It was this war zone that Prime Minister Winston Churchill had chosen to fly to on Christmas Day. He now tried to broker a peace with the assistance of the Greek Archbishop. He was accompanied by his private secretary, John Colville, whose diary provides many insights into the life of Churchill during the war. On the 26th December they were on board HMS Ajax in Athens’ harbour:
This morning the sun is shining brightly and I have just persuaded the P.M. to get up and go out on the quarter-deck. From the bridge one can see the smoke of battle in the street fighting west of the Piraeus, and there is a constant noise of shell-fire and machine-guns.
We had a splendid view of Beaufrghters strafing an E.L.A.S. stronghold on the side of one of the hills surrounding Athens. Four of them went round and round, diving with all their cannons blazing and then joining in behind the tail of the preceding aircraft to continue the process. As E.L.A.S. seem to be deficient of flak, however well provided they may be with other weapons, the Beaufighters seem to be having a very pleasant time.
There is no nonsense about fraternising among the troops here, who, to a man, consider E.L.A.S. and all their works utterly loathsome. I have spoken to several and I gather that there is a general sense of anger at the attitude of the British press and certain elements of the Labour Party.
Nobody here has any illusions about the real character of the rebels. On the other hand E.L.A.S., in spite of their diabolical activities, have a strangely obliging side to them. For instance, the telephone exchange is in the hands of E.L.A.S. but they have never yet made any difficulties about our telephoning messages from the aerodrome to G.H.Q., even though these, in the form sent, provide them with no useful information. Macmillan says that they possess many of the qualities and defects of the Irish.
The above was written after lunch and it is now 11.45 p.m. with the bag almost closing.
This afternoon’s events were the purest melodrama. Just before we left the ship we were straddled by shells and another fell quite close as we landed. The meeting with the Greeks was preceded by long sessions at the Embassy, in which the Archbishop figured prominently.
There were photographs in the garden and the Prime Minister made a stirring speech to the staff of the Embassy thanking them for their excellent work in arduous conditions. This gave enormous pleasure both to Leeper [the Ambassador] and to the staff. It looked as if E.L.A.S. would not turn up for the meeting and the Archbishop had made his opening speech and the P.M. was halfway through his, when there were noises off and three shabby desperadoes, who had been searched and almost stripped before being allowed to enter, came into the dimly-lit conference room.
All the British delegation, the American, the Russian and the Frenchman, rose to their feet, but the Greek Govern- ment remained firmly seated. The P.M. was only prevented from rushing to shake the E.L.A.S. people by the hand by Field Marshal Alexander’s bodily intervention.
The proceedings then began all over again and, with the sound of rocket- firing Beaufighters, and bursting mortar shells without, the light of a few Hurricane lamps within and the spectacle of what was surely the oddest galaxy of stars ever assembled in one place, one had continually to rub one’s eyes to be sure one was not dreaming.
The Allies now believed that the end of the war was in sight. Attention turned to the post war settlement. Churchill had just been in the United States to confer with Roosevelt. The international negotiations at Dunbarton Oaks, Washington had also been largely completed, where the future structure of the United Nations had been decided. He now travelled to Moscow to meet Stalin.
Aside from the mechanisms of the United Nations the real politik was about the relative sphere of influence amongst the Allies in Europe, particularly in those countries which were emerging from German occupation. Churchill was trying to get the Polish Government in Exile to enter talks with Stalin, but also to sort out which of the Allies were to take primary role in the other countries of eastern Europe. It proved to be relatively easy to deal with Stalin, at least it appeared so at the time.
At ten o’clock that night we held our ﬁrst important meeting in the Kremlin. …
The moment was apt for business, so I said, “Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Roumania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions, and agents there. Don’t let us get at cross—purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have ninety per cent. predominance in Roumania, for us to have ninety per cent. of the say in Greece, and go ﬁfty—ﬁfty about Yugoslavia?”
While this was being translated I wrote out on a half—sheet of paper:
The others …10%
Great Britain …90% (in accord with U.S.A.)
The others …25%
I pushed this across to Stalin, who had by then heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down.
Of course we had long and anxiously considered our point, and were only dealing with immediate war-time arrangements. All larger questions were reserved on both sides for what we then hoped would be a peace table when the war was won.
