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How Politics, Blunders, and Betrayal in the European Theater Shaped the Postwar Order

WWII

How Politics, Blunders, and Betrayal in the European Theater Shaped the Postwar Order

Some historians write off a U.S. miscalculation of the Soviets resulting in the descent of the Iron Curtain across Europe.

British interests in Europe clashed with American strategy in WWII. How the clash influenced the making of the Iron Curtain is debated to this day.

By William Weidner

British historian Alan Clark wrote in his book Barbarossa, “Roosevelt’s betrayal of Eastern Europe, whether out of calculation or gullibility, is so notorious as to need no further recapitulation.”

National pride is a bitter pill to swallow. Some of the bitterness goes away if the pill can be dissolved in a mixture of faded memories and shared guilt. Sharing the guilt for the tragedy that befell the states in Eastern Europe after World War II has become a passionate occupation for generations of British historians.

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Throughout the summer of 1938, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was demanding international action to protect the rights of oppressed Germans living in the western provinces of Czechoslovakia. Coming after the German reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 and the Anschluss with Austria in 1938, Hitler’s demands raised the fear of another devastating European war. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain received broad approval throughout Europe for his determined efforts to keep the peace. After lengthy discussions, on September 30, 1938, representatives from the governments of Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom signed the Munich Agreement.

They believed they had solved the crisis created by those ethnic Germans living in western Czechoslovakia. They gave the Sudetenland to Germany. Representatives from the government of Czechoslovakia were not invited to attend the conference. Neither was Soviet Russia, the only country willing to fulfill her treaty obligations to the Czechs in the event they were attacked by Nazi Germany.

Chamberlain had taken the lead in negotiations at the Munich Conference. He and Adolf Hitler had also signed an agreement declaring it was indicative “of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.” On returning to London, Chamberlain was greeted with great enthusiasm. He told the welcoming crowd, “I believe it is peace for our time.”

Unfortunately, it did not take long for Chamberlain’s “peace for our time” to unravel. The Munich Conference would leave a bitter taste in many British mouths. It worsened after Hitler occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. A British statesman in the Foreign Office, while searching for an explanation of his government’s failure to act, declared: “Nothing can be done to stop Germany … the less we interfere in this crisis the better.”

The shame of the Munich Agreement had become a salient factor in European politics almost since the day it was signed. It attached itself to the men and countries responsible for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. The sad fate of Czechoslovakia and later Poland has left a deep scar of culpability in British memories. One can sense the fate of Eastern Europe inducing a national shrug of the shoulders and a sigh of deep concern.

An Ultimatum on Poland

Prior to World War II, British diplomats sought to reach an accommodation with nearly every state in Europe. Throughout the 1930s the British government feared Russian communism as much than they feared German fascism. Their halfhearted attempts to reach an agreement with the Russians left Hitler free to negotiate a treaty with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed on August 23, 1939, and barely one week later Hitler attacked Poland.

The Poles had tried to modernize their army and air force. They asked the British for a loan of 60 million pounds. British officials cut the loan request to eight million pounds and added the caveat that it was not a loan but a credit to be used for purchasing armaments from British factories. A.J.P. Taylor wrote, “They explained that, as British armament factories were fully employed, the credit could not be used in any case. No credit had passed by the time the war broke out; no British bomb or rifle went to Poland.”

At 4:45 am on September 1, 1939, German troops crossed the Polish frontier, and by 6 am German planes were bombing Warsaw. This was a clear violation of the guarantee that the British and French had given to Poland and good cause for an immediate declaration of war against Germany, but nothing happened. The governments of Britain and France, panicked by their fear, continued to look for ways out of the war with Germany. First, there was a peace conference proposed by Italy’s Mussolini, but that fell apart. Then the French protested that they needed extra time for mobilization.

While Chamberlain was looking for a peaceful way to settle the disagreement between Poland and Germany, public opinion had turned against him. With the cloud of Munich still hanging over Parliament, ministers warned Chamberlain that the government would fall unless it sent an ultimatum to Hitler before the House met again. Chamberlain gave way. The British ultimatum was delivered to the Germans at 9 am on September 3, 1939. When it expired at 11 am, Great Britain was at war with Germany.

The British often try to cast themselves as the “white knights of freedom and democracy” riding to the aid of the poor Poles in Eastern Europe. They had thrown the lives of British grenadiers into the caldron of a continental war against the tyranny of German fascism. This was true but completely irrelevant to the Poles at the time. Ultimately, however, British principle does not appear to have been a matter of any great concern because no British grenadier gave his life for it.

The Shameful Sitzkrieg

In 1914 the British Empire was at the zenith of its power. During the first year of the Great War, the British sent 50 well-trained and equipped divisions to France. The Great War, which the European powers had enthusiastically joined, became a slaughterhouse. England had a smaller population base than the continental powers and could not afford the horrible losses.

