The Most Perilous Moment of the War: ‘I am convinced that man is mad’ July–November 1942 Part I

It is well that we should avoid unwarranted complacency and remind ourselves that if we did win the last war it was not without moments of extreme peril.

Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke [below] at a Unionist luncheon in Belfast, 1949

No sooner had one great argument between the British and Americans ended than the next ones began, primarily over the issues of where, when and how to carry out Operation Torch. Marshall wanted to land on the Atlantic coast near Casablanca, and gradually move eastwards along the coast towards Algiers, whereas Brooke wanted to land at Casablanca and Algiers but also further east too, indeed as far to the east as possible, in order swiftly to gain control of the vital channel between Tunisia and Sicily, over which the Afrika Korps was resupplied. The final compromise, which was to attack at eight points along the North and North-west African coast, three near Casablanca, two near Oran and three near Algiers–but nothing further eastwards–came about only once Roosevelt and Churchill intervened.

‘No staff officer as far as I know, certainly none in the Operations Division, recommended the North African operation,’ recalled General Hull, ‘but they supported it completely once the decision had been made.’ When it came to departmental unanimity, or group-think, the OPD was even more monolithic than the British Planners. Even thirty years later, speaking to the SOOHP, Generals Hull and Handy had views so similar on almost every aspect of personality and strategy that they might have been Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

On the debate with the British Chiefs of Staff, Hull said the Joint Chiefs of Staff ‘insisted on going to the west coast of Africa because we wanted a foot toward the home base so that at least we could get out of there and we couldn’t see [ourselves] throwing everything into the Mediterranean. The Germans could have gone right down to Gibraltar most any time they wanted to…We were scared to death they would come down there even after we went into North Africa.’ It was the reason that the US 3rd Division was held back from the Tunisian campaign until almost the last moment. The Straits of Gibraltar, only 8 miles wide, Handy said, provided ‘a focal point for the German subs, too’.

There was also the question of who was going to command Operation Torch. In CCS 94 the British had accepted that this would be an American. After a long talk with Marshall on 30 July, Dill telegraphed Churchill and Brooke urging that Marshall himself was ‘clearly the man for the job, and I believe he would accept. Equally clearly, he cannot be spared from here at present, but Eisenhower could well act with his authority.’ Because Roosevelt had not yet approached Marshall–which Dill thought ‘may be due to the President’s fear of losing him’–and the self-effacing general did not wish to canvass for the job, Marshall wanted Churchill and Brooke to initiate discussions. Dill warned that the ‘risk of whittling’ forces away to the Pacific ‘may still exist’, but the President was ‘entirely sound on this point’.

Roosevelt might well have been sound, but there was a very definite whittling away of resources towards the Pacific going on. Although the Commander-in-Chief made grand strategy, he could not effectively prevent the US Navy pursuing a de facto Japan First-Equal policy, and for the rest of 1942 ‘resources flowed as fast to the Pacific–where the struggle for the Solomon Islands had begun in August–as they did to the Mediterranean, while those to the UK died to a trickle.’ Guadalcanal was invaded on 7 August and fierce fighting ensued there until February.

Dill also thought it wise, since Sledgehammer was now moribund, for the Americans ‘to delegate the planning and preparations for Sledgehammer to someone else, obviously a Britisher’, so that Eisenhower could concentrate entirely on Torch. (The term ‘Britisher’ is not one Britons use, making this cable from Dill sound all the more like one initiated by Marshall, unless it was meant facetiously or jokingly, or Dill really had gone as native as some in the War Office thought.) Churchill ordered the lines to Washington to be cleared for a ‘most secret, most immediate cipher telegram’ to Dill, which stated: ‘I am sure that the President’s wish is full steam ahead Torch at earliest possible moment. We regard this as decided absolutely with overriding priority. No one here is thinking of anything else. You should ask to see the President urgently.’ Dill replied that the President had ‘issued orders for full steam ahead’ on Torch, adding that the Americans believed that Torch made Roundup impossible before 1944. This might have been chagrin on Marshall’s part, or perhaps Themistoclean foresight in already spotting the way that 1943 would be spent following up Torch in places far from the beaches of north-western France.

