The ‘Big Three’, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had been the face of the Allies for the greater part of the war, meeting in several high profile conferences to decide the course of the war. Now President Truman replaced the recently deceased Roosevelt in the line up for the last conference.
The tensions between the Soviet side and the western democracies were now becoming ever more evident. On the face of it the conference would decide the fate of Germany and the where the new boundaries of eastern Europe would lie. In reality much would be determined by the de facto occupation of territory by Soviet troops.
Whatever hopes those attending the conference might have that they could shape the post war world and prevent further wars, new realities were rapidly outstripping their expectations. Thousands of miles away, on the same day, scientists were conducting an experiment, codename Trinity, that would change the course of world history:
Brigadier General Thomas Farrell described the reaction of Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the atomic research programme:
Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarcely breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted “Now!” and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief.
Oppenheimer himself later recalled:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
On April 12th Eisenhower and the senior US Army commanders in Europe had been shocked by the horrors of Buchenwald. Late that night there was even more momentous news, their Commander in Chief, the United States President, Franklin D. Roosevelt had died. His long struggle with the disabling consequences of polio, which he had triumphed over for so many years, had finally come to an end.
At the beginning of the war, when Churchill had been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the US President had personally asked to be kept appraised of British Naval developments by him. So began the long and close liaison between the two men. When war broke out in 1939 few would have anticipated that less than a year later Churchill would be Prime Minister and leading the only free country in the whole of Europe.
The two men would communicate on more than 1700 occasions and spend 120 days together in conference as the great drama of the war unfolded. With Roosevelt at the helm America had been transformed: from under half a million men in uniform in 1940, by 1945 she had more than 12 million serving all around the globe, supported by an equally transformed military-industrial powerhouse that armed the free world,
In the House of Commons on 17th April Winston Churchill paid tribute to his fellow statesman and friend:
…I conceived an admiration for him as a statesman, a man of affairs, and a war leader. I felt the utmost confidence in his upright, inspiring character and outlook, and a personal regard and affection for him beyond my power to express today.
His love of his own country, his respect for its constitution, his power of gauging the tides and currents of its mobile public opinion, were always evident, but added to these were the beatings of that generous heart which was always stirred to anger and to action by spectacles of aggression and oppression by the strong against the weak. It is, indeed, a loss – a bitter loss to humanity – that those heart-beats are stilled for ever.
President Roosevelt’s physical affliction lay heavily upon him. It was a marvel that he bore up against it through all the many years of tumult and storm. Not one man in ten millions, stricken and crippled as he was, would have attempted to plunge into a life of physical and mental exertion and of hard, ceaseless political controversy. Not one in ten millions would have tried, not one in a generation would have succeeded, not only in entering this sphere, not only in acting vehemently in it, but in becoming indisputable master of the scene.
In this extraordinary effort of the spirit over the flesh, of will-power over physical infirmity, he was inspired and sustained by that noble woman his devoted wife, whose high ideals marched with his own, and to whom the deep and respectful sympathy of the House of Commons flows out today in all fullness.
There is no doubt that the President foresaw the great dangers closing in upon the prewar world with far more prescience than most well-informed people on either side of the Atlantic, and that he urged forward with all his power such precautionary military preparations as peace-time opinion in the United States could be brought to accept. There never was a moment’s doubt, as the quarrel opened, upon which side his sympathies lay.
The fall of France, and what seemed to most people outside this Island the impending destruction of Great Britain, were to him an agony although he never lost faith in us. They were an agony to him not only on account of Europe, but because of the serious perils to which the United States herself would have been exposed had we been overwhelmed or the survivors cast down under the German yoke.
As the saying goes, he died in harness, and we may well say in battle harness, like his soldiers, sailors, and airmen, who side by side with ours are carrying on their task to the end all over the world. What an enviable death was his!
He had brought his country through the worst of its perils and the heaviest of its toils. Victory had cast its sure and steady beam upon him. In the days of peace he had broadened and stabilised the foundations of American life and union. In war he had raised the strength, might and glory of the great Republic to a height never attained by any nation in history.
With her left hand she was leading the advance of the conquering Allied Armies into the heart of Germany, and with her right, on the other side of the globe, she was irresistibly and swiftly breaking up the power of Japan. And all the time ships, munitions, supplies and food of every kind were aiding on a gigantic scale her Allies, great and small, in the course of the long struggle.
For us, it remains only to say that in Franklin Roosevelt there died the greatest American friend we have ever known, and the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the new world to the old.
On the 5th February the ‘Big Three’ met once more, this time in the Crimean resort of Yalta. There were momentous decisions to be reached about how Germany was to be divided up after the war, whether they should seek reparations from Germany, how the new United Nations ‘World Organisation’ was going to operate, and much more.