After this there was a long silence. The pencilled paper lay in the centre of the table. At length I said, “Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an offhand manner? Let us burn the paper.” “No, you keep it,” said Stalin.
Churchill was certainly acutely aware that such an arrangement was open to misinterpretation. A day later he cabled the British cabinet to explain his thinking:
These percentages which I have put down are no more than a method by which in our thoughts we can see how near we are together, and then decide upon the necessary steps to bring us into full agreement.
As I said, they would be considered crude, and even callous, if they were exposed to the scrutiny of the Foreign Offices and diplomats all over the world. Therefore they could not be the basis of any public document, certainly not at the present time.
They might however be a good guide for the conduct of our affairs. If we manage these affairs well we shall perhaps prevent several civil wars and much bloodshed and strife in the small countries concerned. Our broad principle should be to let every country have the form of government which its people desire.
We certainly do not wish to force on any Balkan State monarchic or republican institutions. We have however established certain relations of faithfulness with the Kings of Greece and Yugoslavia. They have sought our shelter from the Nazi foe, and we think that when normal tranquillity is re-established and the enemy has been driven out the peoples of these countries should have a free and fair chance of choosing.
It might even be that Commissioners of the three Great Powers should be stationed there at the time of the elections so as to see that the people have a genuine free choice. There are good precedents for this.
In the light of subsequent events, when the Soviet Bloc took over eastern Europe the meeting was sometimes interpreted as the carving up of Europe on the back of an envelope. Hopes in the west that “countries should have a free and fair chance of choosing” their governments were very misplaced. The de facto occupation of countries in eastern Europe by Soviet troops meant that Stalin was the one who decided.
Contemporary newsreel footage of the Eastern Front in late 1944:
Winston Churchill had wanted to accompany the invasion forces on D-Day itself, and had to be dissuaded by the King. He would not allow the visit to be delayed much longer.
On the 12th june the bridgehead in Normandy was still only a matter of a few miles deep and still under intermittent shellfire, and occasional air attack. Inland the clashes with the Panzer units were becoming more serious. Less than a week after the invasion the commanders in the field might be presumed to be fairly busy.
None of this deterred Churchill. He was accompanied by Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff who recorded the day in his diary:
[The Prime Minister’s party left the train at] 7.30 am to catch the destroyer Kelvin and leave Portsmouth at 8 am. The Americans had already started in a separate party. We had a very comfortable journey over and most interesting. We continually passed convoys of landing craft, minesweepers, bits of floating breakwater (Phoenix) being towed out, parts of the floating piers (Whales) etc. And overhead, a continuous flow of planes going to and coming from France.
About 11 am we approached the French coast and the scene was beyond description. Everywhere the sea was covered with ships of all sizes and shapes, and a scene of continuous activity. We passed through rows of anchored LSTs and finally came to a ‘Gooseberry’, namely a row of ships sunk in a half crescent to form a sort of harbour and to provide protection from the sea.
Here we were met by Admiral Vian (of Mediterranean fame) who took us in his Admiral’s barge from which we changed into a DUKW (amphibious lorry). This ran us straight onto the beach and up onto the road.
It was a wonderful moment to find myself re-entering France almost exactly 4 years after being thrown out for the second time, at St Nazaire. Floods of mem- ories came back of my last trip of despair, and those long four years of work and anxiety at last crowned by the success of a reentry into France.
Monty met us on the beach with a team of jeeps which we got into and drove off on the Courseulles-Bayeux road, to about 1/2 way to the latter place. There we found Monty’s HQ and he gave us an explanation on the map of his dispositions and plans. All as usual wonderfully clear and concise.
We then had lunch with him and my thoughts wandered off to 4 years ago when I was at Le Mans and Laval waiting for Monty and his 3rd Division to join me. I knew then that it would not be long before I was kicked out of France if I was not killed or taken prisoner, but if anybody had told me then that in 4 years time I should return with Winston and Smuts to lunch with Monty commanding a new invasion force I should have found it hard to believe it.
