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Field Marshal Sir John Dill and Gen. George C. Marshall

A 'beautiful friendship'

“. . . I propose writing to you personally and very frankly whenever any matters arise which I think merit such attention. I am depending on you to treat me with similar frankness, and I am quite sure you will do so.”

– Gen. George C. Marshall to Gen. Sir John Dill, August 1941

The close rapport between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II was famously summarized in Churchill’s phrase “special relationship.” There was another, closer one that on a day-to-day level had more of an impact: the one between Field Marshal Sir John Dill and Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall.

Gen. Sir John Dill

Gen. Sir John Dill

Historian Alex Danchev, an expert on it, observed, “[T]he Dill-Marshall relationship was both more infrangible and more equal than the Churchill-Roosevelt one; more infrangible because Dill’s subtle appreciation of increasing British dependency led him successfully to adopt mitigatory strategies; more equal because Marshall committed himself fully and unswervingly in a way that Roosevelt never did.”

Marshall and Dill met for the first time in August 1941 at the Argentia Conference off the coast of Newfoundland, where the Atlantic Charter, a general statement of war policy against the Axis, was hammered out. Their professional relationship got off to a rocky start primarily because of poor staff work on the American side. Despite this, the two hit it off so well that after he returned to London, Dill wrote to Marshall, “I sincerely hope that we shall meet again before long. In the meantime we must keep each other in touch in the frank manner upon which we agreed.” Marshall responded in kind. To borrow the line from the movie Casablanca (which premiered in November 1942), it was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Quebec Conference Dill and Marshall

At the Quebec Conference, again, at center behind and between Roosevelt and Churchill, one gets the feeling Dill and Marshall are carrying on the real business while everyone else smiles for the camera.

Their special relationship reached fruition when Dill, succeeded as Chief of the Imperial General Staff by Gen. Alan Brooke, was promoted to field marshal and made leader of the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington in December 1941, in effect Britain’s ambassador for military affairs. It proved an appointment of incalculable value. The American military viewed Churchill and his many campaign schemes with suspicion bordering on hostility, and the cold and distant Brooke was regarded as (in words that can be printed) an overbearing jerk.

On top of that, their own president had a penchant for keeping secrets, even from his own service chiefs! In a post-war interview, Marshall said Roosevelt, “…didn’t give us the messages he was sending half the time.”

Dill knew this, and since Churchill, through Brooke, shared with Dill all his relevant communications from Roosevelt, Dill made a point of letting Marshall not only read those messages, but also ones confidentially marked “for his own information.” Marshall reciprocated by showing Dill all of his secret messages that affected the British war effort.

Their mutual professional respect and deep personal friendship enabled them to settle strategic differences and ameliorate controversies that otherwise would have threatened, even sundered, the cooperative Anglo-American campaign against the Axis.

The equestrian statue of John Dill in Arlington National Cemetery

The equestrian statue of John Dill by Herbert Haseltine in Arlington National Cemetery. Photo by Wknight94

In summer 1944, Dill was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a rare and fatal disease where bone marrow does not produce enough red blood cells. He died on Nov. 4, 1944. The funeral was held in Washington, with a memorial service in The National Cathedral and thousands of troops lining the route of the cortege to Arlington National Cemetery, where a simple graveside service was observed.  A visibly affected Marshall read the lesson. Marshall’s esteem for Dill went further. He was instrumental in getting a special Act of Congress passed to allow Dill to be the first non-American to be honored by interment in Arlington National Cemetery. Six years later Marshall helped dedicate an equestrian statute honoring Dill, located near the Tomb of the Unknowns.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Dill “not only . . . a great soldier and a great friend, but . . . the most important figure in the remarkable accord which has been developed in the combined operations of our two countries.”

This was not a high-sounding but hollow political panegyric. Marshall and Brooke repeatedly went hammer and tongs over strategy, sometimes almost to the point of blows. Despite such rancor, Dill always managed to bring both sides back from the brink. Though the American and British service chiefs knew that the real enemy was the Axis, the military relationship between their nations was never again as harmonious.


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