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D Day

LAURENCE REES: So, to start with D Day. Why, since America came into the war in December 1941, did it take until June 1944 to launch D Day? 

SIR MAX HASTINGS: Most nations in most wars have no choice except to engage and fight the enemy all the way through, as the Russians did between 1941 and 1945. But the British and the Americans were quarantined from the Germans by tremendously serviceable expanses of sea, and this meant that they had a luxury usually denied to nations in war of choosing when and how to fight the enemy. Now, Churchill understood very clearly from 1940 onwards, especially after the calamitous series of British defeats in the Middle and Far East, just how weak the British army was, and that the British army could only beat the Germans on the most favourable possible terms.

When the Americans came into the war, in theory at least, there was a tremendous hustle to get on and engage the main forces of Germany, but as time went by it became plain that the American mobilisation was much, much slower than even Roosevelt and George Marshall had expected, and it took the Americans a long time to crank up this, eventually fantastic, industrial and military machine for war. But also during those middle years, 1942- 43, when the Americans were saying to the British, come on let's go on in there and do this, the British were saying, sorry, we are not prepared to sacrifice another army, just because you’re in a hurry, and in 1942 and 1943 if the Allies had gone into the continent it would have been overwhelmingly British troops that had to do the fighting and British troops that had to bear the losses. It was only in 1944 when the American primacy of numbers of everything - men, ships, tanks and aeroplanes - that it became explicit that the Americans were finally in a position to the call the shots and insist. But history has judged, I think rightly, that although the British would certainly have been defeated if they’d gone ashore with a little American help in 1942, in 1943 the British and Americans might have been able to stage a D Day in France and might have been able to hang on in there. However, the campaign that would have followed would have been incomparably bloodier than that which took place in 1944. The Germans were much stronger and the British and Americans were much weaker in 1943 than 1944 and whatever had happened in France after an invasion in 1943 would have resulted in a terrible, terrible bloodbath. In fact, it was the Russians who had the bloodbath, first at Stalingrad in 1942, then in Kursk and at numerable other battlefields in 1943 and all the way through.

One has to remember one key statistic: in 1943 when the Americans had already been in the war for 18 months going on 2 years, the Americans and British in that year lost around 60,000 men killed fighting the Germans, but the Russians lost 2.3 million, just combat deaths. They lost another 2-3 million- nobody’s quite sure- civilian deaths, but that was the scale of the disparity in that year. When more than 200 German divisions and 2 to 300 Russian divisions were confronting each other on the Eastern Front, the major Anglo American ground action was in Sicily where we had just 8 divisions committed. So that was just how slow this build up was - so that finally in 1944 the Allies felt strong enough to be confident.