PLANS AND POLITICS
Perhaps the most persuasive argument that OVERLORD was not necessary is the one that can be based on the intense disagreement that existed among allied strategists during 1943. The British consistently felt that a peripheral strategy based on operations in the Mediterranean and the Balkans was preferable to a large scale direct assault like the Normandy invasion. Although there was considerable internal support for the British recommendation among American planners, the official American position, as espoused by Gen Marshall, adamantly advocated OVERLORD.
American planning for OVERLORD had been started early in 1942. At that time it appeared that a massive continental invasion would be mandatory for victory in the European theater. Not only did the invasion appear to be mandatory, it was needed as soon as possible to prevent a possible German victory on the eastern front. Furthermore, there was little choice involved in this early commitment to OVERLORD, simply due to the immensity of such an operation. Unless US strategic planners made early commitments of industrial resources to the type of equipment needed for a massive amphibious invasion, and unless they committed to firm production schedules for it, the allies would never have the capability to conduct such an operation. Therefore, the original commitment to OVERLORD, based as it was on the European situation in early 1942 and US industrial lead times, was sound. Following this commitment, the US became a consistent advocate for OVERLORD, and very reluctantly agreed to adoption of the British position favoring the invasion of Sicily and Italy in 1943.
By mid 1943, the western allies knew they must commit to a definite plan for operations against Germany In 1944. It was clear that Mediterranean operations would take the remainder of 1943, and that little time remained for the detailed planning required for a major endeavor such as OVERLORD. A British/American conference known as QUADRANT took place in Quebec in August 1943 to resolve these issues.
The American position at the QUADRANT conference was heavily influenced by a new, high level military estimate which Harry Hopkins brought with him. It contained several major points. First, it stated that Russia occupied the “dominant” and “decisive” position in the defeat of Germany and would continue to occupy such a position relative to the rest of Europe in the post-war world. (2:120) Secondly, it maintained that, “The future of Europe will be affected profoundly, and perhaps decisively, by the strength and the geographic disposition of the armed forces at the cessation of hostilities.” (2:121) Finally, it stated that America must consider the war in the Pacific, which was the “most Important factor” in its relations with Russia. (2:121) Prior to QUADRANT Russia had consistently insisted that a second front was a necessary condition to future military and political cooperation with the West. Furthermore, Stalin had stated that he would Join the Pacific War only after the Germans were defeated and only if the West had helped in that defeat by opening a second front. (2:116,120)
For these reasons and others, presumably military, the Americans insisted on a firm, unambiguous commitment to OVERLORD. No one was more adamant than Gen Marshall. He continually emphasized that OVERLORD was mandatory for victory and felt that all attempts to modify or delay plans for a massive invasion of France were foolhardy and had to be overcome. Gen Marshall insisted that OVERLORD must have ‘overriding priority.” If not, it, “weakened our chances for an early victory and rendered necessary a reexamination of our basic strategy with a possible readjustment toward the Pacific.” To the British, this was the ultimate threat, since their hopes for a meaningful share in the defeat of Germany were totally dependent on continued American assistance. But Gen Marshall followed up with a second body blow. He stated that a refusal to give OVERLORD top priority would result in his immediate resignation, a position he had previously expressed to President Roosevelt. (2:113)
Although the Americans presented a united front at QUADRANT, it is interesting to note that a mini-revolt had occurred during the summer of 1943 among the strategists on the JCS. Led by Lt Gen John Hull, chief of the Operations Division Theater Group, these planners felt that a cross-channel Invasion was not necessary. They recommended adoption of the British strategy of peripheral operations in the Mediterranean, continued strategic air operations against the German homeland, and continued use of dominant allied seapower. They advocated a relaxation of the total commitment to OVERLORD and advised against setting a firm date for it. In their view planning should be done on an “opportunistic” rather than a rigid basis. They were supported In this advocacy by Admiral Cooke of the Joint Staff Planners. (17:165-166) During this time frame Gen Curtis LeMay also briefed the JCS concerning the potential capability of the strategic bombing campaign to put Germany out of the war In a matter of months. (11) Needless to say, Gen Marshall soundly suppressed such thinking prior to engaging the British at Quebec. As an historical footnote, it is remarkable that this suppressed American position is Identical to the recommendations made by the British at QUADRANT and in later discussions with the Russians at Tehran.
