It is well that we should avoid unwarranted complacency and remind ourselves that if we did win the last war it was not without moments of extreme peril.
Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke at a Unionist luncheon in Belfast, 19491
No sooner had one great argument between the British and Americans ended than the next ones began, primarily over the issues of where, when and how to carry out Operation Torch. Marshall wanted to land on the Atlantic coast near Casablanca, and gradually move eastwards along the coast towards Algiers, whereas Brooke wanted to land at Casablanca and Algiers but also further east too, indeed as far to the east as possible, in order swiftly to gain control of the vital channel between Tunisia and Sicily, over which the Afrika Korps was resupplied. The final compromise, which was to attack at eight points along the North and North-west African coast, three near Casablanca, two near Oran and three near Algiers–but nothing further eastwards–came about only once Roosevelt and Churchill intervened.2
‘No staff officer as far as I know, certainly none in the Operations Division, recommended the North African operation,’ recalled General Hull, ‘but they supported it completely once the decision had been made.’ When it came to departmental unanimity, or group-think, the OPD was even more monolithic than the British Planners. Even thirty years later, speaking to the SOOHP, Generals Hull and Handy had views so similar on almost every aspect of personality and strategy that they might have been Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
On the debate with the British Chiefs of Staff, Hull said the Joint Chiefs of Staff ‘insisted on going to the west coast of Africa because we wanted a foot toward the home base so that at least we could get out of there and we couldn’t see [ourselves] throwing everything into the Mediterranean. The Germans could have gone right down to Gibraltar most any time they wanted to…We were scared to death they would come down there even after we went into North Africa.’ It was the reason that the US 3rd Division was held back from the Tunisian campaign until almost the last moment. The Straits of Gibraltar, only 8 miles wide, Handy said, provided ‘a focal point for the German subs, too’.3
There was also the question of who was going to command Operation Torch. In CCS 94 the British had accepted that this would be an American. After a long talk with Marshall on 30 July, Dill telegraphed Churchill and Brooke urging that Marshall himself was ‘clearly the man for the job, and I believe he would accept. Equally clearly, he cannot be spared from here at present, but Eisenhower could well act with his authority.’ Because Roosevelt had not yet approached Marshall–which Dill thought ‘may be due to the President’s fear of losing him’–and the self-effacing general did not wish to canvass for the job, Marshall wanted Churchill and Brooke to initiate discussions. Dill warned that the ‘risk of whittling’ forces away to the Pacific ‘may still exist’, but the President was ‘entirely sound on this point’.4
Roosevelt might well have been sound, but there was a very definite whittling away of resources towards the Pacific going on. Although the Commander-in-Chief made grand strategy, he could not effectively prevent the US Navy pursuing a de factoJapan First-Equal policy, and for the rest of 1942 ‘resources flowed as fast to the Pacific–where the struggle for the Solomon Islands had begun in August–as they did to the Mediterranean, while those to the UK died to a trickle.’5 Guadalcanal was invaded on 7 August and fierce fighting ensued there until February.
Dill also thought it wise, since Sledgehammer was now moribund, for the Americans ‘to delegate the planning and preparations for Sledgehammer to someone else, obviously a Britisher’, so that Eisenhower could concentrate entirely on Torch.6 (The term ‘Britisher’ is not one Britons use, making this cable from Dill sound all the more like one initiated by Marshall, unless it was meant facetiously or jokingly, or Dill really had gone as native as some in the War Office thought.) Churchill ordered the lines to Washington to be cleared for a ‘most secret, most immediate cipher telegram’ to Dill, which stated: ‘I am sure that the President’s wish is full steam ahead Torch at earliest possible moment. We regard this as decided absolutely with overriding priority. No one here is thinking of anything else. You should ask to see the President urgently.’ Dill replied that the President had ‘issued orders for full steam ahead’ on Torch, adding that the Americans believed that Torch made Roundup impossible before 1944. This might have been chagrin on Marshall’s part, or perhaps Themistoclean foresight in already spotting the way that 1943 would be spent following up Torch in places far from the beaches of north-western France.
Churchill cabled Roosevelt the next day, sending a copy to Brooke, to say that he would be grateful for an early decision about the commanders of Bolero, Sledgehammer, Roundup and Torch. ‘It would be agreeable to us if General Marshall were designated for the Supreme Command of Roundup and that in the meantime General Eisenhower should act as his deputy here.’ Meanwhile he would appoint General Alexander as the British Task Force commander to work under Eisenhower. ‘Both these men would work at Torch and General Eisenhower would also for the time being supervise the Bolero–Sledgehammer business,’ wrote Churchill. ‘It seems important to act quickly, as committees are too numerous and too slow.’7 Yet Roosevelt was curiously tardy in making a decision about Marshall and Torch–it was to happen again, in even slower motion, with Overlord–and Churchill got no direct reply to this request even though Roosevelt wanted action in North Africa before the mid-term elections less than four months hence.
Instead, that same day at 12.10 p.m., Roosevelt–who was weekending at Hyde Park–asked Hopkins to put a series of questions to Marshall, who drew up ‘a hasty reply’ that nevertheless neatly encapsulates the general’s strategic thinking at that time.8When FDR asked whether there were any moves the United States could make that might favourably affect the situation in the Middle East, Marshall replied, ‘No, none that can affect the immediate situation.’ He argued that the maximum number of planes was already en route to Cairo and that any more could not be properly serviced by the American personnel there. ‘What is your personal opinion about the coming course of events?’ Marshall answered that G-2 (US Military Intelligence) estimated that Rommel would be in Cairo in one week, whereas US Army Operations thought two, with one week to refit before he undertook ‘the destruction of the remaining British forces’.
With prognostications as doleful as that, it was understandable that Marshall did not want to throw USAAF squadrons into the fray. His view was that he would be able to judge General Auchinleck’s position in the Western Desert better forty-eight hours hence, and that if the Auk could check Rommel the long German supply lines from Tunis might place the Afrika Korps in a difficult position. After discussing British plans to block the Suez Canal in the event of defeat–which Dill estimated would take six months to reopen–Marshall suggested that the defeated British would retreat to the upper Nile, Mosul, Basra, Palestine, Aden and Colombo, while the defence of the Iraqi oil fields from Rommel ‘would depend upon success of Russian defense in the North’.
To Roosevelt’s question about whether America could hold Syria against Rommel, Marshall was frank. With the Mediterranean open to Germany but not the United States, the American Army would have to send nine divisions and about ten air groups, ‘an expansion far beyond our capacity’. As for defending Basra and the Black Sea, the Germans would be in a far better position than the Americans, who would have ‘long and vulnerable’ lines of communication through the Mediterranean. Consequently, ‘A major effort in this region would bleed us white.’ The conclusion was obvious: the United States could do nothing to prevent Rommel’s victory in the Western Desert from denying Middle Eastern oil to the Allies. For America, which took most of her oil from the western hemisphere, this would not be so dire; for Britain it was much more serious.
Marshall’s sober assessment of what would happen if Cairo fell was far too pessimistic about Auchinleck’s chances of preventing it happening. It nonetheless ought to have enthused Roosevelt all the more for the surprise attack on Rommel’s rear in the west and on his hundreds of miles of vulnerable supply lines in the east. Almost every can of petrol poured into panzers close to the Egyptian border had to be taken there by lorry down a very long coastal road through Libya. In the War Office, the Director of Military Operations, John Kennedy, noted that ‘Auchinleck is now on the last line of defence for Egypt. And in a war in which the defence has been so unsuccessful this is not a happy situation.’9 The Second World War had indeed been, at least until the battle that was about to begin at Stalingrad, a conflict where all the laurels had so far gone to those who took the offensive.
It can hardly have come as much of a surprise to Roosevelt when Churchill told him that he was going to Cairo the next day, taking along Brooke, Smuts and Wavell. He wished to investigate personally why Auchinleck was being so cautious. That same day, Churchill received a message from Stalin inviting him to Moscow ‘to consider jointly the urgent questions of war against Hitler’, and adding, ‘The presence of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff would be extremely desirable.’ Churchill and Brooke had never met Stalin, and although they knew that they could expect a freezing reception as a result of cancelling Sledgehammer and postponing Roundup, they accepted immediately. Churchill then asked Eden’s advice about whether Beaverbrook should be invited along on the trip to Egypt and Moscow, saying: ‘I like to have a pal with me.’ Eden advised that since ‘Max was an object not only of suspicion but hatred to many, it would not be politic’.10 Brooke would go, of course, but he could never have been counted as a ‘pal’ of the Prime Minister.
Jan Christian Smuts, by contrast, was held in very high esteem by Churchill, Brooke and the British public as a whole, and not just because he had managed to bring South Africa into the war against Germany in 1939. The British have long demonstrated a soft spot for brave, defeated former foes, and in 1901 Smuts had been in command of the Boer forces fighting against them in Cape Colony. Smuts was lionized in Britain, in that strange way that also happened to other antagonists such as Napoleon after his surrender, King Cetewayo of the Zulus, Mahatma Gandhi during the 1920s, and even Erwin Rommel during the Desert War. Over lunch at Buck’s Club in November 1942–stout and oysters, steak and kidney pie, two bottles of claret–Churchill told Eden and Lord Cranborne that Smuts was how he imagined Socrates might have been like.
At the War Cabinet of 1 August, Churchill said Auchinleck’s report indicating that he would not resume offensive operations before mid-September was ‘very depressing’ and he was flying out in order to arrange ‘a more vigorous handling of matters’. This was a euphemism for Auchinleck returning to his job as commander-in-chief Middle East and someone else taking over the day-to-day command of the Eighth Army. On the morning of 3 August, Churchill and Brooke flew into Cairo West, an airfield on the Alexandria road 25 miles north-west of the Egyptian capital, and stayed at the British Embassy. ‘Instead of sitting at home waiting for news from the front,’ Churchill later wrote, ‘I could send it myself. This was exhilarating.’ Jan Smuts arrived in time for lunch, over which he teased the Prime Minister for not giving the British people ‘truly spiritual inspiration’, such as Gandhi gave the Indians. Churchill replied that he had appointed no fewer than six bishops that year, and ‘If that’s not spiritual inspiration, what is?’11‘But has that done any good?’ asked Smuts, whereupon Churchill went on the offensive, saying to the South African Prime Minister: ‘You are responsible for all our troubles in India–you had Gandhi for years and did not do away with him.’ To which Smuts replied: ‘When I put him in prison–three times–all Gandhi did was to make me a pair of bedroom slippers.’12
After the war, Marshal of the Air Force Sir Arthur Tedder, who had commanded the RAF in the Middle East, recalled that Churchill, ‘fretting that there was to be no offensive action until September’, urged Brooke that Auchinleck should turn the Eighth Army over to Lieutenant-General William ‘Strafer’ Gott, commander of XIII Corps and an outstanding desert fighter. Brooke, who unlike Churchill knew Gott, had the highest opinion of his abilities but judged him ‘very tired’. (He based this on a letter Gott had written to his wife, that Brooke had somehow got to hear about.) In the early hours, Churchill offered Brooke himself the Eighth Army command. ‘I shall have a job to convince him that I am unsuited for the job,’ Brooke recorded at the time, ‘having never been trained in the desert.’13
In contrast to this laconic, stiff-upper-lipped contemporaneous dismissal of the idea, Brooke admitted years after the war that Churchill’s suggestion ‘gave rise to the most desperate longings in my heart! I had tasted the thrill of commanding a formation in war…For sheer thrill and excitement it stood in a category by itself, and not to be compared to a Staff appointment. Even that of CIGS, when working for a man like Winston, must mean constant frustration, friction, and untold difficulties in achieving the results one was after.’ With many of the preparations already in place for what was soon to be the battle of El Alamein, Brooke might well have been in the position of the national–indeed international–hero that fell instead to his protégé Bernard Montgomery.
On the afternoon of 5 August, Brooke visited Eighth Army HQ for tea with Auchinleck. ‘I was much impressed by the beauty of the turquoise blue of the Mediterranean along this coast,’ he noted. ‘The colour is caused by specially white sand along this coast line.’ He was less impressed with Gott, whose HQ he had just left and who he thought would not be as energetic as Montgomery in command of the Eighth Army, and equally unimpressed with Auchinleck.
Brooke recorded Thursday 6 August as ‘One of the most difficult days of my life, with momentous decisions to take as far as my own future and that of the war was concerned’. While he was getting dressed that morning, ‘and practically naked’, Churchill suddenly ‘burst’ into his room ‘Very elated’ and told him that ‘his thoughts were taking shape and that he would soon commit himself to paper!’ Brooke ‘rather shuddered and wondered what he was up to!’14 Ten minutes later the Prime Minister ‘burst’ into Brooke’s room again and invited him to breakfast. For an upper-class Ulsterman of conventional mien, one can understand that Brooke found working with Churchill discombobulating at times, but, as Colonel Aubertin Mallaby pointed out, there were no ‘off’ times for the Prime Minister; he was thinking about the war every waking hour.
Over breakfast, Churchill outlined his plan to split the Middle East Command into two, between a Near East stretching along the coast of North Africa to the Suez Canal and a Middle East comprising Syria, Palestine, Persia and Iraq. He wanted to move Auchinleck to the latter as he had ‘lost confidence in him’. He then offered Brooke the Near East Command, with Montgomery as his Eighth Army commander. ‘This made my heart race very fast!!’ wrote Brooke, who was offered a short time to think it over. He nonetheless declined ‘without waiting’, giving as his overt reasons his ignorance of desert warfare and the fact that he would ‘never have time to grip hold of the show to my satisfaction before the necessity to attack became imperative’. Neither argument was convincing: Montgomery was not a desert general either, but he managed to ‘grip hold of the show’ quickly enough before El Alamein.
Privately, as he told his diary, Brooke also felt that after working with Churchill for almost nine months he finally believed that he could ‘exercise a limited amount of control on some of his activities and that at last he is beginning to take my advice’. By implication, he thought that the Vice-CIGS Archie Nye or someone else might not have been able to restrain the Prime Minister, and he was probably right. Churchill was not pleased with Brooke’s refusal, ‘but accepted it well’. Only afterwards did Smuts–clearly encouraged by the Prime Minister–take Brooke aside to try to persuade him to take up the offer, telling him ‘what a wonderful future’ he would have if he defeated Rommel. This was no more than the truth: the achievements of ‘Alex’ and ‘Monty’ are known by millions around the world today, that of Brooke only by the cognoscenti of grand strategy.
Brooke was not persuaded by Smuts, not least because, as a gentleman, he couldn’t bear the idea that Auchinleck ‘might think that I had come out here on purpose to work myself into his shoes!’ He thought over the offer throughout the day, but remained convinced that his decision was the correct one, and that he could ‘do more by remaining as CIGS’.15 By putting his commitment to the wider war effort above any personal ambition for fame, or desire for the ‘thrill’ of independent command, Brooke did his country a very great service. We assume that politicians are driven by personal ambition, but soldiers are too, and although in career terms to swap the job of CIGS for Near East commander-in-chief might have looked like a demotion, in fact it would have afforded, as Smuts intimated, a ‘wonderful future’.
At a lunch party of the Army Council at the Dorchester Hotel in November 1943, Smuts claimed it had been his idea to appoint Brooke commander-in-chief Near East, and that Brooke had replied: ‘This is a very tempting thing–but my place is by the Prime Minister,’ a view Brooke reiterated after sleeping on it. ‘That was a great thing to do,’ concluded Smuts.16 One of those present later wondered whether Brooke ever regretted his decision, and concluded that ‘Knowing now the victorious campaign that was to follow he would hardly be human if he did not.’ The fact that he decided to stay beside a near-unmanageable prime minister, because he felt that no one else could do the job, thereby missing his chance of victorious generalship after a lifetime’s training for it, might well explain his exasperation with Churchill on so many occasions thereafter.
Churchill explained Brooke’s decision in his memoirs as having been taken because ‘he had only been CIGS for eight months, he believed he had my full confidence, and the Staff machine was working very smoothly. Another change at this moment might cause a temporary dislocation at this critical time.’17 Was Churchill being disingenuous with Brooke, and vice versa? Might Churchill have offered the post because he wanted a more malleable CIGS? The secret reason why Brooke declined was that he feared that might be the case. When the American serialization of The Hinge of Fate was published in 1950, Brooke wrote to Henry Pownall, who was researching the next volume for the former Prime Minister, to say that Churchill had entirely ignored two of the three reasons he had refused the Near East command, so Churchill inserted them in the British edition. As Professor David Reynolds comments, ‘It must have been galling to Brooke that Churchill had clearly forgotten “one of the most difficult days of my life”.’
On the evening of 6 August, Churchill sent the War Cabinet a telegram whose terms had been agreed by Brooke and Smuts. This proposed an immediate splitting off of Persia and Iraq from the Middle East Command, making them an independent Army command, just as he had proposed to Brooke that morning. This command would be offered to Auchinleck, whom Churchill didn’t want to lose altogether. He believed–or professed to–that if Auchinleck had earlier been freed from responsibilities covering the Levant and Caspian Sea he might have been able ‘to concentrate his forces in the Western Desert, turned the scale and given us a victory instead of a defeat’. Meanwhile, as Jacob recorded, Brooke agreed with the plan, ‘though for a rather different reason. He felt that it was wrong for an area of such vital importance as Persia and Iraq to remain any longer as the Cinderella of either the Middle East or of India.’18 As so often, when Brooke and Churchill agreed on something, it happened–even if they came to the decision for different reasons.
Brooke and Churchill also agreed that Alexander should succeed Auchinleck in Cairo, Lieutenant-General Thomas Corbett and Brigadier Eric Dorman-Smith were to leave their commands altogether, and Lieutenant-General William ‘Strafer’ Gott was to lead the Eighth Army, although Brooke had misgivings about this. Yet on his way to take up his new command the very next day, 7 August, flying the Burg el Arab to Heliopolis route, which was considered safe, Gott’s slow transport plane was shot down ‘in flames’ by a lone German fighter. Churchill and Brooke then quickly settled on the man whom Brooke had wanted originally, Lieutenant-General Bernard Law Montgomery.
The War Cabinet meeting in London on 7 August was a good illustration of the way that Churchill and Brooke dominated military policy even in their absence. It had met at 11.15 p.m. to consider the plan to divide the Middle East Command, but before the meeting ended at 2 a.m. on the 8th a telegram arrived saying that Gott had been killed. Archie Nye said that the situation was: ‘In [the] hands of [the] PM and CIGS. They have in mind a General Montgomery. Not enough [is] known of the form of commanders to know that any particular man will fit the bill.’ The use of the indefinite article before Montgomery’s name led Burgis to assume, as he told Churchill’s son Randolph years later, that none ‘of those present knew him from a crow then’.
At the meeting, Bevin pointed out that it was a ‘Strong team. PM, Smuts, CIGS’ and for the War Cabinet it was ‘Difficult to arrive at a concrete judgment at this distance’. To this Attlee added that he would like to see Alexander running the Eighth Army with Wavell in overall command of the Middle East; however, ‘We must either put up counterproposals or acquiesce.’ They acquiesced, telegraphing the Prime Minister to say: ‘As you, Smuts and CIGS who are on the spot are all in agreement, we are prepared to authorise action proposed.’19 Frankly, anything else was unthinkable, and there is no example during the war of a united Churchill and Brooke being overridden on a military issue by the War Cabinet. So Montgomery flew out from Britain, taking up his command on 12 August.
In Washington, meanwhile, Henry Stimson was still deeply pessimistic about any operations in North Africa, and on 10 August he made Marshall promise that he would take a final stand against Operation Torch if ‘it seemed clearly headed for disaster’.20Marshall had no difficulty in making that promise, which was after all no more than his duty, but it is indicative of the lack of confidence felt by many senior strategists at the time. Stimson’s doubts remained, and as late as 17 September he was writing that the undertaking was risky but, ‘the Commander-in-Chief having made the decision’, it had to be seen through.
Stimson also drew up a sharp note to the President that he did not eventually send, but of which he gave a copy to Marshall. ‘The objections to the hazards of Torch had been stated to you in previous conferences with your advisers,’ it read, ‘and the objection that it was a purely defensive operation instead of an offensive was inserted in the London memorandum on the Chief of Staff’s sole insistence and against British opposition.’ Marshall and the Staff now ‘believe the operation should not be undertaken’. Stimson foresaw a risk of defeat in Africa that would emasculate Roundup until 1944, and thought that Torch wouldn’t help Russia either.
In its somewhat formal summation of recent history, and reiteration of what Roosevelt already well knew, the draft read more like the preamble to a resignation, but it merely ended with an ‘earnest recommendation’ that ‘before an irrevocable decision is made upon the Torch operation you should make yourself familiar with the present views of these your military advisers.’ Stimson might have been using this unsent letter much as Brooke used his journal–partly to let off steam–and a surprising number of people do write letters they never truly intend to send, for precisely that purpose. Yet Stimson would hardly have written in such terms if Marshall had supported Torch wholeheartedly.
From 12 to 15 August, Churchill and Averell Harriman, Roosevelt’s personal envoy to Stalin, conferred with the Russians in Moscow. Because of the danger of a fire in their B-24 Liberator bomber, Brooke, Cadogan, Wavell, Jacob and Tedder had been forced to turn back to Teheran, and only arrived on the 13th. They therefore missed a four-hour meeting with Stalin from 7 to 11 p.m. on Wednesday 12 August, of which, Churchill reported to Roosevelt, the first two hours were ‘bleak and sombre’. The Prime Minister explained at length with maps why Sledgehammer–which he and Roosevelt had promised Molotov in writing back in June–had been indefinitely postponed. Stalin argued hard the other way, and as Churchill reported to Washington, ‘Everybody was pretty glum. Finally he said that he did not accept our view but we had the right to decide.’
Everyone cheered up once Churchill passed on to what he called ‘the ruthless bombing of Germany’. He then brought up Operation Torch, at which Stalin ‘became intensely interested’. The conversation ranged over the whole of the rest of the war in the west, with Churchill concluding that once ‘Brooke and the others arrive…the military authorities on both sides are to sit together and check up both on strategy and technical detail.’21 The British military authorities arrived safely in a Russian plane at a small aerodrome on the outskirts of Moscow at 7.45 p.m. the next day and were taken straight to State Villa No. 7, where Churchill was staying, for a debriefing. After dinner, the British party and Harriman set off for the Kremlin at 11 p.m. ‘It was a dark night,’ wrote Jacob, ‘and Moscow is completely blacked out. No headlights are allowed on cars, so that we crawled along at a very slow pace. As a result we were half an hour late.’
They were conducted to the 600-square-foot office inhabited by Stalin, whose desk was tucked away on the right-hand side at the far end. Two pictures of Lenin and one of Marx provided the only decoration. Stalin was lounging in a chair sideways on to the table at the head, puffing at a large, curled pipe. After everyone had taken their places, with Brooke next to Churchill and only the interpreter on his other side, the meeting started, badly, with another ‘desultory argument about the possibility of a second front and similar matters’.
Jacob wrote that Stalin spoke ‘in a very low, gentle voice, with an occasional gesture of the right hand, and never looked the Prime Minister in the face’. The reason he averted his eyes was that ‘Stalin was coming out with all kinds of insulting remarks, but one could not really tell whether they were being faithfully put across by Pavlov, because his vocabulary was limited.’ Stalin’s translator, Vladimir Pavlov, was in fact excellent. At this first meeting with Churchill his English was hesitant, but he would take great care not to distort Stalin’s words. Stalin was simply intending to be as rude as possible and ‘was suggesting that we were not prepared to operate on the Continent because we were frightened of the Germans’.
According to Jacob’s minutes, the entire conversation was carried on by Stalin and Churchill, with only four short interventions by Harriman and one by Tedder. At the post-mortem back at Churchill’s villa, Harriman suggested that the explanation ‘was probably that Stalin had to adopt an uncompromising attitude at one stage of the negotiations, in order to satisfy his own people’.22 That too was absurd, but indicative of the way that many Westerners still failed to recognize that Stalin was an all-powerful dictator–indeed, as the title of a recent biography puts it, ‘the Red Tsar’.
Four months later, Brooke threw a dinner party in Chelsea where he gave his views of Stalin, saying that the Marshal ‘gave him the creeps. He looked pale and even grey with the flesh hanging from the bones of his face. Stalin did not “register” when Winston came into the room–it might have been a footman.’ Brooke added that the Russian dictator showed ‘no sign of humanity except once when he said to Churchill, before the interpreter could translate an impassioned speech, “I like your sentence although I do not know what it means.”’23
On 14 August the traffic situation in Moscow could not have been more different. This time in daylight they ‘drove through the streets entirely regardless of red and green lights, or of policemen or pedestrian crossings. If there are pedestrians in the way, so much the worse for them.’ Brooke’s was ‘a peculiarly carefree driver. He never actually had a crash, but he ran down one man, who was then extricated from the wheels, and moved away to one side, so that the car could go on. The drivers treat the citizens like so many cattle.’24 With the experience of the loss of his first wife, Brooke could not have found this pleasant.
The meeting on 15 August went badly. At noon Brooke went to the Soviet Government Hospitality House, 17 Spiridonovka Street, to deliver a statement and discuss the Second Front with Marshal Voroshilov and Marshal Shaposhnikov, the Russian Chief of Staff, who both displayed what Brooke considered an astonishing lack of understanding of how to attack over large stretches of salt water. ‘Finally,’ recorded Jacob, ‘the CIGS told them that the Americans and ourselves had come to very definite conclusions on this subject and were not prepared to alter them.’ Voroshilov then refused to discuss the fighting in the Caucasus with Brooke, who in turn replied that he had not been authorized to discuss Torch with him.
It was on this visit that Churchill made the error, while attempting to explain to Stalin the attractions of attacking the Axis from the south before attempting an invasion of France, of drawing a sketch of a crocodile with, he said, a ‘soft underbelly’.25Once the image was lodged in the Prime Minister’s mind, he used the concept of ‘attacking the under-belly of the Axis’ in a letter to Roosevelt the following month, and subsequently to other audiences on other occasions until it became a well-known phrase associated with him. Given that the future struggles in the south–especially in the Italian peninsula–were to be anything but soft, it was to be a gaffe that would long be held against him. The one disadvantage of having such a vivid, fizzing imagination and verbal dexterity as Churchill was that the law of averages meant that very occasionally it must misfire, and when it did a memorable but ultimately unfortunate phrase was born.
