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The Road to D-Day

Geoffrey Warner looks at the reasons for the delay in opening a second Allied Front.

'Our country is waging a war of liberation single-handed', complained Stalin in 1941. But it was not until June 6th, 1944, that the Allies opened 'a second front' in Europe with the invasion of Normandy.

During the First World War the Germans had failed to defeat the French and expel their British allies from the mainland of Europe, so that when the Americans entered the war in 1917 they were able to reinforce an already existing front in western Europe. The position in the Second World War was quite different. The fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 meant that the British and the Americans had to recreate a front in western Europe by means of an amphibious invasion before they could even get to grips with the main body of the German armed forces, let alone defeat them. Even after their sensational victories of 1940 the Germans had felt unable to launch an invasion of the British Isles. To mount an operation in the opposite direction was no less fraught with difficulties.

It seemed to many, especially in Britain, that this point was not sufficiently appreciated by the third partner in the coalition against Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union. Despite repeated warnings, the German invasion of the USSR on June 22nd, 1941, had caught the Russians almost completely by surprise, and as the Red Army reeled before the onslaught the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, sent an urgent appeal for help on July 18th to the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. 'It seems to me, Stalin wrote, ... that the military position of the Soviet Union, and by the same token that of Great Britain, would improve substantially if a front were established against Hitler in the West (Northern France) and the North (Arctic).' Churchill replied that while he would do 'anything sensible and effective' to help the Russians, an invasion of France was out of the question. 'To attempt a landing in force', he wrote, 'would be to encounter a bloody repulse, and petty raids would only lead to fiascos, doing far more harm than good to both of us.' He promised, however, to consider aero-naval operations in the Arctic. Stalin was not satisfied. He returned to the charge in further private communications in September and then, on November 6th, 1941, proclaimed his dissatisfaction to the world in a speech in Moscow. 'One of the reasons for the reverses of the Red Army', he declared, 'is the absence of a second front in Europe against the German fascist troops... The situation at present is such that our country is waging a war of liberation single-handed, without military help from anyone ...'

A month later the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler's subsequent declaration of war brought the United States into the conflict. British and American military planners had already agreed that if and when the United States came into the war the defeat of Germany should receive a higher priority than that of Japan, and this principle was reaffirmed at an Anglo-American summit conference in Washington at the end of 1941. It was also agreed that a large-scale land offensive against Germany in 1942 was unlikely, except on the Russian front, but that 'in 1943 the way may be clear for a return to the Continent, via the Scandinavian Peninsula, across the Mediterranean, from Turkey into the Balkans, or by simultaneous landings in several of the occupied countries of Northwestern Europe.'

This agreement reflected British rather than American views. In a strategy paper which he had drafted on his way to Washington, Churchill had argued that the 'main offensive effort' in the west in 1942 should be 'the occupation and control by Great Britain and the United States of the whole of the North and West African possessions of France, and the further control by Britain of the whole North African shore from Tunis to Egypt, thus giving, if the naval situation allows, free passage through the Mediterranean to the Levant and the Suez Canal.' Already engaged against the Germans and their Italian allies in North Africa, the British saw the opportunity to drive them out of the area and to attack Nazi-controlled Europe through its weakest link, Fascist Italy.

The Americans were never happy with this strategy. They felt that a cross-Channel invasion was the only effective way of beating the Germans and that the sooner it was mounted the better. Britain's advocacy of operations in the Mediterranean, they believed, was largely motivated by its political interests in the Middle East. In April 1942 the US army persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to adopt a three-part plan for a cross-Channel attack. The first part, codenamed BOLERO, was for a build-up of American forces in the British Isles. The second, code-named ROUNDUP, was for a large-scale invasion of France in the spring of 1943, while the third, codenamed SLEDGEHAMMER, was for an emergency landing in France in September 1942 in the event of a sudden German collapse or, more likely, a crisis on the Russian front. Apart from the strategic considerations mentioned above, there were a number of reasons why this plan appealed to the President and the US army. On grounds of domestic politics it was important to find a means of involving American troops in the war against Germany as soon as possible. There was also a strong desire to do something to help the Russians, not only to prevent a possible military collapse on their part, but also to offset American unwillingness at this early stage in the war to agree to the Soviet Union's request for certain post-war territorial changes in Eastern Europe. Finally, there was a need to forestall the US navy's incessant pressure in favour of shifting the emphasis of American effort to the Pacific.

