Anzio, Anvil and Culverin: ‘The inevitable stumbles on a most difficult course’ December 1943–May 1944

There was no division, as in the previous war, between politicians and soldiers, between the ‘Frocks’ and the ‘Brass Hats’–odious terms which darkened counsel.

Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour1

Having read the minutes of the Eureka Conference, Major-General John Kennedy concluded that the Russians and Americans had got their way on Overlord at Teheran, an operation that Stalin wanted even if it failed, and one that if the Americans had ‘had their way they would have launched more than once in the past when they would certainly have failed’.2 One can see from this response why the Americans felt the British were lukewarm about the operation.

Eisenhower’s appointment as supreme commander for Overlord meant that changes were needed elsewhere. Churchill and Brooke conferred on 18 December 1943 and asked Roosevelt to approve Jumbo Maitland Wilson to take Eisenhower’s place as supreme commander Mediterranean, with an American commanding in Algiers, Alexander in Italy, Tedder as Eisenhower’s deputy and Mark Clark commanding Anvil. ‘We understand that this was what you and General Marshall had in mind,’ Churchill wrote to Roosevelt, copying his message to Brooke: ‘If so, we concur.’ Maitland Wilson, despite being sixty-two, ‘has all the qualifications and the necessary vigour. This is also the opinion of the CIGS. When I mentioned this idea to you at Cairo you seemed to like it.’3Meanwhile Walter ‘Beetle’ Bedell Smith would stay on as Eisenhower’s chief of staff and move to London with him. Roosevelt and Marshall approved all the major appointments except Clark, who stayed in Italy. The Anvil attack was to be commanded by Lieutenant-General Jacob L. Devers of the US Sixth Army.

Although Tedder was to be Eisenhower’s deputy, an acknowledgement of the importance of air power in the operation, Britons also took the next three most important roles, much to American ire. Montgomery was given the subordinate command on land, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay at sea, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory in the air. Ike had initially wanted Alexander as his land commander, but the post went to Montgomery. ‘The support of one man, the CIGS Sir Alan Brooke, had carried Montgomery first to the army command in which he gained fame in the desert, and then to the principal British role in Overlord,’ records the historian of the operation. ‘Without Brooke, it is unlikely that Montgomery would ever have gained the chance to display his qualities in the highest commands.’4

At a military conference at his Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair) headquarters deep inside East Prussia on the evening of 20 December, Adolf Hitler, after considering the situation in Russia and Italy, stated that he had studied all the intelligence files, and ‘There’s no doubt the attack in the West will come in the spring; it is beyond all doubt.’ He worried that too many troops were stationed in Norway–at 430,000, he was right–and considered whether diversionary attacks might be made in the Bay of Biscay and the Balkans. He added, ‘We have one advantage; [the Allies] will come with units that are not combat-experienced.’ In answer to General Walter Buhle’s complaint that they were taking too many forces from the west to reinforce the east, Hitler said: ‘Who are you saying that to?…It is hard for me as well. Every day I see the situation in the East. It is horrible…But I’ve always had these concerns in the West.’5 These comments would have delighted Brooke, whose role as a master of strategy was acknowledged on New Year’s Day 1944 when Churchill personally insisted that he be immediately raised to the rank of field marshal, the highest in the British Army.6

Operation Shingle was a daring plan of Alexander’s to land troops on the beaches of Anzio, in the rear of the Gustav Line and only 20 miles south of Rome, thus it was hoped forcing the enemy to abandon first one and then the other. On closer investigation in December 1943, the fear that the beachhead could not link up with the Allied armies further south meant that Eisenhower tried to shelve the operation, but it was revived once he had left the Mediterranean command. On 6 January 1944 the Prime Minister tried to persuade Brooke to fly out to visit him in Marrakesh, where he was recovering from pneumonia, saying, ‘We must get this Shingle business settled, especially in view of the repercussions of the new proposals about Anvil which will certainly make the US Chiefs of Staff Committee stare.’7

Because the Germans had fiercely defended the Gustav Line that winter, Anvil started to resemble not an associated but a rival operation to the Anzio attack, to both Churchill’s and Brooke’s chagrin as they had never thought its strategic value matched the investment it would require. Although Brooke did not fly out, Bedell Smith, Alexander and Maitland Wilson all conferred with Churchill in early January, and Shingle was resuscitated, in conjunction with an attempt to smash through the Gustav Line to the Liri Valley, which led to Rome. (On his return from Marrakesh, Churchill insisted that a Customs official came to Downing Street in order to assess the duty on everything he had brought home; Lawrence Burgis saw the cheque duly made out to HM Customs and Excise.)

Marshall later acknowledged that the struggles over the size, composition and timing of Operation Anvil had constituted ‘a bitter and unremitting fight with the British right up to the launching’.8 The mutual suspicion was evident at the time, and even in 1949, when Marshall was asked by Pentagon historians whether the British had attempted to use Anvil in order to secure additional resources for the Mediterranean theatre, ‘although they never seriously considered actually invading Southern France’, he replied that ‘this was the case’ and ‘that’s what the British always were doing.’

As Eisenhower’s Planners in London increased the number of divisions needed in the initial Overlord assault from three to five, so pressure mounted for extra landing craft and naval assault vessels to come from the Mediterranean. Montgomery and Bedell Smith, who both worked under Eisenhower, agreed in early January that Anvil would be greatly reduced in size as a result. Eisenhower, who like Marshall saw Anvil as an important concomitant to Overlord which would hopefully draw away German troops from northern France, complained vociferously to Washington on 17 January, saying that at Teheran the Combined Chiefs of Staff ‘definitely assured the Russians that Anvil would take place’. Since French, British and American troops ‘cannot profitably be used in decisive fashion in Italy’, Anvil must go ahead, although he accepted that it had to be postponed until early June, to coincide with the new date for Overlord.

Both Churchill and Brooke believed that Allied troops could be used more profitably in Italy than on the French Riviera; the scene was thus set for another titanic clash between Marshall and Brooke, and not one in which Marshall would this time accept compromise, not least because January 1944 was the first month of the war when more American than British Commonwealth troops were engaged fighting Germans in the European theatre.

Yet not all Americans agreed with Marshall and Eisenhower. ‘The weakening of the campaign in Italy in order to invade Southern France, instead of pushing on into the Balkans, was one of the outstanding political mistakes of the war,’ wrote Mark Clark in his 1951 autobiography, Calculated Risk. His Fifth Army had been trying to break through the Gustav Line for several months, with mixed results.

I am firmly convinced that the French forces alone, with seven divisions available, could have captured Marseilles, protected Eisenhower’s southern flank, and advanced up the Rhone Valley to join hands with the main Overlord forces. The American VI Corps, with its three divisions, could then have remained in Italy…and we could have advanced into the Balkans.9

The very mention of an Allied offensive in the Balkans, which Churchill saw as the natural next step after the Germans were expelled from northern Italy, was anathema to Marshall. Michael Howard believes that minds in the OPD were completely closed over the Balkans, ‘with its overtones of European subtlety and intrigue’.10 They also suspected British neo-imperialist designs there, rather as they did in the Far East, however absurd that might have been for the area north-east of the Adriatic Sea in the mid-1940s.

Where did Roosevelt stand? In October and November 1943, the US Planners feared that Overlord might be lost altogether because the President seemed to be interested in Churchill’s ideas about the Balkans. ‘We were always scared to death of Mr Roosevelt on the Balkans,’ Marshall told Pogue frankly in 1956. ‘Apparently he was with us, but we couldn’t bet on it at all.’11 There was always the possibility that the President might do over the Balkans in late 1943 what he had done over North Africa in the summer of 1942. It is clear from a telegram Churchill sent Roosevelt in late June 1944–‘Please remember how you spoke to me at Teheran about Istria’–that the two men had been at the very least ‘shooting the breeze’ together about a Balkan campaign. As for Brooke, after the war he wrote of the Americans, ‘At times I think that they imagined I supported Winston’s Balkan ambitions, which was far from being the case. Anyhow the Balkan ghost in the cupboard made my road none the easier in leading the Americans by the hand through Italy!’12 In fact Brooke had on occasion supported a Balkan campaign, whatever his later protestations.

