IN 1943, to Winston Churchill and to many British, Russian and American people, it sometimes seemed that the Western Allies spent more time talking than fighting Hitler’s armies. Granted, large forces of aircraft battered Germany in a bomber offensive of which much was made in newspapers and cables to Stalin. The Royal Navy, with growing strength and success, continued to wage a vital defensive struggle to hold open the Atlantic convoy routes. U.S. forces fought savage battles with the Japanese in the Pacific. But this was the last year of the war in which shortage of resources severely constrained Anglo-American ground action. In 1944, a vast array of ships, planes, weapons and equipment generated by U.S. industrial mobilisation flooded forth onto the battlefields, arming Allied forces on land, at sea and in the air on a scale such as the world had never seen. Until then, however, Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s armies engaging the Axis remained pathetically small in comparison to those of the Soviets.
The British committed thirteen divisions to North Africa, the Americans six. Of these formations, eight would land in Sicily. Some eleven British divisions in varying states of manning and with insufficient equipment remained at home, training for operations in France or wherever else the prime minister decided to commit them. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of British troops were scattered along the North African littoral, and throughout Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Persia and India. These performed logistical and garrison functions of varying degrees of utility but were not, as Churchill often reminded Alan Brooke, killing Italians, Germans or Japanese. The U.S. Marine Corps was deployed in the Pacific, while Gen. Douglas MacArthur directed a modest army contingent in Australia and New Guinea. In 1943, the latter campaign was dominated by three Australian divisions. A huge Indian army in India, supplemented by British units, pursued desultory operations, but seldom that year deployed more than six divisions against the Japanese. At a time when Stalin and Hitler were pitting millions of men against each other in the east, it is scarcely surprising that the Russians viewed their allies’ Mediterranean activities with contempt.
Most Anglo-American historians agree that a D-Day in France in 1943 would have been a disaster. It is only necessary to consider the ferocity of the resistance the Germans mounted in Normandy between June and August 1944 to imagine how much more formidable could have been their response to an invasion a year earlier, when Hitler’s power was much greater and that of the Allies much less. But it infuriated the Russians that the British and Americans exercised to the full their luxury of choice, such as Stalin lacked after June 1941, about when to engage a major German army. It is possible that the Allies might have got ashore in France in 1943, and stayed there. But the casualties of the campaign that followed would have been horrendous, dwarfing those of northwest Europe in 1944–45. While the Russians fought most of their war beneath the triple goads of patriotism, compulsion and indifference to human cost, the Anglo-Americans were able to husband lives until their industrial resources could be deployed to overwhelming advantage. They chose to deploy far smaller frontline ground combat forces in proportion to their national populations than either Russia or Germany. David French, author of an acute study of the British Army, observes: “In absolute terms the British reduced their casualties716 simply by abstaining for long periods of the war from fighting the kind of intensive land battles in which they were bound to incur heavy losses.”
On February 13, 1943, when it was still hoped that the North African campaign could be wound up within a month, Churchill was exasperated to hear that the Sicilian landing could not take place before July. He cabled Hopkins in Washington: “I think it is an awful thing that in April, May and June, not a single American or British soldier will be killing a single German or Italian soldier while the Russians are chasing 185 divisions around.” He, like the British people, was acutely conscious of the Russians’ losses and—increasingly—of their victories in the Caucasus, at Kharkov, and at Stalingrad. He cabled Stalin constantly about the progress of the RAF’s bomber offensive, and assured him mendaciously that the French invasion plan was being “kept alive from week to week.” When the Chiefs of Staff asked him to press Moscow for information about Russian military plans, he demurred: “I feel so conscious of the poor contribution the British and American armies are making … that I should not be prepared to court the certain rebuff which would attend a request for information.” In a flush of impatience, he asked his Chiefs if the British could launch Husky, as the Sicily operation was now code-named, on their own. No was the firm reply. But in asking the question, Churchill discredited American suspicions that he was reluctant for his soldiers to fight.
February’s defeat at the Kasserine Pass, in Tunisia, where a German thrust drove back in a rout superior U.S. forces, had no strategic significance. Within days, Eisenhower’s troops regrouped and regained the lost ground. But it dealt a decisive blow to hopes of an early end of the campaign. On February 27, Alexander reported on the state of U.S. forces and the three French divisions, mostly colonial troops, now joining the campaign: “Americans require experience717 and French require arms … Hate to disappoint you, but final victory in North Africa is not (repeat not) just around the corner.”
It was a perverse feature of the war that while the British people showed fervent admiration for Russian achievements, they seldom displayed the same generosity towards Americans. The Grand Alliance spawned a host of Anglo-Soviet friendship groups in Britain, but few Anglo-American ones. A Home Intelligence report of January 14, 1943, declared: “At the time of Pearl Harbor, public interest in the US received a momentary stimulus which soon declined and has (in marked contrast to the attitude to Russia and things Russian) remained low ever since.” When news of the Kasserine battle was released in Britain, Violet Bonham Carter recorded in her diary a friend’s story of meeting a vegetable seller in Covent Garden who said: “Good news today, sir!”718 “Have the Russians done well?” “No—the Americans have got the knock.” This, asserted Bonham Carter, represented “the universal reaction” to news of the reverse that had befallen Eisenhower’s army. A best-selling novel of the time was How Green Was My Valley. Attlee jested unkindly that Alexander in North Africa was now writing a sequel, How Green Is My Ally.719 Churchill deleted from a draft of his memoirs a February letter to the king, in which he wrote: “The enemy make a great mistake720 if they think that all the troops we have there are in the same green state as are our United States friends.” Americans were irked to read the findings of a Gallup poll that asked British people which ally was making the greatest contribution to winning the war. Some 50 percent answered721“Russia;” 42 percent “Britain;” 5 percent “China;” and just 3 percent “the United States.”
The British knew that the war was a long way from ending, and were resigned to that prospect. But after more than three years of bombardment, privation and defeats, weariness had set in. It is hard to overstate the impact of the blackout on domestic morale. Year after year, throughout the hours of darkness the gloom of Britain’s cities was relieved by no visible chink of light. As the novelist Anthony Powell observed, few people’s tempers were as sound in 1943 as they had been in 1939. The British were morbidly sensitive to American triumphalism, of which echoes wafted across the Atlantic from these allies who still ate prodigiously and had never been bombed. Harold Macmillan wrote with lofty disdain about the Americans around him in the Mediterranean: “They all look exactly alike to me722—like Japanese or Chinese.”
Tory MP Cuthbert Headlam lamented news of a later U.S. battlefield success: “I am told that our efforts723 are scarcely noted in the American press. I fancy that the Americans after this war are likely to be more swollen-headed and tiresome than after the last; they may well be more troublesome to us than the Russians.” In their hearts, all these men knew that their country could accomplish nothing without the United States, that only American supplies—albeit dearly purchased—made the defeat of Hitler possible. But it was sometimes hard to avoid indulging ungenerous sentiments amid British consciousness that the struggle was reducing their own society to penury, while America grew relentlessly in wealth and might. If many upper-crust British people hoped that the Soviets and Nazis would destroy each other in the course of the war, most Americans seemed equally enthusiastic about the prospect of the British Empire becoming a casualty of victory.