Churchill cabled Roosevelt the next day, sending a copy to Brooke, to say that he would be grateful for an early decision about the commanders of Bolero, Sledgehammer, Roundup and Torch. ‘It would be agreeable to us if General Marshall were designated for the Supreme Command of Roundup and that in the meantime General Eisenhower should act as his deputy here.’ Meanwhile he would appoint General Alexander as the British Task Force commander to work under Eisenhower. ‘Both these men would work at Torch and General Eisenhower would also for the time being supervise the Bolero–Sledgehammer business,’ wrote Churchill. ‘It seems important to act quickly, as committees are too numerous and too slow.’ Yet Roosevelt was curiously tardy in making a decision about Marshall and Torch–it was to happen again, in even slower motion, with Overlord–and Churchill got no direct reply to this request even though Roosevelt wanted action in North Africa before the mid-term elections less than four months hence.

Instead, that same day at 12.10 p.m., Roosevelt–who was weekending at Hyde Park–asked Hopkins to put a series of questions to Marshall, who drew up ‘a hasty reply’ that nevertheless neatly encapsulates the general’s strategic thinking at that time.8 When FDR asked whether there were any moves the United States could make that might favourably affect the situation in the Middle East, Marshall replied, ‘No, none that can affect the immediate situation.’ He argued that the maximum number of planes was already en route to Cairo and that any more could not be properly serviced by the American personnel there. ‘What is your personal opinion about the coming course of events?’ Marshall answered that G-2 (US Military Intelligence) estimated that Rommel would be in Cairo in one week, whereas US Army Operations thought two, with one week to refit before he undertook ‘the destruction of the remaining British forces’.

With prognostications as doleful as that, it was understandable that Marshall did not want to throw USAAF squadrons into the fray. His view was that he would be able to judge General Auchinleck’s position in the Western Desert better forty-eight hours hence, and that if the Auk could check Rommel the long German supply lines from Tunis might place the Afrika Korps in a difficult position. After discussing British plans to block the Suez Canal in the event of defeat–which Dill estimated would take six months to reopen–Marshall suggested that the defeated British would retreat to the upper Nile, Mosul, Basra, Palestine, Aden and Colombo, while the defence of the Iraqi oil fields from Rommel ‘would depend upon success of Russian defense in the North’.

To Roosevelt’s question about whether America could hold Syria against Rommel, Marshall was frank. With the Mediterranean open to Germany but not the United States, the American Army would have to send nine divisions and about ten air groups, ‘an expansion far beyond our capacity’. As for defending Basra and the Black Sea, the Germans would be in a far better position than the Americans, who would have ‘long and vulnerable’ lines of communication through the Mediterranean. Consequently, ‘A major effort in this region would bleed us white.’ The conclusion was obvious: the United States could do nothing to prevent Rommel’s victory in the Western Desert from denying Middle Eastern oil to the Allies. For America, which took most of her oil from the western hemisphere, this would not be so dire; for Britain it was much more serious.

Marshall’s sober assessment of what would happen if Cairo fell was far too pessimistic about Auchinleck’s chances of preventing it happening. It nonetheless ought to have enthused Roosevelt all the more for the surprise attack on Rommel’s rear in the west and on his hundreds of miles of vulnerable supply lines in the east. Almost every can of petrol poured into panzers close to the Egyptian border had to be taken there by lorry down a very long coastal road through Libya. In the War Office, the Director of Military Operations, John Kennedy, noted that ‘Auchinleck is now on the last line of defence for Egypt. And in a war in which the defence has been so unsuccessful this is not a happy situation.’ The Second World War had indeed been, at least until the battle that was about to begin at Stalingrad, a conflict where all the laurels had so far gone to those who took the offensive.

It can hardly have come as much of a surprise to Roosevelt when Churchill told him that he was going to Cairo the next day, taking along Brooke, Smuts and Wavell. He wished to investigate personally why Auchinleck was being so cautious. That same day, Churchill received a message from Stalin inviting him to Moscow ‘to consider jointly the urgent questions of war against Hitler’, and adding, ‘The presence of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff would be extremely desirable.’ Churchill and Brooke had never met Stalin, and although they knew that they could expect a freezing reception as a result of cancelling Sledgehammer and postponing Roundup, they accepted immediately. Churchill then asked Eden’s advice about whether Beaverbrook should be invited along on the trip to Egypt and Moscow, saying: ‘I like to have a pal with me.’ Eden advised that since ‘Max was an object not only of suspicion but hatred to many, it would not be politic’.  Brooke would go, of course, but he could never have been counted as a ‘pal’ of the Prime Minister.

