Franklin D. Roosevelt finally gets the meeting he wants with Churchill and Stalin- the Big Three. He starts his incredible secret journey aboard the USS Iowa, our newest “super” battleship, captained by his former naval aid, Captain John McCrea. It will be a dangerous voyage in the South Atlantic crossing to Africa with all the members of the president’s top military staff, including General Marshall, the US Army Chief of Staff, Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations, his own head of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral William Leahy, General Henry Arnold, head of the US Army Air Force and many others.
Of course, as it has been noted numerous times, the voyage was dangerous. There was always the threat regarding secrecy and security, regarding news leaks, the threat of land-based German long-range planes, new U-Boats which much more sophisticated weaponry, which had been updated by greater underwater staying power (the snorkel) and their highly secret new “smart” torpedoes. But, what really threatened the Iowa on this crossing was the inadvertent discharge of a torpedo, during a preparedness exercise from the USS Porter which was directed right at the Iowa and its precious cargo, the President of the United States, and the Joint Chiefs. By remarkable evasive action by the Captain McRae, luck, and every small gun trained and firing on the wayward projectile, the tragedy was averted as it was exploded either by the choppy waves or by gunfire. Amazingly, with almost a general panic aboard the ship, FDR, never lost his “cool” insisted he be brought up to the deck to observe the action, and never seemed to be worried or as concerned as everyone else who was involved.
But, in reality what was really happening, was that after three days at sea, and in the “wake” of the missed torpedo, there was still the strategic crisis over the British attempt to insist on a long-delay of the proposed cross-channel (Overload) invasion of Northern France. It seemed it was always about Churchill’s desire to redress his WWI failure at Gallipoli, which was an immense military disaster and cost him his job as First Lord of the Admiralty and his reputation for almost two decades, aside from his well-known failures as battlefield commander on the Western Front.
So, where was the world in November of 1943? FDR, finally, after one year of trying, was able to establish the critical meeting with Stalin, who before would never leave the Soviet Union for a number of reasons. He claimed, as the chief of their armed forces, he could never leave his direct command, he was extremely paranoid, possibly about assassination, had severe fear of flying any distance, among other personal excuses directed back to the president. The Allies were incredibly fearful about a separate German-Soviet peace. The British wanted to preserve their overseas empire, with American assistance (which was opposed by a vast majority of the American public and its leadership.) They certainly wanted to maintain their Mediterranean hegemony from Gibraltar in the West to Crete and Palestine in the East, Egypt in North Africa, with the Suez Canal, with its critical passageway to India, and their political influence over Greece and the Aegean.
As the Iowa heads for Oran, in North Africa, Churchill and his staff are heading from Britain on the HMS Renown, a World War I dreadnaught, to a similar port of call at Malta. The Prime Minister began to recognize the criticality and enormity of this undertaking, with regards to a complete recasting of the Allied war strategy, barely six months before the agreed launch date of Overlord. What a dilemma for Churchill and the whole Allied effort – months earlier, before the Quebec Conference (Quadrant) – the British were talking about the invasion of Northern France sometime in 1945 or even 1946! Even though the date for the invasion was tentatively established for May 1, 1944, in Churchill’s mind it was just a “scrap of paper.” He saw, if possible, the task of the Soviets would be of defeating the Nazis, without much contribution of the Western Allies. Where that would leave Europe seems to be an unanswerable question. But, of course, Churchill imagined the Allies would go north from the Aegean into Eastern Europe and defeat the Germans in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, before the Soviets even reached Poland. The realism of this incredible, fantasied, gambit was never in American consideration. Again, in Churchill’s mind, right up to Tehran, the agreement was nothing more than a piece of “lawyer’s paper” – as he put it, “a contract which Britain could simply decline to observe, or keep asking to defer, each moment, until the bill came due!” This was the existential problem that FDR and the American Joint Chiefs faced as their ship advanced on North Africa. But, in fact, they had no real clue to Churchill’s obstructionism, as they had no idea what was on his mind.
