Germany-First!

Operation Roundup 1943

Army chief of staff, George C. Marshal met with the president in his Oval Study on March 25. Others present included King and Knox for the Navy, Arnold for the Army Air Forces, and both Secretary Stimson and the ubiquitous Harry Hopkins. The meeting did not begin well. Churchill-like, Roosevelt began with a rambling discourse in which he reviewed many of the problem areas throughout the world from the Middle East to China, with particular emphasis on the Mediterranean. Only with some effort did Marshall get the president to focus on the issue he had come to discuss: an early assault on Europe. As Marshall explained it, his plan had three elements, each subsequently endowed with a code name. A build-up phase (Bolero) would begin at once and involve “the movement to the British Isles of U. S. air and ground forces comprising approximately one million men.” The invasion phase (Roundup) would consist of an amphibious assault by those men on “beachheads between Le Havre and Boulogne” in northern France on or about April 1, 1943. A third element (Sledgehammer) was a contingency plan for a small-scale invasion of France in the fall of 1942 in case of a Russian collapse, or if German forces became so “completely absorbed on the Russian front” that it created an opportunity. Tough public speaking was not Marshall’s strong suit, Stimson thought he “made a very fine presentation.”

Roosevelt listened carefully but showed little enthusiasm. One problem, surely, was that Marshall’s plan envisioned no direct action against Ger many, or anyone else for that matter, for over a year. What were American forces-those one million men-to do in the meantime? Asking the Russians to wait a full year for any significant relief was unlikely to strengthen their confidence in Anglo-American support. Stalin was instinctively suspicious, even paranoid, about his partnership with the western Allies, and he was already convinced that Churchill was willing to fight the Germans to the last Russian. (Or, as Churchill might have put it, to fight the Nazis to the last Communist.) Learning that the Anglo-Americans were planning to stay out of the European continent for another twelve months while the Russian army bore the entire burden of the war might encourage Stalin to reconsider his options. In addition, Roosevelt worried about the patience of the American public. The country was still enraged by the Japanese atack on Pearl Harbor, and sending soldiers off to cool their heels in England for a year or more would surely increase public pressure to send at least some of them to the Pacific. The president believed it was “very important to morale to give this country a feeling that they are in the war… , to have American troops somewhere in active fighting across the Atlantic.” He was deeply committed to the Germany-first concept, but he feared that unless U. S. soldiers got into action somewhere in Europe soon-preferably that summer-that strategy might become politically unsustainable.

These factors led Roosevelt to ask Marshall about North Africa. Tough he had previously written to Churchill that Gymnast was not possible, he had done so principally because of the scarcity of shipping. On the other hand, if enough ships could be found to carry a million men to England, surely there would be enough for an assault on North Africa.

Marshall opposed it. If the Russians showed signs of a collapse, he countered, Sledgehammer could be implemented, but to embrace an invasion of North Africa would draw resources away from the vital front and inevitably postpone the crucial and decisive thrust into northern France. Marshall’s plan already included the dispatch of an American division to New Zealand and the delivery of planes to China; further dispersions would so scatter U. S. assets that the necessary buildup in England would be compromised.

Hopkins agreed. Though he, too, appreciated the importance of early action, he supported the central elements of Marshall’s plan. On the other hand, Hopkins also saw that no plan was likely to succeed without Churchill’s backing. Instead of submitting this plan to the Combined Chiefs, therefore, he suggested that Marshall should carry it personally to England to gain the prime minister’s support. Roosevelt liked that idea, in part because it would allow him to keep the question in play and see what developed. He declared that Marshall should immediately fly to London to see Churchill and that Hopkins should go with him.

Roosevelt wrote Churchill to tell him that Marshall and Hopkins were on their way with “a plan which I hope Russia will greet with enthusiasm,” and which could be labeled “the plan of the United Nations.” He followed that up with another cable in which he declared that Marshall’s plan “had my heart and mind in it.” Despite these endorsements, there was an inherent and fundamental disconnect between the views of the president and his Army chief of staff. To Marshall the key was an invasion of occupied Europe, something that could not be undertaken until the spring of 1943; to Roosevelt, the most important thing was to do something quickly to keep the Russians and the American public in the game. Here was the conundrum: they could fight elsewhere in 1942, or they could fight in Europe in 1943, but they could probably not do both. They must choose.