Jan Christian Smuts, by contrast, was held in very high esteem by Churchill, Brooke and the British public as a whole, and not just because he had managed to bring South Africa into the war against Germany in 1939. The British have long demonstrated a soft spot for brave, defeated former foes, and in 1901 Smuts had been in command of the Boer forces fighting against them in Cape Colony. Smuts was lionized in Britain, in that strange way that also happened to other antagonists such as Napoleon after his surrender, King Cetewayo of the Zulus, Mahatma Gandhi during the 1920s, and even Erwin Rommel during the Desert War. Over lunch at Buck’s Club in November 1942–stout and oysters, steak and kidney pie, two bottles of claret–Churchill told Eden and Lord Cranborne that Smuts was how he imagined Socrates might have been like.

At the War Cabinet of 1 August, Churchill said Auchinleck’s report indicating that he would not resume offensive operations before mid-September was ‘very depressing’ and he was flying out in order to arrange ‘a more vigorous handling of matters’. This was a euphemism for Auchinleck returning to his job as commander-in-chief Middle East and someone else taking over the day-to-day command of the Eighth Army. On the morning of 3 August, Churchill and Brooke flew into Cairo West, an airfield on the Alexandria road 25 miles north-west of the Egyptian capital, and stayed at the British Embassy. ‘Instead of sitting at home waiting for news from the front,’ Churchill later wrote, ‘I could send it myself. This was exhilarating.’ Jan Smuts arrived in time for lunch, over which he teased the Prime Minister for not giving the British people ‘truly spiritual inspiration’, such as Gandhi gave the Indians. Churchill replied that he had appointed no fewer than six bishops that year, and ‘If that’s not spiritual inspiration, what is?’ ‘But has that done any good?’ asked Smuts, whereupon Churchill went on the offensive, saying to the South African Prime Minister: ‘You are responsible for all our troubles in India–you had Gandhi for years and did not do away with him.’ To which Smuts replied: ‘When I put him in prison–three times–all Gandhi did was to make me a pair of bedroom slippers.’

After the war, Marshal of the Air Force Sir Arthur Tedder, who had commanded the RAF in the Middle East, recalled that Churchill, ‘fretting that there was to be no offensive action until September’, urged Brooke that Auchinleck should turn the Eighth Army over to Lieutenant-General William ‘Strafer’ Gott, commander of XIII Corps and an outstanding desert fighter. Brooke, who unlike Churchill knew Gott, had the highest opinion of his abilities but judged him ‘very tired’. (He based this on a letter Gott had written to his wife, that Brooke had somehow got to hear about.) In the early hours, Churchill offered Brooke himself the Eighth Army command. ‘I shall have a job to convince him that I am unsuited for the job,’ Brooke recorded at the time, ‘having never been trained in the desert.’

In contrast to this laconic, stiff-upper-lipped contemporaneous dismissal of the idea, Brooke admitted years after the war that Churchill’s suggestion ‘gave rise to the most desperate longings in my heart! I had tasted the thrill of commanding a formation in war…For sheer thrill and excitement it stood in a category by itself, and not to be compared to a Staff appointment. Even that of CIGS, when working for a man like Winston, must mean constant frustration, friction, and untold difficulties in achieving the results one was after.’ With many of the preparations already in place for what was soon to be the battle of El Alamein, Brooke might well have been in the position of the national–indeed international–hero that fell instead to his protégé Bernard Montgomery.

On the afternoon of 5 August, Brooke visited Eighth Army HQ for tea with Auchinleck. ‘I was much impressed by the beauty of the turquoise blue of the Mediterranean along this coast,’ he noted. ‘The colour is caused by specially white sand along this coast line.’ He was less impressed with Gott, whose HQ he had just left and who he thought would not be as energetic as Montgomery in command of the Eighth Army, and equally unimpressed with Auchinleck.

Brooke recorded Thursday 6 August as ‘One of the most difficult days of my life, with momentous decisions to take as far as my own future and that of the war was concerned’. While he was getting dressed that morning, ‘and practically naked’, Churchill suddenly ‘burst’ into his room ‘Very elated’ and told him that ‘his thoughts were taking shape and that he would soon commit himself to paper!’ Brooke ‘rather shuddered and wondered what he was up to!’14 Ten minutes later the Prime Minister ‘burst’ into Brooke’s room again and invited him to breakfast. For an upper-class Ulsterman of conventional mien, one can understand that Brooke found working with Churchill discombobulating at times, but, as Colonel Aubertin Mallaby pointed out, there were no ‘off’ times for the Prime Minister; he was thinking about the war every waking hour.

