CHURCHILL’S PURGE OF desert generals was greeted in Britain with unsurprising caution. So many newly promoted officers had been welcomed as Wellingtons, only to be exposed as duffers. The Times’s military correspondent observed that commanders in the Middle East “have changed so frequently that the subject655 can now be approached only with tempered enthusiasm.” Through the months that followed, the British media displayed a wariness close to cynicism about Eighth Army’s prospects. A Times editorial on August 26 observed that neither the RAF’s bomber offensive nor the raid on Dieppe had “relieved the continuing sense of an inadequacy in the British military achievement at a time when our allies face a supreme crisis.” Journalist Maggie Joy Blunt wrote in her diary on August 19, expressing dismay about Dieppe: “While I grumble young Russia waits656 in agony for our Second Front. Here in England we are divided, despondent and without faith, ruled by old men, governed by money. The old fears, the old distrust are deeply rooted.” Such gloom was not confined to civilians. Brooke wrote later: “When looking back at those days657 in the light of after events one may be apt to overlook those ghastly moments of doubt which at the time crowded in on me.”
Churchill, who read newspapers avidly, cannot have gained much pleasure from their scepticism about the command changes. However, he returned to London on August 24 exhilarated by what he had seen in the desert and by the perceived success of his visit to Stalin. His boundless capacity for optimism was among his greatest virtues, at a time when those around him found it easier to succumb to gloom. On the night of August 30 Rommel, desperately short of fuel, attacked at Alam Halfa. The British, forewarned by Ultra, inflicted a decisive repulse on the Afrika Korps. The prime minister now became passionately anxious that Montgomery’s own offensive should be launched before the U.S. North African landings, provisionally scheduled for October. There was fresh troublewith Washington, where Marshall was urging Roosevelt to limit the scale of Torch, and to omit Algiers from its objectives. Churchill feared that he would have to defy medical advice and fly once more to see the president. Only on September 3 did Roosevelt accede to Churchill’s imprecations, which were supported by U.S. generals Dwight Eisenhower and Mark Clark in London. Torch was to proceed on November 8, with landings at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers.
But while Allied warlords nursed private excitement about the prospect of great happenings, the public and body politic perceived only continuing inactivity. Churchill indulged an outburst of self-pity on September 24, telling Alan Brooke that he, the prime minister, “was the only one trying to win the war658, that he was the only one who produced any ideas, that he was quite alone in all his attempts, no one supported him … Frequently in this oration he worked himself up into such a state from the woeful picture he had painted, that tears streamed down his face!”
It was inevitable that, having insisted upon assuming sole responsibility for direction of the war, Churchill should bear blame for the weaknesses which caused the armed forces so often to be seen to fail. Public dissatisfaction with Britain’s wartime government attained its highest pitch during the last weeks before a dramatic change of fortune. Many ministers and generals, who readily accepted that only Churchill could be Britain’s prime minister, were nonetheless convinced that he should divorce the premiership from the ministry of defence, delegating operational control of the war. But to whom? The mooted candidates were almost as unsuitable as had been the Duke of Gloucester. Leo Amery told Dill, home on leave, that he favoured appointing Wavell as “super–chief of staff … Dill agreed659, but said nothing could get Winston to face up to it however bad the present arrangement may be.” This exchange says little for the judgement of either man, but much about the mood in Whitehall towards the prime minister. Even Eden, Churchill’s most trusted colleague, was convinced that he should relinquish the ministry of defence.
Churchill later described September and October660 1942 as his most anxious months of the war. Amery complained after a Cabinet wrangle: “It is an awful thing dealing with a man661 like Winston who is at the same moment dictatorial, eloquent and muddle-headed.” Beaverbrook, unswervingly mischievous and disloyal, told Eden on October 8 that the prime minister was “a ‘bent’ man, and couldn’t be expected662 to last long … The future belonged to A.E.” Influential Canadian diplomat Humphrey Hume Wrong, in London on a fact-finding mission, wrote in his diary: “The dominance of Churchill emerges663 from all these talks. Cripps on the shelf, Attlee a lackey, Bracken the Man Friday of Churchill. It isn’t as bad as the political gossips make out, but it’s bad enough.”
If Churchill’s person was in Downing Street, his spirit was far away, in the drifting sands of Egypt. Montgomery was training troops, making plans, stockpiling ammunition, readying his new Sherman tanks. The foxy little general insisted upon launching Eighth Army’s offensive according to his own timetable, heedless of the prime minister’s impatience. A critical contribution to his campaign was already being made at sea. Guided by Ultra decrypts, the RAF and Royal Navy inflicted a series of devastating blows on the Italian tankers and supply ships fuelling and feeding the Afrika Korps. By late October, even before Eighth Army began its assault, the German logistical predicament in Egypt was desperate. The prime minister knew this from his Boniface decrypts, and dispatched a barrage of anxious, sometimes threatening, signals to Alexander. A British army strongly superior in men, tanks, guns and planes must surely be capable of defeating an enemy known to be almost immobilised for lack of fuel.
The operational value of Ultra material on the battlefield depended heavily on the receptiveness of individual commanders, and the quality of their intelligence chiefs. Some generals and admirals were astonishingly indifferent to the bounties they were offered. Montgomery was the first British desert commander to employ a top-class intelligence officer, in the person of Oxford academic Brig. Edgar Williams, and to heed his counsel. Ultra played a key role in enabling Montgomery to defeat Rommel’s thrust at Alam Halfa. Adm. Sir Dudley Pound, first sea lord until 1943, often used intelligence poorly, most notoriously during the PQ17 Arctic convoy battle. By contrast, the Admiralty’s Submarine Tracking Room was brilliantly conducted, and played a decisive role in the Battle of the Atlantic. In 1942, however, Bletchley’s inability to crack the U-boat cipher rendered Allied convoys appallingly vulnerable. November saw the worst losses of the war: some 721,700 tons of Allied shipping were sunk. Then, suddenly and dramatically, the code breakers achieved another breakthrough, and once more provided the Royal Navy with means to track U-boat positions. From December onwards, convoys could again be routed away from the submarine wolf packs. Thanks overwhelmingly to intelligence, the tide of the Atlantic battle, as well as of the Mediterranean campaign to interdict supplies to Rommel, turned decisively against Germany.
Montgomery launched his attack at El Alamein on October 23. Brendan Bracken said: “If we are beaten in this battle, it’s the end of Winston.”664 This was histrionic: within a fortnight the Torch landings far behind Rommel’s front would have rendered the German position in Egypt untenable. That is why Correlli Barnett, Douglas Porch and others have described El Alamein as “the unnecessary battle.”665 But it was a desperately necessary one for the self-esteem of the British people. Bracken’s words reflected the prevailing mood among even the prime minister’s most loyal supporters. Churchill had presided over so many failures. There must be a success—a British success. Some postwar strategists have argued that, if Montgomery had merely waited for Torch, he could then have fallen upon Rommel’s retreating army in the open, and achieved a far more devastating and less costly victory. But this was never a credible political option for Eighth Army—nor for the prime minister.