Following his meeting with Hitler at Munich in September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waves a meaningless treaty that he assures the world preserves ‘…peace in our time.’

Following his meeting with Hitler at Munich in September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waves a meaningless treaty that he assures the world preserves ‘…peace in our time.’

In the eight months between the British declaration of war on Germany in September 1939 and the German attack on the Allied armies on May 10, 1940, the British government sent the paltry British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 10 infantry divisions and a few armored brigades to France. These were both poorly equipped and untrained in the combined arms tactics employed by the Germans.

The “Sitzkreig,” or “Sitting War” was shamefully the best they could do for Poland. The British watched their Polish ally fall to the Germans and later to the Russians without firing a single shot. No British aid found its way to Poland, no British soldier gave his life for Polish freedom.

The British people had tired of appeasement and the shameful stain that policy left on their national honor. They demanded a war. But it was not a war their army was prepared to fight. In 1940, the Germans put an army of 157 divisions onto the field of battle, of which 135 were detailed for their May offensive against the Western Allies. The French Army had 80 of its 117 divisions available for the defense of northern France. Compared to the two continental powers, the British contribution of only 10 divisions left them open to French charges of failing to share the sacrifices of their war against Germany.

What had been obvious to Adolf Hitler from the beginning soon became obvious to everyone else. The British and French would not fight to save anyone but themselves, and this they would do rather poorly. Indeed, Hitler was counting on their lack of involvement while his army was fully engaged in Poland. The Western Allies threw away their last, best chance to defeat Hitler while his back was turned in Poland.

Britain’s Critique of America

We now know that the French and British lost the war to Hitler in May and June 1940. We do not know what might have happened had they summoned the courage to attack Germany while its army was fighting in Poland.

The end of World War II presented historians in Great Britain with an opportunity to recast these events in a more favorable light. The betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich and the “Phony War” on Poland’s behalf are barely mentioned.  It appeared that the Americans had been the culprits all along. The Americans had not seen the tragedy unfolding in Europe and had been years late in joining the European democracies’ war against the horrors of German fascism. They came into the war only because they were attacked by the Japanese Imperial Navy at Pearl Harbor and not as a matter of higher principle like the British and French.

If British Prime Minister Winston Churchill thought American participation in the war ultimately guaranteed Allied victory, he also thought the American military chiefs, Admiral William Leahy, General George Marshall, Admiral Ernest King, and General Henry “Hap” Arnold, made up one of the “stupidest strategic teams I have ever seen.” Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke was equally critical of the Americans.

The British would voice a host of concerns about their new American ally. The most accurate of those in 1942 was a lack of battlefield experience for nearly all the senior American generals. The British loved to run things. They viewed themselves as the most qualified strategists with far more actual combat experience than any of the Americans.

Within weeks of their invasion of Poland from the west, German troops occupied the Polish capital of Warsaw. In this photo, Hitler watches Wehrmacht soldiers pass in review. The parade took place in Warsaw about a month after the outbreak of World War II, and at the time the photo was taken, Soviet troops had invaded Poland from the east.

Within weeks of their invasion of Poland from the west, German troops occupied the Polish capital of Warsaw. In this photo, Hitler watches Wehrmacht soldiers pass in review. The parade took place in Warsaw about a month after the outbreak of World War II, and at the time the photo was taken, Soviet troops had invaded Poland from the east.

Military Over Politics

If the British had a low opinion of Americans, they had a much higher opinion of their own abilities. Given their experiences in 1939 and 1940, the Czechs, the Poles, and the French might be forgiven if they did not share any enthusiasm for the benefits they derived from British leadership.

Chester Wilmot was a journalist attached to Montgomery’s British 21st Army Group headquarters in Europe. His book The Struggle for Europe was published in 1952; it was one of the first major accounts of World War II in Europe. Not surprisingly, Wilmot usually favored the British point of view. He wrote, “The two most serious miscalculations of the Second World War both concerned the Soviet Union: Hitler’s miscalculation of Russia’s military strength, and Roosevelt’s miscalculation of Russia’s political ambition. It was these two errors of judgment which gave Stalin the opportunity of establishing the Soviet Union as the dominant power in Europe.”

If the Americans had been willing to consider a postwar political balance of power in Europe, Wilmot wrote, the Western Allies might have been able to occupy Berlin and Prague ahead of the Russians. He apparently believed that if the Allies had occupied Berlin and Eastern Europe before the Russians, the Russians would have simply forgotten all about those agreements they had made with Britain and the United States during the Yalta Conference, and at the end of the war they would have simply have turned their armies around and sent them trudging peacefully back to Russia. If this was indeed Wilmot’s belief, it was shared by neither Churchill, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, nor Soviet Dictator Stalin.

There was the rub. The Americans missed a golden opportunity at the end of the war and had insisted on separating postwar political concerns from military strategy, while the British always included political consequences as a factor in their military decisions.

One of the differences between Great Britain and the United States was their pecking order among world powers. International status hardly mattered to the senior Americans serving in Europe because they had never exercised political power in Europe. President Woodrow Wilson’s one attempt to get his fellow countrymen involved in European affairs after World War I had come to grief in 1920 when the United States Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles that President Wilson had brought back from France.

The British had been intimately involved in European politics for well over 100 years. Given their limited population base and much smaller armies, the British had been forced to seek political accommodations with other countries. This was necessary to maintain the “balance of power” in Europe, thereby keeping the Continent open to British industrial trade. British power had always been based not on the size or might of the British Army, but on the persuasive ability of British politicians to get other continental powers to share Great Britain’s strategic goals.

The Americans serving in Europe never wasted much time thinking about their ability to influence world events. But by 1944, American allies, especially the British, were beginning to feel the political pressure as U.S. industrial production and the increasing size of the U.S. Army became a dominant factor. Wartime events had conspired against the British, and they were experiencing a most unwelcome decline in their ability to influence global events.

Britain’s Domineering Voice in Strategy

Most British statesmen were uncertain how much influence their country would have in the emerging new world order. They saw British power waning and believed they had to seek an accommodation with the United States and the Soviet Union while they were still part of the Big Three. British power declined as the country sank further into debt. The manpower crisis limited their ability to conduct offensive operations without substantial assistance from their American allies. Only the Americans had the military strength to address the fascist or communist conundrum the British would face in Eastern Europe at the end of the war.

In spite of the substantial American contributions in men and industrial production to the British war effort, the Allied numerical advantages in both men and war matériel might still be thrown away unless American military efforts could be tied to British global strategy. The British loved to run things their way politically—and run things they did. From the time the Americans hit the North African beaches in November 1942 for Operation Torch through Field Marshal Montgomery’s Rhine crossing at Wesel in March 1945, the loudest voice in determining the pace and direction of Allied strategy in Western Europe was British.

The Americans got what they wanted in the two invasions of France, Normandy and Marseilles, which had been approved by all three Allies at the Teheran Conference, but the British got almost everything else. Montgomery determined the pace of battle at Caen despite desperate pleadings from his American boss. Montgomery issued the halt order to Patton’s Third Army on August 12, 1944, at the Falaise Gap, again despite Eisenhower’s repeated requests that they destroy the enemy in Normandy.

It was Montgomery who determined when and how the port of Antwerp, Belgium, was opened to Allied shipping. Despite letters from British Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay and Eisenhower both dated September 4, 1944, and a host of SHAEF logistical studies that had clearly shown that no advance into Germany was possible until the port of Antwerp was open and unloading Allied supplies, Montgomery ignored the port of Antwerp for over a month.

Montgomery had been using the shortage of Allied supplies to further his arguments for a single thrust north of the Ardennes into Germany. One of the main points of Montgomery’s single-thrust argument was that one large American army should accompany him, protecting his southern flank, while the other Americans, namely George Patton’s Third Army, were ordered to halt where they were. The northern drive would be led, of course, by Montgomery commanding his British 21st Army Group.

Later Montgomery used the same shortage of supplies to stop his American adversary dead in his tracks. If Eisenhower could not stop Patton, Montgomery would. He increased his demand for Allied supplies and delayed the opening of Antwerp for as long as he could. In early September 1944, Montgomery got his wish. Patton’s Third Army ran out of gas and was grounded west of the Moselle near Metz and Nancy, less than 80 miles from the unoccupied Siegfried Line at Saarbrucken.

Montgomery vs Eisenhower

Prior to the invasion, SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) planners had determined that the main Allied drive into Germany should be led by General Omar Bradley’s 12th U.S. Army Group. Their reasoning was sound. Bradley’s Americans, Eisenhower’s center group of armies, would be fighting over far better ground on the central German plateau; they were better equipped for mobile operations and had the only army in the European Theater with the manpower reserves capable of conducting sustained offensive operations. Finally, the Americans were the army that got the Allies out of Normandy by bleeding their way through the swamps and hedgerows.

The betrayal of Czechoslovakia and later Eastern Europe originated with a misguided notion of peace on the part of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and other Western diplomats. In this photo, German armored vehicles roll through the streets of a Czech city a mere six months after the signing of the infamous Munich agreement. Hitler’s army marched into Prague without firing a shot.

The betrayal of Czechoslovakia and later Eastern Europe originated with a misguided notion of peace on the part of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and other Western diplomats. In this photo, German armored vehicles roll through the streets of a Czech city a mere six months after the signing of the infamous Munich agreement. Hitler’s army marched into Prague without firing a shot.

In addition to their manpower, transportation, and terrain problems, the British faced another potentially far more serious problem. After five years of war, their Army was tired. “The British Army became noticeably tired, poorly disciplined, weakly led. Montgomery had no illusions about the limitations of his troops,” wrote historian D.K.R. Crosswell.

At some point during September 1944, Eisenhower and his British minions at SHAEF seem to have entered an Alice in Wonderland world. Montgomery talked Eisenhower into making his northern thrust the major Allied drive into Germany. The British had created the political nature of the arrangement exactly for the purpose of controlling Allied strategy, and it worked for them time and time again.

By the time the Germans attacked the badly stretched Americans in the Ardennes in mid-December 1944, fully 16 divisions of the U.S. Ninth and First Armies had been drawn north of the Ardennes onto Montgomery’s southern flank. The remaining four divisions in Hodges’s First Army screened a 70-mile defensive front in the Ardennes.

It is interesting to note that the strategic deployment of Allied divisions in mid-December 1944 was almost exactly the same as Montgomery had requested in August during the Battle of the Falaise Gap. Montgomery had asked that the Allied armies stay together in one solid mass of 40 divisions and accompany his 21st Army Group north of the Ardennes.

By mid-August, when Montgomery made his proposals for a “full-blooded” northern thrust by 40 Allied divisions, he was facing two huge problems. First, he had an acute manpower shortage in his infantry divisions. Second, the command issue was also looming large in Montgomery’s mind. Although the British had agreed that Eisenhower would take over command of Allied ground forces as soon as a second U.S. Army, Patton’s Third, was activated in France, it was never something they accepted with good grace. British attempts to undermine Eisenhower’s command authority became part of inter-Allied political intrigue.

Montgomery did not want to relinquish command of Allied ground forces to Eisenhower, whom he considered unqualified for the job. If Bradley’s 21st Army Group followed SHAEF’s preinvasion plans and headed east for the Nancy Gap and the German border with three large U.S. armies, Montgomery was sunk. Montgomery’s British and Canadian armies were both suffering from a severe shortage of infantrymen. The British were no longer capable of sustaining offensive operations without American assistance. An Allied front from Switzerland to the North Sea also made it most unlikely that a British general with his headquarters north of the Ardennes could retain command over all Allied ground forces. However, a British general north of the Ardennes was far more likely to retain command over Allied ground forces if the Americans were willing to forgo their offensive south of the Ardennes and join his British and Canadians in the north, solving both Montgomery’s manpower and command issues.

How Montgomery’s “absurd and unacceptable” proposal (in Bradley’s words) on August 13 became the centerpiece of SHAEF’s strategy to defeat the Germans in the fall of 1944 is a most unpleasant story. The one chance the Allies had of ending the war in 1944 was simply thrown away. Bradley’s thrust into central Germany,which Eisenhower had promised to Patton, was meekly deposited into SHAEF’s wastebasket.

The British, of course, deny Montgomery’s dominant influence on Allied strategy after September 1, 1944, because it does not fit into their template of blaming Eisenhower for the inept fall campaign and those casualties incurred by the overstretched Americans during the Battle of the Bulge. The Americans want to deny Montgomery’s continued influence on Allied strategy because it raises serious questions about who actually exercised command after Eisenhower had supposedly taken command of all Allied ground forces on September 1.

Fortunately for those interested in discovering the truth, these arguments are part of the historical record. The truth was that the Americans were overstretched in the Ardennes precisely because they had sent so many divisions north in support of Montgomery. Eisenhower had actually warned Montgomery of this very possibility. Three months later, the Germans did manage to concentrate a bit of strength in the Ardennes, and the Allies were taken completely by surprise.

Pressure on SHAEF  From the Prime Minister

In Eisenhower’s defense, one mitigating factor may have been his desire to placate the British prime minister again. Back on August 5 and 9, Churchill had badgered Eisenhower hour after hour over the Allied landings in southern France. Churchill wanted them cancelled, and Eisenhower was equally determined that they go forward. Eisenhower’s aide wrote that at the August 5 meeting, after Eisenhower had said no in every form in the English language, “he [Eisenhower] was practically limp when the PM departed.”

Dead German soldiers and destroyed trucks and armored vehicles litter the countryside of northern France after an air attack by Allied fighter bombers near the towns of Falaise and Argentan. General Montgomery was instrumental in issuing an ill-conceived order for American troops to halt before much of the German Seventh Army was encircled in the Falaise Pocket. As a result, approximately 200,000 Germans escaped the trap to fight another day.

Dead German soldiers and destroyed trucks and armored vehicles litter the countryside of northern France after an air attack by Allied fighter bombers near the towns of Falaise and Argentan. General Montgomery was instrumental in issuing an ill-conceived order for American troops to halt before much of the German Seventh Army was encircled in the Falaise Pocket. As a result, approximately 200,000 Germans escaped the trap to fight another day.

Four days later, on August 9, Churchill was back at it. At this meeting, which also lasted for hours, he complained that Eisenhower was acting the part of the big, strong bully unconcerned and uncaring about his poor British cousin.

On August 11, Eisenhower wrote Churchill a deeply personal letter in which he begged for Churchill’s forbearance. The very next evening (August 12), Montgomery ordered Patton’s XV Corps to stop at the inter-Army Group boundary south of Argentan and not to cross into British territory. Eisenhower did not overrule him. Between August 13 and August 21, about 200,000 German soldiers walked out of the Falaise Gap.

By the end of August 1944, the Allies were in the middle of arguments over the correct strategy to follow for their drive into Nazi Germany. Eisenhower and SHAEF preferred sticking with the pre-invasion plans and using the central group of armies under U.S. General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group for the major Allied thrust. General Montgomery was still without a major victory; he was running out of men. He would also lose command of Allied ground forces in a matter of days.

Churchill had lost the argument over Anvil-Dragoon, but he was not known for giving up easily on any argument. Under political pressure from London, Eisenhower was forced to amend SHAEF’s planned main thrust with Bradley’s 12th Army Group into central Germany. He would cancel Bradley’s thrust and make Montgomery’s northern thrust the main Allied effort, at least until his armies had crossed the Rhine.

The Americans had a good run in Normandy; now it was time to share the glory with their British ally. This would keep Churchill quiet for the moment and give the British the right to claim full participation in the defeat of Germany while allowing Field Marshal Montgomery to protect his fragile British Second Army by using the Americans and Canadians for any difficult fighting. For the British it was a win–win situation.

Both President Roosevelt and General George Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, gave their subordinates wide latitude in the performance of their duties. Eisenhower had license to direct Allied armies in Europe in accordance with directives from the Combined Chiefs of Staff but without close political supervision from his commander-in-chief. This allowed Eisenhower to give Montgomery most of what he demanded in the fall of 1944 without creating a political firestorm in Washington.

Retaining Britain’s Image

The reason Churchill was so fond of playing politics with Allied strategy was the same reason Montgomery acquired a huge fascination with crossing the Rhine River. The British had to play politics with Allied strategy simply because the army His Majesty sent to Europe was not able, on its own, to conduct sustained offensive operations.

Churchill believed that it was necessary to maintain the strength of the British Army in Europe to retain the public’s illusion that the British Army was almost as big as the American Army and just as capable of conducting sustained offensive operations. He considered that it was politically crucial to their war effort, their status within the Anglo-American alliance, and to the future of the British Empire for the Second British Army to win a great victory in Europe.

It was equally important for British self-esteem that whatever assistance the Americans provided should be delivered discreetly. The Americans should be willing to provide assistance to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, but they should not expect any acknowledgment from the British that such assistance had been rendered. This would allow the British to claim equal credit for the Allied victory in Europe in spite of the fact that the British would never furnish more than 15 divisions while the Americans would eventually supply 60 divisions.

Eisenhower’s Propensity to Side With the British

Operation Market-Garden was the British plan to get across the Rhine at Arnhem and drive into Germany, bypassing the Siegfried Line to the north. One British airborne division, two American airborne divisions, and one Polish airborne brigade participated in Operation Market-Garden. Maj. Gen. James M. Gavin’s U.S. 82nd Airborne Division fought in Holland during Operation Market-Garden with a second U.S. Airborne Division, the 101st. Making sure he got everything he could out of the excellent airborne infantry, Montgomery transferred the U.S. airborne divisions to his XXX Corps and kept them fighting as ordinary infantry for almost two months after Market-Garden ended. When it came to reporting the event back in England and the United States, however, the two American divisions simply disappeared and Market-Garden was reported as an entirely British operation.

With tacit approval from Washington, Eisenhower did what he could to support British efforts. As long as he did not create political problems for Roosevelt’s government in Washington, Eisenhower was clearly given permission to do whatever he wished with the United States Army in Europe. Indeed, many American officers and even a few British officers thought Eisenhower had gone too far in his support of the British. Eisenhower did protest Montgomery’s behavior (his slowness at Caen) in Normandy to both Churchill and Alan Brooke, but to no avail.

Most of Eisenhower’s efforts to aid the British, his willingness to side with the British point of view, and the results of his Allied cooperation have been neatly scrubbed from the pages of most United States Army historical records. According to most accounts, Eisenhower and Montgomery vehemently disagreed about Allied strategy. They disagreed about the correct route to take into Germany and whether to employ a single thrust or broad-front strategy. Although their discussions sometimes became heated, these disagreements were always on the merits of sound strategy. This simply was not true. These inter-Allied arguments clearly display the heavy hand of British politics and the tainted strategy they created.

Eisenhower was committed to the Anglo-American alliance; Montgomery was not. Eisenhower was selected for his job because he was the most politically savvy U.S. general. Montgomery was selected for his job because he was an impossible subordinate. The result was a hodgepodge of politically motivated strategic decisions based primarily on the level of political pressure emanating from London.

Ralph Ingersoll, an aide to Bradley during the war, wrote Top Secret in 1946. He was bitterly critical of Eisenhower’s performance as Supreme Allied Commander. Ingersoll believed that in August 1944 the Allies missed a great opportunity for winning the war by Christmas. In light of Eisenhower’s great success within the alliance and the overtly political nature of his job, Ingersoll’s criticism is probably overstated. Ingersoll also mentioned the British fondness for playing politics with military strategy.

Photographed in England during pre-invasion maneuvers, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower and British General Bernard Montgomery confer in February 1944.

Photographed in England during pre-invasion maneuvers, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower and British General Bernard Montgomery confer in February 1944.

General Albert C. Wedemeyer began the war working for the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General Marshall. On an information gathering tour for his boss in North Africa, he noted that many American officers believed Eisenhower was leaning too far in favor of the British in most inter-Allied decisions. There was also an experience factor involved; Eisenhower was ostensibly commanding British officers in North Africa who had far more command experience than he did. It would have been appropriate for an inexperienced American officer to take advice from those more experienced members of the Allied team. Still, the tone of General Wedemeyer’s criticism implies more than Eisenhower’s simple preference for the British side of an argument and is a cause for concern.

British Influence on SHAEF

Colonel William Whipple, Jr., was a West Point graduate, an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and a Rhodes Scholar. During the war in Europe, he served on Eisenhower’s SHAEF staff in the G4 division of the Logistical Planning Branch. His unpublished memoirs confirm what Ralph Ingersoll, Albert C. Wedemeyer, George S. Patton, Jr., and Omar N. Bradley have written about General Eisenhower’s longstanding preference for taking the British side of the argument. That the British side of the argument was often influenced by political goals and ignored sound military strategy seems not to have greatly concerned Eisenhower.

According to Colonel Whipple, SHAEF’s planning staff was heavily weighted in favor of the British. The SHAEF Planning staff and the Air, Naval, and Intelligence staffs were all headed by British officers. Whipple acknowledges that the British officers at SHAEF “were extremely well qualified, generally outclassing the Americans.… Besides being bright, the British officers were subtle and seemed to work as a team. In contrast, the Americans pretty much did as they pleased individually, and many of them seemed unaware of the intriguing (politicizing) that was afoot.”

Since the Americans were not following any political agenda, they were usually free to act individually, to decide each case on its own merits in determining the correct Allied strategy for any given course of action. The Americans, with few political ties in Europe, rarely had to separate political goals from strategic options.

Since they had political ties to nearly every country in Europe, the British usually had a political agenda for most Allied strategic options. All members of their team had been made aware of those options. Therefore, British decisions were not based solely on the correct strategy but on the best strategy consistent with previously defined British political and economic goals.

British negotiators acted as a team and came to Allied meetings fully prepared with a plan of action; the Americans acted individually and were often caught unaware by British political motives. British staff officers had become quite expert at manipulating critical information in their staff reports to reflect the preferred British political point of view. They were not shy about providing erroneous and misleading information to get their way in an argument. Eventually the Americans caught on. One example of exposed British duplicity was the invasion of Southern France (Anvil-Dragoon), which the British bitterly opposed. They produced a mountain of staff work for Prime Minister Churchill hoping to prove to the Americans that the operation would never succeed.

After the operation had succeeded brilliantly, the Americans “published the British studies as a book called The Castigation of Anvil. It was used in staff officer training as a collection of planning howlers.” By 1944, the Americans had figured out what the British were doing and how they manipulated information for their own political purposes. The British knew that the Americans were aware of their crafty schemes. Yet in Allied strategy sessions those strange kabuki dances continued right up to the end of the war.

Eisenhower Unleashes the Ninth Army From Montgomery

Finally, in late March 1945, even the long-suffering Eisenhower had reached the end of his patience with Montgomery. It is difficult to say exactly what changed his mind. It may have been the vacation he and Bradley took together in early March. Bradley undoubtedly seized the opportunity to present the American side of the argument for a U.S.-led drive into Germany.

Whatever the cause, by the end of March Eisenhower had clearly reached the limits of his patience with the little British field marshal. In a 1963 interview with writer Cornelius Ryan, Eisenhower said, “Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you—what happened was—he [Montgomery] got so damned personal to make sure that the Americans, and me in particular, had no credit, had nothing to do with this war, that I just stopped communicating with him…. All I said is I am just not interested in keeping up communication with a man that just can’t talk the truth, that’s all, so I just don’t do it.”

After Montgomery had gotten his army across the Rhine, Eisenhower was determined to ignore Berlin and change the thrust of the Allied advance into Germany. Despite British wishes, Eisenhower would ignore both Berlin in the north and Prague in the south and strengthen Bradley’s 12th U.S. Army Group for the main Allied drive through the center of Germany.

Eisenhower’s letter of March 28, 1945, therefore took General William Simpson’s Ninth U.S. Army away from Field Marshal Montgomery and gave it back to Bradley. Prime Minister Churchill immediately howled in protest. He also argued that this “would leave [Montgomery’s] 21st Army Group too weak to carry out offensive action … and relegates His Majesty’s Forces to an unexpected restricted sphere.” This was true, but wholly irrelevant.

Canadian troops of the Allied 21st Army Group, under the command of General Montgomery, march through a Dutch town in early 1945. Montgomery opposed Eisenhower’s broad front strategy and sought to concentrate the main Allied thrust into Germany with his command. To do so, Montgomery continually tried to bring American troops under his personal authority and to divert war matériel from other Allied operations.

Canadian troops of the Allied 21st Army Group, under the command of General Montgomery, march through a Dutch town in early 1945. Montgomery opposed Eisenhower’s broad front strategy and sought to concentrate the main Allied thrust into Germany with his command. To do so, Montgomery continually tried to bring American troops under his personal authority and to divert war matériel from other Allied operations.

It was never Eisenhower’s job to see that the British Army remained strong enough to conduct sustained offensive operations. That was Churchill’s and Brooke’s job. The fact that the Americans had finally decided to sacrifice the lives of their soldiers under a United States commander and not for what U.S. General Mark Clark once called “the British Empire machine” must have come as a rude shock to Churchill and his government. The American general Churchill had personally selected to assist the Second British Army in its victorious drive to Berlin had failed them at the critical moment. British protests finally died down after Eisenhower’s plan for the final drive into Germany received unanimous support from both Marshall and the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington.

Covering Up British Mistakes

Two days after the war in Europe ended, on May 10, 1945, Eisenhower summoned his senior generals for a luncheon meeting at his headquarters in Reims, France. General Patton made the following notes in his diary, “Lunched with the Supreme Commander and four Army Commanders and their air officers. After lunch General Eisenhower talked to us very confidentially on the necessity for solidarity in the event that any of us are called before a Congressional Committee. He then made a speech … on cooperation with the British, Russians and the Chinese, but particularly with the British. It is my opinion that this talking cooperation is for the purpose of covering up probable criticism of strategic blunders which he unquestionably committed during the campaign. Whether or not these were his own or due to too much cooperation with the British, I don’t know. I am inclined to think that he over-cooperated.”

George Patton was right, but the historical discussion of those strategic blunders has been muted by the great Allied victory. Huge celebrations followed the Allied victory in Europe. The reputations of most senior Allied officers soared into the stratosphere in May 1945, and there they remain to this day.

While Eisenhower clearly earned his praise from most members of the Anglo-American alliance, he could never completely fulfill British wishes or make the British Army whole again. That would have forced him to completely shut down Bradley’s 12th U.S. Army Group and was never a real possibility. Churchill and Alan Brooke should have recognized this in August or September 1944 and adjusted their strategy accordingly. But they never did.

British imperial pretensions remained at full sail through March 1945. Neither Churchill, nor Brooke, nor Montgomery ever considered, even for a minute, that the Americans might be able to win the war if they simply got out of the way. The British, for reasons that mystify us today, preferred Fleet Street’s headlines and their political games to the stark reality of an American victory on the European battlefield.

A Lacking American Interest in Eastern Europe

Try as they might, and Churchill’s government made a mighty effort, the British could never convince the Americans that Italy, the Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe were strategically important to the United States. In meeting after meeting the British prime minister and his senior generals argued vehemently for a continuation and reinforcement of the Italian campaign against American determination to strengthen Eisenhower’s invasion of France. Churchill harbored visions of Allied armies driving up the mountainous Italian boot through the Ljubljana Gap into the Balkans ahead of the Russians. But British generals who argued so vehemently for the Italian campaign during the war later admitted that they had agreed with the Americans.

The British also wanted American involvement in the Balkans ahead of the Russian occupation. But they had conveniently forgotten how their own foreign policy in the 1930s had ruled out any treaty obligations east of the Rhine. Put another way, the British were accusing the Americans of following the same strategic policy toward Eastern Europe that they had followed in the 1930s.

After Munich, the smaller countries in Eastern Europe were on their own to make political accommodations with either Germany or the Soviet Union. Poland’s unlucky geographical position between two powerful dictatorships and its failure to heed the lessons of Munich left it vulnerable on both borders.

As the war was coming to an end, the Americans also proved unwilling to sacrifice the lives of their men in Eastern Europe. Eisenhower refused to occupy either Berlin or Prague ahead of the Russians. According to some British historians, this failure led directly to the poor countries of Eastern Europe falling into Stalin’s grasp behind the Iron Curtain. If only General Eisenhower had listened to Prime Minister Churchill and been willing to drive his armies deeper into Europe, the Western Allies could have used the occupation of Berlin and Prague to negotiate a more favorable peace for Poland and saved Eastern Europe from the scourge of communism. At least this is the impression left by some British accounts of those events.

Neither Marshall nor Roosevelt complained when Eisenhower’s decisions seemed to favor British interests or left major cities like Berlin or Prague to the Russians. This is not to suggest, as some historians have, that President Roosevelt was indifferent to the fate of Eastern Europe. Roosevelt was a consummate politician, but he clearly recognized the limits to his power in Eastern Europe.

Many Americans held the opinion that a Soviet orbit or sphere of influence in Eastern Europe was not necessarily a bad thing. European countries had attacked Russia three times through the smaller states in Eastern Europe. During World War II, the Germans caused great economic damage to the Soviet Union and had killed more than 20 million Russians. Western Russia was devastated by the German occupation. This gave the Russians the moral high ground in any subsequent negotiations with the Western Allies regardless of well-meaning British efforts to create a democracy in Poland.

The New European Balance of Power

It is easy to look back through history with the clarity of vision that hindsight provides and condemn President Roosevelt because he was not able to predict the unfortunate conditions that eventually emerged in communist Eastern Europe. Once Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, it was obvious that either Russia or Germany was going to control the smaller countries of Eastern Europe. Short of war, which was unthinkable, it is difficult to see what Roosevelt could have done differently.

Victorious troops of the Soviet Red Army ride through the streets of Bucharest, Romania, as the capital city falls in the spring of 1945. The country had been an Axis partner under the rule of dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu. Soon after World War II ended, the communist faction in Romania solidified its power base with Soviet backing. Failed British diplomacy prior to the outbreak of World War II contributed directly to half a century of postwar communist domination of Eastern Europe.

Victorious troops of the Soviet Red Army ride through the streets of Bucharest, Romania, as the capital city falls in the spring of 1945. The country had been an Axis partner under the rule of dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu. Soon after World War II ended, the communist faction in Romania solidified its power base with Soviet backing. Failed British diplomacy prior to the outbreak of World War II contributed directly to half a century of postwar communist domination of Eastern Europe.

It was the British, not the Americans, who had misplayed their role in European politics. The nonaggression treaty between Hitler and Stalin in August 1939 had been a disaster for British diplomacy. The German attack on Russia in June 1941 was equally unfortunate. This was true in spite of the fact that Great Britain had found a new ally in its war against Nazi Germany. It was obvious that Great Britain’s position in Europe had been compromised by the war between Russia and Germany. The winner would control Europe’s heartland, and short of a war with the Soviet Union there was very little the Western democracies could do about it.

It was Churchill, not Roosevelt, who traveled to Moscow for an infamous October 1944 meeting with Stalin during which the parties discussed the future of Eastern Europe. In fact, Churchill shared Roosevelt’s opinion about the Russians. He told his doctor, Lord Moran, “There is only one course open to us, to make friends with Stalin.” One of the results of Churchill’s meeting with Stalin was an agreement on the percentages of influence each country wanted over the states in Eastern Europe. Churchill wrote: “Romania: Russia 90%; all others 10%. Greece: Britain (in accord with USA) 90%; Russia 10%. Yugoslavia: 50% – 50%. Hungary: 50% – 50%. Bulgaria:  Russia 75%; the others 25%.”

Stalin looked at Churchill’s paper and then changed the percentage of Russian influence in Bulgaria to 90 percent. Stalin put a tick mark on the paper and pushed it back across the table to Churchill. Churchill thought their document might appear cynical or insolent to those millions of people in Eastern Europe whose futures they had so casually determined. He asked Stalin if they should burn the paper. “No, you keep it,” Stalin replied casually. Sadly, Churchill’s piece of paper was as meaningless as the piece of paper Neville Chamberlain brought back from Munich six years earlier. Huge Russian armies were already moving into Europe from the east.

The dramatic events of May and June 1940 had shown that Eastern Europe was strategically important to British efforts to secure a balance of power in Europe. However, the British would cede the balance of power in Europe to the Germans at Munich; they would never get it back.

The United States had no prewar treaty with any country in Europe. Nothing General Dwight Eisenhower did in Europe or President Franklin Roosevelt did in Washington, D.C., would change those basic facts. The word “betrayal” implies a broken agreement or a violation of confidence, or of trust, a deception. The countries of Eastern Europe were betrayed, but it was not by the United States.

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