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Churchill and D-Day: Another View

FINEST HOUR 124, AUTUMN 2004

BY WARREN F. KIMBALL & NORMAN ROSE

Dr. Rose, author of Churchill: An Unruly Life (FH 84:16), is ChaimWeizmann Professor of International History at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Dr. Kimball, author of several works on the Roosevelt-Churchill relationship, is Robert Treat Professor of History at Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey. The authors thank Mark Stoler of the University of Vermont for his excellent suggestions.

ABSTRACT
Who really postponed the Second Front for a full two years?

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“It was Roosevelt, not Churchill, who postponed the Second Front for a full two years.” That assertion, part of an abstract that introduces Sir Martin Gilbert’s “Churchill and D-Day” (FH 122), is at best deeply misleading: a classic example of failing to define a term, in this case, the term Second Front. The meaning of those two words, especially when capitalized as a proper noun, differed from ally to ally and changed with time and the fortunes of war.1

The confusion about the term began in April 1942, only four months after the United States finally entered the war, when President Franklin Roosevelt sent to London his two most trusted advisers, General George Marshall and Harry Hopkins, to discuss strategic planning for the war against Germany. FDR was initially interested in an Anglo-American invasion of western Europe in the autumn of 1942 (code-named SLEDGEHAMMER), an imprudent plan of desperation intended to counter an impending Soviet collapse. Marshall’s mission was to persuade the British to agree to a single, massive invasion of western Europe in the
spring of 1943 (ROUNDUP), aimed at engaging the bulk of German forces in the West, and its logistical build-up in Britain (BOLERO). Major-General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, Churchill’s chief-of-staff at the Ministry of Defence, summarized the talks: “Our American friends went happily homewards under the mistaken impression that we had committed ourselves to both ROUNDUP and SLEDGEHAMMER.” When the British later had to state that they were unalterably opposed to SLEDGEHAMMER, the Americans “felt we had broken faith with them.”2

Churchill admitted in his war memoirs that he had been less than candid with Marshall and Hopkins,3 and the Prime Minister continued that disingenuous approach in his 17 April message to the President. Seeming to agree that SLEDGEHAMMER in 1942 might be necessary, Churchill claimed agreement on conducting “a crescendo of activity on the continent,” culminating in “more frequent and larger scale raids, in which United States troops will take part.” He briefly endorsed a large scale invasion—”the campaign of 1943 is straightforward, and we are starting joint plans and preparations at once”—but then wrote of “the
whole coast of Europe, from the Nordi Cape to Bayonne [being] open to us.”4 Hardly the BOLERO/ROUNDUP that George Marshall had in mind. Churchill’s “peripheral strategy” had made its appearance.5

A month later, in May 1942, the Soviet minister for foreign affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, arrived in Washington (via London) for talks with Roosevelt. His definition of a second front, or rather The Second Front, raised the bar—”an Anglo-American combination to land sufficient combat troops on the continent to draw off 40 German divisions from the Soviet front” was what Stalin wanted.6 At that juncture, survival was at stake for the Soviet Union. British and American leaders understood that a German victory in Russia could make an Anglo-American invasion of Europe impossible, but what Stalin asked for was equally impossible. FDR gave his Russian visitor an ambiguous, conditional commitment, one that Molotov privately dismissed as insincere.7

The most the British and Americans could imagine for 1942 was SLEDGEHAMMER, but such an operation, which called for five or six divisions, bore no resemblance to what Molotov had proposed. Diverting forty German divisions required forces and logistics far beyond the reach of either the British or the Americans. U.S. Army planners called SLEDGEHAMMER “a sacrifice for the common good.” Churchill and his Cabinet told Molotov that any such landing on the Continent in 1942 “was doomed to failure” and “would do nothing to help the Russians.”8

All the while, Roosevelt and the British continued to speculate on the possibility of an invasion of French (Vichy) Northwest Africa (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia). If successful, that would relieve pressure on British forces defending Egypt and the Suez Canal, offer the Russians concrete evidence of the Anglo-American commitment to prosecuting the war, and provide a much-needed boost to Anglo-American morale. Months before U.S. entry into the war, FDR had casually raised the idea. When word reached Churchill, then deeply concerned about British fortunes in Libya, he quickly embraced the approach, calling it GYMNAST, but its time had not yet come. Neither man rejected the concept, but a North Africa invasion had to linger in the shadows until June 1942, when the two leaders and their staffs conferred in Washington. At that meeting, the British questioned the wisdom of a 1942 SLEDGEHAMMER— which, by that time, was mutating into proposals for a small but permanent foothold in France—but failed to agree on a course of action.9

Roosevelt, not only worried about the Russian front but aware that a failure to engage Hitler could increase pressure for the U.S. to focus on the Pacific War, sent Marshall (with Hopkins and Admiral Ernest King) to London in July with strict orders: either SLEDGEHAMMER in 1942, or GYMNAST in 1942 followed by BOLERO/ROUNDUP in 1943. For Churchill, the decision was easy. An invasion of French North Africa could relieve pressure on British forces protecting Suez—they had just suffered an embarrassing defeat at Tobruk—and, as the chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke, put it in his diary, “open up the Mediterranean,”and “threaten Southern Europe by eliminating Italy.”10

Both British and American military chiefs knew and advised that GYMNAST/TORCH, the North African operation, would delay any major invasion of western Europe, possibly until spring 1944. But FDR and Churchill, each using his own conception of a cross-Channel invasion, insisted on both a North African attack and an invasion of western Europe by late summer 1943; either a or the Second Front. Even as the North Africa landings were underway, the Prime Minister told his Chiefs of Staff that “it may be that we should close down the Mediterranean activities by the end of June with a view to ‘Round-up’ in August.”11

Churchill’s thoughts were never put to the Americans. Churchill’s caution was understandable. The timetable was very short. Stormy autumn weather conditions meant that any amphibious invasion across the English Channel had to take place by early September, leaving less than ten months to position forces and supplies in England (Operation BOLERO)—a build-up that had only just begun by summer 1942.12

Yes, there was a constant, war-long shortage of landing craft, exacerbated by U.S. commitments in the Pacific, where they were defending their own and British interests. But as historian Richard Overy has pointed out: “the United States devoted only 15 per cent of its war effort to the war with Japan. The other 85 per cent was expended in the defeat of Germany.”

Moreover, those who argue that an invasion of Western Europe in 1943 could and should have been conducted, a group that includes both historians and Soviet leaders, dodge the issue that weather conditions in the English Channel left only a five-month window of opportunity for an amphibious attack.13

Not only did GYMNAST/TORCH use resources needed for any massive cross-Channel invasion, but the North African campaign took seven months to conclude— much longer than planned or hoped for. The French did not help; the Germans sent in major reinforcements; the rains turned temporary airfields into “quagmires”; and it took time for inexperienced American soldiers and officers to learn winning ways. There had been speculation about a North African victory by Christmas (not the last time that holiday would so tempt the generals). But it took six months from the initial landings for the Allies to capture the main ports in Tunisia, with Axis resistance finally ending on 13 May 1943.14 That left a mere four months to shift resources to England and launch a successful invasion (of any size) of western Europe before the gales of October—not enough time. There would be no great, or small, crossing of the Channel in 1943. Instead, Anglo-American forces took the logical step dictated by geography.