The Anzio landings of the Allied VI Corps on Saturday 22 January 1944–initially comprising one British and one American division–might have succeeded had its American commander Major-General John Lucas got inland fast enough to capture the Alban Hills just south of Rome. He had come ashore with minimal opposition because the Germans had sent two reserve divisions from the Rome area to reinforce the Gustav Line, but he decided to get reserves, equipment and supplies ashore first, which proved a costly mistake. Kesselring despatched troops from central Italy to protect Rome, and then further reinforcements from France, Germany and Yugoslavia hemmed VI Corps into a beachhead of only 8 miles, which was defended gallantly for the next four months as Clark fought northwards to relieve it.

‘If we succeed in dealing with this business down there,’ Hitler told Warlimont, ‘there will be no further landings anywhere.’13 The Führer sent Eberhard von Mackensen’s Fourteenth Army, with its crack panzer, panzer-grenadier and paratroop units, to try to destroy the Allied beachhead, leaving the Tenth Army to hold the Gustav Line. The battlegrounds of Anzio and Monte Cassino were constantly reinforced by Hitler in early spring 1944, thereby denuding himself of divisions that he would need to deal with Overlord three months later. Marshall could not understand why Hitler did not merely withdraw his forces to the impregnable Alps, but it was evident from Ultra decrypts that he wanted to defend every inch of Italy instead.

This was Brooke’s plan for Italy, and disproves Basil Liddell Hart’s theory that it was the Germans who successfully diverted the Allies in Italy rather than the other way around. Throughout 1944, from nineteen to twenty-three German divisions–one-seventh of the entire Wehrmacht–were stationed in Italy, unable to operate in Normandy. In 1943, a full one-third of all Luftwaffe losses were sustained in the Mediterranean theatre, and in all the Italian campaign was to cost the Germans 536,000 casualties against 312,000 Allied.14 It was far harder to supply the Allies, of course, but the campaign was well worth undertaking in its earliest stages. It certainly tied down far more Germans than Anvil ever could have. The problem was that once committed emotionally–and in Churchill’s case chauvinistically–the British carried on fighting for objectives far removed from the central one that had taken them there in the first place.

According to Beaverbrook, who was lord privy seal at the time and had good access to his friend the Prime Minister, Anzio was ‘definitely an attempt to re-open the Mediterranean theatre in the hope that such progress might be made there that the Americans could be persuaded to delay D-Day until it would be little more than a mopping-up operation’.15 He claimed that at Marrakesh Churchill had been talking in terms of ‘driving the Germans headlong over the Alps and capturing Vienna’. It is most unlikely that Churchill referred to Overlord as a mere mopping-up operation, however, a phrase which smacks of Beaverbrook’s ex post facto rationalizations in favour of an early Second Front, of which he had been a chief advocate. For all that, Churchill did write a minute on 25 January saying that it was ‘very unwise to make plans on the basis of Hitler being defeated in 1944. The possibility of his gaining a victory in France cannot be excluded.’

It was not long before the failure of the break-out at Anzio became apparent, along with the failure of the Allied forces in the south to link up with the beachhead. On sending Roosevelt birthday greetings on 27 January, Marshall said: ‘I anticipate some very hard knocks, but I think these will not be fatal to our hopes, rather the inevitable stumbles on a most difficult course.’16 The next day Eden, after he had attended a Staff Conference, noted that ‘Our offensive seems to have lost its momentum.’ When Churchill suspected that he was going to get into a row with the Chiefs of Staff, he used to invite Eden along to give moral support. Even when the Foreign Secretary was recuperating from a cold, sore throat or insomnia at Binderton, he always turned up. Since Churchill had been ill at Marrakesh for as long as a fortnight over the New Year, and Eden was prime-minister-in-waiting, it was a sensible precaution.

On Monday 31 January 1944 Churchill told the War Cabinet of:

Serious disaffection about the Anzio landings. First phase has not yielded brilliant results…German offensive started. Great disappointment so far…Remarkable limitations of air, unable to prevent enemy from flinging his troops from one Front to another…A great opportunity has been lost, but may be regained…We have got a lot to learn in the way of seizing opportunities before we can beat these people.17

Meanwhile in Washington, the Joint Chiefs of Staff expanded the plans for the naval and air support of the Overlord invasion (Operation Neptune). In order to obtain the necessary landing craft for the new plan, and also to help Anvil, the Americans wanted to halt all Italian offensives northwards once Rome had fallen. The British instead wanted Anvil ditched and to press on up the Italian peninsula. Roosevelt supported Marshall against the combined, determined but ultimately doomed attempts of Brooke and Churchill to get the plan changed. The British were as one in believing that terrain, distance and the Germans’ defensive tactics meant that Anvil could be safely disengaged from Overlord, with Italy providing fine opportunities for the Allies instead. Churchill and Brooke were never convinced, for the rest of their lives, that Anvil had been worth while.

It did not help that Churchill, even in the early spring of 1944, would sometimes speak, ‘as if he were addressing a multitude’, of his fears regarding Overlord. ‘When I think of the beaches of Normandy choked with the flower of American and British youth,’ Eisenhower recalled him saying, ‘and when, in my mind’s eye, I see the tides running red with their blood, I have my doubts.’18 Although reminiscences at sixteen years’ distance are necessarily suspect, in 1960 Ike reminded Ismay of these remarks without being corrected, and Churchill’s faithful Pug was always assiduous in defence of his former boss’s reputation, even against a president of the United States.

On 6 February 1944–two days after Allied troops reached Monte Cassino–Eisenhower asked Marshall from London for his views on retaining Anvil in the face of Churchill’s and Brooke’s united opposition. Of Overlord he wrote: ‘I honestly believe that a five division assault is the minimum that gives us a really favourable chance for success. I have earnestly hoped that this could be achieved by 31 May without sacrificing a strong Anvil.’ Eisenhower thought that ‘Some compensation would arise from the fact that as long as the enemy fights in Italy as earnestly and bitterly as he is now doing, the action there will in some degree compensate for the absence of an Anvil.’19 He was thus coming round to the possibility of cancelling Anvil, whereas Marshall certainly was not.

On the first of twenty days of strong German attacks on the Anzio beachhead, Marshall wrote ‘For Eisenhower’s eyes only’ from Washington: ‘Count up all the divisions that will be in the Mediterranean, including two newly arrived US divisions, consider the requirements in Italy in view of the mountain masses north of Rome, and then consider what influence on your problem a sizeable number of divisions heavily engaged or advancing rapidly in southern France will have on Overlord.’ The fact that there were also the mountains of the Massif Central north of Provence was not mentioned. Instead Marshall concluded: ‘I will use my influence here to agree with your desires. I merely wish to be certain that localitis is not developing and that the pressures on you have not warped your judgment.’ Localitis was cod-Latin for ‘going native’, and since Marshall’s ‘influence’ in Washington was of course enormous, he was effectively advising Eisenhower to stick to his pro-Anvil, anti-Italy position and promising that, if he did, all would be well against Churchill and Brooke.

Eisenhower could not leave the localitis accusation hanging, and replied the next day to say that, although the British were opposed to Anvil, he had to compromise occasionally as part of a coalition. Nonetheless, ‘So far as I am aware, no one here has tried to urge me to present any particular view, nor do I believe that I am particularly affected by localitis.’ That Marshall was indeed worried about pressure being put on Eisenhower by Brooke, and more particularly by Churchill, was spectacularly demonstrated the following month at Malta.

