TWENTY-SEVEN acres of headstones fill the American military cemetery at Carthage, Tunisia. There are no obelisks, no tombs, no ostentatious monuments, just 2,841 bone-white marble markers, two feet high and arrayed in ranks as straight as gunshots. Only the chiseled names and dates of death suggest singularity. Four sets of brothers lie side by side. Some 240 stones are inscribed with thirteen of the saddest words in our language: “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” A long limestone wall contains the names of another 3,724 men still missing, and a benediction: “Into Thy hands, O Lord.”
This is an ancient place, built on the ruins of Roman Carthage and a stone’s throw from the even older Punic city. It is incomparably serene. The scents of eucalyptus and of the briny Mediterranean barely two miles away carry on the morning air, and the African light is flat and shimmering, as if worked by a silversmith. Tunisian lovers stroll hand in hand across the kikuyu grass or sit on benches in the bowers, framed by orangeberry and scarlet hibiscus. Cypress and Russian olive trees ring the yard, with scattered acacia and Aleppo pine and Jerusalem thorn. A carillon plays hymns on the hour, and the chimes sometimes mingle with a muezzin’s call to prayer from a nearby minaret. Another wall is inscribed with the battles where these boys died in 1942 and 1943—Casablanca, Algiers, Oran, Kasserine, El Guettar, Sidi Nsir, Bizerte—along with a line from Shelley’s “Adonais”: “He has outsoared the shadow of our night.”
In the tradition of government-issue graves, the stones are devoid of epitaphs, parting endearments, even dates of birth. But visitors familiar with the American and British invasion of North Africa in November 1942, and the subsequent seven-month struggle to expel the Axis powers there, can make reasonable conjectures. We can surmise that Willett H. Wallace, a private first class in the 26th Infantry Regiment who died on November 9, 1942, was killed at St. Cloud, Algeria, during the three days of hard fighting against, improbably, the French. Ward H. Osmun and his brother Wilbur W., both privates from New Jersey in the 18th Infantry and both killed on Christmas Eve 1942, surely died in the brutal battle of Longstop Hill, where the initial Allied drive in Tunisia was stopped—for more than five months, as it turned out—within sight of Tunis. Ignatius Glovach, a private first class in the 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion who died on Valentine’s Day, 1943, certainly was killed in the opening hours of the great German counteroffensive known as the battle of Kasserine Pass. And Jacob Feinstein, a sergeant from Maryland in the 135th Infantry who died on April 29, 1943, no doubt passed during the epic battle for Hill 609, where the American Army came of age.
A visit to the Tunisian battlefields tells a bit more. For more than half a century, time and weather have purified the ground at El Guettar and Kasserine and Longstop. But the slit trenches remain, and rusty C-ration cans, and shell fragments scattered like seed corn. The lay of the land also remains—the vulnerable low ground, the superior high ground: incessant reminders of how, in battle, topography is fate.
Yet even when the choreography of armies is understood, or the movement of this battalion or that rifle squad, we crave intimate detail, of individual men in individual foxholes. Where, precisely, was Private Anthony N. Marfione when he died on December 24, 1942? What were the last conscious thoughts of Lieutenant Hill P. Cooper before he left this earth on April 9, 1943? Was Sergeant Harry K. Midkiff alone when he crossed over on November 25, 1942, or did some good soul squeeze his hand and caress his forehead?
The dead resist such intimacy. The closer we try to approach, the farther they draw back, like rainbows or mirages. They have outsoared the shadow of our night, to reside in the wild uplands of the past. History can take us there, almost. Their diaries and letters, their official reports and unofficial chronicles—including documents that, until now, have been hidden from view since the war—reveal many moments of exquisite clarity over a distance of sixty years. Memory, too, has transcendent power, even as we swiftly move toward the day when not a single participant remains alive to tell his tale, and the epic of World War II forever slips into national mythology. The author’s task is to authenticate: to warrant that history and memory give integrity to the story, to aver that all this really happened.
But the final few steps must be the reader’s. For among mortal powers, only imagination can bring back the dead.
No twenty-first-century reader can understand the ultimate triumph of the Allied powers in World War II in 1945 without a grasp of the large drama that unfolded in North Africa in 1942 and 1943. The liberation of western Europe is a triptych, each panel informing the others: first, North Africa; then, Italy; and finally the invasion of Normandy and the subsequent campaigns across France, the Low Countries, and Germany.
From a distance of sixty years, we can see that North Africa was a pivot point in American history, the place where the United States began to act like a great power—militarily, diplomatically, strategically, tactically. Along with Stalingrad and Midway, North Africa is where the Axis enemy forever lost the initiative in World War II. It is where Great Britain slipped into the role of junior partner in the Anglo-American alliance, and where the United States first emerged as the dominant force it would remain into the next millennium.
None of it was inevitable—not the individual deaths, nor the ultimate Allied victory, nor eventual American hegemony. History, like particular fates, hung in the balance, waiting to be tipped.