Roosevelt sent a high-level mission to London to persuade the British to accept BOLERO, ROUNDUP and SLEDGEHAMMER. They did so in principle, but entertained all kinds of reservations in practice, especially as regards SLEDGEHAMMER. Churchill, who still hankered after his North African operation, subsequently wrote of SLEDGEHAMMER, 'I was almost certain the more it was looked at the less it would be liked.' When the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, visited London and Washington in May and June 1942, he was told by Roosevelt 'to inform Mr Stalin that we expect the formation of a second front this year', but by Churchill that 'we can... give no promise in the matter.'

Britain's lack of enthusiasm for SLEDGEHAMMER, which Roosevelt's military advisers had come to regard as more and more desirable, so exasperated the latter that they proposed retaliation in the form of accepting the navy's policy of concentrating American strength against Japan, thereby overturning the agreed basis of allied strategy. The President vetoed this suggestion, however, and sent another mission to London in July instead with instructions to reach agreement on some operation which would mean American troops fighting Germans in 1942. Since the only operation which the British would agree to was in North Africa, this was reluctantly accepted. It was codenamed TORCH.

In August 1942 Churchill flew to Moscow to break the news to Stalin. The Soviet leader was not at all pleased. He accused the British and Americans of breaking their promises and said that if the British army had been fighting the Germans as much as the Red Army it would not be so frightened of them. At the same time he professed to see some merit in the TORCH operation, which Churchill explained to him by means of his famous crocodile analogy as the prelude to a simultaneous assault upon Hitler's Europe in 1943 via the 'hard snout' (northern France) and the 'soft belly' (Italy). 'May God prosper this undertaking', remarked the ex-seminary student who now ruled Russia in the name of an atheistic creed. The British Prime Minister left Moscow convinced that despite the initial bad feeling he had 'established a personal relationship which will be helpful.' Unfortunately, this was based upon the assumption that if there was to be no cross-Channel invasion in 1942, it would most assuredly take place in 1943. Churchill almost certainly believed this himself, but both British and American military planners thought that TORCH had probably ruled it out.

The TORCH landings took place in French North Africa in November 1942. At an Anglo-American summit conference in Casablanca in January 1943, it was agreed. that once the Germans and Italians had been driven out of North Africa the allies should press on into Sicily. The Americans had been uneasy about further operations in the Mediterranean, but once again the British got their way. As one American planner ruefully commented, 'We came, we listened and we were conquered.'

Although Churchill's military advisers were now certain that a cross-Channel attack in 1943 was impossible, the Prime Minister still appeared to believe that it was not. Moreover, he communicated this view to Stalin. 'We are... pushing preparations to the limit of our resources for a cross-Channel operation in August', he wrote to the Soviet leader on February 12th, 1943. '... If the operation is delayed by the weather or other reasons, it will be prepared with stronger forces for September.' Sooner or later, however, reality was bound to triumph, and at the Anglo-American summit conference in Washington in May it was finally agreed that the invasion of France, soon to be given the new code-name of OVERLORD, could not take place before May 1st, 1944. When Stalin was informed of this decision, relations between the USSR and its allies plummeted to new depths. 'You say that you "quite understand" my disappointment', the Soviet leader wrote bitterly to Churchill on June 24th, 1943. 'I must tell you that the point here is not just the disappointment of the Soviet government; but the preservation of its confidence in its allies, a confidence which is being subjected to severe stress.' To mark their displeasure, the Russians went so far as to recall their ambassadors from both London and Washington.

Paradoxically, during the autumn of 1943, the Americans thought that the British might be able to secure a further postponement of the cross-Channel invasion as a result of Russian support. Following a decision taken at the Anglo-American summit conference in Quebec in August 1943, British and American forces had invaded the mainland of Italy in September. Mussolini's regime had been overthrown in July and its successor not only surrendered to the allies, but joined them against Germany in October. The Germans were determined to hold out in Italy for as long as possible, however, and it soon became clear that far from being a 'soft belly', the country was an exceedingly tough nut. At a conference of the American, British and Soviet foreign ministers in Moscow in October 1943, the situation was explained to Stalin by the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. Stalin asked point-blank whether this meant a postponement of OVERLORD and did not seem to take offence when told that it might. Moreover, the Russians had expressed a strong interest at the conference in persuading the Turks to enter the war and thereby open up some sort of front in the Balkans. This fitted in with Churchill's ideas of mopping up German-controlled islands in the Aegean and extending help to resistance forces in Greece and Yugoslavia. The head of the US military mission in Moscow reported to his superiors in November that the Russians might attach less importance to OVERLORD than they had done hitherto and that they could even propose action in Italy and the Balkans at its expense.

