In April 1942, General George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff, went to London with a set of plans to bring about the defeat of Germany in northwestern Europe. Operation Bolero detailed a rapid buildup of U.S. forces in England, and Operation Sledgehammer foresaw an emergency 1942 landing in France should the Soviet Union be on the verge of collapse. But the star of the show was Operation Roundup, a large cross-Channel landing in April 1943, to be followed by a drive through northern France and into the Reich. In essence, Roundup was similar to what the Western Allies finally adopted—Operation Overlord—but they executed the latter more than a year later, starting on 6 June 1944.
Roundup did not take place for several reasons. It could not happen fast enough to suit the political requirements of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The President decreed that U.S. ground forces had to be in action against the Germans in 1942, preferably before the November midterm elections. For the British, who would provide the base for the operation and supply most of the naval support and many of the troops and aircraft, 1943 was too soon for a cross-Channel invasion, and Sledgehammer was a recipe for disaster.
Nonetheless, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his Chiefs of Staff, wanting to ensure that the United States prioritized the fight against Germany rather than Japan, led Marshall to believe they accepted his troika of plans; as one historian put it, Churchill’s “agreement to [Sledgehammer and Roundup] had come only because of a conviction that they were impossible to implement.”
General Hastings Ismay, Churchill’s military aide-de-camp, wrote: “Everyone seemed to agree with the American proposals in their entirety. No doubts were expressed; no discordant note struck. [However,] perhaps it would have obviated future misunderstandings if the British had expressed their views more frankly.” Finally, as General Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, put it: “[Marshall’s] plans are fraught with the gravest dangers. . . . The prospects of success are small and dependent on a mass of unknowns, whilst the chances of disaster are great and dependent on a mass of well established military facts.”1
The British Perspective
The cornerstones of British strategy, first defined in the dark days of September 1940, were blockade, bombing, peripheral operations, and uprisings in occupied countries. These were supposed to “crack” German morale, as had happened in 1918. After that, the British expected to exploit their enemy’s disintegration in a cross-Channel operation. They never considered facing the full strength of the German Army. Even after the United States and Soviet Union entered the war, British strategy remained based on these principles. The U.S. Army, on the other hand, envisioned building a force of 200 divisions to defeat Germany even without Soviet assistance.
Instead of confronting the Germans directly, Brooke was certain the best strategy was to drive Italy from the war and reopen the Mediterranean to routine shipping while the Russians did the bulk of the bleeding. Both Brooke and Churchill remembered the generation of British youth slaughtered at the Somme and in other Great War battles. As Churchill expressed it, “The fearful price we had had to pay in human life and blood for the great offensives of the First World War was graven on my mind.” The British rejection of Sledgehammer/Roundup came shortly after the stunning June 1942 surrender of the British fortress of Tobruk in North Africa. That had been preceded by the shocking British capitulation of Singapore to a smaller attacking force and the even more perplexing loss of Crete to lightly armed German paratroops.
These disasters, along with the failure of every British desert offensive undertaken against the Afrika Korps, caused Churchill and the chiefs (privately) to question the competence of their own generals and the morale of their army. If the British believed the Germans outclassed their own troops, what about the green Americans? Moreover, the naïve Yankees had no idea of the difficulties involved in a large amphibious attack.2
|Major Landing Vessels Built and on Hand|
|Oct. 42–Dec. 42||21||51||88||160|
|Jan. 43–Jun. 43||34||27||1||62|
|July 43–Dec. 43||22||24||28||74|
|Jan. 44–May 44||41||54||83||178|
|1 Jan. 43 (Casablanca Conf.)||62||153||467||682|
|1 Aug. 43||308||330||471||1,109|
|7/1/1943 (Used in Husky)||159||68||193||420|
|June 44 (Used in Neptune)||236||248||837||1,321|
In early July, Churchill finally told U.S. leaders that the British would not participate in an early cross-Channel invasion. This shocking news forced Marshall and Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Ernest King to return to London later that month in an effort to salvage Sledgehammer and Roundup. Instead, squeezed between unyielding British opposition and presidential orders to reach an agreement, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed to Operation Torch, the invasion of neutral Vichy French North Africa.
In an amazing feat of improvisation, with barely six weeks of planning, gathering forces, and training, Torch duly was conducted in November 1942 with half the landing force coming directly from the United States and the other half from Britain. Morocco and Algeria fell quickly enough, but German and Italian reinforcements delayed the conquest of Tunisia until May 1943—five months later than planned.
Showdown at Casablanca
The fact the Axis powers were able to prolong the campaign well into 1943 is one of the great failures of Torch and often is cited as a reason why an invasion of France was impossible in 1943.3 However, despite Operation Torch’s failure to secure a quick victory, a modified Operation Roundup still was feasible in 1943. The decisions that set the course of Allied strategy for 1943 and beyond were made by the coalition’s leaders at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. These are what prevented a 1943 D-Day.
At Casablanca, General Marshall hoped to forge a consensus for a 1943 cross-Channel attack. The U.S. Joint Chiefs met with Roosevelt on 7 January 1943, a week before the conference opened, to discuss strategy. The President started by asking “if all were agreed that we should meet the British united in advocating a cross-channel operation [in 1943].”4 Marshall noted that even among the Joint Chiefs the question of strategic focus “was still an open one” and that he personally favored an attack against Brest in August.
They discussed the pros and cons of continued operations in the Mediterranean and whether Sardinia or Sicily was the better objective. Admiral King preferred to attack Sicily should the Mediterranean focus continue. The CNO believed a cross-Channel invasion was inevitable, “but he had no preference as to the best time to do it.”5 Admiral William Leahy, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, voiced concerns about Spain and Syria. Lieutenant General Henry “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, worried about securing air bases for a strategic bombing campaign. Roosevelt suggested building up a large force in England and postponing a final decision between a cross-Channel or a Mediterranean operation. In short, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had no set and unified strategy for 1943.6
While the Americans dithered, the British had conducted “acrimonious inter-Service disputes and often in [the] face of strong resistance from the Prime Minister himself” to clearly define their strategy.7 At the opening of the 55th meeting of the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff on 14 January at Casablanca, Brooke made what has been described as a magnificent speech. He stated that in men and oil Germany was growing weaker and that an opportunity to take offensive action presented itself. He saw three means to strike back at the Germans:
- Via Russia by supporting the Soviet Union with supplies as far as possible
- Via strategic bombing
- Via a landing in Europe, but “once committed to a point of entry, the enemy would be able to concentrate his forces against us and it was therefore necessary to choose this point of entry with the greatest of care at the place where the enemy was least able to concentrate large forces.”8 In other words, not northwestern France.
The U.S. chiefs knew the British “feared that German strength would make [a cross-Channel] operation impracticable.” As Marshall put it, “there was a very decided difference of opinion between the American and British point of view and there the question had resolved itself into one thing or the other with no alternatives in sight.”9 He later explained that he ultimately accepted the Mediterranean focus because troops were already in the theater, it would maintain pressure on the Germans, and, most relevantly, the British refused to go along with the cross-Channel operation.10 Indeed, he briefed Roosevelt that “the British are extremely fearful of any direct action against the continent until a decided crack in the German efficiency and morale has become apparent.”11
The correctness of the British position is accepted canon of World War II historiography. Swiss historian Eddy Bauer wrote: “The British calculation that the Allies would not be strong enough to launch a victorious cross-channel invasion in 1943 was shown to be correct by the relatively narrow margin by which the Normandy invasion succeeded even a year later.” Stephen Roskill, author of the official British naval history of the war, decreed, “No knowledge which has since come to light has produced any sound reasons for believing that, even had the Mediterranean strategy not been adopted, we could have landed and maintained an army in France [before 1944].”12 The assumption underlying such viewpoints is that the balance of power favored the Allies more in 1944 than in 1943. That is, that the Allies were growing stronger and the Germans weaker.
Was 1943 Too Early?
There were four basic preconditions of a successful cross-Channel attack:
- Naval superiority in the English Channel
- Air superiority over the landing beaches and well inland
- Enough troops to establish a beachhead and then match the enemy’s subsequent buildup
- Enough shipping and landing craft to carry the troops to the landing points and reinforce them as required.