After lunch we drove round to Bimbo Dempsey’s HQ. I was astonished at how little affected the country had been by the German occupation and 5 years of war. All the crops were good, the country fairly clear of weeds, and plenty of fat cattle, horses, chickens etc. (As usual Winston described the situation in his inimitable way when driving with me. He said, ‘We are surrounded by fat cattle lying in luscious pastures with their paws crossed!’ This is just the impression they gave one.)
And the French population did not seem in any way pleased to see us arrive as a victorious country to liberate France. They had been quite content as they were, and we were bringing war and desolation to the country. We then returned to Courseulles, having watched a raid by Hun bombers on the harbour which did no harm.
We re-embarked on Vian’s Admiral’s Barge and did a trip right along the sea front watching the various activities. We saw ‘Landing Crafts Tank’ unloading lorries, tanks, guns etc onto the beaches in a remarkably short time.
We then went to the new harbour being prepared west of Hamel.
There we saw some of the large Phoenixes being sunk into place and working admirably. Also ‘bombadores’ to damp down waves, ‘Whales’ representing wonderful floating piers, all growing up fast.
Close by was a monitor with a 14″ gun firing away into France. Winston said he had never been on one of His Majesty’s ships engaging the enemy and insisted on going aboard. Luckily we could not climb up as it would have been a very risky entertainment had we succeeded.
Then we returned to our destroyer and went right back to the east end of the beach where several ships were bombarding the Germans. Winston wanted to take part in the war, and was longing to draw some retaliation. However the Boche refused to take any notice of any of the rounds we fired. We therefore started back about 6.15 and by 9.15 were back at Portsmouth after having spent a wonderfully interesting day.
We got on board the PM’s train where we found Marshall and King. We dined on the way back to London where we arrived shortly after 1 am dog tired and very sleepy!
As Operation Overlord approached there was intense debate within the senior Allied commanders about one aspect of the plan. Churchill’s scientific adviser Solly Zuckerman had devised the ‘Transportation Plan’ – the planned disruption of all rail traffic leading into northern France. The planned called for the diversion of the heavy bomber fleets of the RAF and the USAAF away from targets in Germany to hit railway targets in France.
The head of RAF Bomber Command Arthur Harris, and the head of the new US Strategic Air Forces in Europe, Carl Spaatz opposed the plan. They did not want to be diverted from their bombing of Germany, nor did they think the heavy bombers were suitable for hitting railway targets and would cause too many civilian casualties. The argument went round Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and went up to Churchill. Eventually the plan went ahead with careful monitoring of French casualties. Some of the earlier raids in March had been very accurate. Arguably, it was only a matter of time before a raid on a railway centre in a densely populated area would cause heavy ‘collateral damage’.
On the 21st April the La Chapelle marshalling yards in Paris were hit. 641 people were killed and 377 wounded, as bad a casualty rate as any during they London Blitz and worse than the number killed during the 1940 Coventry bombing.
Here are some details about the catastrophy. First, a night of utmost uproar. During 2 hours and 15 minutes, a mind-boggling racket. Everything was shaking in the apartment [located in the 7th arrondissement in the very heart of Paris]. At last I went down the stairs and tried to cheer up this excellent Mrs Dantin [the famously bad-tempered doorkeeper, an awful drunkard old lady] who was stricken with panic. The night sky was lighted with flares and fires, and you could see as in broad daylight. I called our warehouse right away, but there was no dial tone. I immediately thought of the worst.
Thus, I woke up at 5am and boarded the first Métro carriage which stopped at Jules Joffrin station. From there I reached, running more or less, the warehouse. Everything was burning. The Porte de La Chapelle was particularly knocked down. All the houses have collapsed on the ground. A bomb exploded over the Métro which is in shambles. From the Porte de La Chapelle to our warehouse [ca. 1 km], everything was flames and devastation. The bombing was very dense. Our warehouse offered a pitiful outlook. I immediately went to the basement where I knew several of our workers had sought refuge. It was intact, which immediately reassured me (…)
And voila. Here, air raid sirens after sirens, bombings after bombings. It’s non-stop! Again this morning, you could see the flying fortresses quite distinctly in the sky. I’m glad that you are over there in the peace and quiet of the province. Life here is becoming really difficult. Lots of people are leaving Paris. Several districts (the 14th arrondissement, the 18th arrondissement, the Plaine St Denis, etc.) were evacuated. In the Plaine St Denis, there were this morning 416 coffins. Several corpses still remain under the rubbles. An entire family, not far from our warehouse, met their end: father, mother, 6 children! Time bombs are still exploding. Fires are thanks God over. (…)
Through various channels the French protested to London. The argument about the use of heavy bombers, and whether it was necessary to support Overlord continued. In May Roosevelt intervened to support the necessity of SHAEF’s objectives and the planned bombing programme went ahead under Eisenhower’s authority. Eventually the Allies dropped more bombs on France than the Luftwaffe dropped on Britain. See Richard Overy: The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. Some argued that the French resistance was better placed to attack railway targets accurately – yet that route did not avoid terrible retribution against the local population.
