Churchill and D-Day: did the prime minister oppose the Normandy landings?
The Normandy landings were a resounding success for the Allies. Codenamed Operation Overlord, 'D-Day' (6 June 1944) was the largest seaborne invasion in history and marked the beginning of the campaign to liberate north-west Europe from German occupation. But what did British prime minister Winston Churchill make of the plans? Was he, as some have suggested, opposed to D-Day?
Here, military historian Peter Caddick-Adams explores Churchill’s anxieties about the planned assault on Nazi-occupied France and explains why he gained a reputation in American wartime eyes of being against Operation Overlord until the last minute…
On 15 May 1944, at St Paul’s School, Hammersmith – General Montgomery’s temporary London headquarters – Winston Churchill attended a final D-Day briefing with King George VI and scores of Allied commanders. As Dwight D Eisenhower recalled in Crusade in Europe:
“During the whole war I attended no other conference so packed with rank as this one. This meeting gave us an opportunity to hear a word from both the King and the Prime Minister. The latter made one of his typical fighting speeches, in the course of which he used an expression that struck many of us, particularly the Americans, with peculiar force. He said ‘Gentlemen, I am hardening toward this enterprise’, meaning to us that, though he had long doubted its feasibility and had previously advocated its further postponement in favor of operations elsewhere, he had finally, at this late date, come to believe with the rest of us that this was the true course of action in order to achieve the victory.”
The undisputed ‘hardening’ quote was published in Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe of 1948, when the former prime minister was out of office, and illustrated the depth of American scepticism of Churchill’s commitment to invading Normandy. It heralded a narrative that has endured to this day, that Winston Churchill was against landing in Normandy. It is an incorrect understanding of history, though the prime minister was to blame for the confusion.
However, there was a wider context to this. Twice, at Churchill’s behest, the British had lobbied to postpone the invasion of France and instead pursue operations in the Mediterranean, initially in favour of Operation Torch (1942), then for the invasion of Sicily in 1943. Although there were sound military reasons behind both deferrals, American suspicions had grown by the time of Washington DC-based ‘Trident’ Conference of May 1943 that the British prime minister was opposed to a cross-Channel invasion, period. His personal history of having instigated the unsuccessful and costly Gallipoli campaign of 1915 might also have been seen as antipathetic to large-scale amphibious activity. Certainly the lessons from the Anglo-Canadian raid on Dieppe in August 1942, the American reversal at Kasserine in February 1943, and the unexpectedly long German defence of Tunisia must have contributed to Churchill’s scepticism. But the consistency of his own utterances – in favour of operations in the Balkans, bringing Turkey into the war, and a projected assault on Norway, Operation Jupiter – were instrumental in the Americans concluding that the British had lost faith in the cross-Channel option. This was also the view of the Soviets, for whom the only worthwhile second front was a major invasion of German-held France.
The British agreement at ‘Trident’ to an Overlord invasion date of 1 May 1944 (subsequently changed) may have been influenced by concerns that – even though for good military logic – if the UK didn’t facilitate cross-Channel landings in 1944, America would renege on its Germany-first policy. Certainly, whatever Roosevelt’s public position, substantial numbers of aircraft and air corps personnel originally designated for Britain, as well as troops and landing craft, had been redeployed to the Pacific in 1942, to shore up the Guadalcanal campaign. Field Marshal Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Churchill were also aware that the US build-up in Britain (Operation Bolero) had only delivered four US divisions in 1942, perhaps indicative that America was also hedging its strategic bets.
Churchill raised several objections to the Normandy invasion plans drawn up by General Frederick Morgan and his COSSAC staff, but his main anxieties were revealed in his cable to Roosevelt of 23 October 1943. Churchill observed that he was less concerned about winning the beaches, but nervous about whether the Allies could hold out against the German armoured reserves that would arrive soon after. Roosevelt and his joint chiefs remained unmoved, and despite Churchill’s efforts to argue for continued priority in the Mediterranean, the British premier was finally overwhelmed at the Tehran Conference, code-named ‘Eureka’, of November/December 1943. It was there – the first meeting of the wartime ‘Big Three’ – on 29 November that Stalin demanded to know who would command Overlord, the Russian leader not unreasonably surmising that an operation without a leader was not a serious undertaking.
This decision was really Roosevelt’s, for America would be supplying the lion’s share of the resources. It was assumed the Overlord job was US Army chief of staff George Marshall’s responsibility; that Eisenhower would replace him as US Army chief of staff in Washington DC; and General Sir Harold Alexander would succeed Ike (Eisenhower) in the Mediterranean. In the event, the president decided he preferred to lean on Marshall at home, and the latter recommended Eisenhower for Overlord. Churchill’s public explanation was that in view of America’s contribution, the overall commander for the French invasion should be a US officer. In private, as far back as the ‘Quadrant’ Conference in Quebec of 17–24 August 1943, there is documentary evidence the British prime minister had offered to ‘trade’ American domination of Overlord for British supremacy in the Mediterranean theatre.
There may also have been a frisson of schadenfreude at work. If for any reason Overlord failed, a British commander – if not Churchill himself – would face severe criticism from the American public. Having Overlord led by an American was a good insurance policy, were anything to go wrong. Here is the nub of Churchill’s gut instinct towards the cross-Channel invasion: he may not have been as warm to it as the Americans, but he was not against it. However, the prime minister was far more enthralled by the Mediterranean theatre, which he felt held more promise and was a known quantity.
Why risk victory in Italy, reasoned Churchill, in favour of the uncertainties of a cross-Channel attack? Ugly geopolitics also lay at the root of this strategic thinking. The Mediterranean was a British-dominated theatre, and the ‘trade’ in handing Overlord to the Americans had ensured that it would remain so. In Winston Churchill’s heart of hearts, he still hoped the attritional slogging match of the Western European war would be decided in the boxing ring of the Mediterranean, under British leadership, even if Overlord were to deliver the final knockout blow.
Aware of the post-war damage that rumours of ‘Winston against Overlord’ might do to Anglo-American relations, three years later in Volume 5 of his Second World War Churchill tried – unconvincingly – to qualify the ‘hardening’ comment recorded by Eisenhower. He observed that he had used the ‘hardening’ term earlier in correspondence with Marshall and in speeches, conversation and memos elsewhere, as an antonym of his true meaning. Churchill often used understatement as a linguistic device, when meaning the opposite; but its use here caused the Americans – and subsequent historians – great confusion.
The various memos and records of the prime minister’s interest in landing craft design and the artificial harbours, and of his observations from as early as 1940 that sooner or later Britain and her allies would have to mount an amphibious assault against Nazi-occupied Europe, are included in the six volumes of Churchill’s Second World War, which was published during 1948–53. Whilst they demonstrate his undoubted strategic foresight, the wealth of documents Churchill directed to be published as appendices in each volume are there for another purpose altogether.
As we have seen, for several reasons the prime minister had gained a reputation in American wartime eyes of being ‘against Overlord until the last minute’. Several American post-war memoirs from the credible circles of Roosevelt, Eisenhower and General Omar Bradley cited the British premier’s opposition as fact. In order to refute such allegations of disloyalty – particularly important during his second 1951–55 premiership, when standing firm against Communism with his wartime ally – Churchill ‘seeded’ each volume of his history with selected documentation to demonstrate he had been committed to a cross-Channel assault from the very start; that he was the visionary, the torch-bearer from as far back as 1940. Indeed, in Volume 5 of his Second World War he explicitly observed that “The reader […] must not be misled […] into thinking (a) that I wanted to abandon ‘Overlord’, (b) that I wanted to deprive ‘Overlord’ of vital resources, or (c) that I contemplated a campaign by armies operating in the Balkan peninsula. These are legends. Never had such a wish entered my mind.”
Which, of course, is nonsense. Churchill was forever contemplating Balkan expeditions, and as the historian David Reynolds has ably demonstrated in Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (Allen Lane, 2004), the documents that Churchill included were the subject of much debate and scrutiny by the writing team who helped him write the Second World War, with some even doctored (to the extent of paragraphs and sentences omitted) to enhance the premier’s post-war reputation, making Churchill’s ‘truth’ about his support for Overlord, and other matters, much less objective.
However, once Overlord became irreversible, Churchill himself determined to be present off the coast of France. Deaf to the pleas of his military commanders and Eisenhower, he only agreed to defer his visit to Normandy at the insistence of King George VI. Otherwise HMS Belfast– today moored in the Thames – would bear a brass plaque screwed to her deck, reading: “Here stood Winston Churchill on 6 June 1944, watching the invasion of Normandy.”
Peter Caddick-Adams is a full-time writer and broadcaster. He lectures at the University of Wolverhampton and is the author of Sand and Steel: A New History of D-Day, due to be published 30 May 2019. His other works include Snow and Steel: The Battle of the Bulge 1944–45 (Preface & Oxford University Press, 2014) and Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell (Arrow, Penguin Books, 2013)