresh a few weeks before operations began, to have a chance to make it to the end of the war. As it was, he may have been right to think Monty needed less responsibility after the Normandy breakout, but he was clearly wrong to imagine he could handle everything thereafter. The directionless wandering of his broad front ‘strategy’ was only exceeded by his failures to grasp that the end goal of the war was a stable political settlement in Europe.

In that of course he reflected his boss, Marshall, who was one of the old fashioned ‘just win and go home’ generals. He clearly had no comprehension that ‘just going home’ might mean you had to come back again later… He clearly never understood that his ‘political’ solutions would just mean that the US had to ‘come back’ in NATO, or to in Korea, or Vietnam, or… well you get the idea. (This lack of understanding was in fact a terrible misreading of his own nations history in such matters. A 19th century British diplomat had once questioned an American ambassador on the US’s habit of repeatedly invading Central American countries, demanding open elections, and going home. “What do you do when the election gets a result you don’t like?”. “Oh, we just invade again.”)

It is hard to say whether Marshall’s failings at the crucial ‘make a balanced peace’ part of the war were just his limited understanding of how international relations worked, or a sign of him being exhausted too. Charitably, it would be nice to suggest that it was at least partially caused by overtiredness and irritability. Certainly his far wiser approach to the Marshall Plan indicates that he could do better on international understanding… though perhaps that was a hard learned lesson. But the problem with ‘resting’ Marshall at any point was that his CIC – Roosevelt – was by that time so sick that he wouldn’t have felt secure to take the risk of a change even if he had had the insight to believe it might be useful.

The real pity of this is that the Allies did have quite excellent samples of how it could work. On a small scale, Wavell had lasted as long as he did in the Middle East by making a couple of trips to London, and leaving another general (Blamey) to run things while he was gone. It worked fine.
For the invasion of Sicily various generals – including Patton – were pulled out of front line roles to prepare for the next operation.

Montgomery himself twice – North Africa and France – pulled Horrocks out of the line for a rest in preparation for future operations... If only he'd accepted the same applied to himself!

In Macarthur’s command (partly accidentally given the Australian vs American confusion) this became a regular practice of a new general overseeing each operation, and the rested general having a break before preparing the next operation.

MacArthur sort of continued this pattern even with just American generals like Eichelberger and Krueger swapping with 6th and 8th armies respectively from Buna to the Philippines.

More significantly, 3rd  and 5th Fleets perfected the idea of one Admiral running an operation while the other takes a break and then prepares the next operation.

That’s the way to do it!

The general lack of imagination by the Allied command systems in deciding who needed a rest when, is responsible for two significant issues.

1)    Good generals being sacked and discarded for being overtired, when a little R&R would see them back fresh, experienced, and continuing to develop. And
2)    Tired generals making mistakes that increased casualties and lengthened the war.


It is simply not possible to estimate the damage done to the Allies and to the world, by the unwillingness to give good leaders desperately needed breaks.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Rating Generals Marshall and Dill


(This one is going to raise screams of outrage from many people, but, realistically, it is hardly an exaggerated perspective on either of these men. Again, I just want to challenge people's unthinking acceptance of generally accepted shibboleths. Enjoy.)

Field Marshal Sir John Greer Dill, and General of the Army George Catlett Marshall (for whom that somewhat convoluted title was apparently invented, on the basis that Field Marshal Marshall sounded pretty silly), were two of the four great Allied generals who ran the British and American – and the Combined – Chiefs of Staff in World War Two.

(The other two being Field Marshall Alan Brooke who ran the Imperial General Staff from 1941-45 as 'CIGS' - Chief of Imperial general Staff, and General Henry Maitland Wilson, who replaced Dill on the Combined Chiefs of Staff after his death in 1944.)

Whereas both Brooke and Wilson had extensive front line experience during the war to back up their desk roles later on, Marshall and Dill could collectively be called ‘the 5 star bureaucrats’, because they spent most of the war behind desks, without ever commanding in combat in the field. (Dill held a Corps command in France during the Phoney War, but was recalled to be assistant CIGS before the German attack on France began).

Both of these lifelong professional soldiers were undoubtedly great men. Both inspired loyalty and affection from the vast majority of people who knew them. Both were respected as great thinkers by many of their contemporaries in their respective armies. Both were superior organisers, and both played an immense – possibly even an irreplaceable part – in steering the Allies to victory. 

