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How Wrong Was Churchill?

One morning he arrived to find that his brief for the first item of the War Cabinet agenda—which his planning staff had sat up all night to prepare—was the prime minister’s new proposal to substitute for Overlord—the code name for the cross-Channel invasion that finally took place in June 1944—a landing at Lisbon and advance across the Pyrenees. Brooke, who had been brought up as a boy on the French side of the Pyrenees, told Churchill how ridiculous his plan was, adding that the time of his staff should not be wasted on such proposals. At one point Churchill told General Ismay, his liaison officer with the Chiefs of Staff, that he did not think he could continue to work any longer with Brooke because “he hates me. I can see hatred looking from his eyes.” “Hate him?” Brooke told Ismay, “I don’t hate him. I love him. But the first time I tell him that I agree with him when I don’t will be the time to get rid of me, for then I can be no more use to him.” When Churchill was told this he murmured, “Dear Brooke.”

The great contention between the American and British Chiefs of Staff was, of course, over the Mediterranean campaign and its impact on Overlord. Arguments about Overlord, as Timothy Garton Ash wrote in these pages, fill whole libraries.4 Curiously enough, Ben-Moshe does not argue, as some British and American critics do, that had the Allies halted on the North African coast in May 1943, a cross-Channel invasion could have been mounted that year and not in June 1944. On that point he admits the evidence is “not convincing.” Early in 1942 the Joint Chiefs of Staff had agreed to aim at launching a major assault in 1943 or even (if either the Germans or Russians appeared on the verge of collapse) a more rapid and smaller-scale expedition in 1942; and when they met again in Washington in June 1942, they reaffirmed the original plan.

But their generalissimos had other ideas. Roosevelt and Churchill had met at Hyde Park and agreed that in 1942 American forces as) well as British should land in Algeria and cut off Rommel’s army. It was not a case of Churchill persuading the President. Before Roosevelt sent Marshall to Britain to argue for a landing in France, he had been toying with the idea of an expedition to North Africa. Churchill had the same idea in mind as early as December 1941. Roosevelt himself was anxious that somewhere that year American troops should be in action against the Axis. He feared that if they were not, public opinion would demand that the main American effort should be transferred to the Pacific.

Of this meeting Ben-Moshe says not one word; nor does he mention that Churchill sent Mountbatten to explain to Roosevelt why a cross-Channel operation in 1942 would be catastrophic and in 1943 full of problems.

General Marshall felt that the British had gone back on their agreement to mount a cross-Channel operation in the summer of 1943; so in July of 1942 he and Admiral King and Harry Hopkins went to London. Why not, they argued, land six divisions on the Cherbourg Peninsula and establish a bridgehead in 1942? But in the end they were convinced that if American forces were to engage the Germans in 1942, North Africa was the only possible theater. Ben-Moshe argues that a smaller-scale diversionary operation across the Channel was feasible and brushes aside the argument (which Brooke thought self-evident) that the Dieppe raid in which the Canadians suffered such heavy losses showed it was not. Ben-Moshe says of Dieppe that common sense should have warned the planners that large flanking movements were needed to take a heavily defended port. He is right that the Dieppe raid was bungled. But the real reason why a diversionary operation was rejected was more somber. The middle of 1942 was a time of disasters for the British. The Caucasus and hence British Middle East oil supplies were threatened by the German army, the British forces in the Libyan port of Tobruk surrendered, and Burma was abandoned. Brooke had to give priority in shipping to the Indian Ocean rather than the Channel.

Ben-Moshe’s mastery of the voluminous sources is scrupulous as well as impressive. He is rightly wary of evidence from memoirs: old men forget and can have opportunistic memories. But the minutes of the Chiefs of Staff meetings and of their planning and intelligence committees are not like judgments of the Supreme Court. They exhibit the doubts and hesitations of their authors, they are full of weasel’ words and qualifications designed to protect those authors from being convicted of dangerous error. Sometimes junior officers cannot get their seniors to accept their view. For instance Ben-Moshe mocks the British for failing to spot Hitler’s plan to attack Russia. In 1941 I worked in the War Office in a room assigned to watching German troop movements. Captain Peter Earle (one of only three regular officers who were trained before the war to interpret air photographs and later to be Brooke’s military assistant) counted the barges in the Channel ports and became convinced that no German invasion of England would take place that spring. I counted the German trains to the Balkans but noted how many were also going toward the Russian frontier. In April, Ultra (the decrypts of the German air force) reported the movements of Luftwaffe formations from France to Poland. On May 5 a German unit set up to hold prisoners of war moved from Zagreb to Kracow. Yet neither of us could convince the head of the German section, Colonel Kenneth Strong (later Eisenhower’s intelligence chief), that a German attack was on the way.

