D-Day and Dragoon: ‘This world and then the fireworks!’ May–August 1944

A democracy cannot fight a Seven Years’ War.

General George C. Marshall, 19571

‘There have been recently disquieting signs of a possible divergence of policy between ourselves and the Russians in regard to the Balkan countries and in particular Greece,’ Churchill wrote to Roosevelt on 31 May 1944. ‘We therefore suggested to the Soviet Ambassador here that we should agree between ourselves as a practical matter that the Soviet government would take the lead in Roumanian affairs, and ourselves in Greece. I hope that you would give this proposal your blessing. We do not, of course, wish to carve up the Balkans into spheres of influence, and in agreeing to such an agreement we should make it clear that it applied only to wartime conditions.’2 The last sentence was superfluous: of course such an agreement would be a carve-up and equally obviously it would survive into the post-war world.

As might have been expected, Roosevelt replied negatively, saying that such a deal would only ‘result in the persistence of difficulties between’ Britain and the Soviets and instead they should ‘establish consultative machinery and restrain the tendency towards the development of exclusive spheres’. The President was not about to challenge the Red Army in eastern Europe. Before the development of the atomic bomb–the threat of the use of which was anyway utterly unthinkable against their courageous ally–there was nothing much the Western Allies could do about the Red Army, which mobilized twenty-five million troops during the Great Patriotic War. In the feverish ‘Red Scare’ of the early Cold War, Roosevelt’s supposedly appeasing policy towards the USSR was made much of politically by the Republican right and Senator Joseph McCarthy, but there was no genuine alternative, and indubitably not one that would have been acceptable to domestic political opinion in the West.

Churchill shared Roosevelt’s belief that it was possible to win the friendship of Stalin, and that it was worth something once gained. Yet on 5 June 1944 the Yugoslavian Communist statesman Milovan Djilas met a ‘lively, almost restless’ Stalin at his dacha outside Moscow. Stalin left Djilas–and, through him, the Yugoslavian partisan leader Marshal Tito–in absolutely no doubt about the true level of trust and warmth he felt for his Western Allies. ‘Perhaps you think that just because we are allies of the English we have forgotten who they are and who Churchill is?’ Stalin asked. ‘There’s nothing they like better than to trick their allies…And Churchill? Churchill is the kind of man who will pick your pocket of a kopeck, if you didn’t watch him. Yes, pick your pocket of a kopeck! By God, pick your pocket of a kopeck! And Roosevelt? Roosevelt is not like that. He dips in his hand only for bigger coins. But Churchill? Churchill–will do it for a kopeck.’3 Stalin then ridiculed Overlord, predicting that it would all be called off if there was fog in the English Channel. ‘Maybe they’ll meet with some Germans!’ he continued, accusing the Allies of cowardice.

Yet, far from cowardly, British strategy had been like that of the matador in a bullfight, and now was the moment for the sword to be thrust between the bull’s shoulderblades. ‘It is very hard to believe that in a few hours the cross Channel invasion starts!’ wrote Brooke on 5 June. ‘I am very uneasy about the whole operation. At the best it will fall so very very far short of the expectation of the bulk of the people, namely all those who know nothing of its difficulties. At the worst it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war. I wish to God it were safely over.’ Churchill reacted very differently; after a ‘good lunch and as usual lots of wine’ at Downing Street, Cunningham wrote, ‘PM very worked up about Overlord and really in almost a hysterical state…He really is an incorrigible optimist. I always thought I was unduly so but he easily outstrips me.’4 Perhaps Churchill’s optimism hid a deeper fear, and was primarily adopted to put heart into those around him, part of the duty of a leader on the eve of so great an undertaking as the Normandy landings.

The Prime Minister was not quite so optimistic at the evening War Cabinet. After extolling Alexander’s ‘brilliant campaign’ to capture Rome–which had finally fallen the day before after nine months–he said of Overlord that the ‘Danger of this operation is very great during the next thirty or forty days.’ Nevertheless he did think that ‘We will get ashore and establish [a] bridgehead.’5 Over Rome, the Secretary for India Leo Amery recorded in his diary that ‘Winston expressed himself very disappointed that Brooke could not assure him that we could overtake and destroy all the retreating Germans.’

Most of the rest of the meeting was spent discussing de Gaulle, who had refused to broadcast to the French people on their liberation unless certain political conditions were met by Eisenhower. ‘I’m nearly at the end of my tether,’ Churchill said, although he accepted that ‘it doesn’t make the slightest difference to the outcome.’ When Eden tried to explain de Gaulle’s objections, the Prime Minister interjected: ‘De Gaulle refuses to participate. It is an odious example of his malice…he has no regard for common causes–I may have to exhibit him in his true light, as a false and puffed up personality.’6 Cunningham summed it all up as: ‘Prima Donna de Gaulle making a nuisance of himself.’

The first time that Major Eisenhower met Harry Butcher, at the home of Butcher’s brother’s landlord in Chevy Chase in 1927, Ike had performed a strange party trick: ‘He stood stiffly erect, slowly fell forward without moving a muscle, but, at the last instant just before it seemed as if he would break his nose on the floor, his strong hands and muscular arms quickly broke the fall.’ Now, seventeen years later, would he get a bloody nose in Normandy? He feared defeat enough to write a resignation letter to Roosevelt beforehand, which turned up in one of his pockets some time afterwards.

As they went to bed that night, Churchill said to Clementine: ‘Do you realize that by the time you wake up in the morning, twenty thousand men might have been killed?’ The actual figure for D-Day was 4,570 Allied soldiers killed, comprising 2,500 Americans, 1,641 Britons, 359 Canadians, 37 Norwegians, 19 Free French, 12 Australians and 2 New Zealanders. Afterwards, however, the numbers stayed high, and in the thirty-five days after 6 June Allied casualties–that is, killed and wounded–ran at an average of 1,800 per day, as compared to 2,121 per day during the battle of Passchendaele.