Both also played crucial roles in international affairs during their lives. With Dill's decisions about Greece and Malaya in 1941 both altering the course of the war and world history; and Marshall’s roles in wartime, post war government, post war China, the Cold War, and in the Marshall plan for aid to Europe, ranking as outstanding achievements for any soldier.

But neither had any experience as a successful battlefield general, and it would be fair to suggest that neither of them demonstrated skills that would have been particularly good on the battlefield as 3 or 4 star generals.

 In fact, given that both demonstrated significant flaws in geo-political thinking and strategic planning as 4 and 5 star generals, it is possibly a long bow to suggest that neither was a very good general.

Despite all their undoubted achievements, were they in fact failures as generals?


George Catlett Marshall was distantly descended from the old aristocracy that Americans like to pretend they don’t have, though his family was relatively minor Virginia aristocracy (and of course slaveholders), and he came through an impecunious junior line. Many of his early ancestors were soldiers – like Martin Marshall, the first to enter the Virginia Military Academy, only to be invalided out after damaging a knee at the battle against General Segel at Shenendoah river; and Thomas Marshall, who fought at Valley Forge.

[One of his biographers – Robert Payne – commented that the families who fought in the US Civil War were often fighting a ‘continuation’ of the English Civil War, because they were largely those same families of Roundheads and Cavaliers who had fled England in the 1600’s. It is an amusing conceit, to which it is fun to add the great comment from the classic book 1066 and All That, roundheads versus cavaliers = 'right but repulsive versus wrong but romantic'… an excellent descriptor for both civil wars…]

George Marshall’s immediate ancestors were lawyers and businessmen – not very successful ones in some cases – though there were many more significant figures like judges and academic leaders in the family tree. General Basil Duke apparently summed up most of the Marshall’s as a group, when he commented of Loius Marshall – the first president of Washington University – “His opinions were frequently inaccurate, for they were much controlled by his prejudices, but were often profound, always striking and original”. 

Many might later have made this same point about George.

Like many young officers of the time, Marshall served as a platoon commander in the newly conquered Philippines, and saw some service in guerilla warfare against the resistance movements. But his first significant posts were in the area that was to become his life work – as an aide de camp to a chief of staff.

During the Great War he specialized in training and planning, particularly helping to plan the first attacks by US Army troops in France, and then, under Pershing, helping plan the main US parts of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. In the few months he operated in France, he probably had a more significant planning role in operations than any US contemporary who was still active in the Second World War.

His interwar roles were mostly training and staff duties, except for the 3 years he commanded the 15th Infantry regiment in China. (On what every other major nation on earth, except the US and the Soviet Union, of course, referred to as ‘imperial and colonial policing duties’). Still, between the Philippines and France and China, he certainly had a wider exposure to the real world of international affairs than many of his contemporaries.

By 1938 Marshall was assigned to the War Plans Division in Washington, and that ended his association with anything other than desk roles. Still a mere Brigadier, he soon became Deputy Chief of Staff, where he distinguished himself as one of the few people who would not just tell Roosevelt whatever he wanted to hear. Although it was assumed by many that this might end his career, instead it attracted Roosevelt to nominate this incredibly junior officer to replace General Malin Craig as Army Chief of Staff – a position he held throughout the war – on the day Germany invaded Poland.

To put that in perspective Malin Craig was a Brigadier General in 1921, a Major General in 1935, and an honorary 4 star General from 1936-9, whereas Marshall was appointed Brigadier in 1936, and was jumped to an honorary 4 star General in 1939! (By contrast Dill was a Brigadier in WWI, a Major General in 1930, Lieutenant General 1936, full General 1939 – with seniority backdated until 1937. Alan Brooke was a Major General in 1936, a Lieutenant General in 1938, and a full General in 1940. Wilson was a Brigadier in 1934, a Major General in 1935, a Lieutenant General in 1939, and a full general in 1941. All these 3 were only raised to 4 star rank after leading a Corps or army in wartime – though Dill’s front was inactive during his time there.)

It is no exaggeration to suggest that Marshall was stunningly junior for this promotion, particularly given the quality of many of the officers he was jumped over. 

It was even more surprising than the almost contemporary decision of the British government to promote Lord Gort from Major General to 3 star and then – a few months later – a similar 4 star position, over the heads of many many far more qualified senior officers. (And we all know how poor Gort turned out! His almost complete failure as CIC of the BEF being a prime example of the flaws of over-promoting a man described by his contemporaries as ‘the ideal man to command a division’.)