The issue was settled at the first meeting of the three heads of government at Teheran on November 28th, 1943, when Stalin made it clear that the Russians had not changed their minds about the second front. 'They did not consider that Italy was a suitable place from which to attack Germany proper', he said. '... The best method in the Soviet opinion was getting at the heart of Germany with an attack through northern or northwestern France and even through southern France.' While it would be 'helpful' if Turkey entered the war, the Soviet leader added, 'the Balkans were far from the heart of Germany, and while with Turkish participation operations there would be useful, northern France was still the best.' Faced with a united Russo-American front, the British had no alternative but to give way. The May 1944 date for OVERLORD was reaffirmed and Roosevelt promised to nominate a Commander-in-Chief for the operation within the next few days. As if to symbolise the growing predominance of American military power over that of Britain, he was to come from the United States: General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

OVERLORD was launched on June 6th, 1944, a little later than the original target date, but not enough to make any significant difference. Anglo-American disagreements over strategy continued: first between Churchill and Roosevelt over whether OVERLORD should be accompanied by an invasion of southem France (as the President wanted) or by a drive into Yugoslavia and Austria through the Ljubljana Gap (as the Prime Minister wanted); and later between General Eisenhower and Field-Marshal Montgomery over the relative merits of a broad-fronted assault on Germany (favoured by the American) and a concentrated thrust (favoured by the Briton). On both occasions the American point of view prevailed. Having defied Nazi Germany single-handed in 1940-41, Britain was now very much the junior partner in the alliance which finally brought the Third Reich to its knees.

As the archives were opened, first to the official historians and then to the rest of the academic community, we were able to see the arguments over the second front in a clearer perspective. It was soon conceded, for example, that the British had never been totally opposed to a cross-Channel invasion, as some of their American counterparts had suspected, and that many of the reasons they put forward for its postponement – e.g. the shortage of landing craft – were perfectly genuine. It was not that the British did not want OVERLORD; they wanted to ensure that it was a complete success.

By the same token, arguments advanced in the years immediately after the war by such commentators as Hanson Baldwin and Chester Wilmot to the effect that British proposals for operations in the Mediterranean and the Balkans reflected great political sophistication in that they were designed to forestall the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe did not survive the cold light of scholarship. Not only did the British never advocate major operations in the Balkans, but their strategy was not motivated by anti-Soviet considerations, except in the solitary case of Churchill's call for a drive through the Ljubljana Gap in the summer of 1944. Even then he was not supported by his senior military advisers. Moreover, the American insistence upon an early cross-Channel invasion was not as politically naive as these early commentators supposed. The American historian Mark Stoler has shown convincingly that, far from failing to perceive the political consequences of a Soviet military victory, US army planners were well aware of what might happen and argued that the sooner a cross-Channel attack took place, the more chance there would be of preserving some sort of balance of power in post-war Europe.

What of the effects of the dispute over the second front on the Soviet Union? There is no doubt that, from a purely military point of view, the Russians had considerable cause for complaint. Anglo-American operations in northern Africa and Italy were sideshows compared to the cataclysmic struggle taking place on the eastern front. There is no doubt, too, that the Russians were misled by British and American promises about a second front, and it is likely that the repeated postponement of the cross-Channel invasion fed Soviet suspicions that the capitalist powers wanted to see Germans and Russians fight each other to a standstill. As a relatively unknown American senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman, had put it at the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, 'If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible...' But even if these Soviet suspicions were correct – and there is no evidence to support them – did they have any moral right to complain? After all, the Soviet Union itself had hoped to benefit from a similar stalemate between Britain, France and Germany in 1939. Privately, the Soviet foreign ministry even justified the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of August 1939, which had freed Hitler to invade both Poland and western Europe, by 'the need for a war in Europe.' Unfortunately for the Russian people, things did not turn out quite as their leaders had intended.

Geoffrey Warner is Professor of European Humanities at the Open University.

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