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We will soon be marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day, the combined Allied landings in northern France on 6 June 1944 that began the liberation of Western Europe. But a mighty endeavour of this size and scale took time to plan and was the product of much high level wrangling between President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and their respective military chiefs of staff. The origins of operation Overlord lie in 1942.
On 8 April 1942, the notoriously frail Harry Hopkins, friend and emissary to President Roosevelt, arrived in London and delivered a letter from his boss to Winston Churchill. Dated 11pm on 3 April, and written out by hand on green White House paper, it read:
What Harry & Geo. Marshall will tell you all about has my heart & mind in it. Your people & mine demand the establishment of a front to draw off pressure on the Russians, & these peoples are wise enough to see that the Russians are today killing more Germans & destroying more equipment than you and I put together. Even if full success is not attained, the big objective will be.
Go to it! Syria and Egypt will be made more secure, even if the Germans find out about our plans.
Best of luck. Make Harry go to bed early, and let him obey Dr Fulton, U.S.N. [US Navy], whom I am sending with him as super-nurse with full authority.
Though couched in the President’s informal style, this short and simple message was about grand strategy at the highest level. It marked the opening shot in what would become a long and complex war of words between the Americans and British on the nature and timing of a second front in Western Europe.
General George Marshall, the US Chief of Staff, favoured a frontal assault on Germany through France. The secret memorandum that he and Hopkins handed over outlined his plan for future operations in Western Europe. Whereas Churchill’s previous directives had asserted the primacy of the Middle Eastern theatre, this began with the unambiguous statement that ‘Western Europe is favoured as the theater in which to stage the first major offensive by the United States and Great Britain. By every applicable basis of comparison, it is definitely superior to any other. …Through France passes our shortest route to the heart of Germany.’ In eleven pages of typescript it proposed the combined British-American landing of forty-eight divisions on the continent in 1943. This was to be preceded by the build-up of forces and the heavy raiding of the French coast, and was accompanied by contingency plans for a possible ‘emergency’ landing in France in 1942 in the event of either a Russian or German collapse on the Eastern Front; to take the pressure off an ally or seize the advantage from the defeat of an enemy.
It was clear from US data, that in the event of an ‘emergency’ invasion of France in 1942, the Americans were expecting the British to provide most of the air and naval support and would only be able to provide a maximum of eleven divisions, four parachute battalions and ten Anti-Aircraft regiments, of which, because of transport constraints, only three and a half divisions might be guaranteed. Even allowing for the concentration of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front, and for the inclusion of all British troops in the United Kingdom, the British experience against German troops in Norway, France and Greece, would suggest that this was nowhere near enough. And how were American forces to get to Britain and then to France? Marshall admitted to the Defence Committee that ‘the main difficulties would be found in providing the requisite tonnage, the landing craft, the aircraft and the natural escorts.’ Portal, Chief of the British Air Staff warned that his fighter force might be wiped out in just two months, if involved in constant operations over the continent without American support.
The problem facing the British was that they could not afford to simply reject the American plan and alienate the President. As Hopkins said, when he spoke at the Defence Committee meeting on 14 April, ‘if public opinion in America had its way, the weight of American effort would be directed against Japan.’ Yet if implemented in full, it would mean that all British and American effort would be focused on a return to France. British reinforcements and American supplies to the Mediterranean would have to be curtailed, with the result that all there might be lost, while the British were also relying on some American activity in the Far East to prevent further Japanese incursions towards India. There was a real fear at this point that, between them, the Germans and Japanese could close both ends of the Suez Canal and bring the British Empire to its knees.
The British were not yet ready to countenance a return to France, and a process began of steering the Americans towards North Africa and then the Mediterranean. Churchill recognised that these complex issues would take time to work through, and advocated an unChurchillian policy of gradual persuasion by his team when dealing with the Americans, likening it to ‘the dripping of water on a stone.’
— Allen Packwood, Director
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