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Churchill’s Strategic Dilemma

The coming of the Pacific war had changed the dimensions of Winston Churchill’s strategy. Intimations of defeat had been replaced by the certainty of victory. ‘So we had won after all!’ he recalled reflecting at the news of Pearl Harbor. ‘Yes, after Dunkirk; after the fall of France; after the horrible episode of Oran; after the threat of invasion, when, apart from the Air and the Navy, we were an almost unarmed people; after the deadly struggle of the U-boat war – the first Battle of the Atlantic, gained by a hand’s breadth; after seventeen months of lonely fighting and nineteen months of my responsibility in dire stress. We had won the war.’

The news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, like that of the victory of Alamein, the withdrawal of Dönitz’s U-boats from the Atlantic in May 1943 and the safe landing of the liberation armies on D-Day, was one of the high points of Churchill’s war. Many low points awaited, including the loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse off the coast of Malaya – ‘In all the war I never received a more direct shock’ – the surrender of Singapore and the fall of Tobruk. After Pearl Harbor, however, Churchill never doubted that the Western Alliance would defeat Hitler and subsequently Japan. Perhaps the sentences of his magnificent victory broadcast of 8 May 1945 were already framing themselves on the evening of 7 December 1941.

The conduct of no war is ever simple, however, and the conduct of any coalition war is always unusually difficult. The anti-Axis coalition of the Second World War, as Hitler constantly consoled himself and his entourage by emphasising, was almost unmanageably disparate. Two capitalist democracies, united by language but divided by profoundly different philosophies of international relations, had been driven by the force of events into an unexpected and unsought co-belligerency with a Marxist state which not only preached the inevitable, necessary and desirable downfall of the capitalist system but until June 1941 had been freely bound by a pact of non-aggression and economic co-operation to the common enemy. The co-ordination of a common strategy involving not merely the means but also the aims of making war was therefore destined to be difficult. How difficult, in December 1941, Winston Churchill could not foresee.

At the outset the gravity of the crisis which gripped the Soviet Union itself simplified Anglo-American strategic choice. With the German army at the gates of Moscow, there was no direct military help that either of the Western powers could lend to Russia. Britain was still scarcely armed; the United States had only just begun to emerge from two decades of disarmament. At the instant of the German attack in June 1941, acting on the principle that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, Churchill assured Stalin that every weapon and item of essential equipment that Britain could spare would be sent to Russia, and the north Russian convoys began at once. During the meeting in August at Placentia Bay, New-foundland, which produced the Atlantic Charter on democratic freedoms, Churchill and Roosevelt reinforced the offer, and as a result United States Lend-Lease was extended to Russia on generous terms in September. Stalin, however, wanted nothing less than the opening of a Second Front, a demand first made to Churchill on 19 July, and he was to repeat and heighten that demand throughout the next three years. In 1941 there was no chance of a Second Front. Britain and the United States could only hope for Russia’s survival while they calculated how best they could together distract Hitler from his campaign of conquest in the east and weaken the Wehrmacht at the periphery of the German empire.

Calculating the location and intensity of thrusts at the periphery of Hitler’s empire was to preoccupy Churchill during the next two years. He was already running one such campaign, in the Western Desert, had triumphed in another – the destruction of Mussolini’s empire in East Africa – and, though he had failed in a third, the intervention in Greece, he retained the power to strike again. Norway was a sector he kept constantly in mind; after America’s entry it could be only a matter of time before they did indeed jointly open a Second Front. Had Germany been America’s only enemy, there might have been less delay in opening a Second Front directly against the Atlantic Wall that Hitler was building on the north coast of France. However, for most Americans, Japan was the enemy which deserved the more rapid retribution. The United States Navy, which had been granted primacy of command in the conduct of the Pacific war, was deeply committed to making its main effort in those waters. In the Japanese navy, moreover, it recognised an opponent of equal calibre and thirsted for victory over it in a great fleet action; many American soldiers, including the celebrated MacArthur, shared the navy’s desire to settle with the Japanese, to take revenge for the defeats at Wake, Guam and in the Philippines, and to drive on Tokyo.

Throughout the first year of the Pacific war, therefore, Churchill found himself in an unfamiliar situation. Though no longer oppressed by the fear of defeat, he was equally no longer overlord of his country’s strategy. Because Britain could win only in concert with the United States, he had to bend his will to the wishes of strategy-makers in the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. Roosevelt was still inclined to follow Churchill’s lead. General Marshall and Admiral King were not. King was interested in the Pacific to the exclusion of all other theatres. Marshall remained committed to Europe but believed the Second Front should be mounted on the shortest route into Germany and at the earliest possible date, and therefore was deeply suspicious of all attempts to postpone or divert effort away from this.

Churchill shrank from such a commitment. ‘Remember that on my breast there are the medals of the Dardanelles, Antwerp, Dakar and Greece,’ he exclaimed to Anthony Eden on 5 July 1941, in a reference to four disastrous amphibious operations of the First and Second World Wars which he had directed. It was all very well, as 1942 drew on, for the Americans to commit the Marine Corps and a handful of army divisions to island fighting in the Pacific and to contemplate wider amphibious leaps in 1943. Their campaign was fought against tiny garrisons separated by thousands of miles of ocean from their home base. A Second Front would commit the whole of the British and American expeditionary forces, not easily to be replaced if lost, to an assault on the fortified frontier of a continent within which stood an army of 300 divisions and a war-making machine without equivalent in the world. Throughout the course of 1942, therefore, Churchill found himself treading an increasingly narrow and slippery path. On the one hand, he dared not play down Britain’s commitment to the Second Front, lest the Americans conclude that their strength be better deployed in the Pacific (as were a majority of American troops sent overseas in 1942); on the other, he dared not play up Britain’s commitment, lest he found himself swept up in an American rush to invade the continent before the chance of success had ripened. He had agreed with Roosevelt at their meeting in Placentia Bay, four months before Pearl Harbor, that if the United States entered the war the democracies’ joint strategy would be ‘Germany First’; in the eighteen months after Pearl Harbor he dedicated his efforts to persuading Roosevelt, but particularly Marshall and his fellow American generals, that Allied strategy should be ‘Germany First – but not quite yet.’

Temporising with military men was for Churchill a new experience. Thitherto he had dealt with generals and admirals – indeed with all in government – as an autocrat, sacking commanders with a readiness which even Hitler thought extreme and brought to the attention of his senior officers as an example of how much more reasonable he was as Führer than Churchill was as Prime Minister. ‘Between 1939 and 1943,’ the official historian of the Royal Navy observed, ‘there was not one admiral in an important sea command . . . whom Churchill . . . did not attempt to have relieved – and in several cases he succeeded.’ His dismissals of generals are notorious. In June 1941 he dismissed Wavell from command in the Middle East; fourteen months later he dismissed his replacement, Auchinleck, both in peremptory fashion; he also endorsed the dismissals of three commanders of the Eighth Army, Cunningham, Leese and Ritchie. He was difficult and demanding with those he left in office, particularly Alan Brooke, his chief of staff, with whom he was in daily contact throughout the war, but also with Montgomery, though rebuking that prima donna was to risk repayment in kind. Only General Sir Harold Alexander could do no wrong in his eyes: his famous courage and chivalrous manner excused him from reproach even for the dilatory conduct of the campaign in Italy in 1944, for which the blame attached to no one else.

Churchill could not treat the Americans thus, least of all King or Marshall. King was as tough as leather; Marshall seemed as impassive as a marble statue and intimidated even Roosevelt (as he intended – Marshall had made a resolution never to laugh at any of the President’s jokes). As a guest at the table of American Lend-Lease largesse, moreover, it was not merely for diplomatic reasons that Churchill had to dissimulate, reason and prevaricate where, on his own ground, he would have demanded and dictated. The product of American war industry would have gone elsewhere – as landing ships and craft, which belonged to Admiral King’s empire, did during 1942-3 – if he had not succeeded in falsely persuading Marshall during 1942 that the British War Cabinet was as eager as the American Joint Chiefs of Staff to launch a Second Front at the earliest possible moment. Churchill’s exercise in inter-allied diplomacy had to be based on an entirely different approach from that which he used in managing and manipulating his cabinet and Chiefs of Staff Committee in England. By a brilliant stroke of perception, he found it in the methods his own staff officers used against him when they wished to delay one of his favoured schemes or dissuade him from a plan they judged impracticable – to agree in principle at the outset and then to drown the idea in a sea of reasoned objection.

Churchill feared the Second Front because it would succeed only if it was launched in such overwhelming force, under such devastating bombardment from the sea and air, that the Atlantic Wall and its defenders would be crushed by the impact; and he knew that neither the force nor the support would be available in 1942. In December 1941 he visited Washington for the Arcadia conference, where for the first time the British and Americans met as joint combatants to agree strategic aims. From the tone of the meeting Churchill judged that Marshall was hostile to his own inclination to sustain pressure on Germany in the Mediterranean (the one sector in which the British had found success) but favourably disposed towards maintaining a strong Allied military presence in the Pacific (the ill-fated ABDA) for which he actually proposed a British general, Wavell, as commander. The best outcome of the Arcadia conference was that it led to the establishment of a Combined Chiefs of Staff, composed of the British Chiefs of Staff and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff; the worst, in a paradoxical sense, was that it ensured American military endorsement of Churchill and Roosevelt’s private ‘Germany First’ agreement and so brought Marshall to London in April 1942 ardent to agree a timetable. Churchill and Alan Brooke, depressed by German successes in the desert and pessimistic about Russia’s ability to survive the fall of the Crimea and the Donetz basin, temporised to the best of their ability. By reasoned argument they talked down Marshall’s support for Operation Sledgehammer, an invasion of France in 1942; by more devious means they won support for Bolero, the continuing American build-up of forces in Britain. Despite ‘winning charm, cold persuasion, rude insistence, eloquent flow of language, flashes of anger and sentiment close to tears’, Churchill failed to engage Marshall’s enthusiasm for the operation later to be known as Torch, an invasion of North Africa. Marshall’s ‘reiteration, pressure and determination’ commited both sides to Roundup, a Second Front in 1943.

Churchill and the Americans

Churchill had conceded much ground to Marshall in April, but he won some of it back when he visited Washington in June. Because of the prevailing disparity between German and Allied strengths, a cross-Channel invasion in 1942 would certainly have ended in catastrophe, and he rightly remained opposed to any such undertaking. By reasoned argument he made Sledgehammer look naively reckless and so engaged Roosevelt’s interest in Torch (at that time codenamed Gymnast). Churchill argued that, if Bolero brought large numbers of American troops to Britain, Roosevelt’s electors would expect them to be employed. Since they could not take part in a Second Front in 1942, why not use them in an interim operation in North Africa before the moment for Roundup came about in 1943? Roosevelt was half persuaded and in July sent Marshall to London again to thrash the matter out. Marshall was now in a headstrong mood. British resistance to an early Second Front had so incensed him that he had considered throwing his weight behind King’s and MacArthur’s commitment to the Pacific. Although that was only a bargaining manoeuvre on Marshall’s part, King meant business and as he accompanied Marshall to London on 16 July Churchill found the next four days were devoted to perhaps the hardest-fought strategic debate in the war.

It produced deadlock, with the American Joint Chiefs of Staff demanding the Second Front that year and the British Chiefs of Staff and War Cabinet refusing to relent. The two sides agreed to lay their cases before Roosevelt, thus confronting the President with a requirement for a decision of a sort he did not usually take; in straightforward military matters he normally allowed himself to be guided by Marshall. Marshall ought therefore to have carried the day. Churchill, however, had got round his flank. Not only had he planted much doubt in the President’s mind during his visit to Washington in June. He had subsequently reinforced it through the unofficial channel of communication provided by the comings-and-goings of Roosevelt’s private emissary, Harry Hopkins. Hopkins had originally had reservations about British wholeheartedness that were almost as severe as Marshall’s; he had been won round, however, by a concerted diplomatic offensive waged by Churchill, cabinet and Chiefs of Staff together. Lobbied by Churchill and Hopkins, Roosevelt now decided to present his Joint Chiefs of Staff with a range of choices which excluded a Second Front and among which Torch was the most attractive. When Marshall settled for this North African landing, Roosevelt enthusiastically endorsed his choice and then and there set the target date for 30 October (in the event it was launched on 8 November).

The Casablanca Conference

Churchill had therefore got his way. As he realised all too well, however, his victory was only an intermediate one. He was still committed to a Second Front in 1943 and, unless German strength declined or Allied strength increased by an improbable degree, he also knew that he would have to find a way of extricating Britain from that commitment in the coming year. For the moment the heat was off; but he knew the temperature of debate would shortly rise again, all the more so because for the first time since 1940 operations had begun to run the Allies’ way. Though the Wehrmacht was driving deep into southern Russia, the Japanese had nevertheless been checked and, at Midway, defeated, the U-boats’ ‘Happy Time’ off the American east coast had been brought to an end, the desert army had held Rommel on the border of Egypt and the bombing campaign was gathering weight against Germany. This run of success was to continue. In October General Bernard Montgomery – not Churchill’s first choice for command of the Eighth Army – won the Battle of Alamein, in November the Anglo-American army made its landing in North Africa and in the same month Paulus’s Sixth Army was surrounded at Stalingrad. By the time that Churchill, Roosevelt and their chiefs of staff met again at Casablanca, on ground just won by Eisenhower, the weakening of Germany which Churchill had conceded would be grounds for launching the Second Front in 1943 was a fact.

Moreover, since last meeting Roosevelt and Marshall, he had been to Moscow during August and there had also given hostages to Stalin, not exactly a promise to invade France in 1943 but a strong indication that an Anglo-American army would. Casablanca, the conference codenamed Symbol, therefore proved almost as difficult a meeting for Churchill as that in London the previous July. He realised that if King and the ‘Pacific school’ were to be defeated – and despite ‘Germany First’ the number of troops under MacArthur’s command now equalled the number under Eisenhower’s command in Europe, at about 350,000 in each theatre – he would have to enthuse Marshall for a ‘follow-on’ operation to Torch, preferably the invasion of Sicily; yet he could do so only if he succeeded in convincing him that Sicily would not obstruct a Second Front and that Britain held good to its promise of the previous year. It was an almost insoluble diplomatic problem, since Churchill could not frankly reveal to his allies his fears that a cross-Channel invasion might still fail, even in 1943. The fact that the problem was solved, after five days of disagreement, was due almost exclusively to superior British diplomatic technique. The British party had come prepared. They had brought their own floating communications centre, a fully equipped signals ship, so that they operated as an extension of the government machine in London. Long experience in the administration of empire had taught them the pitfalls which await politicians, officials and service chiefs who have not agreed a common position in anticipation of events; unlike the Americans, they did not have to thrash out their internal disagreements as they went along. Finally, they were masters of words. Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff and probably the cleverest service leader on either side, eventually devised a verbal formula which seemed to concede what everyone wanted. Since he knew what was in Churchill’s mind and the Americans were still muddled in theirs, the Americans grasped too eagerly at his formula and went home satisfied – to repent at leisure. The statement permitted the Torch armies to proceed to Sicily as soon as the North African campaign was terminated. That was almost the only provision about which Churchill cared, since he understood that an involvement in Sicily would preclude the launching of the Second Front in 1943. The Americans regarded the Sicily commitment as only one among many and persisted in the delusion that a Mediterranean strategy need not detract from the attack on the Atlantic Wall. It would take them nearly a year to discover that even their enormous and expanding war machine could not yield enough resources to sustain both commitments.

Casablanca yielded other decisions of importance, including the proclamation, at Roosevelt’s insistence, that the only terms the Allies would accept from Germany, Japan and Italy were those of ‘unconditional surrender’. The Sicily decision, however, was the crucial provision and one, moreover, which the Americans would find it increasingly difficult to modify as 1943 unfolded. The course of events, rather than British diplomatic ingenuity, was to be the cause of that. At the Trident conference in Washington in May 1943, the Americans arrived ‘armed to anticipate and counter every imaginable argument of the British and backed by ranks of experts whose briefcases bulged with studies and statistics’, according to General Albert Wedemeyer of the US Army War Plans Division. Wedemeyer, who had been at Casablanca, summarised the American experience there: ‘We lost our shirts . . . we came, we listened and we were conquered.’ They were determined not to lose again and would in future outdo the British at the game of preordination. Their detailed preparations ought to have won them the match at Trident, but during the course of the conference Alexander signalled from Tunis that the Anglo-American army was victorious and that its soldiers were ‘masters of North Africa’s shores’. This euphoric signal, and Churchill’s skilful over-bargaining for an extension of the Mediterranean campaign into the Balkans, persuaded the Americans to endorse the Sicilian expedition as a safer alternative. The Sicily campaign began in July, and events there determined that they should then give their agreement to the invasion of mainland Italy. Marshall and his colleagues approached the Quadrant conference, held at Quebec in August, in what he had laid down should be ‘a spirit of winning’: no further diversion from the Second Front whatsoever. However, during the course of Quadrant news arrived from Sicily of Italy’s impending offer of surrender. This first outright defeat of one of the Axis partners, and the prospect it offered of being able to establish a front on the Italian mainland close to one of Germany’s frontiers, undermined the Americans’ commitment to the purity of a Second Front strategy yet again. Eisenhower was authorised to launch the operation, sketched in at Trident in Washington, to put an Anglo-American army ashore in Italy; but it was to be limited to the south and its purpose was to divert German strength from the sector chosen for the Second Front, now codenamed Overlord.

The Quadrant decision was not quite the end of Churchill’s protracted effort to put back the landing on the north coast of France until such time as he felt sure it would succeed without grievous loss. Eisenhower’s advance up the Italian peninsula went further than Marshall intended, before troops were finally withdrawn to take part in the invasion of France via the southern route. Quadrant was, however, the last occasion on which Churchill could propose any diversion of force at all from the Second Front. The Americans had absolutely rightly set their face against Balkan adventures, since not only geography but the Wehrmacht’s own difficulties in campaigning against Tito should have dissuaded him from such notions. Nevertheless the Americans ought to have set even stricter limits on the Italian campaign, which ultimately came to serve Germany’s purpose better than that of the Allies. After Quadrant, they did quash all Churchill’s efforts to diversify the Mediterranean strategy. Thereafter it was to be Overlord and only Overlord, and Churchill could wriggle away from it no further. At Trident he had agreed to the appointment of a chief of staff to the Supreme Allied Commander, charged to prepare the Overlord plan. At Quebec he had conceded that the Supreme Allied Commander should be American. The irony was, however, that as events and American insistence drove him ever closer to biting the bullet Britain’s teeth grew blunter. ‘The problem is’, Churchill minuted to his Chiefs of Staff on 1 November 1943, ‘no longer one of closing a gap between supply and requirements. Our manpower is now fully mobilised for the war effort. We cannot add to the total; on the contrary it is already dwindling.’ Oppressed by this sense of decline, Churchill could still not bring himself to name the date for an event he accepted could no longer be postponed. Neither Roosevelt nor even the stony-faced Marshall as yet pressed him to face the inevitable. That would be left to the implacable Stalin, whom all three were to meet at Tehran in November.

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