Roosevelt did not like to choose. Incorrigible optimist that he was, he continued to talk and act as if it would be possible to do both. In any case, the buildup phase (Bolero) could begin at once no mater what contingencies arose in the meantime. Whether that buildup fed Sledgehammer or Roundup-or even Gymnast-would depend on a number of factors, including British acquiescence. As Hopkins put it in a note to the president, “Tis will have to be worked out very carefully between you and Marshall, in the first instance, and you and Churchill, in the second.”

In England, Churchill and the British prepared to receive their guests with a mixture of anticipation and uncertainty. It had been evident from the beginning that the Americans and the British had divergent views on grand strategy, some of which had emerged at Arcadia. Several factors contributed to this. The first was the British experience on the continent during the First World War. While the United States had remained neutral from 1914 to 1917, entering the war with significant numbers of troops only in the last few months of the conflict, an entire generation of British men and boys had died on the battlefields of France and Flanders. The narrow escape of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in 1940 only reminded them that the continent was a dangerous place.

In addition, the British were very much aware of two other factors that made a swift return to the continent altogether impractical. The first was that for all their eager enthusiasm, the Americans simply did not have the available manpower to execute the early invasion they championed. Tough mobilization in America was proceeding rapidly, it would be many months before the United States could deliver more than a token assault force to Britain for a cross-Channel stack. Marshall’s plan called for the United States to ship some 800,000 men to England by the spring of 1943. Even if this schedule could be met, however, there would be only 105,000 Americans in Britain by the fall of 1942. So while a 1943 invasion might be feasible, any operation before that would have to be conducted mostly, if not exclusively, by British soldiers. Marshall acknowledged that he was “greatly embarrassed by the fact that we could propose only 2½ divisions to participate in a cross-Channel operation” in 1942. Rather than Sledgehammer, a more appropriate name for the contingency plan the Americans were sug gesting might have been Croquet Mallet, for the Allies simply did not have the wherewithal for a full-scale invasion of northern France in 1942.

Then there was the unresolved shipping problem. The astonishing productivity of American shipyards could possibly make an invasion armada a reality by 1943, assuming, that is, that the Allies could win the Battle of the Atlantic against German U-boats. But in 1942 there was not enough shipping for a cross-Channel invasion even if the troops to conduct it could somehow be found. Ferrying two infantry divisions and two tank regiments across the English Channel (the absolute minimum even for a serious raid) would require more sealift capability and landing craft than would be available by the fall of 1942.

In addition to these tangible shortages, there was another problem on a more subjective level, and that was the British assumption-which they were careful to keep hidden-that American forces in any number were simply not ready for a confrontation with the Wehrmacht. Indeed, the eagerness of the Americans for an early invasion of Europe would have been amusing if it were not so alarming. Despite a lack of manpower, shipping, and experience, the Americans were-from the British perspective, at least-ludicrously eager to pitch into the fray against the most proficient armed force on the planet. The British found themselves in a situation akin to a parent trying to explain to his six-year-old why he cannot drive the car: you don’t know how, and your feet don’t reach the pedals. They couldn’t say any of that, of course, for they desperately needed the Americans-their manpower, and especially their financial and industrial strength-to fight the war at all. And so they listened earnestly and feigned agreement while disguising their skepticism. In the long run, this disingenuous pose damaged the mutual trust within the Anglo-American partnership, especially when the British subsequently sought to rein in American enthusiasm. As one senior British officer wrote later, it would have been far better had they said from the beginning, “We are not going into this until it is a cast-iron certainty.” Instead, they responded with the equivalent of a parental “We’ll see.”

Finally, the British outlook was affected by Churchill’s concern for the political ramifications of strategic decisions. There is nothing the least bit dishonest or inappropriate about such concerns. Securing political objectives is the very purpose of war. British objectives and American political objectives, however, were not fully congruent. Churchill’s emphasis on the Mediterranean was driven in part by his strategic goal of (as he put it) “closing the ring” around Germany. But it was also a product of his determination to protect British imperial interests, a goal that was antithetical to the Americans. Gibraltar, Malta, and Suez were stepping-stones through the Mediterranean to India, the jewel of the British Empire. It is noteworthy that in addition to the formal title “King and Defender of the Faith,” George VI, like his predecessors back to Victoria, also bore the title “Emperor of India.” As the king’s prime minister, Churchill took that seriously, and keeping India and the rest of the British Empire intact was for him a principal war goal. Some of the sharpest exchanges between Churchill and Roosevelt during the war concerned the future political status of India. It was in reaction to American criticism of British rule in India that Churchill announced to the Commons later that year: “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”

Second Front Now!

Pas de Calais

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