ON APRIL 3, 1942, Roosevelt dispatched to London Harry Hopkins and George Marshall, bearing a personal letter from himself to the prime minister. “Dear Winston,” this began, “What Harry and Geo Marshall will tell you all about has my heart and mind in it. Your people & mine demand the establishment of a front to draw off pressure on the Russians, & these peoples are wise enough to see that the Russians are to-day killing more Germans & destroying more equipment than you & I put together. Even if full success is not attained, the big objective will be. Go to it!”
The mission of Hopkins and Marshall was to persuade the British to undertake an early landing in France. This was the chief of staff of the U.S. Army’s first encounter with Alan Brooke, and each man was wary of the other. They were a match in stubbornness, but little else. The Ulsterman was bemused when Marshall told him that he sometimes did not see Roosevelt for six weeks: “I was fortunate if I did not see Winston for 6 hours.”550 The British were offered two alternative U.S. plans. The first called for a 1943 invasion by thirty U.S. and eighteen British divisions, with the strategic objective of securing Antwerp. Marshall, acutely mindful of the urgency of the Russians’ plight, favoured the second and less ambitious option: an operation to be launched in September 1942 by mainly British forces, supported by two and one-half U.S. divisions—“no very great contribution,”551 as Brooke observed acidly. The American general acknowledged that it might be impossible to indefinitely hold a beachhead on the Continent in the face of a rapid German buildup. He nonetheless considered that the benefits of drawing enemy forces from the Eastern Front at such a critical moment made even a short-lived incursion into France worthwhile.
It was almost intolerably galling for the British, after suffering German bombardment and siege through thirty-one months, for twenty-seven of which the Americans had sat comfortably in the dress circle, that they should now be urged to sacrifice another army in compliance with bustling U.S. impatience for action. Brooke wrote of Marshall: “In many respects he is a very dangerous man552 while being a very charming one!” The CIGS told his staff553 that the highest aspiration of any credible Anglo-American operation in France in 1942 would be to seize and hold the Cherbourg Peninsula across the twenty-mile width of its neck. Measured against the war in the east, said Brooke, where the Russians were fighting across a thousand-mile front, so feeble an initiative would make the Western Allies the laughingstock of the world. John Kennedy commented on Soviet demands for a French invasion: “The extraordinary thing is that the Russians seem554 to have no idea of our real strength. Or if they do, they are so obsessed with their own point of view that they do not care what happens to us.” It was odd that a British general should expect anything else from Moscow. It was much more dismaying, however, to find the Americans prey to the same strategic fantasy, arguing the case for a sacrificial, even suicidal sortie into France, of a kind Japanese samurai might have applauded.
Churchill nonetheless responded enthusiastically to the president’s letter, “your masterly document,” as he called it. “I am in entire agreement in principle555 with all you propose, and so are the chiefs of staff. If, as our experts believe, one can carry this whole plan through successfully, it will be one of the grand events in all the history of war.” Here, the prime minister set the tone for all British dealings with the Americans about the Second Front, as the invasion concept was popularly known—the “First Front” was, of course, in Russia. Though Churchill had not the slightest intention of leading an early charge back into Europe, he enthused to his visitors about the prospect. He accepted the need for Allied land forces to engage the enemy on the Continent, for he knew how dear this objective was to American hearts, especially that of George Marshall. Attlee and Eden joined the prime minister in declaring how warmly they welcomed Washington’s plan. Churchill and his commanders then set about ensuring that nothing should be done to implement it, relying upon the difficulties to make the case for themselves.
In a series of meetings that began at Chequers, Marshall made his pitch. On April 14, he told Churchill and the British Chiefs that “within the next three or four months, we were very likely to find ourselves in the position when we were forced to take action on the continent.” Mountbatten, now a member of the Chiefs’ committee as head of Combined Operations, emphasised the dire shortage of landing craft. The prime minister cautioned that it was scarcely feasible to break off operations in all the other theatres in which Allied troops were engaged. Marshall, unimpressed by Britain’s extravagant commitments, as he perceived them, in the Middle East, observed that “great firmness” would be needed to avoid “further dispersions.”
The American visitors were generously plied with courtesies. They returned to Washington aware that Churchill and his commanders had doubts about a 1942 landing, but wrongly supposing that they were persuadable. Only slowly did Marshall and his colleagues grow to understand that British professions of principled enthusiasm were unmatched by any intention of early commitment. The chief of the army was too big a man to succumb to Anglophobia, as did some of his colleagues. But henceforward this stiff, humourless officer, who concealed considerable passion beneath his cool exterior, had a mistrust of British evasions, verbal and strategic, which persisted for the rest of the war. Churchill’s nation, he considered, was traumatised by its defeats, morbidly conscious of its poverty and obsessed with fear of heavy casualties. The British refused to accept what seemed to the Americans a fundamental reality: that it was worth paying any price to keep Russia fighting.
Throughout the war, the military leaders of the United States displayed a strategic confidence much greater than that of their British counterparts. The fact that Americans were never obliged to face the prospect of invasion of their homeland, still less the reality of bombardment of their cities, removed a significant part of the tension and apprehension which suffused British decision making. American forces endured setbacks abroad, but never the storm of shell at home and abject defeats abroad which characterised British experience for three years. On the issue of the Second Front, Marshall’s judgement was almost certainly gravely mistaken. The 1942 strategic view adopted by Churchill and Brooke was right. But the British damaged their relationship with the chief of staff of the army and his colleagues by persistent dissimulation. There was Churchill’s cable to Roosevelt of April 17, acknowledging American enthusiasm for an early landing in France, and asserting that “we are proceeding with plans and preparations on that basis.”556 As late as June 20 he was writing, albeit amid a thick hedge of qualifications: “Arrangements are being made for a landing557 of six or eight Divisions on the coast of Northern France early in September.” The British prevaricated because they feared that frankness would provoke the Americans to shift the axis of their national effort westward, towards the Pacific. Indeed, Marshall once threatened to do this.
The debate was further complicated by the fact that Marshall’s view accorded with that of the British and American publics. A host of ordinary people responded to the Russians’ plight with a warmth and sympathy absent from the attitudes of British ministers and service chiefs. The New Statesman of February 14, 1942, quoted an army officer who had been a prewar Labour parliamentary candidate: “Everywhere there is a feeling that some groups of people—perhaps Big Business, perhaps the politicians—are thwarting our natural development. A few more Russian victories and Far East defeats may force Westminster to understand that the most deep-seated feeling in England today is one of envy—envy of the Russians, who are being allowed to fight all out.” Envy was surely the wrong word to ascribe to public sentiment, but guilt there was in plenty among British people who felt that their own country was doing embarrassingly little to promote the defeat of the Axis.
On Sunday, March 29, forty thousand people massed in Trafalgar Square for a demonstration in support of a Second Front. Among other speakers, Sunday Express columnist John Gordon addressed the theme: “Strike in Europe now!” In April, the government lost two parliamentary by-elections, one in Rugby to an independent candidate standing on a “Second Front Now” ticket. On May 1 the left-wing weekly Tribune carried an unsigned article by Frank Owen, then undergoing armoured training as a soldier, headlined:WHY CHURCHILL? Its author posed the question: “Have we time to afford Churchill’s strategy?”—meaning the delay to a Second Front. Brooke wrote in his diary, voicing sentiments which would persist through the next two years: “This universal cry to start a second front558 is going to be hard to compete with, and yet what can we do with some 10 divisions against the German masses? Unfortunately the country fails to realize the situation we are in.” The Germans, operating with good land communications and a strong air force, could crush a miniature invasion without significantly depleting the vast Axis army, over two hundred divisions strong, engaged on the Eastern Front.
If Churchill could not escape the slings and arrows of critics ignorant of British military weakness, it was harsh that he also faced a barrage from one man who should have known better. Beaverbrook had resigned from the government allegedly on grounds of exhaustion. The shrewd civil servant Archie Rowlands believed, however, that the press lord perceived Churchill’s administration failing, and wished to distance himself from its fate. Since Beaverbrook’s visit to Moscow, this archcapitalist had become obsessively committed to Stalin’s cause, and to British aid for Russia. His newspapers campaigned stridently for the Second Front, intensifying the pressure on Churchill.
Visiting New York as a semiofficial emissary of the British government, Beaverbrook addressed an audience of American newspaper and magazine publishers on April 23. He told them, “Communism under Stalin has won the applause and admiration of all the western nations.” He asserted that there was no persecution of religion in the USSR, and that “the church doors are open.” He urged: “Strike out to help Russia! Strike out violently! Strike even recklessly!” Here was rhetoric that went far beyond the courtesies necessary to placate Stalin and encourage his people, and which flaunted Beaverbrook’s irresponsibility. Yet when Churchill telephoned the next day from London, instead of delivering the stinging rebuke which was merited, he sought to appease the erratic press baron by offering him stewardship of all Britain’s missions in Washington. Happily this proposal was rejected, but it reflected Churchill’s perception of his own political beleaguerment.
Beaverbrook preened himself before Halifax about the huge quantity of fan mail he claimed to be receiving. His egomania fed extravagant ambition. The ambassador recorded in his diary that Beaverbrook told him: “I might be the best man to run the war559. It wants a ruthless, unscrupulous, harsh man, and I believe I could do it.” It is possible that, at a time when there was widespread clamour for the Ministry of Defence to be divorced from the premiership, Beaverbrook saw himself in the former role. Yet he demonstrated notable naïveté about strategic realities, given that he was privy to so much secret information about British weakness. When challenged about the difficulties of providing air cover for an early landing in France, Beaverbrook asserted that this could be provided by Beaufighters. Any man who supposed that twin-engined aircraft like these could contest air superiority with German Bf-109s showed himself unfit to participate in strategic decision making. Monstrously, Beaverbrook threatened that his newspapers would campaign for recognition of Stalin’s claims in eastern Europe and the Baltic states. Yet Churchill never lost faith in his friend, nor expelled him from his circle, as Clementine so often urged him to do. The prime minister’s loyalty to “the Beaver” was as ill-deserved as it proved unrewarding.
Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, arrived in Britain for talks on May 21, 1942. Following his first encounter with the prime minister he reported to Moscow: “Concerning the second front, Churchill made a brief statement560 during the morning session, stating that the British and American governments are in principle committed to mounting such an operation in Europe, with maximum available resources, at the earliest possible date, and are making energetic preparations for this.” After subsequent meetings, however, at which the British made much of the practical difficulties of staging an invasion of the Continent, he told Moscow that it would be rash to expect early action. Molotov was a grey bureaucrat so slavishly loyal to Stalin that during the purges of the 1930s, he signed an arrest order for his own wife. By such means he, almost alone among prominent old Bolsheviks, had escaped the executioners and clung to office. It must have strained to the limits Churchill’s submission to political imperatives to entertain such a man at Downing Street and Chequers, which the Russian remembered chiefly, and contemptuously, for its lack of showers.
If further evidence was needed of Beaverbrook’s mischief-making, Molotov reported on May 27, following two encounters with the press lord: “He advised me to push the British government [for an invasion], and assured me that Roosevelt is a proponent of the second front.” Beyond Russian secretiveness, Churchill was also obliged to contend with Moscow’s susceptibility to fantasies. Stalin appeared sincerely to believe that Japanese aircraft were being flown by German pilots, and that the British had for some unfathomable reason provided Japan with 1,500 combat aircraft.
Molotov’s main business in London was to negotiate a treaty of alliance. He was dismayed by British refusal to meet the demands which Russia had been making ever since entering the war, for recognition of its hegemony not only over the Baltic states, but also over eastern Poland. Stalin, however, was less concerned. He cabled Molotov on May 24, telling him to accept the vaguely worded draft about postwar security offered by Eden: “We do not consider this a meaningless statement561, we regard it as an important document. It does not contain that paragraph [proposed in a Russian draft] on border security, but probably this is not so bad as it leaves our hands free. We will resolve the issue of frontiers, or rather, of security guarantees for our frontiers … by force.” Much more serious, in Russian eyes, was the perceived inadequacy of British arms shipments. Stalin emphasised the need for fighters and tanks, especially Valentines, which had proved best suited, or least unsuited, to Russian conditions. The British, however, remained evasive about increasing the strength of their convoys to Archangel. Joan Beaumont, one of the most convincing analysts of wartime Western aid to Russia, has written: “It is the irony of the commitment to the Soviet Union562 that while … consensus on its necessity grew in the first half of 1942, so also did the obstacles in the way of putting this into effect.”
Grandiose American promises of aid—initially 8 million tons for 1942–43, half of this food—foundered on the Allies’ inability to ship anything like such quantities. By the end of June 1943, less than 3 million tons had been delivered of a pledged 4.4 million. Joan Beaumont again: “Considerable though these achievements and sacrifices were563, they seemed poor in contrast to the promises which had been made … At the time when the Russian need was greatest, the assistance from the West … was at its most uncertain.” There was special Soviet bitterness about British refusal of repeated requests for Spitfires. The most strident of Russia’s propagandists, Ilya Ehrenburg, denounced to his millions of Soviet readers the fact that the Allies were “sending very few aircraft, and not the best they have either.”564 The Russians claimed to be insulted on discovering that some Hurricanes they received were reconditioned rather than new. Given the indifferent quality of planes and tanks provided, Moscow began to focus its demands upon trucks and food.
Molotov flew on from London to Washington, where the White House butler reported to Roosevelt that Russia’s foreign minister had arrived with a pistol in his suitcase. The president observed that they must simply hope it was not intended for use on him. Following a meeting at the White House on May 30, Molotov displayed in his report to Moscow a frustration at Roosevelt’s evasive bonhomie that would have struck a chord with the British. Dinner, the Russian complained, “was followed by a lengthy but meaningless conversation … I said that it would be desirable to engage at least 40 German divisions at the Western front in the summer and autumn of this year. Roosevelt and Marshall responded that they very much wanted to achieve this, but faced immediate shipping difficulties in moving forces to France.” The Russian pleaded that, if there was no Second Front in 1942, Germany would be much stronger in 1943. “They offered no definite information.”565 However, the president said that “preparations for the second front566 are under way … he, Roosevelt[,] is trying to persuade the American generals to take the risk and land 6 to 10 divisions in France. It is possible that it will mean another Dunkirk and the loss of 100,000–120,000 men, but the sacrifices have to be made to provide help in 1942 and shatter German morale.”
Stalin cabled again on June 3, first rebuking Molotov for the brevity of his reports. The Soviet leader said that he did not want to be told mere essentials. He needed trivial details as well, to provide a sense of mood. “Finally, we think it absolutely necessary567that both [British and American] communiqués contain paragraphs about establishing the second front in Europe, and state that full agreement had been reached on this issue. We also think it necessary that both communiqués should include specifics on deliveries of material from Britain and the USA to the Soviet Union.”
Here were the same imperatives pressing Stalin as had weighed upon Churchill in 1940–41. First, and as the Russian leader acknowledged568 in his cables to Molotov, it was vital to persuade Hitler that there was a real threat of an Allied invasion of France, to deter him from transferring further divisions to the Eastern Front. Second, morale was as important to the peoples of the Soviet Union as to those of the democracies. Every gleam of hope was precious. Stalin nursed no real expectation that Anglo-American armies would land on the Continent in 1942. But, just as Churchill in 1940–41 promoted in Britain much higher expectations of American belligerence than the facts merited, so Stalin wished to trumpet to the Russian people Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s assurances that a Second Front was coming, even though he did not himself believe them. Should the British and Americans later breach such assurances, this would provide useful evidence of capitalist perfidy. For embattled Russia in the summer of 1942, “later” seemed scarcely to matter.
Back in London on June 9, Molotov met Churchill once more, before the signing of a treaty of alliance. If the Russian’s purpose was to promote discord between London and Washington, he was by no means unsuccessful. The prime minister was much disturbed when Molotov told him of Roosevelt’s aspirations for the postwar world, including international trusteeship for the Dutch and French empires in Asia, and enforced disarmament of all save the Great Powers. Then the foreign minister outlined his exchanges at the White House about the Second Front: “I mentioned among other things569 that Roosevelt agreed with the point of view that I had set forth, i.e., that it could prove harder to establish a second front in 1943 than in 1942 due to possible grave problems on our front. Finally, I mentioned that the president attached such great importance to the creation of a second front in 1942 that he was prepared to gamble, to endure another Dunkirk and lose 100,000 or 120,000 men … I stressed however that I thought the number of divisions which Roosevelt proposed to commit insufficient, i.e., six to ten.
“Here Churchill interrupted me in great agitation, declaring that he would never agree to another Dunkirk and a fruitless sacrifice of 100,000 men, no matter who recommended such a notion. When I replied that I was only conveying Roosevelt’s view, Churchill responded: ‘I shall tell him my view on this issue myself.’” Oliver Harvey recorded the same conversation: “Roosevelt had calmly told Molotov570 he would be prepared to contemplate a sacrifice of 120,000 men if necessary—our men. PM said he would not hear of it.”
Molotov said years later: “We had to squeeze everything we could get571 out of [the Western Allies]. I have no doubt that Stalin did not believe [that a Second Front would happen]. But one had to demand it! One had to demand it for the sake of our own people. Because people were waiting, weren’t they, to see whether help [from the Western Allies] would come. That sheet of paper [the Anglo-Soviet agreement] was of great political significance to us. It cheered people up, and that meant a lot then.”
The Anglo-Soviet treaty signed on May 26 merely committed “the High Contracting Parties … to afford one another572 military and other assistance and support of all kinds.” But in Moscow after Molotov’s return from London, Pravda reported, “The Day is at hand when the Second Front will open.” On June 19, the newspaper described a meeting of the Supreme Soviet, whose members were told that the accords reached between the Soviet Union, Britain and the United States reflected the fact “that complete agreement had been achieved about the urgency of opening of the second front in Europe in 1942.” This announcement, said the paper, was received with protracted applause, as was a subsequent statement that “these agreements are of the highest importance for the nations of the Soviet Union, since the opening of the second front in Europe will create insurmountable difficulties for Hitler’s armies on our front.” All this was untrue, and well understood to be so by Stalin and Molotov. But among so many other deceits, what was one more, deemed so necessary to the spirit of the Russian people? And in this case, the Russians were entirely entitled to declare that the Americans, and in lesser degree the British, were making promises in bad faith.
Molotov, in old age, asserted that he found Churchill “smarter”573 than Roosevelt:
I knew them all, these capitalists574, but Churchill was the strongest and cleverest … As for Roosevelt, he believed in dollars … He thought that they were so rich and we so poor, and that we would become so weakened that we would come to the Americans and beg. This was their mistake … They woke up when they’d lost half of Europe. And here of course Churchill found himself in a very foolish predicament. In my opinion, Churchill was the most intelligent of them, as an imperialist. He knew that if we, the Russians, defeated Germany, then England would start losing its feathers. He realized this. As for Roosevelt, he thought: [Russia] is a poor country with no industry, no grain, they are going to come and beg. There is no other way out for them. And we saw all this completely differently. The entire nation had been prepared for the sacrifices, for struggle.
This was, of course, a characteristic Soviet ex post facto exposition of what took place in 1942–43. But Molotov seems right to have perceived in the Americans’ behaviour a fundamental condescension, of the same kind that underlay their attitude towards Britain. It was rooted in a belief that when the war was won, U.S. primacy would be unchallengeable by either ally.
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower wrote to his old friend George Patton on July 20, 1942: “This war is still young.” For Americans, this was true. But the British, after almost three years of privation, defeat, intermittent bombardment and enforced inaction, saw matters very differently. Washington was seeking to browbeat Churchill into sacrificing yet another British army with token American participation, as a gesture of support for the Soviet Union. Marshall’s cardinal mistake was failure to perceive that the scale of a battle in France was beyond the power of the Allies to determine. They might seek to launch a minor operation, but the Germans could mass forces to translate this into a major disaster. Marshall never acknowledged that even the fully mobilised U.S. Army of 1944–45 never became large enough to defeat even the one-third of Hitler’s forces then deployed on the Western Front, until these had been drastically weakened by the Russians.
There was never the smallest possibility that the prime minister and his generals would accede to the U.S. proposal for 1942. “I do not think there is much doing on the French coast this year,” the prime minister minuted the Chiefs of Staff on June 1. Britain in mid-1942 had fifteen divisions in the Middle East, ten in India and thirty at home, few of the latter battle-ready. None of the fifteen first-line infantry divisions in the Home Forces was fully equipped, while nine “lower establishment” formations were in worse case.
Churchill was enraged by a Time magazine article that described Britain as “oft-burned, defensive-minded,” and wrote to Brendan Bracken: “This vicious rag should have no special facilities here.”575 The British embassy in Washington reported to London: “Advocacy of a second front has increased576 largely as a result of the Russian reverses. An influential section of editorial opinion … has been insisting that the danger of such an operation now is more than outweighed by the greater danger likely to arise if it is delayed.” The British were constantly provoked by manifestations of American ignorance about operational difficulties. A U.S. officer at dinner in London577 one night demanded of a British general why more fighters were not flown to Malta, to protect Mediterranean convoys. The visitor was oblivious of the fact, irritably explained by his host, that Malta was far beyond the range of Spitfires or Hurricanes flying from Gibraltar.
The British were increasingly troubled by the difficulties of conveying their views to an American leadership of which both the political and military elements seemed resistant to its ally’s opinions. A British official in Washington wrote to London in May 1942: “No Englishman here has the close relationship578 with Hopkins and the President which are necessary. There is no one who can continually represent to the White House the Prime Minister’s views on war direction. The Ambassador does not regard it within his sphere. Dill dare not as he would ruin his relationship with the US chiefs of staff if he saw Hopkins too often.” Brig. Vivian Dykes of the British military mission wrote: “We simply hold no cards at all579, yet London expects us to work miracles. It is a hard life.”
Churchill concluded that only another personal meeting with Roosevelt could resolve the Second Front issue, or, more appropriately, the alternative North African landing scheme—Operation Torch—in Britain’s favour. He took off once more with Alan Brooke, in a Boeing flying boat. By the afternoon of June 19, he was being driven around Roosevelt’s Hyde Park estate, tête-à-tête with his host. Here was exactly the scenario which Churchill wanted, and which the U.S. Chiefs of Staff deplored. Their commander-in-chief was communing alone with Britain’s fiercely persuasive prime minister. Churchill wrote in his memoirs that the two men thus got more business done than at conferences. This was disingenuous. What he meant, of course, was that he was free from impassioned and hostile interventions by Marshall and his colleagues. At Hyde Park, the prime minister was enchanted to be treated as “family,” though his staff sometimes overreached themselves in exploiting guest privileges. Private secretary John Martin was sternly rebuked580by Roosevelt’s telephonist, Louise Hachmeister, when she found him ensconced in her master’s study, using the president’s direct line to Washington.
On June 20 at Hyde Park, Churchill handed Roosevelt a masterly note on strategy. Arrangements for a landing in France in September were going forward, said the prime minister. However, the British continued to oppose such an operation unless there was a realistic prospect of being able to stay. “No responsible British military authority581 has so far been able to make a plan for September 1942 which has any chance of success unless the Germans become utterly demoralised, of which there is no likelihood. Have the American staffs a plan? If so, what is it? If a plan can be found which offers a reasonable prospect of success His Majesty’s Government will cordially welcome it and will share to the full with their American comrades the risks and sacrifices … But in case no plan can be made in which any responsible authority has good confidence … what else are we going to do? Can we afford to stand idle in the Atlantic theatre during the whole of 1942?” It was in this context, urged Churchill, that a North African landing should be studied.
That evening, the president and the prime minister flew to the capital. They were together at the White House when a pink message slip was brought to Roosevelt, who passed it wordlessly to Churchill. It read: “Tobruk has surrendered, with 25,000 men taken prisoner.” Churchill was initially disbelieving. Before leaving Britain, he had signalled to Auchinleck, stressing the importance of holding the port: “Your decision to fight it out to the end most cordially endorsed. Retreat would be fatal. This is a business not only of armour but of will power. God bless you all.” Now, the prime minister telephoned Ismay in London, who confirmed the loss of Tobruk, together with 33,000 men, 2,000 vehicles, 5,000 tons of supplies and 1,400 tons of fuel. A chaotic defence, left in the hands of a newly promoted and inexperienced South African major general, had collapsed in the face of an unexpected German thrust from the southeast. The debacle was characterised by command incompetence, a pitiful indolence and lack of initiative among many units. Maj. Gen. Hendrik Klopper’s last signal from Tobruk was an enigmatic study in despair: “Situation shambles … Am doing the worst. Petrol destroyed.”
The prime minister was stunned, humiliated. It seemed unbearable that such news should have come while he was a visitor, indeed a suppliant, in Washington. Roosevelt, perceiving his guest’s despondency, responded with unprecedented spontaneity, generosity and warmth. “What can we do to help?” he asked. After consultation with his Chiefs of Staff, the president briefly entertained a notion of dispatching a U.S. armoured division to fight in Egypt. On reflection, it was agreed instead to send the formation’s three hundred Sherman tanks and one hundred self-propelled guns, for British use. This reinforcement, of quality equipment, was critical to later British victory at El Alamein. Roosevelt’s gesture, which required the removal of new weapons from a U.S. combat formation, prompted the deepest and best-merited British gratitude of the war towards the president.
The U.S. historian Douglas Porch, one of the ablest chroniclers of the Mediterranean campaigns, believes that Churchill fundamentally misjudged American attitudes towards Britain’s war effort. The prime minister wanted a victory in the Middle East, to dispel U.S. scepticism about British fighting capability. Porch argues, however, that “it was Britain’s beleaguered helplessness582 that evoked most sympathy in Washington and helped to prepare the American people psychologically to intervene in the war.” It was certainly true that Americans pitied British material weakness. Yet an enduring source of U.S. resentment, reflected in polls throughout much of the war, was a belief that the British were not merely poorly armed, but also did not try hard enough. It was one thing for the United States to provide food and arms to a defiantly struggling democracy. It was quite another, though, to see the British apparently content to sit tight in their island, conducting lethargic minor operations in North Africa, while the Russians did the real business, and paid the horrific blood price, of destroying Hitler’s armies.
It was remarkable how much the mood in Washington had shifted since January. This time, there was no adulation for Churchill the visitor. “Anti-British feeling is still strong,”583 the British embassy reported to London, “stronger than it was before Pearl Harbor … This state of affairs is partly due to the fact that whereas it was difficult to criticize Britain while the UK was being bombed, such criticism no longer carries the stigma of isolationist or pro-Nazi sympathies.” Senator Allen Ellender of Louisiana declared sourly that “there was little point in supplying the British584 with war material since they invariably lost it all.” Roosevelt’s secretary William Hassett wrote in his diary: “These English are too aggressive585 except on the battlefront, as assertive as the Jews, always asking for a little more and then still more after that.” Hassett claimed that the president found Churchill “a delightful companion,”586 but added: “With a softie for president, Winnie would put rollers under the Treasury and open Second, Third, or Fourth Fronts with our fighting men.”
As for the general public, an Ohioan wrote to the White House: “Tell that Churchill to go home where he belongs … All he wants is our money.” An anonymous “mother of three” sought to address Britain’s prime minister from California: “Every time you appear on our shores, it means something very terrible for us. Why not stay at home and fight your own battles instead of always pulling us into them to save your rotten necks?” A New Yorker’s letter to a friend in Somerset, intercepted by the censors, said: “I knew when I saw your fat-headed PM587 was over here that there was another disaster in the offing.” Such views were untypical—most Americans retained warm respect for Churchill. But they reflected widespread scepticism about his nation’s willingness to fight, and doubt whether the prime minister’s wishes matched American national interest. “All the old animosities against the British588 have been revived,” wrote an analyst for the Office of War Information. “She didn’t pay her war debts after the last war. She refuses to grant India the very freedom she claims to be fighting for. She is holding a vast army in England to protect the homeland while her outposts are lost to the enemy.”
A further report later in the summer detected a marginal improvement of sentiment, but found confidence in the British still much below that of the previous autumn. It noted: “Phrases such as ‘the British always want someone589 to pull their chestnuts out of the fire’ and ‘England will fight to the last Frenchman’ have attained considerable currency.” The OWI’s July survey invited Americans590 to say which nation they thought was trying hardest to win the war. A loyal 37 percent chose the United States; 30 percent named Russia, 14 percent China, 13 percent offered no opinion. Just 6 percent identified the British as most convincing triers. A similar poll the following month asked which belligerent was perceived as having the best fighting spirit. Some 65 percent said America591, but only 6 percent named Britain. The same survey highlighted Americans’ stunning ignorance about the difficulties of mounting an invasion of Europe. A 57 percent majority said they thought the Allies should launch a Second Front “within two to three months.” A similar 53 percent thought that such an operation would have a “pretty good” chance of success, while 29 percent reckoned the odds at fifty-fifty, and only 10 percent feared that an invasion would fail. A remarkable 60 percent of respondents thought not merely that an invasion of France should happen inside three months—they anticipated that it would.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote on July 9, 1942, to Stafford Cripps, who had expressed concern about Anglo-American relations: “The dominant underlying feeling is not bad592 … But there is a central difficulty. It is, as I see it, a lack of continuing consciousness of comradeship between the two peoples, not only in staving off an enemy that threatens everything we hold dear, but comradeship in achieving a common society having essentially the same gracious and civilized ends.” Columnist Walter Lippmann expressed similar views to John Maynard Keynes. There was a need, suggested Lippmann, for a new political understanding between Britain and the United States about the future of its empire: “The Asiatic war has revived593 the profound anti-imperialism of the American tradition.”
The Foreign Office was dismayed by remarks made by the Anglophile Wendell Willkie during a visit to Moscow. He told British ambassador Sir Archibald Clark Kerr that U.S. public opinion towards Britain was shaping “dangerously,” that he, Willkie, was “scared” by it. Not one of the Americans he had met on his journey between Washington and Moscow, from truck drivers to ambassadors, had a good word for British behaviour abroad. He urged that the prime minister should make a speech on postwar policy, showing that he realised that “old-fashioned imperialism”594 was dead. Churchill, of course, had no intention of doing any such thing.
A July 6 report to the Foreign Office about the British embassy in Washington was almost flagellatory about the American view of Halifax’s mission: “The Embassy … has a quite fantastically low reputation595. It is regarded as snobbish, arrogant, patronizing, dim, asleep and a home of reactionary and generally disreputable ideas.” The report then listed popular American objections to Britain, headed by its class system, which was alienating workers—“the British are going red;” imperialism; “British bunglers in high places: over-cautious, contemptuous of all new ideas and defensively minded, tired old men bored with their own task … British sitting safely in own island with 3.5 million men under arms, Brits always being defeated … Lend-Lease is stripping America to supply the British who have not even paid their [First] war debts … Anti-British sentiment is a part of the central patriotic American tradition … Anglophobia is a proof of vigorous Americanism, socially acceptable in a way anti-Catholicism and anti-semitism are not … All the Roosevelt-haters hate the English because they are held to be popular with the President.”
British postal censorship reported to the Foreign Office on a cross section of U.S. opinion monitored in mail intercepts. From Newark, New Jersey, a man wrote to a friend in Britain: “Believe me we here are disgusted reading of British retreats and nobody blames the Tommy. We blame the Brass Hats for their inefficiency and being outmanoeuvred by Jerry every time.” On September 11, a New Yorker wrote in the same vein: “There is no doubt that something is rotten about the British command everywhere … It isn’t always lack of material—it is more often blind stupidity.” Another New Yorker, posted to Australia, wrote to a British friend in Stoke-on-Trent: “English imperialism is responsible for more of our griefs and wars than you can shake a stick at. Incidentally I’m surprised to find that a great many Aussies hate the set-up in England more than I do! You IMPOSSIBLE English!”
Eden’s parliamentary under-secretary, Richard Law, son of former prime minister Andrew Bonar Law, dispatched an extraordinarily emotional report to the Foreign Office during a visit to America. He claimed that in U.S. Army training camps “anti-British feeling was beyond belief … deliberately inculcated by certain higher officers, notably General [Brehon] Somervell, who mocked that Churchill lacked the ‘sustained excitement’ to execute a cross-Channel attack.” Throughout the higher command of the U.S. Army, claimed Law, anti-British feeling was intense. There was violent jealousy of the prime minister, who was regarded as dominating and bamboozling the president. The American Chiefs of Staff “were about as friendly to the British596 as they would be to the German general staff if they sat round a table with them.” This was an extravagant assessment of Anglo-American tensions. But it illustrates the scale of concern in British official circles in 1942, when the nation’s military reputation was at its lowest ebb.
Churchill knew that his nation and his soldiers had to be seen to fight. If they could not engage in Europe, they must do so in the Middle East. The long periods of passivity which gripped Eighth Army in North Africa, however necessary logistically, inflicted immense harm upon both British self-esteem and the nation’s image abroad. At a War Cabinet meeting presided over by Attlee, Bevin declaimed theatrically: “We must have a victory!597 What the British public wants is a victory!” When John Kennedy was summoned to Downing Street, the prime minister talked of current operations in North Africa, “then added a dig at the British Army (which unfortunately he can never resist) saying, ‘if Rommel’s army were all Germans [instead of part Italian], they would beat us.’” Later, the DMO reported the conversation to Brooke: “I told him what Winston had said598 about the Germans being better than our troops & he said he must speak to Winston about this. His constant attacks on the Army were doing harm—especially when they were made in the presence of other politicians, as they so often were.” Yet so ashamed was Kennedy, as a soldier, about the fall of Tobruk that for some time he avoided his beloved “Rag”—the Army & Navy Club—to escape unwelcome questions about the army’s lamentable showing.
While Churchill was in Washington in June, some American newspapers suggested that his government would fall. He was sufficiently disturbed by what he read to telephone Eden from the White House for reassurance that there was no critical threat to his leadership. Nothing important had changed, he was told, but Tory MP Sir John Wardlaw-Milne had tabled a censure motion in the Commons. Public opinion was fragile. “The people do not like him being away599 so much in such critical times,” wrote a naval officer. A Mass Observation diarist, Rosemary Black, deplored Churchill’s absence in America at a time when the British people were enduring so much bad news: “I myself felt pretty disgusted with him600 when I saw a photograph of him enjoying himself at the White House again. If only he’d keep those great gross cigars out of his face once in a way.”
London voluntary worker Vere Hodgson, bewildered as was the rest of the nation by the fall of Tobruk, wrote crossly in her diary: “The enemy did not seem to understand601 what was expected of them, and failed to fall in with our plans. Grrr! As Miss Moyes says, it makes you see green, pink and heliotrope. I woke up in the middle of Sunday night, and thought of that convoy delivered with so much blood, sweat and losses to Tobruk on Saturday—to fall like ripe fruit into German mouths. I squirmed beneath the bedclothes and ground my teeth with rage.” She added after the prime minister’s broadcast two weeks later: “Mr Churchill’s speech did not contain much comfort602. He dominated us as he always does, and we surrender to his overpowering personality—but he knows no more than any of us why Tobruk fell!”
George King wrote to his son from Sanderstead in Surrey: “We heard yesterday that we have lost Tobruk603; the same old story—rotten leadership. The Yanks will yet show us how to do the job. The ‘red tabs’ form the only rotten part of the British Army!” Lancashire housewife Nella Last, intensely loyal to Churchill, mused in bewilderment to her diary on June 25, 1942: “Where can soldiers go604 where they have a reasonable chance? Tobruk has gone—what of Egypt, Suez and India? Nearly three years of war: WHY don’t we get going—what stops us? Surely by now things should be organised better in some way. Why should our men be thrown against superior mechanical horrors, and our equipment not standardised for easier management and repair? There is no flux to bind us—nothing. It’s terrifying. Not all this big talk of next year and the next will stop our lads dying uselessly. If only mothers could think that their poor sons had not died uselessly—with a purpose … It’s shocking.”
A report of the Home Intelligence Division of the Ministry of Information declared: “Russian successes continue to provide605 an antidote to bad news from other fronts … ‘thank God for Russia’ is a frequent expression of the very deep and fervent feeling for that country which permeates wide sections of the public.” Membership in Britain’s Communist Party rose from 12,000 in June 1941 to 56,000 by the end of 1942. The British media provided no hint of the frightful cruelties through which Stalin sustained the Soviet Union’s defence, nor of the blunders and failures which characterised its war effort in 1941–42.
In informed political and military circles, there was no scintilla of the guilt about Soviet sacrifices that prevailed among the wider public. From Churchill downwards, there was an overwhelming and not unreasonable perception that whatever miseries and losses fell upon the Russian people, the policies of their own government—above all the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact—were chiefly responsible. Brooke wrote disgustedly about British aid to Russia, “We received nothing in return606 except abuse for handling the convoys inefficiently.” John Kennedy expressed bewilderment about public attitudes: “There is an extraordinary and misguided607 enthusiasm for the Russians. Stalin is more of a hero than the King or even Winston.” A naval officer, Commander Andrew Yates, wrote to a friend in America: “Little as I formerly liked him608, the man who killed a million Germans, Jo Stalin, becomes my friend for life.” However, a Ministry of Information official cautioned against exaggerated fears that popular applause for Soviet military prowess equated with a mass conversion to Communism, such as some Tory MPs perceived: “That danger will never come through admiration609 of the achievements of another country, but only through dissatisfaction with our own—dissatisfaction savage enough to cherish a revolutionary programme.”
Nonetheless, perceptions of the Red Army as braver and more willing to sacrifice than their own soldiers were a source of anger and shame among Churchill’s people, which persisted throughout the summer of 1942. The public could not be told that Stalin’s armies achieved their remarkable feats under draconian compulsion; that if Russian soldiers sometimes displayed more fortitude than British or American ones, this was chiefly because if they flinched they faced execution by their own commanders, a sanction imposed upon hundreds of thousands of Stalin’s men in the course of the war. Debate about British military inertia and failure continued to dominate the press. “Reactionary attitudes are spreading,”610 complained Communist Elizabeth Belsey. “The Spectatorthis week sounds much opposed to the 2nd front. What do all these people suppose Russia is to do without the 2nd Front? Continue fighting with faith instead of oil?”
Maggie Joy Blunt, a journalist of left-wing sympathies, wrote on August 7, 1942: “Why is not Mr. Churchill611, rather than his critics, standing on the plinth of the Nelson column shouting for a Second Front and demanding greater efforts from every man and woman in the country? The desire to make that effort is there. The people would respond instantly to the right word from Churchill. We have the feeling, strongly, that Powers That Be wish to see Russian might crippled before they will move a finger to help. They do not want Russia to have any say in the peace terms. Capitalist interests are still vastly strong, and the propertied bourgeois, although a minority, have still an enormous influence on the conduct of our affairs and are terrified of the idea of Socialism. Socialism is inevitable.” Londoner Ethel Mattison wrote to her sister in California on August 1: “When the Anglo-Soviet Alliance was signed612, and … the Second Front was one of the main points … [it] rather tended to make people sit back and wait for it. However, the waiting has been so long and the Russians are suffering so terribly that it seems the idea must be pushed into realisation by the force of public opinion. Everywhere you go, in buses, trains and in lifts you hear fragments of conversation in connection with it.”
The Russian press, unsurprisingly, devoted much space to the Second Front lobby. Pravda carried a story reporting the mass rallies in Britain in support of early action under the headline: ENGLISH PEOPLE ARE WILLING TO HELP THEIR RUSSIAN COMRADES.613 It quoted Associated Press correspondent Drew Middleton declaring after a tour of Britain that there was overwhelming public support for an invasion; that shipping difficulties could be overcome; that bombing of Germany was recognised as an insufficient support to Russia. Pravdadescribed Second Front demonstrations in Canada. Through the months that followed, there was much more Moscow press comment on the same theme. On August 9 Pravda headlined: NO TIME TO LOSE—BRITISH PRESS ON THE SECOND FRONT. On August 15:TIME HAS COME TO ACT, SAY AMERICAN NEWSPAPERS. The next day, a report described a deputation representing 105,000 British workers from seventy-eight companies calling at Downing Street to present a Second Front petition to Churchill. On the nineteenth, Pravdaheadlined: ENGLISH PUBLIC ORGANISATIONS DEMAND OFFENSIVE AGAINST GERMANY, and on the twenty-third: WE HAVE NO RIGHT TO WAIT—ENGLISH TRADE UNIONS DEMAND OPENING SECOND FRONT.
The narrative of the Second World War presented by most historians is distorted by the fact that it focuses upon what happened, rather than what did not. Until November 1942, weeks and sometimes months passed without much evidence of activity by British land forces. Between June 1941 and the end of the war, British newspapers and BBC broadcasts were often dominated by reports of the struggle on the Eastern Front, where action appeared continuous. Countless editorials paid tribute to the deeds of “our gallant Russian allies.” This goes far to explain why Russia commanded such admiration in contemporary Britain. Accounts of the eastern fighting were vague and often wildly inaccurate, but they coalesced to create a valid impression of vigorous, hideously costly and increasingly successful action by the Red Army. The battle for Stalingrad, which now began to receive massive coverage, intensified public dismay about the contrast between British and Russian achievements. “Every week of successful defence,”614 reported the Ministry of Information on October 9, 1942, “confirms the popularity of the Russians and there is much uneasiness and unhappiness at the spectacle of our apparent inaction.”
Ismay said that he admired Churchill as much for the courage with which he resisted a premature Second Front as for the vigour with which he promoted other projects. He observed that a lesser man might have given in to the vociferous lobbyists. He deplored the public’s ignorance of the fact that real partnership with the Russians was impossible, given their implacable secretiveness. To understand the British public temper in World War II, it is necessary to recognise how little people knew about anything beyond the visible movements of armies and the previous night’s bomber raids on Germany. Information which is commonplace in time of peace becomes the stuff of high secrecy in war: industrial production figures; weapons shortages; shipping movements and losses; details of aid to Russia or lack of it. Many reports in newspapers, especially those detailing Allied combat successes and enemy losses, were fanciful. The prime minister offered the nation only the vaguest and most general notion of its likely prospects. This was prudent, but obliged millions of people to exist for years in a miasma of uncertainty, which contributed decisively to the demoralisation of 1941–42.
A study of contemporary newspapers surprises a modern reader, because in contrast to twenty-first-century practise, greater attention was paid to events than to personalities, even that of Churchill himself. He received much less coverage than does a modern prime minister, and little detail about his personal life was revealed outside his inner circle. For security reasons, his travels were often unreported until he had left a given location. His speeches and public appearances were, of course, widely covered, but many days of the war passed without much press reference to the prime minister. While battlefield commanders such as Alexander and Montgomery became household names, other key figures remained almost unknown. Sir Alan Brooke, for instance, whose military role was second in importance only to that of Churchill, was scarcely mentioned in the wartime press.
Above all, accurate prophecy was rendered impossible by the fact that the condition of the enemy, the situation “on the other side of the hill,” remained shrouded in mystery even to war leaders privy to Ultra secrets. Conditions in occupied Europe, as well as the state of Hitler’s war machine, were imperfectly understood in London. It was widely reported that the Nazis were conducting appalling massacres, killing many Jews. But the concept of systematic genocide embracing millions of victims was beyond popular, and even prime ministerial, imagination. Entire books have been written about Churchill and the Holocaust, yet the fundamentals may be expressed succinctly: the prime minister was aware from late 1942 onwards that the Nazis were pursuing murderous policies towards the Jews.
British Jewish leaders sought to urge upon him that their people were being subjected to historically unprecedented horrors. He responded with words of deep sympathy, indeed passion, and in 1944 once urged that the RAF should do whatever was possible to check the slaughter. But he did not himself pursue the issue when told of “operational difficulties”—which meant that the airmen did not believe that attempts to destroy railway tracks in eastern Europe were as useful to the war effort as continuing the assault on Germany’s cities. Churchill, in common with most of the U.S. and British war leaderships, perceived the killing of Jews in the context of Hitler’s wider policy of massacre, which embraced millions of Russians, Poles, Yugoslavs, Greeks and other races. He believed that the only way to address these horrors was by hastening the defeat of Germany and liberation of the occupied nations. This assumption also guided sentiment among the public, which was told less than the Allied governments knew.
Ignorance about so many issues fed endless speculation, embracing a range of possibilities from the outbreak of peace within months, to indefinitely sustained conflict. When Harold Macmillan became British minister in the Mediterranean, he wrote: “the trouble … is that no one really has any idea615 as to the future course of the war. One minute people rush to an extreme of pessimism—and think it will never end. The next they become so excited by a favourable battle that they regard it as more or less over. And the experts cannot give us any guidance. The better they are, the less willing I find them (I mean men like Cunningham, Tedder and Alexander) to express a view.” A contributor to Punch composed a poem about his own “befuddlement amid one bright star of England.” This struck a chord with Alan Lascelles, assistant private secretary to King George VI, who wrote in his diary: “I suppose that, with the exception of some thirty or forty616 High Esoterics—the War Cabinet and its immediate minions—I get as much illumination on the drear fog of war as anyone in this country. Yet I am befogged, all right.” For a humble citizen to keep going, it was necessary to hope blindly, because evidence for informed optimism was lacking.
In the first two days of July, Churchill faced a debate on the censure motion tabled against him in the Commons. Sir John Wardlaw-Milne destroyed his own case in the first minutes of his speech by proposing that the Duke of Gloucester, the king’s notoriously thick-headed brother, should become Britain’s military supremo. The House burst into mocking laughter, and Churchill’s face lit up. He knew, in that moment, that he could put his critics to flight. But he was nonetheless obliged to endure a barrage of criticism. Aneurin Bevan spoke with vicious wit: “The prime minister wins debate after debate and loses battle after battle. The country is beginning to say that he fights debates like a war and the war like a debate.” Bevan also asserted that arms factories were producing the wrong weapons; that the army was “riddled by class prejudice,” and poorly commanded.
Then he delivered the sort of peroration which disgusted Churchill, but struck a powerful echo with the public: “For heaven’s sake do not let us make the mistake of betraying those lion-hearted Russians. Speeches have been made, the Russians believe them and have broken the champagne bottles on them. They believe this country will act this year on what they call the second front … they expect it and the British nation expects it. I say it is right, it is the correct thing to do … Do not in these high matters speak with a twisted tongue.” In the course of the vote of confidence debate, MPs voiced valid criticisms of the army’s poor tanks and leadership. Much was said about the RAF’s lack of dive-bombers, to which the British accorded exaggerated credit for German successes. Unsurprisingly, no one hinted that the British soldier was not the equal of his German counterpart, but there were fierce denunciations of the high command and class culture of the army, some of it from MPs less jaundiced than Bevan.
Americans were impressed that such strictures could be expressed. “Polyzoides” wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The fact that, during one of the most critical periods617 in the history of the British Empire, there is still freedom of speech and criticism testifies to the greatness of the nation.” Such high-minded sentiments provided, however, small comfort to the prime minister. Leo Amery wrote: “Winston is I think far too inclined618 to attribute to sheer personal malice the anxiety of various people to know what is really happening and makes no allowance either for the value in a democracy of telling our people the whole truth however unpalatable.” A housewife diarist, Mrs. Clara Millburn, though a warm admirer of Churchill, was nonetheless impressed by the report of Wardlaw-Milne’s performance in the Commons: “His speech sounds very good to us619 at first hearing.” By contrast, she thought little of Oliver Lyttelton’s opening speech for the government: “Everyone seems to want C as PM, but they do not think he has chosen wisely for his Cabinet.” When the House divided, Churchill won by 475 votes to 25. “He is a giant among pygmies620 when it comes to a debate of this kind, and I think that everybody realizes it,” wrote Tory MP Cuthbert Headlam, often a sceptic. But he added that, if the censure motion had been directed against the Ministry of Supply, he himself would not have voted against it. The next day, Mrs. Millburn wrote: “It is to be hoped that the PM takes some notice621 of the criticisms, for one feels some changes are necessary.”
Churchill’s Commons success did nothing to stifle wide-ranging and bitter criticism of the government’s conduct of the war. The Times, in an editorial on July 10, though asserting that “no responsible body of opinion dreams of changing the national leadership,” repeated its oft-made demand for a separation of the roles of prime minister and minister of defence. The paper returned to the charge on July 20, observing: “A British victory is urgently needed;” and again on the twenty-second: “All the evidence goes to show that the war machine is both cumbrous and unmethodical.” In the Times’s letters column, a correspondent named Clive Garcia, writing from the Army & Navy Club, spoke of “a vicious circle to which we have now grown accustomed: first, disaster; then a debate on the conduct of the war, voicing profound apprehension; then a vote of confidence in the Government … then a pause until the next disaster.” Meanwhile, asserted Garcia, “defects in the war machine go uncorrected.”
Several other letter writers addressed intelligently and pertinently the inadequacy of British tanks. The Times commented on their strictures: “The simple question—though the answer may be complex622—is how a great and inventive industrial country nearing the end of the third year of War has failed to supply its Army with weapons superior to those employed by the enemy, the nature of which was for the most part known?” An editorial in the New Statesman on July 29 asserted that the “military situation of the [Allies] is graver than at any time since 1940.”
Within a few minutes of Churchill’s return to Downing Street from the Commons on July 2, Leo Amery arrived with his son Julian, an army officer just back from Egypt. To the fury of Alan Brooke, who was also present, young Amery—“a most objectionable young pup,”623 in the general’s words—painted for the prime minister a picture of the desert army as demoralised, poorly equipped and bereft of confidence in its commanders. This confirmed Churchill’s own views. In an unpublished draft of his war memoirs, he characterised the 1942 desert defeats as “discreditable624” and “deplorable.” In six months, Auchinleck’s forces had been driven back six hundred miles. Worst of all, in Brooke’s eyes, Captain Amery played to the strongest instincts of the prime minister by urging that Churchill should go himself to the Middle East and resolve the situation. “The cheek of the young brute625 was almost more than I could bear,” wrote the CIGS. He had hoped himself to travel alone to Egypt, to address the army’s difficulties. Now, instead, the prime minister was determined to intervene personally, then fly on to Moscow to confront Stalin.
But first, there was another visit to London by Hopkins, Marshall and King. Before they arrived, former CIGS Sir John Dill wrote to Churchill from Washington: “May I suggest with all respect that you must convince626 your visitors that you are determined to beat the Germans, that you will strike them on the continent of Europe at the earliest possible moment even on a limited scale, and that anything which detracts from this main effort will receive no support from you at all.” The general mused tendentiously about a possible landing in France: “What does success mean? If invasion ultimately fails tactically but causes diversion from Russian front will it have succeeded?” Such maudlin reflections were unlikely to increase Churchill’s confidence in Dill, who had gained some personal popularity in Washington because he was thought to favour an early Second Front. “Churchill, however, believes the other way,”627 wrote Vice President Henry Wallace. “Apparently the ruling class in England is very anxious not to sacrifice too many British men. They lost so many in World War I that they feel they cannot afford to lose more in World War II. They want to wait until the American armies have been sufficiently trained so that losses will be at least fifty-fifty. Dill does not belong to this school of thought.” It was certainly true that some people in London believed the general had “gone native” in Washington.
To the prime minister’s annoyance, following Marshall, King and Hopkins’s arrival in London on July 19, they spent some hours communing with the newly appointed senior U.S. officer in Europe, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, before calling at Downing Street. When Anglo-American discussions began, the visitors repeated their familiar demand for a 1942 beachhead in France. They clung stubbornly to two propositions which the British deemed monstrous. First, they thought that a “redoubt,” such as Churchill had briefly favoured in June 1940, might be seized and held in northern France. Second, they considered that even if such an operation failed, the losses—destined to be overwhelmingly British—would be justified by the inconvenience imposed upon the Germans.
Brooke rehearsed familiar objections. The chief of staff of the U.S. army challenged him bluntly, demanding: “Well, how are we going to win this war628? You cannot win it by defensive action.” Churchill formally presented Marshall’s proposal to the War Cabinet, which unanimously rejected it. There was little more to be said. The Americans remained deeply unhappy, but knew that they could not impose a scheme dependent almost entirely upon the sacrifice of British lives. Marshall had come to London with a brief from Roosevelt to make this final attempt to reconcile the British to an invasion of France; then, if he failed, to accept the North African plan. On July 22, the president cabled acquiescence in British rejection of an early assault on the Continent. With utmost reluctance, Marshall committed himself to what became the Torch landings of November 1942.
Now, the British were all smiles, and it was the Americans’ turn to sulk. “Gil” Winant, the ambassador, usually mild-mannered, expressed vehement objections to the North African plan. The American visitors spent a final weekend at Chequers, with the prime minister at his sunniest, then returned to Washington, nursing frustration.
For most of August, Marshall continued to agitate against Torch. From the moment Churchill first mooted the North African scheme back in December, the chief of staff of the army had been willing to indulge it only if U.S. troops could land unopposed, with Vichy French acquiescence. The Americans were fearful that, if they were obliged to launch an amphibious assault, the Germans would swiftly reinforce North Africa through Franco’s Spain, isolating any U.S. forces deployed east of the Straits of Gibraltar. It is important to emphasise that, in the late summer of 1942, the American Chiefs believed that the British were doomed to lose Egypt. This would free Rommel’s army to turn on a U.S. invasion force. Marshall not only disliked committing American soldiers to the Mediterranean theatre; he feared that a campaign there could fail. A cynic such as Alan Brooke might have contrasted unfavourably Marshall’s insouciance about the perils of an abortive British descent on France with his sensitivity about the prospect of an unsuccessful American one on North Africa.
The Torch commitment represented one of Churchill’s most important victories of the war. He had persuaded Roosevelt to impose a course of action on his Chiefs of Staff against their strongest wishes. As for the president, this was his most significant strategic intervention, one of the few occasions when he acted in earnest the part of commander-in-chief, instead of delegating his powers to his military advisers. The two national leaders displayed the highest wisdom. Roosevelt’s decision was driven by the same political imperatives that Churchill recognised. Marshall later acknowledged this, saying of the U.S. Chiefs of Staff: “We failed to see that a leader in a democracy629 has to keep the people entertained. The people demand action.” Fulfilment of this requirement was matched by the president’s acknowledgement that if the British did not choose to land in France in 1942, they could not be made to do so. At this stage, also, Roosevelt was much more ready than in subsequent years to be influenced by Churchill’s judgement. The United States would land only an initial seventy thousand men in North Africa, though thereafter these would be progressively reinforced. In 1942, a significant proportion of Marshall’s available forces were committed to home defence of the United States, though it was hard to see who might mount an invasion.
The British sought to salve bruised U.S. Army sensibilities by offering a strong endorsement of its ambitions for a landing in France in 1943. But Marshall knew that once U.S. forces were fighting in the Mediterranean, it would be hard to get them out again in time for an invasion of France the following year. In the formal document decreeing the North African commitment, CCS 94, the Chiefs of Staff acknowledged “that it be understood that a commitment to [Torch] renders Roundup [an invasion of France] in all probability impracticable of successful operation in 1943.” Only much later did some prominent American soldiers grudgingly concede that Churchill might have been right; that his and Roosevelt’s commitment to Torch saved the Allies from a colossal folly. And this was only after the U.S. Army had experienced for itself the savage reality of fighting the Wehrmacht.