The Soviet Union’s entire economy had been thrown over to war production and, with most of western Russia laid waste, there were few resources spare even for this international event. The plumbing for the partially rebuilt buildings that would accommodate the dignitaries had had to come from various Moscow hotels, where it would be returned after the conference – never to work satisfactorily ever again.
Maureen Stuart-Clark was a Women’s Royal Naval Service aide to Admiral James Somerville, who she referred to as ‘Uncle Jim’, one of the British delegates. She was very impressed with the female Soviet Army guards, armed with Tommy guns, who were ‘immense, tough and had the largest legs I had ever seen’. She was not quite so impressed with some of the other arrangements:
Eventually we arrived at the Voronthov [sic] Palace where the British Chiefs of Staff were going to be accommodated. It was quite the ugliest place I have ever seen — built in a mixture of Moorish and Gothic styles. The entrance at either end was Gothic with castle like turrets and gate, while the centre was Moorish with minarettes [sic] and domes. It had been built for Prince Yusof who killed Rasputin and had not been destroyed because it had been promised to the German General who captured the Crimea, and had left it till too late to destroy it.
We found the rest of us were housed in two sanatoriums between five and ten minutes drive down the road. They had been old Palaces, partially destroyed by the Germans and rebuilt especially for this occasion. We spent the first event desperately trying to organise luggage, office papers etc. and tempers were fairly short.
Most of the Kremlin guard had come down to act as guards and sentries, and they looked very smart in their khaki uniforms with their high boots, red and blue caps, gold braid etc. They had sent down hordes of interpreters from Moscow — mainly women — who spoke excellent English although they had never left the country. Actually the whole thing was rather superficial and unreal.
Russia is definitely a hard, ruthless country and yet they had laid on the most terrific show for the British, which includes maids in caps, aprons and high heeled shoes which they had never worn before and consequently presented a ludicrous spectacle wobbling unsteadily around; interpreters in new suits and stockings so they would not be inferior to us; vodka, champagne, smoked salmon etc. when the only ration they themselves are certain of getting is black bread; it rather disappointed me as one thought they could have afforded to say ‘We’ve done jolly well on this so you ought to try it and jolly well like it’.
The water was unsafe to drink and the only liquid there was to swallow was the vodka, champagne etc. so we spent the whole time either very definitely muzzy or else parched with thirst! They even brought a lemon tree all the way from Batoum so that there would be lemon for the drinks, but they never thought to provide a simple plug for the basins!
The sanitary arrangements were the most peculiar thing. In our place there was a bath and three showers all in a little hut together down the garden. There was a sweet peasant girl in attendance who scrubbed your back vigorously, irrespective of your sex, in fact there was considerable trouble at first as they all bath and swim in the nude together and couldn’t understand our reluctance to bath with Major Generals or Naval officers at the same time. You ploughed down the garden in your great coat and hoped you wouldn’t get pneumonia returning.
But — the lavatory situation was the grimmest. In the Palace there was a total of 3, one of which was kept for the private use of the P.M. The other two had to provide for the use of the 3 Chiefs of Staff, General Ismay, F.M.s [Field Marshals] Alexander and Wilson, U.J.[Uncle Jim], Anthony Eden, Lord Leathers, Sir Ralph Metcalf, lots of foreign office boys, typists, clerks, sentries, maids, interpreters, Marine orderlies and all the visitors. The result was that we lost all shame and openly discussed the best bushes in the garden which was the only solution.
When US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, the only Jewish member of Roosevelt’s cabinet, tried to establish mechanisms to assist Jews to leave Europe he ran into perceived obstruction from the State Department
Treasury officials John Pehle, Randolph Paul, and Josiah DuBois presented Morgenthau with an 18-page memorandum entitled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of Jews” on January 13, 1944. The report formed the basis for Morgenthau’s discussion with Roosevelt on 16th January:
One of the greatest crimes in history, the slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe, is continuing unabated.
This Government has for a long time maintained that its policy is to work out programs to serve those Jews of Europe who could be saved.
I am convinced on the basis of the information which is available to me that certain officials in our State Department, which is charged with carrying out this policy, have been guilty not only of gross procrastination and wilful failure to act, but even of wilful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.
I fully recognize the graveness of this statement and I make it only after having most carefully weighed the shocking facts which have come to my attention during the last several months.
Unless remedial steps of a drastic nature are taken, and taken immediately, I am certain that no effective action will be taken by this government to prevent the complete extermination of the Jews in German controlled Europe, and that this Government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination.
Although only part of the facts relating to the activities of the State Department in this field are available to us, sufficient facts have come to my attention from various sources during the last several months to fully support the conclusions at which I have arrived.
