I have been reading the recent biography of the British CIGS Alanbrooke, and been struck by the clear and concise explanation of the differences between the British and Americans over the ‘second front’ in Europe, and when it could be.
Even pre the American entry to the war, the ‘Germany first’ principle had been agreed between Churchill and Roosevelt. After American entry, and despite the immediacy of the Japanese threat, the same principle was reinforced. And it was a principla that Marchall and his handpicked planner Eisenhower, thought very sensible.
One of the first agreements between the Allies was for ‘Bolero’, which was an American buildup in Britian in preparation for a future invasion. It was very clear in the dark days of early 1942 that this would be a long term proposition, but it was always hoped that circumstances might change enough to make it possible in the shorter term, and the intention was to have as much ready to go as possible, and as soon as possible.
A plan put together for the incredibly unlikely event of sudden German collapse, was Sledgehammer. This was the understtanding of Sledgehammer adopted by most Americans. A very limited offensive by very inadequate forces, which could only succeed had Germany already gone close to collapse. Given the circumstances this was somewhat delusional, but it never hurts to plan for eventualities, and the British were happy to go along with this sort of plan.
[Even in the dark days of March to April 1942 when the Phillipines and Malaysia and the Netherlands East Indies had fallen; Burma and New Guinea were under threat; Rommel wa advancing in North Africa; the German armies in Russia were closing in on the Middle East oilfields (which meant the British were actually withdrawing units previously assigned Egyptian and Burmese defences to concentrate them in Iran/Iraq to face the Germans); and the Atlantic war was in it’s second ‘happy time’ for U-boats.]
The more likely possibility of needing to take desperate action in 1942, and the one that the British were more concerned about as possible trigger Sledgehammer, was the possible need to distract the Germans to fend off iminent Russian collapse. Such a desperate and sacrificial move to keep a major ally in the war was depressingly familiar to the British higher command. They had been forced to do the same thing a coupe of times during the Great War to keep the French army from collapsing. (Some of these desperately needed sacrifices are now decried by ‘right thinking’ historians as classic examples of mindless stupidity, but nontheless the Somme and similar actions did do what they were supposed to do at the time, and kept the French going.)
Any attempt at Sledgehammer would of course have failed. The German army had not yet been bled dry on the Eastern front, and the Luftwaffe was still a terrifying force which could be (and regularly was) easily moved from Russian mud to Mediterranean sunshine and back again in mere weeks.
Even ignoring the opposition, the British were gloomily aware that the Americans had not a clue of the complexities of such a huge amphibious operation. At the time of discussion – May 1942 – the British were using their first ever Landing Ship Tanks and troopships equipped with landing craft to launch a Brigade size pre-emptive operation against the Vichy French on Madagascar. (Another move many historians think was useless. But coming only months after the Vichy had invited the Japanese into Indo-China – fatally undermining the defenses of Malaya – and the Germans into Syria, it was probably a very sensible precaution. Certainly Japanese submarines based in Madagascar would could have finally caused the allies to lose the war at sea!)
The British deployed two modern aircraft carriers, and a fleet of battleships, cruisers, destroyers and escorts and a large number of support ships, on this relatively small operation. It was the first proper combined arms amphibious operation of the war, and was very helpful to the British to reveal the scale of amphibious transport needed for future operations. By contrast the US Marines hit Guadalcanal 6 months later from similar of light landing craft, and with virtually the same Great War vintage helmets and guns, that the ANZACS had used at Gallipoli. Anyone who reads the details of the months of hanging on by the fingernails at Guadalcanal against very under-resourced Japanese troops, will be very grateful that the same troops did not have to face veteran German Panzer divisions for several years.
So I do not know of any serious historian who imagines that an invasion of France in 1942 could have led to anything escept disaster. There are no serious generals who thought it either. (Only Marshall and his ‘yes-man’ Eisenhower consistently argued that it might be possible. And Eisenhower later came to realise – when he was incharge of his third or fourth such difficult operation himself – that his boss was completely delusional in his underestimation of the difficulties involved. See ‘Dear General’ for Eisenhowers belated attempts to quash Marshalls tactical ignorance about parachute drops and dispersed landings for D-Day.)
In practice no matter how much Marshall pushed for it, only British troops were availabe for such a sacrificial gesture, and the British were not unnaturally reluctant to throw away a dozen carefully nurtured and irreplaceable divisions on a ‘forlorn hope’, when they would prefer to save them for a real and practical invasion… When circumstances changed enough to make it possible.