All around the world the war continued, with few interruptions in the fighting. Nevertheless, wherever it was possible, there were many who did their best to mark the day with some form of celebration.
The Reverent E. N. Downing was with the 4th Parachute Brigade who, only a few days before, had gone forward to the trenches of the front line in Italy:
Christmas came a few days after we had moved up. Troops noticed with some wonder that the Germans celebrated ‘Heiligenacht’ by ringing the Church bells on their side of the valley. For myself I had felt at something of a loss, for we clearly could not assemble any large number of men for a Service when we were under fire.
My final decision, after consultation, was to have one Service, Holy Communion, at Battalion HQ, and then to go round with the Reserved Sacrament to every position. The only suitable time for the Service was midnight, and I celebrated a real Midnight Mass in a real Stable, with a real Manger for Altar. The whole situation, with the Manger and the danger, stranger than I had ever known, made it the most real and poignant Christmas I ever experienced.
The setting for the dinner was complete, long rows of tables with white tablecloths, and a bottle of beer per man, candies, cigarettes, nuts, oranges and apples and chocolate bars providing the extras. The C.O., Lt.-Col. S. W. Thomson, laid on that the Companies would eat in relays… as each company finished their dinner, they would go forward and relieve the next company…
The menu… soup, pork with apple sauce, cauliflower, mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy, Christmas pudding and mince pie… From 1100 hours to 1900 hours, when the last man of the battalion reluctantly left the table to return to the grim realities of the day, there was an atmosphere of cheer and good fellowship in the church. A true Christmas spirit. The impossible had happened.
No one had looked for a celebration this day. December 25th was to be another day of hardship, discomfort, fear and danger, another day of war. The expression on the faces of the dirty bearded men as they entered the building was a reward that those responsible are never likely to forget … During the dinner the Signal Officer… played the church organ and with the aid of the improvised choir, organized by the padre, carols rang out throughout the church.
Seaforth Highlanders Regiment, War Diary, December 25th, 1943, for more on the battle see Juno Beach.
In North Africa Winston Churchill was still recovering from pneumonia, which had made him dangerously ill. His family had been summoned and at one point he had told his daughter that, if he died, he would do so knowing that the war would won by the Allies. Now he was bouncing back and in the early hours of Christmas Day was organising a new offensive in Italy. They would sidestep the German defensive line with a new amphibious landing closer to Rome.
Even if it seemed inevitable to many that the war would eventually be won by the Allies, it wasn’t going to happen until many more had died in many different parts of the world.
This was the British Air Ministry’s take on Christmas celebrations in northern Burma:
Christmas at the Arakan airfields was not the less gay because ofthe hazards of coming encounters. One Spitfire squadron staged a pantomime to which the others came. It was given in a jungle glade on Christmas night, with a clear sky. Between the audience and the airfield men could see in the dusk the paddy ripening into golden shades; behind them lay the forest, in which elephants were trumpeting.
The show was ‘Aladdin’ and the humour ofcourse was local, with Aladdin’s mother a ‘dhobi-wallah’ or washerwoman who made her profits by tearing off shirt buttons and selling them back to the owners. Two navigation lights, red and green, flickered as jewels in the djinn’s turban, while Aladdin’s cave was strewn carelessly with what then were the rarest things in India – Spitfire tyres. Great applause was that night given to the stars in the show, almost every one of whom was destined to be killed in the coming weeks.
