Finest Hour 122, Spring 2004
BY SIR MARTIN GILBERT CBE
It was Roosevelt, not Churchill, who postponed, the Second Front for a full two years. In the long run-up to D-Day, Churchill was convinced that a cross-Channel landing was the way to Germany’s defeat.
From the moment that France was overrun by the German army in June 1940, Winston Churchill was convinced that Germany could only be driven out of its European conquests by an amphibious cross-Channel landing. The British army had been driven back across the Channel from Dunkirk. It would return across the Channel to reverse that defeat.
Determined to find a means of launching a cross-Channel attack, on 6 June 1940, only four days after the final evacuations from Dunkirk, Churchill instructed his defence staff to put forward “proposals for transporting and landing tanks on the beach, observing that we are supposed to have command of the sea, while the enemy have not.” On June 22nd, his mind still on a return to Europe, he wrote again to his defence staff: “We ought to have a corps of at least 5,000 parachute troops. I hear something is being done already to form such a corps, but only, I believe, on a small scale.”
That day the British War Cabinet approved Churchill’s proposal to establish the Special Operations Executive, known as SOE. Its purpose was sabotage, subversion, brief cross-Channel raids, and the creation of a secret force of agents behind the lines, ready for action whenever ordered. Churchill’s instruction for this new organization was set out in three words: “Set Europe Ablaze!” Clandestine guerrilla operations would assist the invading force when the moment came.
That moment was likely to be far off. Churchill knew that Britain’s resources by themselves would never be sufficient for a cross-Channel landing in sufficient force to use it as a springboard for the liberation of German-dominated Europe. Germany was too strong. Only if the United States, with its enormous potential manpower, air power and shipping resources, including landing craft, were to enter the war, would such a massive undertaking be possible. But America remained neutral throughout 1940 and 1941. Churchill bided his time, accepting the bitter pill of defeat in Greece and Crete, and many setbacks in North Africa.
In December 1941 Japan struck at Pearl Harbor. America was suddenly embroiled in the Pacific Ocean. But within a week of Pearl Harbor, which he thought ensured that the Americans would focus all their efforts on the Far East, Hitler declared war on the United States. This sealed his fate, and that of his regime, and made D-Day both possible and certain. Within a month of Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, Churchill travelled to Washington, where he secured an American commitment to the defeat of Germany in Europe before the defeat of Japan.
Within three months, the question of the actual date by which a cross-Channel landing would be possible was under active discussion between the British and American military, naval and air chiefs. Churchill hoped for a cross-Channel landing in the late summer of 1942. The massive German victories against Russia in the East made it essential to find a way to stop Russia being defeated, after which Germany would have considerable extra resources, including the oil of the Caucasus, to attempt an invasion of Britain.
Stalin was calling for a Second Front in the summer of 1942. His call was echoed in Britain by millions of people, chief among them Churchill’s friend and Cabinet colleague Lord Beaverbrook. The Express newspapers were at the cutting edge of the call for a cross-Channel assault that year. “Second Front Now!” was their call.
This was also Churchill’s wish. But neither Stalin’s needs nor Churchill’s wishes could be met. The blow came from the United States, which alone had the military manpower, and the air power, sufficient to enable any cross-Channel landing to take place.
It was Roosevelt, not Churchill, who postponed the Second Front for a full two years. On 2 March 1942 he informed Churchill, in strictest secrecy, that as a result of demands in the Pacific war zones, the American contribution to land operations on the continent of Europe in the summer of 1942, the earliest possible date for a cross-Channel assault, would be “materially reduced.” Landings that year would have to be abandoned.
Roosevelt also warned Churchill that the shipping then available to the United States would allow only 130,000 troops to be transported across the Atlantic by June 1942. Even with new American naval construction, only 170,000 troops could be brought across by June 1943, and 270,000 by December 1943. Roosevelt went on to tell Churchill that the earliest possible date by which the “troop-carrying capacity” of the United States could reach 400,000—the minimum figure then envisaged for a major amphibious landing—was June 1944.
Roosevelt’s telegram was a blow. But Churchill faced reality and began to make plans for the new date. In a memorandum of 26 May 1942, two months after Roosevelt had made it clear that success or failure would not come until 1944, Churchill wrote about the specifications of the floating piers that would be essential to unload supplies from the landing-ships once they had crossed the Channel: “They must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered. Let me have the best solution worked out. Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.”