Why did we fail? For three reasons. Diplomatic sources were so full of rumors of an attack on the Soviets that Churchill warned Stalin on April 3 (Stalin was convinced this was a capitalist plot to embroil him). Then suddenly these sources changed their tone and discounted an attack, probably as the result of German disinformation. The second reason was that Britain could do little to help the Soviets; but if the intelligence chiefs had made a mistake and Hitler had suddenly switched forces to attack Cairo through Turkey and Syria or, worse, had mounted the invasion of Britain, they would have deserved to be shot. The third reason Ben-Moshe himself provides. Those who formulate strategy, he writes, “must assume that their enemy will act with the utmost strategic wisdom.” The British chiefs could not believe Hitler would attack the Soviets before he had destroyed the puny power whose army stood in his way to the oil of the Middle East. That was why it was not until early June that the military and the foreign office changed their minds about the likelihood of a German invasion. Far more culpable was our failure to detect the movement of Rommel’s striking force through the Italian ports to Tripoli.

When senior intelligence officers forecast what the enemy may or may not do, they are sometimes influenced, more than they should be, by what they believe their chiefs want to hear. I noticed how much the papers by the joint intelligence staff expressed in code the divergent interests of the three services. How right Ben-Moshe is to note the tendency of British intelligence to predict the imminent collapse of German resistance. The air force representatives on the joint intelligence staff always plugged this line because it helped Portal to plead for more resources for the heavy bombers; a few more saturation raids, it was implied, and the war would be over.

Brooke was skeptical but he feared the casualties that the British army could ill afford. At the time of Overlord America had eleven million men under arms, the British five million; and by September 1944 British divisions were being cannibalized to produce replacements. (The disparity in strength made Montgomery’s arrogance and vanity in demanding to command all land forces all the more insufferable.) To Churchill’s ears the predictions were music because, as Henry Stimson told the President, “the shadows of Passchendaele and Dunkerque still hang too heavily over the imagination of those leaders”—though Churchill was less optimistic about German collapse than some of his generals.

We in intelligence were most at fault. No one analyzed what “collapse” meant. How in a police state could the people, or some group of plotters, be expected to carry off a revolt when any defeatist after terrifying air raids would be strung up on a lamppost? In Italy the monarchy provided an alternative to Mussolini. In Germany there was no such alternative to Hitler. When Italy collapsed, my air force colleagues’ optimism knew no bounds. Sensible strategy, they said, dictated that the Germans would abandon Italy. The Balkans would be open to us. Had not Ultra revealed Hitler’s meeting with Field Marshal Kesselring, in which “the Führer drawing with his finger on the map indicated the three lines on which the army must stand.” What else could they be but the line between Pisa and Rimini, the Po River, and the Alps—the successive steps of German withdrawal? In fact Hitler did intend at first to withdraw in this way. But then he changed his mind and told his generals to hold every inch of ground south of Naples.

Intelligence officers build up over the months a series of dogmas that govern their assessments of the enemy’s strategy. From 1942 onward a prime dogma of the British intelligence staff was that the German army was so heavily engaged in Russia that it could not transfer any appreciable number of divisions to the West. The joint intelligence staff had argued successfully before the North African landings that Hitler would not invade Spain (Admiral King believed they might, even in 1943). How, as the army’s representative, could I now convince my air force and other colleagues that the Germans would still be able to conjure troops out of the air after their huge offensive had been launched in July 1943 at Kursk, where the Soviets were to score one of the war’s decisive victories? Yet Hitler did so.

The Germans did so again at Anzio and in the Balkans. Later I was instructed by the War Office to argue against our skeptical colleagues that the Germans might move divisions from Russia to confront Overlord. Unconvinced, I produced a draft saying they “might conceivably send 1–2 divisions to the west”; this came back amended by the War Office to say “may well send 4–5 divisions to the west.” Cavendish Bentinck, the Foreign Office chairman of the joint intelligence committee, ruled against such army estimates and in favor of the dogma. Ben-Moshe often cites these hesitations and differences of emphasis.

  1. 4

    The New York Review, May 7, 1987, p. 23.

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