Dill, although from a not-disimilar family background to Marshall, had quite a different military background. He was already a Captain studying at Staff College when the Great War began, and served as Brigade Major and in many other roles through four hard years of war. He was Mentioned in Dispatches no less than 8 times during the war, finishing as a Brigadier and Head if Intelligence at GHQ.

Also considered a gifted trainer, he interspersed field, training, and staff positions through the interwar period, serving in 'hotpsots' including India and Palestine (the latter as CIC). He (and Wavell) were overlooked as potential CIGS when the politicians made that astonishing decision to appoint Lord Gort as a PR profile exercise (while Adam would be the 'brains'  to keep things working behind the scene). So Dill belatedly received the command of I Corps in the BEF during the Phoney War, only to be recalled to become CIGS when Churchill took over the government – just in time for the German attack on France, and the disasters that led to Dunkirk.

In contrast to Marshall, Dill was the man most of his contemporaries had expected to be appointed CIGS in 1937. His appointment in 1940 was considered to be the righting of a wrong, and there was considerable relief that one of the most admired and trusted thinkers in the army had taken over after the twin disasters of the too junior Gort and the almost fossilized Ironside.

It is perhaps not surprising therefore to note that between the time of Marshall and Dill’s respective appointments to the top jobs and Pearl Harbor, Marshall was almost universally admired for his impressive administrative achievements against all odds; while Dill was generally considered to be not very successful. 

Marshall was overcoming skeptics who had underestimated his ability, whereas Dill was failing to satisfy people who had put too much faith in his ability to be the great white hope to save them from the disasters of his predecessors. (To be fair, Gort and Ironside may not have been the sharpest stylises in the box, but they had been given impossible hands to play by the stingy politics that had gutted their commands and their allies morale for the last 20 years… Marlborough, Napoleon and Alexander combined would have struggled to overcome such odds.)

So Dill spent 1940 and 1941 presiding over one disaster after another, while Marshall spent it calmly rebuilding his forces in peacetime.

Having said that, Dill cannot be held blameless for the disasters. The great example being his contribution to the extension of the war when he colluded with Foreign Minister Anthony Eden to undermine the early British victories in North Africa, and commit to the chaos and renewed series of defeats that would result from an intervention in Greece.

In 1940-41, the great British success had been the Royal Navy domination of the Mediterranean Ocean against the odds, and the successful offensive by O’Connors Desert Force (under Wilson’s control) in destroying most of the large Italian forces in North Africa. (In 'Operation Compass' O’Connors 35,000 men defeated more than 250,000, smashed 10 divisions and took over 130,000 prisoners, 420 tanks and 845 guns… similar numbers of troops – if much better equipped – to the British and American surrenders to the initial Japanese attacks the following year in what were generally called ‘the greatest military disasters’ of their respective armies.)

O’Connor was poised on the Libyan border, ready to make his final assault to clear the North African shore (and incidentally capture a young German General called Rommel who had only a few German Reconaisance troops with him as yet), when Dill suddenly agreed to shut down his campaign, and divert the majority of the available skilled troops to a ‘forlorn hope’ campaign in Greece. A campaign that was to end in unmitigated and completely foreseeable disaster, and lead to another two long years of bloody and unproductive see-saw battle across the North African shore.

Admittedly the decision to back Greece was more of a political one than a military one. Britain had entered the war to meet its guarantees to neutrals like Poland and Greece. So doing so was probably a moral issue, even if militarily foolish. But in practice the great Greek leader General Metaxas had rightly felt that bringing in British troops to his local fight with the Italians would only inflame the situation, and lead to Germany having to intervene. He preferred British support in the form of military equipment and supplies, but definitely no troops! So it was only his unexpected death that had opened the opportunity for British intervention.

Typically Churchill was torn between enthusiasm for such a venture, both for its moral attractiveness, and for its propaganda effects. But he was cautious enough to issue a last minute warning that the risk should not be taken if it was too dangerous.

Unfortunately, with the eternally simplistic Anthony Eden completely caught by the positives, the dispatch of Dill to supervise the discussions with Greece effectively left the balancing vote to him alone. He voted 'yes', and effectively threw away the very good chance to finish things in North Africa, for the very doubtful chance to have any effect on mainland Europe.

Alan Brooke records in his dairy his appalled reaction to such foolishness. “Why will politicians never learn the simple principle of concentration of force at the vital point, and the avoidance of dispersal of effort?” (It is notable though, that he placed the blame a the feet of the politicians, rather than Dill. Later, when himself in the position of CIGS, he would have – and did – fight tooth and nail against similar proposals!)

Perhaps worse was Dill's practice of appointing fellow administrative staff types to executive combat roles… the outstanding failure being the appointment of the very good administrator and planner Percival, to the totally unsuitable role of combat commander to deal with the inadequate strength and poor moral of the Malayan defenders. He also acquiesced in Auchinlek's appalling decision to let the far too junior Neil Ritchie assume command of 8th Army in North Africa. (Brooke’s comments on the ‘ruining’ of good officers by appointing them to totally unsuitable roles are particularly scathing regarding these two, and he was delighted to 'rebuild'  and redeem Ritchie later in the war as a very good Corps commander.)

So by the end of 1941, we have the situation where Dill had repeatedly failed to meet impossible expectations, to the point where a frustrated Churchill referred to him as Dilly-Dally, and was replacing him with Brooke. Whereas in Washington Marshall had exceeded all expectations, to the point that when war came Roosevelt would quite happily ignore the convention that control of the army was divided between the back room chief of staff – Marshall – and the actual field commanders, and just let George take control of the whole shebang.

At this point in the war, it would seem that Marshall has everything going for him, and Dill is going to be left as another failed footnote like Gort and Ironside.
But this is where it gets interesting.

When Japan kicked the United States into the war, and Hitler obligingly declared war to complete the package, Churchill immediately headed to Washington for a conference with his new allies… taking the long established Chiefs of Staff for the Admiralty and Royal Air Force with him, and leaving the newly appointed CIGS – Brooke – at home to mind the store. Brooke, rightly concerned about what impossible promises Churchill might make, convinced him to take Dill along as the army representative. Thus was one of the most interesting, and perhaps fortuitous accidents of the war.

Dill and Marshall clicked. Both old fashioned gentlemen of significant intellectual achievement and high moral codes (and both somewhat fussy bureaucrats at heart): they just fitted together seamlessly. So much so that the next thing the alarmed Brooke knew was that Churchill had not only signed up for a ‘Combined Allied Chiefs of Staff Committee’, he had agreed to it being based in Washington, and to Dill being the British head!

On the positive side, Dill undoubtedly did more to manage good communications between fractious allies over the next few years than just about anyone else could possibly have achieved. He became a close friend of all the other Chiefs of Staff, including Marshall, and even King. (The US Chiefs of Staff were his coffin bearers, possibly the only time in the war they all walked in step without argument!) 

Dill's personal intervention repeatedly headed off or defused many tricky debates. In fact it is the years 1942-1944 that have set the seal on Dill’s reputation as a great man, and someone to whom the Allies owe a great debt. This period is when Dill’s status as a failed leader was completely revised, and his immense qualities finally accepted by all concerned.

(On the negative side, Churchill’s delegation of split control of operations between different competing sets of Chiefs of Staff institutions caused most of the fractions that Dill had to paper over, and was a constant source of frustration to Brooke. He would clearly have preferred the co-operative staff approaches of the previous wars, with a good communication team run by Dill, to a conflicting set of Chiefs causing constant irritation and endless conferences that never quite agreed…)

Still it is not Dill’s fault that Churchill and Roosevelt’s ‘Combined Chiefs’ became such a convoluted mess. Rather it is largely to his credit that he almost single handedly made the hodgepodge of conflicting prima-donnas function as well as they did. (His eventual replacement, Wilson, later commented that just getting Marshall and King to work together, let alone get a united team result from the whole group, was a truly amazing achievement…)

Dill did superb service in those years, and is now almost universally considered one of the great Allied leaders of the war.

By contrast, Marshall was clearly considered a super performer at the time of Pearl Harbor, and was now in the invidious position that Dill had held earlier... the great hope, expected to achieve impossible results. But, despite the peons of praise thrown at all the leaders who were involved in winning the war, he never again showed such outstanding results compared to expectations. (Until, post war… when his most spectacular achievement was the truly inspirational Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. Undoubtedly the most impressive achievement of his very impressive life).

Part of the problem was that Marshall’s Roosevelt approved takeover of complete control of the US Army – relegating his supposed equal/combat superior/whatever in charge of actual combat units to second place – suddenly meant his bailiwick expanded from mere staff duties to executive control of the armies military operations. Worse, to the position of making all strategic decisions for the US Army… a role he was arguably not particularly well trained or suited for.

Given that Roosevelt effectively delegated his ‘commander in chief duties’ to his chiefs of staff too, that meant that there was little check on Marshall’s preferred directions. Indeed the Combined Chiefs of Staff for the next 4 years became a battle ground between Marshall’s strategic fantasies, King’s arrogance, Brooke’s caution,  the other members frustrations, and Dill’s flexible – but possible not too well directed – attempts to get everyone to compromise in the same direction... sometimes. Into this mix both Roosevelt and Churchill would periodically drop unexpected, unwelcome, or plain foolish, directions.

Marshall’s first failed test was his fantasy that an invasion of Europe could happen in 1942. Considering that he was the one who knew how slowly a US buildup of trained units was proceeding. This was ridiculous. His follow up insistence on 1943 was no better.

Marshall was then forced into North Africa by a deal between his President and the sneaky Churchill. (Intent on derailing both Marshall’s fantasies and King’s threatened divergences to the Pacific,  and determined to find an alternative to the ridiculous promise of a second front in 1942, Churchill convinced Roosevelt that the only way to get US troops into action in 1942 was in North Africa). Marshall was appalled by this, and effectively entered a sulk about getting his way that he held for the rest of the war… regardless of the consequences. 

From that point on Marshall appears to have automatically assumed that Churchill (and the British Chiefs of Staff – he seemed unable to distinguish that the two often differed in thinking), were always trying to manipulate Roosevelt, and leave him hostage to King. Thereafter he simply refused to consider any strategic concept, or reaction to changing circumstances, that did not fit his pre-conceived ideas. General Basil Duke’s description of what was the common attitude of all ‘Marshalls’, was pretty evident.

As a result his total contribution to strategic policy for the rest of the war was to pressure for the approach that a junior Colonel in planning (Eisenhower) had recommended to him just after Pearl Harbor. Nothing else seemed to enter his thinking, and any alternative that was suggested almost automatically triggered his opposition. He also showed very little sign of strategic ability beyond the most simplistic… what has been described as ‘frontal attack by the most direct route with the most units spread on the widest front possible’. What probably needs to be added to that is ‘regardless of unnecessary casualties’.

The strategic low point came when he used Rooosevelt’s illness towards the end of the war in Europe as an excuse to ignore the concerns of his supposed Allies – Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff, the French, and the many other allied governments who we're providing troops at the front: while letting Eisenhower play around in a role he was unsuited for – ground forces commander – and largely ignoring his main political duties, and even abandoning most of central Europe to Soviet occupation. The British campaign to keep Greece out of the Soviet clutches was despite Marshall's opposition, and he did everything in his power to make sure that no similar efforts were made in Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia. The physical position of the ‘Iron Curtain’ that Churchill later described, was decided with Marshall’s very active connivance.

Or should we say, his wartime strategic low point was letting the Soviets run riot in Eastern Europe. His post war intervention in China has been widely accepted from Chiang Kai-shek's perspective – his ‘cease-fire’ and then gutting of Nationalist China’s capabilities – being a large part of the direct cause of China, and then much of the rest of East Asia, falling to Communism over the next bloody 30 years…

In fact a very good argument can be made (and has been made by many Chinese and others) that Marshall can be held largely responsible for the decades of Communist oppression that followed in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia...  should we go on?

Marshall’s selection of leaders wasn’t much to shout about either. Much is made of his selecting Eisenhower. (I have my reservations about whether Ike was experienced enough to be a good SAC or ground forces commander, but am still willing to suggest he was a much better choice to run SHAEF than many of Marshall’s other efforts.) But the list of failures is far longer than the list of successes.

Fredendall ("I like that man, he's a fighter" was Marshall's comment), Dawley, and Lucas are the Marshall beloved failures that everyone recognizes. Much worse failures include J.C.H. Lee (Jesus Christ Himself as his appalled subordinates referred to him) whose incompetence, and frankly corruption, at logistics greatly contributed to Germany holding on into 1945. Also Clarke, who should have got an Iron Cross from a grateful Nazi party for disobeying his orders at Rome; and such barely competent lightweights as Hodges, whose poor performance contributed so much to the Germans initial success at the Bulge. I would add Stilwell and MacArthur to his list of 'should have been fired', if he had the guts to take the political flack. It is unclear whether his appointment of Patton, sacking of Patton, then re-appointment of him at a lower level than his previous subordinates, can be considered in any way sensible or coherent either! I am sure you can think of many other examples.