FDR, optimistic about chances for a very quick victory in North Africa, early on raised with Churchill the question of how to follow up that hoped-for success. On 11 November 1942, only three days after the TORCH landings took place, he suggested that their Chiefs of Staff survey the possibilities of “forward movements directed against Sardinia, Sicily, Italy, Greece and other Balkan areas.” The President had no intention of getting caught up in what Marshall later called the Mediterranean “suction pump,”15 but desperately wanted to avoid failing to confront the German army until at least August 1943, then seen as the earliest possible date for any sort of cross-Channel attack. Not only would the pull of the Pacific War become dangerously strong, but Stalin’s Red Army would be left fighting alone on the Continent for far too long-—and both Churchill and Roosevelt worried constantly that Stalin might negotiate with Hitler. Churchill seems not to have shared with the Americans assessments prepared by the British military that made clear their inability “to mount more than one large-scale amphibious operation at a time,” and warnings that exploiting “our success in North Africa” would eliminate any chance of OVERLORD in 1943.16

When the Anglo-American leaders met in Casablanca in February 1943, they easily agreed on an invasion of Sicily—which also proved tougher and slower than expected—with everyone muttering the required mantra that OVERLORD was still possible for late summer 1943. The “peripheral” strategy offered tempting opportunities. An occupation of Sicily, only some one hundred miles from Tunisia, would keep the pressure on Germany and perhaps prompt Italy to drop out of the war. Perhaps, suggested Churchill, the Italians might even join in the fight against Hitler. Roosevelt, preferring action to waiting, agreed, although it turned out that he had to wait. The Sicily campaign eventually concluded in mid-August, the once-wishful month for the OVERLORD D-Day.

At the TRIDENT (third Washington) conference in May 1943, Churchill, Roosevelt, and their military chiefs squared up to the obvious. With resources bogged down in the Mediterranean, weather alone dictated that OVERLORD had to wait until spring 1944. Back in 1942, after Churchill had been forced to tell Stalin there would not be a Second Front that year, one British general penned a ditty with this final stanza:

Prince of the Kremlin, here’s a fond farewell;
I’ve had to deal with many worse than you.
You took it though you hated it like hell;
No Second Front in 1942.

With apologies to “Archie” Wavell, who wrote the original, this might have been the final couplet:

In fact, as you will finally see,
No Second Front in forty-three.17

Thus, at that TRIDENT meeting, Churchill, FDR, and their military staffs all finally agreed on a target date for launching OVERLORD—the massive, single-front invasion across the English Channel: May 1944!

Left with nearly a full year before a cross-Channel invasion would re-engage the German army, an invasion of Italy—visible on a clear day from Sicily—was irresistible both politically and militarily. That Italian campaign began on September 3rd, and soon degenerated into what historian David Reynolds has perceptively called “a slogan not a strategy.” As Stalin pointedly put it, the Germans would keep “as many allied Divisions as possible in Italy where no decision could be reached….” Whatever the benefits or pitfalls of the Italian campaign, Churchill stuck with it through thick and thin.18

Amphibious invasions at Salerno and Anzio, along the west coast of Italy, managed to avoid being driven back into the sea, but neither broke through for the speedy victory Churchill hoped for. When the Italians surrendered—without joining the Allies—the Germans sent reinforcements rather than withdrawing, an unexpected yet predictable move given what Hitler had done in North Africa. Progress up the peninsula was painfully slow, with mountain bastions like Monte Cassino providing the Germans with countless ways to delay the Allied advance. (No one who was there, or who remembers the motion picture A Walk in the Sun starring Richard Conte, can forget the slow, frustrating, yard-by-yard advance.) Surely, Italy was not the road to a quick defeat of Hitler.

When Churchill and Roosevelt met together with Stalin for the first time, at Teheran in December 1943, Churchill tried once more to avoid the massive, single-front invasion across the Channel. With Passchendaele, Dunkirk, and the disastrous raid on Dieppe in mind, he obviously feared a bloodbath.19 Since Soviet forces confronted the bulk of the German army, FDR offered, or pretended to offer, the Englishman a chance to persuade Stalin that an expanded peripheral/Italian campaign would be the best way for the western allies to help defeat Hitler.