The British were consistently opposed to OVERLORD. They continued to advocate more limited, less risky operations In the Mediterranean and against the Balkans. They were fascinated with the possibilities of bringing Turkey into the war on the allied side and felt that such operations in combination with American operations in the Pacific theater would satisfy Russian demands for opening a second front. Throughout the summer of 1943, prior to QUADRANT, Churchill expressed his concerns about the cross-channel Invasion, and on one occasion drew images of a “Channel full of corpses” during a conversation with Secretary of War Stimson. (2:99) Churchill expressed these same fears to Secretary of State Hull at QUADRANT. He feared that OVERLORD would involve frightful casualties and “that a victory under such conditions would be barren for Britain; she would never recover from it and would be so weakened that the Soviet Union would inevitably dominate the European continent.” (2:119) To quote from Hastings, “Four years of war against the Wehrmacht had convinced Britain’s commanders that Allied troops should engage and could defeat their principal enemy only on the most absolutely favourable terms. Throughout the Second World War, wherever British or American troops met the Germans in anything like equal strength, the Germans prevailed.” (1: 24) Fortunately, the allies enjoyed a considerable numerical advantage on the beaches of Normandy, but the British knew there could be no guarantees for such an operation. Having endured the aftermath of the ill-fated Dieppe fiasco in August 1942 and understanding the uncertainties associated with amphibious operations, Churchill’s opposition to another risky cross-channel venture was well founded. History shows that these British concerns were remarkably prescient. The OVERLORD landings would probably have been “Dunkirked” had only two of the available German divisions been repositioned.
Predictably, due to American strength, the official results of the QUADRANT conference called for full support of OVERLORD and confirmed the planned date of 1 May 1944. However, the British were still not totally convinced, and continued to express their concerns during the coming months. In October, Churchill wrote to Roosevelt, “I do not doubt our ability in the conditions laid down to get ashore and deploy. I an however deeply concerned with the build-up and with the situation which may arise between the thirtieth and sixtieth days… My dear friend, this is much the greatest thing we have ever attempted.” (1: 22) In a memo prepared in November, the British Chiefs of Staff stated, “We must not… regard OVERLORD as the pivot of our whole strategy on which all else turns.” (1: 22) (Emphasis added) The Americans were not naive concerning British skepticism. An autumn memorandum prepared by the American Joint Chiefs recognized a new rationale for British reluctance. It stated,
It Is apparent that the British, who have consistently resisted a cross-Channel operation, now feel OVERLORD is no longer necessary. In their view, continued Mediterranean operations coupled with POINTBLANK (the strategic bombing of Germany) and the crushing Russian offensive, will be sufficient to cause the internal collapse of Germany and thus bring about her military defeat without undergoing what they consider an almost certain “bloodbath”. The conclusion that the forces being built up in the United Kingdom will never be used for a military offensive against western Europe, but are intended as a gigantic deception plan and an occupying force, is inescapable. (1: 22)
This is the crux of the issue. The British, who had access to the same intelligence information as the dominant American war planners and considerably more experience fighting the Germans felt that OVERLORD was both unnecessary and a terrible risk. With victory over the Germans practically in the allies’ grasp due to successes in the north Atlantic, on the Eastern front, and in the strategic air campaign, the British saw no justification at the time of QUADRANT (or later) for risking an avoidable defeat which could have had catastrophic political consequences fr the Alliance.
It is interesting to note that an almost contrasting contingency was included in Allied plans at that time. Known as RANKIN, this plan provided for rapid reentry onto the continent in late late 1943 or early 1944 in case of German weakening or collapse before OVERLORD. (2:113) RANKIN recognized that, “For both political and military reasons, speed of entry will be of the first importance.” (2:123) RANKIN was a completely political plan. It was designed to get allied armies into Germany as fast as possible in the event of a German collapse, so the Russian advance would be stopped. Unlike OVERLORD, it was not cloaked In a garb of “military necessity.”