The Russians expressed renewed impatience about lack of progress in the Mediterranean. Stalin cabled Churchill: “The weight of the Anglo-American offensive in North Africa has not only not increased, but there has been no development of the offensive at all, and the time limit for the operations set by yourself was extended.” The Soviet leader said that thirty-six German divisions were being redeployed from the west to the Eastern Front, an unimpressive testimonial to Anglo-American efforts. Churchill persuaded himself that this show of anger reflected the influence of the Soviet hierarchy. He still cherished delusions that he possessed a personal understanding with Stalin, interrupted only when other members of the Moscow politburo demanded a harsher line with the imperialists. Anglo-Russian relations worsened again when the Admiralty insisted on cancellation of its March convoy to Archangel. German capital ships posed a continuing threat off northern Norway, while British naval resources were strained to the limits by Mediterranean and Atlantic commitments. In early spring, for the last time in the war, Allied decryption of U-boat signals was interrupted, with shocking consequences for several Atlantic convoys—forty-two merchant ships were lost in March, against twenty-six in February.
Churchill sought to placate Moscow by promising a dramatic increase in aircraft deliveries via Iran, and 240,000 tons of supplies in August. But, once again, British assurances were unfulfilled because of shipping and convoying difficulties. Stalin cared nothing about these. Why should he have done? He saw only that his armies were being called upon to destroy those of Hitler, aided by more Western words than action. After the war, Brooke expressed surprise on rereading his own diary: “It is rather strange724 that I did not refer more frequently to the news from Russia.” Indeed it was. Some 2.3 million Russian soldiers—and millions more civilians—died in 1943, while British and American forces fighting the Germans lost around 70,000 killed, including aircrew. In Moscow’s eyes, it seemed characteristic that the Western Allies should again suspend supplies to Russia, where the real war was being fought, for the convenience of their own marginal operations in North Africa. Hugh Dalton asked Britain’s Moscow ambassador, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, if there was a danger of the Russians making a separate peace with Hitler: “He says he would not rule this out725, if we continue to seem to them to be doing nothing to help.”
Anglo-Soviet relations were further soured by the Germans’ April announcement of the discovery of thousands of bodies of Polish officers killed by the Soviets in 1939 at Katyn, near Smolensk. On April 15 Churchill told General Sikorski, the Poles’ leader in Britain: “Alas, the German revelations are probably true. The Bolsheviks can be very cruel.” In the Commons smoking room, when Duff Cooper and Harold Nicolson mentioned Katyn to the prime minister, he answered tersely: “The less said about that the better.”726 He urged Sikorski not to make much publicly of the story, to avoid provoking Moscow. Amid Polish rage, this warning went unheeded. The “London Poles” publicly denounced the Russians, who promptly severed relations with them and announced the creation of their own Polish puppet regime. Churchill warned Stalin sharply that Britain, in its turn, would not recognise Moscow’s Poles. Lines were now drawn. Moscow was bent upon a postwar settlement that brought Poland into a Soviet-dominated buffer zone. Churchill expended immense energy and political capital throughout the next two years in efforts to prevent such an outcome. Yet nothing could alter geography: Warsaw lay much closer to the armies of Stalin than to those of Churchill and Roosevelt.
It might be supposed that, in those days, Churchill’s daily existence was eased by the facts that many of the big decisions were taken, his critics had been put to flight by battlefield success, and Britain’s survival was no longer in doubt. But there was no relaxation for a man who had chosen personally to direct the war effort, in the midst of a global struggle, and whose existence was entirely focused upon hastening Allied victory. Ian Jacob described him in bed of a morning: “Sawyers brings the breakfast727; then Kinna is sent for to take something down; meanwhile the bell is rung for the Private Secretary on duty who is asked for news, & told to summon someone, say CIGS or Pug. Then it is the candle for lighting cigars that is wanted. Then someone must get Hopkins on the phone. All this while the PM is half-sitting, half-lying in his bed, breathing rather stertorously, & surrounded by papers.”
Elizabeth Layton, one of Churchill’s typists, remarked that he hated any of his staff to speak, unless they had something of substance to say: “There is nothing in the world he hates728 more than to waste one minute of his time,” she wrote to her parents.
“He is so funny in the car729; he may dictate, or he may just think for the whole hour, mumbling and grumbling away to himself; or he may be watching the various things we pass, suddenly making little ejaculations like ‘Oh—look at the lambs,’ or ‘What kind of aeroplane is that’—to which little reply is expected. I think he knows now that I have learned not to waste his time by making any fool observations, which one might have felt obliged to break the silence by doing.”
That weekend, Churchill was at his most benign. “We had good news730 about Tunisia,” Layton wrote to her parents, “so the boss was in a good temper, and really I’ve seldom had such fun. He was very nice to us all and treated us like human beings for once! Poor man, don’t think I ever blame him for not doing so—it is so understandable.” The prime minister displayed no appetite for a respite from responsibility, and welcomed companionship only to provide himself with an audience. For all his sociability, paradoxically Churchill remained an intensely private person. Moran thought that he kept his own counsel, “sharing his secret thoughts with no one731 … There is no one to whom he opens his heart. Brooke is too cold and critical; he always seems to be doubtful of the P.M.’s facts and often throws cold water on his pet projects.” Alexander, by contrast, was a skilled flatterer. The accommodating Guardsman listened patiently to the prime minister’s monologues. When he himself responded, “he is always so reassuring,”732 in Moran’s words, “always so sure that the P.M.’s plans are right.” The companionship of courtiers and visitors sufficed to assuage Churchill’s restlessness only for short periods. He was driven by a hunger for movement, action and the company of other great men, with whom he could advance great matters.
It had become plain that, even if other factors proved favourable, landing craft would be lacking for a French D-Day in 1943. Lack of shipping also made it necessary to abort a proposed amphibious landing in Burma. Churchill wanted to ensure that the Americans persevered with his Mediterranean strategy, and were neither deflected towards the Pacific nor persuaded to hold back their forces for a later descent on France. He was shocked and angry when he learned that Eisenhower had said that news of two German divisions deployed in Sicily might make it necessary to abort Husky. On April 8, he minuted the Chiefs of Staff that he was bewildered about how the American general could therefore have professed himself so eager for a 1943 invasion of France across the Channel, “where he would have to meet a great deal more than two German divisions … I trust the chiefs of staff will not accept these pusillanimous and defeatist doctrines, from whomever they come.”
John Kennedy wrote, as he watched the prime minister compose one such missive: “I had never seen him dictate before733, and it was most interesting. He mouthed and whispered each phrase till he got it right, & then said it aloud to the typist.” Churchill suggested another meeting with Marshall and Hopkins in North Africa in April, but neither the War Cabinet nor the Americans favoured such a rendezvous. Instead, he decided to go to Washington again. On May 4, he set off from London to Clydebank, and thence onward aboard the great liner Queen Mary to New York.