On the night of October 23, he attended a dinner for Eleanor Roosevelt at Buckingham Palace. A courtier wrote:
Winston was like a cat on hot bricks666, waiting for the news of the start of Alexander’s offensive in Egypt. This … had begun at 8 pm our time, and I had to go out in the middle to get the news by telephone from No. 10. After a brief interval, nothing would content Winston but to go to the telephone himself. His conversation evidently pleased him, for he walked back along the passage singing “Roll Out the Barrel” with gusto, but with little evidence of musical talent. This astonished the posse of footmen through which he had to pass. I wondered what their Victorian predecessors would have thought had they heard Dizzy, or Mr. G[ladstone], singing “Knocked ’Em in the Old Kent Road” in similar circumstances.
Back in June, Auchinleck had chosen to halt his retreat and defend a line at El Alamein. South of a narrow stretch of desert, there less than forty miles wide, hills rendered the position impervious to flank attack. In contrast to most North African battlefields, there was little room for manoeuvre: it was necessary for an attacker to batter a path by frontal assault through minefields, wire and deep defences. In August, when Rommel attacked, these circumstances profited the British. Seven weeks later, they enabled 104,000 Germans and Italians to mount an unexpectedly staunch defence against 195,000 British troops and overwhelming firepower. Gen. Georg Stumme, acting as Axis commander during Rommel’s absence on sick leave, was killed in the first days. Rommel returned. For almost a week, the British pounded and hammered at his positions. Churchill and the British people held their breath. The first news was good—but so it had often been before, to be followed by crushing disappointments. The British no longer dared to anticipate victory. One minister, Amery, wrote on October 26: “I am terribly anxious lest even with our superior weight667 of tanks and artillery and aircraft it might yet prove another Passchendaele, and we spend ourselves in not quite getting through.”
Churchill became seriously alarmed when, on October 28, Montgomery paused and regrouped. He dispatched a threatening minute to Brooke: “It is most necessary that the attack should be resumed before Torch. A standstill now will be proclaimed a defeat. We consider the matter most grave.” British armies had been here so often before. Auchinleck had achieved comparable successes, only to see them crumble to dust. Then, on November 2, Montgomery launched his decisive blow, Operation Supercharge. “How minute and fragile668 one felt, trapped in this maelstrom of explosive fury!” wrote a bewildered young British platoon commander. “When we moved forward we scuttled like mice across the inhospitable sand … ready to sway and flatten ourselves to earth if a shell burst nearby … We were being fired upon. Though this was the very meaning of war, I felt a sense of outrage and betrayal. Someone had blundered. How could the chaos conceivably resolve itself into a successful attack? Yet all the major battles of history must have seemed like this, a hopeless shambles to the individual in front, with a coherence only discernible to those in the rear.”
Montgomery’s men broke through. Ultra revealed to the British that Rommel considered himself beaten, and was in full retreat. Churchill rejoiced. At a Downing Street lunch he gleefully told guests, including MP Harold Nicolson: “There is more jam to come669. Much more jam. And in places where you least expect it.” After this coy hint at Torch, across the same lunch table he told Brendan Bracken to order the nation’s church bells rung. When the proposal met doubts, he agreed to delay until November 15, to ensure that no accident befell Allied arms. Thereafter, he was determined that the British people should recognise just cause for celebration.
Brooke wrote in his diary: “If Torch succeeds we are beginning to stop losing this war.”670 Early on Sunday, November 8, Allied forces landed in North Africa. Eisenhower’s command was initially small, half the size of Montgomery’s—107,000 men, 35,000 of them British. But the symbolic significance of this first commitment of American ground troops on a non-Pacific battlefield was immense. Though the invaders encountered some fierce resistance from Vichy forces, all the beachheads were swiftly secured. Churchill cabled congratulations to Marshall, adding wryly: “We shall find the problems of success not less puzzling though more agreeable than those we have hitherto surmounted together.” The Times wrote of the prime minister’s performance at the annual Mansion House dinner on November 10: “A sense of exaltation pervaded Mr. Churchill’s speech671. It was the speaker’s due. In the toil and sweat and tears to which he summoned his country he has borne a leader’s share.” Dalton wrote on November 12: “The self-respect of the British Army672 is on the way to being re-established. Last week … a British general was seen to rush in front of a waiting queue at a bus stop and to leap upon the moving vehicle. One onlooker said he would not have dared to do this a week before.”
Alexander and Montgomery became Britain’s military heroes of the hour, and indeed of the rest of the war. The former was especially fortunate to find laurels conferred upon him, for his talents were limited. Hereafter, Alexander basked in Churchill’s favour. He conformed to the prime minister’s beau ideal of the gentleman warrior. While forces under his command would endure many setbacks, they never suffered absolute defeat. Montgomery was a much more impressive personality, a superb manager and trainer of troops, the first important British commander to display the steel necessary to fight the Germans with success. Montgomery’s conceit was notorious. In one of his proclamations in the wake of a victory, he asserted that it had been achieved “with the help of God.” In the United Services Club, an officer observed sardonically that “it was nice Monty had at last mentioned673 the Almighty in dispatches.” Yet Churchill and Brooke knew that diffidence and modesty are seldom found in successful commanders. Montgomery had few, if any, of the attributes of a gentleman. This was all to the good, even if it rendered him less socially congenial to the prime minister than Alexander. Gentlemen had presided over too many British disasters.
“Monty’s” professionalism was allied to a shrewd understanding of what could, and could not, be demanded of a British citizen army in whose ranks there were many men willing to do their duty, but few who sought to become heroes. He does not deserve to rank among history’s great captains, but he was a notable improvement upon the generals who had led Britain’s forces in the first half of the Second World War. A carapace of vanity armoured him against prime ministerial harrowing of the kind that so wounded Wavell and Auchinleck. In the autumn and winter of 1942, it was the newcomers’ good fortune to display adequacy at a time when the British achieved a formidable superiority of men, tanks and aircraft.
“We are winning victories!”674 exulted London charity worker Vere Hodgson on November 29. “It is difficult to get used to this state of things. Defeats we don’t mind—we have all developed a stoical calm over such things in England. But actually to be advancing! To be taking places! One has an uneasy sense of enjoying a forbidden luxury.” Aneurin Bevan said nastily that the prime minister “always refers to a defeat or a disaster as though it came from God, but to a victory as though it came from himself.” Throughout the war, Bevan upheld Britain’s democratic tradition by sustaining unflagging criticism of the government. To those resistant to Welsh oratory, however, his personality was curiously repellent. A dogged class warrior, he harried Churchill across the floor of the Commons as relentlessly when successes were being celebrated as when defeats were lamented. Bevan drew attention to the small size of the forces engaged at El Alamein and to the dominance of Commonwealth troops in Montgomery’s army. His figures were accurate, but his scorn was at odds with the spirit of the moment, which was full of gratitude, as was the prime minister. At a Cabinet meeting on November 9, Churchill offered the government’s congratulations to the CIGS and secretary of state for the army’s performance. This was, wrote Brooke sourly later, “the only occasion on which he expressed publicly675 any appreciation or thanks for work I had done during the whole of the period I worked for him.”