Over breakfast, Churchill outlined his plan to split the Middle East Command into two, between a Near East stretching along the coast of North Africa to the Suez Canal and a Middle East comprising Syria, Palestine, Persia and Iraq. He wanted to move Auchinleck to the latter as he had ‘lost confidence in him’. He then offered Brooke the Near East Command, with Montgomery as his Eighth Army commander. ‘This made my heart race very fast!!’ wrote Brooke, who was offered a short time to think it over. He nonetheless declined ‘without waiting’, giving as his overt reasons his ignorance of desert warfare and the fact that he would ‘never have time to grip hold of the show to my satisfaction before the necessity to attack became imperative’. Neither argument was convincing: Montgomery was not a desert general either, but he managed to ‘grip hold of the show’ quickly enough before El Alamein.

Privately, as he told his diary, Brooke also felt that after working with Churchill for almost nine months he finally believed that he could ‘exercise a limited amount of control on some of his activities and that at last he is beginning to take my advice’. By implication, he thought that the Vice-CIGS Archie Nye or someone else might not have been able to restrain the Prime Minister, and he was probably right. Churchill was not pleased with Brooke’s refusal, ‘but accepted it well’. Only afterwards did Smuts–clearly encouraged by the Prime Minister–take Brooke aside to try to persuade him to take up the offer, telling him ‘what a wonderful future’ he would have if he defeated Rommel. This was no more than the truth: the achievements of ‘Alex’ and ‘Monty’ are known by millions around the world today, that of Brooke only by the cognoscenti of grand strategy.

Brooke was not persuaded by Smuts, not least because, as a gentleman, he couldn’t bear the idea that Auchinleck ‘might think that I had come out here on purpose to work myself into his shoes!’ He thought over the offer throughout the day, but remained convinced that his decision was the correct one, and that he could ‘do more by remaining as CIGS’. By putting his commitment to the wider war effort above any personal ambition for fame, or desire for the ‘thrill’ of independent command, Brooke did his country a very great service. We assume that politicians are driven by personal ambition, but soldiers are too, and although in career terms to swap the job of CIGS for Near East commander-in-chief might have looked like a demotion, in fact it would have afforded, as Smuts intimated, a ‘wonderful future’.

At a lunch party of the Army Council at the Dorchester Hotel in November 1943, Smuts claimed it had been his idea to appoint Brooke commander-in-chief Near East, and that Brooke had replied: ‘This is a very tempting thing–but my place is by the Prime Minister,’ a view Brooke reiterated after sleeping on it. ‘That was a great thing to do,’ concluded Smuts.16 One of those present later wondered whether Brooke ever regretted his decision, and concluded that ‘Knowing now the victorious campaign that was to follow he would hardly be human if he did not.’ The fact that he decided to stay beside a near-unmanageable prime minister, because he felt that no one else could do the job, thereby missing his chance of victorious generalship after a lifetime’s training for it, might well explain his exasperation with Churchill on so many occasions thereafter.

Churchill explained Brooke’s decision in his memoirs as having been taken because ‘he had only been CIGS for eight months, he believed he had my full confidence, and the Staff machine was working very smoothly. Another change at this moment might cause a temporary dislocation at this critical time.’ Was Churchill being disingenuous with Brooke, and vice versa? Might Churchill have offered the post because he wanted a more malleable CIGS? The secret reason why Brooke declined was that he feared that might be the case. When the American serialization of The Hinge of Fate was published in 1950, Brooke wrote to Henry Pownall, who was researching the next volume for the former Prime Minister, to say that Churchill had entirely ignored two of the three reasons he had refused the Near East command, so Churchill inserted them in the British edition. As Professor David Reynolds comments, ‘It must have been galling to Brooke that Churchill had clearly forgotten “one of the most difficult days of my life”.’

On the evening of 6 August, Churchill sent the War Cabinet a telegram whose terms had been agreed by Brooke and Smuts. This proposed an immediate splitting off of Persia and Iraq from the Middle East Command, making them an independent Army command, just as he had proposed to Brooke that morning. This command would be offered to Auchinleck, whom Churchill didn’t want to lose altogether. He believed–or professed to–that if Auchinleck had earlier been freed from responsibilities covering the Levant and Caspian Sea he might have been able ‘to concentrate his forces in the Western Desert, turned the scale and given us a victory instead of a defeat’. Meanwhile, as Jacob recorded, Brooke agreed with the plan, ‘though for a rather different reason. He felt that it was wrong for an area of such vital importance as Persia and Iraq to remain any longer as the Cinderella of either the Middle East or of India.’ As so often, when Brooke and Churchill agreed on something, it happened–even if they came to the decision for different reasons.

