Posts Tagged ‘Prime Minister Winston Churchill’

When we last discussed the Chindit forces more than a year ago, we came to the conclusion that the perceived successes of Orde Wingate’s brainchild were greater than the actual success.  But we also realized that, in early 1943, any good news for the Allies was pounced on and broadcast to the masses back home.

Prime Minister Churchill was fascinated by Wingate and formed a friendship with the wildly eccentric military man.  When the Quadrant Conference began in August of 1943, Wingate was invited to join Churchill.  Based on his experience with the Chindits, Wingate presented a larger, more ambitious plan to the Allied Supreme Command.  Of course, President Franklin Roosevelt was in attendence, and took a keen interest in the proposals he heard concerning these “unconventional” forces.

He returned home, mulled it over for a bit, and then took action.  In his book The Burma Road, Webster describes it for us.  “…on August 31, 1943, in the United States – and throughout the entire U.S. Army – a call from President Roosevelt himself had gone out.  The request was for 2,830 army officers and troops to volunteer for ‘a dangerous and hazardous mission.'”  The men would need to be physically fit and trained in jungle warfare.

Borrowing heavily from pattern of the Chindits, the unit was officially called the 5307th Composite Unit and code-named “Galahad”.  The men came from jungle training camps.  Some came from the far flung island fights in the South Pacific.  Others came from army jails and psychiatric wards.  They were about as unconventional and could be.

And eventually, they would take the name that made them famous in the jungles of the CBI…the name of their leader, Brigadier General Frank Merrill.  Merrill was no stranger to the jungles of Southeast Asia.  He had been with General Joseph Stilwell as the region was overrun in 1942 as an Army Major.  He had accompanied “Vinegar Joe” on his walk out of Burma, developing a heart malady for his efforts.  And now he had his own version of the Chindits.

Merrill’s Marauders.  Born on this day in history by order of the President of the United States.

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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

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I very nearly published this piece a week early…I had the wrong date attached to it in the master spreadsheet.  Good thing I double-checked first.  I occasionally get facts messed up, but completely missing the date would have been really embarrassing.  Anyways…

With the fall of France to German forces in June of 1940, it didn’t take a whole lot of brain matter to see that the British were in a bad way.  Their only remaining “ally” in Europe was Vichy France, but this was only in the loosest sense, as its government, run by Philippe Pétain, was nothing more than an Axis puppet.

Of greatest concern to the British was the powerful French Navy.  When Germany had invaded back in May, the French fleet had scattered, some to British ports, but most to the French Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir.  When the armistice was signed, Vichy was allowed to keep its navy and the Germans promised to make no demands for it.  But of course, Adolf Hitler had made – and broken – numerous promises before, so this one gave little comfort to the British.

So rather than risk a German takeover of the French Navy, the British decided on a bold move to protect themselves.  Known as Operation Catapult, it called for the British Navy to settle the “French fleet question” once and for all.  On July 2, 1940, the British sent an ultimatum to French Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul.  In it were four options.  The French could join the British and fight againt Germany, they could hand over their ships to the British, they could disarm their ships, or they could scuttle them.

Admiral Gensoul chose to do none of them.

So new Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered his own fleet to attack the French.  It was not a decision made lightly, as the French and British had been “brothers in arms” just two weeks before.  But business was business, and war was war.  Churchill gave the orders and said that history would determine the rightness of his actions.

For French ships in British ports, the “attacks” amounted to boarding and seizing the ships.  But at Mers-el-Kebir, things would be different.  Planes from the HMS Ark Royal mined the entrance to the harbor in an effort to prevent ships from escaping.  Once negotiations failed, the legendary battlecruiser HMS Hood opened fire on July 3, 1940.  Her first salvo to hit plastered the battleship Bretagne, sending her down with 977 men.  The battleships HMS Valiant and Resolution added their gunfire to the fray, and it little more than 15 minutes, the damage was done.

In addition to Bretagne, the Dunkerque had been heavily damaged, a destroyer had been grounded and three others badly damaged.  The French battleship Strasborg was able to pick its way through the mines and falling shot and escape, but that was the only good news for the French.  Nearly 1,300 French sailors had been killed, while the British suffered the loss of a half-dozen aircraft and six men.

As intrepid readers of Today’s History Lesson know, this was not the last time the Allies would try to prevent the French fleet from falling into German hands.  Nor was it the last time the French would refuse to comply.  But this refusal and the subsequent British attacks cost the French most dearly in terms of lives lost.

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Our ISP seems to have conquered the Internet ills it had yesterday.

The Civil War battle at Fort Donelson earned Ulysses S. Grant the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant (see it there?…”Ulysses S”…”U. S.”…”Unconditional Surrender”?).  But you probably didn’t need to be reminded of that, much less have it explained.  It’s one of those pieces of Americana that just never goes away.

But that same demand, emanating from the mouth of President Franklin Roosevelt at the end of the Casablanca Conference 80 years later on January 24, 1943, was probably a little more surprising, particularly considering the circumstances under which he said it.  In 1862, Fort Donelson was beaten and General Grant’s Union forces had clearly won the day.  In January 1943, the same could not be said for Allied forces fighting around the world.

To be sure, there had been victories.  The Wehrmacht had been stopped and reversed at Moscow.  Leningrad was suffering badly, but holding on.  And Paulus and his men had been outflanked (brilliantly, I may add) and then surrounded at Stalingrad…a massive defeat there was looking inevitable.  But even with those losses, German strength in the east was formidable.

In North Africa, the forces of America, Britian, and France were struggling to make good progress against a German enemy that, even in a somewhat weakened state and at the end of a very long supply line, was still a formidable foe.  To the east, British forces were pushing the remnants of Rommel’s powerful Afrika Korps towards Tunisia.

And American Marine and Army forces were on the verge of seizing Guadalcanal in the Pacific.

So there had been gains and some considerable victories, but calling for “unconditional surrender” at this point was not all that unlike the Indianapolis Colts calling for the Jets to forfeit the game this afternoon when the Colts were down 17-13 in the 3rd quarter (though Manning’s men had gained the momentum).  The Allied forces clearly had momentum, but they were still behind with a long ways to go.

But Roosevelt was convinced that (eventual) victory was certain, and he had discussed the policy with his Joint Chiefs prior to leaving for Casablanca.  And so, at the conclusion of the Conference, in front of the cameras and with Prime Minister Churchill sitting next to him, he stated that, “The elimination of German, Japanese, and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy, and Japan.”

Prime Minister Churchill reaction, which he controlled very well, was still one of surprise.  In his book War Summits, David Stone recognizes this but also clarifies the Prime Minister’s position.  He writes, “Apparently, although he had certainly broached the subject with Churchill beforehand, Roosevelt’s decision to announce it at this press conference took the British leader by surprise.  However, this would appear to have been more a question of presentation and timing rather than an indication of any disagreement over policy, and Churchill immediately endorsed and reinforced Roosevelt’s announcement at the January 24 press briefing.”

Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill had the clairvoyance to see that the Second World War was going to last another two-and-a-half years, but they had laid down the terms under which it would end.

Recommended Reading:  War Summits

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When we left the British last week, they had just begun the process of attempting to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force (or BEF, as well as French and some Belgian troops) from northwest France.  As we saw, this effort, called Operation Dynamo, was something reminiscent of a football game’s last-second “hail mary” play…a desperation play designed to snatch victory from certain defeat.  But in this instance, there was no victory in play.  This “hail mary” would only determine the degree of defeat.

When the first of the British departed on the 27th of May, it was hoped that 45,000 of the nearly 400,000 men awaiting rescue could be picked up.  Leadership believed that they had roughly enough time for two days of evacuation before German ground forced closed in for the kills and captures.  But after two days, the Germans hadn’t closed in.  And so the evacuation continued.

The British began to realize that maybe…just maybe…their rescue effort would bring home more soldiers than originally planned.  The problem was transport.  There simply weren’t enough ships to get there, load up, and get back.  So the call went out, and all available vessels of any kind were asked to head for Dunkirk.

And they did.  By the hundreds, they departed for the French coast.  Fishing boats, pleasure boats, yachts, whatever could float set sail.  If government officials couldn’t locate the owner of a boat, they simply “borrowed” it.  Once on scene, the smaller boats acted as shuttles, running into close to shore, loading up, and taking soldiers to the larger ships in the bay.  All the while, they were harassed by the slashing runs of the Luftwaffe, strafing and bombing and making life miserable for soldiers, standing chest-deep in water awaiting their turns.

And then, on June 4, 1940, it was done.  More than 190,000 British soldiers and nearly 140,000 French soldiers were off of European soil and headed for England.

When asked about the German failure at Dunkirk, Adolf Hitler would always say that he held off the Wehrmacht and let the soldiers go as a magnanimous gesture in hopes of winning British support against the Russians.  While possible, that’s a trifle too convenient.  We don’t know what Hitler was really thinking, and frankly, “the unexplained” is part of why Dunkirk is considered a miracle.

There is also speculation as to whether the British could have continued fighting had the Dunkirk evacuation failed.  What we do know that its success allowed the British to continue.  It was against the backdrop of Dunkirk that Prime Minister Winston Churchill, speaking to the House of Commons on the evening of the 4th, uttered some of his most famous words…

“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

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August 12, 1941 marks the anniversary of the creation of the Atlantic Charter by President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  Meeting in secret at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, the two leaders spent time assessing the current situation and how they envisioned a postwar world to look.

The Soviet Union, under intense pressure from the German armies that now threatened Leningrad and the capital of Moscow, needed help from the West.  Joseph Stalin had asked for aid, primarily in the form of a second front being opened on the European continent to relieve pressure.  But Britain, still standing alone and heavily involved in North Africa, could do nothing in terms of a landing in France.  Still, the U.S. promised to offer Lend-Lease supplies to the Russians, who would eventually become America’s biggest client.

But the biggest impacts of the Charter were “down-the-road” considerations, as both countries were looking ahead to a postwar world.  The groundwork for the United Nations was laid in Newfoundland, as well as the goals of the Allied Powers (despite the current “neutrality” of the U.S.).  Chief among them commitment to forego all territorial gains made in the war, unless the wishes of the people in those territories were otherwise.  In addition, all people had the right of self-determination, and there was to be economic cooperation and improvements in social welfare.

The goals of the U.S. and Britain were certainly at odds with those the Soviet leader, whose picture of Eastern Europe and Soviet influence looked radically different.  But still, it was August of 1941, the War was relatively young, a Soviet collapse was looking more inevitable every day, and there was hope that, when (or if) things did turn around in Russia, Stalin would be more amenable to the terms of the Charter.  History would prove he was not.

Recommended Reading: War Summits: The Meetings that Shaped World War II and the Postwar World

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