The time has now come when the German Army must rise again and strike.
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, 16 December 1944
The Ardennes Offensive, also known as the battle of the Bulge from the 55-mile-deep protuberance that it created in the Allied lines, was Hitler’s final chance to split the Allied armies by taking Antwerp, and then to defeat them in detail. By attempting to cross the River Meuse and strike at the hinge between his foes, Hitler’s last gamble was remarkably similar to that of Napoleon during the Hundred Days. Although the battle lasted forty-four days and was the largest land battle in American history, Hitler had no more success than the Emperor.
As with so many of his coups in the past, Hitler chose a Saturday to unleash his surprise stroke, and like them it met with startling initial success. Eisenhower had left the defences relatively thin in the Ardennes Forest in order to concentrate on seemingly more profitable areas to its north and south, so two hundred thousand Germans, commanded by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, were able to attack eighty-three thousand Americans across a 60-mile front.
Allied intelligence and aerial reconnaissance had not spotted the vast congregation of German armour from Army Group B moving through the dense forests. German security was excellent: radio and telephone transmissions concerning the attack wereverboten, only land-lines or messengers were permitted; troop movements took place at night or in bad weather and corps commanders were not given their assignments until days beforehand. On the night of the attack itself, artificial moonlight was created by bouncing searchlight beams off low clouds. Furthermore, a special unit of two thousand men of Panzer Brigade 156–including 150 English-speakers–were dressed in American uniforms to increase the confusion. The German capacity for counter-attack in the Ardennes as late as the winter of 1944–undertaken through deep snow in the worst Belgian winter in living memory–must give pause to those who believe a 1942 or 1943 Overlord would have fared better.
On 18 December north Burma was finally cleared of Japanese, and two days later Roosevelt bestowed the ultimate commission of general of the Army on Marshall, raising him to the same rank as his former commander, ‘Black Jack’ Pershing, and awarding him a fifth star. It was a fitting recognition of the way that Marshall had overseen the creation of a vast army virtually from scratch, even if the promotion unfortunately fell on the day before that Army’s worst humiliation of the war against Germany: on 19 December, nearly eight thousand men of the US 106th Infantry Division surrendered to the Fifth Panzer Army in the Ardennes. Elsewhere, however, and especially at Bastogne and Saint-Vith, fierce American resistance slowed the German juggernaut and threw its well-laid plans–which depended on capturing US fuel dumps by specific dates–badly out of kilter. That day Churchill told Cunningham that he ‘preferred a tortoise with its head out even if it looked like biting him’.1
Eisenhower’s reactions were commendably fast, and by midnight on the second day of the offensive the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were on the move; in all a quarter of a million men and fifty thousand vehicles were detailed to destroy it. Patton was ordered to wheel virtually his whole army of six divisions sharply to the left and hit the offensive from the south. Because the Germans had split the 12th Army Group north and south of the Bulge, destroying much of their communications, Eisenhower temporarily transferred the US First and Ninth Armies to the north under Montgomery’s command, something for which Omar Bradley never really forgave him.2 ‘Brad was absolutely livid,’ recalled Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham. ‘Walked up and down and cursed Monty. Was startling to see Brad like this. Because of his personal loyalty to Ike, Brad stuck out the show.’3 A jingoistic and misinformed British press portrayed the move as the heroic Monty being called upon to save the day from a hapless American, an interpretation which Montgomery ought to have done more to dispel the moment he could. Instead he gave a press interview at his headquarters in which, although he praised the ordinary GI, he failed to give proper credit to the American High Command and seemed to hog the glory for closing the Bulge.
Operation Herbstnebel ran out of momentum and especially petrol by Christmas Eve, and on 3 January 1945 the First Army counter-attacked from the north, linking up with the Third Army two weeks later. ‘We have been having a bit of a party out here!!’ Montgomery wrote to Portal.4 (As if misunderstanding such gung-ho spirit, the published diaries of General Hap Arnold attribute to Colonel Frederick W. Casfie, the son of one of Arnold’s West Point classmates killed in combat that Christmas Eve, the posthumous award of ‘the Medal of Humor’.) To put the Ardennes Offensive in context, however, the Joint Intelligence Committee estimated that the Germans had 105 divisions on the Western and Italian fronts at the time, but 149 on the Eastern. The battle of the Bulge, for all the potential danger it posed in the west, was only half the size of the battle of Kursk, for example.