For a generation after the Second World War, when British perceptions of the experience were overwhelmingly nationalistic, El Alamein was seen as the turning point. In truth, of course, Stalingrad—which reached its climax a few weeks later—was vastly more important. Montgomery took thirty thousand German and Italian prisoners in his battle, the Russians ninety thousand in theirs, which inflicted a quarter of a million losses on Hitler’s Sixth Army. But El Alamein was indeed decisive for Britain’s prime minister. On November 22, he felt strong enough to allow Stafford Cripps to resign from the War Cabinet, relegating him to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Churchill said of Cripps to Stalin: “His chest is a cage, in which two squirrels are at war, his conscience and his career.” Cripps had pressed proposals for removing the direction of the war from the prime minister’s hands. Now, these could safely be dismissed, their author sidelined. His brief imposture as a rival to the national leader was over. In the ensuing thirty months of the German war, though the British people often grew jaded and impatient, never again was Churchill’s mastery seriously questioned.
As Montgomery’s forces continued to drive west across Libya, the prime minister looked ahead. Fortified by Ultra-based intelligence, he felt confident that the combination of Eighth Army’s victory at El Alamein and the Torch landings ensured the Germans’ expulsion from North Africa. No more than anyone else did he anticipate Hitler’s sudden decision to reinforce failure, and the consequent prolongation of the campaign. In November 1942, it seemed plausible that the entire North African littoral would be cleared of the enemy by early 1943. What, then, for 1943? The Chiefs of Staff suggested Sicily and Sardinia. This prompted a contemptuous sally from Downing Street: “Is it really to be supposed that the Russians676 will be content with our lying down like this during the whole of 1943, while Hitler has a third crack at them?” Churchill talked instead of possible landings in Italy or southern France, perhaps even northwest Europe. Though he soon changed his mind, in November he still shared American hopes for Roundup, a major invasion of the Continent in 1943. He also remained mindful of his commitments to Stalin, and was acutely anxious not to be seen again to break faith. He told the War Office on November 23: “I never meant the Anglo-American Army677 to be stuck in North Africa. It is a springboard and not a sofa.”
The Americans were unjust in supposing that Churchill always shared the extreme caution of his generals. On the contrary, the prime minister was foremost among those urging commanders to act more boldly. As he told the House of Commons on November 11, “I am certainly not one of those who need to be prodded. In fact, if anything, I am a prod. My difficulties rather lie in finding the patience and self-restraint through many anxious weeks for the results to be achieved.” For most of the Second World War, Churchill was obliged to struggle against his military advisers’ fear of battlefield failure, which in 1942 had become almost obsessive. Alan Brooke was a superbly gifted officer, who forged a remarkable partnership with Churchill. But, if Allied operations had advanced at a pace dictated by the War Office, or indeed by Brooke himself, the conflict’s ending would have come much later than it did. The British had grown so accustomed to poverty of resources and shortcomings of battlefield performance that it had become second nature for them to expect the worst. Churchill himself, by contrast, shared with the Americans a desire to hasten forward Britain’s creaky military machine. It was not that Britain’s top soldiers were unwilling to fight. It was that they deemed it prudent to fight slowly. Oliver Harvey noted on November 14, with a cynicism that would have confirmed Stalin in all his convictions: “The Russian army having played the allotted role678 of killing Germans, our Chiefs of Staff think by 1944 they could stage a general onslaught on the exhausted animal.”
This is an important and piercing insight upon British wartime strategy from 1942 onwards. There was a complacency, here explicitly avowed by Harvey, about the bloodbath on the Eastern Front. Neither Churchill nor Brooke ever openly endorsed the expressed desire of their colleagues to see the Germans and Soviets destroy each other. But they certainly wanted the vast attritional struggle in the east to spare the Western Allies from anything similar. Most nations in most wars have no option save to engage an adversary confronting them in the field. The Anglo-Americans, by contrast, were quarantined from their enemies by eminently serviceable expanses of water, which conferred freedom of choice about where and when to join battle. This privilege was exercised wisely, from the viewpoint of the two nations. The lives of their young men were diligently husbanded. But such self-interested behaviour, almost as ruthless as Moscow’s own, was bound to incur Russian anger.
The Allied invasion of French colonial Africa provoked a political crisis. By chance, Adm. Jean Darlan, Vichy vice president and foreign minister, was in Algiers when the Americans arrived. He assumed command of French forces which, to the surprise and dismay of U.S. commanders, resisted their would-be liberators with considerable energy, inflicting some 1,400 American casualties. There was then a negotiation, however, which caused Darlan to order his troops to lay down their arms, saving many more American lives. He was rewarded by Eisenhower, Allied supreme commander of Torch, with recognition as France’s high commissioner and de facto ruler of North Africa. The British, unconsulted, were stunned. Darlan had collaborated enthusiastically with the Germans since 1940. It had seemed plausible that he might lead the French navy against Britain—de Gaulle thought so. “La France ne marchera pas,”679 he told Churchill, “mais la flotte—peut-être;” “France will not march [on Britain]. But the fleet—perhaps.” Now, Darlan’s betrayal of Vichy demonstrated his moral bankruptcy. In his new role, he rejected requests for the liberation of Free French prisoners in North African jails, and indeed treated such captives with considerable brutality. Many exiled Frenchmen missed a great opportunity in November 1942 to sink their differences and throw themselves wholeheartedly into the struggle against the Axis. A British senior officer wrote aggrievedly: “Although the French hate the Germans680, they hate us more.” De Gaulle, Britain’s anointed representative of “Fighting France,” was, of course, outraged by the Darlan appointment, as was Eden. The Foreign Office had supported its lofty French standardbearer through many outbursts of Churchillian exasperation, and in the face of implacable American hostility.
Throughout Churchill’s life, he displayed a fierce commitment to France. He cherished a belief in its greatness which contrasted with American contempt. Roosevelt perceived France as a decadent imperial power which had lacked British resolution in 1940. Entirely mistakenly, given the stormy relationship between de Gaulle and Churchill, the president thought the general a British puppet. He was determined to frustrate any attempt to elevate de Gaulle to power when the Allies liberated France. The Americans had none of the visceral hatred for Vichy that prevailed in London. Since 1940 they had sustained diplomatic relations with Pétain’s regime, which in their eyes retained significant legitimacy. Here was a further manifestation of British sensitivities born of suffering and proximity, while the United States displayed a detachment rooted in comfortable inviolability.
In November 1942, British political and public opinion reacted violently to Darlan’s appointment. Just as the country was denied knowledge of Stalin’s excesses, so it had been told nothing of de Gaulle’s intransigence. British people knew only that the general was a patriot who had chosen honourable exile in London, while Darlan was a notorious Anglophobe and lackey of the Nazis. When Churchill addressed a secret session of the Commons about the North African crisis on December 10, the mood of MPs was angry and uncomprehending. In private, since Darlan’s appointment on November 8, Churchill had wavered. He disliked the admiral intensely. But he was also weary of de Gaulle’s tantrums. He deemed the solidarity of the Anglo-American alliance to transcend all other considerations. He spoke to the House with remarkable frankness—such frankness, indeed, that after the war much of what he said was omitted from the published record of his speeches to the Commons’ secret sessions.
