Friends and Allies

At the Second Washington Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill set in motion the invasion of North Africa over their staffs' objections.

HUMANITIES, May/June 2012, Volume 33, Number 3

In mid-June 1942, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was growing concerned about the direction of Allied strategy—with good reason. The Eastern Front had turned into a slaughterhouse, and it wasn’t clear how long the Soviets could hold up. 

Comical Nazi illustration of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in a tug of war over the continent of Africa.
Photo caption

A cartoon showing Churchill and FDR fighting over Africa

A Nazi propaganda cartoon shows Roosevelt and Churchill locked in a battle for control of Africa.

Black and white photo of Winston Churchill holding a large walkie-talkie to his ear.
Photo caption

Churchill, using a walkie-talkie for the first time, eavesdrops on the jump commanders during a paratroop exercise at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.


They had managed to push the Germans back from Moscow, but Leningrad remained under siege and the summer campaign season was about to begin. There was also trouble in the Middle East. British and German forces had been trading blows across unforgiving reaches of the Libyan desert in a contest to gain control of the Eastern Mediterranean. Here, again, Germany seemed to be gaining the upper hand.

The good news was that the Americans had finally entered the war after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December. Churchill’s new partner, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had agreed to a “Europe first” strategy, making the fight against Nazi Germany a priority over the war in the Pacific against Japan. But American troops had yet to fight in Europe, and the United States’ stunning victory over the Japanese navy at the Battle of Midway had brought forth calls for American efforts to be focused in the Pacific.

It was time, Churchill decided, for another face-to-face meeting with Roosevelt. “In view of the impossibility of dealing by correspondence with all of the many difficult points outstanding, I feel it is my duty to come to see you,” wrote Churchill on June 13, 1942.

The two leaders had met before, the first time on board the USS Augusta off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941. Although the United States had been officially neutral at the time, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed on goals for the war, signing what became known as the Atlantic Charter. Then, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, they held the First Washington Conference, discussing how the United States could best contribute to a joint strategy.

Roosevelt replied, “I find I must be in Hyde Park,” and suggested that Churchill join him for a few days. The two leaders could talk things over before formal discussions began. With the conference set, Churchill and his advisers made last-minute runs to their tailors for summer-weight suits and packed their bags.

Despite the improvised nature of the conference, the decisions made by Roosevelt, Churchill, and their military advisers had profound implications for the Allied war effort. At the Second Washington Conference, held seventy years ago this June, the idea of invading North Africa evolved from a whim into a legitimate strategic option. The discussions also helped move the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain beyond mere rhetoric as the friendship between Roosevelt and Churchill deepened and new bonds were forged between their staffs.


The need for a second front

Before Churchill arrived, Roosevelt called a meeting of his core military advisers: General George C. Marshall, his chief of staff; General “Hap” Arnold, head of the Army Air Force; Admiral Ernest King, chief of naval operations; Frank Knox, secretary of the navy; and Henry Stimson, the secretary of war. Churchill would arrive bubbling with plans and schemes, and the Americans needed to clarify their own thinking on the issue of how and when to open a second front.

Foremost in Roosevelt’s mind was the need to do something to relieve the pressure on the Soviets. “I have a very strong feeling,” he had written to Churchill, “that the Russian position is precarious and may grow steadily worse during the coming weeks.” Roosevelt’s suspicions, bolstered by Allied intelligence, proved correct: In August 1942, Hitler sent his armies south and southwest toward Stalingrad and the oil fields of the Caucasus Mountains, inaugurating the bloodiest campaign of the war. The battle for Stalingrad would claim more than two million soldiers and civilians before it was over.

His concern had led Roosevelt to pledge to V. M. Molotov, Stalin’s envoy, that the United States and Britain would open a second front in Europe by the end of 1942. But what should that second front look like?

Since early 1942, Roosevelt had been agitating for a cross-channel invasion of northwestern France late in the year. Securing the ports at Brest or Cherbourg would give the Allies a bridgehead from which to make a push toward Berlin. The American service chiefs weren’t keen on the 1942 date. Instead they wanted the same operation (code name BOLERO) but with a spring 1943 start date. Also up for discussion was an invasion of North Africa (code name GYMNAST) in late 1942. By seizing Morocco and Algeria, the Allies would have a base from which to strike at Germany and Italy via the Mediterranean. Churchill was partial to the North Africa option and could be depended on to press its merits when he arrived.

It often fell to Marshall, the tall, stately Army general, to remind the president of practical considerations. An assault on North Africa would require transporting men and materiel from the United States across the Atlantic Ocean. Even if troop ships avoided being torpedoed by German submarines, the invasion force still needed air cover. The advantage of an invasion of northwestern France was that Britain could serve as the staging area and provide air bases. From Britain, Allied troops would only need to be transported 100 to 200 miles, as opposed to more than 4,000 miles to North Africa.

Marshall opposed invading France in 1942, because he considered the start date unworkable. But he was even more opposed to a North Africa invasion, regarding it as a diversion from the real goal of opening a second front in western Europe. He believed the United States should actually be pressuring Britain to support an invasion of Europe in 1943.

As is typical of Roosevelt’s meetings, no minutes for the afternoon session at the White House were made. But Stimson, an avid diarist, left behind a colorful account. Roosevelt argued for the North Africa option and received “rather robust opposition.” Stimson writes: “Marshall had a paper already prepared against it for he had a premonition of what was coming. I spoke very vigorously against it. King wobbled around in a way that made me rather sick with him.”

Despite the opposition, Roosevelt asked his advisers to look for ways to get troops and materiel to North Africa. “The only hope I have about it all,” wrote Stimson, “is that I think he may be doing it in his foxy way to forestall trouble that is now on the ocean comingtowards us in the shape of a new British visitor.”


Here comes Winston

Just before midnight on June 17, Churchill and his entourage boarded a Boeing Clipper in Scotland. They departed late to avoid the German bombers that patrolled the coast. “The weather was perfect and the moon full. I sat for two hours or more in the co-pilot’s seat admiring the shining sea, revolving my problems, and thinking of the anxious battle,” wrote Churchill in The Hinge of Fate. The particular battle plaguing Churchill’s thoughts this night was being waged between British and German forces at Tobruk, a port city in Libya.

With Churchill were General Alan Brooke and Major General Hastings “Pug” Ismay. As chief of the Imperial General Staff, Brooke was responsible for coordinating Britain’s military efforts. A stern Ulsterman with perfectly pomaded hair, he regularly battled Churchill over strategic issues. “When I thump the table and push my face towards him what does he do?,” wrote Churchill of Brooke. “Thumps the table harder and glares back at me.” Ismay, a politically savvy staff officer, served as Churchill’s liaison with the British service chiefs.

Twenty-seven hours later, the Clipper landed in the Potomac River. Brooke admired “the sight of this beautifully laid out town in the hazy light of the evening,” and observed that “the Potomac looked like a small silver ribbon running through the middle of it.” Churchill and company were met by Marshall and Lord Halifax, the British ambassador, who escorted them to the British Embassy
for dinner.

Before leaving for Hyde Park the next morning, Churchill met with Marshall. The prime minister said he was pessimistic about invading Europe, and that he favored the North Africa plan. Marshall telegrammed Roosevelt immediately. He also relayed the tenor of the discussion to Stimson, who wrote that “Churchill was full of discouragement and new proposals for diversions. Therefore . . . a firm and united stand on our part is very important.”