Brooke and Churchill also agreed that Alexander should succeed Auchinleck in Cairo, Lieutenant-General Thomas Corbett and Brigadier Eric Dorman-Smith were to leave their commands altogether, and Lieutenant-General William ‘Strafer’ Gott was to lead the Eighth Army, although Brooke had misgivings about this. Yet on his way to take up his new command the very next day, 7 August, flying the Burg el Arab to Heliopolis route, which was considered safe, Gott’s slow transport plane was shot down ‘in flames’ by a lone German fighter. Churchill and Brooke then quickly settled on the man whom Brooke had wanted originally, Lieutenant-General Bernard Law Montgomery.

The War Cabinet meeting in London on 7 August was a good illustration of the way that Churchill and Brooke dominated military policy even in their absence. It had met at 11.15 p.m. to consider the plan to divide the Middle East Command, but before the meeting ended at 2 a.m. on the 8th a telegram arrived saying that Gott had been killed. Archie Nye said that the situation was: ‘In [the] hands of [the] PM and CIGS. They have in mind a General Montgomery. Not enough [is] known of the form of commanders to know that any particular man will fit the bill.’ The use of the indefinite article before Montgomery’s name led Burgis to assume, as he told Churchill’s son Randolph years later, that none ‘of those present knew him from a crow then’.

At the meeting, Bevin pointed out that it was a ‘Strong team. PM, Smuts, CIGS’ and for the War Cabinet it was ‘Difficult to arrive at a concrete judgment at this distance’. To this Attlee added that he would like to see Alexander running the Eighth Army with Wavell in overall command of the Middle East; however, ‘We must either put up counterproposals or acquiesce.’ They acquiesced, telegraphing the Prime Minister to say: ‘As you, Smuts and CIGS who are on the spot are all in agreement, we are prepared to authorise action proposed.’ Frankly, anything else was unthinkable, and there is no example during the war of a united Churchill and Brooke being overridden on a military issue by the War Cabinet. So Montgomery flew out from Britain, taking up his command on 12 August.

In Washington, meanwhile, Henry Stimson was still deeply pessimistic about any operations in North Africa, and on 10 August he made Marshall promise that he would take a final stand against Operation Torch if ‘it seemed clearly headed for disaster’. Marshall had no difficulty in making that promise, which was after all no more than his duty, but it is indicative of the lack of confidence felt by many senior strategists at the time. Stimson’s doubts remained, and as late as 17 September he was writing that the undertaking was risky but, ‘the Commander-in-Chief having made the decision’, it had to be seen through.

Stimson also drew up a sharp note to the President that he did not eventually send, but of which he gave a copy to Marshall. ‘The objections to the hazards of Torch had been stated to you in previous conferences with your advisers,’ it read, ‘and the objection that it was a purely defensive operation instead of an offensive was inserted in the London memorandum on the Chief of Staff’s sole insistence and against British opposition.’ Marshall and the Staff now ‘believe the operation should not be undertaken’. Stimson foresaw a risk of defeat in Africa that would emasculate Roundup until 1944, and thought that Torch wouldn’t help Russia either.

In its somewhat formal summation of recent history, and reiteration of what Roosevelt already well knew, the draft read more like the preamble to a resignation, but it merely ended with an ‘earnest recommendation’ that ‘before an irrevocable decision is made upon the Torch operation you should make yourself familiar with the present views of these your military advisers.’ Stimson might have been using this unsent letter much as Brooke used his journal–partly to let off steam–and a surprising number of people do write letters they never truly intend to send, for precisely that purpose. Yet Stimson would hardly have written in such terms if Marshall had supported Torch wholeheartedly.

From 12 to 15 August, Churchill and Averell Harriman, Roosevelt’s personal envoy to Stalin, conferred with the Russians in Moscow. Because of the danger of a fire in their B-24 Liberator bomber, Brooke, Cadogan, Wavell, Jacob and Tedder had been forced to turn back to Teheran, and only arrived on the 13th. They therefore missed a four-hour meeting with Stalin from 7 to 11 p.m. on Wednesday 12 August, of which, Churchill reported to Roosevelt, the first two hours were ‘bleak and sombre’. The Prime Minister explained at length with maps why Sledgehammer–which he and Roosevelt had promised Molotov in writing back in June–had been indefinitely postponed. Stalin argued hard the other way, and as Churchill reported to Washington, ‘Everybody was pretty glum. Finally he said that he did not accept our view but we had the right to decide.’