Throughout the first half of the war, Britain confronted predicaments rather than enjoying options. Henceforward, however, vastly improved circumstances conferred opportunities, and promoted dilemmas. The North African campaign was at last approaching a close. On May 8, British forces entered Tunis and the Americans took Bizerta. At Casablanca, the Americans had endorsed an overwhelmingly British vision for further Mediterranean operations. The two subsequent Anglo-American conferences of 1943, code-named Trident and Quadrant, were dominated by British efforts to sustain the U.S. commitment made in January. Some of the contortions of Marshall and his colleagues reflected a desire to gain control of the Allied agenda, to resist British wishes simply because they were British. It seemed to the Americans intolerable that, when their cash, supplies, aircraft, tanks and—soon—manpower would overwhelmingly dominate future Allied operations, Churchill and his colleagues should still seek to dictate the nature of these.
Each side also cherished its own delusions. For instance, the Americans were uninterested in amphibious operations in Southeast Asia, because these would contribute nothing towards fulfilling their only strategic interest in the region, that of assisting Chiang Kai-shek’s ramshackle war effort in China. On Churchill’s part, he sailed to America in May determined to resist entanglement in the fever-ridden jungles of Burma, eager instead for “an Asiatic Torch”—possible landings on Sumatra, Java or Malaya, all fanciful. Shrewd strategists, notably including the British general Bill Slim, understood that the American drive across the central Pacific would be the key element in Japan’s defeat. British operations in Burma were chiefly designed to “show willing” to the United States, which goes far to explain the prime minister’s cynicism about most things to do with the Asian war.
Churchill and his commanders were justified in their insistence that operations in Sicily, and thereafter some further exploitation in Italy, were indispensable. He told the Chiefs of Staff at a meeting aboard the Queen Mary on May 10: “The greatest step we could take in 1943 … would be the elimination of Italy.” But the British woefully underestimated the difficulties of conducting a campaign on the mainland, and the likely strength of German resistance. They were rash enough to urge upon the Americans a view, reflecting their experience against Mussolini’s troops in North Africa, that occupying most of Italy would be easy.
The Anglo-American armies needed to learn manifold lessons about command structures, air support and large-scale opposed amphibious landings. These the Mediterranean provided in 1943. But, when the Russians were fighting huge and bloody battles in the east, it is unsurprising that American officers recoiled from the prospect that their own ambitions for the coming year should be so modest. Many senior figures in the U.S. Army doubted that the British were sincere about supporting a French D-Day even in the spring of 1944. Marshall and his colleagues, and indeed Roosevelt, were apprehensive that once the Allies got themselves into Italy, they would not be able to easily extricate the forces which it would be essential to shift to Britain before the end of the year.
During Churchill’s first days in America, he visited Roosevelt’s retreat at Shangri-La in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and delivered another magnificent oration to Congress on May 19. When Halifax, at the Washington embassy, fussed that after the war the Americans might demand repayment of Britain’s Lend-Lease debt, Churchill said truculently: “Oh, I shall like that one734. I shall say, yes by all means let us have an account … but I shall have my account to put in too, and my account is for holding the baby alone for eighteen months, and it was a very rough brutal baby … I don’t quite know what I shall have to charge for it.” He was dismayed, however, by a perceived decline in Roosevelt’s health. “Have you noticed that the President is a tired man?”735 he demanded of Moran. “His mind seems closed; he seems to have lost his wonderful elasticity.” While it was true that the president’s health was declining, the real significance of his changed mood was that he was less amenable to Churchill’s blandishments.
The prime minister would have been even more troubled had he known that at this very moment the president was secretly pursuing a bilateral meeting with Stalin, excluding Churchill, through the good offices of the prewar U.S. ambassador to Moscow, the egregious Joseph E. Davies. Davies, like Stafford Cripps, was a devoted admirer of the Soviet Union. During his time in Moscow, he sought to persuade his wife that volleys she heard as NKVD firing squads executed victims of the purges were mere construction workers’ jackhammers. Davies formed a large art collection from works sold to him at knockdown prices by the Soviet authorities, looted from galleries or confiscated from murdered state enemies. His adulatory memoir of his time in Russia was made into a 1943 Hollywood movie, Mission to Moscow, using a script authorised by himself. In May, Roosevelt provided a USAAF aircraft to fly Davies to Moscow carrying prints of the film for Stalin’s edification. Though this deplorable figure failed to arrange the encounter Roosevelt sought, the president’s willingness to employ him reflected shameless duplicity towards Churchill.
The Combined Chiefs of Staff, meanwhile, were locked in close, tense, almost continuous sessions under Marshall’s chairmanship. Brooke, on May 13, made remarks which stunned and appalled the Americans. Dismissing prospects of an early invasion of France, he said that “no major operations would be possible until 1945 or 1946, since it must be remembered that in previous wars there had always been some 80 French divisions available on our side … The British manpower position was weak.” Marshall responded icily: “Did this mean that the British chiefs of staff regarded Mediterranean operations as the key to a successful termination of the European war?” Sir Charles Portal interjected, in a fashion surely designed to limit the damage done by Brooke’s brutal assertion, that “if Italy was knocked out this year, then in 1944 a successful re-entry into NW Europe might well be possible.” British scepticism, said Portal, focused on the notion that a force of twenty to twenty-five divisions could achieve important results across the Channel on the continent of Europe, which was quite impossible “unless almost the entire bulk of the German Army736 was in Russia or the Balkans.”
Brooke once again emphasised that the Red Army alone possessed sufficient mass to engage the full weight of the Wehrmacht: “Russia was the only ally in possession of large ground forces and our strategy must aim to help her to the maximum possible effect.” He wrote in his diary that night: “It was quite evident that Marshall was quite incapable737 of grasping the objects of our strategy nor the magnitude of operations connected with cross-Channel strategy.” The CIGS found the Trident conference one of the most gruelling and depressing experiences of his war. The exchanges that day illustrated his extreme caution, indeed pessimism. Brooke’s reputation as a strategist is significantly damaged by his remarks at the Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting on May 13. Though Marshall was often wrong in 1942–43, thereafter it was Brooke whose judgement was suspect. If the British view prevailed, it was hard to imagine that D-Day would take place in 1944. Never since December 1941 had the two allies’ military leaderships seemed so far apart.
Yet as the Americans fought back, the British gave ground. At last, Brooke’s team acknowledged a “firm belief” that conditions for an invasion of France would exist in 1944. On May 19 the British accepted a target date of May 1, 1944, for a landing in northern France by twenty-nine divisions. Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Morgan was appointed to lead the COSSAC (“chief of staff to the supreme Allied commander”) staff, which would plan the invasion. The outcome, Churchill cabled to Attlee on May 21, was agreement that Britain should have “a free hand” in the Mediterranean until November 1943. Success in Sicily would be exploited to advance the elimination of Italy from the Axis until concentration and redeployment of forces for the French landings began. Brooke wrote, after a meeting with Roosevelt and Churchill at the White House on May 21, “I do not think they realised how near we were to a failure to reach agreement!” He observed four days later that such conferences were
the most exhausting entertainments imaginable738. I am convinced they do a lot of good in securing great understanding between us, and yet—they fall short insofar as our basic convictions remain unaltered. King still remains determined to press Pacific at the expense of all other fronts. Marshall wishes to ensure cross-Channel operation at expense of Mediterranean. [I still feel] that Mediterranean offers far more hope of adding to final success. Portal in his heart feels that if we left him a free hand bombing alone might well win the war. And dear old Dudley Pound when he wakes up wishes we would place submarine warfare above all other requirements … And Winston?? Thinks one thing at one moment and another at another moment. At times the war may be won by bombing … At others it becomes essential for us to bleed ourselves dry on the Continent because Russia is doing the same. At others our main effort must be in the Mediterranean … with sporadic desires to invade Norway and “roll up the map in the opposite direction to Hitler”! But more often he wants us to carry out ALL operations simultaneously!
Churchill was at his most ebullient by the time he and Roosevelt parted. At a final press conference at the White House with Roosevelt on May 26, he delighted the assembled correspondents by clambering onto a chair and giving his famous two-fingered V sign. Then he boarded a Boeing Clipper for Algiers, via Gibraltar, accompanied by George Marshall and Brooke. The three travelled together, to brief Eisenhower about the conference decisions. En route, the aircraft was struck by lightning, awakening Churchill from a deep sleep. He wrote wryly: “I had always wondered why aircraft739 did not mind being struck by lightning. To a groundsman it would seem quite a dangerous thing.” On the day of their later return from Gibraltar, a British plane, on much the same course, whose passengers included the film star Leslie Howard, was shot down by a German fighter, with the loss of all on board. If the hazards of many wartime flights were unavoidable, that of Churchill and his party to Algiers surely entailed extravagant risk. Had the chief of staff of the U.S. Army perished with the prime minister and CIGS, the blow to the Grand Alliance would have been terrible indeed. The party arrived safely, however. As they neared the Rock, Brooke was curiously moved to see the prime minister, wearing what he described as a yachting cap, peering eagerly down through the clouds with a cigar clenched between his lips, looking out for the first sight of land. The soldier, so often exasperated by his master, perceived this as a glimpse of his “very human & lovable side.”740
Churchill spent eight happy days in Tunisia and Algeria, on one of them addressing a great throng of British troops in the ancient amphitheatre at Carthage. “I was speaking,741” he told guests at dinner that night, “from where the cries of Christian virgins rent the air while roaring lions devoured them—and yet—I am no lion and certainly not a virgin.” Eisenhower and Montgomery expressed confidence about planning for the Sicilian landing. Marshall, however, made it plain that he was determined to reserve judgement about future Italian operations until the outcome of the Sicilian campaign became clear.
On June 4, Churchill flew home to Britain in a Liberator. Four days later, he offered a survey of the war to the House of Commons which was justly confident, though Marshall and his colleagues might have disputed his sunny portrayal of Anglo-American relations: “All sorts of divergences, all sorts of differences of outlook and all sorts of awkward little jars necessarily occur as we roll ponderously forward together along the rough and broken road of war. But none of these makes the slightest difference to our ever-growing concert and unity, there are none of them which cannot be settled face to face by heart-to-heart talks and patient argument. My own relations with the illustrious President of the United States have become in these years of war those of personal friendship and regard, and nothing will ever happen to separate us in comradeship and partnership of thought and action while we remain responsible for the conduct of affairs.” Here was, of course, an expression of fervent desire rather than of unfolding reality.
If Churchill expressed satisfaction about the progress of the war, Stalin did not. He cabled Roosevelt, copied to Churchill, to express dismay at Anglo-American postponements of D-Day, then wrote direct to the prime minister on June 24: “It goes without saying that the Soviet Government cannot put up with such disregard of the most vital Soviet interests in the war against the common enemy.” Two days later, Churchill responded by dispatching one of his toughest messages of the war to the Russian leader: “Although until 22nd June 1941, we British were left alone to face the worst that Nazi Germany could do to us, I instantly began to aid Soviet Russia to the best of our limited means from the moment that she was herself attacked by Hitler. I am satisfied that I have done everything in human power to help you. Therefore the reproaches which you now cast upon your Western Allies leave me unmoved. Nor, apart from the damage to our military interests, should I have any difficulty in presenting my case to the British Parliament and nation.” He was growing weary of the Russians, writing a fortnight later: “Experience has taught me that it is not worthwhile arguing742 with Soviet people. One simply has to confront them with the new facts and await their reactions.”
Yet many British citizens sympathised with the Russian view. “I am the last to plead Stalin’s case,”743 Clark Kerr cabled from Moscow on July 1, but it seemed to the British ambassador that the weakness in the British position lay “not in our inability to open this second front but in our having led him to believe we were going to.” Beaverbrook, still chronically disloyal, wrote to Henry Luce, overlord of Time magazine, on July 2: “In my view there is an undercurrent of uncertainty744 [in Britain] whether an attack on Italy can, so far as Russia is concerned, attain the proportions of a real Second Front. The public are convinced that the chance has now come to take the fullest advantage of Russian successes. And no operation in the West which left unaffected the German dispositions in the East would for long meet with popular favour.” Surrey court reporter George King agreed with Beaverbrook: “When Mr. Churchill received the freedom of London745 last week,” he wrote on July 7, “he said it seemed clear that ‘before the leaves of autumn fall, real amphibious battles will be in progress.’ One hopes so, because much as all must dread the casualties, the allies owe such an action to Russia and the slaves of Europe.” Oliver Harvey wrote from the Foreign Office: “To some of the Government it is incredible746, unforgivable, indeed inadmissible, that the Russian can be so successful. This is the attitude of the W[ar] O[ffice].”
On July 10, Allied forces landed in Sicily under the command of Britain’s Sir Harold Alexander. In Washington and London, ministers and generals knew that Husky was marred by all manner of blunders, great and small. The airborne assault was shambolic. Anglo-American command arrangements remained confused throughout the campaign. Italian troops showed no desire to fight seriously, but the two German divisions on the island displayed their usual high professionalism in resisting the attacks of Alexander’s much superior forces. The British and American publics, however, knew little about the bungles. They perceived only the overriding realities that the landings were successful, and that within weeks Axis forces were driven from Sicily. Brooke, who had been profoundly worried about Husky because it reflected a British design, experienced a surge of relief. Churchill, rejoicing, urged the Chiefs of Staff on July 13 to plan ambitiously for follow-up operations in Italy: “Why should we crawl up the leg like a harvest bug, from the ankle upwards? Let us rather strike at the knee.” He wanted early amphibious landings, even before Sicily was cleared, directed against Naples and Rome. On July 16, he told Smuts: “I believe the President is with me: Eisenhower in his heart is naturally for it.”