On the same day that Marshall wrote to Eisenhower, Sir John Dill told Brooke that he had been ‘in and out of Marshall’s room lately trying to get him to see your point of view regarding Anvil–Overlord and trying to get his point of view’. He reported that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had delegated their power to Eisenhower on this issue and were ‘engaged in a great battle regarding Pacific strategy’, which boiled down to ‘King in particular v. the Rest’. Dill believed that Marshall was ‘somewhat afraid that some of their higher commanders had failed in Italy’, doubtless meaning Lucas, who was replaced shortly afterwards, but possibly also Clark, whose progress was painfully slow. Over the post-war occupation zones for Germany, Dill told Brooke that it was, ‘of course, the President who won’t play. The better I get to know that man the more superficial and selfish I think him. That is for your eye alone as of course it is my job to make the most and best of him.’ As for Admiral King, Dill believed ‘his war with the US Army is as bitter as his war with us’.20

On Thursday 10 February, Brooke lunched at the Fleet Street offices of the Daily Telegraph with its proprietor Lord Camrose, as well as the National Labour MP and BBC Governor Harold Nicolson and Lord Ashfield, chairman of the London Passenger Transport Board. Teased about the Anzio reversals by Camrose as he entered–‘Well, what about the bridgehead?’–an irritated Brooke poured himself ‘a sulky glass of sherry’ and said, ‘It’s difficult to judge such matters at this distance.’ Nicolson recorded that after they had taken some claret in the dining room, ‘things brighten up, and a slow flush spreads over the handsome face of the CIGS.’ Brooke said that he had first noticed that ‘Winston was on the verge of a great illness’ at Cairo, when he seemed more interested in swatting flies than in listening to him, and ‘then they had great difficulty in preventing him leaving for Italy and were almost relieved when he developed fever.’21

Brooke added that, when he visited Italy that December, ‘The terrain defies description. It’s like the North-West Frontier; a single destroyed culvert can hold up an army for a day.’ He then went on to talk about the Germans, saying they were fighting magnificently: ‘Marvellous it is, perfectly marvellous.’ Hitler’s strategy was all wrong, however, in trying to establish a front in Italy so far south while simultaneously holding Nikopol on the lower Dnieper, for ‘While one is on the wave of victory one can successfully violate all the established rules of war. But when one starts to decline, one cannot violate them without disaster.’

The fact that Hitler was reinforcing Italy from southern France and the Balkans indicated to Brooke that he was running low on reserves in Germany itself, and was probably hoping for the ‘wet period’ in Russia from mid-April to early June to move troops from Russia to the west using the ‘good transport facilities for a shuttle in the east–west direction’. The Germans did not seem to be running out of oil, and ‘the morale of their troops is still admirable and only a slight change can be noticed in the quality of prisoners captured.’ From these remarks it is understandable if Brooke was still deeply apprehensive about Overlord. In the days before lunches at newspapers offices were assumed to be on the record, the Chief of the British Army could make remarks about the ‘perfectly marvellous’ Wehrmacht that would have gravely embarrassed him were they ever to appear in print.

On 14 February Churchill reassured the War Cabinet about the Anzio beachhead, where there were 130,000 men and 20,000 vehicles, as well as local superiority in artillery and tanks. ‘No reason to suppose the situation dangerous,’ he said. ‘Must keep good nerves this year.’ Brooke then informed them further about the heavy fighting at and bombing of the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino. ‘Nothing to regret that the scale of the fighting has magnified,’ added Churchill.22

On 19 February, as London was subjected to the heaviest air raids since May 1941, Churchill warned the Chiefs of Staff that ‘In the event of Overlord not being successful or Hitler accumulating forces there quite beyond our ability to tackle, it would perhaps be necessary to adopt the flanking movements both in Norway and from Turkey and the Aegean in the winter of 1944–45.’ Of course it was important to look at every scenario, but the resuscitation of both his favourite northern and southern schemes in the event of defeat in France shows how doubtful Churchill still was about the coming invasion.

Yet the Overlord build-up was continuing apace, with Marshall informing Roosevelt that by 1 June 1944 there would be forty-one American divisions operational in the US, twenty-one in the United Kingdom, eight in the Mediterranean, and nineteen in the Pacific, and ‘there will be a total of 1,514,700 US soldiers in the UK, 2,804 four-engined bombers, 711 medium bombers and 4,346 fighter bombers or fighters.’23 It sounded formidable, but Eisenhower was meanwhile informing the British Chiefs of Staff that although there were just enough resources for Overlord and a two-divisional Anvil, nothing would be left over for further Italian operations. He also crucially held out the possibility of the abandonment of Anvil if it was for any reason reduced below the level of two divisions. The Italian campaigns, Eisenhower told Brooke, ‘have been leading me personally to the conclusion that Anvil will probably not be possible’.24 Leaping upon this admission, Brooke lost no time in informing the Joint Staff Mission that in the opinion of the Chiefs of Staff the prospect of launching Anvil was now ‘exceedingly remote’, and recommending its cancellation.

Marshall hand-drafted a letter to Eisenhower two days later, saying that as far as the British High Command was concerned, ‘we have no clear cut statement of basis of your agreement or disagreement with them and the situation is therefore seriously complicated. Please seek an immediate conference and reach agreement or carefully stated disagreement, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will support your decision, subject of course to the approval of the President.’25 Eisenhower met the British Chiefs of Staff the next day, when they agreed to maintain the status quo until a review on 20 March, and Ike accepted that Anvil would be contingent on the situation in Italy.

‘If vehicles could have won the war we’d have won it long ago,’ Churchill told the War Cabinet on 21 January, adding that they still could ‘Lose this war by running short of unimportant people.’26 (He was joking that people were unimportant compared to vehicles, not in themselves.) The next day Maitland Wilson wrote to the British Chiefs of Staff recommending that Anvil be cancelled, because until the southern front at Monte Cassino had joined up with the Anzio beachhead, ‘the withdrawal of forces cannot be risked from the battle front in Italy.’ Maitland Wilson anticipated that the need for extra divisions for Italy, along with a high rate of expected casualties that spring, would drain the Mediterranean theatre of operational reserves in such a way as to render Anvil unviable.27

Maitland Wilson’s suggestion was fully accepted by Brooke and Churchill, but not by Marshall and Roosevelt, and so the scene was set for a full-scale standoff, with the Americans having the Eureka conclusions from Teheran to support them. In Marshall’s view it was obvious that a landing in the south of France was likely to help Overlord more than a continuation of the Italian slugging match; he also considered that the Germans might make a sudden withdrawal northwards in Italy, which would wreck Allied hopes for German dispersion. With Toulon and Marseilles in Allied hands–far better ports than a couple of Mulberry harbours off Arromanches in the English Channel–large quantities of supplies from North Africa could be landed in France rapidly.