For many others there really wasn’t any hint any concession to Christmas:
Ted Johnson was an officer with the Royal Ulster Rifles who had been taken prisoner on the island of Leros during the ill fated British Dodecanese campaign. Late on Christmas Day he finally arrived at a prison camp in Germany where he began a period of solitary confinement:
After the usual “Raus, raus, schnell, schnell” we marched through the snow towards the lights of a camp on the horizon. The welcome we got was no different from any other prison we had so far encountered: wire, grim-looking Wehrmacht soldiers and the predictable rough-looking German Shepherd dog with handler.
The inevitable body search took place again. This time all personal possessions were taken and with Teutonic efficiency were listed in detail. Toilet articles were given back and we were permitted to keep the clothes we wore. We were all issued with a palliasse cover, two wood pulp blankets, one bowl, one knife and one spoon. By now the outlook was worrying!
Next, we were moved into a long low building which contained individual cells. I now saw the truth behind the news about each officer having his own room! No explanation was given as to why or for how long one was being given such personal attention, but by now, since capture, we were becoming used to the devious methods of the “detaining power”. It dawned on me that I was in solitary confinement and that this was a novel way to celebrate Christmas.
There was no meal that evening but a redeeming feature was that my cell was warm. This personal hovel in which I spent the next 10 days measured 15ft x 7ft 6 inches (5 paces by 21⁄2 paces) and contained a bed with straw palliasse, a table and a stool. The metal door had the traditional peep hole, the small window was barred and high out of reach. Twice daily, what passed for food and drink was brought into my cell by a Russian slave labourer under armed escort. It was from one of these unfortunate walking skeletons that I learned why I was incarcerated – interrogation.
For more on the men taken prisoner at Leros see Deddington
Meanwhile on the Eastern Front the fighting went on as usual. What that actually meant for 19th Panzer Division can only be guessed at:
… I shall never forget that extraordinary Christmas Day. A signal came through from 19 Panzer: ‘Am attacked by thirty enemy tanks. No petrol. Help, help, help’— then silence. General Balck absolutely refused to send ‘Leibstandarte’ into action in dribs and drabs, even if this meant the total loss of 19 Panzer Division. Eventually, after nearly six hours of anxious waiting, a signaller handed me a most welcome message from 19 Panzer: ‘We are withdrawing to the west in tolerable order.’
In Tehran the ‘big three’, Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill were meeting for their first conference together. Stalin was to press Churchill on whether he was truly committed to the opening of a ‘Second Front’. The decision to invade France had been made by the U.S. and Britain at the Quebec Conference in August. The planning and preparation for Operation Overlord was now proceeding apace. However Stalin was not satisfied until he saw Churchill personally.
In the evening of 29th November there was a dinner hosted by Stalin. The Allies were already beginning to formally address how they were to deal with Germany after the war. During the evening Stalin and Churchill were to argue over the issue – after they had drunk ‘many toasts’.
How serious Stalin was about shooting the ‘top 50,000 German officers’ can only be guessed. Probably Churchill would not have referred to the matter again publicly. However, when the President’s son Elliot Roosevelt later published an account of the exchange, Churchill felt the need to set the record straight in his post war memoirs. It was not the first time, and it would not be the last, that Elliot Roosevelt was accused of embellishing the facts:
Stalin was our host at dinner. The company was strictly limited – Stalin and Molotov, the President, Hopkins, Harriman, Clark Kerr, myself and Eden, and our interpreters. After the labours of the Conference, there was a good deal of gaiety, and many toasts were proposed.
Presently Elliott Roosevelt, who had flown out to join his father, appeared at the door, and somebody beckoned him to come in. He therefore took his seat at the table. He even intervened in the conversation, and has since given a highly coloured and extremely misleading account of what he heard.
Stalin, as Hopkins recounts, indulged in a great deal of “teasing” of me, which I did not at all resent until the Marshal entered in a genial manner upon a serious and even deadly aspect of the punishment to be inflicted upon the Germans.
The German General Staff, he said, must be liquidated. The whole force of Hitler’s mighty armies depended upon about fifty thousand officers and technicians. If these were rounded up and shot at the end of the war, German military strength would be extirpated.
On this I thought it right to say: “The British Parliament and public will never tolerate mass executions. Even if in war passion they allowed them to begin, they would turn violently against those responsible after the first butchery had taken place. The Soviets must be under no delusion on this point.”
Stalin however, perhaps only in mischief, pursued the subject. “Fifty thousand,” he said, “must be shot.” I was deeply angered. “I would rather,” I said, “be taken out into the garden here and now and be shot myself than sully my own and my country’s honour by such infamy.”
At this point the President intervened. He had a compromise to propose. Not fifty thousand should be shot, but only forty-nine thousand. By this he hoped, no doubt, to reduce the whole matter to ridicule. Eden also made signs and gestures intended to reassure me that it was all a joke.
But now Elliott Roosevelt rose in his place at the end of the table and made a speech, saying how cordially he agreed with Marshal Stalin’s plan and how sure he was that the United States Army would support it.
At this intrusion I got up and left the table, walking off into the next room, which was in semi-darkness. I had not been there a minute before hands were clapped upon my shoulders from behind, and there was Stalin, with Molotov at his side, both grinning broadly, and eagerly declaring that they were only playing, and that nothing of a serious character had entered their heads.
Stalin has a very captivating manner when he chooses to use it, and I never saw him do so to such an extent as at this moment. Although I was not then, and am not now, fully convinced that all was chaff and there was no serious intent lurking behind, I consented to return, and the rest of the evening passed pleasantly.
In this context it must be remembered that Stalin had ordered the killing of 15,000 Polish officers in 1940, whose bodies were found by the Nazis in the forest of Katyn. It seems doubtful that Stalin would have had any qualms about dealing with the leadership of the German army in the same way. The informal context of putting the proposal to Churchill and Roosevelt suggests he did not really expect them to agree.
In September 1943 Churchill was still in the USA following his arrival on the continent for the Quebec conference.
On 6th Septemebr he was invited to Harvard University to receive an Honorary Degree. He decided it was “an occasion for a public declaration to the world of Anglo-American unity and amity”. The ‘Special Relationship’ between Britain and the United States was probably at its height, only too soon would its preponderance of power bring the USA to the fore in international relations.
Suddenly the war was going well for the Allies. Both Churchill and Roosevelt felt they had to guard against complacency, knowing how much more had yet to be achieved. Churchill addressed the young men at Harvard:
To the youth of America, as to the youth of Britain, I say, “You cannot stop.” There is no halting-place at this point. We have now reached a stage in the journey where there can be no pause. We must go on. It must be world anarchy or world order.
Throughout all this ordeal and struggle which is characteristic of our age you will find in the British Commonwealth and Empire good comrades to whom you are united by other ties besides those of state policy and public need. To a large extent they are the ties of blood and history. Naturally I, a child of both worlds, am conscious of these.
Law, language, literature – these are considerable factors common conceptions of what is right and decent, a marked regard for fair play, especially to the weak and poor, a stern sentiment of impartial justice, and above all the love of personal freedom, or, as Kipling put it, “Leave to live by no man’s leave underneath the law” – these are common conceptions on both sides of the Atlantic among the English-speaking peoples. We hold to these conceptions as strongly as you do.
We do not war primarily with races as such. Tyranny is our foe. Whatever trapping or disguise it wears, whatever language it speaks, be it external or internal, we must for ever be on our guard, ever mobilised, ever vigilant, always ready to spring at its throat.
In all this we march together. Not only do we march and strive shoulder to shoulder at this moment, under the fire of the enemy on the fields of war or in the air, but also in those realms of thought which are consecrated to the rights and the dignity of man.
Meanwhile the unrelenting business of war continued…
The 19th August 1943 was a momentous day for the Allies as, meeting in Quebec, they finally agreed on the timetable for the invasion of Europe and the establishment of the long awaited Second Front. The Americans had argued for an invasion of France almost since they first joined the war. The British were much less enthusiastic. Largely based on their experiences in France in 1940 and at Dieppe in 1942, they were reluctant to move until they could be confident, not only of landing an invasion force on a hostile shore, but of keeping it properly supplied for an advance into Germany itself.
The secret development of the Mulberry Harbours was to be the war winning innovation that enabled the British to finally accede to American demands to fix a date for ‘Overlord’. The planning for the invasion of France could proceed without the capture of an existing port being an early priority.
But the Chief of Combined Operations was an enthusiastic supporter of another secret project – Habakkuk – the building of massive unsinkable aircraft carriers made from ice. Or rather specially re-enforced bullet proof ice.
Whilst the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke was preoccupied with his discussion with George Marshall, US Chief of Staff, he also had to contend with Lord Louis ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten:
Dickie had come up to me just before our Combined COS [the Chiefs of Staff of the UK and the USA] meeting, at which I knew I was going to have difficulties with Marshall, and asked me if he might explain to the Americans the progress that had been made with ’Habbakuk’. I am afraid that I replied ’To hell with Habbakuk, we are about to have the most difficult time with our American friends and shall not have time for your ice carriers.’ However, he went on asking that I should remember if there was time.
The meeting was, as I expected, a heated one, and halfway through I suggested to Marshall that we should clear the room of the sixty odd officers that had attended these meetings, and that we should have an ’off the record’ meeting to try and solve our differences. He agreed, and after further heated arguments in our closed session we ultimately arrived at an agreement and were just breaking up the meeting when Dickie rushed up to remind me of ‘Habbakuk’!
I therefore asked Marshall if he and the American Chiefs would allow Dickie to give an account of recent developments in Habbakuk. He kindly agreed and we all sat down again.
Dickie now having been let loose gave a signal, whereupon a string of attendants brought in large cubes of ice which were established at the end of the room.
Dickie then proceeded to explain that the cube on the left was ordinary pure ice, whereas that an the right contained many ingredients which made it far more resilient, less liable to splinter, and consequently a far more suitable material for the construction of aircraft carriers. He then informed us that in order to prove his statements he had brought a revolver with him and intended to fire shots at the cubes to prove their properties.
As he now pulled a revolver out of his pocket we all rose and discreetly moved behind him. He then wamed us that he would fire at the ordinary block of ice to show how it splintered and warned us to watch the splinters. He proceeded to fire and we were subjected to a hail of ice splinters!
‘There,’ said Dickie, ’that is just what I told you; now I shall fire at the block on the right to show you the difference.’ He fired, and there certainly was a difference; the bullet rebounded out of the block and buzzed round our legs like an angry bee!
That was the end of the display of shooting in the Frontenac Hotel drawing rooms, but it was not the end of the story.
It will be remembered that when our original meeting had become too heated, we had cleared the room of all the attending staff. They were waiting in an adjoining room, and when the revolver shots were heard, the wag of the party shouted: ’Good heavens, they’ve started shooting now!!’
The Italians had not had a good war. Even though Mussolini was in alliance with Germany in the ‘Pact of Steel’ he had still not entered the war until he thought both France and Britain were beaten and he could grab a little of the spoils of victory. All his other military adventures had ended in disaster.
He had been thrown out of East Africa. In the Balkans his attempt to invade tiny, poor Albania had seen a reverse campaign which put him on the defensive. Humiliatingly Germany had had to come to his rescue both there and in North Africa, where the British had achieved stunning victories until the Afrika Korps arrived. On the Eastern Front Italian troops had suffered grievously in the retreat following Stalingrad.
Now it did not need much Intelligence from captured Italian prisoners for the Allies to judge the state of morale amongst Italians and Italian troops. The Sicilian troops on Sicily were not making making valiant attempts to defend their homeland, as had been hoped. Instead in many places they were putting up a merely nominal fight before surrendering. Others were ‘self- demobilising’ as they returned to their homes around the island and found civilian clothes.
Now Roosevelt and Churchill appealed directly to Italians to try to edge them out of the war. It was a message re-inforced with threat – Rome would be bombed for the first time on 19th July. This was the carefully worded text that was dropped, in hundreds of thousands of leaflets, on Rome and other Italian cities on the 17th July:
This is a message to the Italian people from the President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister of Great Britain. At this moment the combined armed forces of the United States and Great Britain, under the command of General Eisenhower and his Deputy, General Alexander, are carrying the war deep into the territory of your country.
This is the direct consequence of the shameful leadership to which you have been subjected by Mussolini and his Fascist regime. Mussolini carried you into this war as the satellite of a brutal destroyer of peoples and liberties.
