Yalta Requiem: ‘They were ending the war in no friendly spirit’ February–May 1945

States which have no overseas colonies or possessions are capable of rising to moods of great elevation and detachment about the affairs of those who have.

Winston Churchill, February 19421

Although the Yalta Conference had many issues to discuss which were of lasting consequence to the post-war world–including the future of eastern Europe (especially Poland), reparations from and the partition of Germany, the founding of the world organization called the United Nations, Anglo-American representation on the Control Commissions of Roumania and Bulgaria, the future of Iran and China, and the timing of Russia’s declaration of war against Japan–these mostly concerned politics more than grand strategy. The disputes between various politicians and diplomats were in the spotlight at Yalta, unlike earlier conferences where it was squarely trained on Marshall and Brooke. The military questions that remained to be settled were mostly administrative, such as over POWs and the demarcation of areas to be bombed. Even some political questions that had military overtones, such as Roosevelt’s decision to let Russia take Japan’s Kurile Islands, were not discussed with the military advisers, possibly, in that particular case, because they would have recommended very strongly against it.

During the wide-ranging political discussions at Yalta, Marshall and the other Chiefs rarely said a word, but stuck closely to their military briefs. After the war Marshall was unfairly accused by the McCarthyites of playing a major political role in appeasing the Soviets at Yalta, an accusation he understandably resented. He had not even been present at many of the political meetings and dinners, and had concentrated solely on the military issues. The extensive documents recording these discussions–principally the relevant Foreign Relations of the United States volume of official papers–fully bear Marshall out over this, although they were not published in time to exonerate him.

Marshall was well aware that politicians had to look at issues through a different prism from soldiers. ‘Of course, Mr Churchill and the President were the dominant factors in all arrangements and all guidance,’ he said. ‘And they were the great political leaders of their countries, but they were also the military leaders and it was quite a delicate issue back and forth, particularly in matters like the Mediterranean, the soft underbelly of Europe, the Balkan states, the march on Berlin, and things of that sort.’ Marshall insisted to Pogue that, other than the shortage of landing craft, there was nothing that the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed more than political factors, at least among themselves. ‘But we were careful, exceedingly careful, never to discuss them with the British…because we were not in any way putting our neck out as to political factors, which were the business of the Head of State.’2

When the conference opened, on Sunday 4 February 1945, the Red Army had crossed the River Oder and were only 40 miles from Berlin. Under orders to seize as much territory as possible in the last moments before the Big Three met, they were badly over-extended and unable to commence their next, albeit final, assault for another ten weeks, although of course the Western Allies did not know that. It was hardly surprising, therefore, with the battle of the Bulge won only a week earlier, that senior American diplomats advised Roosevelt to ratify the Occupation zones of Germany as soon as possible.3

Churchill’s comments to Colville, Moran and others about Roosevelt’s state of health the previous year proved prescient. Marshall said the President ‘looked very, very tired’ at Yalta; ‘I was quite shocked by his looks.’4 Ismay thought that FDR ‘was more than half gaga’ there.5 Of course there might well be plenty of hindsight in the almost unanimous testimony about how Roosevelt appeared, but it was pretty unvarying. Donnelly found him ‘gaunt, his eyes sunken deep in his lined face; he looked very tired and ill, as though he were existing on pure iron determination to see the war to the end.’6 Hull agreed: ‘The President looked dreadful when he was wheeled into the room–sagging jaw, drooping shoulders. He appeared almost oblivious of his surroundings and of his guests. After several strong martinis, however, he seemed to come to life.’7 Brooke’s interpreter Hugh Lunghi recalls that he watched FDR’s plane touch down at Saki and saw the President, ‘waxen cheeked, looking ghastly, his familiar black naval cloak over his shoulders, hat-brim turned up in front, being helped into a jeep’. Stewart Crawford wrote three months after the conference that Roosevelt had looked ‘half dead with grey sunken cheeks and little spark of vitality’.8 Nonetheless, Admiral Emory S. Land, the chairman of the US Maritime Commission, told Sir Alan Lascelles that Roosevelt was not so ill at Yalta as the photos of him there might suggest, but was merely ‘having trouble with his dentures’, which had ‘affected his speech and caused his face to fall in unduly’. In the unlikely event that spin-doctors ever find themselves in need of a patron saint, they should choose Admiral Emory S. Land.

Between Sunday 4 and Sunday 11 February there were eight plenary sessions, five Joint Chiefs of Staff meetings, three Combined Chiefs of Staff meetings, two bilateral meetings between the US and Soviet Chiefs of Staff and numerous other convocations of smaller, more specialized groups. The Combined Chiefs met at Stalin’s HQ, the Yusopov Villa at Koreis, 6 miles from the Livadia Palace. By the end of the conference all the issues facing the Allies had been fully talked through; for all that historians still debate the outcomes of Yalta, few deny the sheer reach of the discussions there.

Although victory over Germany was no longer in doubt, the nature of the post-war world order certainly was. The question of Poland took up much time, with the Soviet Union supporting the claims of her Polish puppet government, the Lublin Committee, for territorial compensation against Germany, by moving the new Polish–German border to the Oder–Neisse line, which the Western Allies accepted. Churchill and Roosevelt did manage to win an agreement for the Polish Government to be formed ‘on a broader democratic basis’, including members of the London-based Polish government-in-exile, one of a number of Soviet promises that was not subsequently acted upon. Yalta confirmed the unconditional-surrender policy, mapped out zones of control in Germany for each of the Big Three powers, and established an Allied Control Council to administer national policies for the country as a whole. This Council would consider issues such as reparations and the punishment of war crimes that the conference failed to agree upon.

As the price for Stalin agreeing to declare war on Japan three months after the German surrender, the Western Allies secretly promised that Russia could have the territories she had lost in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5, but she was also offered further concessions concerning Port Arthur, Mongolia and Manchurian railways that were strictly speaking in China’s gift rather than theirs, and the Chinese were not present at Yalta. Equally secret were the decisions over the size, extent and relative voting strengths in the General Assembly and Security Council of the United Nations. The number of seats each great power would have, and the veto rights, were the subject of much political horse-trading.

Agreements were also made at Yalta over transfers of prisoners-of-war from West to East, which became highly controversial once it was recognized that thousands of non-Soviet and non-Yugoslav citizens who had fought for Hitler, such as the Cossacks, had been forcibly returned to Stalin and Tito by the British and subsequently murdered. Because these were political rather than strictly military questions, however, politicians and diplomats dealt with them rather than Marshall, Brooke and their respective Staffs. There is no indication that Churchill and Roosevelt differed over the (misnamed) ‘repatriation’ policy concerning the Cossacks.

Roosevelt conferred with Marshall and others prior to the opening plenary session at the Livadia. On the question of direct day-to-day liaison between Eisenhower and the Red Army, Marshall said that ‘the difficulty had been, not with the Russians but with the British who wish to effect the liaison through the Combined Chiefs of Staff’, and he argued that with the Russians so far inside East Prussia ‘there was not time enough’ to go through that process. Since there had been time enough to go through it during Overlord itself, and indeed the Americans had crossed the Atlantic so that they could do just that, this sounds suspiciously like an ex post facto rationalization for the fact that the Americans wanted direct bilateral military relations with the Soviets that excluded the British. Realpolitik demanded nothing less by that stage in the war. Power had shifted. Financially and economically Britain was close to bankruptcy. ‘To put it crudely,’ as one economic historian has, ‘in the end the net aid the United Kingdom received [from the United States and Canada] amounted to the equivalent of at least one full year of its own peak total war effort.’9 Canada was pliable and supportive as ever, but the Americans could no longer be cajoled. If they wished to meet the Russian Chiefs of Staff bilaterally, Combined Chiefs of Staff rules would not be invoked to prevent them.

At the first plenary meeting at the Livadia Palace at 5 p.m. on 4 February, Roosevelt was asked by Stalin to take the chair. Marshall then summarized the post-Bulge situation in the west, stating that the Rhine would be crossed soon after 1 March, that 75,000 tons of supplies were coming through Antwerp daily, and that area bombing was destroying German capacity to fight back, having reduced German oil production to 20 per cent of its original capacity.10 Although Cunningham thought Marshall ‘went rather beyond his brief’ in covering British air and naval matters, it seemed to impress Stalin.

The Russian dictator then said that, because of the Ardennes Offensive, the Soviets had started their winter offensive earlier than intended, and had done so in comradely duty and not because they were asked to by their allies. ‘The President, who is undoubtedly in bad shape and finding difficulty in concentrating,’ noted Cunningham, ‘did not rise to the occasion but the PM did brilliantly…Stalin was good and clear in his points, the PM also very good but the President does not appear to know what he is talking about.’11

Other than this first plenary session, Marshall did not attend the Big Three meetings. He was present with Roosevelt among dinner guests on 5 February and at a Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting four days later with Churchill, and then finally on the day that the famous photographs were taken in the courtyard of the Livadia (which is entirely unchanged today). ‘My God! How tired I am of it all!’ wrote Brooke in characteristically peppery mood. His loathing of official banquets and especially the speeches made at them–‘insincere, slimy sort of slush!’–was very evident throughout. On 6 February he summarized the Burmese campaigns for the Russians, and Marshall reported that ‘in the face of unparalleled difficulties’ 44,000 tons of supplies had been flown over the Himalayas the previous month, which he described, somewhat hyperbolically, as ‘the accomplishment of the greatest feat in all history’, and beside which he said inter-Staff co-operation ‘should be relatively easy’.12 One problem frequently encountered was the reluctance of even high-ranking Russian military officers to commit themselves to anything, however minor, until it had been referred back to Stalin; the hitherto short life-expectancies of marshals of the Soviet Union made that a sensible precaution.

On Wednesday 7 February there was a tour of the city of Sevastopol, where hardly a dwelling had been left intact by the long siege in 1941–2 and subsequent fighting in 1944, and there were three stops for Crimean War battlefields. Lunch with the Soviet admiral commanding the Sevastopol naval base consisted of ‘many dishes of stale fish and only vodka to drink’.13 Although Balaklava mattered much to men like Churchill and Brooke who had grown up with Tennyson’s poem, the Prime Minister complained that the local Russian guides had shown ‘no sort of feeling’ there. ‘Either they thought they had won the battle or they had never heard of it.’14 Shortly afterwards the Countess of Ranfurly in Cairo received a letter from a member of the British delegation saying: ‘I wish you could have seen Sir Alan Brooke, with a school history book in one hand, explaining the battle of Balaclava to an audience of field marshals. We stood on a little ridge on the end of that famous battlefield where the Charge of the Light Brigade took place. All around us were the twisted remains of German anti-tank guns.’15

Because there were now, for the very first time since Brooke and Marshall first met, no significant strategic differences between the two men–or at least none that Brooke could do anything about–relations ran smoothly. At the noon Combined Chiefs meeting on Thursday 8 February, Cunningham, quoting Byron’s Childe Harold on the Duchess of Richmond’s eve-of-Waterloo ball, reported that ‘everything went as merrily as a marriage bell’, and less poetically that there was ‘complete agreement on all matters on the agenda’. In the past this had been the harbinger for a furious bust-up, but not this time. Even Admiral King defended the British, at least after his own fashion. At the first tripartite military meeting, the Commander-in-Chief of the Red Navy, Admiral Nikolai Kuznetsov, had criticized the Royal Navy for its lack of support in convoying supplies to northern Russia, and Admiral King asked him, ‘rather sharply’, what the Soviet Navy had achieved against the German Navy. He ‘received an ambiguous reply’. (That was because during the first six months after Barbarossa the entire Russian Navy had managed to sink only one German cargo ship, the 3,700-ton Baltenland. The 3.6 million tons of enemy shipping Soviet propaganda claimed to have sunk between 1941 and 1945 is estimated to be around twelve times the genuine figure.)16

Even when King informed Cunningham that he did not intend to assign the British Pacific Fleet to the first phase of Operation Iceberg–the capture of the Ryukyu Islands south of Japan–claiming that he was ‘uncertain of what MacArthur is going to do’, Cunningham concluded: ‘I doubt he is up to his usual game of trying to keep us out of it.’ Although the next day Cunningham professed himself ‘rather disappointed’ at missing Iceberg, in the event the Royal Navy was fortunate to have escaped involvement in its terrible first phase, which comprised the capture of the island of Okinawa and which led to 7,374 American soldiers and 4,907 sailors being killed, and 31,807 soldiers and 4,874 sailors wounded, 36 ships being sunk and 368 damaged, and 763 aircraft lost–the highest number of American casualties in any single campaign of the war against Japan.

When they got back for lunch at the Vorontsov Villa after that morning’s Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting, the British Chiefs found that a group from the Foreign Office had ‘pinched’ their luncheon room. When they tried to walk in anyway, a young official came up and told them ‘to hold off’. No one ever talked like that to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and ‘He got properly set about’ by Brooke, much to Cunningham’s amusement.

An indication of how strained the Roosevelt–Churchill relationship had become by the time of Yalta might be gleaned from an incident that took place one afternoon. When the Prime Minister arrived at the fifth plenary session on Thursday 8 February, ten minutes before the 4 p.m. meeting, he ‘seemed a bit surprised’ to hear that Stalin and Roosevelt had already been conferring for twenty minutes. He was ushered on his own into the President’s suite to wait until his delegation had shed their hats and coats. Edward Stettinius, the new US Secretary of State, suggested that Admiral Leahy tell the President that Churchill was waiting outside. The admiral dutifully delivered the message and was back in a few moments. ‘What did the President say?’ asked Stettinius. ‘Let him wait,’ answered the blunt Leahy, indifferent to the presence of the Prime Minister’s delegation. Stettinius was embarrassed, Hopkins seemed amused. Stettinius then apologized to Eden, who did not seem at all put out, assuring the Secretary of State that he ‘thoroughly understood the whims of their masters and not to be upset about it’.17 Perhaps Eden ought to have taken this act of casual rudeness on the part of the President as yet another sign of his willingness to appear somewhere between grandly nonchalant and simply offhand towards Churchill.

With Roosevelt’s permission the Joint Chiefs of Staff held joint Staff sessions with the Russian Chiefs of Staff on 8 and 9 February, on the same days that the Combined Chiefs held their 187th and 188th sessions. These showed the shape of things to come. Of the Americans’ argument that they did not want the world to break down into ‘spheres of influence’, Lord Halifax–who did not attend Yalta–wrote to his Foreign Office friend Charles Peake, Eisenhower’s political adviser at SHAEF, that it seemed ‘astonishing nonsense’, because they were ‘altogether ignoring that they have the biggest of all through the Monroe Doctrine. If any people have the gift of ignoring the beam in their own eye, it is surely them. But I have no doubt they think just the same about us.’ Over such questions as India, Singapore and Hong Kong, they did indeed.

On Friday 9 February, after Churchill and Roosevelt had accepted the Combined Chiefs’ final report at their plenary session at noon–for which Roosevelt was ‘over half an hour late and not in good shape’–the photographs were taken in the courtyard at the Livadia.18 Iconic though they are today, Cunningham thought them ‘Very badly organized. Various people were fed into the picture at intervals behind the three great men,’ including him.19 For all the smiles in those photographs, the number of issues on which Churchill and Roosevelt found themselves ranged on opposite sides seemed to increase as victory neared, and by February 1945 these included the future of the Italian monarchy, the purchase of Argentine beef, civil aviation rights, Middle Eastern oil, Polish election supervision, Western involvement in the Balkans and the future of Greece.

Because he is usually accredited the victor at Yalta, it is sometimes forgotten that Stalin made a number of concessions there. He gave a firm date of entry into the Japanese war (three months after the German surrender); agreed to observe the provisions of the Atlantic Charter in eastern Europe by signing the Declaration of Liberated Europe, which affirmed ‘the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live’; assented to France sitting on the Control Commission for Germany, and agreed that the USSR would join the new United Nations Organization, largely on Roosevelt’s terms. Taken together these seemed significant, yet in reality they amounted to relatively little. The Soviet Union offered no written commitment that the United States could have the air and naval bases she needed in the war against Japan, and Stalin’s commitment to the Japanese war arose largely out of his wish to be present at the division of spoils; the provisions of the Atlantic Charter and Declaration of Liberated Europe were never going to be seriously implemented in eastern Europe; France’s zone in Germany had to be carved out of the Anglo-American zones, not Russia’s; and it was objectively in Russia’s interests to have a founding say in the United Nations.

Speaking in 1974, Ed Hull made the sensible but rarely heard argument that:

All that Yalta did was to recognize the facts of life as they existed and were being brought about…The only way we could have in any way influenced that in a different way was not to have put our main effort into France or the Low Countries but to put it into the Balkans…It might have meant that Bulgaria, Rumania, and possibly others of those Eastern European countries that are now Communist-dominated would have other type of control at present. But…it would also mean that all of Germany and probably a good portion of the Low Countries, Belgium, Holland and even France, might have Soviet influence over them rather than Western influence. To me there was no choice to make.20

The only way the Western Allies could have prevented the Soviet domination of eastern Europe was to have invaded the Continent in 1943, but that would have been to risk catastrophe in Normandy, and thus probable eventual Soviet domination of the entire Continent. Before criticizing Roosevelt and Churchill over the European endgame of 1945, it is important to recognize how limited were their options. When the Yalta Conference broke up, Brooke returned to London, Churchill left Saki airfield for Athens, Alexandria and Cairo, and Roosevelt and Marshall went back to Washington. The four of them were never to meet all together again.

Between noon on 21 June 1942 and the morning of 10 February 1945–when Brooke said ‘all the necessary goodbyes’–Western strategy-making between the four principals had brought the British and American armies to Africa, Sicily, Rome, Normandy, Paris and almost into the heart of Germany. In all they had met seven times–twice at Washington, at Casablanca, at Teheran, twice at Quebec, and at Yalta–and at these hard-fought meetings had hammered out a victorious strategy. There had been some individual defeats and disappointments in battle against the Axis, of course, but no campaign reversals. Above all, the contentious decision over the timing of the greatest amphibious assault in history had been justified by the only truly unanswerable criterion of warfare: success. A different quartet from Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Brooke might have taken different decisions, but it is unlikely that any would have significantly shortened the Second World War.

In Britain, a small number of Conservative MPs threatened to abstain during the parliamentary debates on the Yalta agreements, prompting Cunningham to write: ‘One sympathises with the dissidents but they do not face facts. The most outstanding one being that Russia is in occupation of Poland and can do just what she likes there without us or the USA being able to stop her.’21 The Commons debate on Yalta was won by the Government by 413 votes to nil with about thirty (mainly Tory) abstentions.

It is hard to be naive and cynical at the same time, but Roosevelt was both when it came to Stalin and the fate of the Poles. ‘Of one thing I am certain,’ he told the Polish Prime Minister-in-exile Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, ‘Stalin is not an imperialist.’ To the former American Ambassador to France, William C. Bullitt, he also said: ‘I have a hunch that Stalin doesn’t want anything other than security for his country, and I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work for a world of democracy and peace.’ To the British minister Richard Law in late December 1944, the President said that ‘he was not afraid of Communism as such. There are many varieties of Communism and not all of them are necessarily harmful.’22

Yet if Roosevelt was wrong about Stalin’s intentions, to the point of believing that Soviet expansionism would no longer pose a serious global threat, then so too was Churchill, who told the War Cabinet at its first meeting after he arrived back in Britain from Yalta that it was:

Impossible to convey the true atmosphere of discussions between the [Big] Three. Stalin I’m sure means well to the world and Poland…The military situation has undergone extraordinary change, in three weeks the Russian army crossed the River Vistula to the Oder. Stalin has offered the Polish people a free and more broadly based government to bring about an election; I cannot conceive any government has the right to be treated like that. Stalin about Poland said ‘Russia has committed many sins about Poland–pacts and partitions–it is not the intention of the Soviet Government to do such things but to make amends.’ President Roosevelt was very feeble–but when he showed he did not want a thing to be done, Stalin withdrew his request. Very important other matters were settled, including an agreement signed re: Japan on the basis that Russia gets back what she lost in the Russo-Japanese War subject to agreement with Chiang Kai-shek. Stalin had a very good feeling with the two Western democracies and wants to work quite easily with us. He was not jarred by the United States and us speaking the same language. My hopes lie in a single man, he will not embark on bad adventures. Re: Greece–Stalin was jocular…He does what he likes in Bulgaria, Roumania–and leaves us alone in Greece. He held his own people off; he made a bargain with them and they have a great desire to keep it. Russian troops have a wonderful bearing.23

The rest of Churchill’s report had an almost what-I-did-in-my-holidays quality to it. ‘Saw the Lion of Judah’, he said of the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, ‘not good impression. I reminded him we liberated his country.’ Then he met King Farouk of Egypt, but was much more impressed with Ibn Saud, the first king of Saudi Arabia, whom he thought a ‘marvellous figure, splendid looking man, boasts of his virility and how often he attends to his harem. He must keep a card index.’ Churchill was proud that although Ibn Saud’s retinue came to Alexandria on an American destroyer, ‘we sent them back on a cruiser’. There were sheep on board and a member of the entourage made coffee in the destroyer’s magazine, which ‘alarmed the Americans’. Churchill was amused by the way the retinue in Ibn Saud’s hotel suite included an astrologer, a fortune-teller and slaves. He thought the meeting ‘went off very well. I drank Mecca water–I’m not apt to taking it on occasions like that.’ His party were presented with ‘£100 worth of perfume’, as well as ‘presents we have got to discuss with chancellor of the exchequer, diamonds and pearls’. Churchill ‘Pleaded the case of the Jews’, but Ibn Saud brought up the assassination the previous year of the British Minister in the Middle East by Stern Gang terrorists, saying: ‘If they murder Lord Moyne, what do you expect them to do to the Arabs?’

The ‘high spot’ for Churchill had been Athens–his visit of 14–15 February codenamed Operation Freehold–where he had ‘never seen such a mass of people, jammed together. Tremendous.’ It would have been easy, so slowly did the crowds allow him to move, for someone to ‘have a pot shot at you’, after which there would have been a by-election, he joked, but nonetheless his antagonist Aneurin Bevan ‘would not stand a chance’. The last comments were almost Pooterish considering the great events Churchill had been describing: ‘Well, very enjoyable I must say.’ He had brought back goldfish from Moscow to swim in the pond at Chartwell, and had ‘Maintained one’s own against the bugs–got it a bit in the gut at the banquet…Left Cairo at 2 a.m. this morning. I’m not the slightest bit tired.’24

Although the official Cabinet minutes reported over three-and-a-half pages, it might almost have been a different meeting altogether from that verbatim account we have thanks to Lawrence Burgis. Churchill’s naivety about Stalin was still present in the official record–‘Premier Stalin had been sincere. He [Churchill] had a very great feeling that the Russians were anxious to work harmoniously with the two English-speaking democracies’ and ‘He was struck by the desire of the Russians to meet the President half way on points to which they thought he attached real importance’–yet there was unsurprisingly no mention of the agreement to allow Stalin to do ‘what he likes’ in Bulgaria or Roumania, let alone Roosevelt’s feebleness or how Churchill’s hopes for peace ‘lie in a single man, he will not embark on bad adventures’. Three years later, at the time of the Berlin Blockade, these forecasts were looking myopic.

The official minutes did record Churchill saying that ‘There was no question that the Russian Army was a formidable machine,’ which of course explains why the best that Churchill and Roosevelt could have hoped for was Stalin’s goodwill, since nothing else could dislodge the Red Army from Poland at that time.25 Both the official minutes and Burgis’ verbatim transcriptions nonetheless absolve Roosevelt from the criticism that he was the only Western leader who was naive about Stalin’s real post-war intentions towards eastern Europe. In the historical discussion about Roosevelt’s supposed naivety versus Churchill’s supposed cynicism, the truth is more complex. Churchill was more naive than he liked later to maintain, but neither man’s beliefs made the slightest difference when faced with a vast Red Army stationed squarely over Poland and East Prussia. (Churchill was also rather endearingly naive about his own popularity, telling the Cabinet that when he landed at RAF Lyneham that day, after his fourteen-hour flight from Cairo, ‘I was very thirsty and we stopped at a railway hotel for a whiskey and soda, which was most welcome. But, do you know, they wouldn’t let me pay for it!’)26

The British plan for Alexander to replace Tedder as Eisenhower’s deputy had been agreed to by Eisenhower himself, who nonetheless spotted the dangers of its being perceived as a British attempt to slip a land commander between him and his other senior officers. As he told Marshall on 20 February, ‘Since Public Relations often cause me the biggest headaches, I wanted to make sure the CIGS clearly understood what might occur.’ The whole idea was then downplayed by Brooke, who wrote a ‘My dear Monty…Yours ever Brookie’ letter on 7 March saying he thought he had settled ‘the Alex business’ by having ‘got in with Ike before the PM saw him and had long talk with him…I told him to be quite frank with PM and tell him exactly what his fears were, and not allow himself to be overridden. As a result PM told me afterwards that he had had doubts as to the wisdom of the change.’27

Brooke advised Churchill to leave things as they were, and soon afterwards Churchill wrote to Roosevelt and Marshall (with a copy to Brooke) withdrawing the proposal due to ‘the progress of the war’, which was a pretty broad catch-all. Brooke also told Montgomery that since Tedder ‘manages the whole air business on the Western front in Eisenhower’s name’ it wouldn’t have worked anyway, and he wanted Alexander to occupy Austria after the surrender instead. Tedder later told Pogue that the whole move had originally been ‘started by Monty, backed by Winston and Brooke’, because he, Tedder, kept supporting Eisenhower over Montgomery. ‘We didn’t happen to support [Monty] against Ike,’ Tedder told Pogue. ‘He couldn’t understand that we should be loyal to our commander.’28 Whereas Tedder fought coalition warfare as it needed to be, Montgomery–and to an extent also Brooke–consistently saw it in terms of Anglo-American competition. Eisenhower’s attitude was that he did not mind one officer calling another a ‘useless sonofabitch’ so long as the epithet did not include the word ‘British’ or ‘American’.

Montgomery’s reply to ‘My dear Brookie’ claimed that he was ‘delighted that the Alexander business has been postponed: and I hope this will lead to a cancellation. The change would have upset matters, without any doubt. We are now on a very good wicket; Ike has learnt his lesson and he consults me before taking any action.’29 Small wonder that the Americans thought of him as they did.

Brooke had already warned Montgomery that Churchill was ‘determined to come out for the crossing of the Rhine and is now talking of going up in a tank!’ Brooke thought that it would be safest to find ‘some reasonably secure viewpoint (not too far back or there will be hell to pay)’ from which the Prime Minister could watch what was happening. Montgomery replied that he would invite Churchill to stay with him in his camp, since that way he would ‘be able to keep an eye on him and see that he goes only where he will bother no one’. When he went out later that month, Churchill assured Montgomery that his entire party would consist only of Brooke, his aide Tommy Thompson and Sawyers, ‘four in all’. (Of course no one could have expected Churchill to see the Allies crossing the Rhine without his valet being present.)

On 15 March 1945 British troops reached the Rhine on a 10-mile front. Of the controversies over the so-called race to Berlin, Brooke later explained that the Occupation zones of Germany had been settled at Yalta, and that ‘Russia having taken what you might call the major part in the land warfare certainly had to have an equal part to the other two, on the Eastern Front…The advance into the country really had to coincide to a certain extent with what our final boundaries would be. That was what led to the stopping of the American advance at one point; they were going into territory that would eventually be occupied by Russia, they would lose men in doing so.’30 As there was no point in doing that, there was no race to Berlin between Montgomery and Patton, or anyone else. Berlin was in the Soviet zone, and if the Allies had reached it first, they would simply have had to withdraw.

In a wide-ranging, ruminative message to Roosevelt two days later, Churchill reminisced about how their friendship was still ‘the rock on which I build for the future of the world so long as I am one of the builders’. He said that he often thought back to ‘those tremendous days when you devised Lend–Lease, when we met at Riviera [Placentia Bay], when you decided with my heartfelt agreement to launch the invasion of Africa, and when you comforted me for the loss of Tobruk by giving me the subsequent three hundred Shermans of Alamein fame’.31 Churchill felt nostalgia for that nerve-wracking, but for him much happier, stage of the war when his relationship with Roosevelt was stronger and clearer than in the multi-nuanced later periods. Beneath this classic, slightly maudlin Churchillian reminiscence, there was a definite indication that it was Roosevelt rather than Churchill who had initiated the idea for Torch at Hyde Park in June 1942. Of course, occasionally Churchill did use such musings to try to bounce Roosevelt into action–such as his regular recollections of their ‘Istria’ conversation at Teheran to try to generate support for the Ljubljana Gap proposal–but there seemed to be no reason for this telegram, unless it was intended in the form of an elegy for a man who he by then suspected was dying. At about this time, Grace Tully sent a signed photo of FDR to Marshall, saying that the President ‘was a little surprised to learn he hadn’t already given one to him’. Perhaps Marshall suspected, too, that the President had less than a month to live.

The day that Churchill and Brooke set off to watch the Rhine crossing, Friday 23 March, Cunningham reported that the Chiefs of Staff that morning were ‘much more interested in the American fishing bait I produced and which has concentrated blood in it and so bleeds, than in our proper business of which there was not much’.32 With victories across all fronts, especially Patton’s when he took one hundred thousand prisoners and ‘smashed up’ nine German divisions south-east of the Moselle river, there was now little over which Marshall and Brooke could cross swords.

Harry Butcher recorded that Eisenhower had taken ‘special pleasure’ from Brooke, ‘who had once argued heatedly against the [Ruhr] plan’, generously telling him, as the Rhine crossing was actually in progress, that Eisenhower had been ‘right and that his current plans and operations are well calculated to meet the current situation’.33 After Brooke had sent Eisenhower a similarly flattering telegram on US Army Day, Ike told Marshall that ‘This was especially pleasing because of the past arguments we have had and to my mind shows there is a bigness about him that I have found lacking in a few people I have run into on this side of the water.’34 Eisenhower felt that the victories west of the Rhine had made possible the bold advances of General Courtney Hodges’ First and Patton’s Third Armies towards Kassel. ‘General Ike didn’t wish to sound boastful,’ wrote Butcher, ‘but he was like a football coach whose team had just won a big victory and he couldn’t help talking about the accomplishments of his players.’ (When Butcher had first met Ike, in Washington, he was indeed coaching an army football team at Fort Benning.)

