Gymnast Falls, Bolero Retuned: ‘It would be the most colossal gamble in history’ February–April 1942

Mr Michael Stewart bets Mr John Lawrence £5 that the Continent of Australia is invaded by the Japanese within six months from today.

Brooks’s Club wager book, 27 January 19421

On 14 February 1942–St Valentine’s Day–Bomber Command issued its Area Bombing Directive, aimed at damaging ‘the morale of the enemy civilian population and, in particular, of the industrial workers’. Soon afterwards, heavy attacks took place on cities such as Essen, Cologne and Lübeck. Agreed in the ABC Staff talks in Washington as a major part of Britain’s contribution to the ‘softening up’ of Germany before eventual invasion, as well as dislocating German industry and supporting the Russians, this policy was initially supported wholeheartedly by Churchill, although Brooke was less convinced. The CIGS’s doubts stemmed not from any humanitarian anxiety for German civilians, so much as from concern about the campaign’s effectiveness and that too many raids were being directed against Germany rather than more immediately important targets in North Africa, where General Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps would be disembarking later that month. He also saw vast and increasing sums of money being spent on producing bombers that he felt might more fruitfully be spent on tanks and ships.

The news of the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese by Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival arrived at the War Office at 4 p.m. on Sunday 15 February 1942. Five days earlier Churchill had warned the War Cabinet that Britain was ‘In for a rough time. There will be smashing blows but we will not come out bust. There must be no gloom or disheartenment. We must send what force we can to Burma. We have to screw down rations and not eat into reserves of food. The Army at home must brace themselves.’2In lightning attacks, the Japanese had crossed over on to Singapore island itself and captured the reservoirs without which the city–already low on food and military supplies–could not survive.

Kennedy considered the wider strategic implications of the fall of the British Empire’s strongest fortress in the Far East to attacking forces only one-third the size of the garrison, and noted that ‘India is naked.’ The main fleet based in Ceylon was ‘very bare’, fighting was taking place near Rangoon, and Darwin in northern Australia was ‘comparatively defenceless’. The Chiefs of Staff’s response was to try to take one of the three Australian divisions from the Middle East to protect Burma or Ceylon, and bring back one or two of the Indian divisions from Iraq, even though in Kennedy’s opinion the forces in Iraq were not strong enough to meet a German attack, ‘and never will be’, and were only just enough for internal security. Kennedy recommended suspending the bombing of Germany and instead using the planes ‘for essential air reinforcement’ of Ceylon, Burma, Australia, New Zealand, India and the eastern Mediterranean.

Like Brooke, Kennedy considered the bombing campaign against Germany ‘ineffective’ and ‘beyond our means’. He repeated to his diary the views he had injudiciously blurted out at Chequers the previous year, that, if it came to the worst, ‘It is certainly more important to hold India and Ceylon than to hang on in Egypt. We are getting very little for our effort in the Middle East and certainly not enough to compensate for serious losses of positions in the Indian Ocean.’3 After hearing Churchill’s views on Singapore, Kennedy reiterated: ‘It is wrong to depend so much on one man who is so temperamental, so lacking in strategical knowledge and in judgment, despite his other great qualities.’ This summed up the view of Churchill that was held almost universally among senior British Planners, and especially by Brooke, though none failed to praise those ‘other great qualities’, principally the fillip he gave national morale.

Waiting for Auchinleck’s offensive in the Western Desert, which Brooke was also ‘very anxious’ for, left Churchill ‘often in a very nasty mood these days’, as Brooke told Kennedy. In particular he often brought up the subject of replacing Auchinleck with General Harold Alexander, who was considered to have done well conducting the 600-mile-long retreat through Burma. In a diary entry that never made it into his memoirs, Kennedy concluded that Churchill was ‘pretty vindictive sometimes and has a very nasty streak in him…What a queer mixture he is. He is such a bad judge and such a terrific advocate.’4

Brooke briefed the War Cabinet about Singapore on 16 February, saying that Percival had been short of food and ammunition and had given orders to destroy the giant 15-inch guns there. He then went on to discuss Burma, where ‘the Japs were closing in on the frontier using elephants’. Sumatra, Libya and Russia were also mentioned, but Singapore was undoubtedly the focus of the tragedy. Churchill summed up, declaring that in ‘spite of difficulties’ he had ‘confidence that the alliance would break the enemy’.

The grievous twin humiliations of the fall of Singapore and the simultaneous daylight escape of the German battle cruiser Gneisenau, her sister ship Scharnhorst and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen from Brest to Wilhelmshaven on 12 February also encouraged Churchill to reshuffle his coalition government. The Labour leader Clement Attlee became deputy prime minister, Sir Stafford Cripps entered the Cabinet as leader of the House of Commons, Sir James Grigg replaced Margesson as secretary for war, and Lord Beaverbrook resigned from the government altogether, ostensibly to pursue his campaign for a Second Front.

Beaverbrook was in a powerful position to influence policy: he owned Britain’s highest-circulation newspapers, knew everyone in power on both sides of the Atlantic–Roosevelt liked him, for example–and was widely credited as minister of aircraft production between May 1940 and May 1941 with having built the Hurricanes and Spitfires that had won the battle of Britain, although they were in fact for the most part produced during the eleven months of peace bought by Neville Chamberlain at Munich. When he went on political crusades, Beaverbrook was a formidable opponent and to Brooke’s profound irritation and Marshall’s delight his next one was to be in favour of an immediate Second Front in Europe to aid the hard-pressed Soviets. Of course in fact there were any number of fronts against the Germans already, including those of the Atlantic, Africa, Murmansk convoys and strategic bombing, but by then the phrase had stuck. Campaigning for a sixth front would not have had quite the same ring.

‘Brooke had a lively distrust of Lord Beaverbrook,’ Margesson told an interviewer after the war, although it would be fairer to say that he distrusted all civilians who thought they knew more about grand strategy than the General Staff. He generally disliked and distrusted many of Churchill’s lifelong friends and cronies, but especially Beaverbrook, Brendan Bracken, Cherwell and Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, although he was perfectly willing to acknowledge their qualities as amusing dining companions. This disapproval was based not simply on personality, but on important strategic grounds. Brooke believed that Beaverbrook ‘had over-committed British resources without thought of consequence’ in his negotiations with the Soviets in Moscow in October 1941 as minister of supply.5

Unfortunately for Brooke, the call for a Second Front came not just from the strange alliance of the capitalist tycoon Beaverbrook and the British Communist Party, but also from a British public that was intensely admiring of the courage and resilience of the Red Army. Although public meetings were often sponsored by Communist front organizations, tens of thousands of entirely non-political Britons attended them. The Russian Ambassador Ivan Maisky was cheered in the street and begged for his autograph.

Brooke’s adamant opposition to an early Second Front alienated plenty of liberal intellectuals such as C. P. Snow, who believed that Marshall’s ‘judgment was ultimately better than Churchill’s and far ahead of General Brooke…whose judgment, particularly about Russia, was abysmal’.6 In fact Brooke had a far more hard-headed attitude towards the Russians, who had until very recently been allies of the Nazis and had been supplying them with grain and oil right up to the night that Barbarossa was launched. When Alec Cadogan went to visit Brooke in April 1942, he ‘found him rather impatient with our attitude of giving everything Russians ask and getting nothing in return. Of course the Russians are fighting–but for themselves and not for us.’7

Far more exasperating for Brooke to deal with than intellectuals like Snow was Churchill himself, but, as Kennedy recorded on 20 February, Brooke was ‘standing up well to the strain and keeps his sense of humour’ three months into the job. The CIGS said that ‘the best way to deal with Winston when he begins to declaim is “to put an umbrella up”. He just sits silent and next morning generally finds that Winston has become more reasonable.’ Viewing the Far Eastern situation three days later, covering Malaya, Java, Siam and the landings of Japanese troops in Bali and Timor, Brooke predicted that Tokyo’s next move would be to march on India itself. As for Singapore, he reported to the War Cabinet that seventy-three thousand Commonwealth troops had been captured there so far, but since Churchill and Brooke had agreed not to reinforce the city in the latter stages there was no recrimination over the defeat–at least none is apparent from the War Cabinet minutes or from the notes on which they were based.

One by-product of the collapse in the Far East was the dissolution of the ABDA Command for which Marshall had lobbied so hard two months earlier. Under it Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief in India, had set up his HQ at Lembang in Java on 15 January 1942, in order to oversee all Allied forces in the Far East, taking his orders direct from the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington. By the time it was dissolved–a mere six weeks later–the Japanese were in Sumatra, Singapore, Borneo and Bali, and three days later they landed in Java as well.

Since Pearl Harbor, Marshall had despatched 129,772 American troops abroad, along with 190 planes and 1.12 million tons of cargo. On 16 March he sent the President a report about ‘the extreme hazards to which our overseas troops movements are exposed’, warning that if the luxury liner Queen Mary, now requisitioned as a troop ship, were sunk with nine thousand American soldiers on board, it would inevitably ‘produce heavy political repercussions’.8 Since he was not actually suggesting that the ship should not be used to transport such numbers, this message seems to have been largely an exercise in back-covering, something in which senior soldiers occasionally have to indulge as well as politicians.

It was not down to shipping constraints so much as fear of failure that plans for the Anglo-American landings in Morocco were indefinitely postponed by the Combined Chiefs of Staff on 3 March, much to Marshall’s satisfaction. Henceforth he directed his Planning Staff, now under the overall command of Major-General Dwight D. Eisenhower, to begin detailed studies for a direct attack on Germany via north-west France, at least once the Japanese had been stalled. This change of emphasis marked the opening of Marshall’s two-year argument with Churchill and Brooke. For the moment, however, the British accepted that the North Africa operation had to be postponed because of the Far East situation and they were not kept fully informed about how advanced and detailed Eisenhower’s cross-Channel plans were becoming.

As part of the Senior Officers Oral History Program in 1973, Ed Hull related that he had reported for duty at the War Department on the Sunday of Pearl Harbor, an inauspicious start for what nonetheless turned into a very successful military career. As head of the eight-man Future Plans section of OPD, Hull was invited by Tom Handy to draw up plans for an invasion of Europe. Before then, Hull recalled, although the War Department had detailed plans for invading places like Brazil, Dakar and the Canary Islands, ‘There wasn’t a plan for putting a force ashore in any place in Europe or Africa that really was of any value.’

Soon after the Japanese attack, Hull and his team ‘investigated and studied the approaches to Europe from Norway to Dakar in Africa’. They analysed port facilities and beaches along the entire Atlantic seaboard ‘in order to ascertain, as a matter of record, whether or not they were suitable for landing operations’. His section concluded that the best place to land was on the north-west coast of France, after a major build-up of forces in Britain. It was feasible ‘under two situations’, he recalled thirty years later. Under the first, ‘Russia was getting pretty bad blows from the German armies. Nobody knew whether she could withstand it or not.’ Because the US desperately needed to keep the USSR in the war–‘otherwise we would have to land against the resistance offered by the entire German military strength’–Hull devised an emergency plan to help Russia by landing a single corps on a beachhead on the Cherbourg peninsula hoping that the British and Americans could ‘gradually reinforce that resistance to hold whatever was facing us’.9 This was later codenamed Operation Sledgehammer.

Under the second scenario there would be ‘a build-up of air and ground forces on the island of England across the channel from Normandy where we would base aircraft that could support a landing on the Normandy coast’. Although later in the war there were planes that could fly considerably further, at that time the range of fighter aircraft was limited to about 150 miles. The plan for this build-up became known as Operation Bolero. (In claiming authorship of both Sledgehammer and Bolero, Hull might seem to sound like what the Americans then called a ‘glory-hog’, not least because that credit was also claimed by Wedemeyer, Handy and of course Eisenhower. In fact all these plans were essentially OPD team efforts.) On 27 March 1942, Marshall set Eisenhower, Handy and Hull to work on a redraft of the Sledgehammer and Bolero plans, which he said had to be ready by 1 April at the latest.

On 7 March a bombshell telegram arrived in London from Roosevelt and Marshall, which seemed to put the whole Germany First policy itself at risk. ‘We have been in constant conference,’ wrote the President, ‘to ensure that nothing is left unexplored which can in any way improve our present prospects.’ In a detailed global overview of the war, he concluded that the United States ‘agrees that the Pacific situation is now very grave, and, if it is to be stabilized, requires an immediate, concerted, and vigorous effort.’ This would require ‘some of our amphibious forces, and the use of all our combat loaded transports…and thus seriously reduces present possibilities of offensive action in other regions’. The difference between an indefinite postponement and a cancellation was then made clear. ‘Gymnast cannot be undertaken,’ wrote the President, referring to the planned invasion of Morocco, and the movement of US troops to the British Isles must ‘be limited’, and thus ‘any American contribution to land operations on the continent of Europe in 1942 will be materially reduced.’

The shipping available to the US would lift a total of about 130,000 men and, the telegram said, increases from ship conversions during 1942 were estimated at only an extra thirty-five thousand men. By June 1943 new construction would give an additional forty thousand, by December 1943 an additional one hundred thousand, and by June 1944 a further ninety-five thousand. Thus, assuming no losses, ‘the total troop carrying capacity of US vessels by June 1944 will be four hundred thousand men.’10 That June 1944 was to be the very month of D-Day could not have been predicted by anyone at that time, of course, but the figures were a stark warning to the British. Since it was assumed that any early Second Front worthy of the name–one which might take significant pressure off Russia–would require at least one million men, Roosevelt and Marshall were effectively admitting that they would be incapable of providing the necessary manpower for years. Furthermore, once warplanes were allocated to Alaska, Hawaii, the north Pacific islands, Australia, the south-west Pacific, the Caribbean, the China–India–Burma theatre and other ‘outposts on lines of communications’, the USAAF planes available for offensives against Germany were estimated to total only four hundred by July 1942, no more than 560 by October 1942 and 1,040 by January 1943. As Churchill’s official biographer Sir Martin Gilbert has summed up: ‘For a landing in September 1942, as desired by Stalin, America could provide only 40% of the landing craft and 700 of the 5,700 combat aircraft needed.’11 The rest, by implication, had to be provided by the Commonwealth.

‘In confiding thus fully and personally to you the details of our military arrangements I do not mean that they should be withheld from your close military advisers,’ wrote Roosevelt. ‘I request, however, that further circulation be drastically reduced.’ Brooke and the other Chiefs could be told, therefore, but otherwise the severe limits of US military capacity in the western theatre should be kept as secret as possible. Roosevelt obviously appreciated the effect that this news might have on Churchill, ending his telegram with the underlined sentence: ‘This may be a critical period but remember always it is not as bad as some you have survived so well before.12

A month later, Clementine Churchill described her husband as ‘bearing not only the burden of his own country but for the moment of an unprepared America’, for as Gilbert concludes: ‘American lack of preparedness was the decisive factor…in the inability of the Allies to mount an amphibious attack against northern Europe in 1942.’13 Why was it, then, that Roosevelt, only one month after transmitting this cable, sent Marshall and Hopkins to London to try to persuade the British to mount an early Second Front? The answer seems to be that the Americans intended it to be an overwhelmingly British operation.14

On the day that Roosevelt despatched the bombshell telegram, Stimson had told a meeting at the White House that Churchill was hoping to disperse American forces to Africa, south-eastern Europe and the Far East, whereas the US should be ‘sending an overwhelming force to the British Isles and threatening an attack on the Germans in France; that is the proper and orthodox line of our help in the war.’ Marshall also wanted to force Germany to fight on two major fronts as soon as possible, and the following day Stimson found this view fully confirmed by the OPD, by then under the control of Eisenhower. Work was under way for what was to be called the Marshall Memorandum, which was shortly going to offer not one but two separate strategies to attack Germany via France. Roosevelt’s cable of 7 March therefore seems to have been an attempt to shock Churchill and Brooke into looking positively at an early cross-Channel attack, while warning them that the British contingent for Sledgehammer would have to be very much larger than the American.

Churchill did not have time to give his considered reply to the telegram before another arrived from Roosevelt, stating his ‘purely personal view so that you may know how my thoughts are developing relative to organization’. Rather like the fifteenth-century Borgia Pope Alexander VI dividing the globe into two spheres of influence between Spain and Portugal in 1494, Roosevelt proposed splitting half the world up into British and American areas of responsibility, what cynics might see as ‘zones of control’.

‘Responsibility for the Pacific Area will rest with the United States,’ wrote Roosevelt, whereas Singapore, India and the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, Libya and the Mediterranean ‘would fall directly under British responsibility’, although it had to be ‘understood that this presupposes the temporary shelving of Gymnast’. (The word temporary in this context was itself temporary; Marshall soon wanted it to be permanent.) A ‘third area’, comprising the whole of the Atlantic Ocean as well as ‘a new front on the European Continent’, would be the joint responsibility of Britain and the United States.15

London’s response to Roosevelt’s proposal was not, as might be expected, to protest that the British Dominions of Australia and New Zealand fell within the American sphere, but to fear that the Americans might tend to regard the Pacific war, as Kennedy put it, ‘more and more as their main responsibility leaving us too great a share of the war against Germany’. Dill meanwhile wanted Brooke’s permission to warn Marshall that unless the United States ‘reinforce[s] the Middle East strongly before it is too late’, the British might be defeated there, setting back victory ‘for years’. He had no trouble in getting it.

On 10 March the Japanese took Rangoon. ‘He has not an equable temperament,’ Kennedy complained of Brooke in his diary that day. ‘He does not laugh so much as during his first weeks, which is a pity.’ This was hardly surprising, considering the issues with which the CIGS had to deal, including weighing the relative importance of Ceylon and north-east India; fleet adjustments for Operation Ironclad (to capture the Vichy French port of Diego Suárez on Madagascar); the protection of Australia and New Zealand, and the air reinforcement of India and the Middle East, to which Roosevelt had ‘responded to our requests for assistance most nobly’. All that and laughter too was a tall order.

Brooke told Kennedy that, as far as finding talented generals was concerned, ‘the real difficulty was that the best men were killed in the last war’. Kennedy disagreed with this analysis, while pointing out to his journal that ‘The Germans had heavier casualties than we had and yet they produce lots of good leaders.’16 (By which he meant military ones.) Brooke, Kennedy and possibly Churchill all feared that the British fighting services were simply not as good as they had been in the Great War. ‘The Army has become too soft and is not fighting well,’ Kennedy wrote. ‘This I believe is because the nation has not the right spirit. We are fighting largely for negatives. The Atlantic Charter, etc, are not enough.’ He complained of criticisms of Churchill in the press, which he hyperbolically described as a ‘fifth column’, but also pointed out that, while it was hard to desert or surrender in ships and aircraft, in the Army it was easier for ‘a junior officer not imbued with the right spirit to persuade himself he was doing the best for his men if he surrendered instead of fighting it out’. (This rather skated over the fact that Percival was a lieutenant-general.) The mood of gloom in the War Office extended to pessimism about leadership in the British officer corps, as Brooke ‘held forth about the low quality of our people, the lack of ideals, the sloppy thinking encouraged at the universities, the general softness and pleasure-seeking of pre-war years’.17

Mid-March 1942 saw a great deal of discussion on both sides of the Atlantic about the possibility of a cross-Channel attack in order to relieve the hard-pressed Russians. These laid the ground for Marshall’s visit to London in early April, and for the tough arguments that were to rage between Americans and Britons over the next two years. On 14 March, Hopkins sent Roosevelt a memorandum saying that any bridgehead the Anglo-American forces might set up in France ‘does not need to be established unless air superiority is complete. I doubt if any single thing is as important as getting some sort of a front this summer against Germany. This has got to be worked out very carefully between you and Marshall in the first instance, and you and Churchill in the second. I don’t think there is any time to be lost, because if we are going to do it plans need to be made at once.’18 They did indeed, because early September was considered the last time that the weather permitted the English Channel to be safely passable for an assault. Eisenhower’s initial plans at that stage involved a landing between Calais and Le Havre east of the Seine, not in Normandy. Beachheads were then to be extended eastwards beyond Dunkirk to Ostend, Zeebrugge and the Belgian coast.19

On 16 March Brooke informed the War Cabinet of these American plans for ‘spearhead’ forces of some twenty divisions plus ten armoured divisions, most of which would have to be provided by Britain in the initial stages. Afterwards he and Kennedy had a long conversation about possible future operations in France. ‘The advocates of the Second Front always miss the point that sooner or later a force landed in France must fight a battle with the German Army. We must not be confused by ideas of the French rising, etc. The battle is the thing. We must wait till we have a chance of winning the battle. That cannot be till the Germans are cracking up.’ Kennedy’s diary does not differentiate which of the two men made this vital observation, which dominated British military thinking until D-Day, but it is safe to assume that it was the view of them both. For the British, this was always the key, yet they constantly feared that, if they seemed to blow too cold on a cross-Channel operation, the Americans might ditch the policy of Germany First and concentrate on the Pacific instead. This in turn would leave the United Kingdom naked if Russia lost in the east, and Hitler turned westward again, reviving Operation Sealion, his plan for the invasion of Britain.

In a handwritten letter from Washington on 18 March, Roosevelt, who had recently held talks with the Soviet Ambassador to Washington, Maxim Litvinov, unburdened himself very openly to Churchill about the future conduct of the war. ‘Here is a thought from this amateur strategist,’ he wrote.

There is no use giving a further single thought to Singapore or the Dutch Indies. They are gone. Australia must be held and, as I telegraphed to you, we are willing to undertake that. India must be held and you must do that…I do not visualize that they can get enough troops to make more than a few dents on the borders…You must hold Egypt, the Canal, Syria, Iran and the route to the Caucasus.

This was all broad brush and indeed taken for granted, but then the President went on: ‘I know that you will not mind my being brutally frank when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better, and I hope he will continue to do so.’20 Of course Roosevelt was putting in as delicate a way as possible the fact that he thought that Stalin hated Churchill’s own guts, which was unsurprising given Churchill’s attempt to ‘strangle Bolshevism in its cradle’ in 1919–21. Yet Stalin ‘liked’ virtually nobody, least of all the leaders of the capitalist West, all of whom ought to have guessed his vicious ruthlessness from the well-publicized purges of the 1930s. Roosevelt’s self-description as an ‘amateur strategist’ suggests he recognized that, unlike Churchill, Marshall and Brooke, he had had no formal training in military matters.

Marshall meanwhile warned Roosevelt about the vulnerability of the Middle East. ‘From a military viewpoint, the region invites attack,’ he told him, ‘and its loss would permit junction by sea between the Japanese and the Germans,’ which would have ‘disastrous consequences’. Although the ABC-1 agreements with the British before Pearl Harbor ‘always placed the Middle East in the sphere of exclusive British responsibility’, Marshall had already told Dill that the US Army would help there ‘in every practicable way’. The promise of the three hundred Sherman tanks and one hundred 105mm self-propelled guns after the fall of Tobruk should be seen in this context.

The constant fear of both the American and British High Commands centred on what would happen if the Germans moved south-eastwards into the Caucasus and Iraq at precisely the same time that Japanese naval and air forces managed to close the Gulf of Persia and thus the southern exit of the Suez Canal. Brooke’s and Kennedy’s diaries return to that scenario constantly, for at that nightmare moment the Axis would effect a pincer movement on the near-defenceless Middle East, where much of the oil was derived that ran Britain’s war machinery.21 Fortunately, and of course entirely unbeknown to the Allies, the Germans and Japanese had not co-ordinated their strategies at all and were not to do so subsequently. The Axis essentially fought two entirely separate wars, to their mutual disadvantage. (A Japanese attack on Russia at the time of Barbarossa would have been invaluable to Hitler, for example.)

At the War Cabinet of 23 March 1942, Churchill said that he had heard from Ivan Maisky that:

Evidently Germany is going to use gas in new Russian offensive. We would treat use of gas against Russia as against us. We would retaliate against Germany. We will make common cause with Russia over that and he considered we could deter Germany by making an announcement. If he wanted us to do so we needed plenty of warning. Go into gas mask situation. Furbish them up and it would be a good thing to use them every day.

To this, Brooke added that the British had to ‘Work out carefully what our gas reserves are. Must go 100% out if we start.’22 Gas was never in fact used militarily on the Eastern Front, but Churchill’s reaction if it had been was clear.

At a working lunch held around the Cabinet table on Tuesday 24 March, Roosevelt, Stimson, King, Hopkins and Arnold heard a ‘fine’ presentation from Marshall of the OPD report for a fifty-division–60 per cent American–cross-Channel invasion in the spring of 1943. Stimson described the British strategy of fighting in North Africa rather than in the Pas de Calais as ‘the stopping up of rat-holes’, a powerful image. Afterwards Roosevelt, according to Stimson, ‘staggered me by a résumé of what he thought the situation was’, because it differed profoundly from his and Marshall’s. ‘He looked like he was going off on the wildest kind of dispersion debauch,’ remembered Stimson, ‘toyed awhile with the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin, which last he seemed quite charmed with,’ but later the Secretary of War and Marshall ‘edged the discussion into the Atlantic and held him there’.23

At the end of the meeting, after the President proposed that the OPD plan should be turned over to the British via the Combined Chiefs of Staff, Hopkins said that ‘it would simply be pulled to pieces and emasculated’ there. Instead, ‘someone’–by whom he meant Marshall–should personally take it over to London and see Churchill, Brooke and the other Chiefs of Staff, ‘and get it through them directly’. The President agreed. (Stimson’s diary is invaluable, because Roosevelt would not allow note-takers at meetings such as this; on one occasion Marshall brought a Staff officer armed with a large notebook to record decisions, and ‘the President blew up’.)24

The idea behind Marshall’s London visit of April 1942 was therefore deliberately to try to bypass the Joint Planners of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, whose British contingent would have put the proposals through their stringent analytical process before Churchill and the Chiefs had a chance to view them. Indeed, had the British been forewarned of the details of Eisenhower’s proposals, they would have had their refutations prepared even before Marshall’s plane touched down. That evening Lord Halifax visited the White House for a ninety-minute meeting with Roosevelt and Hopkins. ‘The President was cutting stamps from his voluminous correspondence,’ noted Halifax in his diary, ‘and showed me a few of the addresses under which letters come to him.’ (One read: ‘His Majesty Roosevelt, United States.’) They did not disclose to him the scheme that Marshall had laid before them.

On 27 March, and with Marshall’s ‘warm approval’, Stimson wrote to the President at Hyde Park forcefully advocating that ‘You should lean with all your strength on the ruthless rearrangement of shipping allotments and the preparation of landing gear for the ultimate invasion,’ because the lack of what he called ‘landing barges’ was, in his opinion, ‘the only objection to the offensive that, after talks with British critics here, I have heard made’.25 In fact the British had a large number of other serious objections to the cross-Channel operation, primarily the wildly asymmetrical rate of projected reinforcement between the Allies and the Axis in France, but Stimson’s and Marshall’s pressure on Roosevelt was clear. Stimson also asked the President to send the Joint Chiefs’ plans to Churchill and Brooke ‘by a most trusted messenger’ as soon as they were ready, a reference to Marshall and/or Hopkins.

April Fool’s Day 1942 was an inauspicious date to choose for the White House meeting where Marshall persuaded Roosevelt of the viability of the cross-Channel operation, whose target date would be 1 April 1943, ‘the earliest possible moment that the necessary tactical forces can be accumulated’. Under the plan worked out by Eisenhower, Wedemeyer, Handy and Hull, but presented as the Marshall Memorandum, there would be three distinct operations proposed. The first was Bolero, under which the US would attempt to ship thirty divisions–approximately 500,000 men–including six armoured divisions, and 3,250 aircraft, to Britain.

Then, under Operation Roundup, these thirty American plus eighteen British divisions, supported by the American plus 2,550 British aircraft, would be landed somewhere between Boulogne and Le Havre to march on Germany. (Roundup is an American ranching term, and one that Churchill found absurdly optimistic because it sounded as though the Germans would be rounded up like cattle. See Appendix C.)

Thirdly, and quite separately from Roundup, there was to be a much smaller-scale operation, codenamed Sledgehammer, which was designed to establish a bridgehead at Cherbourg with nine divisions, and fight in Normandy as a method of forcing the Germans to draw off significant forces from the Eastern Front and thereby give the Russians a breathing space. Roundup and Sledgehammer were not intended to be mounted simultaneously. Bolero was the precondition for either.

Roosevelt wrote to Churchill later that day that he had completed his survey of the immediate and long-range problems of the military situations facing the Allies, and had ‘come to certain conclusions that are so vital that I want you to know the whole picture and to ask your approval. The whole of it is so dependent on complete co-operation by the UK and US that Harry and Marshall will leave for London in a few days to present first of all to you the salient points.’26 The terms ‘Harry and Marshall’ unwittingly denoted how much closer the President was to Hopkins than to his Army Chief. The President lunched with Marshall and Hopkins on 3 April and then went to see how his favourite construction project, the new Naval Hospital at Bethesda, Maryland, was progressing. He and Hopkins dined alone together that night, as they had three times that week, so there can be no doubt that when Hopkins visited London he knew precisely his master’s mind on every aspect of grand strategy.

Hopkins and Marshall had first met in December 1938, and by Christmas Eve 1941 Marshall was writing to Hopkins to say that ever since then ‘You have been a source of confidence and assurance to me.’ He was a key friend to have, but Marshall could be helpful to Hopkins too. In October 1941 he had arranged for the Adjutant-General to have Harry’s son Robert transferred from the Fort Dix reception centre to the Signals Corps replacement training centre at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey ‘without delay’ by priority telegram. ‘If you will let me know about two months from now what his interests are at that particular time,’ Marshall wrote to Hopkins, ‘I will do the rest.’27 Robert saw active service in Tunisia and survived the war; his eighteen-year-old brother Stephen was killed storming the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1944.

Marshall decided to take Wedemeyer and Hull to London, on a mission that was given the rather feeble codename Modicum. Wedemeyer had studied at the Berlin Kriegsakademie between 1936 and 1938, learning about armoured warfare from Heinz Guderian and about geo-politics from Professor Karl Haushofer, and meeting Göring, Bormann and other senior Nazis in the process. Gregarious and 6 foot 6 inches tall, he impressed Marshall with his intellect and writing ability. It didn’t harm his career prospects that he was also the son-in-law of Marshall’s friend and adviser General Stanley D. Embick, the former chief of the War Plans Division, who had devised the overall plan for the Pacific campaign, codenamed Orange.

It had been Wedemeyer who, in September 1941, had drawn up the report later nicknamed ‘The Victory Program’ that stated that the US would need armed forces of nine million men to defeat a Germany that was victorious in Russia. Although this was leaked to the Washington Times-Herald on 5 December 1941, to the Administration’s profound embarrassment, once the Nazis had declared war on the US six days later it looked very different. Wedemeyer had nothing to do with the leak, and was able to assert that ‘General Marshall never doubted me’; soon afterwards he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel with a place on the Joint Staff.28

On the same day that Marshall finalized the details of his Memorandum in Washington, 2 April, Eden lunched with Churchill, Harriman and Ismay in London, after which he confided to his diary that Churchill would ignore any political pressure to give up the Ministry of Defence: ‘He sees himself in Roosevelt’s position as sole director of war.’ Eden believed, however, that ‘It is not what the country wants, nor does it produce good results.’ Five days later he complained: ‘There is no day-to-day direction of the war except by Chiefs of Staff and Winston,’ and, in his opinion, the Chiefs of Staff ‘too readily compromise where issues should be decided and Winston’s unchecked judgment is by no means infallible’. Eden considered caballing with Lyttelton and Cripps, but the ‘difficulty is Winston is probably constitutionally incapable of working any other way’.29 Not being present at most Staff Conferences, Eden was unable to see that Brooke was in fact by no means too ready to compromise, but it is a sign of how hermetically the meetings with Churchill were sealed even from those in the upper echelons of British politics.

That evening Kennedy had supper at the United Service Club with the Soviet military attaché, Colonel Skliarov, who it turned out had served in the same sector during the Russian Civil War, albeit on the opposite side. After dinner the colonel ‘opened up on the Second Front’, arguing that ‘all efforts should be concentrated on knocking the Germans out in the spring, and all risks taken.’ A vigorous discussion ensued. Reporting it afterwards in his diary, Kennedy ruminated upon the whole issue, a passage which, since he was the War Office’s most senior Planner, bears quotation at some length:

If we could be sure that the Germans might be knocked out by a maximum effort this spring we could of course do enough to make them divert considerable forces to France. But the fundamental difficulty is that we cannot be sure. We had to carry on this war for over a year without the Russians. We may have to carry it on again without them. It would be the most colossal gamble in history to stake everything on this spring offensive. It could mean for us the sacrifice of the means of defence of the UK both at sea and on land, the sacrifice of everything in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. For nothing less would provide the naval, military and shipping resources for a big European effort. In fact the gamble for us could be far bigger than it ever was for Hitler to attempt invasion of this country. We are not prepared to risk everything–and it would be everything–on this one throw.30

True to the War Office policy of never allowing others to guess the true depth of British opposition to an early cross-Channel attack, Kennedy noted: ‘I did not of course say anything of this to Skliarov.’

So far Brooke and Churchill had not been apprised of the Marshall Memorandum. Yet Washington reckoned without the ingenuity of Brigadier Dykes. On 4 April, he somehow ‘glanced at’ the seven-page Memorandum ‘unofficially’ and had passed a précis to the War Cabinet Office by the early hours of 5 April. Before the Modicum Mission even landed in Britain, therefore, Brooke knew what it was going to bring.

We do not know how Dumbie Dykes managed to see the document, but he was clearly a resourceful fellow. Paul Caraway, who was the Joint Chiefs of Staff liaison officer with the British members of the Combined Chiefs, was asked after the war which papers the Americans were and were not allowed to show their British counterparts. ‘Certain of our top secret Intelligence information they were not allowed to see, because a lot of it came from undisclosed channels or wherever, much of it through the British without their knowledge, and so on,’ he explained. ‘For example, when we were preparing for a conference, the American positions were not disclosed, because we knew that the liaison people were instructed to report through their Joint Staff Mission, thus being able to checkmate some of our positions.’31 With Dykes as one of the senior secretaries of the Joint Staff Mission, that is precisely what happened to the Marshall Memorandum.

That same day, 5 April, Kennedy was already recording in his diary that in the War Office it was ‘generally accepted that there can be no question of landing an army in France and holding a front for long’. Norway was ‘out of court’ owing to the impossibility of providing air cover for the supply ships and landing force. This was held to apply to Cherbourg, too. Kennedy quoted Brooke as saying that the most successful result that could be expected in Normandy would be to establish a front of 20 miles across the neck of the Cotentin Peninsula, which ‘Compared with the great Russian front…would be ridiculous’, and the Western Allies would ‘be the laughing stock of the world if we established such a front and held it up as a substantial contribution to the Russian war’. To emphasize this point, Brooke had a map drawn up for the War Cabinet that juxtaposed the present 1,500-mile-wide Russian with the proposed 20-mile-wide Cotentin front.

‘The Germans could turn on us at their leisure and wipe us out’, believed Kennedy. ‘We cannot afford to lose the twelve or twenty divisions required. Then there is the question of shipping which is also acute. It is liable to be forgotten that we arealreadycontaining very substantial German forces in Europe by the mere fact that this country is still holding out and that we hold a threat over the Germans.’32 It is easy to see the general line of opposition that the Planning Staff began to work on, once they received the main features of the Marshall Memorandum from Dykes.

On their way over to Britain, Marshall’s and Hopkins’ Pan-American Clipper suddenly lost an engine, forcing the party to stay a night in Bermuda while another plane was flown over from New York. The War Office Planners in London were thus unexpectedly afforded a further twelve hours to draw up their detailed objections, which they put to good use. If Marshall had hoped to have any element of surprise when he presented his cross-Channel invasion plans to Churchill, Brooke and the War Cabinet, he had lost all chance of it by the time he and Hopkins finally reached London.

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