Mussolini plunged you into a war which he thought Hitler had already won. In spite of Italy’s great vulnerability to attack by air and sea, your Fascist leaders sent your sons, your ships, your air forces, to distant battlefields to aid Germany in her attempt to conquer England, Russia, and the world. This association with the designs of Nazi-controlled Germany was unworthy of Italy’s ancient traditions of freedom and culture – traditions to which the people of America and Great Britain owe so much.
Your soldiers have fought, not in the interests of Italy, but for Nazi Germany. They have fought courageously, but they have been betrayed and abandoned by the Germans on the Russian Front and on every battlefield in Africa from El Alamein to Cape Bon.
Today Germany’s hopes for world conquest have been blasted on all fronts. The skies over Italy are dominated by the vast air armadas of the United States and Great Britain. Italy’s seacoasts are threatened by the greatest accumulation of British and Allied sea-power ever concentrated in the Mediterranean.
The forces now opposed to you are pledged to destroy the power of Nazi Germany, which has ruthlessly been used to inict slavery, destruction, and death on all those who refuse to recognise the Germans as the master race.
The sole hope for Italy’s survival lies in honourable capitulation to the overwhelming power of the military forces of the United Nations. If you continue to tolerate the Fascist régime, which serves the evil power of the Nazis, you must suffer the consequences of your own choice.
We take no satisfaction in invading Italian soil and bringing the tragic devastation of war home to the Italian people; but we are determined to destroy the false leaders and their doctrines which have brought Italy to her present position. Every moment that you resist the combined forces of the United Nations – every drop of blood that you sacrice-can serve only one purpose: to give the Fascist and Nazi leaders a little more time to escape from the inevitable consequences of their own crimes.
All your interests and all your traditions have been betrayed by Germany and your own false and corrupt leaders; it is only by disavowing both that a reconstituted Italy can hope to occupy a respected place in the family of European nations.
The time has now come for you, the Italian people, to consult your own self-respect and your own interests and your own desire for a restoration of national dignity, security, and peace.
The time has come for you to decide whether Italians shall die for Mussolini and Hitler – or live for Italy, and for civilisation.
After his trip to America for the Trident Conference, Churchill had made his way to Algeria to meet General Eisenhower. He was there to make his case for the invasion of Italy after the occupation of Sicily. As this was going to put Eisenhower in a difficult position Roosevelt had sent along General George Marshall, Chief of Staff, to keep an eye on things.
Churchill was to spend much of his time relentlessly pressing his case. On the 31 May he circulated a paper for discussion.
His Majesty’s Government feel most strongly that this great force, which comprises their best and most experienced divisions and the main part of their army, should not in any circumstances remain idle. Such an attitude could not be justified to the British nation or to our Russian allies.
We hold it our duty to engage the enemy as continuously and intensely as possible, and to draw off as many hostile divisions as possible from the front of our Russian allies. In this way, among others, the most favourable conditions will be established for the launching of our cross-Channel expedition in 1944.
Compelling or inducing Italy to quit the war is the only objective in the Mediterranean worthy of the famous campaign already begun and adequate to the Allied forces available and already in the Mediterranean basin.
For this purpose the taking of Sicily is an indispensable preliminary, and the invasion of the mainland of Italy and the capture of Rome are the evident steps. In this way the greatest service can be rendered to the Allied cause and the general progress of the war, both here and in the Channel theatre.
Also present when they met later that day was Harry C. Butcher, Eisenhower’s Naval Aide, who was to remember a telling episode in his diary:
Algiers, Monday, May 31st 1943
The Prime Minister came to our house for dinner tonight. The guests numbered thirteen, so I became fourteen in deference to the British superstition.
Ike and General Marshall were cohosts. Present were none less than the British Foreign Minister, Mr. Anthony Eden, General Brooke, and General Ismay.
Sometime during the dinner-table conversation, the question of diaries came up. The Prime Minister said that it was foolish to keep a day-by-day diary because it would simply reflect the change of opinion or decision of the writer, which, when and if published, makes one appear indecisive and foolish.
He cited the diary of a British general who had written in his diary one day, “There will be no war.” On the next day war was declared. The diary was published posthumously and, consequently, the general was made to appear foolish.
For his part, the Prime Minister Said, he would much prefer to wait until the war is over and then write impressions, so that, if necessary, he could correct or bury his mistakes.