Unfortunately Roosevelt told the Soviet foreign minister Molotov that ‘we expect the formation of a second front this year’, without asking even Marshall, let alone wihtout consulting his British allies who would have to do it with virtually no American involvement. The British Chiefs of Staff only had to show Churchill the limited numbers of landing craft that could be available, and the limited number of troops and tanks they could carry, to make it clear that this was ridiculous. Clearly this stupidity was just another example of Roosevelt saying stupid things without asking anyone (like ‘unconditional surrender’) that did so much to embitter staff relations during the war, and internationaly relations post war. But it seems likely that the British refusal to even consider such nonsense was taken by Marshall and Stimson as a sample of the British being duplicitous about ‘examining planning options’.
The British fixed on a ‘compromise’ to pretend that a ‘second front’ cold be possible. North Africa, could be conquored without prohibitive losses. It was not ideal, and in practical terms not even very useful. But it might satisfy the Americans and the Russians. Nothing else could.
Marshall in particular spent the rest of the war believing that when the British assessment clearly demonstrated that action in Europe was impractical and impossible, they had just been prevaricating to get what they always intended… Operations in the Med. In some ways he was correct. The British had done the studies on France despite thinking that it was unlikely they would be practical, and were proved right. Marshall and Eisenhower had just deluded themselves into thinking an invasion might be practical, and could not accept that there was not a shred of evidence in favour of their delusion.
Which brings us to the debate about the possibility of an invasion in 1943 – Roundup. Something that a surprising number of historians, and even a few not entirely incompetent generals, have suggested might have been possible, and should have been tried.
There are some points in their favour. The invasions of North Africa definitely took resources that could have been built up in Britain, and therefore slowed things down. (And the withdrawal of the new escort carriers, escort groups, and shipping from the Battle of the Atlantic for the North African adventure, definitely did huge damage in the loss of shipping and supplies, slowing things down further.) As a result the huge buildup in North Africa wa much easier to use against Italy before moving on to France. Certainly another distraction or delay… but only if you don’t think that knocking Italy out of the war would make Germany weaker!
But once Sledgehammer was abandoned, this operation was the only possible way to get US troops into combat in Europe, short of shipping some to Russia. It was also the only possible way of coming close to keeping Roosevelt’s ridiculous promise to the Russians.
Despite the belief by many that it was a British goal, Torch was really just Churchill’s method of getting Roosevelt out of domestic and international hole, and giving Marshall an advantage over King in the ‘Germany first’ debate. It can’t be said that the British Chiefs of Staff wanted it much. They would have preferred the resources to go to other fronts. It can’t be said that the American Chiefs of Staff wanted it. It was just the compromise they had to accept. It can’t even be said Churchill wanted it greatly, except as a sop to Stalin and a leg up to Roosevelt, he would have preferred other fronts too. Certainly it wasn’t the Russians who wanted it. The only one who saw it as absolutely necessary was Roosevelt, and he dragged his Chiefs of Staff along for domestic and international political reasons, not for reasons of strategy.
Unfortunately, the US Chiefs of Staff apparently decided this was more British prevarication, designed to get America into protecting purely British imperial interests like the route to India, rather than a genuine addition to winning the war.
Again, there is some truth in this. The British, who were primarily responsible for moving supplies worldwide to – keep Allied populations fed and working; hold everywhere the Axis were attacking; keep Russia in the war; and move Americans to where they would be needed for an eventual operation in Europe – were absolutely fixated on the shipping needs. Brooke was always absolutely convinced that opening the Med to allied shipping – which would save the ten thousand mile diversion around Africa for everythig going to and from the Middle East (oil, military forces, supplies to Russia, etc), Russia, India and Australia – would save at least a million tons a year in shipping, and allow that resource to be used for building up for, and then having, an invasion. To this extent, the British fascinatin with ‘communications with India’ is exactly what was worrying the British Chiefs of Staff.
Knocking Italy, it’s army, air force, and particularly navy, out of the war, would also do more to release Allied forces to face the Japanese and Germans, than any other single act the Allies could realistically undertake on the short term. (This by the way, was what Churchill meant when he referred to Italy as the ‘soft underbelly’. They were an easy and soft target that would, and did, collapse quickly when pushed. The idea that he was referring to the Italian peninsulae as an ideal way to fight your way to Germany is mischevious toublemaking or outright delusion by far too many commentators.)
