The Churchill Documents Normandy and Beyond: May–December 1944

Review by RAYMOND CALLAHAN

Larry P. Arnn and Martin Gilbert, eds., The Churchill Documents, Volume 20, Normandy and Beyond: May–December 1944, Hillsdale College Press, 2018, 2576, $60. ISBN 978-0916308384

This volume of the Churchill War Papers covers the climax of Britain’s war against Germany and its accelerating eclipse by an America whose war effort was peaking as an overstretched Britain began to decline. It shows Churchill fighting both to maintain Britain’s parity in the alliance and to preserve its power position in a post war world beginning to take shape as the Nazi empire collapsed. It was a doomed endeavor but a remarkable rearguard action.

The assault on Western Europe (“Overlord”) was the key Anglo-American military operation of 1944. The cross-channel attack had been George Marshall’s obsession since American entry into the war. The British had, of course, known as long ago as the dark days of 1940 that someday they would have to re-enter continental Europe. But, more realistic than the Americans about both the fighting power of the Wehrmacht and the problems of amphibious warfare in the English Channel, the British had no intention of doing so until they had weighed the scale as heavily as possible in their favor. This is what the “Mediterranean Strategy” devised by Churchill and Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir Alan Brooke (who, unlike Marshall, had faced the Wehrmacht in the field) was intended to do: engage the Germans where circumstances favored the allies, pull German strength from Western Europe (and Russia), erode it by steady attrition in battle, take Italy out of the war in the process (and by opening the Mediterranean, relieve the strain on allied shipping).

It worked—and, in the process, gave the British and American armies a seasoning in battle they certainly did not have in the summer of 1942 when Marshall first wanted to launch a cross-channel attack (using largely British and Canadian troops). Indeed in long retrospect it is hardly surprising that Brooke had no time for Marshall as strategist—he wasn’t one. British strategy set the stage for Overlord’s success—and, of course its naval/amphibious phase, “Neptune,” was overwhelmingly British, orchestrated by Admiral Sir Betram Ramsay, who had been the brilliant impresario of “Dynamo,” the Dunkirk evacuation, four years earlier. The papers show Churchill deeply immersed in the details, properly anxious (after all, the British were using the last shot in their manpower locker) but light years away from the caricature created by Alex von Tunzelman in the deplorable 2017 film Churchill. Overlord was as much a triumph for Churchill, Brooke, and British strategy as for Eisenhower, Marshall, and the US Army’s approach to war.

But, as we know, no good deed goes unpunished. The success of the Mediterranean strategy in 1942/43 left a complicated and difficult legacy for Churchill in 1944, one which fills more pages of this volume than Overlord itself. The bulk of the allied forces in Italy were British, Dominion (divisions from Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa), Imperial (four Indian Army divisions—including 4th Indian, one of the very best), or British controlled (a Polish corps, a dubiously reliable Greek brigade, and the Jewish brigade that Churchill had beaten down War Office obduracy to bring into being). Mark Clark’s US Fifth Army was a much smaller part of Allied Armies Italy (AAI) as was the very effective French Expeditionary Force (French officered North African troops). Churchill’s favorite general, the brave and glamorous Sir Harold Alexander (“Alex”) led this heterogeneous army to a smashing victory over Field Marshal Albert Kesserling’s well-handled German forces in a huge offensive, “Diadem,” that took Rome on the eve of D-Day and swept north toward Florence. Beyond that lay the Po Valley and the possibility of a turn northeast toward Vienna. Churchill, increasingly anxious to maintain British parity with the Americans, saw the British controlled Mediterranean theater as Britain’s most significant contribution to the endgame in Europe. He knew perfectly well that after Overlord’s assault phase the Americans would inevitably dominate the campaign in Northwest Europe. But over this scenario there loomed the growing shadow of Operation “Anvil.”

When first discussed at the Tehran Conference with Stalin in November 1943, Anvil (an invasion of Southern France) was to be launched simultaneously with Overlord, to force further dispersion of German strength as well as securing ports (Marseilles and Toulon) through which the reborn (through American finance and equipping) French Army could be brought from North Africa to Metropolitan France. Once named Overlord commanders, however, Eisenhower and Montgomery immediately insisted on revising and strengthening the assault plan. That meant postponing Anvil. By the time it was set to launch, it was August 1944. Eisenhower’s forces had broken out of the Normandy bridgehead and were streaming across northern France, which would force the rapid retreat of the German forces in southern France. Alex’s armies were driving for the last major German defense line in Northern Italy, the Gothic Line. To launch Anvil at this point would dramatically weaken Alex since American and French units, together with shipping and air support, would be switched westward to an operation that had lost nearly all its strategic rationale. Churchill fought relentlessly to stop this happening.

The documents track all of this in great detail making clear how important it was to the Prime Minister, how hard he fought to keep Alex’s drive co-equal with Overlord, and how furious he was with the Americans over their adamant determination that Anvil should be mounted despite the much altered situation. It now seems very clear that the American refusal even to discuss the issue reflected more than just an argument over strategy. The Americans were making it absolutely clear who was now in charge. Whether Alex’s armies could have reached the Po or even the Piave and then penetrated the “Ljubljana Gap” into Central Europe may well be questioned—and indeed has been in a very weighty judgment by Sir Michael Howard. What these documents demonstrate beyond question, however, is that Churchill wanted to give Alex the chance to do so; that the Americans refused to even consider it; and that American military arguments for their position, at seventy years remove, look very thin.

Similar frustration attended Churchill’s hoped-for British strategy in the war against Japan. Much time and energy was taken up in 1944 by an argument on this subject between Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff, which the documents meticulously track. The Chiefs of Staff wanted to make Britain’s effort in the Pacific either a Royal Navy task force sent to the Central Pacific command of Adm. Nimitz or an all-arms contribution to Gen. MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific command of American and Australian forces, or both. Churchill wanted to base British strategy on Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command, striking from the Indian base across the Bay of Bengal, aiming to retake Singapore “the supreme British objective in the whole Indian and Far Eastern theaters. It is the only prize that will restore British prestige in this region” (1338). Both positions were unrealistic. The Americans—especially the US Navy—did not need or want the British in “their” Pacific War. Nor had Churchill fully grasped how final the 1942 British collapse in South Asia was, although his preferred option did relate strategy to policy, which the British Chiefs of Staff position oddly failed to do. In the end, events took control. Both the competing strategies depended on the European war ending in 1944 to release men, ships, and aircraft for the Far East. When Eisenhower’s offensive stalled in the autumn of 1944, the British were left with the Burma campaign, which, as the documents show, Churchill wanted to shut down. The Wehrmacht’s last rally made Gen. Slim and his largely Indian XIV Army the major front for Britain in the war against Japan.

Set against these frustrations, the documents also track policies that were very much Churchill’s own and which in the face of every difficulty he pushed through to a successful conclusion. Greece is the prime example. It was clear from 1943 on that, when Germany was forced out of Greece, the communist dominated Greek resistance would attempt to block the return of the Royal Hellenic Government. It was equally clear that Churchill was determined that the Greek monarchy would return. And, defying his American allies, securing Russian support for his action, harrying the British commanders in Italy and Egypt to be ready to intervene in Greece the moment the Germans left, Churchill pulled it off, even if it took a dramatic personal appearance in Athens at Christmas in 1944 to seal matters. [See FH 180 “A Regency Fit for a King.”] The energy and drive he showed in carrying this off were remarkable for a seventy-year old man whose health had been giving his closest associates rising concern throughout 1944.

One of the most vivid impressions one carries away from this vast documentary collection is Churchill’s incredible resilience. However much Lord Moran, his doctor, Brooke, his principal sparring partner on matters of strategy, or concerned staff members like Jock Colville might note with anxiety the prime minister’s bouts of fatigue, fatigue induced unreasonableness and bad temper, and intervals of genuine illness, Winston Churchill’s incredible willpower sustained him as he fought not only for final victory, but a victory that would reaffirm Britain’s great power status. As we look back, we can see clearly that the tides of history were running strongly against him and the Empire he sought to preserve. But as these documents show in granular detail, he put up a magnificent fight!

Raymond Callahan is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Delaware.

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