“The consequences of this discord could have been grave in the extreme.”
By Nigel Hamilton
BY 1943, the Allied war effort was at a crossroads.
In January of that year, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill would meet face-to-face at the Casablanca Conference to map out the alliance’s grand strategy for defeating Hitler. And while the 10-day summit in French Morocco was widely heralded as a sign of unity between London and Washington, behind the scenes there was trouble.
FDR wanted the Allies to follow up on their growing mastery of the battlefields of North Africa with a massive invasion of northern France; Churchill favoured an all-out attack on the Third Reich’s “soft underbelly” by way of Italy or the Balkans. This disagreement would simmer for months and at times become surprisingly heated. Yet amazingly, until recently, we’ve really only heard one side of the story.
An Incomplete Picture
The history of World War Two in 1943 is fraught with misunderstanding. Not only at the time, between the two great Allies, but in subsequent historiography.
Winston Churchill, in his epic six-volume memoirs, The Second World War, appeared to clarify the course of the conflict, thanks to his army of researchers, the tens of thousands of documents he took with him from 10 Downing Street when he lost the prime ministership of Great Britain in 1945, and his magisterial prose. But in truth Churchill only muddied already muddied waters. In fact, as early as 1943, he boasted that once hostilities had ceased he’d “bury” his mistakes.
Conversely, Roosevelt’s perspective on war is largely lost to history — he died three weeks before VE Day. It’s nothing short of amazing that in the seven decades since the war ended, his version of events has never been the subject of a serious study. Yet it was strategic disagreements between FDR and Churchill that almost led to the Allies losing – or rather failing to win – the war in Europe.
The consequences of this discord could have been grave in the extreme. Much ink has been spilled on both sides of the Atlantic as to the merits of Churchill’s preferred Mediterranean-Aegean-Balkan strategy, and Roosevelt’s insistence on mounting D-Day (Operation Overlord) in the spring of 1944.
Filling in the Blanks
American writers have accused Churchill of bamboozling Roosevelt into supporting his Mediterranean “soft underbelly” strategy, despite the strong objections of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. British pundits, meanwhile, have argued that Churchill was rightly put off by the high casualties that a premature D-Day would entail and hoped to delay the Cross-Channel undertaking until it was guaranteed success. Which of these is true, we still wonder seven decades later.
The answer has largely eluded the historians of World War Two because, until now, we have been unable or unwilling to study Roosevelt’s role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States from his point of view. Thanks to postwar security concerns, many of the FDR’s papers were kept secret. Meanwhile, the numerous accounts of the war that were written by American generals and their biographers inevitably minimize Roosevelt’s role in directing the war.
Conversely, Churchill asserted the right to use selected British government documents, almost irrespective of security concerns. His own account of the war not only helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but came to be seen and quoted by historians as gospel. Who, after all, could better know what had been in his mind than Churchill himself? Not even the much-censored diaries of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, the wartime Chief of the Imperial General Staff, nor the much edited diaries of his doctor, Lord Moran, could dent the impact of the the prime minister’s.
Yet, in reality it was Roosevelt who saved the war from being lost by Churchill’s complete misunderstanding of Hitler and the Wehrmacht.
Churchill himself coined the term “soft underbelly” for the southern regions of Nazi-occupied Europe, when meeting Stalin in Moscow in the summer of 1942. Sadly, the prime minister held on to that deluded view – even as the western Allies found themselves in 1943 confronting German forces in Sicily and later Italy who were not only highly professional soldiers, but ruthlessly determined to hold on to the territories they had conquered, often to the last man.
“Soft” was, in truth, a terrible and costly misnomer. Tragically, at no point in 1943 did Churchill recognize his mistake. Instead, he merely poured his genius into opposing the American president. Thus, instead of abiding by the agreement he had made with FDR at Casablanca – namely that U.S. commanders and troops would build up battlefield experience against the Wehrmacht in North Africa and the Mediterranean and then mount a full on amphibious invasion of France in early 1944 – Churchill began a series of deceits and maneuvers worthy of a Shakespearean villain. He traveled not once but twice to North America in 1943 by transatlantic liner, The Queen Mary, with literally hundreds of military advisers and staffers. His mission? To try and persuade the president to abandon the D-Day plan. Unsuccessful, he resorted to sabotage – even meeting with senior U.S. senators and congressmen to persuade them not to back their own president – arguing that D-Day would be a disaster, while the “soft underbelly” of the Mediterranean would be a walkover.
Finally, in the summer of 1943, when Churchill came to Roosevelt’s Hyde Park estate on his second trip to the U.S., the president lost his temper. FDR warned the British prime minister that if he continued to undermine the D-Day operation, America would shut the United Kingdom out of the Manhattan Project, Washington’s top secret atom bomb program.
In fact, the president was so incensed, he insisted that the D-Day invasion would no longer be commanded by a British officer. An American general would head up the operation – one who would make sure it would be mounted in the spring of 1944.
A stunned Churchill returned to Quebec having given his word to toe the line.
The Road to Victory
The Allied commitment to D-Day in the spring of 1944 was thereby saved. However hard – not soft – the underbelly of Europe (Italy, the Aegean islands and the Balkans) proved to be that fall, the D-Day invasion would nevertheless go ahead, thanks to Roosevelt’s firmness.
D-Day would be, as even Hitler declared, the “deciding battle” of World War Two. It is to President Roosevelt’s patient military direction of the war as U.S. Commander in Chief, despite all that Churchill did to oppose him, that we owe the great victory of the western Allies – ensuring the war against evil would be won, not lost.
Nigel Hamilton is the author of Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill, 1943. a best-selling and award-winning biographer of President John F. Kennedy, General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery, and President Bill Clinton, among other subjects. His most recent book, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942, was long-listed for the National Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts, Boston.