Early in January, Churchill and Brooke visited Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) at the Trianon Palace hotel in Versailles. Cunningham later flew over to attend the funeral of his friend Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay–the mastermind behind the naval side of Dunkirk and D-Day who had died in a plane crash on 2 January–and also visited SHAEF. He found that ‘Montgomery’s patronising talk to the Press had done little to improve matters. Ike and the American generals were all up in arms and the tone of the British Press was making it quite impossible to put American troops under Montgomery’s command.’5 That night, Brooke and Bracken made ‘unfavourable comment’ about Montgomery’s interview, even though he had extravagantly praised the courage of the American fighting man.
The battle was not finally won until Sunday 28 January, when the last of the Germans were cleared from the Bulge. They had got tantalizingly close to the Meuse but never quite reached it. They incurred one hundred thousand casualties, the Americans eighty-one thousand, including nineteen thousand killed and fifteen thousand captured. The British, who fought only at the tip of the Bulge, suffered 1,400 casualties. Both sides lost around eight hundred tanks, which by that stage in the war the Germans could no longer afford. ‘Any army can go through your force if they are willing to risk losses or if they are willing to weaken their own front so that they can’t prevent a counter-attack,’ explained Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, to Pogue after the war. ‘Germany did both those things. The result was that the Germans used up most of their armor and had practically nothing to oppose us later on.’6 Bedell Smith provided Cunningham with some of the Wehrmacht’s champagne to toast the New Year, with no one enquiring too closely where it had originally come from.
Captain Cyril Falls, the military correspondent of The Times, had written to Churchill on 21 December 1944–‘Now Rundstedt has shown us how an offensive should be conducted’–a letter critical of both Alexander and Eisenhower, and which suggested that political considerations had governed the senior Anglo-American military appointments. In his reply, Churchill praised Alexander’s command in the Western Desert and said that Rundstedt’s offensive would probably shorten the war. ‘All these Commands have been made on their merits,’ he assured Falls, ‘but the British and Americans have to be represented to a very large extent in accordance with the forces employed in the different theatres,’ and ‘in all these questions the United States forces are already between two and three times as numerous as ours.’ Churchill concurred in Falls’ praise for Brooke, saying that ‘had the Command in North-West Europe fallen to the British instead of the United States, he was already chosen as its commander. However in his present great situation he is able to exert an immense influence over all the theatres of war.’7 Of course Churchill had in effect admitted that Brooke could not have had the command whatever his merits, because of political considerations, thereby substantially confirming what Falls had alleged.
Leo Amery recalled that in late January 1945 Churchill asked Brooke how many divisions the Russians had, and ‘when he said five hundred one could feel the shudder going through the Cabinet.’8 Russian divisions tended to be smaller and many were under-strength and under-equipped at that time, but nonetheless the USSR mobilized more troops in the war than Germany, Britain and Italy combined. It was in order to keep this vast Russian strength within certain European confines, and to prevent chaos during the death-throes of the Third Reich, that a second Big Three conference was slated to take place at Yalta, 345 miles south-east of Sevastopol in the Crimea in mid-February. Stalin had claimed to Roosevelt and Churchill that his doctors had advised him not to leave the Soviet Union, even though Roosevelt was far more ill than he. With a sublime disregard for historians’ convenience, this gathering was also codenamed Argonaut, the same name as the Second Washington Conference of June 1942. Churchill wanted to see Roosevelt and Marshall before Yalta, in order–rather as at Cairo–to try to agree common ground before meeting the Soviets. The place he chose was the brave little Mediterranean island of Malta. ‘If you do not wish to spend more than one night at Malta,’ he wrote to an evidently reluctant president, ‘it could surely be arranged that both our Chiefs of Staffs should arrive there say a couple of days before us and have their preliminary discussions.’ So little did Roosevelt want to collude with the British that Harriman even asked Stalin not to tell Churchill about the conference arrangements for Yalta until the last moment.9
In his answer to Churchill’s request about Malta, Roosevelt said that ‘in view of the time available to me for this journey it will not be possible for us to meet your suggestion and have a British–American staff meeting at Malta before proceeding to Argonaut. I do not think that by not having a meeting any time will be lost at Argonaut.’ A correspondence that had begun as mutually affectionate billets-doux and jokes had progressed to cold notes of mutual suspicion. In the event, another, very short conference was scheduled to take place on Malta, codenamed Cricket.