Measured by the proportions of the later war—of Normandy or the Bulge—the first engagements in North Africa were tiny, skirmishes between platoons and companies involving at most a few hundred men. Within six months, the campaign metastasized to battles between army groups comprising hundreds of thousands of soldiers; that scale persisted for the duration. North Africa gave the European war its immense canvas and implied—through 70,000 Allied killed, wounded, and missing—the casualties to come.
No large operation in World War II surpassed the invasion of North Africa in complexity, daring, risk, or—as the official U.S. Army Air Forces history concludes—“the degree of strategic surprise achieved.” Moreover, this was the first campaign undertaken by the Anglo-American alliance; North Africa defined the coalition and its strategic course, prescribing how and where the Allies would fight for the rest of the war.
North Africa established the patterns and motifs of the next two years, including the tension between coalition unity and disunity. Here were staged the first substantial tests of Allied landpower against Axis landpower, and the initial clashes between American troops and German troops. Like the first battles in virtually every American war, this campaign revealed a nation and an army unready to fight and unsure of their martial skills, yet willful and inventive enough finally to prevail.
North Africa is where the prodigious weight of American industrial might began to tell, where brute strength emerged as the most conspicuous feature of the Allied arsenal—although not, as some historians suggest, its only redeeming feature. Here the Americans in particular first recognized, viscerally, the importance of generalship and audacity, guile and celerity, initiative and tenacity.
North Africa is where the the Allies agreed on unconditional surrender as the only circumstance under which the war could end.
It is where the controversial strategy of first contesting the Axis in a peripheral theater—the Mediterranean—was effected at the expense of an immediate assault on northwest Europe, with the campaigns in Sicily, Italy, and southern France following in train.
It is where Allied soldiers figured out, tactically, how to destroy Germans; where the fable of the Third Reich’s invincibility dissolved; where, as one senior German general later acknowledged, many Axis soldiers lost confidence in their commanders and “were no longer willing to fight to the last man.”
It is where most of the West’s great battle captains emerged, including men whose names would remain familiar generations later—Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, Rommel—and others who deserve rescue from obscurity. It is where the truth of William Tecumseh Sherman’s postulate on command was reaffirmed: “There is a soul to an army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the soul of his men, as well as their bodies and legs.” Here men capable of such leadership stepped forward, and those incapable fell by the wayside.
North Africa is where American soldiers became killing mad, where the hard truth about combat was first revealed to many. “It is a very, very horrible war, dirty and dishonest, not at all that glamour war that we read about in the hometown papers,” one soldier wrote his mother in Ohio. “For myself and the other men here, we will show no mercy. We have seen too much for that.” The correspondent Ernie Pyle noted a “new professional outlook, where killing is a craft.” North Africa is where irony and skepticism, the twin lenses of modern consciousness, began refracting the experiences of countless ordinary soldiers. “The last war was a war to end war. This war’s to start ’em up again,” said a British Tommy, thus perfectly capturing the ironic spirit that flowered in North Africa.
Sixty years after the invasion of North Africa, a gauzy mythology has settled over World War II and its warriors. The veterans are lionized as “the Greatest Generation,” an accolade none sought and many dismiss as twaddle. They are condemned to sentimental hagiography, in which all the brothers are valiant and all the sisters virtuous. The brave and the virtuous appear throughout the North African campaign, to be sure, but so do the cowardly, the venal, and the foolish. The ugliness common in later campaigns also appears in North Africa: the murder and rape of civilians; the killing of prisoners; the falsification of body counts.
It was a time of cunning and miscalculation, of sacrifice and self-indulgence, of ambiguity, love, malice, and mass murder. There were heroes, but it was not an age of heroes as clean and lifeless as alabaster; at Carthage, demigods and poltroons lie side by side.
The United States would send sixty-one combat divisions into Europe, nearly 2 million soldiers. These were the first. We can fairly surmise that not a single man interred at the Carthage cemetery sensed on September 1, 1939, that he would find an African grave. Yet it was with the invasion of Poland on that date that the road to North Africa began, and it is then and there that our story must begin.
September 1, 1939, was the first day of a war that would last for 2,174 days, and it brought the first dead in a war that would claim an average of 27,600 lives every day, or 1,150 an hour, or 19 a minute, or one death every 3 seconds. Within four weeks of the blitzkrieg attack on Poland by sixty German divisions, the lightning war had killed more than 100,000 Polish soldiers, and 25,000 civilians had perished in bombing attacks. Another 10,000 civilians—mostly middle-class professionals—had been rounded up and murdered, and 22 million Poles now belonged to the Third Reich. “Take a good look around Warsaw,” Adolf Hitler told journalists during a visit to the shattered Polish capital. “That is how I can deal with any European city.”