His tactical thinking wasn’t much better. The entertaining book ‘Dear General’ is the correspondences between Marshall and Eisenhower over the 3 years Ike was running campaigns for him. It is notable that Ike’s very humble initial letters became more strongly worded as he matured in experience, and completely dismissive (in the politest possible terms) of Marshall’s tactical suggestions later on. Particularly when Marshall suggested paratroop operations that would have made the suggested one at Rome or the actual one at Arnhem look like safe and sensible alternatives! Marshall showed growing signs of not having graduated his tactical thinking much beyond his interwar training exercises.

But the real nadir of his contribution was in his supposed field of excellence – training. Marshall and McNair between them concocted the appalling and deadly ‘replacement’ system, which ensured that inadequately trained generalists were dumped into specialist units after months in generic pools with no ongoing training.  Many had no clue how to use their own weapons. Casualty rates amongst these replacements were so shocking, that experienced troops usually didn’t bother learning their names until they had survived a week or two. Resulting in units of overtired and dispirited veterans being exhausted and bitter (and quite often deserting to Paris) as their fresh replacements were slaughtered through inexperience.

One commentator noted that the German army itself could not have devised a better system for degrading US forces.

Possibly 20-30% of all US Army deaths during World War Two can be directly attributed to Marshall’s failed ‘replacement system’. (And that is before considering the additional deaths that resulted from the probably lengthening of the war by his overly simplistic strategy, and his constant refusal to take alternative opportunities as they arose.)

So it is with some confidence that we can suggest that Dill’s star rose from failure after Pearl Harbor, but Marshall’s descended slowly into revealing his weaknesses. Fortunately for him, a descent that only avoided becoming public humiliation due the Germans collapsing. The war ended before the American public came to realize how closely Marshall’s policies resembled the unnecessary ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ sacrifices of troops during the Great War.


So how do we rate Marshal and Dill as generals?

Did they make the grade at any level of what I long ago posted as 'the essentials of generalship'.

Both had a well demonstrated leadership capacity at basic levels. Both would have/did make good regimental officers interwar. Both would have probably made good Brigadiers, and possibly Major Generals – with strong enough superiors guiding them – had a war turned up early enough. (And had they had the chance to learn new tactical doctrine to replace the outdated thinking that was too evident in both of their tactical assessments throughout the war.)

But both seemed to lack the attributes necessary for Corps or Army command. 

Despite Dill actually commanding a Corps during the Phoney War, his service as CIGS seems to indicate that he was probably not the right person to maintain ‘grip’ when all around him was coming apart. Particularly in the heat of the sort of battle that Brooke excelled in during the French campaign. Frankly, for all his faults, Gort was probably a more decisive man to make the decision to cut his losses than Dill would have been. (Though Gort too would have probably gone along with the Greek adventure, on the belief that the politicians are the boss. It took someone like Brook to point out that suicide missions are not helpful!)

Marshall had the strength to say no to things like Greece in 1941, but apparently not the strategic wisdom to understand that Greece in 1945 was different to Greece in 1941. In fact one looks in vain for any suggestion that he ever let any new information affect his pre-determined viewpoints. Stubborn to a level that makes Churchill look flexible, he actually resembled Ironside far more than any of his fawning biographers should be comfortable with! He never really looked like the right person to command a Corps or Army.

Neither had the experience or skill to command an Army Group, but would either have made a good Supreme Allied Commander? Here we are on more interesting ground. 

Marshall would probably have been theoretically better than Eisenhower at SHAEF, because he would have had no problem delegating a Ground Forces Commander., and sticking to the real job. Having said that, he also had no recognizable tactical or strategic knowledge of modern combat conditions, and appalling judgement about subordinates, so parachuting him into a field command in 1944 might have been disastrous.

Perhaps Dill would have been better there, but again, the 1941 Greek mistake, let alone his selection of men like Percival for leadership roles, is not encouraging.

Was either suitable to be Chief of Staff of their respective armies? Well, no.

Dill understood the problems, but consistently failed to control things when he was the executive. Whereas Marshall was all too good at controlling things, he just failed to understand what he was controlling (and whether he should be controlling it). 

Both must be considered failures when they served as their armies senior strategic and planning thinkers.

Mind you, both were supreme administrative bureaucrats. If Marshal had been doing Lee’s job in the invasion of France (and Patton or Truscott or Eichelberger or any other real combat general doing Marshall’s), the war would probably have been over by Christmas 1944!


Frankly Dill and Marshall were unsurpassed administrative officers. But neither were good executives.

Their real roles were administrative support, where they excelled.

Both would almost certainly have been failures as senior combat generals.


As executive generals directing strategy, training, and appointing combat leaders, both were decidedly uninspiring.