Mr Churchill was sure that only by the premature invasion of France could the war be lost. To postpone the evil day, all his arts, all his eloquence, all his great experience were spent.
Lord Moran, Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival1
‘We are bound to persevere in the preparation for Bolero if possible in 1942 but certainly in 1943,’ conceded Churchill in his 20 June memorandum to his host, Franklin Roosevelt, at Hyde Park. ‘The whole of this business is now going on.’ He stated that arrangements for Sledgehammer–‘a landing of six or eight Divisions on the coast of Northern France’–were under way, but the British Government were firmly opposed to any operation ‘that was certain to lead to disaster for this would not help the Russians whatever their plight’. Furthermore, it would ‘compromise and expose to Nazi vengeance the French population involved’ and would also seriously delay Roundup. ‘We strongly hold to the view that there should be no substantial landing in France this year unless we are going to stay,’ he wrote, adding in a phrase that he was to use often in the future: ‘No responsible British military authority has so far been able to make a plan for September 1942 which had any chance of success unless the Germans became utterly demoralized, of which there is no likelihood.’2
Quite why Churchill felt the need to write an official memorandum to the man whose bedroom was only a few yards up the corridor from his, and whom he was with–often alone–throughout the weekend, is hard to explain, except that he always had an eye to history and found that his brain worked especially well through the written word. Roosevelt would also need it in order to convince Marshall and the other service Chiefs. Whatever the reason, he then posed a barrage of questions that Marshall had to answer supposing the Germans were in no way demoralized by 1943. ‘Have the American Staffs a plan?’ he asked. ‘If so, what is it? What forces could be employed? At what points would they strike? What landing craft and shipping are available? Who is the officer prepared to command the enterprise? What British forces and assistance are required?’3 These were not rhetorical, although they sounded it, and of course Marshall was not present to answer them.
If any of those questions could not be answered satisfactorily, Churchill had more: ‘What else are we going to do? Can we afford to stand idle in the Atlantic theatre during the whole of 1942? Ought we not to be preparing within the general structure of Bolero some other operation by which we may gain positions of advantage and also directly or indirectly to take some of the weight off Russia?’ Then came his own answers to these questions: ‘It is in this setting and on this background that the Operation Gymnast should be studied.’ Churchill was straining credibility in putting Gymnast ‘within the general structure of Bolero’, because it necessitated the severe postponement of Sledgehammer and Roundup, yet he understood that it was necessary to present it that way after his enthusiastic reception of Bolero in London only two months before.
So, just as Marshall, King and Eisenhower were trying to consign Gymnast to a strategic, logistical and even ‘logical’ grave in Washington–hardly resisted by an almost equally sceptical Brooke–Churchill resurrected it at Hyde Park. In getting Roosevelt on his own there, Churchill had a considerable advantage, as the ‘amateur strategist’ President tended, at least at this stage in the war, to defer to him on military matters in a way that he would not have done had Marshall been present.
‘I must emphasize’, admitted Wedemeyer after the war,
that President Roosevelt did not have the knowledge, the military knowledge, the strategic knowledge that Prime Minister Churchill did. He wasn’t in close proximity with the leaders of our Army and Navy. Churchill worked with his [Chiefs of Staff] and Planners down in his offices and Map Rooms…He supported his chiefs on their negotiations. I am sure it wasn’t a question of supporting General Marshall and the Joint Chiefs of Staff with Roosevelt. He really didn’t know enough about it and didn’t pretend to.4
Although Churchill’s visit to Washington was public, his trip to Hyde Park was not. During those few days the two men held long confidential conversations with only the house staff, the secret service and a very small group on hand, including John Martin, Commander Thompson and FDR’s secretary Grace Tully. Tully recalled her boss saying to her, ‘I think Winston is terribly worried, Grace, and well he might be.’5 She had been ordered specifically not to make any appointments or permit any callers whatever; even when Marshall’s aide-de-camp Frank McCarthy arrived with an important message he was kept waiting outside the main house.
While Marshall and Brooke considered the risky strategic implications of Operation Gymnast, Roosevelt and Churchill had also to consider the risks of not getting American ground troops into direct combat against the Wehrmacht before the mid-term elections in early November. Roosevelt had served in Woodrow Wilson’s Administration when it lost control of Congress only days before the end of the Great War, and he had seen the disastrous effect that had on subsequent peace-making attempts. He therefore wanted American troops fighting Germans before the polls opened, if at all possible. If the isolationists and Republicans triumphed, both Roosevelt and Churchill reasoned, the whole Germany First policy might be placed in jeopardy. For all Admiral King’s talk of already having eight fronts, neither Churchill nor Roosevelt wished to contemplate a situation where no major offensive was undertaken on the ground against Germany for another ten months or so. After all, Hitler had declared war against the United States back in December, and had yet to feel her wrath anywhere. Roosevelt therefore had Churchill’s note telephoned through to Marshall in Washington, and Jacob was ordered to circulate it to Brooke, Dill and Ismay.
Churchill and Roosevelt returned to Washington on the night of Saturday 20 June on the presidential train. En route, Grace Tully was charmed by what she thought ‘an amusing manifestation of Victorian shyness’ on the part of Churchill, ‘this normally uninhibited statesman’. She was sitting with him and Roosevelt in the presidential carriage when Sawyers, Churchill’s short, bald valet who always travelled with him, came in carrying his master’s initialled slippers, leant down and proceeded to untie the prime ministerial shoelaces: ‘“God, no,” Churchill spluttered in obvious embarrassment, “not here.” Retreating hastily into his own compartment he made the change and came back–slipper-clad.’ Tully was surprised that Churchill should have been discomfited by other people witnessing this nightly ritual.6
The train arrived back in Washington at 9 o’clock on the morning of Sunday 21 June, and Brooke went to visit Churchill at 11 a.m. Marshall meanwhile saw the President, taking with him the Combined Chiefs of Staff memorandum agreed the previous day that had so deprecated Gymnast. As the Introduction depicts, at noon Roosevelt, Churchill, Brooke and Marshall all met for the first time together, along with Hopkins and Ismay. At lunch an hour later the President recalled Brooke’s father and brother.
Brooke was standing with Churchill next to Roosevelt’s desk after lunch when the news of the fall of Tobruk was brought in. Tobruk had long been a talisman for Churchill, a totem. A year earlier at Chequers–after a day seeing the ‘horror and desolation’ of bombed Plymouth, where he had kept repeating, ‘I’ve never seen the like’–he had fallen into one of his ‘black dog’ depressions, a deep melancholic despair. He had received a long telegram from Roosevelt explaining why the United States could not co-operate in preventing the Germans from seizing the Azores or Cape Verde islands, and had heard that the sinking of one of Mountbatten’s destroyers HMS Jersey had probably blocked the entrance to the Grand Harbour at Valletta in Malta. It was then that Churchill explained to Harriman that the fall of Tobruk could lead to the eventual triumph of Hitler’s ‘robot world order’.7
After Tobruk’s fall, the place selected by Auchinleck to try to hold back Rommel’s victorious forces was Mersa Matruh, only 125 miles east of the Egyptian border, and a telegram from the Middle East Defence Committee warned that even if the vast quantities of stores in Tobruk had been successfully destroyed before the surrender–which it later transpired they had not been–the enemy was ‘now stronger than we are in all types of troops essential for battle in open country and is well provided with transport’. Furthermore, the political consequences of withdrawing to Mersa Matruh ‘may give rise to internal difficulties in Egypt and may change Turkey’s attitude towards us’.8
The American response to the news about Tobruk was instinctive, and was often later recalled with powerful nostalgia by all the Britons present. ‘For a moment or two no one spoke,’ recalled Ismay, but then the silence was broken by Roosevelt. ‘In six monosyllables he epitomized his sympathy with Churchill, his determination to do his utmost to sustain him, and his recognition that we were all in the same boat: “What can we do to help?”’9 Brooke also vividly remembered ‘being impressed by the tact and real heartfelt sympathy that lay behind these words. There was not one word too much or too little.’ Churchill agreed: ‘Nothing could exceed the sympathy and chivalry of my two friends,’ he wrote. ‘There were no reproaches; not an unkind word was spoken. “What can we do to help?” said Roosevelt.’10 Marshall offered an American armoured division, to be shipped off to the Middle East immediately.
In June 1958, Brooke went to the London office of the American broadcast network NBC in order to record his reflections on Marshall. In his clear, clipped, upper-class voice, he recited the events of sixteen years before, concluding that ‘Acts of that nature bound us together. We were bound to have differences and we had many differences during the war, but we were always able, even after the most heated discussions in conference, to walk out arm-in-arm and go to lunch together still exactly the same friends.’11
The Oval Office meeting continued until 5 p.m. on 21 June, and then continued throughout the morning of the 22nd, finally coming to much the same conclusions as before on every subject except Gymnast, namely that ‘Plans and preparations for the Bolero operation in 1943 on as large a scale as possible are to be pushed forward with all speed and energy.’ Over Gymnast, however, whereas the Combined Chiefs of Staff had comprehensively rubbished the operation among themselves, the six men now agreed that ‘plans will be completed in all details as soon as possible’, with forces to be employed in Gymnast to come from Bolero units that had not yet left the United States.12 Churchill’s attempt to move the entire direction of the Anglo-American war effort from north-west Europe to North-west Africa was well under way, although Marshall and Brooke were still far from convinced.
Since Churchill, who had been in Hyde Park during its composition, had not seen the Combined Chiefs of Staff memorandum on Gymnast, it had to be decided whether or not he should be shown it. Ismay and Jacob felt that in view of the conclusions just reached at the White House, ‘no good purpose would be served’ by submitting it, and Brooke agreed.13 Marshall had already given it to FDR, but Churchill did not see it.
Roosevelt and Churchill expressed themselves in favour of operations ‘in France or the Low Countries’ in 1942, but only if Brooke and Marshall could agree upon what Churchill called ‘a sound and sensible plan’.14 Yet both Roosevelt and Churchill well knew that Brooke would simply not agree a plan for any cross-Channel attacks in 1942 beyond minor raids. This somewhat disingenuous form of words therefore allowed Roosevelt and Churchill to seem to be supporting something that they knew would never happen, in which case Gymnast would be the only alternative.
Ismay’s minute of the meeting was a veritable masterpiece of misleading prose. Marshall could have had no cause for complaint until the end of the second paragraph, where the full extent of his having been outmanoeuvred must have become apparent. ‘If, on the other hand,’ wrote Ismay of the two cross-Channel operations, ‘detailed examination shows that, despite all efforts, success is improbable, we must be ready with an alternative.’15
That alternative was made all the more pressing by the Tobruk news. ‘The possibilities of French North Africa (Operation Gymnast) will be explored carefully and conscientiously,’ continued Ismay, ‘and plans will be completed in all details as soon as possible. Forces to be employed in Gymnast would in the main be found from Bolero units that have not yet left the United States.’16 The effect of Gymnast on the cross-Channel operations was thus obvious from the start. Ismay’s wording effectively killed off Sledgehammer, pushed back Roundup and resuscitated Gymnast, which had otherwise been moribund and was opposed by Marshall and Brooke.
If Roosevelt hadn’t come round to Gymnast on his own by the time that Churchill announced he was visiting Washington–as Stimson suspected that he had–then Churchill converted him at Hyde Park, and the rest of his protestations about supporting Sledgehammer and an early Roundup was essentially window-dressing for Marshall’s benefit. As Sir David Fraser puts it, the agreement of 21 June merely ‘paid lip service to Sledgehammer’.17 In the television series The World at War, Mountbatten claimed it had been he who had converted Roosevelt to Gymnast. He said the President had told him: ‘My nightmare would be if I was to have a million American soldiers sitting in England, Russia collapses and there’d be no way of getting them ashore.’18
There is evidence to suggest that Roosevelt favoured Gymnast long before his supposed conversion by Mountbatten in June 1942. In late October 1941, after representing Britain at the International Labour Organization in New York, Clement Attlee flew to Washington to stay with Lord Halifax, and in the course of his visit he was invited by the President for a short cruise on the presidential yacht. Attlee later recalled that Roosevelt had taken down an atlas and, putting his finger on Algiers, had said, ‘That is where I want to have American troops.’19 The story is reminiscent of the Duke of Richmond being told by Wellington at the famous ball in Brussels that he would stop Napoleon’s advance at a small village which the Iron Duke marked with his thumbnail on a map, called Waterloo. Nonetheless, Attlee was no fantasist, and Roosevelt, as he put it, ‘had had experience in the Navy Office and his mind took a broad sweep of world strategy’.
In 1956, Marshall was frank about the political imperatives behind Gymnast: ‘We fail to see that the leader in a democracy has to keep the people entertained,’ he told Pogue. ‘That may sound like the wrong word, but it conveys the thought. People demand action. We couldn’t wait to be completely ready. Churchill was always getting into side shows…But I could see why he had to have something.’20 Much more was this true of his own President than of the Prime Minister. General elections had been suspended for the duration of the war in Britain, but in America the Democratic Party faced difficult mid-term Congressional ones in November 1942.
As well as a political desire to see American troops fighting German ground forces in 1942, Roosevelt was convinced by reports he was getting from US consular authorities across North Africa, especially Algeria, that the French authorities might actually welcome an American landing. Nonetheless, many Americans preferred to assume that Churchill’s rhetoric had somehow seduced Roosevelt; Stilwell adopted characteristically forthright language when he noted in his diary: ‘Besides being a rank amateur in all military matters, FDR is apt to act on sudden impulse. On top of that he has been completely mesmerized by the British, who have sold him a bill of goods…The Limeys have his ear, and we have the hind tit.’21
Marshall told Stimson that there had been a ‘good deal of pow-pow and a rumpus up at the White House’. He said that Churchill had been ‘particularly disturbed’ by some remarks that Roosevelt had made to Mountbatten ‘about the possibility of having to make a “sacrifice” cross-Channel landing in 1942 to help the Russians’. According to Marshall, ‘Churchill started out with a terrific attack on Bolero as we had expected…The President, however, stood pretty firm.’ Hopkins told Stimson that ‘Marshall made a very powerful argument for Bolero,’ managing to dispose of ‘all the clouds that had been woven about it by the Mountbatten incident’.22
Had Roosevelt really ‘stood pretty firm’ on 21 June, or had he and Churchill tacitly agreed at Hyde Park that Gymnast would by default have to be the major operation of 1942? Might ‘the American Houdini’ have been miming support for Roundup and Sledgehammer in order to lull Marshall, Stimson and the Joint Chiefs? The circumstantial evidence suggests that Roosevelt, who had been talking loosely about a diversionary strategy ever since March, had come around to Churchill’s way of thinking, or at least had appreciated that since Roundup and Sledgehammer–which in White House parlance had been shortened to Bolero–could not be mounted without Churchill’s and Brooke’s enthusiastic support, which was clearly not on offer, so another offensive operation must be considered, and of the limited options available Gymnast made the most sense.
For all that Brooke and Churchill were cast in the role of mendicants in the White House on 21 June, receiving welcome munitional charity from Marshall, they were not about to relent on their opposition to an early cross-Channel operation. The spontaneous gesture of the armoured division was gratefully accepted, but the Britons soon got down to undermining the ‘momentous proposal’ that Churchill had agreed to with such seeming enthusiasm only two months earlier. The official historian of British grand strategy for this period, J. R. M. Butler, described 21 June 1942 as ‘The Day of the Dupes’.23 Churchill visited the USA fifteen times in his life, but this was the most important of all.
At dinner at the White House that night, after the climactic moment in the afternoon, Brooke, Marshall, Churchill, Roosevelt and five others stayed up until 1 a.m. discussing global strategy, finally getting round to the Middle East. Brooke recorded that he and Churchill ‘accepted offer of American Armoured Division for Middle East’ believing that ‘This may lead to a USA front in the Middle Eastern at expense of the European front.’24 It was exactly what FDR, Churchill and Brooke wanted–but Marshall didn’t. The British had effectively used their own vulnerability as a trump card, somehow trading on their very weakness after the fall of Tobruk to get what they wanted.
That long day was not yet over for Marshall. At the end of his fourth and final meeting with the British, Roosevelt asked him to stay on in his office after everyone else had gone off to bed. To Marshall’s ‘consternation’ the President then suggested sending a large American force to take control of the entire region between Teheran and Alexandria, including the whole eastern Mediterranean seaboard and Levant. Marshall told Stimson he was ‘terribly taken aback’ by this new and very unwelcome development and almost lost his temper with the President. Not trusting himself to hold his tongue if the conversation continued much further, Marshall politely declined to discuss such an important subject so late at night, turned and left the room.25
One can imagine the tremendous frustration for the Army Chief of Staff, exhausted after a long day of meetings and negotiations, seeing a strategy, which he had proclaimed publicly and only very recently at West Point, now subtly undermined by the President and the British, despite his immense generosity in offering to help plug the gap between Rommel and Egypt. Then in the early hours he had been asked by his commander-in-chief–seemingly off the cuff–to consider a massive deployment of American troops in a huge and entirely unfamiliar part of the world (there are 1,250 miles between Teheran and Alexandria) very far from Berlin. The wonder is that this ‘reserved and courtly Pennsylvanian’ did not react more aggressively to his boss’s midnight musings. Had MacArthur, Patton or King been the dominant figure among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Roosevelt would probably have been the one ‘terribly taken aback’ by their response. ‘Roosevelt had a habit of tossing out new operations,’ Marshall told Pogue years later. ‘I called it his cigarette lighter gesture.’ At that, Marshall made an expansive move of his hands as though gesticulating with a cigarette lighter.
The next morning Marshall sent Roosevelt a memorandum entitled ‘American Forces in the Middle East’. The President had praised the view of the US military attaché in Cairo, Colonel Bonner F. Fellers, who had repeatedly urged American intervention in the Middle East. Marshall wrote: ‘Fellers is a very valuable observer but his responsibilities are not those of a strategist and his views are in opposition to mine and those of the entire Operations Division.’26 With regard to the United States locating large ground forces in the Levant, ‘It is my opinion, and that of the Operations Staff, that we should not undertake such a project. The controlling reasons are logistical, serious confusion of command (further complicated by strong racial and religious prejudices), and the indecisive nature of the operation.’
The points Marshall made were cogent. The south-west Pacific was 8,000 miles away from Washington, the central Pacific 6,000, Alaska 2,000, the Caribbean 1,000, Greenland and Iceland 2,000. To support large forces in the Middle East would ‘deny the probability of assembling American forces of decisive power in any theater in this war’. It would, Marshall argued, only be of use in:
gaining a foothold on the southern but indecisive fringe of the European continent. We would still be a long distance from Germany, with extremely difficult natural intervening obstacles. You are familiar with my view that the decisive theater is Western Europe. That is the only place where the concerted effort of our own and the British forces can be brought to bear on the Germans. A large venture in the Middle East would make a decisive American contribution to the campaign in Western Europe out of the question. Therefore, I am opposed to such a project.27
‘All day and half the night they have gone on since the news of Tobruk came through,’ Hopkins told Moran, who noted: ‘Winston has battled with the Americans; he has not allowed the facts, damaging as they are, to handicap him.’ Moran saw Roosevelt as ‘The big man on the American side in this dismal time’, whose ‘brain goes on working as if it were packed in ice’. But the President’s ‘prop’, insofar as he needed one, was Marshall, who had ‘seen the British collapse in the Middle East end in the success of the PM’s efforts to postpone a Second Front. A smaller man would have turned sour.’28 Instead it was Stimson, Wedemeyer and later Hopkins who turned very sour over the seemingly indefinite postponement of Marshall’s plans.
On 22 June, at another meeting at the White House, Churchill told Stimson that the British Planners all thought a cross-Channel attack impossible in 1942, and that if it went ahead the carnage would be like the Great War. Stimson felt Roosevelt spoke ‘with the frivolity and lack of responsibility of a child’ during this sombre discussion. Meanwhile Brooke and Marshall went into the implications of sending an American armoured division to serve in the Middle East. Marshall’s offer had been made promptly, but the working out of the details took much longer than Churchill later recollected in his memoirs. The command was earmarked for General George S. Patton Jr of the Desert Training Center in California. Only after it was pointed out that the unit couldn’t get into action until October was the offer altered–to the relief of Brooke, who foresaw huge organizational difficulties in having an American division in the middle of the Eighth Army–to three hundred Sherman tanks and one hundred self-propelled 105mm gun-howitzers, to be sent by fast convoy.29
Marshall was as good as his word, despite the unpopularity of the decision in the US 1st Armored Division, which had only just taken possession of the three hundred brand-new tanks. The tanks and guns were shipped out to the Middle East post-haste, arriving in time to play an important part in the victory of El Alamein four months later. When one of the transport vessels containing seventy tanks was torpedoed, Marshall immediately made up the numbers for the next shipment, without even telling Brooke what he had done. ‘Any mistrust which there may have been in those early days between the British and American chiefs of staff did not extend to their political masters,’ recalled Ismay, pointing out that under normal circumstances the request for more tanks would have been sent by Auchinleck to Brooke, who would have got on to the US War Department, whose ‘probable reaction’ would have been to promise the next consignment to come off the production line, before discussions began about the shipping required. In this instance, Roosevelt and Marshall cleared the way within days.
In explaining his actions to his advisers, Marshall discounted generosity as having been a motive. Instead he explained that the tanks and guns had been given in order ‘to hold the British to their promise to mount Roundup’.30 Yet of course great operations perhaps costing thousands of lives are not affected by gratitude for generous gestures, and it would have been naive of Marshall’s advisers to believe that they would be. The interesting point was that Marshall’s advisers were too hard-hearted, or sceptical of the British, or doubtful of Auchinleck’s chances of using the tanks to good effect, or irritated by the American 1st Armored Division being deprived of the Shermans, to respond positively to the offer unless it was cloaked in the motive of advancing American interests.
On the morning of Wednesday 24 June Churchill, Brooke, Marshall, Stimson, Dill and Ismay arrived by air-conditioned train at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, where they reviewed the sixty thousand troops that had been stationed there since the Great War-era military camp had been reopened in September 1941. Marshall wanted to impress on Churchill and Brooke the battle-readiness of the troops earmarked for Roundup. Both men undoubtedly got the message, but as Churchill put it in his memoirs, ‘I consistently pressed my view that it takes two years or more to make a soldier.’ As with so much of Churchill’s six-volume history, this possibly had a degree of hindsight to it, since Overlord did indeed take place two years after the visit, to the very month.
The commander at Fort Jackson, Major-General Robert L. Eichelberger, recalled in his autobiography, Jungle Road to Tokyo, that his assignment had been to put on a corps demonstration of the 8th, 30th and 77th Divisions for his British guests. Generals Marshall, Eisenhower and McNair (commanding Army Ground Forces) had each ‘impressed on me, in turn, the importance of making a good military showing; at the moment I did not just know why.’31 Many years later Marshall told him ‘why that successful demonstration was so important. Up until that time Churchill had refused to believe the Americans capable of raising an army of sufficient size or excellence to manage a cross-Channel invasion in the foreseeable future.’
Eichelberger put on demonstrations undertaken by ten thousand men from infantry and paratroop units, as well as manoeuvres by seventy-four tanks, on a day that was ‘infernally hot, hot almost beyond belief’. Churchill said it reminded him of his days as a subaltern in India. The Prime Minister particularly enjoyed operating a walkie-talkie for the first time, and the use of live ammunition in the machine-guns excited him. Out of the six hundred parachutists of the 503rd Airborne Regiment who jumped, there were only three casualties.
‘Nothing was left to chance,’ recalled Eichelberger. ‘A printing plant in Columbia had clanked all night to provide programs for the demonstration. Chemicals had been applied to the road to keep down the dust. I had been warned that Churchill’s health was such that he should be spared the spinal rigors of a jeep ride; and a kindly motor-car dealer in Columbia gave us without charge the use of a convertible coupé.’ As it was, Churchill ‘hopped in and out of the car and walked at such a tremendous pace that most of the faithfully following entourage had to run to catch up.’
During the day further despatches were brought to Churchill about Tobruk, prompting him to tell Eichelberger, over a lunch of celery-heart salad and ‘several’ Martinis, that he wished he had a field commander of Rommel’s calibre. In the afternoon, wearing headphones to listen to the air–ground communication for the parachute drop, Churchill heard an impatient commander say over the airwaves, ‘Goddammit, I told you what to do!’ Stimson was shocked; Churchill roared with laughter. Brooke found something to laugh at too; after Sawyers was invited by Marshall to join the lunch party, he drank too much and would not let Churchill pass him on the plane ride home unless he turned down the brim of his panama hat, which Churchill, ‘rather red and looking angry’, duly did.32
Marshall was soothed by the positive reactions of his British visitors to what had been achieved by the US Army in the six months since Pearl Harbor. Of all the British contingent that day, Ismay was the least impressed, afterwards telling Churchill that ‘it would be murder to pit them against continental soldiery’, meaning the Wehrmacht. Churchill agreed the US troops ‘were still immature’ although ‘magnificent material who would soon train on’.33
Brooke concluded that the American system of individual and elementary training seemed excellent, ‘but I am not so certain that their higher training is good enough, or that they have yet realized the standard of training required.’34 After the war, he added: ‘They certainly had not–and had a lot to learn! I next met them in Northern Ireland, and they still had a lot to learn, but seemed to prefer to learn in the hard school of war itself. As a result they learned a great deal more in North Africa!’ This reference to the American defeat at Kasserine Pass would have been spiteful if Brooke had not followed it up with the remark that, with Americans, ‘in the art of war, as in polo, lawn tennis, golf etc, when they once got down to it they were determined to make a success of it.’35
Despite the hospitality of Fort Jackson, Anglo-American relations were not completely back on track. ‘One further incident is worthy of record,’ wrote Jacob in his diary of the conference, ‘as it very nearly wrecked the harmony of the last day.’ On 24 June, an Anglo-American Air Agreement, covering the transfer of American planes to Britain under Lend–Lease, had been signed by Arnold and the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, John Slessor, and also initialled by the President, before it was discovered that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (except of course Arnold) actually opposed it. By lunchtime on 25 June there was ‘a feeling abroad’ that the Agreement had reached the President through Churchill rather than from the proper source, namely the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Jacob put it bluntly: ‘They were accusing us of sharp practice.’ The accusation was that Slessor had persuaded the Prime Minister to take the Agreement to the President and that he had initialled it before the Joint Chiefs of Staff had even been able to examine it. The British secretariat of the Combined Chiefs of Staff had been told that Arnold was submitting the Agreement simultaneously to the President, and they had ‘naturally assumed that Arnold had squared his colleagues and masters’, just as Slessor had the British Chiefs.
When all this was explained to Marshall, Arnold confessed to having given the Agreement to FDR without informing him or Admiral King, but said it was only because Slessor had been ‘anxious to get everything finished’ by the time the conference broke up the next day. ‘This rather lame excuse may or may not have been believed by Marshall and King,’ recorded Jacob, ‘but in any case our name was cleared of suspicion. The US Chiefs of Staff then found themselves in the position of being unable to do anything but accept what the President had already initialled.’ For Jacob the whole incident was ‘only one more illustration of the extraordinary lack of coordination in the direction of the US Services’. It beggared belief that Arnold got to the point of signing an important international protocol and getting presidential approval for it without clearing it beforehand with Marshall and King.
The incident had other implications, however. The speed with which the suspicion ‘got abroad’ among the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Brooke and Churchill had in effect suborned the President did not bode well for the future. Similarly the assumption that Roosevelt could be so easily ‘got at’ by Churchill. As the British party took off on board the Bristol from Anacostia at 11.30 on the evening of 25 June, Marshall, Stimson and King might have been forgiven for thinking that they had left a fifth columnist behind, in the shape of a president who seemed fully wedded to the idea of Gymnast, an operation they thought too risky to undertake, and also certain to delay Roundup.
Stimson–whose attitude towards the Prime Minister is evident from his diary entry: ‘Marshall and I had Churchill on our necks for three days’–even suspected that Roosevelt might have been responsible for the whole Argonaut visit from the very start. In his autobiography he stated that although the initiative for the meeting clearly came from Churchill, ‘he might well have acted on the basis of an indication that the President was not completely certain about the wisdom of Bolero,’ despite its having been ‘the brain-child of the US Army’.36 This was shrewd, for that indication almost certainly came during the Mountbatten meeting, although it was not so much Bolero–the US build-up in the United Kingdom–that Roosevelt had his doubts about, as the two early cross-Channel operations that were intended to follow from it.
Ian Jacob told Chester Wilmot in 1948 that the Argonaut negotiations in Washington had been ‘pretty sticky’, because they had agreed:
that Bolero should continue full blast until 1 September but we never seriously contemplated using these forces for a cross-Channel invasion that year. Our idea was to get them onto our side of the Atlantic so that they would be committed for the war against Germany, and we hoped that if we had the forces in England we could persuade Roosevelt to use them in Africa…Unfortunately once again because we had agreed to Bolero and had accepted cross-Channel in principle, the Americans thought we were willing to go into France that year.37
There, in black and white, is Jacob’s admission that Churchill and Brooke had deliberately misled Roosevelt and Marshall into thinking that if the United States poured troops into the United Kingdom in 1942 they might be used to attack France that year, when in fact they had no intention of allowing that to happen. Perfidious Albion, good strategy, clever footwork–whatever it was, many key Americans were deceived about British intentions.
Historians have long debated Stimson’s accusations–which were indignantly denied by soldiers and statesmen at the time–and Brooke’s biographer denies that Marshall had been misled. Yet Wilmot’s record of the interview of Jacob lodged in the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King’s College London makes it quite clear what Churchill and Brooke were up to, and few were in a better position to know the truth than he.
Gymnast was the codename given to a landing by Americans alone on the Moroccan coast, while Super-Gymnast was a landing on the Algerian and Moroccan coasts by both the British and Americans; it was Super-Gymnast that was eventually to be renamed Operation Torch. Marshall recalled of Roosevelt: ‘When I went to him with Torch, he put up his hands’–at which Marshall raised his own hands in an attitude of prayer–‘and said, “Please make it before Election Day.”’ However, when it became clear that there might not be quite enough time for this, Roosevelt never complained (although his veteran press officer Steve Early certainly did). The Torch landings in fact took place on 8 November 1942, five days after the mid-terms.
General Handy was blunt on why Roosevelt decided on Gymnast in June 1942: ‘Of course, we had to do it because the President wanted us to get some place to use the Army. We were building up a sizable army and we didn’t really have any place to use it.’ General Hull was blunter still: ‘That, you see, was an election year.’38 As for Churchill, Hull suspected that he had wanted Anglo-American landings in North Africa ‘from the very beginning. I can’t swear to that, but he was having difficulty in Northern Africa.’
In his memoirs Churchill attempted to depict Sledgehammer as little better than a suicide mission. ‘Out of many plans the fittest might survive,’ he wrote in the fourth volume, The Hinge of Fate, effectively claiming that the operation succumbed in a Darwinian struggle against the better plan of Gymnast. ‘I did not have to argue against natural selection myself. It fell of its own weakness.’39 In fact Sledgehammer fell because only Marshall wanted it enough, Roosevelt and Churchill actively preferring Gymnast.
A fabulously ill-informed NBC interviewer who was hoping to make a programme about the ‘friendship’ between Brooke and Marshall in 1958, naively asked Brooke the moronic question: ‘The differences between you and George Marshall were not major, were they?’ After an understandably long pause, Brooke replied:
They were major in the early part of the war and insofar as they affected the time at which we should start the liberation of France, as to my mind any attempt at carrying out this operation before we were really ready for it might have resulted in a ghastly catastrophe. I considered in the early stages Marshall had not quite appreciated all the difficulties that would arise and his ideas of this early crossing were not of the best, and that is where our main differences occurred…As things turned out I think finally we came across exactly at the right time, and I do not think we could have done that crossing earlier in the war.40 *
When explaining to themselves Churchill’s and Brooke’s reasons for not wanting to cross the Channel in 1942–when after all the Germans had not yet built the ‘Atlantic Wall’, concrete defensive fortifications all along the western European seaboard–the Americans kept returning to the experiences that they assumed the Prime Minister and CIGS had both undergone between 1914 and 1918. Charles Moran–unhelpfully, even disloyally–went so far as to warn Marshall that Churchill was ‘fighting the ghosts of the Somme’. Wedemeyer could be relied upon to be far ruder than Moran, of course, in his diagnosis of what he called Churchill’s ‘lamentable deficiencies as a strategist’. After 1941, he contended that ‘the problem was to restrain the pseudo strategist in Churchill’ which he considered ‘inherent in his islander’s psychology’ and ‘conditioned by his experience in World War One’.41
Writing in 1955 to a would-be biographer of Brooke, Marshall said that the CIGS had:
had a hard schooling in the battles of the Somme in earlier years and had suffered the shock of the highly modernized Nazi Army. This, for a year or more in our earlier negotiations, made it difficult for him to meet our theory and battle inexperience with his practical and rather desperate experience. All this washed away as the war developed, and we came more and more into mutual understanding.42
It was a diplomatic way of explaining their clashes, and except for the last sentence was insightful about Brooke’s thinking. The Somme had indeed been such a cataclysmic event in recent British experience that it would have been extraordinary if had not affected the outlook of the large number of British Planners–including Brooke and Kennedy–who had fought there.
The Pentagon developed the view that, because of their terrible bloodletting in the Great War, the British would commit only to relatively small-scale diversionary attacks. ‘The British are a great people, you know, but they hit around the edges,’ explained General Handy to his SOOHP interviewer. ‘Some of the British thinking was affected by what happened in World War One. Our losses weren’t even in the same class as the British and the French…We figured that if you were going to lick the Germans the only way to do it was to face up to them and fight them, and the British maybe wanted to do it some other way.’43 While it is quite true that the Americans suffered 50,500 battle deaths in the First World War, against 908,300 from the British Empire and 1,357,800 from France, the OPD made far too much of that, and eventually assumed that the British secretly opposed a cross-Channel invasion on that basis.
Put at its crudest, the hack-historian Leonard Mosley, an employee of Lord Beaverbrook, wrote that if the cross-Channel operation had to happen, Churchill ‘was determined that the more fecund United States should provide the cannon fodder. And that meant postponing any cross-Channel operation until American troops were ready to make up the bulk of the invading force.’44 It was a disgraceful accusation not supported by the facts; Churchill no more saw American troops as cannon fodder than he did the British. Ismay meanwhile readily accepted that the Americans ‘suspected that we were haunted by memories of Passchendaele and the Somme and that we would always shrink from undertaking an assault on Fortress Europe. This suspicion persisted for a very long time, and lay at the root of future misunderstandings.’45
Churchill himself fully admitted being haunted by the ghosts of the Somme and in Closing the Ring he wrote of Roundup: ‘The fearful price we had had to pay in human life and blood for the great offensives of the First World War was graven on my mind. Memories of the Somme and Passchendaele and many lesser frontal attacks on the Germans were not to be blotted out by time or reflection.’46 Furthermore, since the horrors of those days, Churchill pointed out, ‘The firepower of the defence had vastly increased. The development of minefields both on land and in the sea was enormous.’ Set against that were the great advantages of air supremacy and paratroopers’ ability to disrupt counter-attacks from behind enemy lines, neither of which existed in the Great War.
Yet it wasn’t so much returning to Passchendaele and the Somme that worried British strategists in 1942–4 as the Dunkirk and Brest campaigns of the summer of 1940. Rommel’s and Guderian’s seemingly unstoppable blitzkrieg campaign across France featured more in their fears–especially Brooke’s and Dill’s–than the mud and blood of Flanders of a quarter of a century before. Even more recently, April 1941 had seen the British make a sacrificial attempt to help Greece and being ignominiously flung off the Continent once again as a result. Memories of these humiliations naturally served to work against Sledgehammer a mere fourteen months later.
Some senior OPD members understood this, of course. ‘The British had a bloody nose from Dunkirk,’ recalled Hull.
They were leery of amphibious operations against a main force like a landing against Germans in France. Churchill was a great man, but as a strategist, I think, you can criticize him…He was responsible for Gallipoli…he was always thinking about what he called ‘the soft underbelly’ of Europe…Hewas responsible for the Greek débâcle when he put troops in there…All during the war he was thinking of landing troops in the south.47
The problem with such easy explanations is that they imply irrationality on behalf of the British, even at its worst a form of cowardice.
When Marshall was asked by Pogue after the war whether Churchill’s insistence on a Mediterranean strategy was due to a desire to vindicate Gallipoli, his answer was indicative of the American misunderstanding of Churchill’s true views regarding Roundup. ‘No, I think it was not Gallipoli, but the fact that he was opposed to the Channel crossing. He had a horror of bodies floating in the Channel…The dominant thought is that they didn’t think we were capable of manufacturing the troops.’48
A much fairer criticism of Churchill and Brooke was that they were willing to fight not to the last American, but rather to the last Russian. ‘If his willingness to allow the Russians to bleed the German Army was cynical,’ the distinguished military historian Max Hastings has written, ‘it was a great service to his own country.’49 Hastings is right, and for all the inescapable admiration for the Red Army’s sacrifice, there was much less genuine sympathy for it among the British High Command than among the public at large. The senior strategists recalled Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler that lasted up until the evening of Barbarossa itself. In September 1945 Grigg and Kennedy agreed that Stalin’s ‘claim to have won the German war single-handed’ was ‘silly’, because ‘Hitler not Stalin was our friend in bringing Russia into the German war.’ (Brooke was profoundly anti-Bolshevik and Kennedy had fought against them in the Russian Civil War.)
Yet it was fortunate that the Americans provided a counterpoint to the British strategy, for by 1944 the Allies needed to go further than Churchill’s and Brooke’s strategy of ‘probe, jab, bomb, subvert’. As Samuel Eliot Morison put it: ‘The elephant does not like mice, but a thousand mice cannot kill an elephant.’
‘It has been a very interesting trip and real good value,’ Brooke wrote in his diary while on the flight back between Newfoundland and Stranraer. ‘I feel now in much closer touch with Marshall and his staff and know what he is working for and what his difficulties are.’ A primary difficulty was clearly Admiral King, who Brooke now appreciated had a Pacific-based outlook quite opposed to Marshall’s European one. As for Roosevelt, Brooke acknowledged he had ‘wonderful charm’ but he was not about to be admitted to that small, elite circle–Smuts, Stalin, himself and later MacArthur–who Brooke thought really understood strategy. ‘I do not think that his military sense is on a par with his political sense,’ he wrote of the President. ‘His conceptions and plans are not based on a full grasp of all the implications.’
Brooke admitted that he had found it difficult in the first few meetings to know how much importance to attach to the President’s strategic ideas, and also he ‘did not know how Marshall would react’ to them. With Roosevelt and Churchill planning grand strategy on their own at Hyde Park, in the Map Room and even seemingly in the bathrooms of the White House, Brooke found it ‘difficult at first to carry on business with Marshall. However, I finally got on sufficiently intimate terms with him to discuss freely with him the probable reactions of both President and Prime Minister to the plans we were discussing,’ and vice versa. Brooke wrote these comments while sitting on the Clipper only a few feet away from Churchill, who he noticed was mouthing the phrases of the speech he was writing for the forthcoming debate of no confidence in the House of Commons.50
After the war, Brooke added: ‘The President had no military knowledge and was aware of this fact and consequently relied on Marshall and listened to Marshall’s advice. Marshall never seemed to have any difficulty in countering any wildish plans which the President might put forward. My position was very different.’ Because Brooke conceived part of his duty as weaning Churchill off impractical schemes, which he sometimes needed to do in other ways than mere outright opposition, Brooke became ‘convinced that on many occasions Marshall imagined that I was in agreement with some of Winston’s wilder ideas; it was not easy for me to explain how matters stood without disloyalty to Winston. On several occasions I believe that Marshall thought that I was double crossing him.’51 He did indeed, and understandably so after Brooke’s apparent support for Roundup (with reservations) during the Modicum talks and then two months later coming out so strongly against it at the Argonaut Conference.
Lew Douglas, who as deputy director of the War Shipping Administration from 1942 to 1944 and US ambassador to London from 1947 to 1950 was in a good position to know, claimed after the war that Marshall thought Brooke had been dishonest over the date of cross-Channel operations, while Brooke ‘thought Marshall was being stupid. Marshall had the full support of Stimson and was bitter against Churchill.’52 This is a fascinating insight, quite at variance with all Marshall’s later encomia about Brooke’s integrity and gentlemanly behaviour. After the way that Brooke had seemed to change his tune, it was perhaps natural for Marshall to feel let down, indeed hoodwinked. Bitterness against Brooke, perhaps extending to Churchill too, would have been a reasonable enough reaction, though obviously not one that could have been much alluded to at the time or–for political reasons–for some time afterwards.
Whether or not Marshall was ever bitter, Wedemeyer certainly still was in 1958 when he wrote that ‘The insincerity of the British about Bolero–Roundup was ultimately to be exposed long after the war, when Sir Alan Brooke confessed that the promotion of Gymnast was specifically designed to stall the cross-Channel operation scheduled for 1943.’53 In fact Brooke never confessed any such thing, not least because that was not the rationale. Gymnast was promoted by Churchill and Roosevelt rather than Brooke; it was undertaken because Brooke and Churchill had concluded that both Roundup and Sledgehammer were impossible in 1942, and the politicians wanted definite military action in the calendar year 1942 for perfectly comprehensible political reasons. Brooke’s own preference was for Roundup in 1943 if possible, but of course a successful operation that helped finally to win the three-year, pendulum struggle along the length of the North African littoral was very welcome too, especially as late June 1942 saw Rommel forcing the Eighth Army into full retreat to Mersa Matruh, and Auchinleck taking over day-today command of the battlefield from Ritchie. Simultaneously, on the Eastern Front, the Germans scored some spectacular early successes in their summer offensive.
Soon after his return to Britain, Brooke sent Marshall a telegram thanking him ‘for all your kindness’ and expressing ‘the conviction that our discussions have gone a long way towards ensuring that close cooperation and understanding so essential between us in the execution of the task we are engaged in’. Marshall replied: ‘Greatly relieved that you have made a safe trip and deeply appreciate the gracious message just received from you. If nothing else was accomplished during the visit of the Prime Minister, I feel that the intimate accord and I believe understanding developed between us justified the trip. It was an honour to the Army to have you here and a great privilege to me.’ One wonders whether Marshall intended the deep ambiguity of the phrase ‘If nothing else was accomplished…’in quite the way that it read.
Brooke thought much had been accomplished, and told Kennedy back at the War Office that it was ‘a good thing in many ways’ that he and Churchill had been in Washington when the ‘bad news’ about Tobruk arrived, since ‘It was easier to explain things to the Americans by word of mouth than by telegram. The Americans showed a fine spirit and great eagerness to get into the war and particularly to help in the Middle East.’ Bolero would ‘go ahead with the movement over here at the greatest possible speed which is good’. As for Gymnast versus the cross-Channel projects, Brooke merely said that they ‘were discussed and put on a proper basis’.54
Although Marshall was enough of a soldier–politician to see the auguries clearly, he did not consider the battle for an early cross-Channel operation entirely lost, although he did deeply deprecate Gymnast, and Roosevelt’s support for it. Had he been offering to contribute more than around 700 of the 5,800 aircraft it was estimated that such a venture required, he would have been in a much stronger position to insist. Instead, he prepared to implore in London once more, and in person.