The question that FDR put to his advisers on November 15, 1943, – “aware that at the end of the day, there was no way to enforce the Quebec Agreement, if Churchill resigned (as he threatened to do before) or withdrew the British commitment to the military partnership for the May, of 1944 cross channel endeavor, the war against Hitler would be effectively lost. Of course, if FDR accepted Churchill’s “option” and the Soviets felt betrayed about a “real” Second Front, and worked out a separate peace, an entente-cordial, with Hitler, as opposed to more countless casualties, the US military was between a rock and a hard place – with no obvious way of breaking the deadlock. This is what would face FDR and his advisers as they approached the landing at Oran and his flights to Cairo and Tehran. On the HMS Renown, Churchill bounced his theories, disappointments, and angst off the very receptive Harold MacMillan (a future British Prime Minister), who was serving as the British political advisor to General Eisenhower. Churchill complained that no one listened to him and that his “military genius” was restrained by the Americans, almost like a “man whose hands were tied behind his back” Of course, as many historians have reported, his own Imperial War Staff, led by General (later Field Marshall) Alan Brooke, had grave doubts about his judgment and were constantly offended, and put out with his interference on matters of tactics. His judgement regarding commanders was also questionable. In fact, up to this time he had made numerous mistakes in personnel, dividing his forces, and not judging the strength of the enemy opposition in| the Far East, Burma and the Indian border, the Indian Ocean, ate Aegean, Dieppe, etc.
Macmillan was a perfect sounding board for Churchill, he was classically educated, a bon vivant and an English social and intellectual snob, with his Eton and Oxford education. He by nature looked down his nose at the Americans and had seemingly forgotten the many failures the British had endured, and “began to feel not gratitude for the way the US had helped save Britain in 1942 for mounting Torch (the invasion of North Africa),” but instead a discernible resentment at the growing American economy and military might in the Mediterranean. Of course, the British considered the Mediterranean as their sea, in the words of Mussolini and the old Roman adage, “Mere Nostrum!” thus as the HMS Renown safely reached Malta, where Churchill had a meeting with Lt. General Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, one could readily see that he had no real clue what he wanted to do, and General Alan Brooke, the head of the Imperial War Staff disagreed with almost all of his decisions, his blurred vision, and his mixed messages to Anthony Eden, his Foreign Minister, to Marshall Stalin and to the Americans.
Churchill was, on the surface, quite confidant in the upcoming preliminary meeting in Cairo – codenamed Sextant, which would include Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. Roosevelt, after making a dangerous and heroic trip across the Atlantic, was able to land safely in Dakar and eventually fly to Tunis and then to Cairo. He met with Chiang Kai-Shek, made commitments to help China so they could fight the Japanese who controlled the whole East coast of China, cooperate with our American general Joseph Stillwell, and have the huge Chinese army trained and better armed. The British objected to this meeting. They assumed when the Japanese were beaten, the French would go right back to ruling their Indochinese colonies. Churchill never wanted the precedent of de-colonization to start with removal of the decadent French, who after 100 years of rule, left that forlorn part of the world, worse than when they occupied it. He saw the eventual loss of Hong Kong, Malaya, and India as a disaster that he would do all to prevent.
This meeting would eventually accomplish very little, Churchill was very bitter at the scheduling of the meeting with the Chinese leader, because he felt China had nothing to do with the defeat of Germany. In fact, all the promises that FDR and Churchill grudgingly had made with him would eventually be reversed by Churchill. This duplicity promulgated by the British would later reverberate with disastrous consequences. With the ultimate failure of Sextant and Churchill’s continual disappointment with the American position on Overlord, the scene was set for Tehran and the meeting with Stain.
Here in Tehran, the capital Iran, the most important conference of the 2nd World War, certainly of the first half of the 20th Century and possibly, the whole 20th Century, until our time, the fate of Europe and the world was decided by the Big Three, led by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who initiated this meeting who led each session, Marshal Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union and commander of their armies and Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain.
In this meeting, Churchill, who objected to American command of Europe, though we were supplying two thirds to three quarters of the men and material to the Western cause and supporting the Soviet armies with 10 to 15% of their trucks, planes, ammunition, guns, and equipment through Lend Lease through Iran and the deadly North sea route to Murmansk and Archangel, had to be convinced that the correct path to victory over Nazi Germany was through Northern France.
Churchill seemed to have no interest in that effort, may have actually believed that the Soviets and the Nazis would bleed each other to death, wanted to preserve the British Empire at all costs, and continued to have operations in the Aegean Sea, the Dodecanese Islands, Rhodes, and points east to actuate an invasion of the Dardanelles, and entice Turkey into the war on the Allied side. This was almost dissolution, bordering on irrational. He envisioned, again, a surge northward to liberate Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, from whom, I ask? They were allies of Germany! They needed liberation? What about the western democracies under the thumb of four years of Nazi occupation, featuring; looting, slave labor, tyranny and murder?