At the War Cabinet of 8 January 1945, Churchill asked of the celebrations for soldiers who were returning on leave from the Middle East: ‘Why not brass bands?’10 That was to be the last time that the War Cabinet met at Downing Street for some weeks. The V-2 campaign meant that the next day it convened underground in the Cabinet War Rooms, then in the Map Room in the No. 10 Annexe, then back in Downing Street for one meeting only, but not there again until 3 April. ‘The Angel of Death is abroad in the land,’ said Churchill of the V-2s, slightly misquoting John Bright’s philippic against the Crimean War, ‘only you can’t hear the flutter of his wings.’ The atmosphere returned to that of the 1940 Blitz, with decisions taken in emergency conditions underground. ‘It got pretty stale down there sometimes,’ recalled Paul Caraway, ‘but that was bearable.’
On 9 January, Brooke considered ‘a new scheme’ of Churchill’s under which Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Eisenhower’s deputy supreme commander, was to get a post at the Air Ministry and Alexander would leave Italy and take his place. Churchill wanted a high-profile Briton to be co-supreme commander in all but name. ‘This presupposed that divisions were withdrawn from Italy and the campaign there died away to a defensive one,’ thought Cunningham, who told Brooke that ‘the Americans would take it as an insult and think that Alex was being sent to hold Ike’s hand.’11 Another idea was simply to swap Tedder and Alexander around.
On 12 January Eisenhower wrote to Marshall to say that he didn’t oppose that concept, but Marshall thought it seemed like an admission of failure in the Ardennes. Brooke liked the idea of interposing Alexander–whom he did not rate very highly as a strategist–in between Eisenhower (whom he rated even lower) and the various army group, army and corps commanders. A plan to have Montgomery as Eisenhower’s land commander had briefly cropped up in the autumn, largely promoted by Montgomery himself. Now Churchill and Brooke were hoping to revive it for Alexander. On 10 January, Roosevelt sent Churchill a Joint Resolution of Congress awarding Dill a posthumous Distinguished Service Medal and donating $25,000 to erect the equestrian memorial in Arlington Cemetery. The President wrote that it was ‘evidence of a very wholesome state of mind in the midst of the bickerings that are inevitable at this stage of the war’.12
On 28 January, the day of the final victory in the battle of the Bulge, Marshall met Eisenhower near Marseilles, partly in order to demonstrate his continued confidence in him in the face of British pressure effectively to relieve him of the day-to-day control of the ground forces. It allowed the Army Chief of Staff to hear about the Supreme Commander’s future strategy, and thus arm himself against any British criticism at the Cricket Conference to which he was headed. The trip gave Marshall an unexpected chance to learn about the geography of the Balkans, in somewhat surprising circumstances. Staying with a Polish-born American liaison official in a villa outside Marseilles, Marshall had his hair cut by a barber who it transpired came from the crest of the Ljubljana Gap. The butler, who did the translation, also turned out to have been born and bred in the valley below, ‘So they spent about an hour and a half educating me as to the country,’ recalled Marshall. When he met the British soon afterwards in Malta, ‘they were astonished’ at his seemingly intimate knowledge of the geography of the region, and assumed that he must have once spent a summer there before the war.13 It stood him in very good stead. If Marshall was unwilling to commit American troops to Leros, Rhodes or Athens, he had always looked even less favourably on a political scheme to send armies into the Balkans. ‘The only thing the British hadn’t put in was trying to get to the North Pole,’ he once commented to Pogue about his ally’s supposed fondness for indirect ‘sideshow’ operations. His problem, as ever, was with the President. ‘I was frankly fearful of Mr Roosevelt introducing political methods, of which he was a genius, into a military thing which had to be on a fixed basis,’ he said in 1957. ‘This was particularly so in regard to the Balkan states and the now-termed satellite states. You can’t treat military factors in the way you do political factors. It’s quite a different affair.’ Marshall felt that his brief was not to save eastern Europe from Communism but instead to win the war in the shortest possible time and with the fewest possible Allied lives lost. After the Iron Curtain descended he was severely criticized for this, but at the time he did his military duty, leaving the political consideration to the politicians.
Eisenhower set out his plans for the double-envelopment of the Ruhr, and explained in detail his view of the European endgame, so that by the time Marshall left Marseilles on 29 January (he arrived in Malta the next day), he was well prepared for yet another showdown with the British over Eisenhower’s role and his strategy, whether they wanted one or not.
At the War Cabinet that same day, after hearing about the Wehrmacht withdrawing back to the Fatherland from Norway, Churchill likened Germany without military reserves to ‘Living in the middle of a spider’s web and not having a spider’.14 He then left for Northolt aerodrome and Malta, where he arrived with a temperature and went straight to bed that afternoon on board the cruiser HMS Orion. Brooke and Cunningham had already left that morning with Jacob, who was ‘nearly knocked [out]’ in the unpressurized cabin at an altitude of 12,000 feet and had to be given oxygen. They were met at the airport by Admiral Sir James Somerville, the head of the British naval delegation in Washington, and driven to Admiralty House where they were guests of the man who had succeeded Sir Andrew Cunningham as commander-in-chief Mediterranean Fleet, rather confusingly called Vice-Admiral Sir John Cunningham. Somerville had a lady flag lieutenant, noted Andrew Cunningham, ‘and the things he says to the poor girl are quite scandalous’.15
The first two Combined Chiefs of Staff meetings of the Malta Conference–the 182nd and 183rd of the war–took place on the morning and afternoon of Tuesday 30 January in the Montgomery House in Floriana, a suburb of Valletta, where the American delegation was staying. Procedure was settled quickly and Andrew Cunningham felt ‘We have no serious differences,’ but then he had also said that at Octagon on the eve of the discussion on the employment of the Royal Navy in the Pacific.
Marshall outlined Eisenhower’s plan for the main Allied attacks to be undertaken on a broad front north of the Ruhr by Montgomery’s 21st Army Group with a second attack between Frankfurt and Kassel by Bradley’s 12th Army Group. He ‘considered it essential that there should be more than one possible line of advance’, with the majority of the reinforcements then fed into whichever seemed to be doing best.16 The British worried that shifting the 15th Air Force from the Mediterranean to Eisenhower might damage their position in Italy, but Marshall said that it needed to be employed wherever the weather proved advantageous, and that the move wasn’t permanent.
At 2.30 p.m. the next day, 31 January, Andrew Cunningham spotted ‘Some differences over the Western front strategy and also minor ones over the Mediterranean strategy’. However, ‘Much was deferred as we pushed a number of new minutes at one another.’ That evening John Cunningham hosted a dinner at Admiralty House for the American and British Chiefs of Staff, as well as Maitland Wilson, Admiral Stark and many others, at which M. Bellizzi’s twenty-piece band ‘played splendidly’ until midnight. Everyone was very complimentary to Andrew Cunningham about the furniture and fittings of Admiralty House, which had been chosen by his wife Nona when they were stationed there from 1939 to 1942. ‘It was like old times,’ the ex-Commander-in-Chief reflected. Agreement was reached over issues as wide ranging as the priorities of the combined bombing offensive, the danger posed by German jet-fighters against Allied piston-engined planes, the allocation of resources between India, Burma and China, co-ordination with the Soviets (especially over bombing, from which was to come the destruction of Dresden a fortnight later), and the U-boat threat in British waters too shallow for the ASDIC underwater sonar device to work effectively. Furthermore, the Ljubljana Gap concept was effectively killed off–with the help of Brooke, who had by then had time to examine the operation more closely–and the British were also persuaded to go on the defensive in Italy and move five divisions from there to fight under Eisenhower.
Yet Thursday 1 February witnessed what have been described as ‘the most violent disagreements and disputes of the war.’ Churchill wrote to Clementine from HMS Orion that he had had luncheon alone with Admiral King the day before and Marshall that day, and could report: ‘Both are in great form and all the conversations at the Conference have been most friendly and agreeable.’17 But at the 2.30 p.m. Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting that same afternoon, coming straight from lunch with Churchill, Marshall called for an off-the-record session, and there he told Brooke exactly what he thought of his demand that Montgomery be given more American troops to effect the Rhine crossing, and much more besides. As Andrew Cunningham recalled it, Marshall:
let off rather a tirade about trying to fight the Western front battle by committee and also about the constant pressure maintained by Montgomery and the Prime Minister on Eisenhower. He said some pretty straight things about Montgomery, allowing personal feelings to enter into things. Brooke was not too good and we only noted Eisenhower’s submitted plan although both Portal and myself and King would have liked, under conditions, to note it with approval. Marshal [sic] practically made the question one of confidence in Eisenhower.18
Of course Marshall privately included Brooke himself in the list of those Britons exercising improper pressure on Eisenhower, even if he did not say so to his face. It had, after all, been Brooke who had on 12 December criticized Eisenhower’s strategy most ‘strenuously’ in the Annexe Map Room.
Quite what ‘pretty straight things’ Marshall said about Montgomery on that occasion we do not know, but a flavour of them might be taken from his strictly ‘off-the-record’ remarks to four Pentagon historians in 1949, to whom he said: ‘The Eighth Army had committed about every mistake in the book. It was no model campaign. The pursuit of Rommel across the Desert was slow. The British even laid a minefield in front of them which benefited the Germans more than it did the British…Montgomery left something to be desired as a field commander.’19 He added that El Alamein ‘gave a great boost to morale but was blown up out of all proportion to its importance’ and that Montgomery’s performance in north-west Europe was no better. If these were the kind of remarks Marshall made about Montgomery at Malta in 1945, as well as in Room 2E844 of the Pentagon four years later, it is understandable that the atmosphere became, in his own words, ‘very acidic’.
Brooke stuck up for his protégé as best he could, and when Marshall asked him to approve Eisenhower’s plan for the Western Front, he simply refused to do so, agreeing only to ‘take note’ of it. After the war Brooke wrote that ‘through force of circumstances’ he had to accept the plan, because they ‘were dealing with a force that was predominantly American, and it was therefore natural that they should wish to have the major share in its handling.’20 Marshall had protected his own protégé, Eisenhower, and the broad-front strategy of advance to the Rhine and Elbe, even suggesting to Ike that he threaten to resign on the issue.
Asked after the war to comment on what had happened at Malta, Marshall said that the session had been ‘a very hot one. We had great difficulty in reaching a general decision.’ He explained that ‘Montgomery wanted certain troops and a lead in the crossing of the Rhine,’ troops which had largely to come from the Americans. Eisenhower had given him practically all he asked for, but it had not satisfied him. ‘It was getting to be a quite serious political matter,’ and Marshall and Roosevelt ‘had a hard time beating it off’. Marshall also recalled telling Brooke that he and Roosevelt ‘hardly ever saw’ Eisenhower, who was ‘under the guns from Mr Churchill almost twice a day at times and very, very frequently all the time’. It is evident that Marshall personally blamed Brooke too, telling the Pentagon historians that ‘the real influence’ being brought to bear on Eisenhower ‘was the direct influence of Churchill and Alan Brooke. They were seeing him every week, and not going through the Combined Chiefs of Staff. We here in Washington were playing according to the rules.’ He claimed of the prestigious Rhine crossing planned in March (codenamed Plunder) that the British ‘were trying to restrict this thing so as Bradley couldn’t advance on the Rhine’, and that ‘They were all afraid of Patton getting loose down there.’
On other occasions Marshall referred to that meeting as ‘terrible’, which it clearly was.21 Deep and long-held American suspicions had come out into the open, and were very fully aired. ‘It was rough,’ said Marshall; ‘these sessions of lively arguments came up–and they were lively and they were very frank–but we always came to a harmonious conclusion.’ With his immense sense of fairness and objectivity, Marshall pointed out that ‘We Americans must keep in mind that the British…gave supreme command to Eisenhower in Africa when we had very few troops there and they had the dominant armies. They gave the supreme command, and reiterated it, to General Eisenhower, when General Montgomery’s famous Eighth Army came up along the northern rim of Africa,’ and even though ‘he was outranked.’ It was true; Eisenhower had only received his fourth star on 11 February 1943.
Marshall might well have also been venting irritation at the meeting provoked by what he later described as ‘This patronizing attitude towards American troops’ that he thought was ‘rather widespread in English circles’, instancing a time when the King ‘started telling me how fine it was to have Eisenhower in nominal command with Montgomery at his side, etc’. Marshall diplomatically confined himself to replying: ‘That’s very interesting, Your Majesty.’22 He was less restrained when General Alexander remarked to him, ‘Of course your American troops are basically trained,’ replying tartly: ‘Yes, American troops start out and make every possible mistake, but after the first time they do not repeat these mistakes. The British troops start out in the same way and continue making the same mistakes over and over, for a year.’23
Walter Bedell Smith was present at the closed session of 1 February, and he later recalled that Brooke was ‘upset’ about Eisenhower’s plan for the Rhine crossing and wanted ‘a directive to Ike which would require him to give a certain amount of troops to Montgomery’. Bedell Smith told Brooke that that would amount to a vote of no confidence in Ike, who would offer his resignation, upon which Brooke ‘disavowed any intention of getting rid of him’. It was hardly a ringing endorsement, nonetheless, and echoes other criticisms, such as that of the splendidly named Colonel C. H. Bonesteel III, who was in the Planning Department of 12th Army Group, and who said that Ike ‘Never really commanded. He was an arbiter or tribunal between services.’
A week after the row, Bedell Smith wrote to Marshall’s deputy chief of staff Tom Handy about a:
bitter argument with Field Marshal Brooke who wished to revise Ike’s directive in such a way that he could hardly move a division except north of the Ruhr. I had a couple of long talks with him after we got back to our rooms, and I give him credit for complete honesty in this matter, a tribute I have never paid him before; but he is stubborn as Hell, and stood out until finally GCM called a closed conference at the end of one of the sessions, spoke his mind as only he can do, for about fifteen minutes, and, as a result, the matter was dropped.
Bedell Smith added that ‘it would have been criminal’ if Eisenhower had ‘staked everything on one narrow thrust north of the Ruhr’.
After the war, Eisenhower signally failed to repay the support that Marshall had shown him at this crisis moment at Malta, and generally in having promoted him from lieutenant-colonel to four-star general in the less than two years between March 1941 and February 1943, and to five-star General of the Army on 20 December 1944 (only two days after Marshall himself). When in October 1952 Marshall came under violent criticism from the Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy for having let China ‘fall’ to the Communists when secretary of state, Eisenhower excised a paragraph of one of his election speeches in Milwaukee that described Marshall as ‘dedicated with singular selflessness and the profoundest patriotism to the service of America’.24 As President John F. Kennedy later put it: ‘No man is less loyal to his friends than Eisenhower. He is a terribly cold man. All his golfing pals are rich men he has met since 1945.’25
The morning after the ‘terrible’ meeting, on Friday 2 February, Brooke learnt that his aide-de-camp, flatmate and friend Captain Barney Charlesworth had been killed in a plane crash near Pantelleria. ‘He was always cheerful and in good humour no matter how unpleasant situations were,’ wrote Brooke of the loss, which came only eight months after the death of Ivan Cobbold and three months after that of Dill. Brooke was desperately sad for Barney’s wife Diana, and he found it hard during the day to keep his thoughts on the vital business at hand, ‘and not let them wander off to Barney’. It is sometimes easy to forget, when dealing with these giants of mankind’s greatest war, that they were subject to ordinary human emotions too.
After a truncated, deadlocked Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting at Montgomery House, the fourteen-month-old heavy cruiser USS Quincy sailed into the Grand Harbour at Valletta, with Roosevelt and Leahy on board. The Joint Chiefs of Staff reported to the President at 4.30 p.m. and at 6 p.m. they were joined by Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff. No changes at SHAEF or alterations of strategy were requested by Brooke at that meeting, in the certain knowledge that they would be turned down. Indeed at Malta, where Roosevelt pointedly stayed for less than twenty-four hours, the President deftly warded off British attempts to discuss anything of importance at any length.
Churchill did try to use the opportunity to argue that ‘we should occupy as much of Austria as possible, as it was undesirable that more of Western Europe than necessary should be occupied by the Russians,’ to which Roosevelt reacted neither positively nor negatively.26 This was doubtless a relief to Marshall. Since Brooke by then anyway believed that the Ljubljana Gap concept was unworkable, and Churchill could not interest the Americans in it, and especially not Marshall, it died rather as the Prime Minister once claimed that Sledgehammer had, as a victim of Darwinian forces. Churchill and Roosevelt were not to speak privately again for another three days, and so next to nothing was discussed about how to deal with the Soviets at Yalta. Churchill fully recognized this increasing lack of influence with Roosevelt, telling Charles Moran in October 1951 that he had once ‘had great influence over the President’ but this had ended ‘about three months before Yalta; then he ceased to answer my letters.’27 In all, Churchill wrote 201 more letters and telegrams to Roosevelt than he received from him.
‘We left Malta in the darkness,’ recalled Donnelly thirty-four years later, ‘like migrating swans.’ Because of the short, 5,000-feet runway at Luqa airfield, the four-engined C-54s took off from 1.50 a.m. with flaps all the way down, fuel mixture at ‘full rich’ and throttles wide open, one plane every ten minutes. The night was dark and cloudy and, as the planes roared down the runway past the operations office, ‘eerie bluish flames poured out of the exhausts and the noise was deafening’.28
Marshall arrived at Saki airfield in the Crimea, south-east of Tarkhanhut Cape, in the early hours, to find large tents with tables full of vodka, caviar and Russian wine for breakfast. He took one look and merely said, ‘Let’s get going,’ leaving the banquet for others. They were driven to their quarters in the conference meeting place, the murdered Romanov family’s former holiday residence, the Livadia Palace. At 50 to 100 yard intervals along the 90 miles of the overland route across the peninsula, male and female Russian soldiers stood to attention, saluting each car as it passed. The three British Chiefs of Staff landed at 9.30 a.m. and, after breakfasting in one of the tents, went off in one car to the Vorontsov Villa overlooking the Black Sea at Alupka, 12 miles from Yalta. ‘A sort of Scottish baronial Moorish mixture’, opined Cunningham. ‘The place is very crowded, bathrooms few and far between.’
Brooke, Cunningham and Leathers shared one bathroom, and the Chiefs of Staff office was situated in the library. Cunningham was delighted to find a history of Hampshire that described the ruins of the medieval Waltham Palace, on whose site he lived in a modern house. It was believed that the villa–built by one of the British Empire’s greatest architects, Edward Blore, in 1837–had been given to Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, commander of Army Group South, by Hitler as a reward for taking the Crimea, which was why it was more or less intact.
If the British thought themselves somewhat crowded at Yalta–which they pronounced to rhyme with ‘Malta’–the Americans at the Livadia Palace had sixteen colonels sharing one room.29 Donnelly and six other Planners were accommodated in the Romanov children’s classroom on the second floor; although none of the seven snored, he recalled that there were bedbugs, that ‘bathing and toilet facilities were very primitive’ and that only FDR had a private bathroom. Just as the bedbugs were impervious to sprays, according to Harry Hopkins’ son Robert, so too did electronic bugs abound at Yalta, as the secret policemen of the NKVD listened in to delegates’ conversations.
George Marshall did not have to share a room: he had the Tsar and Tsarina’s bedroom on the second floor all to himself. Space considerations apart, great efforts had been made to accommodate the American delegation comfortably: accoutrements from Moscow’s luxurious Metropol Hotel had been moved en masse to the Livadia–even the maids’ uniforms had ‘M’ on them–and as the conference opened a Soviet briefing paper entitled ‘Notes on the Crimea’ was distributed to the American delegation tracing the area’s history and geography. A slightly contentious account of the Crimean War put the Allied capture of Sevastopol entirely down to the French, and of course did not mention that the Russians lost that war. Of the Livadia Palace it said: ‘General Marshall is occupying the Imperial bedroom and Admiral King the Tsarina’s boudoir,’ but without referring to the circumstances of the change of ownership.
Downstairs, Roosevelt and his daughter Anna Boettinger occupied rooms close to the plenary meeting room on the ground floor, with Harriman and the secret service detail stationed near by. (Security was continuously tight. When Roosevelt’s secret service contingent, Churchill’s military protection unit and Stalin’s bodyguards with short repeating rifles slung across their chests all crowded into the same room before Big Three meetings, Ed Hull ‘couldn’t help but feel that if someone had set off a firecracker all hell would have broken loose’.)30
There was some entertainment in the evenings for the US Chiefs of Staff, including a preview of the movie National Velvet starring Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor. The British were entranced by unrationed breakfasts that featured caviar, salmon, tangerines, butter and even Stalin’s favourite naturally aerated Georgian mineral water, Borzhoni.
Stewart Crawford, Portal’s private secretary, agreed about the idyllic atmosphere and remarked upon ‘The splendid scenery along the coast near Yalta. The pleasant cypress-studded slopes covered with villas from the Tsarist days…wonderful colouring in light neutral tints’.31 Yalta’s colouring was indeed light and neutral, but the results of the conference were anything but. Few suspected it at the time, and it was perhaps inescapable, but the decisions taken there were to reduce the eastern half of the Continent of Europe to a state of modern vassalage that was to last nearly half a century.