Brooke later wrote that he could ‘never get Marshall to appreciate that North African and Italian operations were all part of the strategy preparing for the ultimate blow’.
Nonetheless it is wrong to think that the British never had any intention of Roundup. Despite what Roosevelt and many other Americans convinced themselves, the British were, at the start of 1942, far more optomistic about the possibility of invading Europe through France in 1943 than they had been about Sledgehammer. Their studies seemed to show that Germany would only have to be weaker, not suddenly collapse, to make invasion in 1943 a realistic possibility. Realistic that is as long as the rest of the plans for training and shipping troops, building and concentrating invasion craft, and moving enough supplies to make it substainable, all came together.
For the British, the middle of 1942 revealed how little would be available in time for the middle of 1943. Even on the best assumptions of American training and preparation, there was no chance that the majority of forces for Roundup would not be British… assuming they could supply them either. In practice mid1942 saw the Axis continue to advance on every front. Burma collapsed; the Allied position in New Guinea was under threat; the Japanese were still expanding to places like Guadalcanl; Rommel was advancing in Egypt; the Germans were advancing on the Causcusian oli fields and towards the Middle East; and more and more was needed just to keep Russia in the war. As a result British troops, shipping and supplies were continuing to flow away from Britain, not towards it.
Much of the Royal Navy was trying to save the dangerous losses caused by King’s refusal to have convoys in American waters (too ‘defensive minded’ he thought.) These alone, the worst 8 months of the war, were threatening to scupper Roundup. The rest was so busily deployed in the Indian and Pacific Oceans against the Japanese, or North Atlantic trying to fight supplies through to Russia (a high proportion of tanks and planes defending Moscow were British supplied), that there was virtually nothing left in the Med to slow Rommels advance. The merchant ships surviving the fight across the oceans were actually more vitally needed to take men and equipment from the UK to other places than to bring in a buildup for the UK.
Nor was the American buildup going to plan. Less well trained troops were becoming available too slowly, could not be shipped in adequate numbers anyway, and were in no condition to face German veterans. (The very best US units to go into action in 1942 – the marines in Guadalcanal – and 1943 – the 1st infantry and 1st armour which were actually professional troops not conscripts in North Africa – had very steep learning curves. Particularly at Kesserine. They were clearly not fit to face German veterans yet.
And American resource buildup was also not up to promises. King and MacArthur were milking supplies far beyond what had originally been agreed under ‘Germany first’. In practical terms they were doing so for the same reasons the British were: an immediate desperate situation had to be saved before a future ideal one could be pursued.
Nonetheless I have read all sorts of apparently serious suggestions that after North Africa was cleared, or at the very least after Sicily was cleared, an invasion of France should have happened.
Before Italy had surrendered? While the Italian fleet was still threatenting allied shipping. While the Iltalian air force was still theatening allied shipping. While 80 Italian divisions were available to garrison not only italy itself, but the Balkans, and a large part of the Eastern Front!
Before the German army had suffered its great losses of the 1943-44 Russian Winter, which, backed on to the need to replace 80 Italian divisions and garrison the Balkans and fight in Italy itself, halved the re-deployable strength of the German army?
Before Kursk? So the Allied invasion would have arrived neatly in time to face all the powerful new German panzer divisions that had not yet been sent to the eastern front!
Before the Luftwaffe was gutted by being forced up to fight the American daylight bombing campaign over Germany? (Or German industry seriously damaged by both that, and the British night bombing campaign.)
Before the U-boat campaign had been defeated?
While the carrier battles in the Pacific were still in the balance, at a time when the Americans were twice reduced to a single carrier, and had to borrow a British one to make the Pacific fleet viable?
Before the American ‘buildup’ had achieved a fraction of the stregth it needed?
Before enough invasion craft were even available? (In 1944 the May atttack was abandoned and the entire British shipbuildingindustry pulled off finishing new carriers and repairing mercahnt ships to make up the shortfall in landing craft. Marshall finally noted in 1944 that apparently the problem was a shortage of some thing he had never heard of called a Landing Ship Tank!)
While the Indian andn Australian fronts were on the edge and still drawing reinforcements, not able to release them to other theatres?
That is when some lunatics think a second front should have been launched in France.
Brooke’s comment is still the best.
They are right in thinking it will end the war quickly, just not to our advantage.