Macmillan pitied Eisenhower, attempting to fulfil his role as Mediterranean supreme commander amid a constant bombardment of cables marked “private, personal and most immediate,” and emanating variously from the Combined Chiefs of Staff, Marshall, Roosevelt, Churchill direct, Churchill through the Foreign Office, or Eden through the Foreign Office. “All these instructions,”747 observed Macmillan laconically, “are naturally contradictory and conflicting.” He and Ike’s chief of staff, Walter Bedell Smith, endeavoured to sort and reconcile such communications and decide which should be acted upon.
Even as Churchill enthused about the prospects in the Mediterranean, he began to waver again about Overlord, as D-Day in France would henceforward become known. On July 19 he told the Chiefs of Staff that he now had doubts whether the forces available in Britain by May 1, 1944, would suffice for a successful landing “in view of the extraordinary fighting efficiency of the German Army, and the much larger forces they could so readily bring to bear against our troops even if the landings were successfully accomplished. It is right for many reasons to make every preparation with the utmost sincerity and vigour, but if later on it is realised by all concerned that the operation is beyond our strength in May and will have to be postponed till August 1944, then it is essential that we should have this other consideration up our sleeves.” He urged them to dust down Jupiter, his long-cherished scheme for a descent on northern Norway.
Oliver Harvey wrote admiringly in his diary on July 24 about the firmness with which Churchill had dismissed a proposal from Henry Stimson, visiting London, to advance the May 1 D-Day date: “On this, I’m thankful to say748, the PM will refuse absolutely to budge. On military affairs he is instinctively right as he is wrong on foreign affairs. As a war minister he is superb, driving our own Chiefs of Staff, guiding them like a coach and four, applying whip or brake as necessary, with the confidence and touch of genius.” Even though Stimson’s proposal was indeed misguided, Harvey’s accolade was ill-timed. Churchill’s renewed foot-dragging showed him at his worst. For eighteen months, he had staved off Marshall’s demands for early action in France. The British had the best of the arguments, at the cost of fuelling American mistrust and resentment. Back in May, Brooke had written, expressing exasperation with perceived American inconsistency of purpose, “Agreement after agreement may be secured on paper749, but if their hearts are not in it they soon drift away again.” Yet Marshall and his colleagues could have applied the same strictures to the British, with at least equal justice.
Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Morgan, appointed by the Chiefs of Staff to lead Allied planning for Overlord, later became embittered when he perceived himself marginalised before D-Day eventually took place. Yet his postwar private observations cannot be wholly discounted. “I firmly believe,”750 he told U.S. historian Forrest Pogue in 1947, “that [Churchill and his Chiefs] returned from Casablanca fully determined to repudiate the agreement that they had been forced there to sign with the Americans [for an invasion of France] … Apart from a mere dislike of the project, the British authorities proceeded to make every possible step to impede progress in NW Europe by diverting their forces, as unobtrusively as possible, to other theatres of war.” Morgan expressed his conviction that his own appointment was made in the expectation that he would eventually be sacrificed “as a scapegoat when a suitable excuse should be found for withdrawing British support from the operation.” Morgan cited the scepticism about Overlord of Admiral Cunningham, whom he quoted as saying, “I have already evacuated three British armies in the face of the enemy and I don’t propose to evacuate a fourth.” Morgan thought far more highly of the U.S. Chiefs of Staff and of Eisenhower than of the British leadership: The “Br. side … had suffered long series of disasters and had become ‘casualty conscious’ to a very high degree. Br manpower sit. In a state of bankruptcy. Inconceivable that Br. could play other than minor part in … reconquest of Europe from the Germans.”
The Americans did not, of course, read the prime minister’s July 19 minute to his Chiefs. But from the late summer of 1943 onwards, they perceived continuing British wavering about D-Day which they were now implacably—and rightly—committed to override. Churchill’s hesitation about an invasion in 1944 reflected an apprehension about the fighting power of an Anglo-American army against the Wehrmacht which was unworthy of the Grand Alliance now that its means were growing so great, its huge mobilisation approaching maturity, and the Germans so much weakened by the Red Army. While a mere eight British and American divisions were fighting the only Allied land campaign against the Germans in Sicily, where the Allies lost six thousand killed, four million Russians and Germans had been locked in a death grapple at Kursk, which cost Hitler a decisive defeat and half a million casualties.
Churchill’s new strategic vision embraced some wild notions. On July 25, Mussolini resigned and Italy’s government fell into the hands of King Victor Emmanuel III and Marshal Pietro Badoglio. The Italian dictator’s fall prompted Churchill to revive one of his favourite schemes, a descent on Italian-occupied Rhodes, designed to drag Turkey into the war. This ambition would precipitate a minor disaster later in the year, the Dodecanese campaign. Churchill’s standing in American eyes would decline steadily between the summer of 1943 and the end of the war, and he himself bore a substantial share of responsibility for this. It is true that his wise warnings about the future threat posed by the Soviet Union were insufficiently heeded, but this was in significant part because the Americans lost faith in his strategic judgement.
He persuaded Washington that a new summit was now needed, to settle plans for Italy. This meeting, Quadrant, was to be held in Quebec. On August 5, 1943, he stood on the platform at Addison Road Station, in west Kensington, singing, “I go away / This very day / To sail across the sea / Matilda.” Then his train slid from its platform northwards to Greenock, where his two hundred–strong delegation boarded the Queen Mary, once more bound for Canada. Churchill landed at Halifax on August 9, and remained in North America until September 14, by far his longest wartime sojourn there. Since it was plain that the big decisions on future strategy would be taken by Americans, as usual he sought to be on the spot, to deploy the weight of his own personality to influence them. While the Combined Chiefs of Staff began their debates in Quebec, Churchill travelled by train with his wife and daughter Mary to stay with Roosevelt. At Niagara Falls, he told reporters: “I saw these before you were born. I was here first in 1900.” A correspondent asked fatuously: “Do they look the same?” Churchill said: “Well, the principle seems the same. The water still keeps flowing over.”
At Hyde Park it was stifling barbecue weather, and grilled hamburgers and hot dogs were served. Churchill fumed about reports of Nazi mass killings in the Balkans. He sought to interest the president in the region, with little success. Then the two leaders travelled to join the discussions of their Chiefs of Staff. The venue had been chosen to suit common Anglo-American convenience, without much heed to the fact that it lay on Canadian soil. Moran wrote that Canada’s premier, Mackenzie King, resembled a man who has lent his house for a party: “The guests take hardly any notice of him751, but just before leaving they remember he is their host and say pleasant things.” Secretary of State Cordell Hull was permitted by Roosevelt to make one of his rare summit appearances at Quadrant, not much to his own satisfaction. Unwilling to share Churchill’s late hours, one midnight Hull announced grumpily that he was going to bed. The prime minister expressed astonishment: “Why, man, we are at war!”
Stalin was making threatening demands for a Russian voice in the governance of occupied territories. He cabled from Moscow, demanding the creation of a joint military commission, which should hold its first meeting in Sicily. In Quebec, Churchill warned the Americans of “bloody consequences in the future … Stalin is an unnatural man. There will be grave troubles.” He was correct, of course. Thereafter, the Russians perceived the legitimisation of their own conduct in eastern Europe. Since the Western Allies decreed the governance of territories which they occupied, the Soviet Union considered itself entitled to do likewise in its own conquests.
But the central issue at stake at Quebec was that of Overlord. The Americans were implacably set upon its execution, while the British continued to duck and weave. Wedemeyer wrote before the meeting that it was necessary for the U.S. Chiefs to advance a formula which would “stir the imagination and win the support752 of the Prime Minister, if not that of his recalcitrant planners and chiefs of staff.” Marshall’s biographer Forrest Pogue remarks of Churchill in those days: “As usual, he was full of guile.”753 This seems to misread the prime minister’s behaviour. Opportunism and changeability, rather than studied cunning, guided most of his strategic impulses. Yet there is no period of the war at which American dismay754 about British behaviour seems better merited than autumn 1943, as Eden and others acknowledged. Churchill and his commanders had always professed themselves committed to launching an invasion of Europe in 1944. At the Casablanca and Washington conferences, the British had not argued against Overlord in principle, but merely fought for delay. Now, it seemed, they were altogether reneging.
Churchill opened at Quebec by reasserting principled support for an invasion. But he pressed for an understanding that if, in the spring of 1944, the Germans deployed more than twelve mobile divisions in France, the operation should not take place. Sir Frederick Morgan, director of the Anglo-American COSSAC staff planning the invasion, suggested that if the Germans appeared capable of deploying more than fifteen divisions against the beachhead in the two months following D-Day, a landing should be deemed impracticable. When the Germans flooded the river plains around Caen a few days before the conference began, COSSAC’s operations division minuted: “The full implications of this have not yet been assessed755, but it is quite possible that it will finally ‘kill’Overlord.” Brooke made plain his continuing scepticism about the operation’s feasibility.
The British case was that the immediate strategic priority was to seize the chances of the moment in the Mediterranean, rather than to stake everything upon a highly dangerous and speculative cross-Channel attack. In war, they argued, circumstances were always changing. They were more realistic than the Americans, in their understanding that a decision to enter Italy was irrevocable: “If we once set foot on the Italian mainland,”756 wrote John Kennedy, “we are in for a big commitment … The Americans I am sure do not realise that limited operations in Italy eg against Naples, are impossible. We must either stop at the Straits of Messina or go the whole hog.” On August 17, Churchill received a characteristically triumphalist signal from Alexander: “By 10 am this morning, the last German soldier was flung out of Sicily.” The prime minister’s enthusiasm for his favourite general seldom flagged, and he applauded the Sicilian operations as “brilliantly executed.” Yet it had taken thirty-eight days for much superior Allied forces to expel less than three German divisions. Far from being “flung out” of the island, Gen. Albert Kesselring’s troops had been inexcusably allowed to withdraw in good order across the Straits of Messina with most of their vehicles, guns and equipment.
At all the wartime conferences there was a notable contrast between the strains upon the principals, middle-aged and elderly men contesting great issues day and night, and the delights afforded to hundreds of attendant supporting staff who did not bear their responsibilities. The latter—staff officers, officials, clerks, ciphering personnel—worked hard at the summits, but also played hard. Duty officers were always in attendance upon the Teletype machines which rattled forth signals and reports around the clock. Typists composed minutes of that day’s meetings, and planners prepared drafts for the next. But it seemed miraculous to these young men and a few women to be delivered for a few weeks from rationed, battered, darkened England, to bask in bright lights and prodigious quantities of food and drink, all of it free. Most danced and partied enthusiastically through the nights, while their great men wrangled. The English visitors revelled in shopping opportunities unknown in Britain for four years.
Events did more than changes of heart to patch up Anglo-American differences at Quebec. The known readiness of the new Italian government to surrender made it plain to Marshall and his colleagues that Allied forces in Sicily must advance into Italy. It seemed unthinkable to leave a vacuum, which the Germans could fill as they chose. The British, for their part, professed to endorse the Overlord plan presented by Morgan and the COSSAC team. There was much bickering about a cutoff date at which Allied divisions earmarked for France would have to be withdrawn from the Mediterranean, and thus about what objectives in Italy might feasibly be attained beforehand. Churchill, who dreamed of Allied armies driving towards Vienna, instead reluctantly endorsed a line from Livorno to Ancona by November, saying: “If we can’t have the best, these are very good second bests.” In the event, of course, Livorno and Ancona would not be taken until late June 1944. But in the heady days of August, the Allies still supposed that, once the Italians surrendered, the Germans would not make much of a fight for Mussolini’s country.
When the conference ended on August 24, Ian Jacob wrote, “There seems to be general satisfaction, though I can’t see what has been decided which takes us much beyond Trident.” The “general satisfaction” was merely a matter of public courtesy. Brooke wrote, “The Quebec conference has left me absolutely cooked.”757 He subsequently acknowledged that758, at this time, he was close to a nervous breakdown. The Americans, for their part, were deeply unhappy about British conditionality towards Overlord. Churchill’s team had not for a moment abandoned their determination to keep the Allies deeply engaged in Italy, even at risk to D-Day. After a brief break at a mountain camp for fly-fishing—not a pastime which Churchill indulged with much conviction—he travelled to Washington, where he spent the next five days urging the need to hasten operations in Italy. On September 3, Italian representatives signed the surrender document at Cassibile, in Sicily, while at dawn units of Eighth Army landed on the Italian mainland north of Reggio. Five days later, the British 1st Airborne Division seized the port of Taranto without opposition, which Churchill dubbed “a masterstroke” in a laudatory signal to Alexander.
On September 9, Mark Clark’s Fifth Army staged an amphibious assault at Salerno, precipitating one of the bloodiest battles of the campaign, and a near disaster. “It was like fighting tanks759 barehanded,” wrote an American infantry lieutenant colonel facing a panzer assault on the beachhead. “I saw riflemen swarm over the top of moving German tanks trying to shoot through slits or throw grenades inside. Other tanks would machine-gun them off. They ran over wounded men … and spun their treads.” In the first hours, Clark was sufficiently panicked to order reembarkation, until overruled by Alexander. At painful cost, a perimeter was established and held. That day, as German forces raced to occupy key strategic positions across southern Italy, the Italian fleet set off toward Malta to surrender. Its flagship, the battleship Roma, was sunk en route by German bombers, once again demonstrating the Luftwaffe’s skills against maritime targets. A mad Allied plan for a parachute assault on Rome was mercifully cancelled at the last moment. Even the Anglo-Americans at their most optimistic were forced to acknowledge that, against the Germans, such an adventure would prove disastrous.
Churchill was mortified that, once again, he was in Roosevelt’s company when bad news came. He had held out to the president a prospect of easy victory in Italy. Now, instead, they learned of savage enemy resistance at Salerno. The British were naïve in anticipating that a surrender by Italy’s government must of itself deliver most of the country into Allied hands. Brooke had told the Combined Chiefs of Staff on May 13: “He did not believe Germany would try to control760 an Italy which was not fighting.” He and Churchill were importantly deceived by Ultra decrypts, which showed that the Germans intended to abandon most of Italy without a fight.
In the event, however, and as so often, Hitler changed his mind. This was a direct consequence of the Allied armies’ poor showing, in German eyes, on Sicily and at Salerno. Anglo-American commanders and men exposed their limitations. Montgomery’s performance was no more impressive than that of Mark Clark. The Germans were astonished by the ease with which some British and American soldiers allowed themselves to be taken prisoner. Kesselring, the German commander on the spot, concluded that defending Italy against such an enemy might be less difficult than he had previously supposed. He reported accordingly to Hitler. The führer responded by ordering a vigorous defence of the peninsula, a task Field Marshal Kesselring—appointed German supreme commander in Italy on November 6—undertook with extraordinary energy and effectiveness. Allied fumbling of the first phase of operations in Italy thus had critical consequences for the rest of the campaign.
In those days in America, Churchill became excited by a possible landing on the Dalmatian coast, using 75,000 Polish troops and possibly 2nd New Zealand Division. On September 10, Roosevelt departed for Hyde Park, leaving Britain’s prime minister installed in America’s capital: “Winston, please treat the White House as your home,” said the president generously, urging him to invite whomever he liked. Churchill used this licence to the full, summoning Marshall to press upon him the case for hastening reinforcements to Italy. On September 14, at last he returned to Halifax, to board the battle cruiser Renown for home. His American hosts were glad to see him go. Their enthusiasm for his exhausting presence had worn as thin as their patience with his Mediterranean fantasies. Roosevelt’s secretary William Hassett wrote after their visitor’s previous Washington departure in May: “Must be a relief to the Boss for Churchill is a trying guest761—drinks like a fish and smokes like a chimney, irregular routines, works nights, sleeps days, turns the clocks upside down … Churchill has brains, guts … and a determination to preserve the British Empire … He has everything except vision.” This was a view now almost universal within Roosevelt’s administration. Harry Hopkins told Eden, when the foreign secretary visited Washington, that the president—and indeed Hopkins himself—“loves W as a man for the war762, but is horrified at his reactionary attitude for after the war.” Hopkins spoke of the prime minister’s age, “his unteachability.”
The leaders of the United States were justly convinced that a cherry-picking approach to strategy was over. British evasions over a cross-Channel attack were no longer justifiable. If the Western Allies were to engage land forces on the continent of Europe in time to affect outcomes before the Russians defeated Hitler on their own, Overlord must take place in 1944. Henceforth, commitments in Italy must be adjusted to fit the overriding priority of the invasion of northwest Europe, and not vice versa. Marshall and his colleagues could scarcely be blamed for their exasperation at the prime minister’s renewed pleas for a descent on northern Norway, and the fit of enthusiasm with which he was seized for operations in the eastern Mediterranean.
It was widely expected both in Washington and London that Marshall would command Overlord. Churchill had broken it to Brooke at Quebec that his earlier insouciant offer of this glittering appointment to the CIGS was no longer open. It was foolish of both the prime minister and the general to have supposed that a British officer might be acceptable for the role; and even more so of Brooke, by his own admission, to sulk for several months about his disappointment. He possessed a sublime, and exaggerated, conceit about his own strategic wisdom. He had grievously injured himself in American eyes by prevarications about Overlord, even more outspokenly expressed than those of the prime minister. Brooke had no just claim to command of an operation which for months he had denounced as premature.
Only an American could credibly lead this predominantly American crusade, but Roosevelt kept open until November his choice of appointee. Marshall wanted the job, sure enough. The chief of staff of the army indulged a brief fantasy763 that Sir John Dill might be his deputy, or even—if the British persuaded the president that one of their own should command—that the former CIGS might be supreme commander. Stimson wanted Marshall, because he believed that the chief of the army alone had the authority and strength of character to overcome the “mercurial inconstancy”764 of the prime minister.
There was always a paradox about Churchill as warlord. On the one hand, he had a wonderful instinct for the fray, more highly developed than that of any of his service advisers. Yet his genius for war was flawed by an enthusiasm for dashes, raids, skirmishes, diversions, and sallies more appropriate—as officers who worked with him often remarked—to a Victorian cavalry subaltern than to the director of a vast industrial war effort. The doctrine of concentration of force, an obsession of the Americans’ and especially of Marshall’s, was foreign to his nature. Though Churchill addressed his duties with profound seriousness of purpose, he wanted war, like life, to be fun. This caused the American service chiefs, earnest men all, not infrequently to think him guilty of frivolity as well as of pursuing selfish nationalistic purposes.
Brooke, meanwhile, was perhaps the greatest staff officer the British Army has ever known. But experience of fighting the Germans for four years with chronically inadequate resources had made him a cautious strategist, and by this stage of the war an unconvincing one. He shared the Americans’ impatience, indeed exasperation, with Churchill’s wilder schemes. But in the autumn of 1943 and indeed well into the winter, Brooke was joined to the prime minister in a common apprehension about Overlord. American resolution alone ensured that the operational timetable for D-Day was maintained. If Roosevelt and Marshall had been more malleable, the British would have chosen to keep larger forces in Italy, especially when Clark’s and Montgomery’s advances languished. D-Day would have been delayed until 1945.
The Allies were now committed to take the port of Naples, and exploit northwards to Rome. Thereafter, they had uneasily agreed that the future of the Italian campaign should be settled in the light of events. John Kennedy wrote on September 3: “It will be interesting to see whether the Americans have judged the Mediterranean war better than we have.” He himself bitterly regretted the scheduled diversion of forces from Italy to Overlord: “But we cannot dictate and I doubt if we could have done more765 to persuade the Americans. They are convinced that the landing in France is the only way to win the war quickly, & will listen to no arguments as to the mechanical difficulties of the operation or the necessity of weakening & drawing off the Germans by means of operations in the Medn.” A month later, he was still writing about the arguments concerning “the Mediterranean versus Overlord strategy,” but the War Office seemed resigned to the likely triumph of the latter: “In the end I suppose that we shall probably go into France766 with little opposition & the historians will say that we missed glorious opportunities a year earlier etc. etc.”
Beaverbrook had tabled a new motion767 in the House of Lords calling for a Second Front. Now, he allowed himself to be wooed back into government as lord privy seal by Churchill’s private assurance that the invasion was fixed for the following summer. Beaverbrook’s recall exasperated many ministers. Churchill spoke passionately of his friend to W. P. Crozier of the Manchester Guardian: “I need him, I need him768. He is stimulating and, believe me, he is a big man.” Sir John Anderson felt it necessary to call the ministerial grumblers to order. “He says we must not make things too hard for the PM769, who is conducting the war with great skill,” recorded Dalton. “The PM was very unhappy during the period when Beaverbrook was not one of his colleagues. He is a sensitive artist, attaching great value to ‘presentation’ and the quality of the spoken word. He likes to have around him certain people, whose responses will not be jarring or unwelcome. He has valued Beaverbrook for this for many years. We must not, therefore, be too particular, even if things are sometimes not done in quite the most regular or orderly way.” Beaverbrook’s irregularities included, at this time, assisting Randolph Churchill to pay his debts. Though such subsidy certainly did not influence the prime minister’s conduct towards him, it reflected a fundamentally unhealthy relationship, such as Beaverbrook contrived with many of his acquaintances.
The Americans found much more substantial cause for complaint about the prime minister’s behaviour. Transatlantic debate remained dominated by British attempts to regard the Overlord commitment as flexible, and by U.S. insistence upon its inviolability. Given American primacy in the alliance which was now increasingly explicit, Churchill and Brooke must have known in their hearts that D-Day was almost certain to happen the following summer. But their attempts to suggest otherwise ate deeply into the fretwork of Allied trust. The Americans were wrong in supposing that Churchill’s policy was directed towards ensuring that Overlord never took place at all. The huge and costly infrastructure already being created in Britain to support an invasion of France—not least Churchill’s cherished Mulberry artificial harbours—disproved that allegation. The prime minister’s “inconstancy” related exclusively to timing, but was none the less injurious for that. As for the British public, Surrey court reporter George King was unimpressed by Churchill’s flowered phrases about the Italian campaign: “He says a Second Front is in existence770, but I can’t see it myself.”
King’s impatience with the progress of the war was widely shared. The left displayed astonishing venom towards the government. Communist Elizabeth Belsey, a highly educated woman of notable intellectual tastes as well as revolutionary fervour, remarked in a letter to her husband that the sudden death of Sir Kingsley Wood, the chancellor, “will save a piece of rope later on.”771 In September 1943 she wrote that she and friends “amused ourselves making lists of the people who ought to be shot first when the time for shooting comes … [Walter] Citrine [TUC general secretary], Morrison, Halifax, [Lord] Londonderry, Lady Astor, [Sir James] Grigg and a heap more.” She was disgusted by the hostility towards Russia displayed by the Polish exile government in London, and exulted at the deaths in a Gibraltar plane crash of its leader, General Sikorski, and the Tory MP Victor Cazalet: “No loss … I never did like having that Sikorski person on our side, did you?”772
The Russians, of course, welcomed every manifestation of public dissatisfaction with Allied operations. On August 6, Pravda offered its readers one of its more temperate commentaries:
It would be wrong to belittle the importance of allied military773 operations—the bombing of Germany by British and American air forces, and the importance of supplies and military material being provided to us. Nonetheless, only four German divisions opposed our allies in Libya, a mere two German divisions and a few Italian ones in Sicily. These statistics suffice to show the true scale of their operations as compared to those on the Soviet-German front where Hitler had 180 German divisions and about 60 divisions of his “allies” in the summer of 1942 … The armies of our British and American allies so far have had no serious encounters with the troops of Hitler’s Germany. The Second Front so far does not exist.
What is the Second Front? There is no cause to heed the waffling of certain people who pretend that they don’t know what we are talking about; who claim that there is already not only a second front, but also, a third, a fourth, and probably even a fifth and a sixth front (including the air and submarine campaigns, etc.). If we are to speak seriously about a second front in Europe, this would mean a campaign which, as comrade Stalin pointed out as early as the autumn of 1942, would divert, say, sixty German divisions and twenty of Germany’s allies.
We know all the excuses used to justify delays … for example, arguments about [Hitler’s] mythological “Atlantic Wall,” and the allegedly insoluble shipping problem. The “impregnable Atlantic Wall” exists only in the minds of those who want to believe in such lies … After the success of the big allied landing in North Africa last year, and that of the allies’ operation in Sicily, it seems ridiculous to cite “shipping problems” where a landing in Western Europe is concerned.
Amid the torrent of Soviet propaganda, bombast and insults, it was hard for British and American ministers and diplomats to know what Moscow’s real views were. Long after the war, Molotov conceded to a Russian interviewer that Stalin was much more realistic than he ever acknowledged to Churchill and Roosevelt. The old Soviet foreign minister spoke gratefully of the Italian campaign:
Even such help was serviceable to us774. After all, we were not defending England, we were defending socialism, you see. And could we expect them to help the cause of defending socialism? Bolsheviks would have been idiots to expect this! We just needed to be able to press them, to say “what villains you are!” … The [British] people of course realized that Russians were fighting while their own country wasn’t. And not only did [the Anglo-Americans] hold back, they wrote and said one thing to us, but did something completely different. This made their own people see the truth and ask their own leaders: why are you playing tricks? This undermined faith in the imperialists. All this was very important to us.
In Britain, in 1943, there were more miners’ strikes than at any time since 1900. The Times editorialised on September 3, amid another standstill in the pits: “The disposition to strike … may have some common origin. There is a too prevalent view that the war is going so well that effort in industry can be relaxed.”
Trades unionist Jack Jones wrote to Brendan Bracken from Cardiff on October 3, 1943:
I think I may claim to know the mind of our workers775, who are quite as loyal as the men and women of the Forces. Yet they strike! And at a time when it is more important than ever that they shouldn’t. There may be even more disastrous stoppages through the coming winter.
Time itself induces war-weariness and frayed nerves, especially when what one is doing is unspectacular, out of the limelight and monotonous … A gnawing doubt is a sort of match ready to set aflame an undefined resentment against war conditions … What they want to steady them is a tonic. I remember during the last war the tonic effect on the South Wales miners of a visit and talk by L[loyd] G[eorge] … But this war dwarfs the last, and Mr. Churchill has had much more on his plate than ever L.G. had … My faith in Mr. Churchill’s leadership is greater than ever. But I feel that now his capacity for inspiring others should, if it is humanly possible, be devoted to the steadying and inspiring of the splendid production line of our Home Front.
Churchill’s failure to reach out explicitly to the industrial working class, beyond his national broadcasts and speeches, in part reflected disinclination. He preferred to address himself to the conduct of the war and foreign affairs; and in part, also, there was the fact that he had little to say to the factory people which they would wish to hear. He left to Ernest Bevin, in particular, the task of rallying Labour-voting miners and factory workers. He himself could not offer such people the vision of postwar Britain, and especially of socialist change, on which their hearts and minds were set. Churchill’s single-minded commitment to victory lay at the heart of his greatness as a war leader. But for a growing number of his people, in the autumn of 1943 this was not enough.
In that season, between the Italian and Normandy campaigns, he made one of his last attempts to implement an explicitly British strategic initiative, against American wishes. He believed that the eastern Mediterranean offered opportunities for exploitation, which Washington was too blind to recognise. He therefore sought to address these with exclusively British forces. The consequence was a disaster, albeit minor in the scale of global war, which emphasised in the most painful fashion Germany’s residual strength, together with the limitations of British power when the United States withheld its support.