Following QUADRANT the British were not content merely to voice their concerns about OVERLORD to the Americans. Remarkably, they began to communicate their alternative strategies and to receive apparent support from the most unlikely of sources, the Russians. Stalin was still insisting that the second front was a necessary condition for post-war cooperation, but the British began to notice a new softness in his insistence. When Anthony Eden advised Stalin on October 28 that OVERLORD might be delayed for a few months due to difficulties being encountered in the Italian campaign, Stalin calmly accepted the news, and the entire talk “went off surprisingly well.” (2:132) This response was in total contrast to previous tirades which had been triggered by news of British/American delays and tactical misfortunes. At a later conference of foreign ministers in Moscow, Stalin was receptive to British overtures concerning short term military operations in the Balkans or a possible expansion of the Italian operation instead of OVERLORD. (2;134) No doubt, the British were very persuasive. Churchill is known to have said concerning the necessity to curtail offensive operations in the Mediterranean theater to support OVERLORD, “It is certainly an odd way of helping the Russians, to slow down the fight in the only theater where anything can be done for some months.” (15:254) Stalin’s attitude changes have been attributed to the huge success of the Russian Army in its 1943 offensive. By this time; Stalin apparently felt that British and American assistance was becoming less critical in defeating the German army. In any event, after the Moscow conference of Foreign Ministers, the final decision on OVERLORD was again uncertain. If Stalin no longer felt It was necessary, the British position would prevail, and the cross-channel invasion would be canceled or at least postponed. (2:134)
At this point a stalemate again existed between the American and British positions, and it appeared that Joseph Stalin would make the final decision by expressing his preferences at the summit scheduled for late November in Tehran. This remarkable turn of events was confirmed at a preparatory British/American planning conference (SEXTANT) held in Cairo on November 23, 1943. (15:165)
On November 28, 1943, the summit at Tehran began. Although Stalin had obviously been considering the alternatives, there was no question at Tehran that he preferred OVERLORD as the primary offensive for 1944. (15:306) He further sided with the Americans by recommending an offensive in southern France after the capture of Rome rather than continued operations in Italy or in the Balkans. (15:261) Concerning previous operations in the Mediterranean, Stalin commented that, “They were really only diversions.” (15:307) Churchill, no match for the Russian/American combination, became moody and sulked, perhaps sensing the shape of the future.
Did Stalin really consider OVERLORD to be essential to Germany’s defeat, as he had earlier in the war? After his return to Moscow from Tehran, Stalin commented to Marshal Zhukov, “Roosevelt has given his word that large scale action will be mounted in France in 1944. I believe he will keep his word. But even if he doesn’t, we have enough of our own forces to complete the rout of Nazi Germany.” (15:340)
If he did not consider OVERLORD to be mandatory, why did Stalin torpedo the British at Tehran? Perhaps he realized that Churchill’s Mediterranean strategy could result In British and American occupation of much of central and eastern Europe. Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, Czechoslavakia, and part of Poland could well have followed the inevitable allied victory in Italy. Could Stalin have been so astute as to realize that OVERLORD would confine British and American forces to western Europe, and leave central and eastern Europe for him?
To summarize, OVERLORD was not a clear choice for allied planners. It was not clear that OVERLORD was necessary to defeat Germany, and it was not clear that it would be worth the price of the expected British and American casualties. The British advised caution, knowing full well that Russia would dominate the continent unless strong British and American armies remained after the war. (2:119) The Americans felt compelled to engage the German Army directly despite the potential casualties, and OVERLORD was the way to do this.
This compulsion is all the more remarkable when the Pacific theater is considered. It would seem that with Nimitz and MacArthur constantly complaining about their second priority status and their critical need for more men and materiel to defeat Japan, the JCS would have been actively seeking opportunities to reduce requirements in the European theater. Canceling or delaying OVERLORD, as the British were recommending, was such an opportunity. In retrospect, it must be concluded that more powerful motivators than simple logic were operating throughout 1943.