(1) State Department officials have not only failed to use the Governmental machinery at their disposal to rescue the Jews from Hitler, but have even gone so far as to use this Governmental machinery to prevent the rescue of these Jews.
The public record, let alone the facts which have not as yet been made pubic, reveals the gross procrastination and wilful failure to act of those officials actively representing this Government in this field.
(a) A long time has passed since it became clear that Hitler was determined to carry out a policy of exterminating the Jews in Europe.
(b) Over a year has elapsed since this Government and other members of the United Nations publicly acknowledged and denounced this policy of extermination; and since the President gave assurances that the United States would make every effort together with the United Nations to save those who could be saved.
(c) Despite the fact that time is most precious in this matter, State Department officials have been kicking the matter around for over a year without producing results; giving all sorts of excuses for delays upon delays; advancing no specific proposals designed to rescue Jews, at the same time proposing that the whole refugee problem be “explored” by this Government and Intergovernmental Committees. While the State Department has been thus “exploring” the whole refugee problem, without distinguishing between those who are in imminent danger of death and those who are not, hundreds of thousands of Jews have been allowed to perish.
As a consequence of the meeting President Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board (WRB) on January 22, 1944.
It is the policy of this government to take all measures within its power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war.
The War Refugee Board is estimated to have save the lives of around 200,000 Jews from eastern Europe by funding emigration.
In early 1944 Roosevelt was not a well man. The trip to Cairo to see Churchill and then on to Tehran for the ‘Big Three’ summit with Stalin had exhausted him. On the return he had caught influenza from which he was still recovering. So he chose to make his ‘State of the Union’ address by radio, as one of his ‘fireside chats’ to the whole nation.
He had a number of messages to get across. Not least was to guard against complacency – the war was not yet won. He also wanted to remind people what they were fighting for. Not only did he want a better system of international security between nations but he also wanted set the terms for better social security at home.
The outlook and hopes expressed here were to have a profound impact on the post war settlement, at least insofar as the democratic nations were able implement them:
This Nation in the past two years has become an active partner in the world’s greatest war against human slavery.
We have joined with like-minded people in order to defend ourselves in a world that has been gravely threatened with gangster rule.
But I do not think that any of us Americans can be content with mere survival. Sacrifices that we and our allies are making impose upon us all a sacred obligation to see to it that out of this war we and our children will gain something better than mere survival.
The one supreme objective for the future, which we discussed for each Nation individually, and for all the United Nations, can be summed up in one word: Security.
And that means not only physical security which provides safety from attacks by aggressors. It means also economic security, social security, moral security — in a family of Nations.
In the plain down-to-earth talks that I had with the Generalissimo and Marshal Stalin and Prime Minister Churchill, it was abundantly clear that they are all most deeply interested in the resumption of peaceful progress by their own peoples — progress toward a better life. All our allies want freedom to develop their lands and resources, to build up industry, to increase education and individual opportunity, and to raise standards of living.
All our allies have learned by bitter experience that real development will not be possible if they are to be diverted from their purpose by repeated wars — or even threats of war.
China and Russia are truly united with Britain and America in recognition of this essential fact:
The best interests of each Nation, large and small, demand that all freedom-loving Nations shall join together in a just and durable system of peace. In the present world situation, evidenced by the actions of Germany, Italy, and Japan, unquestioned military control over disturbers of the peace is as necessary among Nations as it is among citizens in a community.
And an equally basic essential to peace is a decent standard of living for all individual men and women and children in all Nations. Freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want.
It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth- is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill housed, and insecure.
The foreign policy that we have been following—the policy that guided us at Moscow, Cairo, and Teheran—is based on the common sense principle which was best expressed by Benjamin Franklin on July 4, 1776: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
I have often said that there are no two fronts for America in this war. There is only one front. There is one line of unity which extends from the hearts of the people at home to the men of our attacking forces in our farthest outposts. When we speak of our total effort, we speak of the factory and the field, and the mine as well as of the battleground – we speak of the soldier and the civilian, the citizen and his Government.
Each and every one of us has a solemn obligation under God to serve this Nation in its most critical hour—to keep this Nation great – to make this Nation greater in a better world.
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.
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.
On the 24th January 1943 Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt held a secret Press conference at the conclusion of their meeting in Casablanca. The notion of such an arrangement is unthinkable today but the Press agreed not to release their material until both Churchill and Roosevelt were both safely away from Casablanca.
Some of the key decisions for the future conduct of the war had been thrashed out between the Allies. One matter was the demand for ‘unconditional surrender’ – a proposition which some have later argued made any possible early negotiated end to the war out of the question.