It is not known whether Eisenhower on the morning of D-Day got out of bed crying, ‘This world and then the fireworks!’, as Butcher recorded he used to do in the mornings, but he was called early by Admiral Ramsay with good news about the naval side of the landings and shortly after 6.40 a.m. there was more from the RAF’s Trafford Leigh-Mallory about the air situation, with only twenty-one of the 850 American C-47s and eight out of the four hundred British planes missing, and only four gliders unaccounted for. Most ‘Hun’ night-fighters, Leigh-Mallory reported, were over the Pas de Calais and only three had flown over the beaches themselves.7

On 6 June 1944 there were twenty-eight German divisions stationed in south-eastern Europe, twenty-eight in Italy (of which only twenty-three had an effective manpower strength), eighteen in Norway and Denmark, and fifty-nine in France and the Low Countries.8 Some historians quote as low a figure for France and the Low Countries as fifty divisions, with the confusion arising from the classification of some of the divisions as ‘reforming’ and ‘refitting’ at the time of the invasion, including at least half a dozen in the south of France.

Everything is relative, and in the words of the British Official History, ‘in the months preceding Overlord the number of German divisions rose in France and the Low Countries at times when they [also] rose slightly in Italy and South-east Europe’. In January 1944, there were twenty-eight panzer divisions facing the Russians and eight in the rest of Europe, whereas by mid-June these figures had changed to eighteen and fifteen respectively.9 Hitler was thus reinforcing both France and Italy at the expense of his Eastern Front. Yet that does not detract from Brooke’s argument that, if there were no active Italian front, there would have been even more German divisions in France.

Five infantry divisions, three airborne divisions and three armoured brigades landed on and behind the five Normandy beaches on D-Day itself, which were built up to twenty-four divisions by D+30 days and more than thirty divisions by D+60. Within immediate range were six German infantry divisions and one panzer division, but within 200 miles there were a further twelve infantry and two panzer divisions, making twenty-one German divisions in all, many of them high-quality, veteran units.10 D-Day thus needed all the diversions it could possibly get. (It also needed all the ingenuity it could get, but probably not the idea that Admiral King suggested to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for large numbers of American jackrabbits to be swept up, taken over to Normandy and released to bound ahead of the GIs, tripping the wires and letting off the mines and booby-trap grenades. The idea was duly noted in the records.)11

There have been many, such as Albert Wedemeyer, who have argued that Overlord would have been better undertaken in 1943 than 1944. Interviewed by SOOHP, General Handy recalled the time that Wedemeyer told Churchill that it ‘might have shortened the war by a year’:

The Old Man threw a complete conniption fit. But a good case could be made for Al’s thesis. We took the scarcest thing and used it in the most ineffective way. We moved all our troops to Africa and we had to move them all back with the thing that was shortest of all, shipping. Now, if we had concentrated and continued to build up in the UK, you can easily picture we might have been ready a year ahead.12

Yet Handy himself went to Omaha Beach along with Rear-Admiral Cooke, and described it as ‘carnage’. He remembered thirty years later: ‘Well, hell, that was the one place I got close to the war…I tell you, we hung on there by our eyelashes for hours. It was God-awful…it was nip and tuck…Afterwards you lose sight of how close it is if it’s a success.’ He himself was losing sight of the likelihood of success in believing that the invasion could have taken place a year earlier.

‘If you see fighter aircraft over you,’ Eisenhower told his men just before D-Day, ‘they will be ours.’ He was right: Allied planes made 13,688 sorties that day, to the Germans’ 319, but it was not a promise the Supreme Commander could have made his men before 1944. It is true that up to two million slave-labourers had built the Atlantic Wall since 1942, but set against that are the factors that the Germans could have concentrated forces faster against the beachhead in 1943 than in 1944, when bombing had ruined many supply lines; American troops coming to Britain would have had to face the U-boats in 1942 and 1943, when the menace was at its height; without Torch and Husky the Germans might have taken the offensive in the Mediterranean–as Rommel begged Hitler to do–perhaps with Malta falling, the Middle East being overrun, Turkey brought into the war on the Axis side, and Russia left vulnerable through the Black Sea.13 Hundreds of thousands more Germans had been killed on the Eastern Front by 1944 than was so in 1942, and above all, over the question of morale, acute German officers recognized by June 1944 that the war was likely to be lost in a way that they simply did not before the battle of Kursk.

What is certain is that the invasion could not have been delayed much beyond the summer of 1944, for London was coming under devastating nightly attacks from both V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets. For all the deliberations of the Government’s special anti-V weapon ‘Crossbow’ Committee, one of the few defences against the V-1s was to fly close to them and tip their wings–an immensely risky and difficult manoeuvre if one was lucky enough to intercept them at all–and the only response to the V-2s was to destroy their very well-camouflaged launching sites, preferably from the ground.

In 1956 Marshall made a terrible admission to Pogue about the lack of proper intelligence before D-Day. ‘Don’t quote this,’ he told his biographer, but ‘We didn’t know we were going to hit such rough country…G-2 let me down every time in everything. They never told me what I needed to know. They didn’t tell me about the hedgerows, and it was not until later, after much bloodshed, that we were able to deal with them.’14 Later in the same interview, after Marshall had said, ‘We had to pay in blood for our lack of knowledge,’ he repeated: ‘Don’t print that.’ It is traditionally an invocation, along with ‘Burn this letter,’ that automatically guarantees careful preservation and extensive quotation. The admission that Marshall was not warned about the bocages–the deep, thick, ancient Norman hedgerows that gave the German defenders such fine defensive cover–is a serious one, and a significant failure of US Military Intelligence (G-2). Brooke knew all about them because he had retreated over precisely that ground to evacuate from Cherbourg in June 1940, but his warnings were largely disregarded as yet another excuse for not invading.

The day after D-Day, Alexander reported that if he were left with his twenty-seven divisions in Italy, and not lose any to Anvil, he could break through the Apennines into the Po Valley, take eighteen divisions north of Venice and force the Ljubljana Gap between Italy and northern Yugoslavia. Once there, he stated in his memoirs, ‘the way led to Vienna, an object of great political and psychological value’. This prospect appealed to Churchill and Clark, but not to very many others. Brooke told Churchill that with Alpine topography and winter weather, ‘even on Alex’s optimistic reckoning…we should have three enemies instead of one’.15

Marshall vociferously opposed forcing the Ljubljana Gap, arguing that Eisenhower needed the southern French ports so that he could deploy on a much wider front, and that the Germans would merely withdraw from north Italy to the Alps under Alexander’s attack, which could then be held with far smaller forces. Alexander forever thereafter believed that his ‘lost’ seven divisions–about which he lamented as much as did the Emperor Augustus for his lost legions of the Teutoburgerwald in ad 9–would have ‘broken the Gothic Line in August, crossed the Po in September, captured Venice and Trieste in October’ and so on. Since they had been withdrawn for the Overlord assault, pursuant to the agreement between Brooke and Marshall, we shall never know what they might have achieved elsewhere, but Anvil could not have been a success without them.

Churchill’s dreams of British Commonwealth forces planting the Union Jack over Schönbrunn and the Hofburg before the Russians arrived in Vienna was ended by Brooke, who knew Marshall’s view of it. There would still be plenty of teeth-gnashing before Churchill relinquished his project, which he clung to with the tenacity he had also shown over the operations in northern Norway, Sumatra and the Andaman Islands. Yet Roosevelt had promised Stalin Operation Anvil at Teheran, and Marshall meant to honour it.

At 7.40 p.m. on Friday 9 June Brooke and Cunningham went to Euston Station to meet the train bringing the American Joint Chiefs of Staff from Holyhead. If swift strategic decisions needed to be taken–including an evacuation from Normandy, though no one mentioned that–the Combined Chiefs would be able to go into continuous session. ‘Marshal [sic] as charming as ever and King as saturnine,’ recorded Cunningham. ‘I can’t bring myself to like that man.’16 It is interesting that even that late in the war and after a long stay in Washington sitting on the Combined Chiefs of Staff with him, Cunningham could not spell Marshall’s name correctly, although he also spelt words such as ‘Bethnell Green’, ‘cardenal’, ‘gardiner’ or ‘gardner’ and so on. The use of the word ‘saturnine’, meaning ‘gloomy’, was a good one for King, however.

The next day the Combined Chiefs met to discuss Normandy and Italy, before Marshall went to Chequers in the evening and Cunningham went home to the country for supper with Admiral Ramsay, where he opened a bottle of Turkish wine ‘to celebrate the invasion’, a curious way of doing it. At their Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting on Sunday 11 June, Marshall called for an early Anvil and ‘advancing as much as possible the target date of amphibious operations in the Mediterranean’.17

Handy recalled discussing Anvil with Marshall and concluding: ‘We were a damn sight better strategists than we ever had any idea we were.’18 But were they? Donnelly considered the operation ‘a big success’ because the freeing of Marseilles gave Eisenhower another big harbour to help support the operations on the Western Front. Yet it was really Antwerp that they needed, rather than a port 480 miles south of Paris. In 1958, Brooke said of Marshall and Anvil: ‘I was in disagreement with him because I was rather frightened that if you took many forces from Italy it took some time from the moment you removed them from Italy to the moment they attacked in France…and what we should have gained on the swings we should lose on the roundabouts…It was a matter of balancing the time of it.’19

Ian Jacob used a different argument in his discussions with Chester Wilmot in the spring of 1948, suggesting that the Americans:

could never appreciate the importance of threats. Our idea was always to use our sea power so as to threaten and to bluff…If you did not show your hand you forced Hitler to protect himself against all possible threats and thus you gained much wider dispersion of his forces. The Americans’ only idea of winning was by fighting. They never realized that strategy is successful or not in proportion to the amount of actual fighting which it involves. The less fighting, the more successful the strategy. This was an idea the Americans could never comprehend; they always wanted bigger and better battles.20

This–the strategy of Sun Tzu–might have been a sophisticated enough argument up to 6 June 1944, but from that date victory over Nazism certainly was a question of fighting bigger and better battles, and troops in France and Germany were of far more use than those going up the Apennines at slow speed and great cost.

Cunningham recorded that, at a Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting on Anvil at the American HQ at Stanwell Place in Staines, Surrey, on 11 June, Marshall ‘drew a vision before our eyes of an airborne landing of five divisions in connection with a seaborne operation to seize a good port’, probably either Marseilles or Toulon. They also considered the three alternatives for Alexander’s army once it had broken through the Gothic Line, namely an amphibious operation in the Loire area or the Bay of Biscay, one in the south of France preferably in the Sète area, or one in the north-eastern Adriatic in conjunction with an advance from the Pisa–Rimini Line. Cunningham wrote after a 6.30 p.m. Cabinet the next day that Churchill, ‘looking a bit exuberant from his trip to the beachhead, was a bit childish at times’.

‘From the time the Normandy landing was achieved,’ argued Liddell Hart, Brooke and Churchill ‘ceased to have any important influence on the course of the war. Both strategically and politically, American influence became overwhelmingly predominant, and dictated the Allies’ course…[Churchill] had in effect become, as he earlier proclaimed himself, merely the American president’s “lieutenant”.’21 Liddell Hart put it in his typically provocative way, and Churchill’s self-designation as Roosevelt’s lieutenant had only been used at Torch because he had felt that the Vichy French would resist Britons more than Americans. Nonetheless it was true that in all the great strategic controversies of the rest of the war–and there were many hard-fought ones still to come–it is hard to spot any that the British won. The preponderance of American over Commonwealth troops has already been noted, and once the Americans were ashore they no longer needed to defer to the British in the way they had when they required the United Kingdom as their launch-pad.

At a dinner for the King and the American Chiefs of Staff at Downing Street on 14 June, Churchill and Brooke had a long argument about the amount of equipment and supplies an invading army needed in its wake, with ‘Winston maintaining in his rhetorical fashion that the progress of any army could only be delayed by the importation of dental chairs and units of the YMCA’. Brooke stubbornly argued that ‘no army could fight, let alone progress, unless it had adequate supplies of ammunition.’ Marshall and the others listened politely until 2 a.m., while Smuts and Attlee, sitting on either side of Sir Alan Lascelles, ‘slept unashamedly’.22

On the evening of 17 June, Marshall and Arnold arrived in Naples, flying over the Salerno and Anzio beaches at a height of 300 feet on their way there. Marshall visited his stepson’s grave the next day, and wrote to tell Margaret that ‘Allen’s plot is on the main pathway through the cemetery, a short distance beyond the flagpole.’ He spoke to the men in Allen’s unit who were with him when he was killed, before going on to Mark Clark’s Fifth Army HQ.

