The Man Who Planned The Victory

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There were several occasions on which circumstances required me to disagree with the great man face-to-face. The first of these came during the summer following our April mission to London. It had become clear by then that the British had accepted the American proposals for a buildup and cross-Channel invasion in 1943 only “with tongue in cheek,” as General Marshall had commented to me on our flight home. So in June 1942 a series of high-level British visitors arrived in Washington to promote their own views and plans. The charming Lord Louis Mountbatten first spent considerable time closeted with President Roosevelt warning of the dangers of a too-early invasion. Mr. Churchill himself came next. Late one night General Marshall called me to the White House, where he and other members of the Combined Chiefs of Staff were assembled with the President and the prime minister. There was a large colored map of the European-Mediterranean area on the wall. The prime minister, wearing the onepiece jumpsuit for which he was famous, took the floor. Mustering all his eloquence, he stressed the importance of squeezing Rommel out of North Africa, of regaining full control of the Mediterranean, of getting Allied land forces into major action in 1942, of meeting Soviet demands for a Second Front. I recall his making a great sweeping gesture across the map, moving downward from the British Isles toward Gilbraltar, eastward along the breadth of North Africa, back across the Mediterranean, and up through the Balkans into Central Europe. It was a stunning performance.

President Roosevelt then turned to General Marshall. “George,” he said to him, “what do you have to say?”

“One of my planners is present,” the general replied, “and with your permission I will ask him to comment.” So there I was, unexpectedly called upon to criticize the prime minister’s position and argue the alternate case for a cross-Channel invasion in 1943!

What did you do?

I cleared my throat and waded into the subject. Fortunately I was pretty well rehearsed because I had been living with our plans day and night for months and had personally studied every mile of the European littoral from Norway to Turkey in search of suitable landing sites. I remember stressing the logistical and tactical difficulties of invading Europe through the Balkans as well as the strategic disadvantages of such operations. General Marshall seemed satisfied, even pleased, and I thought President Roosevelt had a mischievous twinkle in his eye—as if he enjoyed the confrontation. In the end, of course, Mr. Churchill won, for the cross-Channel invasion eventually was delayed for a full year—from 1943 to 1944. By then, in my opinion, the operation took place in àprofoundly changed environment, and the historic opportunity to strike a decisive, timely blow on the Continent had been lost.

Does this mean you were opposed to the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa in November 1942?

Definitely. I did everything I could to point out the adverse implications of that operation. Basically it was a diversionary move into a nondecisive theater. It would tie down large numbers of troops and consume vast quantities of supplies, shipping, and everything else for many months to come. Even worse, once our positions in North Africa were secure, plausible arguments might be made for launching further operations in the Mediterranean area—into Sicily and Italy, for example, or even into the Balkans or the Near East. And that is exactly what happened. Resources that should have been sequestered in the British Isles for the main blow were diverted to indecisive operations. In agreeing to launch the North African expedition and follow-up operations in the Mediterranean, President Roosevelt departed from the professional advice of his military advisers, including Secretary of War Stimson. I have always felt that this unfortunate shift was a tribute to the extraordinary persuasive powers of Churchill.

Churchill seemed obsessed with the possibilities of moving through the Balkans—the “soft underbelly.”

The British obviously had different views of European strategy. How did you perceive those?

I often described their general warmaking concept as “periphery pecking.” It emphasized attrition against Festung Europa by air attack, naval blockade, and harassing operations at various points around the perimeter of the Continent, from Norway to the Caucasus. Churchill seemed obsessed with the possibilities of moving up through the Balkans—the “soft underbelly” of Europe, he called it—but it really wasn’t so soft. He constantly stressed the dangers of a massive assault across the Channel into France. He would scowl ominously as he predicted that the English Channel would run red with blood or be filled with Allied corpses. But I believe an invasion in 1943 would have succeeded, that it would have shortened the war in Europe, and that it would have reduced total Allied casualties and material costs. Most importantly, Anglo-American forces would have been in control of most of Central as well as Western Europe at war’s end. The map of Europe would today be colored quite differently. Who would argue that that would not be a good thing?

Speculating on “what might have been” is always a dubious business, especially when one is dealing with world wars. Don’t you agree?