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The West’s promised 1943 D-Day

LAURENCE REES: What’s curious is that from 1942 Roosevelt and Churchill are stringing Stalin along, saying that D Day is going to happen in 1943.

SIR MAX HASTINGS: The British and the Americans used to talk a lot in the war and have done since about all the lies that the Russians told us and God knows the Russians did tell a great many lies, but the British and the Americans tell the Russians many lies also. They broke almost all their promises about aid deliveries to Russia in between 1941 and 1943 and most importantly they explicitly led Stalin to believe that D Day on the continent was seriously on the agenda in 1942, when it was not. They continued that deceit through 1943. Now Churchill and Roosevelt thought they were being very clever in stringing Stalin along like this. In fact there were so many traitors in Washington and Whitehall that of course more details about British and American planning were being leaked to Moscow than the NKVD had the resources to translate, and lorry loads of material were being provided by traitors in the foreign office and so on.

So, when Churchill, slightly apprehensive, went to Moscow for the first time in August 1942 to tell Stalin this terrible news that there wouldn’t be a Second Front in 1942, he took a deep breath and went in. Stalin put on this terrific show of rage and fury and disappointment and formal protest and so on, but actually Stalin had had a memorandum written to him 2 weeks before setting out in fantastic detail exactly what meetings would take place in London, what had been said between the British and Americans about D Day, and the fact that the British war cabinet had finally vetoed a Second Front in 1942.

Yet all through 1942 and 1943 the British and the Americans went on telling the Russians that they might somehow be able to do it. And they were lying all the way through, they were stringing the Russians along because they were so apprehensive that Stalin might be tempted to make a separate peace with Hitler if they didn’t. But while it’s certainly true that the Russians told the Anglo Americans an awful lot of lies during the war, plenty of lies went the other way too.

LAURENCE REES: Some historians would say that the Western leaders never went as far as explicitly lying.

SIR MAX HASTINGS: You can say of course, as Andrew Roberts has said very well in his book Masters & Commanders, that if the British and the Americans were lying to the Russians then the British were also lying to the Americans. But Churchill handled this with considerable diplomatic skill, so that all through 1942 whenever the Americans kept sending these notes and these emissaries over to try and persuade Churchill to agree to an early Second Front, Churchill always sent back the incredible fulsome messages to Roosevelt, saying , wonderful plan Mr President this is a brilliant idea, and then set about making absolutely sure that nothing was done to implement it. But it is certainly true that Anglo American relations were lastingly damaged by these deceits because General George Marshall from 1942 onwards, right to the end of the war, was very cautious about British evasions, both strategic evasions and evasions of truth, because he felt that he’d been fooled by Alanbrooke and the British and its understandable the way the Americans felt.

I found I was shocked myself, coming across one reference. Late in 1943 at Quebec, in October 1943, at the Quebec Conference, there’s a fantastic passage in the minutes of the meeting which I could scarcely believe when I read it. Alanbrooke suddenly said to the combined chiefs of staff: of course it’s not going to be possible to launch D Day until 1945 or 1946 because we shan’t have the help of the French Army which in the past have always contributed 90 divisions to operations on the continent.

It is almost unbelievable that 7 or 8 months before D Day, as late as that,  the head of the British Army, Churchill’s senior ministry advisor, was still talking in those terms at combined conferences, and one cannot blame the Americans at that stage of the war for being angry and appalled by the British attitude. I don’t think one can blame the Americans, one always has to remember the Americans were always pretty polite to us face to face, but really, although the Americans did have a respect for the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, I don’t think the Americans ever really respected the British Army. They developed a contempt for the British Army on the basis of its defeats, and they were pretty abject defeats from 1940 through to 1942. They were absolutely astounded when Tobruk fell, when 35,000 men surrendered almost without a shot being fired in 1942, when America had already been in the war for 5 months and the tide of the war was starting to turn, and still the British Army could not manage to defeat a seriously inferior number of Germans. So I do think that that American, something close to contempt, for the British Army coloured their thinking about allied strategy all the way through the war.

What is also true of course is that Allenbrooke and most British Generals of course, never felt contempt for their own army, but they were constantly deeply apprehensive that a British Army could only defeat a German one on overwhelmingly superior terms with much greater quantities of material and much larger numbers of men and terrific air support.