When they were in Teheran on their way back home from Moscow–which also involved travelling to Cairo, El Alamein and Gibraltar–Churchill and Brooke heard of yet another disaster for British Commonwealth forces, to add to Dunkirk, Narvik, Greece, Crete, Singapore and Tobruk. An operation to attack the French Channel port of Dieppe that they had authorized, but then left entirely up to Lord Louis Mountbatten, as director of combined operations, had resulted in catastrophe. At dawn on 19 August, 252 ships, thirty tanks and 6,100 men–two Canadian infantry brigades totalling over five thousand men and over one thousand Commandos–had taken part in Operation Jubilee. It was intended as a ‘reconnaissance in force’, but had no clear follow-up plan. Even at this distance of time, it is hard to know what the Dieppe Raid was meant to achieve.
A small German convoy in the Channel alerted the shore defences before the assault could take place, so the element of surprise was lost, yet Mountbatten ordered it to go ahead anyhow. The tanks landed on the shingle beach but could not negotiate the sea wall successfully. German machine-guns accounted for most of the 4,100 Allied casualties, more than two-thirds of the attack force. The Canadians lost 907 killed and 1,874 captured; the Royal Navy suffered 550 casualties; the RAF and RCAF lost ninety-nine planes, the worst single-day total of the war, including during the battle of Britain. The Germans by contrast lost only 314 killed and 37 captured.
Although no German troops were moved from east to west as a result of the débâcle, coastal defences were massively strengthened. ‘If I had the same decision to make again,’ Mountbatten nonetheless averred, ‘I would do as I did before. It gave the Allies the priceless secret of victory.’ This is tripe, unless the lesson of not attacking a well-defended town without proper intelligence and a preliminary aerial and naval bombardment is a ‘priceless secret’, rather than the kind of assumption a lance-corporal might have made. Yet even as late as 2003 historians would still take Mountbatten at his word, with one writing: ‘The catastrophe provided priceless lessons for a full-scale amphibious invasion.’26
(It is surprising how little influence the Canadians enjoyed in the higher direction of the Second World War. They had the world’s third largest navy at one point, pushed furthest inland of any of the armies on D-Day, were fabulously generous to British coffers throughout the war, contributing much more than the Americans per capita, and provided the only two armed and trained divisions standing between the south coast and London after Dunkirk. Yet they had virtually no say on the various bodies that ultimately decided how, when and where Canadians would fight.)
The writer Leonard Mosley claimed in 1971 that ‘The only people in any way satisfied by the Raid were those advisers of Winston Churchill, like Cherwell and Sir Alan Brooke, who thought it would prove to the Americans once and for all that a Second Front across the Channel was unthinkable for at least another year.’27 Brooke had served with the Canadians at Vimy Ridge and admired them. The idea that he could have taken any satisfaction in so many of them being killed, wounded and captured is monstrous. ‘The casualties were undoubtedly far too heavy,’ Brooke commented in his diary; ‘to lose 2,700 men out of 5,000 on such an enterprise is too heavy a cost.’28 Furthermore he did not in fact use the Dieppe Raid as an argument against Roundup, because both he and Marshall knew that in both size and objective a reconnaissance in force was very different from a full-scale invasion, and by the time Dieppe was undertaken Sledgehammer was already off the table for 1942.
On Friday 21 August, Sir John Dill threw a dinner party at his London flat for Eisenhower, Mark Clark and Thomas Handy, the War Office strategists Nye and Kennedy, and the new commander of the First Army in North Africa, Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson. Dill told them that Marshall worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. then ‘went out on the river with his wife and took a picnic supper or something of that sort’, before going back to work. He also said ‘what a fine and powerful agent’ Marshall was with Roosevelt, and spoke of Brooke’s relations with Churchill.29 Infuriatingly, the next paragraph in Kennedy’s diary was later very heavily scored through in ink on the Whitehall foolscap writing paper.
After dinner, the group settled down to discuss Operation Torch. Kennedy said the present plan–to attack Casablanca and Algiers but not Oran–‘would lead to a fiasco’ because the numbers involved needed to be trebled. Dill was non-committal, as was Nye, since, Kennedy wrote, ‘both have more formal positions to preserve vis-à-vis the Americans than I have.’ Anderson sided with Kennedy. Ike was also non-committal, beyond saying that so far no one had said ‘anything cheerful’ about the plan. The Americans left around 10.30 p.m., after which Kennedy said, ‘It was almost incredible that after the Americans had been in the war for a year, their share of this plan should be so small. It is perfectly obvious that their hearts are not in it (anyhow King’s) and that the Pacific War is eating up resources that should be here.’ He further accused them of not carrying out the agreed ‘Germany first then Japan’ strategy. Copying the complaint Marshall often made about overall British strategy, Kennedy said that the Torch plan suffered from lack of ‘concentration of effort’.
Dill then asked why the War Office had had ‘no outline plan’ for Torch ready when Marshall had visited in July, a direct criticism of Kennedy as director of military operations. Kennedy responded that the project had only come up during the visit. ‘Before he came we intended only to press for the continuation of the American movement to this country and then to decide how to use the forces.’ The Torch plan ‘had therefore started from the top without a detailed examination’. Now that his War Office Planners had looked at it carefully, Kennedy said, ‘we find that the difficulties especially of maintenance and shipping are greater than had been anticipated and that the forces are not nearly big enough.’ This brought the conversation round to Churchill, and Dill said that the Prime Minister had ruined Auchinleck by having ‘pressed and harnessed’ him. ‘In fact he has dwarfed him just as he dwarfs and reduces others around him.’30
Kennedy’s defence of himself to Dill reinforces the suspicion that Torch–then still called Gymnast–was decided upon by Churchill and Roosevelt at Hyde Park, and that they subsequently prevailed upon the Chiefs of Staffs, Brooke because it was the only offensive alternative to Jupiter, Sledgehammer and Roundup, and Marshall because Brooke had blocked Sledgehammer and Roundup. When Kennedy said Torch had ‘come from the top’ he was more right than maybe even he knew. The reason he did not have a presentable version of it ready for Marshall’s visit was perhaps because Brooke was known not fully to approve of it.
On Sunday 23 August 1942 the German Sixth Army launched Operation Blue, the all-out offensive to capture the city of Stalingrad, the industrial (especially armaments) centre on the River Volga, home to six hundred thousand Russians. At 4 p.m. the 16th Panzer Division moved into the outskirts of the city and thereafter a quarter of a million German troops laid day-and-night siege while one thousand German planes bombed the city, which had virtually no anti-aircraft defences, into mountains of rubble and corpses.
Hitherto the Germans, fighting in open country, had managed to force the Soviet Army back further and further, but at Stalingrad house-to-house combat blunted their advantage and played to the strengths of the far more numerous Russians. Instead of tanks and mobile artillery, the weapons that mattered most were grenades, bayonets, sniper rifles, small arms and sometimes even spades as the Russian Sixty-second Army was mobilized to defend the metropolis that bore their leader’s name. By 12 September, German troops had got inside the city, and the next day took some key positions, such as the ferry terminal, which changed hands thrice in two hours. (The train station is said to have changed hands no fewer than sixteen times in the course of the battle.)
By 27 September two-thirds of Stalingrad was in the Germans’ hands as a result of vicious, merciless fighting they termed Rattenkriege (rat warfare). The Russians used the sewers to stage counter-attacks, but by 11 November they controlled only about one-tenth of the west bank of the city. Such waste of strength over a place that was no longer strategically valuable could have only one explanation: prestige. Hitler had publicly promised that Stalingrad would be taken; his eponymous city was equally totemic for Stalin. In mid-November, Russian forces numbering over one million men under Georgi Zhukov smashed through the Roumanian army north and south of Stalingrad and on the 23rd Red Army units met each other at Kalach, thereby trapping the Sixth Army within the city.
The outcome was by no means certain even then, however. The superiority of German combat efficiency over that of the Russians in the early part of the war meant that, on average, ‘one German division was a match for three Russian divisions of comparable size and firepower, and that under favourable circumstances of defence, one German division theoretically could–and often actually did–hold off as many as seven comparable Russian divisions’.31 Nonetheless, attempts to relieve Stalingrad failed, and Hitler refused to countenance a break-out. The stalemate continued through the rest of 1942.
It was Stalingrad that finally, in Stimson’s words, ‘banished the spectre of a German victory in Russia, which had haunted the Council table of the Allies for a year and a half’. It also greatly reduced the likelihood of a German attack through Spain, cutting off the American forces from their supply lines. Just as Wellington’s campaign in the Iberian peninsula had been a small but significant ‘ulcer’ for Napoleon, but certainly not the Russian ‘coronary’ that destroyed him, so too the North African and Italian campaigns would be ulcerous for Hitler, but it was the Eastern Front that annihilated the Nazi dream of Lebensraum (‘living space’) for the ‘master race’. Four in every five German soldiers killed in the Second World War died on the Eastern Front, an inconvenient fact for any historian who wishes to make too much of the Western Allies’ contribution to the victory.
Between 24 August, when Churchill received what he called the ‘bombshell’ news that Brooke and Marshall were deadlocked over Torch–with Marshall wanting to attack only Casablanca and possibly Oran, but Brooke wanting Algiers too–and 2 September, when Roosevelt changed his mind and supported the inclusion of Algiers, there was renewed transatlantic struggle between the Staffs. Marshall feared that the American forces would get cut off if they landed too far east; Brooke wanted to try to stop Rommel escaping from Tripoli, and so wanted to land as far eastwards as possible. Moran thought that Churchill ‘was never so unhappy as when he was at odds with his military advisers or his American allies’, but when he had to make a choice between them, he came down firmly on Brooke’s side, not least because he had emphasized to Stalin the comprehensive nature of Torch.
At 11 a.m. on 24 August, Kennedy and Major-General Francis Davidson, the Director of Military Intelligence, were summoned to Churchill’s private rooms in the No. 10 Annexe. ‘Winston lay in bed in his black dressing gown with dragons, a half-sucked cigar in his mouth which he lit and re-lit during the next hour and a half, without making any appreciable progress with it, a glass of water on the table beside him.’ He had just returned from Gibraltar, and told the two men how in Egypt ‘with the change of commanders a new wind was blowing, how the Army was all in bits and pieces and that would be put right now’ and of ‘the terrible wastage the “poor” Army had suffered’.
Reporting on Russia, the Prime Minister said that Stalin had not made out that his situation was bad, ‘as he might have been expected to in pressing for a Second Front’. Indeed he had been optimistic enough to remark: ‘Dieppe will be explained by Torch.’ Churchill added that he had bet Brooke half a crown at odds of evens that the Russians would hold the Caucasus, and boasted: ‘I drank as much or more than Stalin and Molotov together–they only sip their liquor you know–and I was in quite good order.’
Kennedy then gave Churchill a blunt assessment on the planning for Torch, specifically the inadequacy of the American contribution, the need for overwhelming force, and a warning about ‘the first manifestation of divergent strategies’. The bonhomie of the early part of the meeting disappeared immediately as ‘Winston’s hackles rose at once and his eyes, which were rather watery, began to flash.’ Anyone, he said, could make a plan involving overwhelming force, but there could be no delay, especially for further American forces coming from the Pacific. He wanted to bring forward the date rather than delay it, saying that fighting Vichy France ‘was a soft job–not like fighting Germans’, and that he would even ‘be prepared to go ahead without the Americans themselves so long as they had plenty of American flags to wave. What we wanted was a big show in the shop window.’
Kennedy replied that, although three divisions would be ready in three weeks, it would take three or four months to get thirteen together, yet the limiting factor was not troops so much as shipping, naval escorts, aircraft carriers and, as ever, landing craft for the invasion force. He argued that ‘the Americans should be in the thing wholeheartedly not only at the beginning but subsequently’, pointing out that the growing American commitments in the Solomon Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific showed that they were diverting shipping and naval craft away from Germany First. ‘Winston was distinctly ruffled’ before the meeting ended at 12.45 p.m.32
On 25 August, Churchill reported to the War Cabinet about Stalin, whom he described as a ‘large man’ of ‘great sagacity’. His visit had ‘Explained some past mysteries’ about Stalin’s behaviour before the war, and the rebuffing of the British military mission to Moscow in August 1939. Led by Admiral Sir Ranfurly Drax, this had been Britain’s last-minute attempt to prevent the Nazi–Soviet Pact taking place. Churchill reported that Stalin had been ‘certain Britain didn’t intend war…This was confirmed by our offers–France of 80 divisions, Britain of 3 divisions. Stalin had been sure Hitler wasn’t bluffing. At Munich an effort might have been made, after that nil was our offered strength.’ To Churchill, who had denounced Munich at the time and called for a united front with the Soviets against the Nazis thereafter, Stalin’s assurances that the weakness of the Chamberlain Government in 1938–9 had left the Russians with no option but to sign the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was confirmation of his stance during his Wilderness Years. To those Chamberlainites and Munichois still left around the Cabinet table, Stalin’s assertions must have been galling. As for Torch, ‘Stalin did not exaggerate his plight in order to exploit or extort help from us,’ said an impressed Churchill.33
That day Churchill and Brooke received a document from the Joint Chiefs of Staff stating that the attack on Algiers would be too risky. ‘We are all profoundly disconcerted by the memorandum,’ Churchill replied on the 27th. ‘It seems to me that the whole pith of the operation will be lost if we do not take Algiers as well as Oran on the first day. In Algiers we have the best chance of getting a friendly reception and even if we got nothing except Algeria a most important strategic success would have been gained.’ Not to go east of Oran, he went on, ‘is making the enemy a present not only of Tunis but of Algiers’.34
‘Torch is a great confusion,’ wrote Eden’s private secretary Oliver Harvey in his diary. ‘It is very difficult to make plans on both sides of the Atlantic and expect them to coincide. We are in favour of two prongs–US think they will only have enough for one. We don’t like the East prong without the West. Behind and above all this are Winston and Roosevelt goading each other on to fix dates, etc, while all is vague.’ Kennedy meanwhile rightly spotted that ‘It is a political operation and stands or falls by the correctness of the political appreciations–reactions of the French, Spaniards, etc, etc.’35
Some American Planners thought that because the Vichy French were supposed to prefer the United States to Britain, the Stars and Stripes might be welcomed in North Africa whereas the Union Jack would be fired upon. This led to the Americans attempting to persuade the British to play a junior role in the landings, which was resented in some areas of the War Office and Cabinet. Quite why this should be, beyond feelings of national pride, is hard to say. The Americans had diplomatic relations with the Vichy Government, whereas Britain did not, so it made sense for the operation to be presented as an American liberation, and if that required the United States to spearhead it, the Churchill Government should not have baulked at an opportunity to save British lives. If national pride was the reason, as the war progressed there were to be many more such turf wars over symbolism and prestige, which rarely redounded to the credit of those involved.
‘We are undertaking something of a quite desperate nature and which depends only in minor degree upon the professional preparations we can make or upon the wisdom of our military decisions,’ wrote Eisenhower in his diary that week. ‘In a way it is like the return of Napoleon from Elba–if the guess as to psychological reaction is correct, we may gain a great advantage in this war; if the guess is wrong, it would be almost as certain that we would gain nothing and lose a lot.’ He feared that there might be ‘a very bloody repulse’ and that Vichy France and even Spain might enter the war against the Allies.36 Axis propaganda indeed began to give out that there was a concentration of German forces near the Pyrenees, which there was not; and Marshall’s and Eisenhower’s worry that the Germans might be invited by Franco to march through Spain and outflank the Allies by closing the Straits of Gibraltar, trapping American forces in the Mediterranean, failed to take into account Hitler’s and Franco’s considerable mutual mistrust. (After their only meeting, at Hendaye in October 1940, Hitler said that he would rather have three or four teeth pulled out than sit through another conversation with Franco.)37
Staying at Chequers on the night of Saturday 29 August, Eisenhower and Mark Clark received a courier from Marshall saying that the President had definitely decided to attack Oran and Casablanca with eighty thousand US troops, but that the British should not arrive until a week afterwards, and the attack on Algiers would be omitted altogether. As Roosevelt was not planning to inform Churchill of this until the following Monday, for Clark ‘this admonition to silence came at a difficult moment’. Brooke, Eden, Mountbatten and Ismay were also present, trying to finalize plans for Torch, so while ‘Churchill was enthusiastic’ and ‘Eden expressed optimism,’ Clark ‘fidgeted and boiled inside, and I imagine Ike did too.’ Clark recalled how embarrassing it would have been ‘to air the latest word from Washington’ and he and Eisenhower left on Sunday the 30th having ‘answered no more questions than was necessary’.38
It might have been this occasion that Eisenhower recalled in his book At Ease, when he wrote of a meeting at Chequers where British and American views were not meshing too well. Brooke said to him: ‘Naturally, you cannot be expected to oppose violently something that Washington apparently wants.’ Ike recorded: ‘Although I am sure he did not mean to imply that I was swayed by fear of a reprimand, I explosively put him right. I told him flatly that only the merits of a proposal, not its place of origin or its sponsorship, mattered to me when the fortunes of nations were at stake.’39 For all his charm, Eisenhower could be waspish at times, even with Brooke. After the Chequers meeting, Eden wrote in his diary: ‘Greatly impressed by Eisenhower and Clark, as I have been before. We are lucky to have them as colleagues.’ Clark meanwhile went back to London where he addressed thirty-seven British and American generals, saying: ‘Some of you men are less confused than others about Torch. Let’s all get equally confused.’40
If Brooke assumed that Eisenhower could be swayed by Marshall, Marshall feared that the Torch commander might be swayed by Churchill, warning Admiral Leahy that at Chequers he was ‘very much under the guns’. Marshall asked Leahy to use his influence ‘to see that the President’s message gets off by Monday as the delays are fatal to the completion of the plans and therefore directly affect the date for the operation’.41 Although many important cables from Roosevelt to Churchill were drafted first by Marshall, they would often be radically redrafted by the President–sometimes in Hopkins’ handwriting–before being sent off. Some important messages, such as the one trying to persuade Churchill that British troops should take a junior role in Operation Torch, went through several redrafts over a number of days and emerged greatly different from Marshall’s original.42 This was even truer when Admiral King was let loose upon early drafts, since FDR had a sense of how to turn away wrath in a manner alien to the acerbic, straight-talking head of the US Navy.
When Roosevelt’s cable duly arrived on Monday 31 August it caused consternation. ‘I feel very strongly that the initial attacks must be made by an exclusively American ground force supported by your naval and transport and air units,’ it read. This was because Roosevelt believed that the French would offer less resistance ‘to us than they will to the British’. He suggested to Churchill and Brooke that a week after the operation, once French non-resistance was secured, ‘your force can come in to the eastward.’ The attack should preferably take place before 14 October, thought Roosevelt, but certainly no later than the end of that month. He did not have to remind anyone that the Congressional mid-term elections fell on Tuesday 3 November 1942.
At a War Cabinet meeting that day, Eden said that there was a general impression in the press that the Second Front in Europe had been cancelled for the rest of 1942. Although this was true, Churchill emphasized that it was nonetheless ‘Important to play [up] to the Germans, and not let them draw off troops from France.’43 The last thing Churchill wanted was German troop movements from France either to Russia or to North Africa. If that meant encouraging the British press to believe that a cross-Channel operation was still possible in 1942, it was easily a price worth paying.
Churchill answered Roosevelt’s telegram on 1 September, arguing that not to attack Algiers simultaneously with Casablanca and Oran might lead ‘to the Germans forestalling us not only in Tunis but in Algeria’, and he urged that all three ports be targeted. Roosevelt replied the following day agreeing to this, but demanding that each of the attacking forces be led by American troops, with the United States controlling all relations with the Vichy authorities once they had landed. This was undoubtedly sensible at Oran, where the Royal Navy had sunk much of the Vichy fleet in July 1940.
There was a good deal of doubt over Torch in the British High Command even comparatively late in the planning stage of the operation: on 3 September Dill told Kennedy that he didn’t believe in it, and feared it would ‘destroy his credibility in the States when it failed’, in which event he would have to leave. After a Chiefs of Staff meeting that day, Kennedy told Brooke that the operation ‘would have no chance today’, but might work in November if Libya was softened up and Stalingrad held out. Kennedy also suspected that Brooke ‘is not wholeheartedly behind the plan now that the implications are coming to light more clearly’, especially those regarding the Navy and shipping. In reality, Brooke had not been wholeheartedly behind it from the start.
Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s first serious argument over strategy ended in a compromise whereby they agreed to split the difference, in terms of troops, between Algiers and Casablanca. ‘We are getting very close together,’ the President wrote on 4 September, offering to reduce the Casablanca force by five thousand men which, as five thousand had already been taken off the Oran operation, released an extra ten thousand for Algiers. ‘We should settle this whole thing with finality at once,’ he wrote. Churchill agreed the next day, even offering that British troops might wear American uniforms, and alleging that ‘They will be proud to do so.’ The President signalled the end of the haggling with a telegram simply stating, ‘Hurrah! Roosevelt,’ to which Churchill replied: ‘Okay full blast.’44
The next meeting at Chequers with Eisenhower and Brooke was therefore far easier than the last. With Pound and the Minister of War Transport Frederick Leathers present, they decided that Torch must take place on 4 November at the earliest, 15 November at the latest, with Ike’s ‘best guess’ being 8 November.45 On 12 September Churchill had cause to thank Roosevelt, telling him that the 317 Sherman tanks and 94 self-propelled 105mm guns ‘which you kindly gave me on that dark Tobruk day in Washington’ had arrived safely in Egypt and ‘been received with the greatest enthusiasm…As these tanks were taken from the hands of the American Army, perhaps you would show this message to General Marshall.’46
Because the system of Allied convoys that were taking large amounts of war matériel to northern Russian ports to help the Soviet war effort was about to be suspended in order to provide shipping for Torch, Churchill argued that further consideration should now be given to his favourite project in the north, Operation Jupiter. In Moscow, Stalin had said that he would contribute three Soviet divisions to seizing northern Norway if Churchill put in two. In a memorandum to the Chiefs of Staff, Churchill reiterated the case for invasion, in order to keep Russia supplied and therefore to prevent ‘the whole mass of the German armies’ being let ‘loose upon us’. He underlined the American aspect first, saying that Roosevelt regarded the maintenance of the convoys as ‘an operation of equal magnitude as Torch, although he is ready to skip one or perhaps two for the sake of Torch’. Then he presented his plan to ‘clear the Germans out of the north of Norway’, which he believed would incur fewer losses than making the Merchant Navy take such lethal risks at least thrice every two months.
Churchill objected to the Canadian First Army commander General Andrew McNaughton’s very negative report on the feasibility of Jupiter, complaining that ‘the exaggeration of difficulties’ seemed to be ‘customary’ in military reports, and stressing that ‘It follows that if Jupiter as well as Torch should get going, there could be no Roundup till 1944. This is already the United States view. But Torch by itself is no substitute for Roundup.’47 This seems like a more or less blatant attempt to get Brooke to support the Norwegian operation in order to stymie the cross-Channel one for 1943. Churchill brought his plan up at the War Cabinet of 21 September, grumbling that, with Torch under way, the Chiefs of Staff ‘took a rather unfavourable view’ of providing the necessary shipping for Jupiter too. The phrase belies the genuine strength of feeling the Chiefs of Staff had against attacking Norway, which Brooke hardly ever mentioned in his diary without invective and hyperbole.
As before when repulsed by his own Chiefs of Staff, Churchill turned to Roosevelt. On 21 September he wrote a draft telegram about Jupiter, pointing out that with Stalin, ‘simply to tell him now no more [convoys] till 1943 is a great danger.’ This was especially serious because Stalin had ‘gained the impression’ at the Moscow Conference that Roundup was not only ‘delayed or impinged upon by Torch but was to be regarded as definitely off for 1943. This will be another tremendous blow for Stalin.’ As a result, ‘We ought now to make a new programme.’48
Churchill predicted that Torch would be successful and ‘we might control the whole North African shore by the end of the year, thus saving some of the masses of shipping now rounding the Cape. This is our first great prize.’ In that case, he thought,
We might decide to do Jupiter instead of attacking the under-belly of the Axis by Sardinia, Sicily and even possibly Italy…To sum up, my persisting anxiety is Russia, and I do not see how we can reconcile it with our consciences or with our interests to have no more [convoys] till 1943, no offer to make joint plans for Jupiter, and no signs of a Spring, Summer or even Autumn offensive in Europe. I should be most grateful for your counsel on all this.49
The telegram sent the next day reflected all these arguments and more, but neither Marshall nor King would countenance Jupiter as a result. Churchill had nevertheless allowed the Americans to glimpse the future Mediterranean strategy he intended to adopt if prevented from attempting to liberate northern Norway.
Although Marshall, King and Eisenhower appreciated that undertaking Torch probably meant writing Roundup off for 1943, Roosevelt would not admit as much, at least on paper. Churchill was keen that, despite Torch, large numbers of American troops should continue to come over to Britain under Bolero, not least because ‘if things go badly for us’ Britain would once again ‘have to face the possibility of invasion’. Keeping Roundup an open possibility meant that the United States would continue to reinforce metropolitan Britain, and Churchill asked Roosevelt to send him ‘revised programmes of what we may expect in the next twelve months between now and next September under the Bolero–Roundup scheme’. His fear–which was well founded–was that Admiral King was siphoning (or ‘whittling’) off resources to the Pacific that should have been coming to Britain instead. Meticulous research by Professor Mark Stoler on troop, ship and landing-craft movements during this period suggests that this was indeed the case.50
Churchill wrote, in what reads like a begging letter to Roosevelt, that over the next six months ‘it will be necessary for you…to send at least eight US divisions to the United Kingdom in addition to your air force programme’. These were large numbers, and could be justified only if Roundup was still a possibility, for as Churchill put it: ‘Every argument used for Sledgehammer and/or Roundup counts even more in 1943 and 1944 than it did in 1942 and 1943.’ Here, for the first time, Churchill used the word Roundup and the date 1944 together.
The rest of the letter was yet another plea for Jupiter, which only Churchill failed to recognize was a non-starter. He nonetheless continued to promote it right up to the 1943 Quebec Conference, at one point ordering Ismay to ‘suspend’ the entire War Office Planning Staff for opposing it.51 ‘Winston has been particularly active in suggesting all sorts of schemes,’ noted Kennedy on 24 September. ‘He always wants to do more than we have resources for and nothing seems to convince him that some things are impossible or that dispersion is a dangerous business and that concentration is a principle of war. Brooke says repeatedly, after seeing him, “I am convinced that man is mad.”’52
An undated (and eventually unsent) telegram from Roosevelt to Churchill was drafted by Marshall on 25 September, which allowed the US Chief of Staff to explain why Churchill’s Jupiter project ran flat against Allied strategy. It was an answer to Churchill’s request for ‘a new programme’, and a devastating one. In the course of a very long exposition of policy, which Marshall must have known would not be sent as drafted, he drew attention to the complete contradiction between Churchill’s regular statements about the need for concentration of forces and his tendency to ‘advance urgent proposals requiring further dispersion of means’.
Marshall wanted Churchill to be told that Torch must go ahead on time, that the harsh fate of Convoy PQ-18–thirteen merchantmen sunk out of forty between leaving Iceland on 2 September and reaching Murmansk on the 18th–meant that the northern convoys had to be discontinued, with supplies going through the Persian Gulf and the Alaska–Siberia routes instead, and that the US refused to take part in Jupiter because ‘the disadvantages in the plan far outweigh the advantages’. Furthermore, ‘The more forces we employ on the perimeter of Continental Europe, obviously the fewer forces will be able to penetrate vital enemy areas.’ Marshall even hoped that Roosevelt might say to Churchill: ‘I do not believe that Stalin attaches to the Jupiter operation the great importance implied in your message.’
As well as accusing Churchill of misrepresenting the Soviet position, Marshall hoped that Roosevelt would tell the Prime Minister bluntly that, as Torch had effectively wrecked any hopes of a 1943 Roundup, ‘The United States does not plan to send to the United Kingdom during the next ten months landing craft in excess of the number for which there will be operating personnel, and adequate to carry troops for any probable 1943 offensive which might be based on the UK.’ Since two paragraphs earlier he had stated that Torch ‘definitely precludes’ Roundup in 1943, this would have been devastating to Churchill. For all the debates about Roundup versus Torch, by October 1942 only one and a half American divisions had actually reached Britain. This was partly because of the massive amount of food, vehicles and services that went with them. It took 144,000 tons of shipping space to move a US infantry division, and a quarter of a million tons if it was armoured.53 Though never sent, the draft telegram did set out Marshall’s overall strategic thinking unambiguously for Roosevelt:
In the implementation of plans such as Jupiter, Allied military resources would be employed on the perimeter of the enemy citadel [and]…the Allied forces would not have sufficient and appropriate means remaining for the initiating of a strong, decisive blow in any selected area. On the other hand, a concentration of our means is most desirable in an area where it will be possible to deal the enemy a decisive blow and come to grips with him.54
The tension between Churchill’s and Marshall’s strategies could hardly be clearer.
Instead of Marshall’s draft, Roosevelt sent Churchill a very short telegram merely stating that the next convoy should not sail to Russia.55 He could see no advantages in a major row with his principal ally only a few weeks before Torch. The suspicion must remain that Marshall wrote the draft more for the President’s benefit than for the Prime Minister’s.
In 1953, Moran asked Churchill which were ‘the two most anxious months of the war’. Without hesitation the Prime Minister answered September and October 1942.56 On the first day of October, Eden visited Downing Street after dinner, and found Clement Attlee there. ‘If Torch fails,’ Churchill told the two men, ‘then I am done for and must go and hand over to one of you.’57 With many more Conservative than Labour MPs in parliament as a result of Stanley Baldwin’s 1935 election victory, all three knew it would have been Eden rather than the deputy premier.
Later that week Kennedy recorded that Churchill ‘was like a cat on hot bricks about the future development of the war’. Lunching with the Prime Minister at Downing Street, he mentioned that he had a tin of snuff to give him, a present from Admiral Richard Stapleton-Cotton. ‘I thought of giving up cigars till we were back in Benghazi,’ Churchill said on accepting it. ‘Then I thought I’d give up snuff. Then I decided to do neither. I didn’t see why I should give up anything for any German.’ Kennedy later wrote that although Churchill was funny at Cabinet Defence Committee meetings, ‘It is rather like the headmaster making jokes to the boys–the laughs come very easily!’ This was unfair; Churchill genuinely was funny, and humour was needed to leaven the stress. When he had a sore throat he complained to Brooke that his doctors ‘have knocked me off cigars. That is the worst of having a high-class job–you have to go in for high-class cures. I should have said a wet stocking round my neck would cure me in a night.’
After dinner on 6 October, Eden and Oliver Lyttelton had a drink with Churchill in the No. 10 Annexe, where they were joined by Randolph Churchill, who at one point said, ‘Father, the trouble is your soldiers won’t fight.’ Eden was indignant, recording: ‘It was a revelation to me that Randolph is so stupid.’58 Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that although the British High Command thought their soldiers would fight, there was indeed an underlying fear that the Germans were man for man better soldiers, and this was one of the reasons that the invasion of France was postponed to 1944, until victories had been won over the Wehrmacht in the lesser theatres of North Africa, Sicily and Italy.
On 9 October Kennedy went to see Eisenhower, who had retained his post as commander of the European theatre as well as becoming supreme commander for Torch. ‘I found him in a very wrought up state…he said he was being continually bombarded with political, operational and administrative problems…I was sorry to see that he was feeling the stress so much.’ Eisenhower was unhappy with the British Government’s instructions to their commanders, which he felt gave them carte blanche to appeal over his head directly to Churchill. Kennedy pointed out that every British commander had always received pretty nearly identical instructions, but it hadn’t prevented Lords Haig and Gort from working with foreigners. Eisenhower then told Kennedy that he had ‘always considered this operation to be unsound strategically but he had been chosen for a variety of reasons to head it and he would drive it through in a spirit of loyalty and close cooperation’. When this amazing statement was reported to Brooke, the CIGS retorted: ‘What a bloody fool the man is!’59
Meanwhile, in Washington, Hopkins warned Marshall on 10 October that Roosevelt had received a ‘very urgent wire’ from Stalin asking that for the next few months deliveries of aircraft to Russia be more than doubled to five hundred per month. The President, through the Soviet Ambassador Maxim Litvinov, sent word that he would look into it at once. That morning Stalin followed it up with ‘a very urgent request’ for an immediate answer. Although Roosevelt knew that such a figure was completely impossible, he asked if Marshall could send Stalin three hundred extra aircraft over and above what had been agreed in the protocol, beginning immediately and starting with coastal defence fighters. ‘The President is anxious to get off a message to Stalin tonight,’ he was told.60
Marshall replied that same night: ‘Any immediate increase beyond the 212 airplanes per month now scheduled for Russia could only be managed by a reduction of planes urgently needed for our units in combat theatres,’ primarily Guadalcanal and Torch. US coastal defence units were ‘actually operational training units’, which had only half their proper complement of planes, and which in any case ‘weren’t suitable for an active theater’. Moreover, they were an important defence ‘against a possible trick carrier raid’. In short, Marshall’s answer to Stalin was no. By that stage in the war, he felt secure enough in Roosevelt’s regard to be able to take such a firm line, and know that it would be accepted.
Marshall was also subjected to regular demands from Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific, such as one of 17 October about ‘the critical situation’ in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, which concluded, ‘I urge that the entire resources of the United States be diverted temporarily to meet the critical situation; that shipping be made available from any source; that one Corps be dispatched immediately; that all available heavy bombers be ferried here at once,’ and so on.61 Marshall not surprisingly disliked the high-handed tone of the messages he received from MacArthur, who, rather than being sent ‘the entire resources of the United States’, had to be content with a heavy bomber group that was flown from Hawaii to Australia.
On 14 October Brooke received Montgomery’s detailed plan for a great attack to be unleashed on Rommel at El Alamein in nine days’ time. He decided that he would not pass it on to Churchill, even though the Prime Minister ‘was continually fretting to advance the date’ and asking him ‘why we were not being informed of the proposed date of attack’. Brooke wanted to protect Alexander and Montgomery from being bothered by Churchill, and subjected to demands that the plans be altered. It was nonetheless a serious and insubordinate decision to have taken. Like Marshall, however, Brooke knew what he could get away with by then.
The searing summer heat meant that there had been little fighting in North Africa since July, and both sides had been able to reinforce themselves, with the Allies being strengthened disproportionately more than the Axis. With two hundred thousand troops and over one thousand tanks, Montgomery had almost double Rommel’s forces. The battle front was only 40 miles wide, as the geological phenomenon known as the Qattara Depression closed off Rommel’s opportunities for a southern flanking move by fast armour. Montgomery’s attack began at 9.40 on the night of 23 October with more than one thousand guns firing the first of more than one million rounds at the German positions, and over the next twelve days a savage battle was fought, costing thirteen thousand casualties on the Commonwealth side and thirty-five thousand on the Axis. After three days, Brooke felt able to give the War Cabinet tentative details of how it was going; five hundred German and one thousand Italian prisoners had been taken, but there had been ‘No major clash of armour yet’.62 Then he filled in the Cabinet on the situation in Russia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Burma.
There followed discussion of the accusation appearing in British left-wing newspapers that Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Führer, had had ‘friends’ in the British War Cabinet when he flew to Britain in May 1941, which had inflamed Soviet suspicions. Smuts said ‘We should…find out more about H[ess] to find out who were his friends in Cabinet…Misunderstand[ings are] bad for atmosphere of two allies. They are building up a case and we must meet it before it has gone too far.’ Cripps–who had until recently been the ambassador in Moscow–called for a ‘simple statement by someone about Hess, clearing up the matter’. Churchill then explained:
Hess arrived, hot from Hitler’s entourage, and came to do great service for Germany at great risk. He wanted to be…conducted to the King to say that we [that is, the Churchill ministry] had no backing here and to get a Government of the pro-Munich complexion installed. Hess was suffering from melancholia. We tried to make him talk…He gave us last chance for peace and the chance of joining the crusade against Russia. But he never said a word about his Cabinet friends who he had come to see. He had once met the Duke of Hamilton.63
A minister then suggested that the Government should make the records of Hess’ interrogation available to the press, to which Churchill’s answer was no. Smuts warned that the ‘impression’ of the incident might ‘seriously’ affect Anglo-Russian relations and Cripps added that full disclosure would ‘Get rid of an air of mystery’. Churchill, however, believed that the Russians were worried about much more important matters, such as ‘their losses’, adding that he might consider allowing Cripps to make a digest of the Hess documents for press and parliament, and the Cabinet could then decide whether to hand it to Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador. In the event neither thing happened, and the conspiracy theories about the Hess flight therefore swirled around, inflaming Russian suspicions to the detriment of the British Establishment, until the interrogation reports were finally released somewhat piecemeal half a century later in the 1990s, entirely confirming what Churchill had said.
On Tuesday 3 November, the US Congressional mid-term elections produced the best result for the Republicans since 1928, increasing their representation by ten senators and forty-seven Congressmen. Nonetheless the Democrats still retained a 58–38 majority in the Senate and a 222–212 majority in the House of Representatives. Roosevelt had been in power for nearly a decade, and there was much criticism of the way the war was being fought, but his party still controlled all three branches of the American government. The elections would undoubtedly have gone far better for him had Operation Torch taken place beforehand, but Marshall told four Pentagon historians in 1949, ‘off the record’, that the President ‘had made no word of complaint when he was told the invasion date although some of his men yelled pretty loud because we could not go in five days earlier’.
Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein was clear to all by 4 November, when Rommel started his full withdrawal, though hampered by Hitler’s policy of refusing to contemplate retreats. Egypt was clear of the Afrika Korps by 10 November. ‘Rommel was a fool not to have gone back a month ago,’ wrote Kennedy on 2 November, with near-perfect hindsight. ‘We should then have been faced with the problem of moving forward and building up again for an attack with a long line of communications exposed to Rommel’s raids, etc. Rommel cannot be such a good general as we thought. On the other hand, Montgomery has had colossal luck in arriving at the moment when he did and not sooner.’64 (Or indeed any later, when his victory would have been ascribed to Auchinleck’s dispositions.)
Fourteen years later, Marshall identified this period as the tipping point for the balance of power between the United States and Great Britain:
For a long time they had supremacy and we had a minimum of divisions either organized or overseas. The apex of British supremacy was the victory of the Eighth Army in Africa. Later, their strength dwindled until in the Italian campaign some units wouldn’t fight. We had to turn three of our divisions over to the commander there. They had simply lost all their fight. We didn’t blame them a bit, because they were completely exhausted and under strength.65
On Sunday 8 November, four days after Rommel began his full-scale retreat from El Alamein, he found simultaneous amphibious assaults taking place at eight places several hundred miles behind him, around Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. They were all successful. Eisenhower and his deputy Mark Clark were in overall command, and the American Western Task Force was under the command of Major-General GeorgeS. Patton. The Vichy French opposed the landings in all three places in their territory, but with differing intensity. Whereas Algiers had fallen by the first evening, and the fighting in Oran was over by noon on 10 November, the landing at Casablanca was bitterly contested until 11 November. Nonetheless, Torch was a success, and, unlike the Dieppe Raid, lessons genuinely were learnt for combined amphibious assaults in the future.
The counter-attack via Spain did not transpire; the weather was unusually fine; the feared losses to submarines and German bombers did not happen. Stimson ‘always believed Torch to be the luckiest operation of the war, although he was prepared to admit that those who had advocated the operation could not be expected to see it in that light’.66 The President had won his bet.
On the evening of 8 November, as the momentous news about Torch was coming in, Churchill was with Eden, Winant and Bedell Smith. ‘The PM was evidently much elevated by the success in Egypt and satisfactory initial stage of Torch and he talked even more frankly than customarily, the conversation lasting the greater part of the night,’ Bedell Smith telegraphed Marshall, who immediately passed the message on to Hopkins to show the President. ‘He is extremely anxious to have you and probably Admiral King come here at a very early stage for conference to reorient strategy in the light of new Mediterranean situation.’ Churchill had given up the Norway idea, thought Bedell Smith (wrongly), but he believed that a properly armed Turkey ‘will erupt’ into the Balkans against the Germans. (In fact, Turkey only declared war against Germany in late February 1945.) Bedell Smith concluded that Churchill ‘seems to be growing colder to the idea of Roundup except as a final stroke against a tottering opponent. As you know, the Pacific to him seems very far away and his constantly reiterated idea is that Russia, Britain and the United States must dispose of Germany and then concentrate on Japan. He hopes to clinch this strategy by your conference here.’67
As for France, Winant reported to Roosevelt, and Bedell Smith simultaneously to Marshall, that Churchill ‘feels bound in honour to support de Gaulle, with all his faults, as the one man who stuck to the apparently sinking ship and whose name has a following in civilian France’. Churchill feared that the pro-Allied General Henri Giraud, whom the Americans had slipped into North-west Africa during Torch in the hope of establishing him in power there, would turn into a source of difficulty, and he insisted that ‘Britain and the United States cannot each have a pet Frenchman.’68
In one evening of exuberantly loose talk with two key Americans, therefore, Churchill had effectively warned Roosevelt and Marshall that he wanted to ‘reorient’ strategy away from Roundup and towards the Mediterranean, do nothing more than contain Japan, and run de Gaulle against their favoured candidate, Giraud. He thereby neatly encapsulated the three next great areas of discord between the Allied grand strategists and told the Americans what he had in mind, much sooner than he needed to have done. Torch had arisen from a negotiated deal whereby he and Roosevelt had effectively split the difference over the numbers of troops needed for each part of the operation, and compromised over the geographical areas to attack.
Yet Churchill deserved his moment of exultation. At the War Cabinet the next day he hailed it as the ‘Biggest combined effort since Hitler’s attack on the Low Countries, and the largest amphibian operation ever undertaken…I beg my colleagues and military authorities to look on this as a springboard. We must look at once at military operations undertaken from there. This is the moment for the offensive.’ He added that it would be a ‘Tragic mistake to think we can take our time with this war. Hitler is playing now for a stalemate. This is our real danger. Never has there been more need for urgency in the war.’ Smuts suggested that the ‘real victory front’ was to be found ‘from the South not from the West’, and Churchill agreed, adding: ‘President Roosevelt calls this the Second Front. We won’t contradict this.’ He proclaimed himself ‘very anxious’ to ring Britain’s church bells in celebration the following Sunday; they had not sounded since 1940 because they were to act as tocsins warning of a German invasion.69
Churchill also wanted to ‘Bomb Italy, bring it forward as fast as possible,’ ordering Brooke to ‘Have it studied, worked out and report next week.’ He declared proudly that the ‘British Empire played the leading part of this terrific event,’ predicting that it ‘meant the obliteration of the German & Italian forces in Libya & Egypt’ and announcing that he would ‘Mark the victory in respect of Alexander and Montgomery with high reward and promotion’, since it was ‘One of the greatest victories won by the British Empire in the field. It’s a fine story.’ He then formally congratulated Brooke and Grigg, the War Secretary, for a ‘brilliant showing’, remarking that the ‘movement of the invasion convoy without loss was a marvellous story with 105 warships, 142 troop and supply ships’. Brooke then filled in the details of the successful operations at Oran, Casablanca and Algiers.70
The Cabinet was a long one, a full three hours. ‘Winston revelled over our success!’ noted Brooke at the time. ‘But did not give the Army quite the credit it deserved.’ This was unfair: in fact the Prime Minister suggested that the Cabinet should congratulate the CIGS and Grigg ‘for the fine performance put up by the Army’. Brooke observed after the war: ‘I think this is the only occasion on which he expressed publicly any appreciation or thanks for work I had done during the whole of the period I worked for him.’71
As well as being the first significant British Commonwealth land victory of the Second World War, El Alamein was also the last. Henceforth every major engagement was to be fought as part of an alliance. The peal of Britain’s church bells ringing to celebrate this great feat of Imperial and Commonwealth arms was also tolling the end of major unilateral military action, at least until the recapture of the Falkland Islands forty years later. Kennedy commented on how ‘remarkably thin’ the bells in London sounded that Sunday, and it reminded him how many churches had been destroyed.