On 25 February, a day of difficult discussions covering seven-and-a-half hours, Churchill and Brooke fell to talking first about their children and then about ‘The President’s unpleasant attitude lately’. The exhaustion of an ill Roosevelt might have been part of the explanation, for late February also saw a visibly tired President leave Washington for a few days’ rest, prompting paragraphs to appear in the press touting Marshall for the top job should he resign. When the respected columnist David Lawrence even suggested that this would be a preferable outcome, ‘friends’ of Marshall told the New York Herald Tribune that the general’s own view was: ‘I’ll be in my grave before I go into politics.’28

In March and April 1944, discussions in the War Cabinet, Staff Conferences, Chiefs of Staff Committee and Defence Committee centred on how to break through the Gustav Line and link up with the Anzio beachhead in the hope of capturing Rome, preferably before Overlord and instead of Anvil. As Michael Howard states, ‘The possibilities beyond that–a breakthrough into the Po Valley, a landing in the Gulf of Genoa, a landing in Istria, a massive switch in forces to the South of France–still lay in the realm of speculation.’29

Simply because Brooke and Churchill chatted about their children and agreed over Anvil and the President does not mean they were getting on with each other any better. On 6 March the Prime Minister submitted to the Chiefs of Staff what Brooke called a ‘desperate’–meaning hopeless, rather than fraught–memorandum concerning future operations in the war against Japan, and resuscitating the Culverin plan for attacking the northern tip of Sumatra. Brooke was angry that Churchill wanted to bring Eden, Attlee, Lyttelton and Leathers–whom he considered a chorus of yes-men–along to support him over this. (Although Brooke could not have known it at the time, Attlee would be prime minister for the last part of the war.) ‘It will be a gloomy evening,’ predicted Brooke, ‘and one during which it will be hard to keep one’s temper.’ Sure enough, during the two-and-a-half-hour meeting he ‘went at it hard’, arguing against all four of them, whose points, he recorded, ‘were so puerile that it made me ashamed to think they were Cabinet Ministers!’ He did not get much support from his fellow Chiefs either, as Portal was ‘as usual not too anxious to argue against PM, and dear old Cunningham so wild with rage that he hardly dared let himself speak!!’30 Once again the Prime Minister chose not to overrule the Chiefs over Culverin.

Returning to Washington from a fact-finding trip to Algiers in mid-March, Major-General John ‘Ed’ Hull reported that, although the situation in Italy had effectively stalemated, Anvil should nonetheless go ahead. He feared that without it the Germans could divert forces from Italy, southern France and the Balkans against Overlord, and recommended that all available forces not required for Italian operations be allocated to Anvil. Marshall agreed and told Handy that they must not ‘permit our effort to be boxed up in Italy where the geographical situation and the character of the terrain would permit the Germans to play us a scurvy trick to the great disadvantage of our principal effort in the war: Overlord’.31 Reinforcing a threatened front from a stationary one is hardly ‘a scurvy trick’, but Marshall was right that attempting to smash through the Gustav Line was a waste of effort by the Allies considering that they had already pinned down as many German divisions as they could, and there was no realistic strategic advantage to being in the Po Valley once Overlord had begun. His alternative–Anvil–was hardly the answer, however, as it turned out to be at best a minor sideshow launched too late to make much difference to Overlord.

Soon afterwards Marshall sent Eisenhower a radio message, reminding him that the 20 March deadline for decision on Anvil was only four days hence, and that ‘There is nothing to indicate a sufficient break in the German resistance to permit a further advance on Rome during March.’ He feared that German divisions freed up by withdrawal to the Riga Line (also known as the Sigulda Line) might crush Overlord. Even were Alexander’s twenty-one divisions in Italy increased to twenty-eight, against the Germans’ twenty-four, all but five of which were in the south, he could be held up in the Apennine mountain range, Italy’s backbone. Therefore more than ten German divisions might be freed up for France, perhaps up to fifteen, ‘to your great disadvantage’. Marshall ended by saying that he left the Anvil decision entirely up to Eisenhower, but he had made his own views very clear.

On 15 March the Allies launched further heavy attacks on Monte Cassino, virtually levelling the abbey–a treasure-house of ancient Christendom–which was nonetheless still fiercely defended and which did not fall for another two months. In the east, the Red Army crossed the River Dniester on 19 March, making it less likely that Hitler might be able to withdraw significant forces for the coming Western Front, although the Riga Line was not crossed until 18 October. The Wehrmacht’s capability for inflicting damage was still awe-inspiring, however, even–perhaps especially–in retreat.

It is estimated that in the calendar year 1944 the German Army ‘on a man-for-man basis inflicted more than 300% more casualties than they incurred from the opposing Russians’.32 Brooke’s remarks at the Daily Telegraph luncheon were therefore fully supported by the statistics. Yet the mechanical balance of the war had changed just as much as the strategic. During 1944, when Germany and the USSR each produced forty thousand aircraft, and Britain twenty-eight thousand, the USA made no fewer than ninety-six thousand, more than the Germans and Soviets combined. Throughout the war, the United Kingdom produced 123,819 aircraft but the United States more than double that, at 284,318, even though she was not a belligerent until December 1941.33During the month of April 1944 alone, the Allies dropped 81,400 tons of bombs on Germany and Occupied Europe. As well as a strategic coup de main, Overlord would require a huge logistical effort: on 27 April the Chiefs of Staff heard from the Quartermaster-General that 1,600 tons per division would have to be landed every single day for the first forty-two days of Overlord.

The American emphasis on the war in the west was also finally becoming pronounced. By the end of 1943, the United States had 1.41 million men and 8,237 aircraft in Europe against 0.91m men and 4,254 aircraft in the Pacific, despite having two major allies in Europe and no strong one in the Pacific.34 In the first nine months of 1944, a further 1.8 million men were shipped overseas, of whom over three-quarters went to Europe, and by 1 October 1944 the United States had forty divisions in Europe and the Mediterranean, with four more en route, whereas it had only twenty-seven fighting the Japanese. With 2.75 million troops in Europe and the Mediterranean versus 1.31 million in the Far East, the emphasis of the American war effort was plainly for Germany First. These figures represent 67.7 per cent for Europe against 32.3 per cent for the Pacific, confirming that Brooke should have seized upon King’s 75/25 offer. As well as producing armaments for herself, the United States also produced 27 per cent of all munitions used by Commonwealth forces in 1943 and 1944. Overall, Lend–Lease aid to the UK reached a total value of $27 billion, plus an added $6 billion of purchases made in the US before the Act was passed. It was another factor giving ever increasing weight to Roosevelt’s and Marshall’s views in the councils of the Western Allies over those of Churchill and Brooke.

The lowest point in relations between Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff during the Second World War was reached in late March 1944. The issue was a vital one: long-term strategy in the war against Japan. Whereas Brooke and his colleagues–but especially the CIGS himself–wanted to approach Japan from the south-west Pacific and Australia in close conjunction with the Americans, Churchill wanted a much more British-led attack from the Indian Ocean, recapturing former British colonies as it moved eastwards. Operation Buccaneer against the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, which the Chiefs of Staff wanted postponed as its landing craft were needed in the Mediterranean, meant much to the Prime Minister, as did the Culverin operation against northern Sumatra. He felt that in getting Buccaneer effectively cancelled for the rest of 1944 the Chiefs of Staff had gone behind his back while he had been convalescing in Marrakesh, and he therefore wrote a highly abrasive five-page memorandum that he copied to each of them.

‘I very much regret that the Chiefs of Staff should have proceeded so far in this matter and reached such settled conclusions upon it without in any way endeavouring to ascertain the views of the civil power under which they are serving,’ he began. ‘They certainly have the duty of informing me as Minister of Defence, and making sure I understand the importance they attach to the issue.’35 To lecture on their constitutional duties Chiefs who, in Portal’s case, had been four years in the job, and in Brooke’s three, was as otiose as it was, frankly, pompous. The reference to ‘under which they are serving’ was nonetheless a reminder of who held the ultimate sanction over their appointments.

‘Considering the intimacy and friendship with which we have worked for a long time in so many difficult situations,’ Churchill wrote, changing tack on to the personal, ‘I never imagined that the Chiefs of Staff would get into a great matter like this of long-term strategy into which so many political and other non-military considerations enter without trying to carry me along with them, so that we could have formed our opinions together.’ Here, all in one sentence, was an appeal to comradeship, an accusation that they were trespassing into areas over which they had no authority, a lament that Churchill was effectively being cut out of the decision-making process, a hint that he could have been persuaded anyhow, and lastly a warning that they needed to speak with one voice to the Dominions and the Americans.