After the meeting, Churchill caught a plane to meet Roosevelt. “The President was on the local airfield and saw us make the roughest bump landing I have experienced,” wrote Churchill. Roosevelt, accompanied by his son James, drove his Ford V-8 convertible to collect his guest. The car had been modified to allow him to operate it without using his polio-stricken legs. As they drove up the Hudson Valley to Hyde Park, and then around the estate, the two leaders talked politics in between navigating hairpin turns and barreling down narrow roads. Roosevelt got a kick out of trying to lose his Secret Service detail. “He invited me to feel his biceps, saying that a prize-fighter had envied them,” wrote Churchill. “This was reassuring; but I confess that when on several occasions the car poised and backed up on the grass verges of the precipices over the Hudson I hoped the mechanical devices and brakes would show no defects.”

Over the next two days, Roosevelt and Churchill talked strategy, taking refuge from the intense summer heat in the shade-pulled coolness of the president’s study. Churchill had worked up a memo outlining the strategic issues that needed to be addressed. The British government did not look favorably on a cross-channel operation unless a permanent bridgehead could be established on the Continent. “We hold strongly to the view that there should be no substantial landing in France this year unless we are going to stay.” Furthermore, “no responsible British military authority has so far been able to make a plan for September 1942 which had any chance of success unless the Germans become utterly demoralised, of which there is no likelihood.”

Believing that the Allies couldn’t afford to “stand idle” during 1942, Churchill pushed for the invasion of North Africa. Britain had flirted with the idea of a North Africa expedition in early 1942, but had abandoned the plan because of Germany’s growing control over the Atlantic. But now a major Allied invasion, with the United States on board, Churchill believed, could force the Germans to divert troops away from the Eastern Front. It might then achieve two major strategic goals: opening a second front, thus giving the Soviets some relief, and providing the Allies with a position from which to seize control of the Mediterranean and eventually western Europe.

Roosevelt and Churchill also discussed how to share research on making an atomic bomb. They agreed to trade information but didn’t put an agreement in writing.


Meanwhile, back in Washington

While Churchill and Roosevelt plotted at Hyde Park, Marshall and Brooke held their own meetings. Also on hand were Brigadier General Walter Bedell Smith, the secretary of the Chiefs of Staff, and Major General Dwight D. Eisenhower, an up-and-coming officer who had just been put in charge of the new Operations Division. Brooke and Ismay were joined by Field Marshall John Dill, chief of the British Joint Staff Mission. Dill had been posted to Washington owing to his acrimonious relationship with Churchill, but he got on famously with his American colleagues, particularly Marshall.

A consensus quickly emerged from their discussions. The Combined Chiefs of Staff favored an invasion of Europe as the basis for future Allied strategy, with a target date of spring 1943 for full-scale attack in northwestern France. The chiefs thought that an offensive should be launched in 1942 only if an “exceptionally favorable opportunity presented itself.” There were just too many logistical and materiel challenges to overcome. And they absolutely did not want to invade North Africa.

As Marshall summed it up: “To defeat the Germans we must have overwhelming power, and North West Europe was the only front on which this overwhelming superiority was logistically possible. . . . From the military point of view, therefore, there seemed no other logical course than to drive through with the BOLERO Plan.”

Despite their unity of opinion, the chiefs understood they could be overruled. “[W]e fully appreciated that we might be up against many difficulties when confronted with the plans that the PM and the President had been brewing up together at ‘Hyde Park’!,” wrote Brooke. “We fear the worst and are certain that North Africa or North Norway plans for 1942 will loom large in their proposals, whilst we are convinced that they are not possible!”


Putting their heads together

On the night of June 20, Roosevelt and Churchill took the presidential train to Washington, pulling into Union Station around eight o’clock the next morning. “We were heavily escorted to the White House,” wrote Churchill, “and I was again accorded the very large air conditioned room, in which I dwelt in comfort at about thirty degrees below the temperature of most of the rest of the building.”

The charm of being back in the White House was quickly overshadowed by the arrival of grim news. Churchill, Brooke, and Ismay were gathered around Roosevelt’s desk when Marshall walked in with a pink sheet of paper. The British army at Tobruk had collapsed and 25,000 British soldiers were reported to have been taken prisoner by the Germans. The fall of Tobruk put the Germans one step closer to shutting down Britain’s naval base at Alexandria and gaining control of the Suez Canal.

Churchill didn’t want to believe the news and asked Ismay to telephone London to confirm. “I did not attempt to hide from the President the shock I had received,” wrote Churchill. “It was a bitter moment. Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another. Nothing could exceed the sympathy and chivalry of my two friends. There were no reproaches; not an unkind word was spoken.”

Another telegram soon arrived from Britain’s Mediterranean command. Britain’s position in the region had deteriorated to the point that an air attack on its naval base at Alexandria was possible. With the approach of a full moon—ideal for nighttime bombing raids—the British fleet had been sent south of the Suez Canal until the moon waned.

Roosevelt asked how the United States could help. Marshall offered to send the First American Armored Division to the Middle East to reinforce the British position, but the troops were only partially trained. Next came an offer of three hundred Sherman tanks and one hundred 105 MM howitzers. Even that offer was problematic. After Pearl Harbor, production of tanks and other munitions had been put into overdrive to outfit hastily assembled American divisions. In his 1942 State of the Union Address, Roosevelt had called for the production of 120,000 tanks as part of an effort to have “crushing superiority of equipment in any theater of the world.” The tanks were just then starting to come off the assembly line and already slated for American divisions, which either had no equipment or were using outdated weaponry.

Yet Marshall believed Britain’s immediate need was even more urgent. “Anybody knowing what it entails withdrawing long-expected weapons from fighting troops just after they have received them will understand the depths of kindness that lay behind this gesture,” wrote Brooke.

With Tobruk weighing heavily on everyone’s minds, the rest of the day was spent discussing Allied strategy. By late evening, the commanders-in-chief were setting the agenda, insisting that planning for invasions in France and North Africa should proceed at the same time. “Provided that political conditions are favourable, the best alternative in 1942 is Operation GYMNAST,” wrote Ismay in a summary of the discussions. This meant that of the two possible invasions, North Africa would come first. Roosevelt and Churchill had just trumped their service chiefs.

Over the next two days, the Combined Chiefs gathered with and without the president and the prime minister to discuss plans for reinforcing the Middle East, naval operations in the Pacific, and maintaining the shipping lines in the Atlantic. Marshall walked out of a particularly tense late-night meeting after Roosevelt suggested putting American troops into the region between Alexandria and Tehran, declaring it “an overthrow of everything they had been planning for.”

Not quite ready to cede ground, Marshall circled back to the topic of a second front on the afternoon of June 23. Using the memo Churchill had presented to Roosevelt, he delivered a scathing critique of a North Africa invasion, calling it “a poor substitute . . . emasculating our main blow to which we should contribute our utmost resources.” Against it was also “the fact that the operation, even though successful, may not result in withdrawing planes, tanks, or men from the Russian Front.”

Instead, Marshall pushed for an “aggressive, continuous air offensive”: “Such an offensive, followed by the cross-channel operation, would be the best means of taking some of the weight off Russia. As a minimum it would, in our opinion, bring on a major air battle over Western Europe. This air battle in itself would probably be the greatest single aid we could give to Russia.”

But Roosevelt and Churchill wouldn’t budge. North Africa remained on the table.


Six hundred men fall out of the sky

The evening of June 23, the British delegation, along with their American hosts, boarded a train for South Carolina. Marshall had arranged for a military demonstration at Fort Jackson. Before they departed, Elmer Davis, head of the Office of War Information, asked whether it would be good for Churchill to be seen inspecting American troops in the aftermath of Tobruk. Churchill brushed Davis’s concerns aside, observing that his opponents would be lucky to round up twenty members of Parliament to support a “no confidence” vote.