“In war,681” he said, “it is not always possible to have everything go exactly as one likes. In working with Allies it sometimes happens that they develop opinions of their own … I cannot feel that de Gaulle is France, still less that Darlan and Vichy are France. France is something greater, more complex, more formidable than any of the sectional manifestations … The House must not be left to believe that General de Gaulle is an unfaltering friend of Britain. On the contrary, I think he is one of those good Frenchmen who have a traditional antagonism ingrained in French hearts by centuries of war against the English … I could not recommend you to base all your hopes and confidence upon him.”
He went on to explain to the Commons that Gen. Henri Giraud, whom the Americans thought a more suitable prospective national leader than de Gaulle, had been smuggled out of France by the Allies with the explicit intention that he should assume authority in North Africa. This purpose was confounded only when Giraud was rebuffed by senior French officers on the spot. Averell Harriman wrote: “I have always deemed it tragic that the British682 picked De Gaulle and even more tragic that we picked Giraud.” On December 10 MPs, perhaps impressed by how fully Churchill confided in them, were placated by his arguments. In private, the British government redoubled its efforts to get Darlan removed from office. The Americans rejected London’s proposal—an implausible one—that Harold Macmillan, British resident minister in the Mediterranean, should assume temporary authority in Algiers. Anglo-American relations were still steeped in acrimony on this issue when it was unexpectedly resolved. On December 24, a young French royalist burst into Darlan’s office at the Summer Palace and shot him dead.
Responsibility for the assassination remains one of the last significant mysteries of the Second World War. The immediate perpetrator, one Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle, was hurried before a firing squad two days later. Oliver Harvey, Eden’s private secretary, expressed most undiplomatic dismay about the execution: “It shows how wrong you get if once you compromise with evil683. You find yourself shooting a good man for doing what you should have done yourself.” It was a relief to almost everyone else, however, that Bonnier de la Chapelle was extinguished without revealing details of his plot. That there was a plot is certain. A priest granted Bonnier de la Chapelle absolution for his action before he walked into the Summer Palace, and modern conspiracy theorists have not failed to notice that Brigadier Menzies, chief of the SIS, was in Algiers on Christmas Eve. The historian David Reynolds believes that the British684 were implicated. The most likely explanation, however, is that the killer was incited by a Free French group. Though there is no evidence of de Gaulle’s personal complicity, the ruthless behaviour of his London organisation between 1940 and 1944 makes this credible.
While Darlan’s murder was ugly, it lifted a heavy shadow from Anglo-American relations. General Giraud was installed in Darlan’s place. After tortured negotiations between Churchill, Eden and de Gaulle in London, the two Frenchmen achieved a grudging and distant accommodation. Macmillan’s attitude reflected that of many British politicians and diplomats: “One comes away, as always after conversations with De Gaulle685, wondering whether he is a demagogue or a madman, but convinced that he is a more powerful character than any other Frenchman with whom one has yet been in contact.” This widely shared view caused most British politicians and diplomats to conclude that de Gaulle must continue to be supported. Churchill kicked against such realism, demanding with extravagant verbosity that the general should be dumped. At the last, however, he sulkily acquiesced. De Gaulle remained recognised by London, though not by Washington, as the principal representative of France in exile.
On November 29, 1942, Churchill minuted the Chiefs of Staff: “I certainly think that we should make all plans to attack the French coast either in the Channel or in the Bay of Biscay, and that 12 July 1943 should be fixed as the target date.” Throughout this period, he pressed Roosevelt repeatedly to expedite the U.S. buildup in Europe so that the invasion of France could take place in 1943. Astonishingly or even perversely, given his almost unflagging enthusiasm for attacking the supposed “soft underbelly” of the Axis, on December 1 Churchill wrote to Brooke: “It may be that we should close down the Mediterranean activities by the end of June with a view to Round-Up in August.” The U.S. Chiefs of Staff were wholly justified in their belief that their British counterparts were unwilling to execute a 1943 cross-Channel attack. But they did an injustice to Churchill in supposing that he, too, had at this stage closed his mind. In the course of the next year, he vacillated repeatedly.
Marshall and his colleagues also underrated the professional skill and judgement of Brooke and his team. American practise was founded upon an expectation that means could always be found to fulfil chosen national objectives. Thus, Roosevelt’s Chiefs of Staff decided upon a purpose, then addressed the practical problems of fulfilling it. The British Chiefs, by contrast, forever struggling against straitened resources, declined to endorse any course of action unless they could see how it was to be executed. Such caution irked Churchill as much as the Americans: “I do not want any of your own long-term projects,”686 he often expostulated to Brooke, shaking his fist in the CIGS’s face. “All they do is cripple initiative.”
In December 1942, it seemed to Britain’s service chiefs that it would be impossible to mass sufficient landing craft to support a D-Day in 1943. Pressure on shipping was unrelenting in every theatre. In addition, there were never enough troops. British relations with the Australian government were further strained in December by Canberra’s insistence that 9th Australian Division should return home from North Africa, even though the threat of a Japanese invasion of Australia had been lifted. Churchill cabled Curtin, the Australian prime minister, that he did not consider this decision “in accordance with the general strategic interests of the United Nations,” but Canberra remained implacable. Curtin’s enthusiasm for leaving his men to fight at British discretion cannot have been enhanced by news that, while only 6 percent of the Allied troops at El Alamein were Australian, they suffered 14 percent of Montgomery’s casualties in the battle.
And now the two North African campaigns faltered. The Allies were confounded by Hitler’s decision to reinforce the theatre. While this was strategically foolish, it rendered much more difficult the immediate task of the British and U.S. armies. American commanders and troops lacked experience. Though the Allies had numerical superiority in men, tanks and aircraft, the Germans fought with their usual skill and persistence. Alexander was famous for his courtesy and charm in addressing the Americans, but in private he railed at their military incompetence.
His reservations about Eisenhower’s soldiers were just, but it ill-became a British officer to express them. The British contingent in Ike’s forces, designated as First Army, was led by Gen. Sir Kenneth Anderson. Anderson proved yet another in the long line of his nation’s inadequate field commanders—“not much good,”687 in Brooke’s succinct words of dismissal. Operations in Tunisia dispelled any notion that First Army’s men were entitled to patronise their U.S. counterparts. Eisenhower was more willing than most of his countrymen to hide frustrations about Allied shortcomings, but he wrote in his diary on January 5, 1943: “Conversations with the British grow wearisome688. They’re difficult to talk to, apparently afraid that someone is trying to tell them what to do and how to do it. Their practice of war is dilatory.” A few days later, he added: “British, as usual, are scared someone will take advantage of them even if we furnish everything.” In another entry, he described the British as “stiff-necked.” Richard Crossman of Britain’s Political Warfare Executive thought that “getting on with Americans is frightfully easy689, if only one will talk quite frankly and not give the appearance of being too clever, but v[ery] few English seem to have achieved it.” In North Africa, they were less than impressed by Eisenhower. Though Churchill’s scepticism was later modified by necessity and experience, that winter he was sufficiently irritated by the general’s perceived blunders to evade fulfilment of Ike’s request for a signed photograph of himself.
At the beginning of December, the prime minister sketched a design for 1943 based upon his expectation that Tunisia would be occupied by the year’s end, and North Africa cleared of Axis forces a month later. By Christmas, this timetable was wrecked. Eighth Army’s westward advance against Rommel progressed much more slowly than Churchill had hoped in early November. The Russian convoy programme was further dislocated by the need to keep large naval forces in the Mediterranean. The British joint planners, unambitious as ever, favoured making Sardinia the Allies’ next objective. The prime minister dismissed this notion, urging that Sicily was a much worthier target. But he had begun to perceive that a 1943 D-Day in France was implausible.
Churchill now wanted a conference of the “Big Three,” to settle strategy. He loved summits, a coinage which he invented, not least because he believed that the force of his own personality could accomplish ends more impressive than his nation’s real strength could deliver, in its fourth year of war. But Stalin declined a proposal to meet in Khartoum, saying that he could not leave Moscow. Roosevelt was often less enthusiastic than Churchill about personal encounters. Just as the prime minister hoped for disproportionate results from these, to the advantage of his own country, so the president knew that the wealth and might of the United States spoke more decisively than any words which he might utter at a faraway conference table. But he liked the idea of visiting this theatre of war, and accepted Churchill’s proposal for a meeting to be held in liberated Casablanca, on the Atlantic coast of North Africa.
The prime minister arrived in the Liberator Commando on January 12, 1943. His identification for security purposes as “Air Commodore Frankland” seemed absurd from the moment he landed at Casablanca, where he was greeted by a glittering array of brass. Ismay muttered: “Any fool can see that is an air commodore disguised as the Prime Minister.” The “air commodore” was then driven to his appointed residence, the Villa Mirador, inside the closely guarded perimeter where the conference was to be held. He cabled Attlee: “Conditions most agreeable. I wish I could say the same of the problems.”
The American service chiefs flew from Washington to Bathurst, in west Africa, where George Marshall was persuaded to disembark in a beekeeper’s hood, to ward off mosquitoes. This was abandoned when the chief of the army found the welcoming party clad only in shorts. The Americans flew on to Casablanca with a lavish inventory of tents, cooking equipment and trinkets suitable for Arabs, lest they should be forced down in the desert, together with snowshoes and cold weather clothing for a possible onward trip to Moscow. The British had their own embarrassments. They felt humiliated by their makeshift air transports, which obliged exalted passengers to disembark dirty and dishevelled from the bomb bays. Roosevelt reached Casablanca on January 14, and was installed in a villa close to that of the prime minister. Churchill greeted him exuberantly. The two great men talked, while their Chiefs of Staff embarked upon the bruising process of seeking an agreement which the president and prime minister could then be invited to endorse.
The Casablanca conference was the most important Anglo-American strategic meeting of the war, because it established the framework for most of the big things which were done thereafter. It represented the high point of British wartime influence, because it took place at a time when projected operations still depended on preponderantly British forces. Its deliberations were warmed by victories in Africa, and knowledge of looming Russian triumph at Stalingrad. At El Alamein, to some degree, the British Army had retrieved its fallen reputation. Churchill answered a question from correspondents about Eighth Army’s pursuit of Rommel: “I can give you this assurance—everywhere that Mary went the lamb is sure to go.” British staffwork for the conference was superb, aided by the presence offshore of a purpose-equipped command ship.
However powerful were the reservations of British service chiefs about their prime minister’s strategic wisdom, an intimate working relationship ensured that they knew exactly what he wanted. By contrast, even after thirteen months of war the U.S. president was “still something of an enigma690 to his American advisers,” in the words of Marshall’s authorised biographer. “… Roosevelt imposed no unified plan.” His military chiefs “still had twinges of doubt about Roosevelt’s lack of administrative order, his failure to keep the Chiefs of Staff informed of private high-level discussions, and his tendency to ignore War Department advice in favour of suggestions from officials of other departments.” Marshall knew from the outset that he would lose his battle for a 1943 cross-Channel attack. In advance of the summit, Roosevelt had displayed his customary opacity. However, he threw out enough hints to show that he, like the British, favoured the capture of Sicily. Adm. Ernest King, for the U.S. Navy, was overwhelmingly preoccupied with the Pacific campaign. Quite uncharacteristically, the chief of staff of the army was blustering in suggesting that an early invasion of France remained plausible.
In the Combined Chiefs’ conference room at the Anfa Hotel, Alan Brooke echoed Churchill’s recent protests to Roosevelt about the scale of the American Pacific buildup, which, said the British CIGS, threatened the agreed principle of “Germany first.” The British thus wrong-footed Marshall, by pressing him to justify the weight of resources committed to the Japanese war, to the detriment of Europe. This was a telling counter against American arguments that the British were prevaricating. Brooke then argued—implausibly in the eyes of history, and even in the context of January 1943—that a massive combined bomber offensive against Germany, together with home-grown Resistance movements among the peoples of occupied Europe, might relegate an invasion of France to a mere mopping-up operation. The Americans pressed the British for early offensive action in Burma, to assist the cause of China. This was perceived as a vital priority in Washington, a negligible one in London.
British politicians and generals had thus far found little to enjoy about the Second World War. But many of those at Casablanca—with the exception of Brooke, who seldom relished anything about the conflict—found the conference congenial. Harold Macmillan described “a general atmosphere of extraordinary goodwill.”691 The weather was still cool, but flowers bloomed everywhere amid the palm trees and bougainvillea. Notice boards gave details of meeting venues and timings, then, “when we got out of school at five o’clock, you would see field marshals and admirals going down to the beach to play with the pebbles and make sand castles … The whole spirit of the camp was dominated by the knowledge that two men were there who rarely appeared in public, but whose presence behind the scenes was always felt … It was rather like a meeting of the later period of the Roman empire … There was a curious mixture of holiday and business in these extraordinarily oriental and fascinating surroundings … The whole affair was a mixture between a cruise, a summer school and a conference.”
Churchill, in the sunniest of moods in this sunny clime, wrote to Clementine on January 15 about the Chiefs of Staff’s deliberations: “At present they are working on what is called ‘off the record,’692 and very rightly approaching the problems in an easy and non-committal fashion on both sides.” This reflected a wildly benign view. While courtesies were maintained, especially at social encounters, the first two days of conference sessions were tense and strained. Marshall asserted repeatedly that if the British were as serious as they professed about helping the Russians, they could only do this by executing Roundup, a landing in Europe in 1943. The British emphasised their principled support for Roundup, but insisted that resources were lacking to undertake such a commitment.
There was a punishing schedule for Symbol, as the conference was code-named. The Combined Chiefs of Staff held thirty-one meetings in eleven days. At later conferences in Quebec and elsewhere, some closed sessions took place, without the usual congregation of staff officers in attendance, to allow a degree of frankness and indeed rudeness between the principals in breaking deadlocks. Ian Jacob was always conscious of American reservations about Brooke: “I think CIGS’s extremely definite views693, ultra-swift speech and, at times, impatience, made them keep wondering whether he was not putting something over on them.”
Moran wrote of Brooke “throwing down his facts in the path of understanding with a brusque gesture. In his opinion it was just common sense; he had thought it all out. Not for a moment did it occur to him that there might be another point of view.” At Casablanca Admiral King’s temper, and passionate Anglophobia, periodically broke out. During one meeting, he asserted that American public opinion would never stand for certain courses. Brooke shrugged, and said, “Then you will have to educate them.”694King, nettled, responded: “I thank you [to remember that] the Americans are as well educated as the British.”
Churchill and Roosevelt attended only the conference plenary sessions, which took place in the evenings at the president’s villa. Churchill wrote to Attlee about Roosevelt: “He is in great form and we have never been so close.” Harold Macmillan observed that the prime minister handled the plenary meetings “with consummate skill.”695 Away from the big table, “his curious regime of spending the greater part of the day in bed and all the night up made it a little trying for his staff. I have never seen him in better form. He ate and drank enormously all the time, settled huge problems, played bagatelle and bezique by the hour, and generally enjoyed himself.” Churchill was dismayed that the British Chiefs intended that a descent on Sicily should take place in September. This, he said, was much too late. While he did not accept the feasibility of a 1943 landing in France, he nonetheless wanted an alternative major Allied initiative by summer.
De Gaulle arrived, sulking, to meet Giraud. Churchill marvelled at his intransigence: “The PM stood in the hall watching the Frenchman696 stalking down the garden path with his head in the air,” wrote his doctor, Charles Wilson. “Winston turned to us with a whimsical smile: ‘His country has given up fighting, he himself is a refugee, and if we turn him down he’s finished. Well, just look at him!’ he repeated. ‘He might be Stalin, with 200 divisions behind his words. I was pretty rough with him. I made it quite plain that if he could not be more helpful we were done with it … He hardly seemed interested. My advances and my threats met with no response.” Tears came to Churchill’s eyes as he said: “England’s grievous offence in de Gaulle’s eyes is that she has helped France. He cannot bear to think that she needed help. He will not relax his vigilance in guarding her honour for a single instant.”
If the British were enjoying themselves at Casablanca, most of the Americans were not. Ian Jacob wrote disdainfully: “Being naturally extremely gullible697, the Americans calmly repeat any hare-brained report they hear.” John Kennedy wrote of their senior officers: “We feel that the Americans have great drive698 and bigger ideas than ours, but that they are weak in staff work and in some of their strategic conceptions. The Americans are extremely difficult to know. Under their hearty and friendly manner one feels there is suspicion and contempt in varying degrees according to personality.” This was so. A biographer of Eisenhower has written: “Many American officers found their British opposite numbers699 to be insufferable not only in their arrogance but in their timidity about striking the enemy.” One of Ike’s divisional commanders, Maj. Gen. Orlando Ward, wrote in disgust that Americans in North Africa found themselves reduced to the status of “a pointer pup … If someone with a red mustache700, a swagger stick and a British accent speaks to us, we lie down on the ground and wiggle.”
Harriman was dismayed by the eagerness of the U.S. Chiefs of Staff, when in exclusively American company, to badmouth the British. In their hearts, he thought, Marshall and his colleagues recognised the intractability of mounting a cross-Channel attack in 1943 as surely as did the prime minister and Brooke. But, in Jacob’s words, “they viewed the Mediterranean as a kind of dark hole701, which one entered into at one’s peril. If large forces were committed … the door would suddenly and firmly be shut behind one.” They still seemed obsessed, in the eyes of the British Chiefs, with fears that the Germans might intervene in North Africa through Spain. They deplored the sensation that the British, and explicitly Churchill, were exerting greater influence upon their president’s decisions than themselves.
The strategic deadlock was broken, in the end, by a combination of harsh realities and skilful diplomacy, in which Dill played a key role. In January 1943, the Americans had 150,000 troops in the Mediterranean theatre. The British in the region fielded three times as many soldiers, four times as many warships and almost as many aircraft as the United States. Once the North African campaign was wound up, formations immediately available for follow-up operations—located both in Britain and the Mediterranean—would comprise four French divisions, nine American—and twenty-seven British. Churchill’s own soldiers, sailors and airmen continued to predominate in the conflict with Germany, albeit employing an increasing proportion of U.S. tanks and equipment. Until this balance of forces shifted dramatically in 1944, British wishes were almost bound to prevail. When Brooke grew close to despair at one point in the discussions, on January 18, during a lunchtime break, Dill first told him that agreement was closer than he supposed. Then he warned that if this could not be achieved between the Chiefs, Churchill and Roosevelt must be invited to arbitrate, which neither British nor American commanders wanted: “You know what a mess they would make of it!”702
That same afternoon, the major differences were resolved. The British formally endorsed American commitments for the Pacific, and promised to launch an offensive in Burma after the monsoon. The two nations committed themselves to a massive air programme against Germany, the Combined Bomber Offensive, to create conditions for a successful invasion of France in 1944. They agreed to invade Sicily in the summer of 1943, and left further follow-up operations against Italy to be decided in the course of events. A face-saving sop was agreed to about a cross-Channel attack: if resources and landing craft proved available, there should be a major operation to seize a bridgehead in France in August 1943. It is unlikely that anyone present anticipated fulfilment of this condition, but lip service continued to be paid to it for months ahead, not least in cables to Stalin. Churchill and Roosevelt added a few token points of their own for the Combined Chiefs’ formal endorsement. They reasserted the importance of convoys to Russia and aid to China; the Combined Chiefs of Staff were urged to try for a Sicilian landing as early as June; and the need was emphasised to hasten concentration of forces in Britain for an invasion of France.
Roosevelt thanked Dill for his role in brokering an Anglo-American deal. The British officer responded: “My object is to serve my country703 and to serve yours. I hope and I believe that our interests are identical and in every problem that arises I try to look at it not as a British or an American problem, but as an Anglo-American problem.” Yet Dill, customarily much more temperate than Brooke in his judgements on all things American, later wrote to the CIGS about the president: “The better I get to know that man704 the more selfish and superficial I think him … of course, it is my job to make the most and the best of him.”
The London Times adopted a complacent view of the status of Britain’s leader at the Casablanca conference, news of which was given to the public only after the principals departed: “Mr. Churchill … takes his place at the President’s side705 with equal and complementary authority. The light now beginning to break wherever allied forces are engaged shows his stature enhanced by the deep shadows through which his country has passed.” There was a deceitful assertion in the newspaper’s report that de Gaulle and Giraud “have come together in the utmost cordiality.”
Churchill perceived Casablanca as a great success. He was charmed by Roosevelt’s geniality, though Harriman claimed that he was distressed by the president’s announcement to the press at the close of the conference that the Allies would insist upon the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers: “He was offended that Roosevelt706 should have made such a momentous announcement without prior consultation and I am sure he did not like the manner of it. I had seen him unhappy with Roosevelt more than once, but this time he was more deeply offended than before. I also had the impression that he feared it might make the Germans fight all the harder.” These remarks have bewildered historians. In reality, the president had discussed unconditional surrender with Churchill before his announcement. The prime minister, in his turn, signalled prior warning to the War Cabinet in London.
If he was indeed irritated with Roosevelt, it was probably a matter of emphasis. There could be no possible negotiation with the Nazi regime, but Churchill might have liked to leave a margin of hope in the minds of prospective German anti-Nazis that their nation could expect some mercy if Hitler was deposed. Just before Pearl Harbor, in November 1941, Churchill reminded the Cabinet that, when Russia was invaded, “we had made a public statement707 that we would not negotiate with Hitler or with the Nazi regime.” He added that he thought “it would be going too far to say that we should not negotiate with a Germany controlled by the Army. It was impossible to forecast what form of Government there might be in Germany at a time when their resistance weakened and they wished to negotiate.” It is likely that in January 1943 his view had not changed much about the desirability of a constructive vagueness in the Allies’ public position towards non-Nazi Germans, even following the vast accession of American strength, and the transformation of the war.
At Casablanca, Harriman told the president of Churchill’s apparent distress about unconditional surrender. Roosevelt seemed unmoved. Likewise, at dinner with the prime minister, he mused aloud about independence for Morocco, compulsory education, fighting disease and other social crusades. Churchill displayed impatience. Harriman believed that Roosevelt talked as he did for the fun of provoking the old British Tory. “He always enjoyed other people’s discomfort,”708 wrote the U.S. diplomat. “It never bothered him very much when other people were unhappy.” As at all their encounters, Churchill strove to create opportunities for tête-à-tête conversations with the president, but found it increasingly difficult to catch him alone. Roosevelt had grown wary of Churchill’s special pleadings, impatient of his monologues, and was probably also mindful of Marshall’s resentment about any strategic discussion from which the chief of staff of the army was absent.
In the months that followed Casablanca, such disaffected figures as Albert Wedemeyer made no secret of their anger at the manner in which a strategy had been approved by their president against the wishes of U.S. armed forces chiefs. They believed that British enthusiasm for Mediterranean operations was driven by imperialistic rather than military considerations. This remained their view through the ensuing two years. Such sentiments became known in Congress and the media, and were responsible for much cross-Atlantic ill temper. But Marshall, with notable statesmanship, acknowledged the decisions graciously. He strove against the anti-British sentiment widespread among America’s soldiers, and wrote to the army’s public relations chief shortly after Casablanca, urging him to counter the “insidious business of stirring up ill-feeling between the British and us.”
The conference broke up with fervent expressions of goodwill on all sides. The prime minister and president drove for four hours to Marrakesh, where they installed themselves at the Villa Taylor. That evening, as the sun was setting amid the snowclad Atlas Mountains, Churchill climbed to the roof to savour the scene, which had much moved him on a peacetime visit six years earlier. Now, he insisted that the president must share the experience. Two servants locked hands to form a chair on which the president was carried up the winding stairs, “his paralysed legs dangling like the limbs of a ventriloquist’s dummy,” as Charles Moran noted cruelly. The prime minister murmured: “It’s the most lovely spot in the whole world.”
It seems open to doubt whether Roosevelt gained equal pleasure from an experience which emphasised his own incapacity. Churchill could be notably insensitive to the vulnerabilities of others. Amid delight about winning his battle for the Italian commitment at Casablanca, he allowed himself to express an enthusiasm for Britain’s ally which few of Roosevelt’s conference team would have reciprocated: “I love these Americans,” he told his doctor, “they behave so generously.” Yet never again would his enthusiasm be so unqualified. If there had been a period of real intimacy between America’s president and Britain’s prime minister in 1941–42, when Roosevelt in some measure deferred to Churchill’s experience of war, thereafter their relationship became steadily more distant. Mutual courtesies and affectionate rhetoric were sustained. But perceptions of national interest diverged with increasing explicitness.
Before the two leaders parted, they dispatched a joint cable to Moscow, outlining the conference decisions. “Whatever we decided to undertake in 1943709 would have to be represented to Stalin as something very big,” wrote Ian Jacob. The Soviet warlord was now told that there would be a landing in Europe “as soon as practicable.” Neither leader supposed, however, that their studied vagueness would fool Moscow. “Nothing in the world will be accepted by Stalin as an alternative to our placing 50 or 60 divisions in France by the spring of this year,” observed Churchill. “I think he will be disappointed and furious.” The prime minister was correct. To Marshal Georgy Zhukov, by now his most trusted commander, Stalin vented anger about the inadequacy of aid from the Western Allies: “Hundreds of thousands of Soviet people710 are giving their lives in the struggle against fascism, and Churchill is haggling with us about two dozen Hurricanes. And anyway those Hurricanes are crap—our pilots think nothing of them.”
There was one important aspect of the Casablanca conference, and indeed of Allied strategy-making for the rest of the war, which was never expressly articulated by Western leaders, and is still seldom acknowledged by historians. The Americans and British flattered themselves that they were shaping policies which would bring about the destruction of Nazism. Yet in truth, every option they considered and every operation they subsequently executed remained subordinate to the struggle on the Eastern Front. The Western Allies never became responsible for the defeat of Germany’s main armies. They merely assisted the Russians to accomplish this. For all the enthusiasm of George Marshall and his colleagues to invade Europe, it remains impossible to believe that the United States would have been any more willing than was Britain to accept millions of casualties to fulfil the attritional role of the Red Army at Stalingrad, Kursk, and in a hundred lesser bloodbaths between 1942 and 1945. The U.S. Army never attained a strength that would have enabled it to meet the main strength of the Wehrmacht in France or anywhere else, irrespective of the date chosen for D-Day. Roosevelt and Churchill enjoyed the satisfaction of occupying higher moral ground than Stalin. At Casablanca, they decided Anglo-American strategy. However, historians who claim that the president and prime minister “charted the course to victory” use grossly inflationary phrases. Stalin and his commanders did that.
Roosevelt took off for home on January 25. Churchill lingered, and in those surroundings which he loved created his only painting of the war, a view of the Atlas Mountains. Then he embarked upon one of his most energetic rounds of wartime travelling, which pleased chiefly himself. Brooke was obliged to cancel a cherished scheme for two days’ sightseeing and a Moroccan partridge shoot, to accompany his master to Turkey. The Cabinet opposed this expedition, which ministers considered futile. Churchill overruled them, hankering to revive his grand design, which had foundered in 1941, to raise the Balkans against Hitler. He also rejoiced in the exhilaration of touring the Mediterranean as a victorious warlord after the humiliations and frustrations of earlier years.
Having arrived at the Cairo embassy early on January 26, he recoiled from the ambassadress’s offer of breakfast tea, demanding instead white wine. Brooke described the scene with fastidious amazement: “A tumbler was brought711 which he drained in one go, and then licked his lips, turned to Jacqueline [Lampson] and said: ‘Ah! that is good, but you know, I have already had two whiskies and soda and 2 cigars this morning!!’ It was then only shortly after 7.30 am. We had travelled all night in poor comfort, covering some 2300 miles in a flight of over 11 hours, a proportion of which was at over 11,000 ft., and there he was, as fresh as paint, drinking wine on top of two previous whiskies and 2 cigars!!” In Cairo, Churchill held significant conversations with his former historical researcher, the Oxford don William Deakin, now an SOE officer handling Yugoslavia. Deakin described the modest help being dispatched to the royalist Gen. Draža Mihajlović and his Cetnik guerrillas. He briefed the prime minister for the first time about the significance of Josip Broz, “Tito,” who led a rapidly growing force of some 20,000 insurgents whom SOE believed to be less Communist than they appeared. Deakin’s views were supported by Ultra intercepts, already known to Churchill, revealing German belief that the Communists represented a much more substantial military threat than the Cetniks.
The prime minister endorsed approaches to Tito, and Deakin himself was soon parachuted to the Croat leader’s headquarters. Unbeknown to the British, the partisan chief spent the spring of 1943 parleying with the Germans about a possible truce that would free his forces to destroy Mihajlović. Nazi intransigence, however, obliged the partisans to fight the Axis. The British, and especially officers of SOE, were guilty of persistent delusions about Tito’s politics. But they were right about one big thing: Hitler’s determination to defend Yugoslavia and its mineral resources caused him to deploy large forces in a country well suited to guerrilla operations. There, as nowhere else in occupied Europe outside Russian territory, internal resistance achieved a significant strategic impact.
The military contingent in Churchill’s party set off for neutral Turkey clad in borrowed and absurdly ill-fitting civilian clothes. Their visit to President Ismet Inonu on January 30 was no more successful than the Cabinet had anticipated. The Turks were full of charm and protestations of goodwill. Always fearful of Stalin, they valued British good offices to dissuade the Russians from aggression on their northern border. In the stuffy railway carriage in which the two sides met, the British were half embarrassed and half impressed by Churchill’s insistence on addressing the Ankara delegation in his fluent but incomprehensible French. It would have made no difference had he spoken in Chinese. The Turks were uninterested in joining the war. Why should they have done so? It might be true that the Allies now looked like winners. But, since the Anglo-Americans had no designs on Turkey, it was surely prudent for that impoverished nation to maintain its neutrality. Brooke fretted about the security risks to the prime minister on an ill-guarded train in the middle of nowhere. Local rumour had broadcast news of the visit far and wide. The CIGS searched out Churchill’s detective, whom he discovered eating a hearty supper in the dining car: “I told him that the security arrangements were very poor712 and that he and his assistant must make a point of occasionally patrolling round Winston’s sleeper through the night. He replied in an insolent manner: ‘Am I expected to work all night as well as all day?’ I then told him that he had travelled in identical comfort with the rest of the party, and that I was certainly not aware that he had even started working that day.”
But the visit passed off safely until Churchill’s Liberator, taxiing out on his departure, bogged down on the runway at Adana. The prime minister made comic personal attempts to direct recovery operations, with much gesticulation to the Turks about the plane’s sunken wheel, before having recourse to a spare aircraft. Back in Cairo on February 1, he learned of the surrender of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Cabling to congratulate Stalin, he enthused about “a heavy operation across the Channel in August,” involving between seventeen and twenty British and U.S. divisions. The Russians could scarcely be blamed for adopting a cynical view of their allies when the prime minister sought to sustain this charade within days of settling an entirely different agenda at Casablanca. He flew on to Montgomery’s headquarters outside Tripoli. In a natural amphitheatre at Castel Benito, he addressed soldiers of Eighth Army. “After the war,” he said, “when a man is asked what he did it will be quite sufficient to say ‘I marched and fought in the Desert Army.’ And when history is written … your feats will gleam and glow and will be a source of song and story long after we who are gathered here have passed away.” With tears in his eyes, he took the salute as 51st Highland Division, led by its bagpipers, passed in review before him through the streets of Tripoli. He visited the 2nd New Zealand Division and eulogised Freyberg, its commander.
In Algiers, on February 6, he told former Vichyite military leaders that “if they marched with us, we would not concern ourselves with past differences.”713 At last, the British were successful in achieving recognition for de Gaulle in North Africa. General Giraud was replaced as principal French authority by a National Committee of uneasily mingled Gaullists and Giraudists. American distaste for de Gaulle persisted. But Washington grudgingly acknowledged that the Free French, whose soldiers had been fighting the Axis powers while Vichy’s men collaborated with them, must be permitted some share in determining their nation’s future.
At this, the end of Churchill’s Mediterranean odyssey, he mused aloud about the possibility of his own death. Ian Jacob noted his remarks: “It would be a pity to have to go out in the middle714 of such an interesting drama without seeing the end. But it wouldn’t be a bad moment to leave—it is a straight run-in now, and even the cabinet could manage it.” His words were significant, for two reasons. First, he knew as well as any man how plausible it was that he should die on one of his wartime air journeys, as so many senior officers did. Two members of the Casablanca secretariat were killed when their plane was lost on the journey home, news which Brooke ordered to be temporarily withheld from Churchill when it came through on the eve of his own flight to Turkey. General Gott, the Polish general Wladyslaw Sikorski, Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Adm. Sir Bertram Ramsay, and Arthur Purvis, the head of Britain’s Washington purchasing mission, were only the most prominent figures killed on RAF wartime flights—interestingly, hardly any prominent USAAF passengers fell victim to similar misfortunes. Churchill observed, when a North African takeoff was delayed by magneto failure, that it was nice of the magneto to fail on the ground. So indeed it was.
He was right also to perceive that the most critical period of his leadership was at an end. Many dramas still lay ahead, but Britain no longer faced any danger of falling victim to Nazi tyranny. The course was set towards Allied victory. Back in London on February 11, 1943, making a Commons statement about Casablanca, he observed that Great Britain and the United States were formerly peaceful societies, ill-armed and unprepared. By contrast, “they are now warrior nations, walking in the fear715 of the Lord, very heavily armed, and with an increasingly clear view of their own salvation.” Mindful of the resurgent U-boat threat in the Atlantic, he stressed the sea as the principal area of danger. In response to a foolish question about what plans existed for preventing Germany from starting another war, he replied that this would provide fit food for thought, “which would acquire more precise importance when the present unpleasantness has been ended satisfactorily.”
It would be absurd to describe Churchill, in the early spring of 1943, as having become redundant. But after three years in which he had done many things which no other man could, he was no longer vital to Britain’s salvation. If in 1940–41 he had been his nation’s deliverer, in 1942–43 the Americans owed him a greater debt than they recognised, for persuading their president to adopt the Mediterranean strategy. His strategic judgement had been superior to that of America’s Chiefs of Staff. Hereafter, however, his vision became increasingly clouded and the influence of his country waned. For the rest of the war, Churchill would loom much larger in the Grand Alliance as a personality than as leader of its least powerful element. Henceforward, never far from the minds of both Roosevelt and Stalin was a form of the brutal question which Napoleon asked about the Pope: “How many divisions have the British?”