Everyone cheered up once Churchill passed on to what he called ‘the ruthless bombing of Germany’. He then brought up Operation Torch, at which Stalin ‘became intensely interested’. The conversation ranged over the whole of the rest of the war in the west, with Churchill concluding that once ‘Brooke and the others arrive…the military authorities on both sides are to sit together and check up both on strategy and technical detail.’ The British military authorities arrived safely in a Russian plane at a small aerodrome on the outskirts of Moscow at 7.45 p.m. the next day and were taken straight to State Villa No. 7, where Churchill was staying, for a debriefing. After dinner, the British party and Harriman set off for the Kremlin at 11 p.m. ‘It was a dark night,’ wrote Jacob, ‘and Moscow is completely blacked out. No headlights are allowed on cars, so that we crawled along at a very slow pace. As a result we were half an hour late.’

They were conducted to the 600-square-foot office inhabited by Stalin, whose desk was tucked away on the right-hand side at the far end. Two pictures of Lenin and one of Marx provided the only decoration. Stalin was lounging in a chair sideways on to the table at the head, puffing at a large, curled pipe. After everyone had taken their places, with Brooke next to Churchill and only the interpreter on his other side, the meeting started, badly, with another ‘desultory argument about the possibility of a second front and similar matters’.

Jacob wrote that Stalin spoke ‘in a very low, gentle voice, with an occasional gesture of the right hand, and never looked the Prime Minister in the face’. The reason he averted his eyes was that ‘Stalin was coming out with all kinds of insulting remarks, but one could not really tell whether they were being faithfully put across by Pavlov, because his vocabulary was limited.’ Stalin’s translator, Vladimir Pavlov, was in fact excellent. At this first meeting with Churchill his English was hesitant, but he would take great care not to distort Stalin’s words. Stalin was simply intending to be as rude as possible and ‘was suggesting that we were not prepared to operate on the Continent because we were frightened of the Germans’.

According to Jacob’s minutes, the entire conversation was carried on by Stalin and Churchill, with only four short interventions by Harriman and one by Tedder. At the post-mortem back at Churchill’s villa, Harriman suggested that the explanation ‘was probably that Stalin had to adopt an uncompromising attitude at one stage of the negotiations, in order to satisfy his own people’. That too was absurd, but indicative of the way that many Westerners still failed to recognize that Stalin was an all-powerful dictator–indeed, as the title of a recent biography puts it, ‘the Red Tsar’.

Four months later, Brooke threw a dinner party in Chelsea where he gave his views of Stalin, saying that the Marshal ‘gave him the creeps. He looked pale and even grey with the flesh hanging from the bones of his face. Stalin did not “register” when Winston came into the room–it might have been a footman.’ Brooke added that the Russian dictator showed ‘no sign of humanity except once when he said to Churchill, before the interpreter could translate an impassioned speech, “I like your sentence although I do not know what it means.”’

On 14 August the traffic situation in Moscow could not have been more different. This time in daylight they ‘drove through the streets entirely regardless of red and green lights, or of policemen or pedestrian crossings. If there are pedestrians in the way, so much the worse for them.’ Brooke’s was ‘a peculiarly carefree driver. He never actually had a crash, but he ran down one man, who was then extricated from the wheels, and moved away to one side, so that the car could go on. The drivers treat the citizens like so many cattle.’ With the experience of the loss of his first wife, Brooke could not have found this pleasant.

The meeting on 15 August went badly. At noon Brooke went to the Soviet Government Hospitality House, 17 Spiridonovka Street, to deliver a statement and discuss the Second Front with Marshal Voroshilov and Marshal Shaposhnikov, the Russian Chief of Staff, who both displayed what Brooke considered an astonishing lack of understanding of how to attack over large stretches of salt water. ‘Finally,’ recorded Jacob, ‘the CIGS told them that the Americans and ourselves had come to very definite conclusions on this subject and were not prepared to alter them.’ Voroshilov then refused to discuss the fighting in the Caucasus with Brooke, who in turn replied that he had not been authorized to discuss Torch with him.