Once Stalin told them that an invasion of northwestern France was the only acceptable military strategy, the die was cast. Churchill, who had made a career out of refusing to accept defeat, offered throughout the conference reasons for other approaches, but to no avail. When Stalin questioned whether or not “the Prime Minister and the British staffs really believe in Overlord,” Churchill’s bombastic reply was: “It will be our stern duty to hurl across the Channel against the Germans every sinew of our strength,” ignoring his desire to deploy some of that strength in Italy, the Aegean, and other assorted locales.20

But Churchill followed his own motto of never, ever giving in. On the day after Christmas 1943, he asked Roosevelt to keep fifty-six landing ships (LSTs) for just two weeks beyond their scheduled withdrawal from the Mediterranean. To do so would allow an amphibious invasion that would outflank the German defense line centered on Cassino, south of Rome. Perhaps Churchill’s doggedness and his melancholy reference to the “painful” cancellation of operations in the Aegean persuaded the President. Perhaps the public relations benefits of American troops taking Rome convinced FDR. Whatever the reason, Roosevelt (and General Marshall) agreed, though they insisted on what Brooke called the “tyranny” of BOLERO and OVERLORD—nothing could be allowed to interfere with those operations.21

By January 1944, Churchill had reluctantly come to argue for a massive cross-Channel attack with larger forces, but that was only after the crucial decisions at Teheran, and once he learned that the two commanding generals for the invasion, Dwight Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery, both wanted a broader landing in Normandy. Everything may have been going “full blast for ‘Overlord,'” as Churchill wrote to Stalin that same month, but that still seemed not to have included the Prime Minister. As late as February 1944, with OVERLORD inevitable, Churchill again proposed planning an invasion of Norway (operation JUPITER) lest the
Normandy attack fail—a proposal that would have drained resources from the campaign in France.22 Churchill’s military advisers routinely dismissed the Norway campaign as a waste of resources.

Churchill supported his version of a cross-Channel invasion consistently from start to finish, but just as consistently argued for a peripheral, “closing the ring” strategy—a series of smaller, widely separated attacks from Scandinavia to the Bay of Biscay—that would wear down German strength and disperse German forces. While he accepted and then supported the OVERLORD Second Front, he never became its advocate, telling one adviser in April 1944 that “This battle has been forced upon us by the Russians and the United States military authorities.”23 Only a month before D-Day Churchill had told the dominion prime ministers that he was “in favour of rolling up Europe from the South-East, and joining hands with the Russians.” The Americans had proved obdurate, prompting Churchill to complain that “They had been determined at every stage upon the invasion in North-West Europe, and had constantly wanted us to break off the Mediterranean operations.”24

However “hardened” Churchill had become to the operation, his cross-Channel attack was always just a part of an alternative strategy.25 The Dieppe disaster, along with Anzio, Salerno, and the entire Italian campaign, suggest that to have pursued Churchill’s “peripheral strategy” would have lengthened the war in the West against Hitler. All of which raises another question: would such a delay have tempted Stalin to reject agreements—agreements he later accepted and honored—setting forth what were presumed to be temporary zones of occupation in Germany together with the notorious percentages agreement regarding the Balkans?26 These issues may remain tangential to the question of who postponed the Second Front, but they bear directly on the division of postwar Europe as it entered its Cold War stage.

So was Churchill for or against a mass assault on Western Europe? The records reveal that he was ambivalent. It depended with whom he spoke and in what circumstances. What is abundantly clear is that he did not give it overriding priority. When he spoke of it favorably, he imposed upon its implementation the most stringent conditions. Other, more inviting, options persistently beckoned. Was it simply coincidence that both the Americans and the Russians believed that he—the British—had misled them? Commentators have speculated whether or not OVERLORD could have been mounted in 1943. For Churchill, this was never a tenable proposition. He argued strongly and cogently against it. But had Churchill been given the “plenary authority” over allied strategy he so desired, would he have mounted the invasion in 1944? The answer is by no means certain. “Had we had our way,” wrote General John Kennedy, Director of Military Operations, “I think there can be little doubt that the invasion of France would not have been done in 1944.”27

Why was Churchill so ambiguous about OVERLORD, so hesitant until being forced into it? Certainly, the Somme-Passchendaele syndrome took its effect, as it would on any veteran of the Great War. From his days in the trenches at Ploegsteert he had held German military leadership in high regard—in stark contrast to the limited abilities of his own generals, a belief that applied equally, if not more so, to their American counterparts. On the eve of D-Day he spoke emotionally of the “hecatombs of World War One,” of how “An entire British generation of potential leaders had been cut off and Britain could not afford to lose another generation.” His conviction, sustained by the painful series of British military setbacks, was compounded by his exaggerated opinion of the German General Staff. British commanders, chanting “their stately hymn of ‘Safety First,'” were badgered without mercy. Bereft of inspiration, they failed to inspire their armies. “What were they doing? Why are they not fighting?” he complained to Alan Brooke. No general escaped the rough side of his tongue, not even his favorites. Alexander, “gay, smiling debonair,” lacked “imagination and leadership.” As for the over-cautious Montgomery, “He will bankrupt you. He will need 13 divisions before he’ll ever make a move.28

Something of this over-cautiousness had rubbed off on Churchill. But with the success of OVERLORD, his natural pugnacity reasserted itself. As befitted a man of transient enthusiasms, he refused to play dog-in-the-manger and, once the decision became irreversible, gave OVERLORD his energetic support. But it was never his preference. Regardless of which “second front” is meant, both Churchill and Roosevelt postponed D-Day for OVERLORD when they opted for landings in North Africa, a campaign that led ineluctably to the invasion of Sicily and then Italy, just as Churchill had hoped. The right thing to do? Probably. But both the British and the American military chiefs warned that TORCH would delay the invasion of Europe, probably until 1944.

The inability of either Great Britain or the United States to muster and stage in England sufficient trained manpower, equipment—especially landing craft—and supplies to launch a massive, singular invasion of western Europe in 1942 or 1943, while fighting in North Africa and then Italy, effectively “postponed D-Day for a full two years.” Nor should we forget that Adolf Hitler played his part by deciding to defend both North Africa and Italy in strength. “The soft underbelly had chrome-steel baseboards,” was General Marshall’s apt metaphor.29 But in the final analysis the postponement of D-Day was made as a result of a series of decisions by Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and their military advisers. It was the wisest of decisions.

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ENDNOTES

1 A remarkable example of the metamorphosis of the phrase “second front” into a proper noun (Second Front) is in Carlo D’Este’s description of Churchill’s leadership following the fall of France and the Dunkirk evacuation: “It is a tribute to Churchill’s vision that he was able to look beyond the immediacy of Britain’s problems and envision a Second Front.” This describing Churchill’s thinking in summer 1940, a year before a “first front” was reestablished in June 1941 when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. D’Este, Decision in Normandy (New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1993), 20.

2 Forrest Pogue, George C. Marshall: Ordeal & Hope, 1939-1942 (New York: Viking, 1966), 319-20.

3 Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War (6 vols.; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948-53), IV 324.

4 Warren F. Kimball, ed., Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence (3 vols.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), I C-70.

5 By September, General Alan Brooke, the Chief of the British Imperial General Staff, was regularly having to fend off Churchill’s insistence on attacking the Germans in northern Norway (operation JUPITER). See Lord Alanbrooke, War Diaries, A. Danchev and D. Todman, eds. (Berkeley & Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 2001), 323-24.

6 U.S. Dept. of State, Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS] (Washington: USGPO, 1862-1942, III 570, 575; Oleg A. Rzheshevsky, ed., War and Diplomacy: Documents from Stalin’s Archives (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1996), 183-89; Felix Chuev and Albert Resis, eds., Molotov Remembers (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1993), 45-46.