There was some surprise that President Roosevelt announced that the Allies would be seeking unconditional surrender from the Axis forces. There was subsequently some suggestion that he made the proposal ‘off the top of his head’ during the Press conference but this is clearly not the case.
Winston Churchill had already been in communication with the War Cabinet in London about the issue:
We propose to draw up a statement of the work of the conference for communication to the Press at the proper time. I should be glad to know what the War Cabinet would think of our including in this statement a declaration of the firm intention of the United States and the British Empire to continue the war relentlessly until we have brought about the “unconditional surrender” of Germany and Japan. The omission of Italy would be to encourage a break-up there. The President liked this idea, and it would stimulate our friends in every country.
The War Cabinet had responded to him on the 20th January, stating that they did not think Italy should not be excluded. Churchill seems to have believed that the matter would be further discussed but both he and Roosevelt were became very occupied whilst dealing with General de Gaulle.
It seems probable that as I did not like applying unconditional surrender to Italy I did not raise the point again with the President, and we had certainly both agreed to the communiqué we had settled with our advisers. There is no mention in it of “unconditional surrender”.
So the matter had been under discussion but it had not been part of the joint communique that Britain and America had agreed in advance.
It was with some feeling of surprise that I heard the President say at the Press Conference on January 24 that we would enforce “unconditional surrender” upon all our enemies. It was natural to suppose that the agreed communiqué had superseded anything said in conversation. General Ismay, who knew exactly how my mind was working from day to day, and was also present at all the discussions of the Chiefs of Staff when the Communiqué was prepared, was also surprised.
In my speech which followed the President’s I of course supported him and concurred in what he had said. Any divergence between us, even by omission, would on such an occasion and at such a time have been damaging or even dangerous to our war effort. I certainly take my share of the responsibility, together with the British War Cabinet.
The President’s account to Hopkins seems however conclusive.
“We had so much trouble getting those two French generals together that I thought to myself that this was as difficult as arranging the meeting of Grant and Lee – and then suddenly the Press Conference was on, and Winston and I had had no time to prepare for it, and the thought popped into my mind that they had called Grant “Old Unconditional Surrender”, and the next thing I knew I had said it.”
I do not feel that this frank statement is in any way weakened by the fact that the phrase occurs in the notes from which he spoke.
On the 14th January the British and Americans met for a conference on war strategy in Casablanca, North Africa. There was much to discuss. In principal there was agreement on the policy of ‘Germany first’, although there were those in the American party who were not wholly signed up to this. There was also a divergence of views about where next to attack Germany after North Africa, with the Americans still favouring an invasion of France later in 1943.
The Combined Chiefs of Staff meant the heads of the military professions from Britain and the U.S.A.. So this was a meeting of some very strong minded individuals. Their job was to thrash out the future progress of the war. There were some fairly stormy meetings ahead.
Amongst those present keeping a diary was Sir Alan Brooke, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff. His candid account of events was not published until long after the war:
14 January (2 am)
A very long and laborious day. Breakfast at 8.30 am followed by one and a half hour’s hard work preparing my opening statement for our first meeting with the American Chiefs of Staff.
At 10.30 we met. I started off with a statement of about one hour giving our outlook on the present war situation and our opinion as to the future policy we should adopt. Marshall then followed on with a statement showing where they disagreed with our policy.
We stopped for lunch and met again at 2.30 pm. I then asked them to explain their views as to the running of the Pacific War. Admiral King then did so, and it became clear at once that his idea was an ‘all-out’ war against Japan instead of holding operations.
He then proposed that 30 per cent of the war effort should be directed to the Pacific and 70 per cent to the rest. We pointed out that this was hardly a scientific way of approaching war strategy!
After considerable argument we got them to agree to our detailing the Combined Planners to examine and report on the minimum holding operations required in the Pacific and forces necessary for that action.
We broke up the meeting at about 5 pm, had tea, and then had a meeting with our joint Planners to instruct them on the line of action to take.
I then went for a walk with John Kennedy to the beach to look for birds. Returned to find invitation to dine with the President who had arrived that afternoon.
Party consisted of PM, President, Harry Hopkins, Harriman, Elliot Roosevelt, Marshall, King, Arnold, Dudley Pound, Portal, Mountbatten and self.
King became nicely lit up towards the end of the evening. As a result he got more and more pompous, and with a thick voice and many gesticulations explained to the President the best way to organize the Political French organization for control of North Africa!
This led to many arguments with PM who failed to appreciate fully the condition King was in! Most amusing to watch.
At about 1.30 am an alarm was received, lights were put out, and we sat around the table with faces lit by 6 candles. The PM and President in that light and surroundings would have made a wonderful picture.
See Alanbrooke War Diaries 1939-1945: Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke