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LAURENCE REES: Well, the first thing people could say is that we could have helped the Poles by launching D Day in 1943?

ANDREW ROBERTS: No, that wasn’t possible. The earliest date that D Day could genuinely have been sure to have succeeded was 1944, because you had to have won the Battle of the Atlantic, you had to have got the Mulberry Harbours, the Pluto, the sheer numbers of forces in America over to southern England, and you had to be sure that you were going to beat the Germans. And until the Americans had fought at places like Kasserine Pass, Sicily and Italy - and not terribly successfully in many cases,  look at Anzio. You could well have found a disastrous over hasty return to the continent that wouldn’t have helped the Russians anyhow.

LAURENCE REES: In which case why are both Churchill and Roosevelt leading Stalin to believe that D Day will come earlier than 1944? Indeed, Roosevelt lets Stalin think it'll happen in the autumn of 1942, and then Churchill has to try and deal with this on his trip to Moscow in August 1942 - a meeting at which he himself says to Stalin that he should now 'expect' D Day at the beginning of 1943?

ANDREW ROBERTS: Well, Churchill was furious that Roosevelt had made the promise, to Molotov in the White House and rightly so. It was a disastrous thing to have done. The Americans, I believe, wanted to do it in order to become more popular with the Russians than us. If we then showed ourselves to be the people who were holding it up and the Russians saw that, then the Americans would get a diplomatic advantage over the British. It was incredibly short sighted and rather small minded, and also it didn’t work. But it did have the advantage, the sort of unnecessary but truthful advantage, of being true. General Marshall always wanted to have an early return to the continent and it was General Brooke and the British Chiefs of Staff that held it up again and again. Winston Churchill, even up until the day of D Day, thought that you could expect 20,000 killed the following morning and often spoke to people like Harry Hopkins of dead bodies floating in the Channel, and the Channel being awash with the corpses of Allied troops. He was tremendously pessimistic about D Day. So, yes, they made a series of mad diplomatic errors in promising the Soviets that it would happen any earlier than it did.

LAURENCE REES: So if Churchill is as sure in his own mind as you say, he must have beeen simply lying to Stalin about this in the summer of '42?

ANDREW ROBERTS: No, I don’t think Churchill knew it was a simple falsehood, because the planning staffs didn’t talk about 1944 until 1943, and this was the issue. Brooke, and it’s clear from his diaries, is pretty much against the whole concept until the Germans had been defeated in North Africa and at least 18 divisions had been brought down into Italy, and he thinks that this will help the Russians to a degree, though obviously it’s not going to strike a blow at the heart of Germany, which is what Marshall wants. But having himself fought in the retreat to Dunkirk and also having been in charge of the Second British expeditionary force which left Cherbourg in the June of 1940, he knows how good the Germans are, especially at counterattack, and feels that neither the British Army nor the American Army is actually good enough to take on the Wehrmacht until 1944. And Churchill feels much the same and in August 1942 he is not promising the Russians that there’s going to be an attack in 1943 knowing perfectly well that there isn’t, he was promising it hoping that there might be and feeling that it was a good idea to bring the Russians on.

LAURENCE REES: That’s what he says though, he doesn’t say I hope..

ANDREW ROBERTS: No, he promises there will be.

LAURENCE REES: He says I promise a major operation in spring 1943.


LAURENCE REES: So he’s doing that.

ANDREW ROBERTS: Well there are two operations, that’s the other thing to remember. There’s the Sledgehammer Operation of 9 divisions that is going to land in almost exactly the same place - and the Cotentin Peninsula is quite often the operation that they’re talking about. Now that could have been unleashed pretty much anytime from the time that the Channel gets calm again after the autumn of 1942. The full blown operation, the Overlord Operation that we know finally did take place, which is a 50 division operation and therefore what is much more significant, is what Stalin wants and is thinking about and assumes that they’re talking about. And quite often they’re not actually talking about that, the British and American are quite often talking about the smaller……

LAURENCE REES: Yes, but they know what Stalin wants and Churchill in August 1942 does say we’re preparing for a very major operation.

ANDREW ROBERTS: Well 9 divisions landing in…

LAURENCE REES: That's just politics isn’t it?


LAURENCE REES: The British know Stalin thinks what they're taking about is a major D Day type invasion, but they think they may well be able to go back into the records subsequently and say 'Oh no, it’s a terrible misunderstanding!' Indeed, there’s a point in the meeting of 1942 where Churchill tries to re-define what is meant by 'Second Front'. Churchill says - in effect - 'Ah! There will be a Second Front in 1942 - it’s just in North Africa not France'. But Stalin sees through all that and still complains vehemently in a note the next day to Churchill that this isn't what he wants, and that this breaks an undertaking given to him by the Western Allies. It's in that context that Churchill says to Stalin that he can expect a major operation in 1943 - ie a D Day style Second Front.

ANDREW ROBERTS: Yes, for no obvious diplomatic advantage, it’s not as though Stalin is going to make peace with Hitler.

LAURENCE REES: That’s an interesting question. Because some people have suggested that Churchill and Roosevelt did have anxieties about that.

ANDREW ROBERTS: They might well fear that that’s a possibility, but by the time of Stalingrad, certainly, it’s a mano-a-mano struggle to the death and nobody can possibly believe that there’s a chance of another Soviet-Nazi pact taking place there. So what’s in it for the British and Americans to lull the Russians into thinking that we’re going to come back early? Nothing. Which is why I doubt that it was so Machiavellian a thing, rather than a feeling that because they themselves don’t know when they’re going to come over, they think it’s alright to encourage the Russians to think that it’s the earlier rather than the later date. And it’s not really until the Washington Conference of May 1943 that Roosevelt changes sides and leaves Brooke and Churchill’s side and goes over to Marshall’s side and says, yes, we need an invasion by the 1st of May 1944. And that’s really the key moment.

LAURENCE REES: And why does he do that then?

ANDREW ROBERTS: He does that then because he’s under a lot of pressure internally, domestically and politically. He’s got an election to fight in the November of 1944 and at the time they’re still in Italy. They’ve done very well in Italy; a quarter of a million Germans have surrendered in Tunisia but you hadn’t even got the attack on Sicily. Operation Husky’s been agreed but it hasn’t been undertaken and Roosevelt is starting to think, quite understandably, that with the Russians winning on the Eastern Front and with Stalingrad having fallen with a quarter of million men in the January of 1943 that there is a chance of western Europe falling under the Soviets even more. So you have got to get troops in at some stage, they can’t come up from Italy; just geographically that’s not going to be possible, and so they have to land in the way that has been planned by Eisenhower and others in the Pentagon for years and years in north west France.

LAURENCE REES: And so they do land in 1944 and things move on and what this leads to of course is Stalin’s belief that he’s been cheated. We interviewed, for my last series, one of Stalin’s interpreters. He said that Stalin said to a French delegation, after the war, that 'we’re not fools, we know exactly what was going on, the British and Americans were deliberately and cynically stringing us along about the major invasion of France from 1942 onwards because they knew Germany and ourselves were bleeding each other to death, and we were losing so many people that it was destroying our country. The Western Allies were standing back because they wanted this to happen, and the only reason D Day happened when it did in 1944 was because they thought the Red Army was getting too near western Europe, so they actually timed it very cleverly so that we had these enormous losses and they got out of the war virtually scot free.' That was Stalin's perspective.

ANDREW ROBERTS: Well, we didn’t go to war for Russia. Russia had played the situation so badly that the very fact that the Second World War broke out when it did was because of Russia. Russia was a hostile totalitarian power; we didn’t encourage Hitler to invade Russia and it is not an indefensible position to want to fight a rather inglorious strategy in which your ally takes the bloodletting rather than yourself. The fact is that had we gone back into the continent early and been flung off it, it wouldn’t have helped the Russians. Russia is a power that can lose people to the degree that a parliamentary democracy can’t and it had the sheer wherewithal, the lack of alternative. We could have made peace with Hitler in 1940. It wouldn't have been very nice but it wouldn’t have meant German troops stationed here on our soil. Russia couldn’t do that, Russia was going to be turned through Lebensraum into a desert, as far as the Slavs were concerned, and so it had to be a war until the death. And so in a sense it was a pretty cynical plan. The western strategy wasn’t particularly brave, but it was the right one for us.

LAURENCE REES: And the only downside being Eastern Europe?

ANDREW ROBERTS: Well and also a very aggressive Stalin who embarked straight onto the Cold War as soon as the war is over. But very few Britains died in a Cold War did they?