While no one has questioned the Western Allies’ ability to establish sea and air superiority in 1943, most historians have concluded that landing craft and shipping were insufficient for a 1943 cross-Channel operation and there were not enough trained and experienced U.S. troops. Churchill wrote, “I do not believe that 27 Anglo-American divisions are sufficient for Overlord in view of the extraordinary fighting efficiency of the German Army and the much larger forces they could so readily bring to bear against our troops even if the landings were successfully accomplished.”13
The Question of Shipping
According to naval historian Craig Symonds, “A case can be made that LSTs [tank landing ships] were the most important ships of the Second World War.”14 Other important types that came into service in large numbers after Operation Torch included LCIs (infantry landing craft) and LCTs (tank landing craft). The Allies possessed sufficient landing craft for a four- or five-division assault in France in August 1943. After all, they conducted a seven-division assault in Sicily in July 1943. Indeed, after the decision made at Casablanca that there would be no cross-Channel operation in 1943, the United States reduced its production of amphibians. For example, 61 LSTs were launched in February 1943 but only 28 in March. The Americans also diverted major amphibious assets to the Pacific.
Production of large landing vessels again became a priority after a date finally was set for Overlord, and in April and May 1944, more LSTs (132) were produced than in the six months prior (130). If the Anglo-Americans had decided at Casablanca to conduct a cross-Channel invasion in August 1943, it is safe to assume that production would have been accelerated rather than reduced and that landing vessel inventories would have been adequate. Simply maintaining production at the level attained in the January–March 1943 quarter for another four months would have added an additional 85 LSTs and 146 LCIs to the inventory available for an August 1943 cross-Channel landing. It was a matter of priorities.
The decisions made at Casablanca also affected the availability of manpower. Discounting the 16 British and Canadian divisions reserved to exploit a crack in German morale, U.S. reinforcements to England would have been much greater had an operation across the English Channel remained in the books. Although Casablanca paid lip-service to continuing the buildup of U.S. forces in England, in fact, during the first quarter of 1943, fewer than 20,000 U.S. troops landed in England, not more than 90,000, as envisioned. Senior U.S. commanders did not want large numbers of troops doing nothing.15
On 1 January 1943, the U.S. Army counted 67 divisions, of which 37 had a year or more of training. By 1 August 1943, there were 91 divisions, of which 61 were trained. On 1 January 1943, the United States had 11 divisions in the Pacific, 6 in North Africa, and 2 in England. Between then and 1 August 1943, the United States shipped only eight divisions overseas: five to the Pacific and three to the Mediterranean.
On 1 June 1944, by way of comparison, 22 U.S. divisions were in England. Operating under the priority of reinforcing that country for a cross-Channel operation, the United States could have had at the very least 18 divisions in England by 1 August 1943 and probably several more. This assumes that the three divisions shipped to Africa and three already there were sent to England as well as four of the five Pacific divisions and another four besides on the basis that it required about twice as much shipping to send a division to the Pacific as to England. If, as in Torch, the United States also loaded a three-division landing force in the United States, 21 U.S. divisions would have been available in the late summer of 1943 for a cross-Channel operation.
Counting divisions is deceptive because not all divisions are equal. In January 1943, General Brooke asserted that 44 German divisions were garrisoning France—“Sufficient strength to overwhelm us on the ground and perhaps hem us in with wire or concrete.”16 In fact, 45 divisions were there, but the size and quality of these units varied wildly. There were 23 combat-ready mobile divisions, 9 static divisions, and 13 divisions either forming or being refitted. And even the mobile units, with the exception of the few armored divisions present in France, were inferior to Allied divisions in size, mobility, and firepower.
By 1 May 1943, 55 German divisions were in France, but nearly all of the mobile formations had been transferred east, leaving 51 static, reforming, or training units. In fact, the German Army in the West was weaker in the summer of 1943 than it was in mid-1944, while Germany’s overall war production in 1944 was 50 percent greater than in 1943 and 126 percent greater than in 1942. In other words, the Allies faced a stronger and better prepared enemy in 1944 than they would have in 1943 under any circumstances.17
Two Different Views
War is a complicated business, and changing one variable will have unknown repercussions. For example, the United States cut landing-vessel production in 1943 to build more escorts, and these helped win the Battle of the Atlantic. However, the major military objections raised at Casablanca to a 1943 cross-Channel operation could have been resolved. Had a decision been made to conduct such an operation in August 1943, enough landing craft and trained men to do the job would have been available, and they would have faced lighter opposition. However, there would have been a cost.
In the Pacific, the U.S. offensive into the Gilbert Islands might have been delayed. In the Mediterranean, there would have been no invasion of Sicily, and Italy may have remained in the war. The consequences are unknowable, but General Marshall was right in his belief that the best way to defeat Nazi Germany was by striking at its heart by the most direct route as quickly as possible. It took 30 months for the Anglo-American forces in the Mediterranean to drive from Egypt to the base of the Alps, compared to the ten months required to advance from the beaches of Normandy to the heart of Germany. That leaves little reason to think Marshall was wrong.
The real reason D-Day was not in August 1943 was because at Casablanca the British refused to consider such an operation and the Americans did not insist. It came down to two different views of how to defeat Germany. One was brash, perhaps naïve, but based on a history of success and a culture of abundance; the other was cautious, perhaps chauvinistic, and influenced by a generation lost in the type of battle their allies were proposing against the very same foe.
On 24 May 1943, shortly after the British finally agreed to participate in a cross-Channel operation in the spring of 1944, even if Germany had not cracked, Brooke complained in his diary, “It becomes essential for us to bleed ourselves dry on the Continent because Russia is doing the same.”18 Historian Max Hastings has written, “if [Brooke’s] willingness to allow the Russians to bleed the German Army was cynical, it was a great service to his own country.”19 The counterpoint to this observation is that ending the war a year earlier, even a month earlier, would have been a great service to humanity.
1. Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Ordeal and Hope 1939–1942 (New York: Viking Press, 1965), 318. John Charmley, “Churchill and the American Alliance,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 11 (2001): 361. H. L. Ismay, The Memoirs of General Lord Ismay (New York: Viking Press, 1960), 249. Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman, eds., War Diaries 1939–1945 Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001), 250.
2. Quoted in Andrew Roberts, Masters and Commanders (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 214. Disaster quoted from Tuvia Ben-Moshe, “Churchill and the Second Front: A Reappraisal,” The Journal of Modern History 62, no. 3 (September 1990), 535. For a lack of confidence, see Joseph L. Strange, “The British Rejection of Operation SLEDGEHAMMER: An Alternative Motive,” Military Affairs, 46, No. 1 (February 1982): 6–14.
3. For example, Norman Gleb, Desperate Venture (New York: William Morrow, 1992), 320.
4. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States (hereafter FRUS), The Casablanca Conference (January 14–24, 1943) (University of Wisconsin Digital Collections), 509.
5. Thomas B. Buell, Master of Sea Power: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King (Boston: Little Brown, 1981), 265.
6. FRUS, Casablanca, 509–14.
7. Michael Howard, The Mediterranean Strategy in the Second World War (London: Greenhill Books, 1993), 35.
8. FRUS, Casablanca, 538.
9. FRUS, Casablanca, 510, 511.
10. Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory 1943–1945 (New York, Viking, 1973), 31.
11. Quote, Pogue, George C. Marshall, 31. Also see FRUS, Casablanca, 559–60, 774.
12. Eddy Bauer, The History of World War II (New York: Galahad Books, 1979), 332. Stephen Roskill, War at Sea, vol. 3, The Offensive, pt. 1 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1960), 7.
13. Howard, Mediterranean Strategy, 45.
14. Craig L. Symonds, Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 152,
15. Richard M. Leighton and Robert W. Coakley, Global Logistics and Strategy 1940–1943 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1966), 688.
16. FRUS, Casablanca, 584.
17. See Walter Scott Dunn Jr., Second Front Now—1943 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1983), 221–41, 254.
18. Danchev and Todman, eds. War Diaries, 410.
19. Quoted in Roberts, Masters and Commanders, 215.
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