As another disastrous month at the keyboard winds down – I either need to get it back together or let this proposition go – let’s talk a bit about President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and North Africa.
With the first half of 1942 “in the books”, President Roosevelt found himself in the middle of a debate concerning when and where American soldiers should fight the Germans. To be sure, we were already doing battle with Japan – the Coral Sea and Midway engagements were recent history and Operation Watchtower (the landings at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands) were just around the corner. But we had yet to make a concerted effort against the Axis’ primary belligerent. And the President had already stated his “Germany First” policy, but where to put it into action?
Britain’s Prime Minister had his idea. North Africa. Churchill saw a boat-load of advantages to offensive action there, and he was happy to enumerate them. Occupation of North Africa (particularly Algeria and Tunisia) would trap Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps between those forces and the British Eighth Army that was already protecting Egypt and the Suez Canal. North Africa offered American soldiers a way to “get their feet wet” in a situation less dangerous and difficult than a frontal assault on France. Removing the German presence from the Mediterranean would allow supplies to be shipped through the Suez Canal, which saved a massively long trip around the southern tip of Africa through German-infested waters. And it got American soldiers into battle against Germans (thereby relieving the Russians) in 1942, rather than further down the road. It made sense to Winston Churchill, and he told Roosevelt, saying, “This has all along been in harmony with your ideas. In fact, it is your commanding idea. Here is the true second front of 1942.”
Roosevelt’s military commanders most assuredly did not agree. They saw North Africa as a sideshow. They didn’t believe an invasion there would pull a single German soldier from the Russian steppes or from the approaches to Stalingrad. In fact, American commanders believed that action in North Africa was more about protecting Britain’s flagging empire than winning a war against an aggressor, and they wanted none of it. A frontal assault on Germany’s stronghold in Europe, though not feasible in 1942, certainly made more sense to them.
And in the middle sat Roosevelt. He took these arguments in and then added his own ideas to the mix. There was politics. It was 1942, and mid-term elections were coming. Early indications showed that a restless populace, eager for action against Germany, could give his party a ballot-box beating in November. But ultimately, it came down to doing something – anything – to help the Russians in 1942. Earlier in the year, he had stated “the simple fact that the Russian armies are killing more Axis personnel and destroying more Axis materiel than all the other twenty-five United Nations put together.”
And on July 30, 1942, the President made his decision. As the sun set on summer-time Washington, D.C., Roosevelt gathered his military commanders and told them North Africa was the target. A European invasion, while on the cards, would not be happening this year.
The torch of Operaton Torch had been officially lit.
Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn