The Riddles of the War

There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them!

Winston Churchill to Sir Alan Brooke, 1 April 19451

Harry Hopkins, speaking to Churchill’s doctor Charles Moran at the Quadrant Conference in Quebec in August 1943, said that the Prime Minister had ‘thrown in his hand’ over the Second Front: ‘Winston is no longer against Marshall’s plan for landing on the coast of France.’ Moran attributed Hopkins’ evident bitterness over the long delays in the cross-Channel landings to the suspicion that Churchill’s opposition to them had prolonged the war. ‘Is Hopkins right?’ he asked his diary. ‘That must remain the riddle of the war.’2There are of course plenty of other riddles of the Second World War besides the ideal timing for D-Day, many of which, as I hope this book has shown, can be solved by viewing Anglo-American grand strategy through the invaluable prism of the interaction between the Masters and Commanders.

In considering the roles of Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Brooke, it is important to remember that the decisions of Hitler and Stalin far more profoundly influenced the outcome than those of any Briton or American. After all, four out of every five Germans killed in combat between 1939 and 1945 died on the Eastern Front. Yet by sustaining Russia with massive amounts of aid, drawing off German strength from the Eastern Front by action in Africa, the Mediterranean and France, devastating German industry and cities through aerial bombardment, effectively protecting the USSR from Japan, and finally invading Germany itself from the west, the Western Allies also made an important contribution to victory.

When it comes to deciding which of the four American and British leaders influenced strategy the most, probably too much has been made of the Roosevelt–Churchill relationship. ‘Each was personally fascinated not so much by the other’, wrote Sir Isaiah Berlin, ‘as by the idea of the other, and infected him by his own peculiar brand of high spirits.’3 Yet historians too have been fascinated, and perhaps infected, by the idea of this friendship as being the ultimate lynchpin of the Western Alliance. In fact the realities of Realpolitik, often in the persons of Marshall and Brooke, constantly intruded on the relationship. When their countries’ interests required Roosevelt and Churchill to be friends, they genuinely became so; when they needed to clash, they no less genuinely did that too. Yet unity of action was too great a prize to be jeopardized by lack of charm, especially from two of the most naturally engaging politicians of their era. (Roosevelt could be snappish about Churchill behind his back, and in December 1947, after being told that the late President had said of him that he had had one hundred ideas a day during the war, of which only four were good, the ex-premier told Moran: ‘It is impertinent of Roosevelt to say this. It comes badly from a man who hadn’t any ideas at all.’)4

Roosevelt controlled his Administration just as completely as Churchill had ascendancy over the War Cabinet on matters strategic. Brooke won all the important debates within the British Chiefs of Staff Committee, whose members subsequently kept their disagreements entirely to themselves to protect their corporate strength. It is true that Marshall did not chair the American Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, and had Admiral Ernest J. King as a constant irritant, but he was able to get his way there on all the major strategic issues. For all their domination over their own power bases and hinterlands, however, the Masters and Commanders as individuals never dominated each other. Their decisions were produced through hard-fought interaction using logical debate and compromise, over many months of constant and unimaginable stress that would have shattered lesser men. Above all, it must be emphasized that Churchill never once used his position as prime minister and minister of defence to overrule the Chiefs of Staff Committee, at least while Brooke sat on it.

Although Brooke must take immense credit for steering Churchill off his favoured but flawed operations such as Jupiter (northern Norway) and Culverin (northern Sumatra), it was a post-war fiction of Brooke’s that he had not fully supported the Dodecanese and Ljubljana Gap schemes, at least at some stages of the policy-making process. It is clear from the records that he had, and his subsequent attempts to rewrite history are just as culpable as Churchill’s.

For all the criticisms of Churchill in these pages, the obvious fact emerges that he was a genius, and the madcap schemes he occasionally came up with were merely the tiny portion of inevitable detritus that floated in the wash of his greatness. Had Britain been a dictatorship they would have been put into operation–as Hitler’s were–but because she was a democracy they were blocked and eventually buried, usually by Sir Alan Brooke. For all the frustrations it caused him, Churchill preferred the democratic way of making war, and showed he had learnt the lessons of Gallipoli. The lack of a collegiate Chiefs of Staff system was one of the major reasons Germany lost the Second World War.

It might have surprised readers quite how often grand strategy was made as a result of last-minute compromises between Marshall and Brooke, just before they were due to present their final reports to Roosevelt and Churchill on the seven occasions they met together. When Dill was alive, these were facilitated by him; after his death in November 1944 it is noticeable how rows were not headed off, most spectacularly at the Cricket Conference at Malta. If it is true that Dill went somewhat native in Washington, it was nonetheless to his country’s benefit.

Marshall did not envy the President’s role in decision-making. ‘It must be remembered the military responsibility in operations is very, very large, and it has with it a terrible measure of casualties,’ he told Pogue. ‘I know I was very careful to send Mr Roosevelt every few days a statement of our casualties, and it was done in a very effective way, graphically and…in colors, so it would be clear to him when he had only a moment or two to consider.’ Marshall, quite as much as Brooke and everyone else on both Staffs, well understood that the statistics of killed, wounded and captured represented individual stories of tragedy, ‘because you get hardened to these things and you have to be very careful to keep them always in the forefront of your mind’. These pressures simply did not exercise the Axis decision-makers; indeed by the end of the war Hitler privately stated that the German people had not in fact suffered enough.

The comparative capacities of democracies versus autocracies to wage war has been vigorously debated since the days of Thucydides, and the experience of the Second World War certainly contradicts the conclusions that Thucydides himself drew from the Peloponnesian War. Because Nazi Germany was an autocracy, Hitler was able to impose a grand strategy on his generals that a few at the beginning, but many by the middle and almost all by the end, thought suicidal. Subservient subordinates such as Jodl and Keitel failed to ask searching questions, and few other German generals had the access or the courage to criticize their Führer’s plans to his face, on the rare occasions that they were given the opportunity to be apprised of them beforehand. Flawed strategies, such as the ‘no withdrawal’ policies in Tunisia, Russia and Italy, were therefore not subjected to the kind of unsparing analysis that would undoubtedly have halted their adoption in a democracy. By complete contrast, the strategies of the Western Allies had to be exhaustively argued through the Planning Staff, General Staff, Chiefs of Staff and then Combined Chiefs of Staff levels, before they were even capable of being placed before the politicians, where they were debated in microscopic detail all over again. As we have seen, the British and American Chiefs of Staff spoke their minds without fear or favour, in a way that Hitler’s lieutenants could not. Even Stalin, as the war progressed, gave more and more autonomy to the members of the Stavka (High Command) in Moscow, as well as to commanders in the field.

At the First Washington (Arcadia) Conference, Churchill, Roosevelt and Marshall simply overruled the objections of the crucially absent Brooke over the vital issues of unity of command and the Combined Chiefs of Staff system. At London (Modicum) in April 1942, Churchill and Brooke–to very different degrees–misled Marshall about the likelihood of an early attack in France. At the Second Washington (Argonaut) Conference in June 1942, Churchill and Roosevelt conspired behind Brooke’s and Marshall’s backs for a 1942 invasion of North Africa. At London in July 1942, Marshall failed to persuade Churchill and Brooke of the merits of an early cross-Channel assault, because the Britons knew from Hopkins that Roosevelt privately wanted an attack on the northern coast of Africa. At Casablanca (Symbol) in January 1943, Marshall rightly suspected that Roosevelt was on Churchill’s and Brooke’s side, and so accepted the Sicily operation faute de mieux. At the Third Washington (Trident) Conference, Churchill wrongly thought Brooke and Marshall were conspiring against him, when in fact they were just fighting each other openly, while Roosevelt supported Marshall and won a definite date–1 May 1944–for the cross-Channel assault.

At Algiers in May 1943, Marshall simply blocked Churchill and Brooke over the invasion of mainland Italy, because he knew he now had the support of Roosevelt. The result was that tens of thousands of Germans escaped Sicily unnecessarily. At the First Quebec (Quadrant) Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill dashed Brooke’s hopes of commanding Overlord, seemingly at the time in favour of Marshall. Over the northern Norway, Sumatran, Andaman, Dodecanese and several other operations, Brooke blocked Churchill’s schemes, usually with–but sometimes without–the support of Roosevelt and Marshall. The First Cairo (Sextant) Conference saw another mutual blocking operation, as a result of which Stalin was the only true victor at Teheran (Eureka), while at the Second Cairo Conference Brooke and Roosevelt dashed Marshall’s plans for invading the Andaman Islands and Roosevelt told Churchill that Eisenhower rather than Marshall would command Overlord. On the invasion of the south of France, Marshall and Roosevelt argued hard with Brooke and Churchill, but finally overruled them. The same happened with the remit for Eisenhower’s supreme command. As for the hare-brained plan to capture Vienna via the Ljubljana Gap, Brooke swiftly changed his mind and joined Roosevelt and Marshall in opposing Churchill.

At the Malta (Cricket) Conference in February 1945, Marshall simply employed force majeure to silence Brooke over Montgomery’s criticisms of Eisenhower’s broad-front strategy, while Roosevelt as good as ignored Churchill. By Yalta the grand strategy of the European denouement was already decided; Marshall approved it and Brooke made the best of it, while Churchill and Roosevelt could find no arguments against the stark fact of a vast Red Army sprawling over Poland and East Prussia, its vanguard only 40 miles from Berlin.

Although the complicated minuet between the Masters and Commanders stopped with the death of Roosevelt, it had in effect ended at Malta on 1 February 1945, when Marshall had laid down his law with aggression, and Brooke could do nothing about it. Britain was in dire financial straits, and the United States was contributing far more on the ground in Europe in terms of men and matériel than the British Commonwealth. Brooke was therefore reduced to expostulating–and occasionally ranting–to his diary, but he could no longer significantly affect the course of the campaign. Once ashore in northern France after June 1944, the Americans could enjoy the dominance over strategy to which their provision of roughly two-thirds of the troops entitled them. Perhaps if the atomic bombs had not worked, and the United States had needed to call on Britain more in the war against Japan, the dynamic between Marshall and Brooke might have shifted again, but by then Roosevelt was dead, Churchill had lost office, and the two soldiers were both exhausted.

On 28 June 1944, in acknowledging defeat over the south of France operation, Brooke and Churchill told Marshall and Roosevelt that they would leave it ‘for history to judge’ whether they or the Americans had been right, sooner than split the alliance. The answer today is one that probably none would have liked: Brooke’s and Churchill’s campaign up to the Po Valley was largely a waste of effort after Rome, while Marshall’s and Roosevelt’s Operation Anvil/Dragoon was also largely a waste of time. The geometry lessons about which Roosevelt wrote to Churchill should have told him that the distance between Marseilles and anywhere else of value–especially Paris nearly 500 miles distant–was too far to make Dragoon a particularly worthwhile use of four hundred thousand men. If anywhere needed capturing in order to shorten the war in the west, it was not Toulon or Marseilles or Milan or Trieste or Istria or even Vienna, but instead the estuary of the Scheldt, thereby freeing up the great port of Antwerp and drastically shortening the long Allied lines of communication that still went via Normandy. Yet that did not happen for another two months after the Dragoon landings. The trouble with leaving things ‘for history to judge’ is that the verdict might not go your way.

If Marshall and Brooke had trusted the strategic judgements of their political Masters more, they might have taken up the lustrous commands offered them, of supreme commander in Europe and commander-in-chief of the Eighth Army respectively. If they had, there is little doubt that they would be as revered as Eisenhower and Montgomery are today. It is a tribute to their greatness that they didn’t accept those posts out of ambition or vanity or because, as Marshall put it, every general longs for a field command. They contributed far more to ultimate victory by staying behind their desks and forfeiting any hopes of global fame and glory. (So little recognized was Brooke that, when he was invited to inspect a parade of Jewish ex-servicemen at Horse Guards Parade in 1950, a corporal of the Life Guards allowed his car through the main archway only on the basis that if challenged he would pretend that he had thought his name was Lord Beaverbrook.)5

As they had warned Marshall in April 1942–if not quite explicitly or early enough–Churchill and Brooke vetoed any cross-Channel operation until they were satisfied that both the Indian Ocean and the Middle East were safe, with the United States expected to get fully committed in bringing about that seemingly Utopian state of affairs. By the time of Trident in May 1943, Roosevelt saw that those preconditions had now been met, and that it was time for the British to commit to the cross-Channel operation. The debate over whether an earlier assault would have been successful will last for ever, but at Trident Roosevelt sensed that the summer of 1944 would be ideal for the assault, and so it happened then.

It was fortunate that the tipping point in influence between America and Britain came at much the same time that a cross-Channel attack was at last genuinely becoming viable, and just as the British were over-concentrating on the Mediterranean. ‘Brooke and his colleagues got their way to a remarkable extent in 1942 and 1943,’ notes the historian Brian Bond, and it was just as well at that stage in the war.6 But George Marshall–who was wrong to press for the invasion of France in 1942 or 1943–was absolutely right to demand one for 1944. As for Brooke’s comment to Forrest Pogue in 1947 that the Americans had insisted on the cross-Channel attack mainly because they ‘had created a large army and that was the only place where it could be impressively used’, Marshall rightly said: ‘I didn’t know he felt that way, and that wasn’t true.’7

The central aims for the Mediterranean theatre agreed at the Casablanca, First Quebec and Teheran conferences had all been achieved by the end of 1943, including clearing the Mediterranean for Allied shipping. Italy had surrendered, forty-five German divisions had been drawn into operating in that country and in the Balkans, Allied aircraft from the Foggia Plains were bombing central and south-eastern European targets (especially Ploesti), and Yugoslav partisans were receiving their supplies. That was about as much as the Mediterranean campaign could ever realistically have achieved south of the Alps. Although it was true that division for division the Germans tied down as many Allies as themselves in Italy, and it was far more difficult for the Allies to resupply their forces there than it was for the Germans, proportionately the Third Reich could ill afford the men and matériel involved, while the United States was deploying ever larger numbers. With far greater Allied populations and productive capacities, ratios of 1:1 made no sense to Germany on a lesser front like Italy.

Great Britain lost 397,700 killed in the war, which, as Alex Danchev has noted, was ‘historically a high figure, but by the standards of this gargantuan war proportionately and comparatively very light’.8 We can now see that whereas Churchill and Brooke were right to call for the invasion of Italy up to Naples in 1943, they were wrong to continue to demand fighting on up to Rome, let alone further north to the Gothic Line. ‘Group-think’ and ‘mission-creep’ are ugly modern words for long-established, dangerous phenomena. Brooke’s unnecessary post-war claims to total omniscience were also unsustainable.

If a moment can be pinpointed when the British started to get strategy wrong, and the Americans started to get it right, it came in the fortnight after Tuesday 19 October 1943, when Churchill successfully persuaded Brooke to join him in attempting to postpone Overlord. Small wonder that Roosevelt and Marshall lost their patience, with the 150,000 men of the first wave already in full-scale training for the operation. It is indicative that Churchill, who rarely forsook the opportunity to blow his own trumpet when the events justified it, never explicitly claimed credit for having postponed the invasion of France until June 1944. ‘Was his silence a kind of escape clause or insurance in case posterity held him responsible for prolonging the war?’ asked Lord Moran.9

Yet Churchill did not prolong the war, despite General Albert Wedemeyer’s denunciation of the Mediterranean campaign as ‘a trap which prolonged the war in Europe by a year’ and ‘a side show, which cost many unnecessary lives’.10 In fact the African, Sicilian and Naples campaigns weakened the Third Reich before the decisive blow was struck in France, not least in terms of morale. At the point that concentration on the Mediterranean might indeed have threatened to lengthen the war, the Americans insisted upon Overlord taking place no longer than five weeks later than scheduled.

When Henry Stimson visited Britain soon after Overlord to see for himself ‘the colossal scope of the undertaking’, visiting Bradley’s headquarters in the process, Churchill said of the operation, ‘It is wonderful, a great triumph. But we could never have done it last year.’ Though unconvinced, the US Secretary of War ‘did not see any need to quarrel’ over the Prime Minister’s intentionally provocative remark. In his autobiography, he acknowledged that Churchill had tried to avoid ‘the bloody futility of the Western Front in 1915’, and asked: ‘If the Americans had suffered similar losses in the First World War or faced similar succeeding dangers, would they have felt differently?’11

As the Normandy landings and their immediate aftermath showed, numerical superiority and complete control of the air were necessary for victory, which even then in view of the Germans’ formidable capacity for counter-attack was not a foregone conclusion. However unpalatable it might be to admit it, the statistics allow no doubt: soldier for soldier the German fighting man and his generals outperformed Britons, Americans and Russians both offensively and defensively by a significant factor virtually throughout the Second World War. The consequences of Overlord failing were too serious to permit any undue risks being taken over its timing. Colonel Ian Jacob wrote after the war: ‘Our thinking was probably too limited; we were too obsessed with the memories of the First World War. On the other hand, the Americans were certainly too optimistic and too expansive in their conception.’12 That was true of the Americans until mid-1943.

Churchill had a healthy and well-founded (if necessarily private) respect for the quality of the Wehrmacht. In mid-July 1942, he spoke to Major-General John Kennedy about ‘the Germans being better than our troops’, which prompted Brooke to say that he ‘must speak to Winston about this’, as he feared that these remarks did harm when uttered in front of politicians, ‘as they so often were. It was a case of giving a dog a bad name.’ Comments from the Prime Minister such as ‘If Rommel’s army were all Germans, they would beat us,’ were probably intended as a joke against the Italians, but Kennedy also saw it as ‘a dig at the British Army (which unfortunately he can’t resist)’.13 Yet both Churchill and Brooke always knew that eventually the Western Allies needed to confront the Wehrmacht head on in France and Germany, and by capturing the Ruhr and Saar deny Hitler the ability to fight on indefinitely.

Victory over the Germans in North Africa and Italy was the necessary prelude, in order to give the Western Allies the belief that the Wehrmacht could be defeated on the European Continent. A landing in 1942 would have suffered from far lower morale, as the Germans had not been defeated on land anywhere in the west before El Alamein. As Admiral Cunningham told Forrest Pogue in the Athenæum Club in 1947, there was ‘never any doubt’ in British minds ‘that they would do the operation…They were always convinced they would go across the Channel.’14 With the V-weapon offensive about to open against London, the Allies would be able to overrun the launch sites.

‘Under their hearty and friendly manner one feels there is suspicion and contempt,’ noted John Kennedy of the Americans attending the Casablanca Conference, ‘although a few individuals–and those in the highest plane–are true friends. I should put Roosevelt and Marshall in this class.’15 Britain was fortunate that, despite the undoubted presence of some Anglophobes in the higher reaches of the American Army and Navy Departments, the President and US Army Chief of Staff were not of their number. One who was, Albert Wedemeyer, told interviewers that ‘Many American planners and even a few members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’–he cited Admiral King–‘maintained that the British were insincere’ about ever wanting to cross the Channel, and he concluded: ‘The diversions into the Mediterranean area would never have been possible had it not been for the so-called charisma of the prime minister.’16 The influence of personality, in this case Churchill’s charisma, on grand strategy has rarely been so ably put. Yet it was Roosevelt who appreciated that in fact the British were indeed sincere about crossing the Channel, but only after the Germans had been softened up by defeat in North Africa and the Mediterranean.

Sir Michael Howard is right when he points out that the US Army Planning Staff always ‘drew a sharp distinction between the UK itself, which they were prepared to defend, and “British interests”–particularly British imperial interests–which they were not’.17This was perfectly reasonable; the defence of the British mainland was a vital American interest while British possession of a vast global empire manifestly was not. No amount of Churchillian rhetoric or charisma could alter that. Yet as Stimson concluded in his autobiography: ‘When all the arguments have been forgotten, this central fact will remain. The two nations fought a single war, and their quarrels were the quarrels of brothers.’18

For the first half of the period between Pearl Harbor and the President’s death in April 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill and Brooke got their way in matters of grand strategy, and it was fortunate that they did, considering Marshall’s plans for an over-hasty assault on France. In the second half of the period, from Trident onwards, Roosevelt supported Marshall and together they established hegemony over decision-making, by which time it was just as fortunate that they had, considering British over-emphasis on the Italian campaign and its projected aftermaths.

Roosevelt was the ultimate arbiter between the competing strategies of Marshall, Churchill and Brooke. The Second World War was an intensely political conflict, and he was a superlatively talented politician, with unrivalled insight into what Americans wanted and would allow. He understood the political as well as military strategies that were needed to keep the Western democracies’ morale high. When Marshall spoke of Operation Sledgehammer as ‘a sacrificial play’ in order to keep the Russians in the war, for example, Roosevelt realized that that was unacceptable.19 Similarly his intuition told him that American troops needed to be fighting Germans on the ground during the year 1942, partly in order to save the Germany First policy. Of the four Masters and Commanders of the Western Allies, therefore, the man who most influenced the course of the war was the one who openly acknowledged that he knew the least about grand strategy: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

On Saturday 27 June 1942 Adolf Hitler dined with Dr Otto Dietrich, the Reich press chief, at the Berghof in Berchtesgaden. The conversation–after the subjects of Julius Caesar’s viaducts and the future of Belgium had been exhausted–got round to the eight days of discussions that had taken place between Churchill and Roosevelt in Washington. ‘When two people are in general agreement,’ the Führer opined, ‘decisions are swiftly taken. My own conversations with the Duce have never lasted longer than an hour and a half, the rest of the time being devoted to ceremonies of various kinds…To harness to a common purpose a coalition composed of Great Britain, the United States, Russia and China demands little short of a miracle.’20 As the struggles described in this book have shown, harnessing solely Great Britain and the United States to a common purpose, let alone the other powers, demanded even more of a miracle than the Führer could have guessed. Yet, through their rows, standoffs, fist-shaking, charm offensives, hard-fought compromises and occasional tantrums, the Masters and Commanders performed that miracle, and won victory in the west.

The disagreements between the Masters and Commanders which this book has chronicled were often deep and sometimes bitter. But were the enmities permanent? Did the opinions that Roosevelt, Churchill, Brooke and Marshall expressed so forcefully about each other, and which reflected such fundamental differences about how the war should be conducted, endure? Eight years after Yalta, the three survivors each performed a prominent role at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953. General George C. Marshall, representing the United States, was seated in the front row of the Choir, very close to the centre of events and with a superb view of the proceedings only a few feet away.21 He wore white tie and a black tailcoat, adorned with the insignia of a Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. Two of the Great Officers of State, appointed for the day, were the Lord High Constable, Viscount Alanbrooke–the title Brooke took when raised to the peerage–and the Lord High Steward, Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, who bore St Edward’s crown. Nearby stood Viscount Portal of Hungerford, bearing the Queen’s sceptre. At the rear of the procession of eight Commonwealth premiers entering the Abbey was Sir Winston Churchill.22As he drew level with the Choir, Churchill stopped, shook Marshall’s hand, and resumed his stately progress.

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