7 See Rzheshevsky, War and Diplomacy, Part III, 163-258.

8 Warren F. Kimball, Forged in War (New York: Morrow, 1997), 142; Martin Gilbert, Road to Victory (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 121.

9 Kimball, Forged in War, 128; Martin Gilbert, Finest Hour (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 1225. When the French sued for peace in 1940, the Germans allowed them to set up a government in Vichy, retaining control of Northwestern France.

10 Alanbrooke, War Diaries, 17 July 1942, 281.

11 See the records of the Second Washington Conference, FRUS, Conferences at Washington, 1941-1942, and Casablanca. That a major cross-Channel invasion would be delayed by an invasion of North Africa was a given as far as the American chiefs of staff were concerned. It quickly became evident that the British Chiefs agreed. See Mark Stoler, The Politics of the Second Front (Westport and London: Greenwood Press, 1977). For a succinct summary of all this, see Mark Stoler, Allies and Adversaries (Chapel Hill and London: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2000), 87-90. Churchill’s statement to his COS is in The Second World War, IV, 651.

12 Gilbert, Road to Victory, 120; Alanbrooke, War Diaries, 282 (20 July 1942).

13 Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (New York: Norton, 1996), 321.

14 Churchill, The Second World War, IV 648-59. Gerhard Weinberg, A World at Arms (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994), 433, 434, speculates that French cooperation could have prevented the Germans from sending reinforcements, presumably because the Allies could have flown from Tunisian airfields and thus controlled the skies. Perhaps, but that begs the question of how the Allies could control an airfield when their soldiers were not in control on the ground, and French forces could not (and, as it turned out, would not) resist the Germans.

15 FDR to Churchill, 11 November 1942, Churchill-Roosevelt Correspondence, 669. Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory (New York: Viking, 1973), 22.

16 Gilbert, Road to Victory, 285-86, offers but one of many examples. See also Weinberg, A World at Arms, 436, noting that by 8 December 1942, the British COS had concluded that OVERLORD had become impossible for 1943.

17 The “Ballad(e) of the Second Front” is printed in full in Alanbrooke, War Diaries, 307 (16 Aug. 1942).

18 Kimball, Forged in War, 259. David Reynolds, “Churchill and Allied Grand Strategy in Europe,” in World War II in Europe: The Final Year (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998), 42. Norman Rose, Churchill: An Unruly Life (London: Touchstone Books, 1998), 277, 295-96, 297, 301-02.

19 Reynolds, “Churchill and Allied Grand Strategy,” 41; Gilbert, Road to Victory, 760. The Anglo-Canadian raid on Dieppe in August 1942 had proven an unmitigated disaster.

20 Warren F. Kimball, The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991), 89-90. The Stalin-Churchill exchange is quoted in Kimball, Forged in War, 245.

21 Kimball, Churchill & Roosevelt, II C-521; R-427. General Brooke had written of “the dangers of spelling the word Overlord with the letters T-Y-R-A-N-T.” Alanbrooke, War Diaries, 480 (24 Nov. 1943).

22 Gilbert, Road to Victory, 638; Churchill to Stalin, 5 January 1944, Stalin’s Correspondence with Churchill and Attlee, 1941-1945 (New York: Capricorn Books, 1965), 131.

23 Churchill, The Second World War, III 659. Churchill to Cadogan, 19 April 1944, quoted in Rose, Churchill, 298.

24 Churchill, The Second World War, III 659. Churchill quotations in Rose, Churchill, 298.

25 Perhaps a strategy preferable to OVERLORD given the casualties on the Normandy beaches (especially for the Americans at Omaha Beach). But that is a different issue for a different essay.

26 See Michael Beschloss, The Conquerors, (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2002), 30-33.

27 John Kennedy, The Business of War (London, 1957), 305, 309.

28 Quotations, and for an assessment of Churchill’s attitude towards the Second Front, see Rose, Churchill, 298-300.

29 Quoted in Reynolds, “Churchill and Grand Strategy,” 43.

 

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