What was his purpose to fight in the mountainous terrain of Yugoslavia, and divert attention away from Overlord, the invasion of France? He even opposed the invasion of Southern France, planned under the code name Anvil. Later, when he was convinced of the need for the invasion of Southern France, at Marseilles, he had the code name changed to Anvil-Dragoon, because he was “dragooned” into the controversial, but most successful operation, which would move the American armies up through the Rhone River Valley, under the overall command of General Jacob Devers and Admiral Kent Hewitt. The main ground force for the operation was the US Seventh Army commanded by Alexander Patch. The US Army’s VI Corps, led by Major General Lucian Truscott, would carry out the initial landing and be followed by the French Army B under command of Général Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. Accompanying the operation was a fully mobilized separate detachment called “Task Force Butler”, consisting of the bulk of the Allied tanks, tank destroyers, and mechanized infantry. Despite Churchil’s fears, opposition and fruitless demands, it overwhelmed the light German forces in what had been Vichy France, and was able to liberate most of Southern France and created a southern pincer to the eventual Normandy Invasion and breakout. This was another case of superior American strategy over Churchill’s continued expression of his self-importance regarding overall theories of the conduct of the war.
With regards to more of Churchill’s mistakes and his obsession with the Balkans, eventually, the Germans were driven out of Yugoslavia, with the help of the Allies, Tito and his Red-Star hatted Communists. .They were triumphant as the (pro-American) Chetniks were defeated and their leader, Draz Mihailovich became a hunted man, with a price on his head. The Allies soon recognized their colossal error, with regards to Tito, but the main burden for that failed policy fell into the laps of the British and Churchill later admitted it was his greatest mistake. Frankly, he made many mistakes. The Soviets through their spies in Britain, later known as the Cambridge Five, were able to convince the Brits that the Chetniks were really pro- German and that Tito and his partisans were the force to completely support. After the war, eventually after 18 months or so, on the run, Draza Mihailovich was captured. He had many opportunities to escape, but seemed to be resigned to his fate. Maybe he felt that as long as he remained at-large in Yugoslavia, there was resistance to the Communists. He was captured, indicted and tried for treason. When news of his show trial reached the West, the former OSS men, who had a great deal of experience with him and the American air crews, who were rescued, fed and protected by the Chetniks and General Mihailovich, protested, almost in vain, to the American government. But, that was a hopeless journey and Mihailovich was convicted and in July, of 1946, not long after his conviction he was executed by a firing squad.
Churchill desperately wanted to concentrate on capturing Rome and to surge northward with an idea that he could circumvent the Alps to invade Germany, which no one in history was ever to accomplish. Did he care about the hundreds of thousands of allied causalities in the mountainous territory of Italy? Were his arguments ever sincere? That is the question. Of course, he wrote the history (a six volume set, winning himself the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953) and said he “would bury his mistakes,’ which were legion! In fact, his history was forced by law to omit the reality of ULTRA, the breaking of the German Code, and his omissions of critical issues were historically insincere and frankly terribly inaccurate.
Roosevelt received tremendous support from Marshall Stalin, who knew more of military strategy than Churchill, pointed out all the pitfalls regarding Turkey, the Aegean and the so-called worthlessness of attacking the so-called “soft under belly” of the Axis. For sure Italy was no “soft belly!” Why was the attack and occupation of Rhodes so important to Churchill? Where would that lead? In fact, the British were just thrown out of that region by strong German defenses and counter attacks. He seemed to have forgotten the British failures in Crete, Greece including 1940 and the later ones in 1943, in the Peloponnese, the Dodecanese region, along with the islands of Leros and Rhodes. What was Churchill’s ideas and was he even sincere about invading France even in 1945 or 1946?
Roosevelt was insisting on the American command of the cross channel invasion of France. He intimated that it would be the well-respected General George C, Marshall, the current US Chief of Staff. This was approved by Stalin and Churchill, but the British Prime Minister, who wanted British command of all of Europe, insisted that if the Americans commanded the Overlord Operation the British would command the Mediterranean. Of course, this would be his chance to divert forces back to the Aegean. This compromise, would lead to the backtracking of aid to China, a cancelling of Operation Buccaneer, the invasion of Andaman Islands, which caused the Chinese leadership to lose faith in American and allied support. The Nationalist Chinese thus focused their forces on the communists and Mao Zedong, who controlled northwest China. This turned out to be long-term disaster for China, Indochina, and the immediate postwar future of Southern Asia.
As Eisenhower was later to recall, “It was difficult to escape the feeling that Mr. Churchill’s views were colored” by considerations “outside the scope of the immediate military problem,”: that the Prime Minister was all too, interested in personal objectives, and happy to disregard the military challenges involved, when it suited him. It seemed to Eisenhower that Churchill preferred to focus on British political needs, even personal prizes of low-hanging “fruits” dangling before him in his capacious mind. When “fired up about a strategic project, logistics (maybe reality) did not exist for him. Eisenhower reflected, about Churchill that “Combat troops just floated forward and around obstacles – nothing was difficult.”
In the end, it was not Marshall who would command SHAEF and Overlord. It would be Eisenhower. The conventional wisdom was that Marshall would go to London and Eisenhower to the Pentagon as the new Chief of Staff. Of course, for many reasons this was never going to happen. FDR never really wanted Marshall out of Washington and the United States. When he asked Marshall which he wanted, Chief of Staff or the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. Marshall answered that he would serve the President in any role, with cheerful enthusiasm that the President wished. This was typical of Marshal and FDR saw that he would not make a “personal” commitment!” No one knows what was on FDR’s mind about Marshall’s future role. But, this enabled him to choose Eisenhower. He finessed Britain with the specter of Marshall as the Supreme Commander and he finally choose the most experienced officer in the field, General Eisenhower, who commanded American troops in North Africa and Sicily!
For sure, FDR was at the top of his game, he traveled a perilous 17,000 mile journey, finally met with Stalin, made sure that the Soviets were committed to defeating Germany, and got the recalcitrant Churchill on board for the invasion of Europe, sometime between May and June of 1944. It was a remarkable triumph, aside the unfortunate consequences regarding the British scuttling of the China promises of assistance to Chiang Kai-Shek, and further foolish British adventurism in the East Mediterranean.
Commander in Chief” Nigel Hamilton- volume 2 of “FDR at War”
As I finished book two, “Commander in Chief,” of Nigel Hamilton’s brilliant trilogy, “FDR at War,” I was moved my Winston Churchill’s daughter Mary and her words.
She found the president “magnetic and full of charm,” as she wrote in her diary: “his sweetness to me is something I shall always remember- but he is a raconteur,” she noted. At dinner, the 20 year old wrote, “Mummy is on his right & and several nights no other guests being there I’ve been on his left. I am devoted to him and admire him tremendously- he seems to have fearless courage & and the art of selecting the warmest part of the iron.”
Still so young, Mary thought both her father and the president indestructible. She did, however find herself intrigued, as was Daisy Suckley, (FDR’s cousin) by the contrast between their two characters. “To me,” she noted her diary, Roosevelt, “seems at once generous– idealistic-cynical-warm hearted & worldly-wise-naïve-courageous-tough-thoughtful-charming-tedious-vain-sophisticated- civilized all these and more for ‘by their works ye shall know them’- ‘And what a stout hearted champion he has been for the unfortunate & the battling- and what a monument he will always have in the minds of men. And yet while I admire him intensely and could not but be devoted to him after his great personal kindness to me – yet I must confess (he) makes me laugh & he rather bores me.” The truth was, the President had other things on his mind, despite doing his best to keep the Churchills and their daughter entertained.
Of course, young Mary Churchill was not different from the countless people who met Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He has been described countless ways. His great biographer, James McGregor Burns, characterized him as, in the words of Machiavelli, “The Lion and the Fox!” He was a complex man, who the press called the Sphinx. He kept his own counsel, had few, if any friends, after he contracted polio, as he devoted himself to his recovery. Once Louis Howe died in the spring of 1936 and his devoted private secretary, Missy LeHand had a stroke in 1941, no one was really left from his earliest inner circle, political days. He was an incredibly discreet and private man, who, in the last 25 years of his remarkable life, knew many people, met countless others, but few really knew him personally. His life, given in the service of his country and the world, was heroic, self-sacrificing, and unprecedented. In the 74 years since his passing, no one has been able to fill his Seven League boots.