France and Great Britain had declared war against the German aggressors on September 3, but fighting subsided for six months while Hitler consolidated his winnings and plotted his next move. That came in early April 1940, when Wehrmacht troops seized Denmark and attacked Norway. A month later, 136 German divisions swept into the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. Winston S. Churchill—a short, stout, lisping politician of indomitable will and oratorical genius, who on May 10 became both Britain’s prime minister and defense minister—told President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “The small countries are simply smashed up, one by one, like matchwood.” It was the first of 950 personal messages Churchill would send Roosevelt in the most fateful correspondence of the twentieth century.
France was not small, but it was smashed up. German tactical miscalculation allowed the British to evacuate 338,000 troops on 900 vessels from the northern port of Dunkirk, but on June 14 the German spearhead swept across the Place de la Concorde in Paris and unfurled an enormous swastika flag from the Arc de Triomphe. As the French tottered, Germany’s partner in the Axis alliance, the Italian government of Benito Mussolini, also declared war on France and Britain. “First they were too cowardly to take part,” Hitler said. “Now they are in a hurry so that they can share in the spoils.”
After the French cabinet fled to Bordeaux in shocked disarray, a venerable figure emerged to lead the rump government. Marshal Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun in World War I and now a laconic, enigmatic eighty-four-year-old, had once asserted, “They call me only in catastrophes.” Even Pétain had never seen a catastrophe like this one, and he sued for terms. Berlin obliged. Rather than risk having the French fight on from their colonies in North Africa, Hitler devised a clever armistice: the southern 40 percent of France—excluding Paris—would remain under the sovereignty of the Pétain government and unoccupied by German troops. From a new capital in the resort town of Vichy, France would also continue to administer her overseas empire, including the colonies of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, which together covered a million square miles and included 17 million people, mostly Arab or Berber. France could keep her substantial fleet and an army of 120,000 men in North Africa by pledging to fight all invaders, particularly the British. To enforce the agreement, Germany would keep 1½ million French prisoners-of-war as collateral.
Pétain so pledged. He was supported by most of France’s senior military officers and civil servants, who swore oaths of fidelity to him. A few refused, including a forty-nine-year-old maverick brigadier general named Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle, who took refuge in London, denounced all deals with the devil, and declared, in the name of Free France: “Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and shall not die.” Hitler now controlled Europe from the North Cape to the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic Ocean to the River Bug. In September, Germany and Italy signed a tripartite pact with Japan, which had been prosecuting its own murderous campaign in Asia. The Axis assumed a global span. “The war is won,” the Führer told Mussolini. “The rest is only a question of time.”
That seemed a fair boast. Britain battled on, alone. “We are fighting for life, and survive from day to day and hour to hour,” Churchill told the House of Commons. But German plans to invade across the English Channel were postponed, repeatedly, after the Luftwaffe failed to subdue the Royal Air Force. Instead, the bombardment known as the Blitz continued through 1940 and beyond, slaughtering thousands and then tens of thousands of British civilians, even as RAF pilots shot down nearly 2,500 German planes in three months, killing 6,000 Luftwaffe crewmen and saving the nation.
Churchill also received help from Roosevelt, who nudged the United States away from neutrality even as he promised to keep Americans out of the war. Roosevelt’s true sympathies were given voice by his closest aide, Harry Hopkins. “Whither thou goest, I will go,” Hopkins told Churchill in January 1941, quoting the Book of Ruth. “And where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” Hopkins added softly, “Even to the end.” Roosevelt sent Churchill fifty U.S. Navy destroyers in exchange for the use of British bases in the Caribbean and western Atlantic, and by the spring of 1941 had pushed through Congress a vast program of Lend-Lease assistance under the charade of “renting” out the matériel. By war’s end the United States had sent its allies 37,000 tanks, 800,000 trucks, nearly 2 million rifles, and 43,000 planes—so many that U.S. pilot training was curtailed because of aircraft shortages. In 1941, though, the British were “hanging on by our eyelids,” as General Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, put it.
Hitler faced other annoying disappointments. Spain refused to join the Axis or abandon her neutrality to permit a German attack against the British fortress at Gibraltar, which controlled the mouth of the Mediterranean. Italian troops invaded Greece without warning on October 28, 1940—“Führer, we are on the march!” Mussolini exclaimed—and immediately found themselves so overmatched that Wehrmacht divisions were needed to complete the conquest and rout an ill-conceived British expeditionary force sent to save the Balkans. Greece fell in April 1941, a week after Yugoslavia, where 17,000 people had been killed in a single day of Luftwaffe bombing.
Mussolini’s legions had also been on the march in Africa, attacking from the Italian colony of Libya into Egypt, a former British protectorate still occupied by British troops. A British and Australian counteroffensive in December 1940 smashed an Italian army twice its size, eventually inflicting 150,000 casualties. With the Axis southern flank imperiled, Hitler again came to Mussolini’s rescue, dispatching a new Afrika Korps to Libya under a charismatic tank officer who had previously commanded the Führer’s headquarters troops in Poland. General Erwin Rommel reached Tripoli in mid-February 1941 and launched a campaign that would surge back and forth across the North African littoral for the next two years, first against the British and then against the Americans.
Two monumental events in 1941 changed the calculus of the war. On June 22, nearly 200 German divisions invaded the Soviet Union in abrogation of the nonaggression pact that Hitler and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had signed in 1939, which had allowed a division of spoils in eastern Europe. Within a day, German attacks had demolished one-quarter of the Soviet air force. Within four months, the Germans had occupied 600,000 square miles of Russian soil, captured 3 million Red Army troops, butchered countless Jews and other civilians, and closed to within sixty-five miles of Moscow. But four months after that, more than 200,000 Wehrmacht troops had been killed, 726,000 wounded, 400,000 captured, and another 113,000 had been incapacitated by frostbite.
The second event occurred on the other side of the world. On December 7, Japanese aircraft carriers launched 366 aircraft in a sneak attack on the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, sinking or damaging eight battleships at their moorings, destroying or crippling eleven other warships, and killing 2,400 Americans. Simultaneous attacks were launched on Malaya, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. In solidarity with their Japanese ally, Hitler and Mussolini quickly declared war on the United States. It was perhaps the Führer’s gravest miscalculation and, as the British historian Martin Gilbert later wrote, “the single most decisive act of the Second World War.” America would now certainly return to Europe as a belligerent, just as it had in 1917, during the Great War.
“I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death,” Churchill later wrote. “I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”
Two years, three months, and seven days had passed since the invasion of Poland, and the United States had needed every minute of that grace period to prepare for war. Churchill’s chief military representative in Washington, Field Marshal Sir John Dill, told London that, notwithstanding the long prelude, American forces “are more unready for war than it is possible to imagine.”
In September 1939, the U.S. Army had ranked seventeenth in the world in size and combat power, just behind Romania. When those 136 German divisions conquered western Europe nine months later, the War Department reported that it could field just five divisions. Even the homeland was vulnerable: some coastal defense guns had not been test-fired in twenty years, and the Army lacked enough anti-aircraft guns to protect even a single American city. The building of the armed forces was likened to “the reconstruction of a dinosaur around an ulna and three vertebrae.”
That task had started with the 16 million men who registered for the draft in the fall of 1940, and who would expand Regular Army and National Guard divisions. By law, however, the draftees and newly federalized Guard units were restricted to twelve months of service—and only in the western hemisphere or U.S. territories. Physical standards remained fairly rigorous; soon enough, the day would come when new recruits claimed the Army no longer examined eyes, just counted them. A conscript had to stand at least five feet tall and weigh 105 pounds; possess twelve or more of his natural thirty-two teeth; and be free of flat feet, venereal disease, and hernias. More than forty of every hundred men were rejected, a grim testament to the toll taken on the nation’s health by the Great Depression. Under the rules of conscription, the Army drafted no fathers, no felons, and no eighteen-year-olds; those standards, too, would fall away. Nearly two million men had been rejected for psychiatric reasons, although screening sessions sometimes went no further than questions such as “Do you like girls?” The rejection rate, one wit suggested, was high because “the Army doesn’t want maladjusted soldiers, at least below the rank of major.”
Jeremiads frequently derided the nation’s martial potential. A Gallup poll of October 1940 found a prevailing view of American youth as “a flabby, pacifistic, yellow, cynical, discouraged, and leftist lot.” A social scientist concluded that “to make a soldier out of the average free American citizen is not unlike domesticating a very wild species of animal,” and many a drill sergeant agreed. Certainly no hate yet lodged in the bones of American troops, no urge to close with an enemy who before December 7, 1941, seemed abstract and far away. Time magazine reported on the eve of Pearl Harbor that soldiers were booing newsreel shots of Roosevelt and General George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, while cheering outspoken isolationists.
Equipment and weaponry were pathetic. Soldiers trained with drain-pipes for antitank guns, stovepipes for mortar tubes, and brooms for rifles. Money was short, and little guns were cheaper than big ones; no guns were cheapest of all. Only six medium tanks had been built in 1939. A sardonic ditty observed: “Tanks are tanks and tanks are dear / There will be no tanks again this year.” That in part reflected an enduring loyalty to the horse. “The idea of huge armies rolling along roads at a fast pace is a dream,”Cavalry Journal warned in 1940, even after the German blitzkrieg signaled the arrival of mechanized warfare. “Oil and tires cannot like forage be obtained locally.” The Army’s cavalry chief assured Congress in 1941 that four well-spaced horsemen could charge half a mile across an open field to destroy an enemy machine-gun nest without sustaining a scratch. “The motor-mad advocates are obsessed with a mania for excluding the horse from war,” he told the Horse and Mule Association of America, four days before Pearl Harbor. The last Regular Army cavalry regiment would slaughter its mounts to feed the starving garrison on Bataan in the Philippines, ending the cavalry era not with a bang but with a dinner bell.
To lead the eventual host of 8 million men, the Army had only 14,000 professional officers when mobilization began in 1940. The interwar officer corps was so thick with deadwood that one authority called it a fire hazard; swagger sticks, talisman of the Old Army, could serve for kindling. Secret War Department committees known as plucking boards began purging hundreds of officers who were too old, too tired, too inept. Not a single officer on duty in 1941 had commanded a unit as large as a division in World War I; the average age of majors was forty-eight. The National Guard was even more ossified, with nearly one-quarter of Guard first lieutenants over forty, and senior ranks dominated by political hacks of certifiable military incompetence. Moreover, Guard units in eighteen states were stained with scandal—embezzlement, forgery, kick-backs, and nepotism.
Yet slowly the giant stirred. Congress in 1940 had given the Army $9 billion, more than all the money spent by the War Department since 1920. The fabled arsenal of democracy began to build steam, although nearly half of all military production in 1941 went to Lend-Lease recipients (including 15,000 amputation saws and 20,000 amputation knives to the Soviets). A remarkable cadre of promising professional officers began to emerge. The two-year, three-month, and seven-day preparation period was over. It was time to fight.
But where? American strategists since the early 1920s had considered Tokyo the most likely enemy, as the United States and Japan vied for dominance in the Pacific. But in 1938 a series of informal conversations with the British marked the start of an increasing Anglo-American intimacy, nurtured by a growing conviction in Washington that Germany was mortally dangerous and that the Atlantic sea-lanes must always be controlled by friendly forces. Among potential adversaries, Germany had the largest industrial base and the greatest military capacity, and therefore posed the biggest threat. A U.S. strategy paper of November 1940 concluded that if Britain lost the war “the problem confronting us would be very great; and while we might not lose everywhere, we might, possibly, not win anywhere.”
An evolving series of American war plans culminated in a strategic scheme called RAINBOW 5, which in the spring of 1941 posited joint action by the United States, Britain, and France in the event of America’s entry into war, with the early dispatch of U.S. troops “to effect the decisive defeat of Germany, or Italy, or both.” Forces in the Pacific would remain on the strategic defensive until European adversaries had been clubbed into submission. Even the debacle at Pearl Harbor failed to shake the conviction of Roosevelt and his military brain trust that “Germany first” was conceptually sound, and this remained the most critical strategic principle of the Second World War.
The smoke had hardly cleared from Pearl Harbor when Churchill arrived in Washington for extensive talks. The conference, code-named ARCADIA, failed to produce a specific Anglo-American plan of attack, but the prime minister and president reaffirmed the Germany-first decision. Moreover, on January 1, 1942, twenty-six countries calling themselves the “united nations” signed an agreement to forswear any separate peace without mutual concurrence and to make a common cause of “life, liberty, independence, and religious freedom, and to preserve the rights of man and justice.”
The American idea of how to defeat the Third Reich was simple and obvious: drive straight for Berlin. “Through France passes our shortest route to the heart of Germany,” declared Marshall, the Army chief of staff. It was only 550 miles from the northwest coast of France to the German capital, over flat terrain with a sophisticated road and rail network that also sliced through the core of Germany’s war industry. If Hitler was the objective, the American instinct was to “go for him bald-headed and as soon as possible, by the shortest and most direct route,” a British general later noted. The Yanks, another British officer agreed, “wanted revenge, they wanted results, and they wanted to fight.”
Direct, concentrated attack was an American strategic tradition often linked to Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War. The surest route to victory was to obliterate the enemy’s army and destroy his capacity to make war. As the world’s greatest industrial power, with a military expanding to 12 million men, the United States could do that—particularly now that the nation belonged to a powerful alliance that included the British empire, the Soviet Union, and China. The prevailing impatience to get on with it was voiced by a young American general from Kansas, whose diligence, organizational acumen, and incandescent grin had made him a rising star in the War Department. “We’ve got to go to Europe and fight,” Dwight David Eisenhower scribbled in a note to himself on January 22,1942. “And we’ve got to quit wasting resources all over the world—and still worse—wasting time.”
As the new chief of war plans for the Army’s General Staff, Eisenhower helped draft the blueprint that would convert these strategic impulses into action. A three-part American proposal evolved in the spring of 1942. Under a plan code-named BOLERO, the United States would ferry troops and matériel across the Atlantic for more than a year to staging bases in Britain. This massing of forces would be followed in April 1943 by ROUNDUP, an invasion across the English Channel to the coast of France by forty-eight American and British divisions supported by 5,800 aircraft. The spearhead would then seize the Belgian port of Antwerp before wheeling toward the Rhine. If Germany abruptly weakened before that invasion, or if Soviet forces in the east appeared in danger of collapse and needed diversionary help, a smaller, “emergency” assault by five to ten divisions—code-named SLEDGEHAMMER—would be launched in the fall of 1942 to secure a beachhead in France, perhaps at Cherbourg or Calais, and tie up as many German soldiers as possible.
Churchill and his commanders concurred in principle with this strategy in April 1942, then immediately began backing away. The British already had been expelled from the Continent three times in this war—from Dunkirk, from Norway, and from Greece—and they were reluctant to risk a fourth drubbing with a hasty cross-Channel attack. “We shall be pushed out again,” warned Alan Brooke. More than two dozen German divisions were now based in France, and the Germans could operate on interior lines to shift additional forces from the east and seal off any Allied beachhead.
SLEDGEHAMMER particularly discomfited the British, who would have to provide most of the troops for the operation while American units were still making their way across the Atlantic. Studies of Channel weather over the previous decade showed the frequency of autumn gales that could dismast an Allied expeditionary force as surely as the Spanish Armada had been wrecked in 1588. The Axis enemy would also have a 6-to-1 air advantage and could reinforce the point of attack three times faster than the Allies could; in all likelihood, the Wehrmacht defenders in France would need no reinforcement from the Russian front to bottle up or even massacre an Allied bridgehead that would be so weak some skeptics called the plan TACKHAMMER. Hitler had begun constructing formidable coastal fortifications from above the Arctic Circle to the Spanish border on the Bay of Biscay, and a few planners considered Festung Europa, Fortress Europe, impregnable: in their view, the Allies would have to land in Liberia—midway down the west coast of Africa—and fight their way up.
Churchill shared his military commanders’ misgivings. “He recoiled in horror from any suggestion of a direct approach” in attacking Europe, one British general later recalled. A disastrous Allied defeat on the French coast, the prime minister warned, was “the only way in which we could possibly lose this war.” If eager to accommodate his American saviors, he was also mindful of the million British dead in World War I. A French invasion, he believed, could cost another half million and, if it failed, accomplish nothing. “Bodies floating in the Channel haunted him,” George Marshall later acknowledged. Marshall’s own reference to SLEDGEHAMMER as a “sacrifice play” to help the Russians hardly was comforting.
Whereas the dominant American strategic impulse was a direct campaign of mass and concentration, the British instinctively avoided large-scale land campaigns. For centuries, Britain had relied on superior naval power to protect the Home Islands and advance her global interests. She was accustomed to protracted wars in which she minimized her losses and her risks, outmaneuvering opponents and restricting combat to the periphery of the empire. The catastrophic stalemate in the trenches from 1914 to 1918 was an exception to the wisdom of the strategic rule. Churchill even hoped that, by encircling and squeezing Hitler’s empire, Allied forces could foster rebellions by the subjugated peoples of Europe; with the Wehrmacht enervated by such revolts, an Anglo-American force could swiftly dispatch a depleted, exhausted Germany.
North Africa seemed a plausible place to start. British officers had first floated the possibility of joint Anglo-American action there in August 1941. Churchill raised the notion again during the ARCADIA conference in Washington at the end of the year, when the plan was assigned the code-name SUPER GYMNAST, and he continued to bring it up throughout the spring with the dogged enthusiasm of a missionary.
Punctuating each point with a stab of his trademark cigar, the prime minister ticked off the advantages to anyone within earshot: the occupation of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia could trap the Afrika Korps between the new Anglo-American force and the British Eighth Army already fighting Rommel in Egypt; Allied possession of North Africa would reopen the Mediterranean routes through the Suez Canal, shortening the current trip around the Cape of Good Hope by thousands of miles and saving a million tons of shipping; green American soldiers would get combat experience in conditions less harrowing than a frontal assault on France; the operation would require fewer landing craft and other battle resources than a cross-Channel attack; the Vichy government might be lured back into the Allied camp; and the operation could be mounted in 1942, in keeping with Roosevelt’s wishes to help the Soviets as soon as possible and to expedite the entry of American soldiers into the war.
“This has all along been in harmony with your ideas,” Churchill told the president. “In fact, it is your commanding idea. Here is the true second front of 1942.”
The American military disagreed, adamantly and then bitterly. North Africa was a defeatist sideshow, a diversion, a peck at the periphery. Even before Pearl Harbor, a War Department memo warned that an attack in Africa would provide only an “indirect contribution to the defeat of the Nazis.” That obdurate conviction hardened through the first six months of 1942. Another memo, in June 1942, concluded that the invasion of North Africa “probably will not result in removing one German soldier, tank, or plane from the Russian front.”
To many American officers, the British proposal seemed designed to further London’s imperial ambitions rather than win the war quickly. The Mediterranean for centuries had linked the United Kingdom with British interests in Egypt, the Persian Gulf, India, Australia, and the Far East. Old suspicions resurfaced in Washington that American blood was to be shed in defense of the British empire, particularly after Japanese armies swept across Hong Kong, Singapore, and Burma to threaten India. U.S. Army officers recalled a bitter joke from 1917: that “AEF” stood not for “American Expeditionary Force” but for “After England Failed.”
Following another visit by Churchill to Washington in mid-June 1942, the fraternal bickering intensified and the Anglo-Americans entered what turned out to be the most fractious weeks of their wartime marriage. On July 10, Marshall and the chief of naval operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, suggested to Roosevelt that if the British continued to insist on “scatterization” in North Africa, “the U.S. should turn to the Pacific for decisive action against Japan.” The irascible King, who had once been accused by Roosevelt of shaving with a blowtorch, went so far as to predict that the British would never invade Europe “except behind a Scotch bagpipe band.” Roosevelt likened this repudiation of Germany-first as “taking up your dishes and going away” he asked Marshall and King to send detailed plans for “your Pacific Ocean alternative” that very afternoon—knowing that no such plans existed.
Roosevelt was so enigmatic and opaque that his own military chiefs often had to rely on the British for clues to his inner deliberations. But increasingly he seemed beguiled by Churchill’s arguments rather than those of his own uniformed advisers. Although Roosevelt never had to enunciate his war principles—and they could surely have been scribbled on a matchbook cover—foremost among them was “the simple fact that the Russian armies are killing more Axis personnel and destroying more Axis matériel than all the other twenty-five United Nations put together,” as he had observed in May. The War Department now estimated that the Red Army confronted 225 German divisions; six faced the British in Egypt. If Soviet resistance collapsed, Hitler would gain access to limitless oil reserves in the Caucasus and Middle East, and scores of Wehrmacht divisions now fighting in the east could be shifted to reinforce the west. The war could last a decade, War Department analysts believed, and the United States would have to field at least 200 divisions, even though it was now hard pressed to raise fewer than half that number. A gesture of Anglo-American good faith beyond Lend-Lease was vital to encouraging the Soviets. After promising Moscow in May that the United States “expected” to open a second front before the end of the year, Roosevelt in July told his lieutenants that “it is of the highest importance that U.S. ground troops be brought into action against the enemy in 1942.”
Other factors also influenced the president’s thinking. More than half a year after Pearl Harbor, restive Americans wanted to know why the country had yet to counterpunch against the Axis; November’s congressional elections would provide a referendum on Roosevelt’s war leadership, and polls indicated that he and his Democratic Party could take a drubbing. Demonstrators in London’s Trafalgar Square and elsewhere were chanting “Second front, now!” in sympathy with the besieged Russians. By seizing Africa, the Allies would deny the Axis potential bases for attacking shipping lanes in the South Atlantic or even striking the Americas. The Pacific campaign, although hardly swinging in the Allies’ favor, had stabilized, permitting the strategic defensive envisioned in the RAINBOW 5 plan; but unless another battlefront opened across the Atlantic, U.S. forces would drain into the Pacific. In May, the U.S. Navy in the Coral Sea had attacked a Japanese fleet escorting invasion troops bound for the Solomon Islands and New Guinea; losses on the two sides had been nearly equal. A month later, four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk at the battle of Midway, marking the first unambiguous American victory of the war. Operation WATCHTOWER, the first Allied counter-offensive against Japan, was about to unfold with the landing of 16,000 American troops on an island in the Solomons: Guadalcanal.
The campaign against Germany and Italy, on the other hand, was faltering. Wehrmacht troops had overrun the Don River in southern Russia and were approaching Stalingrad, on the Volga. Except for Britain and neutrals such as Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, all Europe belonged to the Axis. In Egypt, the Afrika Korps was only sixty miles from Alexandria and the Nile valley, gateway to the Suez Canal and Middle East oil fields. In Cairo, refugees jammed the rail stations, and panicky British officers burned secret papers in their gardens. After a long siege, Rommel had captured 30,000 British Commonwealth troops in the Libyan port garrison of Tobruk. Hitler rewarded him with a field marshal’s baton, to which prize Rommel replied, “I am going on to Suez.”
By chance, the bad news from Tobruk reached Churchill on June 21, 1942, while he stood next to Roosevelt’s desk in the Oval Office. Marshall’s face was grimmer than usual as he strode in with a pink dispatch sheet. Churchill read the message and took a half step back, his ruddy face gone ashen. Roosevelt’s response was a thrilling gesture of magnanimity to a friend in need. “What can we do to help?” the president asked.
In the short run, the Americans could, and did, strip 300 new Sherman tanks from the newly outfitted U.S. 1st Armored Division for shipment to British troops in Egypt. Marshall, Admiral King, and Harry Hopkins returned Churchill’s visit by flying as a delegation to London for more strategic negotiations, but the talks bogged down even as the Americans conceded that an attack across the Channel that year was unlikely. In a limp gesture of mollification, the British took the three Yanks to see Oliver Cromwell’s death mask and Queen Elizabeth’s ring before they flew home.
Roosevelt had had enough. The time had come to end the protracted stalemate and get on with the war. After informing both Churchill and his own senior military advisers on July 25 that he intended to invade North Africa, he slammed the door on further discussion. At 8:30 P.M. on Thursday, July 30, he summoned his lieutenants to the White House and announced that, as he was commander-in-chief, his decision was final. North Africa was “now our principal objective.” There would be no SLEDGEHAMMERagainst France. The African offensive was to occur “at the earliest possible date,” preferably within two months.
The president had made the most profound American strategic decision of the European war in direct contravention of his generals and admirals. He had cast his lot with the British rather than with his countrymen. He had repudiated an American military tradition of annihilation, choosing to encircle the enemy and hack at his limbs rather than thrust directly at his heart. And he had based his fiat on instinct and a political calculation that the time was ripe.
In choosing Operation TORCH, as the North Africa invasion was now called, Roosevelt made several miscalculations. Despite Marshall’s warnings, he refused to believe that a diversion to North Africa in 1942 precluded a cross-Channel invasion in 1943. He failed to see that the Mediterranean strategy of encirclement precluded other strategies, or that more than a million American soldiers, and millions of tons of matériel, would be sucked into the Mediterranean in the next three years, utterly eviscerating the buildup in Britain. He continued to argue that “defeat of Germany means defeat of Japan, probably without firing a shot or losing a life.”
Yet the president’s decision was plausible, if not precisely wise. As Brooke had observed of the proposed cross-Channel attack: “The prospects of success are small and dependent on a mass of unknowns, whilst the chances of disaster are great.” American planners considered the British argument for TORCH “persuasive rather than rational,” but the American argument for SLEDGEHAMMER and ROUNDUP had been neither. Direct attack was premature; its adherents exemplified an amateurish quality in American strategic thinking that would ripen only as the war ripened.
The American military had been animated mostly by can-do zeal and a desire to win expeditiously; these traits eventually would help carry the day, but only when tempered with battle experience and strategic sensibility. One general later claimed that Army logisticians kept insisting they could support ten Allied divisions in Cherbourg although they were not certain where the French port was, much less what the condition of the docks might be or whence those divisions would come. Moving a single armored division required forty-five troopships and cargo ships, plus warship escorts, and moving the fifty divisions needed to sustain an invasion required far more ships than the Allies now possessed. Similarly, the critical issue of landing craft had been blithely ignored. “Who is responsible for building landing craft?” Eisenhower had asked in a May 1942 memo. With some planners estimating that an invasion of France required at least 7,000 landing craft, and others believing the number was really triple that, the hard truth was that by the fall of 1942 all the landing craft in Britain could carry only 20,000 men. Yet a U.S. War Department study had concluded that to draw significant numbers of German troops from the Russian front required at least 600,000 Allied soldiers in France. “One might think we were going across the Channel to play baccarat at Le Touquet, or to bathe at the Paris Plage!” Brooke fumed.
Roosevelt had saved his countrymen from their own ardor. His decision provoked dismay, even disgust, and would remain controversial for decades. “We failed to see,” Marshall later said of his fellow generals, “that the leader in a democracy has to keep the people entertained.” Eisenhower believed the cancellation of SLEDGEHAMMER might be remembered as the “blackest day in history”—a silly hyperbole, given the blackness of other days. The alienation many senior American officers felt from their British cousins could be seen in a War Department message of late August, proposing that “the Middle East should be held if possible, but its loss might prove to be a blessing in disguise” by giving the British their comeuppance and bringing them to their senses.
But the decision was made. The “thrashing around in the dark,” as Eisenhower called it, was over; the dangerous impasse had been breached.
Much, much remained to be done. Problems ranging from the size and composition of the invasion force to the timing and location of the landings required solutions. In early August, TORCH planners moved into offices at Norfolk House on St. James’s Square in London under the supervision of Eisenhower, who had recently been sent from Washington to Britain as commanding general of the European Theater of Operations. As a gesture of reconciliation, and in anticipation of the eventual American preponderance, the British proposed that the Allied expedition be commanded by an American. Churchill nominated Marshall, but Roosevelt was reluctant to give up his indispensable Army chief. Eisenhower, already overseas, had demonstrated impressive diligence and energy, and on August 13 he was named commander-in-chief of TORCH.
As the days grew shorter and the summer of 1942 came to an end, few could feel buoyed by news from the front:
Wehrmacht troops had reached the Volga, and the first shots were exchanged in the battle for Stalingrad. German U-boats, traveling in predatory “wolfpacks,” were sinking ships faster than Allied yards could build them; a supply convoy to northern Russia lost thirteen of forty vessels, despite an escort of seventy-seven ships. The Chinese war effort against the Japanese had disintegrated. The fighting over the Solomon Islands had made Guadalcanal a shambles. The fall of Suez seemed imminent. Four of the seven aircraft carriers in the American fleet when the United States entered the war had been sunk. And antipathy between British and American confederates threatened to weaken the alliance even before the fight against their common enemy was joined.
Only seers or purblind optimists could guess that these portents foreshadowed victory. The Allies were not yet winning, but they were about to begin winning. Night would end, the tide would turn, and on that turning tide an army would wash ashore in Africa, ready to right a world gone wrong.