Two concrete harbours, each the size of Dover Harbour, were designed and constructed in such a way that they could be assembled in Britain and then towed across the Channel, to be put in place on the French shore. At the same time, means were worked out to enable essential quantities of fuel oil to be put ashore from the first moments of the landings: to this end the Pipe Line Under the Ocean (PLUTO) was devised and made.
Stalin, extremely hard-pressed by Hitler’s armies for the second summer in succession, continued to demand a cross-Channel landing during the summer of 1942. Churchill discussed this appeal face to face with Roosevelt in New York on 20 June 1942. With the full backing of the British Chiefs of Staff, he told the President that “no responsible British military authority” could see any chance for a cross-Channel landing later that year. It became clear during these talks that it was lack of American resources that made any cross-Channel assault impossible that year. According to Roosevelt’s advisers, the United States could provide only 700 of the 5,700 combat aircraft then judged necessary to secure air mastery over the landing beaches. There was no way that Britain could make up the difference.
In August 1942 a predominantly Canadian cross-Channel raid took place against Dieppe. It was a small scale raid designed to secure technical and intelligence gains for the Allies. It went so badly, and casualties were so high, that it highlighted the problems that would be faced by the much larger assault needed to land on French soil, hold a bridgehead, and drive the German forces back to Paris, Brussels, and in due course the Rhine.
With Russia still in danger, and with Hitler’s troops besieging Leningrad and reaching the Volga, Churchill authorised plans to be made for a cross-Channel landing in 1943. But the unexpectedly strong German resistance to the British and American forces in Tunisia at the end of 1942 made it clear that the German powers of fighting an invading force were formidable. In the last months of 1942 Churchill was still seeking August or September 1943 as the date of the cross-Channel landing. At a Staff Conference on 16 December 1943, however, the three British Chiefs of Staff, headed by General Sir Alan Brooke, told him that it could not be done. The rate and scale of the American troop build-up in Britain, they insisted, was inadequate for the task.
The Americans were then focusing on the war in the Pacific, which was on a growing and massive scale. In strictest secrecy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, shortly to become head of Combined Operations, who had just returned from the United States, told Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff that, despite an agreement to the contrary, “the Americans were putting the good engines into their own landing-craft and fitting ours with the unsatisfactory type.”
Mountbatten also reported that many of the landing craft needed to transport the cross-Channel force were being diverted by the Americans to the Pacific. Thus Churchill learned that his hopes for a 1943 cross-Channel landing had been frustrated by the Americans.
The need to reach agreement on the date of the cross-Channel landing called for a further face-to-face meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill and their senior advisers. The meeting was held at Casablanca in January 1943, and set the summer of 1944 as the date of the cross-Channel assault, thereby re-instating Roosevelt’s original date. It was agreed that a total of 938,000 American troops would be assembled in Britain by the last day of 1943. This was more than twice as many as the number of troops as had been envisaged as necessary when the landings had been under discussion in early 1942. But by the beginning of 1943 the ability of the German army to fight and to resist had been made very clear indeed in Tunisia.
June 1944 was the earliest possible date from the military point of view. If the December 1943 date for the arrival of the last of the American troops in Britain could be adhered to, almost one million Americans would have five months intensive training before the landings. It was a massive challenge of organization and preparation. At the Quebec conference in August 1943, Churchill, Roosevelt and their Chiefs of Staff confirmed that the “primary” Anglo-American effort in 1944 would be the cross-Channel landing. Its aim would be not only to drive the Germans from northern France, but from there “to strike at the heart of Germany and destroy her military forces.”
At the end of 1943 Churchill was taken ill in North Africa. He went to recuperate at the Moroccan town of Marrakech, where he had spent an idyllic painting and writing holiday before the war. While he was at Marrakech two visitors came to see him: Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery. The two generals discussed their plans for the cross-Channel landings with Churchill, explaining to him how massive the assault would be. Four days later Churchill telegraphed to Stalin that everything was going “full blast” for “Overlord” (as the landings were code-named), and that Montgomery was “full of zeal to engage the enemy and of confidence in the result.”
In January 1944 Churchill sent one of Britain’s most inventive officers, Colonel John Bevan, to Moscow, together with his American opposite number, Colonel Baumer. They explained to Stalin the need for various Soviet military deceptions that were essential if “Overlord” was to succeed. These deceptions included a spurious Soviet amphibious landing on the Black Sea shore of Romania, and a bogus Soviet offensive against Northern Norway. Stalin agreed to play his part, thus ensuring that as many as twenty German divisions would be kept away from the “Overlord” front. He also agreed to postpone the Soviet summer offensive until after the D-Day landings, so that the Germans would not know how many men they must keep in readiness in the East.
The most ambitious deception was created in Britain itself: a totally spurious First United States Army Group (FUSAG), based in East Anglia, commanded by General Patton, larger than any other Anglo-American formation in Britain, supposedly planning to land in the Calais region, or on the Belgian and Dutch coasts, up to two hundred miles from Normandy. It was a bluff. Patton, one of Americas best commanders, commanded nothing but a vast deceptive apparatus: mock tanks, mock airstrips, mock training grounds, mock assembly points. But the Germans were fooled. The man they believed to be their top agent, Juan Pujol Garcia, kept sending them details about the FUSAG plans. He was in fact working for Britain, his reports to Berlin being the inventive creations of British Intelligence.
Throughout the spring of 1944 Churchill held regular meetings with Eisenhower and his Chief of Staff, General Bedell Smith. Together, the three men examined every aspect of the landing preparations, including the initial airborne assault, the naval bombardment, and air cover. Then, on May 24th, less than two weeks before the planned date for the landings, Churchill was told of a shortage of naval pumping equipment needed to raise the concrete sections of the artificial harbour. This was a last-minute setback of serious dimensions. He at once suggested calling on the pumping resources of the London Fire Brigade. This was done, and the crisis passed.
The last minute preparations were completed. Churchill was content to take a back seat as millions of men, hundreds of thousands of tons of supplies, and an armada of ships and aircraft were assembled: the fruition of long, careful, complex planning by experts and staffs. On 5 June 1944 Churchill telegraphed Stalin: “Tonight we go. We are using 5,000 ships and have available 11,000 aircraft.”
As the planes and ships made their way towards German-fortified coastline, Churchill’s worries were of the casualties. “Do you realise that by the time you wake up in the morning,” he told his wife during their final late-night vigil alone, “20,000 men may have been killed.” That was the number of British troops killed during the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916. The actual death toll on D-Day was 3,000. “We had expected to lose 10,000 men,” Churchill confided to Stalin. By midnight, 155,000 men were ashore.
The secret intelligence brought to Churchill each day made it clear that the Germans had been successfully deceived. They were convinced, even after the Normandy landings, that these were just a feint, and that the real landings would come later, against Holland and Belgium. Ten days after the Normandy landings, German intelligence was still reporting strong indications that the “real landing would be elsewhere.” Twenty days after the landings Field Marshal von Rundstedt believed that the First United States Army Group (FUSAG) remained the true threat. On June 26th, almost three weeks after D-Day, he concluded that FUSAG was ready to embark, and that it was even larger than Montgomery’s 21st Army Group then fighting in Normandy.
By nightfall on June 10th more than 325,000 Allied soldiers were ashore. Two days later Churchill visited the Normandy bridgehead. By July 3rd more than a million Allied troops were ashore, with more than 170,000 vehicles. More than 40,000 Germans had been taken prisoner. Still the German High Command expected the “main thrust” to come elsewhere, perhaps near the mouth of the Seine, or in Brittany. Churchill was shown the top-secret German messages to that effect. The Russians then launched their own offensive. “The enemy is burning and bleeding on every front at once,” Churchill telegraphed to Stalin, “and I agree with you that this must go on to the end.”
It did. Normandy was the first step in the long, hard struggle that finally brought the Anglo-American armies deep into Germany, and to the dramatic surrender on Luneberg Heath. In the long run-up to D-Day, Churchill was convinced that a cross-Channel landing was the way to Germany’s defeat. When, within a month and a half of the landings, German Generals tried to kill Hitler with a bomb, it was clear they thought so too.
Sir Martin is official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill. This article was written especially for this issue of Finest Hour