On 24 March General Sir Miles Dempsey’s Second Army crossed the Rhine in Operation Plunder, watched by Churchill, Brooke and Eisenhower from a convenient hillock. The party saw Dakotas and gliders dropping parachutists and a Flying Fortress on fire. ‘Several of the returning Dakotas were in trouble,’ recalled one of the group, ‘and three or four crashed before our eyes, bursting into flames as they struck the ground.’ Nonetheless Churchill was not allowed to cross the Rhine during the battle, which left him ‘glum and angry’. The man who had charged with the 21st Lancers nearly half a century before was now just too important to be risked with the 21st Army Group. ‘I honestly believe that he would really have liked to be killed on the front at this moment of success,’ wrote Brooke. ‘He had often told me that the way to die is to pass out fighting when your blood is up and you feel nothing.’ It was a relief for Brooke to get him home safely, and home was at last safer too: on 28 March the last of 1,050 V-2 rocket-bombs landed on Britain, having killed over 2,500 Britons (far fewer than the citizens of Antwerp, however, of whom thirty thousand had been killed by these weapons).

As it turned out, the British and Americans did have an opportunity for one final contretemps before the German collapse. On 29 March the British Chiefs of Staff received what Cunningham called ‘Rather a disturbing telegram from Eisenhower direct to Stalin (a most improper procedure) in which he indicates he is shifting the axis of his main thrust to the south’. The British disapproved of this because they believed that denying the northern German ports to U-boats and the Dutch ports to E-boats and midget submarines was still vital at a time when shipping continued to be sunk. Churchill telephoned Eisenhower, who told him that the US Ninth Army was to be removed from Montgomery’s command after it had linked up with the US First Army between Kassel and Paderborn, and placed under Bradley. Montgomery would therefore be left to cover the front that he had previously controlled with both the British Second Army and the US Ninth Army with the former force only, while General Henry Crerar’s Canadian First Army ‘mopped up on the left’–that is, northern–flank. ‘Something curious has happened at Eisenhower’s HQ,’ concluded Cunningham. ‘Perhaps the US generals have ganged up and insisted on their national army being under US command.’

Whatever the reason, the Chiefs of Staff sent a protest to the Joint Chiefs of Staff ‘against this procedure and change of plan without any consultation with Combined Chiefs of Staff’.35 Cunningham and Brooke then went off fishing for the weekend at Mountbatten’s home, Broadlands in Hampshire, which Cunningham thought the ‘No 1 beat on the Test’. On Easter Sunday, however, they were summoned to Chequers to discuss Eisenhower’s plan to strip Montgomery of half his command.

Churchill had sent Roosevelt a long telegram–copied to Brooke and specifically to Marshall via Maitland Wilson in Washington–in which he expressed his ‘complete confidence’ in Eisenhower, a classic precursor to criticism.36 The telegram then described his doubts about the strategy relating to Berlin and the Elbe, saying he wanted to be certain that Marshall knew his thoughts. The response was prompt; in Cunningham’s words, Marshall sent ‘a very rough message in reply to ours’.

Brooke and Cunningham arrived at Chequers at 11.30 a.m. and went straight into a Staff Conference with Churchill, who was ‘a bit savage’ about the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had drafted a telegram that Cunningham thought ‘full of soft soap but with some pretty shrewd digs in it to the President’. He told them that Roosevelt ‘was in a pretty bad way and only the last day or two had been writing his own telegrams’. After lunch–at which the Americans Bernard Baruch and Gil Winant were present–Portal and Hollis drafted a reply to Marshall’s ‘rough message’. Meanwhile Brooke settled into a chair in the library and read a book he had taken down from a shelf, entitled The Theory and Practice of Prostitution.37 Churchill vetted the reply, upon which Cunningham ‘tried to get away but Brooky and I were had by him for a stirrup cup in the library’ and they didn’t manage to leave until 5 p.m.

The next day Jumbo Wilson wired from Washington, having spoken to Marshall who had claimed that he ‘could not really understand the fuss’. Marshall said he hoped the Anglo-American armies would reach the Berlin area by the end of April and he could not see much divergence between Churchill’s proposals and Eisenhower’s, ‘since, with the right of the northern armies advancing on the line Hanover–Stendal, the left wing of the central group would be on the line Paderborn–Magdeburg, while the Fifteenth Army masked the Ruhr area’.38 He added that he was not in favour of Eisenhower’s central thrust going further than Leipzig. Meanwhile the Russians could have Dresden.

Tedder flew over to explain to the Chiefs of Staff that Eisenhower’s original message had been sent in order to forestall Montgomery’s orders for the advance. ‘Monty has only himself to blame for the suspicion with which the Americans treat him,’ concluded Cunningham. The ‘only difference’ in the plan, he thought, was that the American Ninth Army ‘advances under Bradley’s instead of Monty’s orders’. There was a time when that difference would have led to a full-scale shouting match between Marshall and Brooke, but with the Joint Intelligence Committee now correctly predicting Germany’s collapse in a few weeks, it hardly seemed worth the row. All passion spent, the British gave way gracefully.

Just before he died, Roosevelt had the satisfaction of receiving a report from Marshall stating that ‘By about the end of April 1945, military operations on the continent of Europe will probably have reached the final stage–mopping up. The month of April will likely prove to be the transition period for Germany between organized resistance and utter defeat.’39 Similarly, Marshall received an encomium from Churchill via Maitland Wilson: ‘Pray further give him my warmest congratulations on the magnificent fighting and conduct of the American and Allied armies under General Eisenhower, and say what a joy it must be to him to see how the armies he called into being by his own genius have won immortal renown. He is the true “Organizer of Victory”.’40 Marshall replied modestly: ‘Our greatest triumph really lies in the fact that we achieved the impossible, Allied military unity of action.’

Was it merely for the record’s sake that Churchill sent Roosevelt a letter on 3 April seeming to suggest that they take Berlin, knowing perfectly well that there was no appetite in the General Staffs of either country to lose lives capturing a place they would later have to relinquish to the Russians under the terms of agreements already made? ‘If they also take Berlin,’ Churchill wrote almost rhetorically of the Russians, ‘will not their impression that they have been the overwhelming contributor to the common victory be unduly printed in their minds, and may this not lead them into a mood which will raise grave and formidable difficulties in the future?’ He did not explain what was ‘undue’ about the impression that the Soviets had been the ‘overwhelming contributor’, given that they had killed four out of every five Germans who died in combat. The Russian military dead of at least thirteen million was over twelve times that of the combined British and American, and their civilian dead (of around thirteen million) was a full two hundred times that of the Western Allies.

Roosevelt’s curt reply to Churchill–‘I do not get the point’–ended with his ‘regret that the phrasing of a formal discussion should have so disturbed you but I regret even more at the moment of a great victory we should become involved in such unfortunate reactions.’41 Churchill could hardly have felt that it was worth while ripping up the various agreements made with the Russians over Occupation zoning in order to dash for Berlin. More likely he wished to put in writing that he was on the right side of the Cold War which he saw–earlier than anyone else except perhaps Brooke–was looming. Between Churchill’s wildly over-optimistic report to the War Cabinet on returning from Yalta and this doleful telegram to Roosevelt only two months later, Stalin had given no indication that his promises of free and fair elections in eastern Europe had been genuine.

Of course Eisenhower also understood the political dimension involved in delineating where the military demarcation lines lay. As he wrote to Marshall on 7 April in a ‘Personal, Eyes Only’ message from his SHAEF HQ at Rheims, he thought his main thrust should be to the area including Leipzig, but with the left flank on the coast near Lübeck, which ‘would prevent Russian occupation of any part of the Danish peninsula’. The Leipzig thrust also allowed him maximum flexibility and the opportunity to disrupt any Fortress Southern Germany concept that the more fanatical Nazis might conceive. Over the issue of whether he should have communicated directly with the Soviet High Command rather than through the Combined Chiefs of Staff, the Supreme Commander explained, ‘Frankly, it did not cross my mind to confer in advance with the Combined Chiefs of Staff because I have assumed that I am held responsible for the effectiveness of military operations in this theater and it was a natural question to the head of the Russian forces to inquire as to the direction and timing of their next major thrust, and to outline my own intentions.’42 Eisenhower added that the British on his Staff such as Tedder and Morgan agreed with his stance.

On Thursday 12 April, Churchill was discussing with Cunningham the somewhat prosaic subject of whether forty fishing trawlers might be released from anti-U-boat duty when the Prime Minister mentioned that the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, who was making desperate last-minute peace offers, ‘appeared to be trying to show that he wasn’t so bad as painted and PM said if it would save further expenditure of life he would be prepared to spare even Himmler’. Ever the seaman, Cunningham suggested that ‘there were plenty of islands he could be sent to.’43

That morning, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died at Warm Springs, Georgia, of a massive cerebral haemorrhage. As with Dudley Pound and John Dill, the President’s health could not take any more of the strain of fighting a global war. In a sense all three of them died for their countries, no less than any other combatant in that conflict. The Masters and Commanders had broken up; the quartet of power was over. Just as he had come to power in the same month as Adolf Hitler, so Roosevelt, his nemesis, also departed life in the same month. (Although Goebbels equated Roosevelt’s death with that of the Tsarina Elisabeth in 1762, which split the enemies of Frederick the Great, according to his Luftwaffe aide Nicolaus von Below, the Führer took ‘a more sober view devoid of optimism’.)44 The news of the President’s death did not reach Churchill until midnight London time, but Jock Colville recorded him as ‘very distressed’ by it.45 The Prime Minister ‘toyed with the idea’ of undergoing the still-dangerous journey of crossing the Atlantic in order to attend the funeral, but Lascelles opposed this ‘firmly’ on the King’s behalf.46 With decisions being taken in London concerning the fast-moving situation as the European war entered its denouement, it was pure romanticism even to consider making the journey for personal reasons, although it would have been a good opportunity to get to know the new President, Harry Truman. The fact that Eden and Attlee were both abroad at the time also militated against it. Nonetheless, by 1951 Churchill believed that missing the funeral was the biggest mistake he had made in the war, because hugely important decisions were being made for the rest of the war ‘by a man I did not know’, and he blamed Eden for the decision.47

Roosevelt’s death was of course the first item on the agenda of the War Cabinet the next day, where Norman Brook recorded Churchill as describing it as a:

Profound shock. [A] Leap into the unknown. Truman’s statement [said he] will keep present Cabinet and prosecute the war to the utmost against Germany and Japan. Truman will be [a] well man: FDR has been a sick man for months…Had thought of going to-day to funeral. But v[ery] private: in room at White House. Interment at Hyde Park. Relatives…only. Suggest A[nthony] E[den] sh[oul]d be present.48

Since Eden was not a relative, and anyway Roosevelt’s funeral was not at all private, this seems misleading. But, despite the tension between the two Masters in the last year or so, there is no evidence to support the notion that Churchill’s absence was ‘because he felt the President had latterly become unsupportive’, or that ‘the emotional link was never as close as was commonly thought,’ as some historians have suggested.49 Roosevelt was laid to rest in a field on the Springwood estate close to his house on Sunday 15 April, under a large slab of Vermont marble. It was an indication of how professional Marshall had always wanted to keep his relations with the President that this was the very first time he had ever visited Hyde Park.

After Roosevelt’s memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral on 17 April, Churchill was ‘feverishly composing over the luncheon table his tribute to the President’ which he was due to deliver in the House of Commons that afternoon. In the event the oration was delayed by an hour because an incoming Scottish Nationalist MP had chosen to bow to the Speaker without sponsors, which contravened a House of Commons resolution of 1688, and a debate and division had to take place. After the ridiculous came the sublime when Churchill, ‘his voice thrilling with emotion’, quoted from ‘The Building of the Ship’, the Longfellow poem that Wendell Willkie had brought over from Roosevelt in January 1941:

Thou too, sail on, O Ship of State!

Sail on, O Union, strong and great!

Humanity with all its fears,

With all the hopes of future years,

Is hanging breathless on thy fate!

In the course of his address, Churchill said of Roosevelt:

What an enviable death his was! He had brought his country through the worst of its perils and the heaviest of its toils. Victory had cast its sure and steady beam upon him. In the days of peace he had broadened and stabilized the foundations of American life and union. In war he had raised the strength, might and glory of the great Republic to a height never attained by any nation in history.50

The next day a fit-looking Eisenhower visited Churchill’s Map Room in the Annexe to discuss what would happen when the Anglo-American forces met the Soviet armies. Legally the Western Allies were on firm ground in occupying as much as they could reach before the Germans surrendered, as the zones already agreed at Yalta only came into operation then, but, as Cunningham recorded, ‘Ike naturally does not wish to be faced with a situation in which some Russian general says on meeting that he proposes to advance to the limit of the Russian zone,’ especially since Allied troops had already overrun much of the western part of the zone allotted to the Russians.51 Churchill wanted to have a tactical zone fixed by the commanders in the field while operations were still in progress and only move into the Occupation zones later on. It was a recipe for friction with the Red Army, which the Americans considered completely unnecessary, given that they would have to relinquish the territory sooner or later anyhow.

Truman, who in all military matters understandably tended to defer to Marshall, followed the Joint Chiefs’ line that it was best to adhere to the Yalta zoning arrangements whatever the legal or political circumstances. Brooke wanted Prague to be liberated by the Western Allies for the ‘remarkable political advantages’ that would accrue, but Marshall merely passed this information on to Eisenhower with the comment: ‘Personally, and aside from all logistics, tactical, or strategic implications, I would be loath to hazard American lives for purely political purposes.’52 In those places in the eastern zone where the Germans were still holding out it seemed common sense to let the Russians rather than the Western Allies fight them. Eisenhower replied, ‘I shall not attempt any move I deem militarily unwise merely to gain a political prize unless I receive specific orders from the Combined Chiefs of Staff.’ Eisenhower halted his troops at the Czech frontier, and when the Russians asked him to proceed no further he agreed, although reconnaissance elements of Patton’s Third Army reached the vicinity of Prague, the furthest eastward progress of any Western army.

The Russians marked Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday on 20 April by reaching the outskirts of Berlin, and three days later the Allies finally got to the Po, on the same day that there was a junction between American and Russian forces at Torgau. There were still opportunities for minor spats between the British and Americans, and one ‘royal row’ between Admirals King and Somerville over bases for the British Pacific Fleet, in which Somerville turned down the offer of Brunei as ridiculously far from Japan. Yet these were as nothing compared to those of earlier years.

On the day that Adolf Hitler committed suicide, Monday 30 April 1945, Brooke came back from an unimpressive day’s fishing on the Dee to hear Churchill discuss ‘the foreign situation’ at the 6 p.m. War Cabinet, at which ‘He made a remark that though the Powers were at the end of their tether as regards fighting, they were ending the war in no friendly spirit. There was a tendency to quarrel.’ Cunningham thought this ‘Quite true. The French are very difficult and the Russians very suspicious and so difficult.’53

On Friday 4 May, the news came through that Montgomery had taken the unconditional surrender, at the hands of Admiral von Friedeburg and General Kinzel, of all German forces in Holland, north Germany, Schleswig Holstein and Denmark. That evening Churchill invited the Chiefs of Staff to No. 10 to celebrate, and, according to Ismay’s account to Joan Astley that night, the Prime Minister had even ‘with his own hands put out a tray of glasses and a drink’. When the Chiefs arrived, Churchill was on the telephone telling the King about his conversations with Montgomery and Eisenhower. Brooke recorded that the Prime Minister was ‘evidently seriously affected by the fact that the war was to all intents and purposes over as far as Germany was concerned’. Churchill had tears in his eyes as he toasted each of the Chiefs in turn, and thanked them ‘for all we had done in the war, and all the endless work we had put in “from El Alamein to where we are now”’.54 That was the moment when Brooke, their chairman, ought to have reciprocated on behalf of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, and said at least a few words about Churchill’s superb leadership during the struggle. ‘It was a sad example of human imperceptiveness,’ thought Astley, that none of the Chiefs thought to salute Churchill in a toast. Ismay was too modest in the presence of his seniors to do it himself. ‘It is possible they were shy,’ she concluded, ‘it is certain that they were British, it is probable that they reacted as a committee, a body without a heart, and that each waited for the other to take the initiative. Whatever the reason it was an opportunity missed that the Grand Old Man, who had been the architect of the victory they were marking, did not receive a tribute from his three closest military advisers.’55

On Tuesday 8 May 1945–Victory in Europe Day–Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham, the First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, summed up the 11 a.m. meeting of the British Chiefs of Staff Committee with the words: ‘No important business.’56This must rank alongside ‘Rien,’ Louis XVI’s famous diary entry for the day the Bastille fell. Others were less prosaic on that historic day; Marshall wrote to Churchill to say: ‘I can bear personal witness to the grandeur of your leadership since the meeting in Newfoundland in 1941. I can never forget…the breadth of your vision…in effecting our combined plans.’ Churchill replied: ‘Under your guiding hand the mighty…formations which have swept across France and Germany were brought into being and perfected in an amazingly short space of time.’

On that momentous day in world history, vast, cheering crowds packed the streets of London, New York, Moscow, Paris and countless other Allied towns and cities in wild, all-night celebrations after five-and-a-half years of blood, toil, tears and sweat. In Washington, Secretary of War Stimson called Marshall into his office, where the leaders of the US General Staff had already gathered. Placing the general in the centre of the room he uttered a lengthy paean to ‘the finest soldier I have ever known’. In MacArthur’s recollection, Marshall ‘responded with about two sentences and the thing was over’.57 Meanwhile in London, Sir Charles Portal had a cup of tea at the Air Ministry, Sir Andrew Cunningham ‘dined quietly at the flat’ with his wife and son, while Sir Alan Brooke went ‘back to the War Office to finish off work’.58 They were busy men, and they still had a war to win.

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