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“Battle of the Stars:” The American 4-Star/British 5-Star Command Quandary

Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, began his Jan. 1, 1944, diary entry with the sentence, “Heard on the a.m. wireless that I had been promoted to Field Marshal!” He went on to write, “It gave me a curious peaceful feeling that I had at last, and unexpectedly, succeeded in reaching the top rung of the ladder!! . . . When I look back over my life no one could be more surprised than I am to find where I have got to!!” Brooke’s use of extra exclamation points revealed how profoundly the promotion affected him. But Brooke’s promotion was a reminder that the top British commanders would outrank top American commanders, for whom the highest general and admiral ranks held four, not five, stars.

“Bill, I’m going to promote you to a higher rank.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Adm. William D. Leahy, early January 1944

Rank inequality between America and her Allies had long been the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The situation became awkward after November 1942 when Dwight Eisenhower, then a three-star lieutenant general, commanded British and French full generals and field marshals. Eisenhower’s promotion in February 1943 to full general put him on a par with his fellow Allied officers of four-star rank, but still left him inferior to the five-star field marshals, air marshals, and fleet admirals.

Dwight Eisenhower

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s promotion to a four-star rank in February 1943, alleviated some, but not all, of the awkwardness that existed when Eisenhower commanded British and French full generals and field marshals. National Archives photo

Then in the first week of January 1944, President Roosevelt surprised his chief of staff, Adm. William Leahy, saying, “Bill, I’m going to promote you to a higher rank.” The president outlined his plan which included a six-star Admiral of the Navy rank for Leahy and five star ranks for both branches. The startled admiral told Roosevelt that fellow Joint Chiefs of Staff members Adm. Ernest King, Gen. George Marshall, and Gen. Henry Arnold should hold rank similar to his.

The idea was not new. In a Nov. 17, 1942, memorandum from Adm. King to Marshall, the admiral discussed promoting Vice Adm. William Halsey and Eisenhower to full admiral and general and then wrote, “We should also recognize the fact that there is need to prepare for ranks higher than that of Admiral and General. As to such ranks, I suggest Arch-Admiral and Arch-General, rather than Admiral of the Fleet and Field Marshal.”

But, unlike Brooke who was flattered by the promotion, Marshal took the opposite attitude. In his response to King dated November 30, 1942, and marked “Confidential,” after addressing the Eisenhower and Halsey recommendations, he wrote, “As to the higher rank, for which you suggest some such titles as Arch-Admiral and Arch-General, I do not think it would be wise for us to submit such a proposal. In the first place, it would involve the immediate implication that we were proposing something for our own personal advancement. Also, I believe that neither our legislators nor the American people would react at all favorably to the creation of what to them would be exalted military rank.” Marshal then summarized his problems with Congress in obtaining temporary promotions for general officers. He concluded, “In view of the foregoing I should be opposed to an effort by the War Department to obtain authorization for a higher rank than General.”

There things stood until January 1944, when a bill was submitted in Congress to create five-star ranks, titles yet to be determined. Stories soon circulated that one of the reasons for Marshal’s opposition was that he didn’t want to be known as “Field Marshal Marshall.” In a post-war interview, Marshall attempted to clarify his stand. He said he “didn’t need” the rank. He “wanted to be able to go [to Congress] with my skirts clean and with no personal ambitions concerned in it in any way. I could get all I wanted with the rank I had. But that was twisted around, and somebody said I didn’t like the term ‘Marshal’ because it was the same as my name. (I know Mr. Churchill twitted me about this in a rather scathing tone.) I don’t recall that I ever made the expression.”

Prime Minister Winston Churchill

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff in the garden of No. 10 Downing Street, London, England, May 7, 1945. Seated from left to right: Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Adm. Sir Andrew Cunningham. Standing from left to right: the Secretary to the Chiefs of Staffs Committee, Maj. Gen. L C Hollis and the Chief of Staff to the Minister of Defence, Gen. Sir Hastings Ismay. The fact that the highest ranking British officers held a 5-star rank, while the highest ranking American officers held 4-star rank, created a degree of awkwardness. Imperial War Museum photo

Marshall had an additional reason for opposing the effort: General of the Armies John J. Pershing (a rank with an unspecified number of stars, most believing it to be six). Marshall was a Pershing man and his love and respect for his commander in World War I was such that he felt the creation of a five-star rank would diminish that of Pershing’s. But, bowing to the political winds, he recommended the Army’s five-star rank be “General of the Army.”

As for Adm. King, in late January 1944, he was asked what he thought the Navy’s new title would be. King replied, “I don’t know. Maybe it will be arch-admiral.” His questioner, a fellow officer, puckishly replied, “If they make you an Arch-Admiral, I’ll call you ‘Your Warship.’”


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...