By doleful coincidence, Brooke was also brought face to face with the personal cost of war that same day when a V-1 flying-bomb hit the roof of the Guards’ Chapel on Birdcage Walk during the Waterloo Day morning service. Several of Brooke’s friends and colleagues were among the 122 people who perished, including his great friend Ivan Cobbold, with whom he had been fishing on the River Dee six weeks earlier.23 Brooke described how the ‘ghastly blow’ was made even worse for him by one of those macabre coincidences of wartime; his military assistant came in to tell him about the tragedy at the precise moment that he was opening a lunch invitation from the dead man.

Churchill had spent months trying to organize the first conference since Cairo, but as there were no crucial strategic issues or matériel shortages disrupting Allied planning, Roosevelt had kept putting it off. He actively did not want to meet Churchill during the Anvil dispute, and feared that any meeting might make Stalin suspicious. With the Allies victorious everywhere except China, and both British and American intelligence services predicting victory by Christmas, another meeting to plot the European endgame could not long be delayed; however, the Americans kept avoiding the issue.

Violent storms between 19 and 24 June swept away the American Mulberry harbour at Arromanches, and came just at the same time that Hitler reinforced Kesselring in Italy, thus stalling the Allied advance towards the Gothic Line. Eisenhower pressed Marshall harder than ever for a large-scale Anvil that would bring more Allied troops ashore in southern France and, it was hoped, divert more Germans away from Normandy, where Cherbourg and Caen had yet to fall. ‘Wandering off overland via Trieste to Ljubljana repeat Ljubljana’, wrote Eisenhower, ‘is to indulge in conjecture to an unwarranted degree at the present time.’24 It is hard to know whether the repetition of Ljubljana was intended as emphasis of its strategic absurdity or to lessen the chances of mistransmission of an unusual word, or possibly both.

Mountbatten’s chief of staff Lieutenant-General Henry Pownall–yet another diarist–alluded to ‘a considerable breeze’ (that is, row) between Brooke and Marshall on 19 June over General Stilwell, a friend of Marshall whom Brooke despised.25 Yet these were minor disagreements compared to the one over Operation Anvil that was to burst into flames the next day. On Tuesday 20 June Admiral King, without consulting the Admiralty, the Combined Chiefs or either of the Supreme Commanders Eisenhower and Maitland Wilson, ordered three battleships, two cruisers and no fewer than twenty-six destroyers to leave the Overlord flotilla in the Channel and sail to the Mediterranean as part of the Anvil invasion force, even though there was no invasion date yet set. Churchill immediately telegraphed Roosevelt to say he was ‘much concerned’ about this completely unilateral action; indeed so exercised was he that Cunningham recorded that ‘we had to curb him a bit’.26 Eisenhower countermanded King’s order, so the naval force was able to stay put until Cherbourg had fallen a week later.

At a 10.30 p.m. British Staff Conference on 21 June with Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and the three Chiefs present there was ‘a rambling discussion about the merits of advancing right up through Italy to the Italian Alps as opposed to landing a few divisions in the South of France’, during which Cunningham could ‘see the advantage of landing the French divisions in their own country and letting them rouse France’. Eden considered that ‘Brookie appeared to be making pretty heavy weather of differences that cannot arise for many moves ahead, if ever.’ He also believed that ‘the failure to have minds meet’ over Anvil was in large part down to Dill’s absence.27 Recovering from a serious bout of illness in Washington, the field marshal wasn’t present to oil the wheels between Americans and British, although by that stage Cunningham believed that Dill had completely ‘gone native’ in America.

On 23 June Eisenhower–based at his headquarters in Bushy Park in the London suburbs–again demanded a strong Anvil, while the British were doubting the necessity of having one at all. ‘France is the decisive theatre,’ he told the Combined Chiefs of Staff, saying that they ‘took this decision long ago. In my view the resources of Great Britain and the United States will not allow us to maintain two major theatres in the European War, each with decisive missions.’ At the time, though, Brooke was unable to see that the Italian campaign had largely achieved its purpose and was now no longer central to victory. Because he knew, through Ultra decrypts, that Hitler wished to defend the rest of the Italian peninsula, Brooke hoped that Alexander would continue to engage large German forces there. It was simply a strategy for attrition by then, however, whereas opportunities for outright victory were now opening up in France.28

The withdrawal of Alexander’s French mountain divisions from Italy for Anvil caused Brooke and Churchill immense consternation. On 26 June Maitland Wilson said this must start within forty-eight hours in order to meet Anvil’s target date of 15 August. At a Chiefs of Staff meeting at 11 o’clock that morning, the War Office Planners backed Anvil, but Brooke and Portal wanted to cancel it altogether and carry on fighting in northern Italy instead. ‘I find the arguments so evenly balanced that I have difficulty making up my mind,’ wavered Cunningham, ‘so allowed myself to be guided by the other two whose arguments are sound enough if a little specious in certain directions.’29

After meeting Churchill that evening, a telegram to Marshall–who had got back to America via Italy on 21 June–was drafted in which the Chiefs of Staff ‘took a firm line turning down Anvil and pressing for the completion of the North Italian campaign’. Cunningham felt that the British ‘are in the position of the man in possession: the campaign is going on.’30 Although ‘the man in possession’ is said to have nine-tenths of the law, Cunningham was wrong if he thought that possession of the Anvil divisions might be worth nine-tenths of grand strategy against a hardened opponent like Marshall.

The British telegram to Marshall should have been worded far better than the bald statement that, in considering the 15 August date, ‘The withdrawal now of forces from Italy to achieve this target date is unacceptable to the British Chiefs of Staff’ because it ‘would hamstring General Alexander so that any further activity would be very modest. The adequacy of air resources for both Italy and Anvil is gravely doubted.’ It was as terse as Brooke’s speaking voice, but by that stage of the war such a tone was beginning to be counter-productive. For, as Marshall showed the next day, two could use the word ‘unacceptable’.

‘The British proposal to abandon Anvil and commit everything to Italy is unacceptable,’ Marshall cabled Eisenhower on 27 June, adding: ‘It is deplorable that the British and US disagree when time is pressing. The British statements concerning Italy are not sound or in keeping with the early end of the war…There is no reason for discussing further except to delay a decision which must be made.’ The Joint Chiefs of Staff official reply to the Chiefs of Staff was almost identical. Marshall meanwhile asked Handy to prepare a brief memorandum for Roosevelt of the key documents so far, ‘taking care to include the urgent arguments put forward by Eisenhower for the support of Overlord’. Marshall wanted the President fully informed, and under no illusion about the necessity for Anvil in helping Eisenhower.