When the train arrived at Fort Jackson at eleven o’clock the next morning, the heat and humidity were already stifling. “It was a very hot day, and we got out of the train straight onto the parade ground, which recalled the plains of India in the hot weather,” wrote Churchill, who wore a panama hat for the occasion. A military band played “God Save the King” and “The Star Spangled Banner,” while a battery of motorized field pieces offered a nineteen-gun salute. Under an awning, Churchill, Marshall, and the others watched American armored and infantry divisions parade past. Next came an airborne exercise, with six hundred paratroopers simulating an attack on an enemy position. Churchill was given a walkie-talkie, which he had never used before, so he could follow the orders given by the jump commanders. The exercise yielded three casualties: one broken leg, one sprain, and a suspected skull fracture. After lunch, there were field exercises with live ammunition, showcasing the readiness of infantry, tank, and artillery battalions.

“At the end I said to Ismay . . . ‘What do you think of it?’” wrote Churchill in his memoirs. “He replied, ‘To put these troops against continental troops would be murder.’ Whereupon I said, ‘You’re wrong. They are wonderful material and will learn very quickly.’” Churchill, however, did remind his American hosts that it took two years to turn a green recruit into a soldier.

The final day of the conference, June 25, was spent putting the final touches on American aid to the British military effort in the Middle East. Since Marshall made his initial offer of materiel, there had been some back-and-forth on whether sending American troops might be better. Churchill and Roosevelt were leaning toward troops—it played better politically—while their service chiefs thought tanks and guns would be more useful. In the end, Brooke and Ismay convinced Churchill the “military aspect of this problem and its advantages outweighed the political considerations.”

The British delegation then said good-bye and headed for Baltimore, where the Clipper awaited them for the return trip home. When they arrived at the dock, they found Roosevelt’s lead Secret Service agent in a lather. Only moments before, the Secret Service had arrested an Irish-American employee of British Overseas Airway Corporation, after someone reported hearing him muttering Churchill’s name over and over. The man had been found with a fully loaded revolver in his pocket.


Tumbling into torch

A few days after the conference, Brooke wrote Marshall: “I have returned with deep gratitude for all your kindness and the conviction that our discussions have gone a long way towards ensuring that close co-operation and understanding so essential between us in the execution of the task we are engaged in.” Marshall repaid the compliment: “If nothing else was accomplished during the visit of the Prime Minister I feel that the intimate accord and I believe understanding developed between us justified the trip.”

For Brooke, the trip was certainly worth it. “I feel now in much closer touch with Marshall and his staff and know what he is working for and what his difficulties are.” He also believed that while the surrender of Tobruk was disheartening, it had a silver lining. “I always feel that the Tobruk episode in the President’s study did a great deal towards laying the foundations of friendship and understanding built up during the war between the President and Marshall on the one hand and Churchill and myself on the other.”

On June 27, Roosevelt and Churchill issued a joint statement about the conference. “While exact plans, for obvious reasons, cannot be disclosed, it can be said that the coming operations which were discussed in detail at our Washington conferences, between ourselves and our respective military advisers, will divert German strength from the attack on Russia.”

Upon his return, Churchill faced a “no confidence” vote in Parliament, spurred by the British collapse at Tobruk. The motion was defeated 475 to 25. After learning the news, Roosevelt wired Churchill: “Good for you.”

Despite Marshall’s best efforts—he continually attempted to thwart its adoption—an invasion of North Africa became the main Allied offensive of 1942. Over the course of the summer and fall, GYMNAST morphed into TORCH. On November 8, 1942, more than 100,000 American and British soldiers stormed the beaches at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. Three days later, the Allies were in control of Morocco and Algeria.

From their new perch in North Africa, the Americans and British began to chip away at Germany and Italy. In May 1943, they ousted the Axis from Tunis, gaining control of the western Mediterranean. From there it was on to Sicily, which fell in a month, followed by the rest of Italy, a brutal campaign that began in September and lasted until the end of the war. In June 1944, Marshall finally got his invasion of northwest France, as Allied forces stormed the beaches at Normandy in the largest amphibious operation in history. By August, Paris had been liberated and the Allies turned their sights on Berlin.