Next came the direct accusation that ‘The serious nature of the present position has been brought home to me by the reluctance of the Chiefs of Staff to meet with their American counterparts for fear of revealing to the United States their differences from me and my Cabinet colleagues.’ Churchill added that the Defence Committee ‘are convinced, and I am sure that the War Cabinet would agree if the matter were brought before them, that it is in the interests of Britain to pursue what may be called the “Bay of Bengal Strategy” at any rate for the next twelve months’.36 His threat to turn the issue into a political one–‘frock coats’ versus ‘brass hats’–was explicit, and he was right to assume that his Cabinet colleagues would have supported him, spelling defeat for the service Chiefs.

Pressing home his point, but taking it from the general to the particular, Churchill then gave five direct orders, again cloaked in constitutional terms. ‘I therefore feel it my duty’, he wrote, as ‘Prime Minister and Minister of Defence’, to give the following rulings:

(a) Unless unforeseen events occur, the Bay of Bengal will remain, until the summer of 1945, the centre of gravity for the British and Imperial war against Japan

(b) All preparations will be made for amphibious action across the Bay of Bengal against the Malay Peninsula and the various island outposts by which it is defended, the ultimate objective being the re-conquest of Singapore

(c) A powerful British Fleet will be built up based in Ceylon

(d) The plans of the South-East Asia Command for amphibious action across the Bay of Bengal shall be examined, corrected and improved with the desire of engaging the enemy as closely and as soon as possible

(e) The reconnaissance mission to Australia shall be sent as soon as I have approved the personnel.

Churchill then stated that he was willing to discuss these ‘rulings’ only in order that ‘we may be clear in our minds as to the line we are going to take in discussions with our American friends’. His final sentence was similarly unbending, yet contained a typically Churchillian call: ‘Meanwhile, with this difference on long term plans settled, we may bend ourselves to the tremendous and urgent tasks which are now so near, and in which we shall have need of all our comradeship and mutual confidence.’37

Brooke certainly did not consider these ‘rulings’ as ‘settled’. He knew he had to tread very carefully if he was not to be forced to resign, ultimately over a landing-craft issue that the public–and history–would struggle to understand. Churchill would undoubtedly have prepared the ground politically, indeed as Portal said of this incident four years later: ‘If it had come to the point of him wanting to sack me he wouldn’t have said “I dismiss you.” He would have said “I must tell Parliament about this.”’38 Faced with a choice between finding another prime minister or three more chiefs of staff, the Commons would undoubtedly have kept the former.

In an early draft of his Closing the Ring, whose title emphasized the correctness of the Mediterranean strategy, with its implication of Nazi Germany being encircled with an ever tightening ligature, Churchill ended the relevant chapter by saying that his ‘rulings were accepted and the subject dropped’, but as that was quite untrue alternative endings were proposed by those devilling on his manuscript. Churchill refused them, but changed the draft at the last moment. The paragraph accusing the Chiefs of Staff of reaching ‘settled conclusions’ without trying ‘to carry the views of the civil power’ was (rightly) considered libellous, so it was excised at the very last moment before publication, leaving an empty space on page 579 of the first edition.39

‘What the hell of a time you must be having,’ Dill wrote sympathetically to Brooke from Washington. ‘It is a thousand pities that Winston should be so confident that his knowledge of the military art is profound when it is so lacking in strategical and logistical understanding and judgment.’ He reported a great struggle going on over Pacific policy between the American Army and Navy, and commented: ‘I hope the US Chiefs of Staff will take the abandonment of Anvil quietly.’ He estimated that Marshall’s ‘greatest fear’ was that the Germans would ‘within the next month or so, give up Italy to all intents and purposes’.40

Dill was doing his best to persuade Marshall that the Germans could take very few divisions out of Italy to oppose Overlord without the Italian front collapsing altogether. He thought that the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that by the end of May 1944 Germany would be on the verge of collapse, ‘and that we should therefore hit her everywhere’. The Americans’ view that Hitler wished to withdraw from Italy failed to take into account the Führer’s own psychology and the philosophy of Nazism, while their belief that Germany would collapse before Overlord was even launched underrated the extraordinary capacity of the Reich to fight on against what must by then have seemed like an overwhelming, avenging Fate.

On 21 March the British Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed on ‘how best to deal with Winston’s last impossible document’. Brooke thought it ‘full of false statements, false deductions and defective strategy’ and concluded: ‘We cannot accept it as it stands, and it would be better if we all three resigned rather than accept his solution.’ Resignation in wartime was a very serious matter indeed; as Churchill often used to tell Beaverbrook early in 1942, ‘People don’t resign in war; you either die or are sacked!’41

‘It was no courageous thing to resign,’ Ismay told Pogue. ‘When men were dying they had to have better reasons than pique to cut it.’42 Did Brooke and his colleagues–who knew it was dangerous to try to bluff Winston Churchill–have a better reason than mere pique? For Churchill to lose another CIGS might be interpreted as a personality clash that any prime minister must win, yet to lose all three Chiefs of Staff simultaneously would have indicated that there had been a profound disagreement over grand strategy, with Churchill pitted against the top three, highly esteemed experts in their field. The effect on national morale three months before Overlord would have been devastating, as Churchill knew. It was probably because the Chiefs agreed to hang together that none was to hang separately.

On 27 March Churchill complained to Portal in the War Cabinet that, for all his nightly bombing of German cities, the RAF was ‘not able to knock out Monte Cassino’, which had been bombed for nearly a fortnight, yet German units were still holding out there in the rubble. During Brooke’s contribution, the Prime Minister announced that he had written to Alexander privately the previous week to say he found it ‘puzzling why no attacks on the flanks. Why was Cassino the only point of attack? Please explain why no flank movements can be made. We’ve broken the teeth of six divisions.’ Alexander had answered that Monte Cassino ‘blocked and dominated’ the main valley leading to Rome, which anyone who has been there will immediately recognize. The conversation then turned to the question of what would happen if Church House, where the House of Commons had sat since the Blitz, were hit by a bomb, prompting Churchill to joke: ‘The world would go on. I seldom go there myself.’43

Brooke asked Archibald Nye to draft a reply to Churchill’s Bay of Bengal memorandum, pointing out five ‘fallacies’ and concluding that the Chiefs of Staff should ‘discuss the subject with the PM and to suggest to him that his action is precipitate, is taken without full knowledge of all the factors and is, in any case, quite unnecessary at this stage’.44 This formed the basis of the Chiefs’ considered response. It was an important moment for Brooke, which he fully recognized could possibly cost him his job were it mishandled. Ismay was allowed to see the reply before it was sent, so Churchill was doubtless forewarned of what it contained, a sensible step for all concerned.

After a seemingly conciliatory opening paragraph–‘We feel sure that there is still some misunderstanding as to our views and proposals, and we welcome the opportunity of a further discussion with you on the whole subject’–the ‘Private and Top Secret’ reply of 28 March categorically rejected each of the accusations Churchill had made. Its wording has the unmistakable imprint of Brooke upon it, not least in its readiness to trade accusation for accusation. ‘We cannot accept the charge that you make,’ it stated. ‘We did our best to explain our views on long-term strategy for the war against Japan to you before Sextant, but your other preoccupations, both before and after the Conference, precluded this. We were therefore at pains to ensure that the conclusions of the Combined Chiefs of Staff were couched in the most non-committal terms.’45

All that had been agreed with the Americans, the Chiefs pointed out, was that joint strategy in the Pacific was to be ‘approved in principle as a basis for further investigation and preparation, subject to final approval’, wording that was about as nebulous as it was possible to have. They denied that they had yet reached any ‘settled conclusions’ about the Bay of Bengal strategy because there were still three factors at play, namely Australia’s and India’s capacities as bases and the shipping situation. They then went on to argue that the south-west Pacific was superior to the Bay of Bengal approach because it ‘should, in our view, lead to a substantial shortening of the war against Japan’; it would ‘enable us to use the forces and resources of the Empire in a more closely related and concentrated effort than would the Bay of Bengal strategy; and it should not delay the recapture by our own forces of our own territories in Malaya and the Far East.’

This was about as bald a statement as the Chiefs of Staff could deliver, and Churchill was under no illusions that the severest consequences would result in overruling their collective decision, which Brooke, Portal and Cunningham each signed at the foot of the document complete with their titles of CIGS, CAS and CNS. To the document was attached the conclusions of the Staff Conference of 8 March, which stated that there were ‘insufficient data upon which to base a decision as to whether the centre of gravity of the main British effort against Japan should or should not be shifted from the Indian Ocean to the South-west Pacific’.46 Brooke and his colleagues were calling Churchill’s bluff, never a safe option with a statesman so headstrong and unpredictable.

Two days later Brooke wrote to Dill in a blatant attempt to get Marshall, and possibly also Roosevelt, to support him in his struggle against Churchill. ‘I have just about reached the end of my tether and can see no way of clearing up the frightful tangle that our Pacific strategy has got into,’ he wrote. ‘In fact we feel that the Indian Ocean policy will result in our walking round with the basket picking up the apples whilst the Americans climb up into the tree and shake the apples off by cutting [Japanese] lines of communication. The PM, on the other hand, remains as determined as ever to do Culverin, and has got very little else as a plan beyond the capture of Culverin!’

Since the US Chiefs had not approved the Sumatran attack, ‘We might be able to fight this situation out as we have others before now,’ Brooke told Dill, ‘if it was not for all the other complications that I am coming to.’ The first was Mountbatten, ‘who is determined to do something to justify his Supremo existence’, just as much as Churchill was keen to justify ‘creating Dickie and his command’. The second was John Curtin’s government in Australia, which under MacArthur’s influence did not want a British or Commonwealth force operating from Australia as a self-contained whole, even under American overall command.

Washington presented Brooke with ‘further difficulties’, because he could not detect ‘any great urge’ from the Joint Chiefs of Staff for co-operation with Britain in the Pacific. ‘In fact we have grave doubts as to whether King is not opposed to such a strategy.’47Admiral King was indeed opposed, as they were about to discover very soon. Despite their pressure to recapture northern Burma, the American Chiefs disapproved of Culverin, and Brooke declared himself ‘quite clear in my own mind that strategically it is right for us to use all our forces in close cooperation from Australia across the Pacific in the general direction of Formosa’ (modern-day Taiwan), but admitted that ‘Unless we get 100% support and drive from the American Chiefs of Staff I rather doubt where we may finish up!’ He was thus effectively asking Dill to get Marshall to intervene with Churchill over Culverin.

It was at around this time that, as Joan Bright later related:

Brooke in the company of other ministers was far more rude to the PM than he had any right to be–and Churchill was shocked. He broke up the meeting and said to Ismay: ‘I have decided to get rid of Brooke. He hates me. You can see the hate in his eyes.’ Ismay said: ‘I think that he behaved very badly at the meeting but he is under terrific strain. He is bone honest and whatever else his views may be, he doesn’t hate you.’ Ismay left then to see Brooke and said: ‘The PM is frightfully upset and says you hate him.’ Whereupon Brooke said ‘I don’t hate: I adore him tremendously; I do love him, but the day that I say that I agree with him when I don’t, is the day he must get rid of me because I am no use to him any more.’ Asked if these words could be repeated to the PM he said ‘Yes’. Ismay went back and told Churchill what had been said and his eyes filled with tears. ‘Dear Brookie.’ That was the last row they ever had.

Barring the last sentence–there were plenty more rows over the next sixteen months–this is an accurate summing up of an incident that is also recorded in Ismay’s memoirs in much the same emotional and personal terms. ‘When I thump the table and push my face towards him,’ Churchill said of Brooke, ‘what does he do? Thumps the table harder and glares back. I know those Brookes–stiff-necked Ulstermen and there is no one worse to deal with than that!’48

Whether Churchill really did intend to sack Brooke, or more likely to rap him over the knuckles via Ismay, is impossible to say. Similarly, if Brooke saw his job on the line over personal differences, it was natural that he would deny ‘hating’ his minister of defence, although the protestation of ‘love’ also rings hollow. To lose one’s job over the Bay of Bengal (India–Burma–Malaya–Japan) strategy versus the south-west Pacific alternative (Australia–Philippines–Formosa–Japan) might be understandable; yet to lose it over a personality clash, especially after serving together for so long, would have been absurd. As it was, Churchill did not push the issue to the point of resignations or sackings, although neither did he ditch the concept altogether.

Despite potentially needing Marshall’s support over Far Eastern policy, Brooke was not about to defer to him when it came to the Mediterranean. ‘As far as Anvil is concerned I am giving up hope of getting Marshall to understand what the situation is in Italy,’ he wrote to Dill. ‘It has taken two months arguing with him for him to see that the situation in Italy now is what could be predicted some time ago.’ He considered that staging Anvil at the same time as Overlord would be ‘impossible’.49 Brooke believed that the ten divisions Marshall now wanted for Anvil would not be enough ‘if you want to hold forces opposite us in Central Italy’. Brooke ended the letter ‘with best love to you both, Yours ever, Alan’, a particularly affectionate signing-off from this somewhat emotionally buttoned-up Ulsterman and now field marshal. In the Far East, therefore, Brooke sought Marshall’s help against Churchill over Culverin, while in the Mediterranean he sought Churchill’s help against Marshall over Anvil. Meanwhile, in Washington, Marshall complained to Dill that Roosevelt was being stubborn over the issue of unconditional surrender; he wanted to find a definition of victory that would encourage enemy forces to surrender, but he told Lord Halifax that he was ‘up against an obstinate Dutchman [that is, Roosevelt] who had brought the phrase out and didn’t like to go back on it’.50

‘So many interesting things are happening’, wrote Admiral Cunningham on 1 April 1944, ‘that I think it behoves me to keep a diary.’ In fine handwriting, his first entry was about how the Joint Chiefs of Staff were being ‘quite inflexible’ over Anvil. Yet another public servant was now keeping a daily journal, which has never been published but is invaluable in flooding light upon the deliberations of everyone taking part in the higher direction of the western part of the war. Three days into keeping it, when the War Cabinet was informed that there could be as many as 160,000 civilian casualties as a result of bombing the French railway network prior to Overlord, Cunningham noted, ‘Considerable sob stuff about children with legs blown off and blinded old ladies but nothing about the saving of risk to our young soldiers landing on a hostile shore. It is of course intended to issue warnings beforehand.’

April Fool’s Day 1944 also saw Dill warn Brooke that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, apropos the reinforcements being sent to Italy, were ‘shocked and pained to find out…how gaily we proposed to accept their legacy while disregarding the terms of their will’. Among themselves the US Planners drew up a memorandum for General Handy entitled ‘What Shall We Do about Anvil?’ which argued that, without the operation, the US would be ‘committed to a costly, unremunerative, inching advance in Italy’, which would be politically unpopular in France and at home and might end with American troops being used as occupation forces in Austria, Hungary and southern Germany.51

From the adjective ‘unremunerative’ it is clear that a certain degree of cold-bloodedness was needed at the senior Staff level in order simply to continue to do the job. ‘If you let yourself get all involved in the personalities and cry that “here’s a poor man gonna get killed”, you’ll lose your country,’ recalled the OPD Planner Paul Caraway in his unpublished memoirs:

As far as we were concerned, when we said that we had ten divisions that we were going to put into this operation, those ten divisions weren’t a hundred and fifty thousand people, they were 150,000 units, ones, entities, and we calculated with a completely passionless arithmetic as to what those 150,000 units pack. We expected to get back the maximum number possible, and we hoped the commanders would do all right, but what we had to have were results.52

Caraway’s brother was in the forefront of every major attack of the 28th Division, but, as Caraway concluded after the war, ‘Of course you do it this way.’

From Cunningham’s journals it is evident that the Chiefs of Staff were looking towards the post-war situation, with a suspicious eye towards Russia, almost before any other British government agency or institution. Over the future of Middle Eastern oil supplies, for example, he noted in early April 1944 that they were approving the idea of American involvement there, ‘so as to have USA support should Russia in post-war days cast sheep’s eyes at Iranian or Iraqi oilfields’. This showed impressive foresight, considering that parts of the Crimea were still under German occupation at the time.

On Easter Monday, 10 April, Dill wrote to Marshall to ‘thank you for all the understanding consideration which you have shown us, and me in particular, in our difficult negotiations concerning the Anvil–Overlord disagreement. It has made me feel once more that honest disagreements are of relatively small importance so long as we are completely honest and frank in all our dealings.’53 This was not how Brooke felt. Only two days earlier the CIGS had told his diary that the Joint Chiefs of Staff ‘have at last agreed to our policy, but withdrawn their offer of landing craft from the Pacific!! This is typical of their methods of running strategy.’ Brooke believed that the Americans were using the landing craft ‘as bargaining counters’ in trying to pursue a Pacific over a Mediterranean strategy. This was unwarranted; in fact, the Americans were constantly using landing craft in the Pacific for precisely the purpose for which they had been built.

Two days later, Churchill wired Marshall via Dill, saying that he was convinced that the decision to implement Anvil could not be taken until the Anzio beachhead had been linked up to the British Eighth and American Fifth Armies in Italy and the initial results of Overlord evaluated. Marshall replied the next day that they appeared ‘to be agreed in principle but quite evidently not as to method’. He argued that in order to keep options open when the time came, preparations for Anvil needed to be made immediately, even though they ‘may be at the partial expense of future operations in Italy’, and if Anvil turned out to be the wrong operation, Maitland Wilson would therefore always have ‘an amphibious force available to carry out another and less difficult amphibious operation’. He added that the ‘momentum’ of US operations in the Pacific meant that the forces there could not be ‘hamstrung’.54

Churchill then proposed to Roosevelt that a joint telegram, to be signed ‘Roosevelt–Churchill’, be sent to Stalin informing him of the agreed date of Overlord, 1 June 1944. A second paragraph should promise a ‘heavy offensive which we shall launch in Italy with all out strength in mid-May’. However, as Marshall told Roosevelt, Combined Chiefs of Staff representatives in Moscow had already informed the Russians about Overlord, and Churchill’s second paragraph might be taken in London to infer the cancellation of Anvil. He therefore advised the President not to authorize the sending of the telegram, and suggested another, somewhat anodyne, draft to Churchill, which was sent off unchanged by Roosevelt.

By then the British Chiefs believed that, in Cunningham’s words, ‘the only thing to do’ was to ‘abandon Anvil’.55 On 15 April, as Brooke ‘rattled through the business in great style’, they drafted a new directive to Maitland Wilson ‘cutting out Anvil’ altogether. The next day Churchill wrote to Marshall regretting that landing craft could not be diverted from the Pacific to the Mediterranean, as there was no definite date commitment to Anvil. He did not want the landing craft to come from Italy, as he could not ‘agree beforehand to starve a battle or have it break off just at the moment when success, after long efforts and heavy losses, may be in view’.56

The British and Americans knew that without extra landing craft there could be no two-divisional ‘harvest bug’ move to break the Italian stalemate further north, and probably no Anvil either. ‘Dill tells me that you had expected me to support Anvil more vigorously in view of my enthusiasm for it when it was first proposed by you at Teheran,’ Churchill told Marshall. Yet that was before the Allied attack got bogged down south of Rome. According to the Prime Minister, the Germans were committing to Italy the very divisions that Anvil had been designed to divert from Overlord. It was a difficult thesis to prove, and his last paragraph was classically Churchillian, all about how ‘We must throw our hearts into this battle’, in Italy, ‘and make it like Overlord an all-out conquer or die’. It was just the kind of language that had no purchase with George Marshall.

Simultaneously, the British Chiefs were telling Marshall via the Joint Staff Mission that ‘we cannot possibly agree, here and now, that preparations for an Anvil should have priority over the continuation of the battle in Italy,’ and this would be true even after the Anzio beachhead had joined up with the main battle line. Without Pacific landing craft, they stated, far too precipitately and didactically as it turned out, ‘the possibility of Anvil, as a supporting operation to Overlord, is terminated’.57 Like the British words ‘demand’ and ‘tabled’, ‘terminated’ did not go down well with the Americans. It was always dangerous to present a man in charge of a six-million-man army with a fait accompli, but by 18 April Marshall had to conclude, as he told Churchill, that ‘Since Eisenhower’s assault is not to be supported by a landing in southern France, every possible deceptive effort…will have to be utilized to hold the German divisions in southern France during the critical days of Overlord.’ Marshall seemed to be admitting that Anvil was moribund; but was he?

The next day, Churchill once again expressed his severe doubts about Overlord itself, minuting to the Foreign Office: ‘This battle has been forced upon us by the Russians and the United States military authorities.’ His lack of enthusiasm was manifest, yet although he quoted from other parts of the minute in his war memoirs, that sentence and others like it were excised; indeed it is next to impossible for any reader of Closing the Ring to spot the slightest Churchillian doubt about the success of Overlord six weeks before it was launched.58

On 22 April Churchill attempted to set up a line of communication with Marshall separate from both Roosevelt and Brooke, writing to Dill that the Chiefs of Staff ‘did not much like’ Marshall’s last cable, which had refused the landing craft. ‘Let me know if he is offended by my corresponding through you with him,’ he went on. ‘I thought that as the President was away he would readily understand my difficulties. If he does not like it, you may assure him that it shall not happen again. I will send direct to the President, who will soon be coming back. This will not mean any personal cooling-off in my relations with the Senior American Officer.’59

Dill replied that he could see little to dislike in Marshall’s landing-craft cable and that he felt it ‘wrong for you to raise direct with Marshall military questions demanding an answer when such an answer can only be given by the United States Chiefs of Staff’. Problems would arise when King discovered what was going on, yet since ‘Marshall often wants to know how you personally are thinking,’ Dill suggested that Churchill use him as the go-between. ‘The President, as you know,’ Dill ended, ‘is not militarily minded and you will, in my view, gain little by referring purely military questions to him.’60 This was an astonishing remark to make at that stage of a world war about one of America’s greatest wartime presidents, but it was essentially true. Without telling Brooke, therefore, Dill had consented to be Churchill’s go-between with Marshall behind Brooke’s back, while he was also Brooke’s long-term go-between with Marshall behind Churchill’s.

Churchill would occasionally address questions to British Staff officers besides Brooke, but they automatically sent the answer to the CIGS first for approval. Brooke recalled that Churchill had once asked him: ‘How is it that whenever I write to any officer of the General Staff at the War Office I get a reply from you?’ Brooke told him that he ‘should prefer him to address such minutes direct to me, but that even if he chose to ignore the chain of responsibility he would still get replies from me!’61 The CIGS was a sufficiently experienced Whitehall departmental warrior not to lose control over these all-important lines of communication.

At the London Conference of Dominion prime ministers that opened on 1 May, Churchill made the same joke that he had on several other occasions to different audiences. The Americans, he said, ‘all along said we were leading them up the garden path in the Mediterranean’, which, while true, ‘had provided them with nourishing vegetables and fruits. Nevertheless, the Americans had remained very suspicious.’62 This had been funny the previous year when Tunisia surrendered with nearly a quarter of a million prisoners taken, and also when Sicily had fallen in the space of five weeks, but the punchline had worn thin by 1944, when Salerno, Monte Cassino and Anzio had proved no garden path and it was difficult to see what strategic fruits were still waiting to be plucked after Rome.

Staying at Chequers on the weekend of 6 to 8 May, to meet William Mackenzie King and John Curtin, Brooke was shown to a small study in which the secretaries worked, where Churchill told him in confidence that ‘Roosevelt was not well and that he was no longer the man that he had been, this he said also applied to himself.’ Churchill added that he could still sleep well, eat well, ‘and especially drink well!’ but that he no longer jumped out of bed the way he used to, and felt as if he would be ‘quite content to spend the whole day’ there. This was the first time that Brooke had ever heard him ‘admit that he was beginning to fail’.63 For all the adrenalin that pumped through the amazing, bull-like constitution of the Prime Minister, he was now in his seventieth year and had suffered pneumonia among other illnesses (though not the full-scale heart attack that is sometimes attributed to him in December 1941). Yet whereas the sixty-two-year-old Roosevelt was dead in under a year, Churchill had twenty more to live.

Thursday 11 May was to witness Harold Alexander’s and Mark Clark’s Diadem offensive, which finally broke through the Gustav Line–Monte Cassino fell to the Poles a week later–linked up with the Anzio beachhead and captured Rome on 4 June, despite a highly skilled retreat by the Germans that preserved most of their forces. Marshall put much of the credit for this down to Clark’s brand new 85th and 88th Divisions, which he thought proved that the US Army was ready for Overlord. There would now be no opportunity for German redeployment from Italy to France to deal with Overlord, so one of the main objects of the Allied campaign had been fulfilled. Indeed, late May brought the news that the Germans were taking four divisions from western Europe to reinforce Italy. ‘Whatever happens,’ exulted Cunningham, ‘the battle has fulfilled its purpose of keeping the Italian divisions’–by which he meant the German divisions based in Italy–‘away from the Overlord battle.’64 It was not now strategically necessary for Churchill and Brooke to insist upon another, painful, costly, drawn-out mountainous advance up to the Pisa–Rimini Line much further north, yet this is what they did, partly because it was a British-led operation.

On 15 May almost the entire upper echelon of the Allied High Command except the Joint Chiefs met at St Paul’s School in Hammersmith in west London in order to be briefed on the Normandy landings by Eisenhower, Montgomery (who had once been a pupil), the naval Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Expeditionary Force Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the Commander of the US Strategic Air Forces in Europe Carl ‘Tooey’ Spaatz (who made a bad impression by reading his speech), Sir Arthur (‘Bert’ or ‘Bomber’) Harris of Bomber Command, Sholto Douglas and three others. The King also spoke briefly, before presenting the American General Omar Bradley with the insignia of a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. In his speech, Churchill ought to have chosen a better form of words than ‘Gentlemen, I am hardening towards this enterprise,’ which let everyone know, in Eisenhower’s view, that the Prime Minister ‘had long doubted its feasibility’ and had only finally, ‘at this late date, come to believe with the rest of us that this was their true course of action in order to achieve the victory’.

In fact the preparations for the Normandy landings, as Eisenhower knew better than anyone, had been progressing with Churchill’s active political support for several years. All that was in doubt was the date of their launch. Millions of maps had been printed; thousands of aerial photographs compiled; millions of rounds of ammunition had been stockpiled; hundreds of miles of roads had been built; 6,250 pounds of sweets, 12,500 pounds of biscuits and one hundred thousand packets of chewing gum had been distributed; sixty days’ supply of poison gas was prepared for retaliatory use; 25 square miles of west Devon were evacuated of its civilian population for training; mass rehearsals were conducted with live ammunition; vast encampments were built all over southern England with their own water supplies, field bakeries, post offices and camouflages; immense ingenuity and inventiveness were directed towards making the assault a success, including artificial harbours and underwater petrol pipelines.65 Although the Americans brought over a great deal in convoys–necessitating forty ships per armoured division–the British provided a huge amount in terms of logistics too, which Churchill never begrudged, but rather drove through with insistence on administrative efficiency and vigour.

In a War Cabinet discussion on Monday 22 May, regarding the request of a Yugoslavian general to be parachuted back into his homeland in order to make contact with Marshal Tito, Churchill joked to the War Cabinet: ‘I’m not sure I should make a good landing by parachute; I’d break like an egg.’ (The mental image of Humpty Dumpty is hard to avoid in this context.) He then reported on Italy: ‘The battle is very heavy. Alex is pleased. The French have made great advances on the left flank. The [Allied] armies are hinging north of Cassino…The next [few] hours may produce very remarkable results. There have been seventeen thousand total [Allied] casualties.’ Brooke then listed the advances made since the previous Monday, starting with a night attack across the River Rapido. Churchill was impressed by the way that Germany was being taken on in Italy ‘by four separate countries’, Britain and her Dominions, America, France and Poland, and insisted on ‘publicity for Britain in communiqués’, a regular demand of his. Otherwise he felt that although they had a quarter of the troops engaged, it ‘looks as if the British were laggards in the show’.66

Two days before that meeting, on Saturday 20 May 1944, Admiral Cunningham had been driving from a football match to his country home in Bishop’s Waltham near Southampton in Hampshire when he knocked a postman off his bicycle on the Tolworth roundabout; the victim died two days later. Cunningham employed characteristically nautical terms to describe to his journal how the man had ‘turned sharp across my bows and I caught him on the back wheel. The car turned 180 degrees and charged up on to the pavement stern first…the Bentley nearly capsized.’67 The coroner’s verdict of accidental death at the inquest, the admiral recorded, was ‘Very satisfactory for me but a tragedy for the poor widow.’ Brooke and Cunningham now had something somewhat macabre in common, right down to the make of car they had both been driving. (The two men also died within five days of one another in June 1963, Cunningham in the back of a taxi taking him from the Athenæum Club to Waterloo Station.)

The human cost of the Italian campaign was brought home heavily to George Marshall when he arrived at his office on the morning of Tuesday 30 May, to find a personal radio message from Mark Clark informing him that Allen Brown, his wife Katherine’s twenty-seven-year-old son, had been killed in action the previous day near Compoleone, south of Rome. Having no children of his own, Marshall had been a devoted stepfather, and he was utterly devastated. Brown had enlisted as a private and had progressed on his own merits to become a second lieutenant in the 1st Armored Division, the rank he held when he opened his tank turret to direct a group of Italian refugees down a road towards safety, just as a German sniper struck. Only the day before, the Marshalls had received a letter from him, looking forward confidently to the end of the war.

‘Allen was the apple of his eye,’ Frank McCarthy recalled of his boss, who as well as grieving with Katherine talked to friends who had also lost sons in the conflict, including Lord Halifax and Harry Hopkins.68 Their only possible consolation was that within a week the beginning of the liberation of western Europe would be at hand. ‘This is a distressing message to send,’ Marshall wrote, before giving the circumstances of Allen’s death to his widow Margaret.69 The couple had a two-year-old son. Allen Tupper Brown was buried in the beautifully kept Sicily–Rome American Cemetery and Memorial just outside the town of Nettuno, 38 miles south of Rome. To have lost his beloved stepson was painful enough for George Marshall, but to have lost him to a campaign that he had never believed would bring victory significantly closer must have made it more terrible still.

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