Anvil had been agreed to by Brooke and Churchill in Teheran and Cairo. Eisenhower wanted it as soon as possible. The Italian campaign was slowing down in central Italy. The Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean had said that if Anvil was to proceed–which he did not want it to–then the troops must be withdrawn within hours. The crisis moment had therefore come, and on 28 June Roosevelt came down firmly on Marshall’s side, telling Churchill:

I really believe we should consolidate our operations and not scatter them. It seems to me that nothing could be worse at this time than a deadlock in the Combined Staff as to future course of action. You and I must prevent this and I think we should support the views of the Supreme Allied Commander. He is definitely for Anvil and wants action in the field by August 30th and preferably earlier. It is vital that we decide at once with our long agreed policy to make Overlord the decisive action.31

Roosevelt’s evocation of Eisenhower meant that he and Marshall could present themselves as supporting the views of the commander in the field. How Churchill must have regretted unilaterally offering Roosevelt the decision as to who should be supreme Allied commander, getting so little in return.

Churchill was deeply influenced by the fact that the Mediterranean theatre was principally British, with a British supreme commander in Maitland Wilson, a commander-in-chief Allied Forces Italy in Alexander, British corps commanders, many British divisions, and heavy Royal Navy participation, although of course Mark Clark’s US Fifth Army, the USAAF at Foggia and several other important American units also served there. Churchill now feared that this primary British theatre would be severely weakened by the American-dominated Anvil, and later wrote that this was ‘The first important divergence on high strategy between ourselves and our American friends’, implying that everything else had been merely a matter of timing.32 This was a convenient post-war fiction, but Anvil certainly saw a major clash.

Before returning to his duties at the Allied Forces HQ in the Palace of Caserta, north of Naples, Harold Macmillan saw Churchill on the evening of 28 June after Roosevelt’s reply had arrived. ‘It was not only a brusque but even an offensive refusal to accept the British plan,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘It so enraged the P.M. that he thought of replying to the President in very strong terms.’ After consideration, however, it was decided that the British Chiefs should reply formally to Marshall, saying that they could not change the advice that they were giving the War Cabinet, ‘to whom they had the duty of giving the best professional opinion which they could form’.33

Macmillan records Churchill as ‘still exceedingly anxious’ to cross the Pisa–Rimini Line, seize the Po Valley and open the possibility of an advance on Trieste in the spring. Yet such was the preponderance of American troops in the European campaign that, as Macmillan recognized,

we should have to give in if Eisenhower and Marshall insisted upon ‘Anvil’. We can fight up to a point, we can leave on record for history to judge the reasoned statement of our views, and the historian will also see that the Americans have never answered any argument, never attempted to discuss or debate the points, but have merely given a flat negative and a slightly Shylock-like insistence upon what they conceive to be their bargain.

These embittered views were shared by, and possibly inspired by, the Prime Minister.

‘The deadlock between our Chiefs of Staff raises most serious issues,’ Churchill replied to Roosevelt. ‘Our first wish is to help General Eisenhower in the most speedy and effective manner. But we do not think this necessarily involves the complete ruin of all our great affairs in the Mediterranean and we take it hard that this should be demanded of us…I think the tone of the American Chiefs of Staff is arbitrary, and I certainly see no prospect of agreement on the present lines. What is to happen then?’ In fact the ‘arbitrary’ tone had begun when Brooke had drafted the telegram about what was ‘unacceptable’.

To try to persuade Roosevelt, Churchill attached a twelve-page cable setting out the advantages of a Balkan strategy against the long distances that any landing in Toulon would have to go before it could engage significant German forces. He ended: ‘Let us not wreck one great campaign for the sake of winning another. Both can be won.’ Brooke was ‘weak as a cat’ from influenza at the time, and the prospect of his being brought from his sickbed elicited the request from Marshall that ‘on no account should we worry the Field Marshal’. The US Army Chief’s own view was that as far as the clash over Anvil was concerned, ‘there is a big part played by the Prime Minister in the present affair’, although this was immediately and categorically–and untruthfully–denied by Hollis from the War Cabinet Office.

Roosevelt sent a thirteen-paragraph reply to Churchill the next day, 29 June, urging that the Combined Chiefs of Staff directive authorizing Anvil be issued immediately. ‘My interest and hopes center on defeating the Germans in front of Eisenhower and driving on into Germany rather than limiting this action for the purpose of staging a full major effect in Italy,’ he wrote, before saying specifically,

I cannot agree to the employment of United States troops into the Balkans…History will never forgive us if we lose precious time and lives in indecision and debate. My dear friend, I beg of you let us go a head with our plan. Finally, for purely political considerations over here, I should never survive even a slight set-back to Overlord if it were known that fairly large forces had been diverted to the Balkans.

It was relatively rare for Roosevelt to plead in aid domestic political pressures over military operations, but he had an election to fight four months hence.

Churchill’s reply on 1 July was anguished. Even though he began with the first person plural–‘We are deeply grieved by your telegram’–he soon slipped into more intimate vernacular, saying that this was ‘the first major strategic and political error for which we two are responsible. At Teheran you emphasized to me the possibilities of a move eastward when Italy was conquered.’ He claimed that ‘No one involved in these discussions has ever thought of moving armies into the Balkans,’ but stated that Istria and Trieste were strategically and politically important positions, ‘which, as you saw yourself, very clearly might exercise profound and widespread reactions, especially now after the Russian advances’. Finally Churchill stated that:

If you still press upon us the directive of your Chiefs of Staff to withdraw so many of your forces from the Italian campaign and leave all our hopes there dashed to the ground, His Majesty’s Government, on the advice of their Chiefs of Staff, must enter a solemn protest…It is with the greatest sorrow that I write to you in this sense. But I am sure that if we could have met, as I so frequently proposed, we should have reached a happy agreement.34

That is precisely what Marshall had feared, and was one of the reasons Churchill did not meet the President at all throughout the nine months between December 1943 and September 1944, despite having seen him thrice in seven months in 1943. Churchill’s force of personality was blunted once it was translated on to printed telegraph slips or blared over transatlantic scrambler telephone lines, with gaps between each crackling transmission. He ended his telegram: ‘I need scarcely say that we shall do our best to make a success of anything that is undertaken.’ Privately, Lascelles noted that ‘Winston is very bitter about it, and not so sure that he really likes FDR.’35

On Saturday 1 July, Roosevelt gave Marshall the necessary orders to proceed with Anvil, telling Churchill, ‘I always think of my early geometry–a straight line is the shortest distance between two points.’ His decision underlined the paramountcy of the United States by the summer of 1944. Yet it is worth asking objectively, with the historian’s luxury of hindsight, who was right: was Anvil a useful employment of so many divisions so far from the main struggle hundreds of miles to the north? Churchill and Brooke might have been muscled into it by Roosevelt, Marshall, Eisenhower and–at one remove–Stalin, but they were right to resist, because the military logic for Anvil was questionable and its results limited. Although one hundred thousand Germans surrendered in that campaign, they were not all high-quality troops, and Patton had got to Dijon, 300 miles from the Normandy beaches, on 12 September, before the Anvil force arrived from the south.36

‘Please accept my cordial greetings for Independence Day,’ Brooke wrote to Marshall on Tuesday 4 July. ‘The operations now proceeding in Europe show the complete understanding and mutual trust existing between the USA and the British Armies both fighting for the ideals which you are celebrating today.’ It was a good-natured gesture after a bruising defeat, during which Brooke had on at least three occasions toned down telegrams from Churchill which if sent would have caused deep offence to Roosevelt and Marshall, who had now shown beyond doubt that they were in the political and military driving seats. ‘The trouble is the PM can never give way gracefully,’ observed Cunningham. ‘He must always be right and if forced to give way gets vindictive and tries by almost any means to get his own back.’37 Neither Marshall nor Brooke believed that ‘complete understanding and mutual trust’ had characterized their dealings over Anvil during the previous fortnight, but what was needed was some pleasant-sounding hypocrisy. At Cabinet that day, Churchill complained of ‘Differences with Americans. History will approve the use that the Allies have made of the Mediterranean.’38

Churchill’s bitterness over the Anvil defeat is evident from his minute to the Chiefs of Staff of 6 July. ‘Let them take their seven divisions,’ he wrote, ‘let them monopolize all the landing craft,’ before adding, ‘I hope you realize that an intense impression must be made upon the Americans that we have been ill-treated and [are] furious…If we take this lying down, there will be no end to what will be put upon us. The Arnold–King–Marshall combination is one of the stupidest strategic teams ever seen.’39Churchill reproduced the first part of this acidic memorandum in his war memoirs, although not of course the final sentence.

That evening the British Chiefs underwent a ‘frightful meeting with Winston’ lasting four hours until 2 a.m., which Brooke described as ‘quite the worst we have had with him’. Although he wrote that fairly often, this one–a meeting of the Defence Committee–was indeed the worst of the war. The Prime Minister was very tired as a result of his Commons speech about the V-1 threat, and emotional over his defeat by the Americans over Anvil, and according to Brooke ‘he had tried to recuperate with drink. As a result he was in a maudlin, bad tempered, drunken mood, ready to take offence at anything, suspicious of everybody, and in a highly vindictive mood against the Americans. In fact so vindictive that his whole outlook on strategy was warped.’40

In the course of the meeting, Brooke accused Churchill of belittling Montgomery and Alexander, the former for being over-cautious–the key town of Caen in Montgomery’s sector had still not fallen–and the latter for not having simply outflanked Monte Cassino back in May. A discussion on the Far East degenerated into a row over all the old subjects, especially Culverin, and Churchill wound up by falling out with Attlee and ‘having a real good row with him concerning the future of India!’ The Chiefs withdrew from the meeting ‘under cover of this smokescreen just on 2am, having accomplished nothing beyond losing our tempers and valuable sleep!!’ After the war Brooke added that Churchill had been ‘infuriated, and throughout the evening kept shoving his chin out, looking at me, and fuming at the accusation that he ran down his generals’.

Cunningham agreed with Brooke’s assessment, lamenting that ‘the PM was in no state to discuss anything. Very tired and too much alcohol…he was in a terrible mood. Rude and sarcastic.’ The admiral hoped that Churchill’s ‘obstinacy and general rudeness may be the last flurry of the salmon before you get the gaff into him’.41 It was not. Another diarist present that night, Anthony Eden, wrote that Churchill clearly hadn’t read the strategy paper they were discussing ‘and was perhaps rather tight’. He recorded an exchange that went:

BROOKE: ‘If you would keep your confidence in your generals for even a few days, I think we should do better.’

CHURCHILL: ‘When have I ever failed to support my generals?’

BROOKE: ‘I have listened to you for two days on end undermining the Cabinet’s confidence in Alexander until I felt I could stand no more. You asked me questions, I gave you answers, you didn’t accept them and telegraphed to Alexander who gave the same answers.’42

There was more in the same strain, with ‘Winston protesting vehemently’. Eden thought Churchill ‘was clearly deeply hurt on his most sensitive spot, his knowledge of strategy and his relationship with his generals’. The Foreign Secretary, who regularly took Churchill’s side against Brooke, nonetheless concluded: ‘Altogether a deplorable evening which couldn’t have happened a year ago. There is certainly a deterioration.’43

Alexander, who had considerable personal charm, had commanded the rearguard at Dunkirk and the retreat of the British Army in Burma before becoming C-in-C successively of the Middle East and of the 18th Army Group in North Africa. Churchill liked him personally, not least because he was a fellow painter and Old Harrovian, but he did abuse his generalship. Brooke and Cunningham, by contrast, abused Alexander only to their own diaries–as ‘a void’ and ‘not a good general’ respectively–and doubtless also to each other.

In early July, Sir John Dill suffered a mild heart attack, and Marshall arranged that he be taken to the military hospital in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, for a proper rest-cure. He had previously suffered rectal bleeding, and his haemorrhoids were removed by injection, causing severe anaemia which was only recognized late. Writing from hospital to Brooke about a problem that had arisen over Stilwell, Dill said: ‘It is odd how that charming person Marshall can fly off the handle and be so infernally rude. Also he gets fixed ideas about things and people which it is almost impossible to alter. I am so very sorry that I was not there when the Anvil question came up, but I fancy he was pretty fixed on Anvil and most likely impossible to move.’ It was a new and rare side to Marshall, and so Dill’s ‘oil-can’ had been needed more than ever, but tragically it turned out that his illness was mortal.

On 10 July, the day after Caen finally fell, Churchill reported to the War Cabinet that Overlord’s ‘daily discharge’ in Normandy amounted to twenty-five thousand men, seven thousand vehicles and 30,000 tons of stores. He was concerned about German soldiers who were captured shortly after setting delayed-action mines that killed Allied troops, and suggested that they should be warned that they would be personally ‘held responsible’ if they did not reveal where these booby-traps were.

After Brooke had reported on the situation in Normandy, Churchill said that the fighting there had drawn in German reserves, and that twenty-nine Allied divisions (fifteen American, fourteen British Commonwealth) were presently engaging twenty-three German. Altogether British and Canadian casualties came to twenty-six thousand out of a total of sixty-four thousand Allied, and 51,393 prisoners had been taken. Nonetheless, Churchill emphasized that ministers should ‘Not encourage people to expect war to end this year. No right to count on it…Don’t minimize what we [must] do.’

After the fall of Caen, the Germans continued to put up strong resistance at Saint-Lô, which did not fall to the US XIX Corps until 17 July, after which the British and Canadians pushed south and east of Caen with the support of thousand-bomber raids. It was another month, however, on 18 August, before the Falaise gap was closed by the Allies, trapping the Germans south of the Normandy battlefield. After that it was only a matter of a week before Paris was liberated.

Although it had been left pending since the furious exchange of memoranda in late March, when neither side accepted defeat but wished to avoid resignations and sackings on the issue, Far Eastern strategy could not be long ignored. The total dichotomy in thinking between Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff over defeating Japan was once again laid bare at a Defence Committee meeting on 14 July, after which Cunningham wrote that they had been ‘treated to the same old monologue’ about how much better it was to take the tip of Sumatra and then the Malay Peninsula and finally Singapore than to join with the Americans to fight Japan in the south-west Pacific. The First Sea Lord assumed that the politicians were ‘obviously frightened of the Americans laying down the law’ about what was to happen ‘to the various islands, forts and other territories’ once Japan was defeated.

The way to ensure the Empire’s proper treatment in the final peace treaty, thought Cunningham, was to stick closely to the Americans in their long campaign from Australia to the Japanese mainland, but Churchill, Attlee and Eden ‘will not lift a finger to get a force to the Pacific; they prefer to hang about the outside and recapture our own rubber trees.’44 It was during that meeting that Attlee passed Eden a note saying of Churchill’s chairmanship: ‘Two hours of wishful thinking.’ Cunningham was wrong about the Foreign Secretary supporting Culverin, since Eden actually felt that because Sumatra ‘is remote from the centre of conflict we shall be regarded by Americans as having played virtually no part in defeat of Japan’.45

On 16 July Marshall wrote to Lieutenant-General Jacob L. Devers, the commander of Anvil, that ‘If the forces in Italy bog down on the Pisa–Rimini Line, we should not long delay putting the Fifth Army divisions into the fight in southern France. I hope that Alexander will quickly get into the Po Valley. Then the Fifth Army, or portions thereof, could be moved into France, possibly some of it moving overland…The important thing is that we push Anvil to the utmost as the main effort in the Mediterranean.’46Here was another row waiting to happen, for on the same day in London Cunningham recorded a Chiefs of Staff meeting at which Churchill was ‘in a very sweet and chastened mood probably remembering last Thursday’–when he had been drunk–and there was ‘Much discussion on whether it was wise to try to bind the American Chiefs of Staff to leave the present forces less the Anvil contingent in Italy to enable Alexander to plan his forthcoming campaign to carry the Pisa–Rimini Line on a firm basis’. The British Chiefs were ‘rather against it’ as it might put ‘bad ideas’ of using the Fifth Army in Italy ‘as a reserve for Anvil’. Yet from Marshall’s letter it was clear that they had indeed already started to think that way.

Casualty numbers from the V-1 campaign given to the War Cabinet on 24 July were ‘thirty thousand-odd of whom four thousand odd killed’. Children who had returned to the cities from the countryside were evacuated all over again, and despite the success in Normandy, national morale suffered. The nightly bombing, with its effects of sleeplessness and general strain, needs to be borne in mind when considering the ill-tempered mood that often descended on crisis meetings during this stressful time. The Cabinet War Rooms began to be used regularly again for almost the first time since the Blitz, and their stuffy atmosphere–especially with Churchill’s cigars, Bevin’s cigarettes, Attlee’s pipe and so on–cannot have helped.

In the east, the Russians crossed into Poland on 23 July. It was a genuine cause for celebration, because few guessed at the time that they would stay there for forty-five years. Nevertheless, at a Chiefs of Staff meeting on 26 July centred on British post-war security it was assumed that Germany needed to be included ‘in the Western powers organisation’ and ‘It was generally agreed that Russia would be the only danger in the foreseeable future.’47 Churchill agreed, telling Charles Moran, ‘Good God, can’t you see that the Russians are spreading across Europe like a tide; they have invaded Poland, and there is nothing to prevent them marching into Turkey and Greece!’ Operation Anvil he described as ‘Sheer folly’, lamenting that the ‘ten divisions could have been landed in the Balkans…but the Americans would not listen to him.’ Moran concluded that Churchill was ‘distraught, but you cannot get him down for long.’ He sat up in bed as his speech quickened and he expounded on how ‘Alex might be able to solve this problem by breaking into the Balkans. Our troops are already in the outskirts of Florence. They would soon be in the valley of the Po.’ Churchill’s promise to Roosevelt on 1 July that ‘No one involved in these discussions has ever thought of moving armies into the Balkans’ therefore was obviously completely misleading.

In common with other operations, such as Roundup/Overlord and Super-Gymnast/Torch, for security reasons Operation Anvil was renamed Dragoon just before it took place. The joke went around that the word was chosen because Churchill felt he had been dragooned into it. Writing to General Maitland Wilson (‘My dear Jumbo’) on 2 August, Brooke blamed Alexander for the failure to persuade the Americans: ‘Alex’s wild talk about his advance on Vienna killed all our arguments dead!’ Brooke then dilated very perceptively upon the loss of British influence in Washington. Dill’s illness ‘had a great deal to say to it’, he thought, but there ‘is more to it than that’. The Americans ‘now feel that they possess the major forces at sea, on land and in the air’, and with ‘all the vast financial and industrial advantages which they had enjoyed from the start’ they were in a far stronger position. ‘In addition they now look upon themselves no longer as the apprentices at war, but on the contrary as full blown professionals. As a result of all this they are determined to have an ever increasing share in the running of the war in all its aspects. I can assure you that we are watching these unpleasant new developments very carefully.’48 Brooke allowed himself a rare bout of over-optimism when he told Maitland Wilson that now the Normandy operation had broken through into Brittany, ‘It becomes more evident every day that the Bosche is beat on all fronts. It is only a matter of how many more months he can last. I certainly don’t see him lasting another winter.’

As if to underline Brooke’s earlier point, that same day the Director of the US Bureau of the Budget, Harold Smith, wrote to Roosevelt to report: ‘It is highly probable that by the end of September we shall have a total army strength in excess of eight million.’ With private soldiers (GIs) in the US Army receiving $50 per month, corporals $66, sergeants $78 and master-sergeants $138, Smith’s financial concerns were legitimate, even for an economy as strong as that of the United States. So on 15 August the President asked Marshall for a memo ‘on this matter of over-strength of the Army’. A week later Marshall replied in detail, admitting that the Army was 5 per cent over-strength, at 8.05 million, but the reason was a deliberate recent increase of 150,000 to meet the expected casualties in the Overlord and Anvil landings.

At a Chiefs of Staff meeting in London at 10 p.m. on 4 August there was some discussion about shifting Dragoon from the south of France to Brittany, which Churchill said Eisenhower had already recommended to Marshall. The Chiefs of Staff therefore telegraphed Washington supporting the change, while warning Maitland Wilson ‘that it might come off. All this due to the spectacular advances of the US armoured forces in Brittany.’49 Yet the very next day, when Churchill and Cunningham flew to the Cherbourg peninsula but were unable to land owing to fog, they stopped instead at Eisenhower’s headquarters at Sharpener Camp on Thorney Island, a peninsula in Chichester Harbour, West Sussex. Over an ‘excellent’ lunch, they discussed moving Dragoon across to Brittany, and to Cunningham’s surprise found Eisenhower ‘dead against it and had never sent a message putting it forward’.50 Cunningham believed it was ‘very apparent that the PM, knowingly or not’, had ‘bounced’ the Chiefs of Staff into sending their telegram to the American Chiefs of Staff. Sure enough, two days later the Joint Chiefs of Staff turned down the Brittany idea out of hand, and Cunningham blamed Churchill for being Machiavellian over what was probably only a genuine misunderstanding.

‘What a drag on the wheel of war this man is,’ Cunningham wrote four days later after having three meetings in one day at which Churchill tried yet again to push for the Sumatran operation. ‘Everything is centralized in him with consequent indecision and waste of time before anything can be done.’ Eden noted that Churchill ‘generally seemed very tired and unwilling to address himself to the arguments’, and as a result, ‘Brookie became snappy at times, which didn’t help much.’51 What earlier in the war had been a creative tension between Churchill and Brooke was fast becoming simply mutual friction.

The next day Cunningham was furious that Churchill had ordered Ismay not to circulate a paper on Far East strategy before their 10.30 p.m. meeting, even though it had been ready at 4 p.m. ‘Thus we are governed!!’ he wrote afterwards. ‘I presume he himself has such a crooked mind that he is suspicious of the Chiefs of Staff.’ Part of the problem was the absurd times that these meetings were scheduled: ill-temper could almost be guaranteed at meetings that night after night began at 10.30 p.m. and which could often go on for three or four hours. Cunningham wrote–admittedly after a long, busy and very trying day–that the meeting had been ‘A breeze at the start’ when Brooke asked for time to consider the Prime Minister’s new paper. Its first four paragraphs were devoted to the subjects on which they were to approach the Joint Chiefs of Staff and ‘the way it was to be done, and the fifth arranging to double-cross them’, added the irascible First Sea Lord. ‘I often wonder how we expect the US Chiefs of Staff to have any respect for us. We allow our opinions to be overridden and ourselves persuaded against our own common sense at every turn.’52

On Friday 11 August, the Chiefs of Staff were warned by Ismay in a closed session that Churchill ‘was just raving last night and absolutely unbalanced. He cannot get over having not had his own way over Anvil.’ To Cunningham’s surprise it was the normally placating Charles Portal ‘who suggested that we must have a showdown with him before long if he went on as he is now’. Cunningham agreed, particularly disliking the way Churchill was attempting ‘to dictate’ to the Chiefs of Staff what they should say to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They decided to hold the issue off for twenty-four hours to let the Prime Minister ‘recover his balance a bit’, especially as he was off to Algiers and Italy for a fortnight anyhow. They also concluded that ‘after their exhausting week with the PM’ they would all three go off for the weekend a day early. With the Vice-Chiefs taking the Saturday morning meeting instead, Cunningham went down to Hampshire and repaired his lawn-mower.53

On Tuesday 15 August 1944–Napoleon’s 175th birthday–Operation Dragoon (formerly Anvil) was launched, with seventy-seven thousand troops of the US Seventh Army landing along the French Riviera coast between Cannes and Cavalaire, while an American and British airborne force of nine thousand men landed a few miles inland. The Free French also took part, and casualties amounted to only 520 of the seaborne force, of whom fewer than one hundred were killed. Ten weeks after D-Day, the reserves of German Army Group G had long before moved northwards.

Both Toulon and Marseilles fell on 28 August, Lyons on 2 September, and ten days after that contact was made with Patton’s Third Army at Dijon. With one hundred thousand German prisoners taken, the south of France liberated, 300 miles covered in a month and good supply bases in Toulon and Marseilles secured, Dragoon was, on its own terms, a military success, although the Germans were already withdrawing from southern France in any case. Considering the mutual suspicion and sustained anger that its planning caused in the highest Allied counsels of the war for so long, Dragoon today seems like a typhoon in a teacup, yet on 2 November 1944 Churchill told Bedell Smith and Cunningham that ‘History would pronounce on the Dragoon operation,’ implying that the verdict of Clio would be unfavourable. Cunningham suggested that it would depend on who wrote the history, to which Churchill replied that ‘he intended to have a hand in that’.54

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