It was on this visit that Churchill made the error, while attempting to explain to Stalin the attractions of attacking the Axis from the south before attempting an invasion of France, of drawing a sketch of a crocodile with, he said, a ‘soft underbelly’. Once the image was lodged in the Prime Minister’s mind, he used the concept of ‘attacking the under-belly of the Axis’ in a letter to Roosevelt the following month, and subsequently to other audiences on other occasions until it became a well-known phrase associated with him. Given that the future struggles in the south–especially in the Italian peninsula–were to be anything but soft, it was to be a gaffe that would long be held against him. The one disadvantage of having such a vivid, fizzing imagination and verbal dexterity as Churchill was that the law of averages meant that very occasionally it must misfire, and when it did a memorable but ultimately unfortunate phrase was born.

When they were in Teheran on their way back home from Moscow–which also involved travelling to Cairo, El Alamein and Gibraltar–Churchill and Brooke heard of yet another disaster for British Commonwealth forces, to add to Dunkirk, Narvik, Greece, Crete, Singapore and Tobruk. An operation to attack the French Channel port of Dieppe that they had authorized, but then left entirely up to Lord Louis Mountbatten, as director of combined operations, had resulted in catastrophe. At dawn on 19 August, 252 ships, thirty tanks and 6,100 men–two Canadian infantry brigades totalling over five thousand men and over one thousand Commandos–had taken part in Operation Jubilee. It was intended as a ‘reconnaissance in force’, but had no clear follow-up plan. Even at this distance of time, it is hard to know what the Dieppe Raid was meant to achieve.

A small German convoy in the Channel alerted the shore defences before the assault could take place, so the element of surprise was lost, yet Mountbatten ordered it to go ahead anyhow. The tanks landed on the shingle beach but could not negotiate the sea wall successfully. German machine-guns accounted for most of the 4,100 Allied casualties, more than two-thirds of the attack force. The Canadians lost 907 killed and 1,874 captured; the Royal Navy suffered 550 casualties; the RAF and RCAF lost ninety-nine planes, the worst single-day total of the war, including during the battle of Britain. The Germans by contrast lost only 314 killed and 37 captured.

Although no German troops were moved from east to west as a result of the débâcle, coastal defences were massively strengthened. ‘If I had the same decision to make again,’ Mountbatten nonetheless averred, ‘I would do as I did before. It gave the Allies the priceless secret of victory.’ This is tripe, unless the lesson of not attacking a well-defended town without proper intelligence and a preliminary aerial and naval bombardment is a ‘priceless secret’, rather than the kind of assumption a lance-corporal might have made. Yet even as late as 2003 historians would still take Mountbatten at his word, with one writing: ‘The catastrophe provided priceless lessons for a full-scale amphibious invasion.’

(It is surprising how little influence the Canadians enjoyed in the higher direction of the Second World War. They had the world’s third largest navy at one point, pushed furthest inland of any of the armies on D-Day, were fabulously generous to British coffers throughout the war, contributing much more than the Americans per capita, and provided the only two armed and trained divisions standing between the south coast and London after Dunkirk. Yet they had virtually no say on the various bodies that ultimately decided how, when and where Canadians would fight.)

The writer Leonard Mosley claimed in 1971 that ‘The only people in any way satisfied by the Raid were those advisers of Winston Churchill, like Cherwell and Sir Alan Brooke, who thought it would prove to the Americans once and for all that a Second Front across the Channel was unthinkable for at least another year.’ Brooke had served with the Canadians at Vimy Ridge and admired them. The idea that he could have taken any satisfaction in so many of them being killed, wounded and captured is monstrous. ‘The casualties were undoubtedly far too heavy,’ Brooke commented in his diary; ‘to lose 2,700 men out of 5,000 on such an enterprise is too heavy a cost.’ Furthermore he did not in fact use the Dieppe Raid as an argument against Roundup, because both he and Marshall knew that in both size and objective a reconnaissance in force was very different from a full-scale invasion, and by the time Dieppe was undertaken Sledgehammer was already off the table for 1942.

On Friday 21 August, Sir John Dill threw a dinner party at his London flat for Eisenhower, Mark Clark and Thomas Handy, the War Office strategists Nye and Kennedy, and the new commander of the First Army in North Africa, Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson. Dill told them that Marshall worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. then ‘went out on the river with his wife and took a picnic supper or something of that sort’, before going back to work. He also said ‘what a fine and powerful agent’ Marshall was with Roosevelt, and spoke of Brooke’s relations with Churchill.29 Infuriatingly, the next paragraph in Kennedy’s diary was later very heavily scored through in ink on the Whitehall foolscap writing paper.

After dinner, the group settled down to discuss Operation Torch. Kennedy said the present plan–to attack Casablanca and Algiers but not Oran–‘would lead to a fiasco’ because the numbers involved needed to be trebled. Dill was non-committal, as was Nye, since, Kennedy wrote, ‘both have more formal positions to preserve vis-à-vis the Americans than I have.’ Anderson sided with Kennedy. Ike was also non-committal, beyond saying that so far no one had said ‘anything cheerful’ about the plan. The Americans left around 10.30 p.m., after which Kennedy said, ‘It was almost incredible that after the Americans had been in the war for a year, their share of this plan should be so small. It is perfectly obvious that their hearts are not in it (anyhow King’s) and that the Pacific War is eating up resources that should be here.’ He further accused them of not carrying out the agreed ‘Germany first then Japan’ strategy. Copying the complaint Marshall often made about overall British strategy, Kennedy said that the Torch plan suffered from lack of ‘concentration of effort’.

Dill then asked why the War Office had had ‘no outline plan’ for Torch ready when Marshall had visited in July, a direct criticism of Kennedy as director of military operations. Kennedy responded that the project had only come up during the visit. ‘Before he came we intended only to press for the continuation of the American movement to this country and then to decide how to use the forces.’ The Torch plan ‘had therefore started from the top without a detailed examination’. Now that his War Office Planners had looked at it carefully, Kennedy said, ‘we find that the difficulties especially of maintenance and shipping are greater than had been anticipated and that the forces are not nearly big enough.’ This brought the conversation round to Churchill, and Dill said that the Prime Minister had ruined Auchinleck by having ‘pressed and harnessed’ him. ‘In fact he has dwarfed him just as he dwarfs and reduces others around him.’

Kennedy’s defence of himself to Dill reinforces the suspicion that Torch–then still called Gymnast–was decided upon by Churchill and Roosevelt at Hyde Park, and that they subsequently prevailed upon the Chiefs of Staffs, Brooke because it was the only offensive alternative to Jupiter, Sledgehammer and Roundup, and Marshall because Brooke had blocked Sledgehammer and Roundup. When Kennedy said Torch had ‘come from the top’ he was more right than maybe even he knew. The reason he did not have a presentable version of it ready for Marshall’s visit was perhaps because Brooke was known not fully to approve of it.

On Sunday 23 August 1942 the German Sixth Army launched Operation Blue, the all-out offensive to capture the city of Stalingrad, the industrial (especially armaments) centre on the River Volga, home to six hundred thousand Russians. At 4 p.m. the 16th Panzer Division moved into the outskirts of the city and thereafter a quarter of a million German troops laid day-and-night siege while one thousand German planes bombed the city, which had virtually no anti-aircraft defences, into mountains of rubble and corpses.

Hitherto the Germans, fighting in open country, had managed to force the Soviet Army back further and further, but at Stalingrad house-to-house combat blunted their advantage and played to the strengths of the far more numerous Russians. Instead of tanks and mobile artillery, the weapons that mattered most were grenades, bayonets, sniper rifles, small arms and sometimes even spades as the Russian Sixty-second Army was mobilized to defend the metropolis that bore their leader’s name. By 12 September, German troops had got inside the city, and the next day took some key positions, such as the ferry terminal, which changed hands thrice in two hours. (The train station is said to have changed hands no fewer than sixteen times in the course of the battle.)

By 27 September two-thirds of Stalingrad was in the Germans’ hands as a result of vicious, merciless fighting they termed Rattenkriege (rat warfare). The Russians used the sewers to stage counter-attacks, but by 11 November they controlled only about one-tenth of the west bank of the city. Such waste of strength over a place that was no longer strategically valuable could have only one explanation: prestige. Hitler had publicly promised that Stalingrad would be taken; his eponymous city was equally totemic for Stalin. In mid-November, Russian forces numbering over one million men under Georgi Zhukov smashed through the Roumanian army north and south of Stalingrad and on the 23rd Red Army units met each other at Kalach, thereby trapping the Sixth Army within the city.

The outcome was by no means certain even then, however. The superiority of German combat efficiency over that of the Russians in the early part of the war meant that, on average, ‘one German division was a match for three Russian divisions of comparable size and firepower, and that under favourable circumstances of defence, one German division theoretically could–and often actually did–hold off as many as seven comparable Russian divisions’. Nonetheless, attempts to relieve Stalingrad failed, and Hitler refused to countenance a break-out. The stalemate continued through the rest of 1942.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.