On 7 December 1943, the men in charge of the Anglo-American alliance dined in a Cairo hotel. It had been an exhausting few weeks: ill-mannered discussions with the Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-shek, in the Egyptian capital; a tense conference with the Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, in Tehran; then back to Cairo to finish their own disputes.
Stage-managed by the Americans to avoid any British challenge, the conferences had demonstrated to the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, how calamitously his country’s international power had declined. As the prime minister put it: “A bloody lot” had “gone wrong.” Having got what he wanted, the US president, Franklin Roosevelt, had left that morning. The remaining participants – including Churchill and the top servicemen from both sides of the Atlantic – were all sick of the sight of each other, but glad the wrangling was over. The drink flowed and Churchill began to recover his equilibrium. Over dinner, he got the generals to place bets on when the war against Germany would end. The most optimistic gave him 6/4 odds on March 1944; the most pessimistic, that November.
This anecdote highlights the difference between how the war was experienced, even by those most in the know about strategic planning, and how we think about it in historical perspective. We know the outcome and the timing. They knew they were going to win, but not how long it would take. If we want to understand what happened in those closing years of the conflict, we have to restore the uncertainties that shaped decisions at the time.
Unlike the First World War, this time the Allies knew well before the end that they were going to win. Between the winter of 1942 and the summer of 1943, a series of Axis reverses made it clear that Allied victory was inevitable. It was also apparent that there would be two ends: one in Europe, against Germany (Italy having surrendered in September 1943); and one in Asia and the Pacific, against Japan. How long there would be between the two remained unclear, but well into 1945 the assumption was that what the British called ‘Stage II’ of the war would last years, not months. The Americans, bearing the brunt in the Pacific, hoped that once Hitler was defeated, the Soviets would turn east and attack Japanese forces in Asia. This commitment would be given only once the war in Europe was settled to Stalin’s satisfaction.
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Why – even given the Allies’ intelligence advantages – were the timings of this double end so difficult to predict? Partly because of the concertinaing effect on time and space of contemporary weapons systems, and the demands they placed on maintenance and supply, which allowed both rapid victories and stubborn defence. Superimposed on the vast areas conquered by the Axis powers from 1940–42, these generated uncertainty about when decisive power could take effect.
The British had long been over-optimistic about their ability to crack the German people’s willingness to continue the war. They underestimated how far plundered resources, indoctrination and control would sustain the Nazi war machine. In contrast, new technological capabilities rapidly extended the reach and impact of American sea and air power across the Pacific from the end of 1943. Brought to bear against the Japanese home islands, they ensured a quicker end to the far eastern war than anyone had anticipated.
The timing of peace had particular implications for the UK. British leaders grappled with the paradox that, even as the military power of the Commonwealth and empire reached its wartime peak, their ability to shape the peace fell away. As Churchill had experienced at Tehran, for all the firepower Britain could command on the battlefield, in the face of surging US and Soviet strength, its leverage had been grievously diminished.
Simultaneously, the war had supercharged the forces of Asian nationalism, threatening the future of British colonial control across India and south-east Asia. In a world greatly changed by a conflict in which most Britons felt the UK had done more than its part, preserving what power the country had left was both emotionally resonant and a task that grew in complexity as world leaders argued over what came next.
The problems of peace
This desire to give Britain more say in the endgame affected the allocation of resources. By 1943, the British state had developed the means to move people between different sectors of the war effort to meet the changing demands of the conflict. Having already decided that the country had reached the point beyond which no further mobilisation of manpower was possible, at the end of 1943 the war cabinet agreed to act as if the fight against Germany would be over by the end of 1944, and shift personnel from manufacturing weapons into the armed forces ahead of the final campaign in Europe. This was a calculated gamble to maximise fighting strength in the short term. However, it also meant that, if a European war dragged on into 1945, Britain would be more dependent than ever on US military supplies.
Domestically, peace would bring great practical problems. How were blitzed houses to be rebuilt? How smoothly could millions of service personnel and war workers be demobilised into civilian life? Above all, how could an economy now heavily indebted, reliant on American Lend-Lease aid and shifted over to war production transition into one that could export enough to pay its way in peace?
The public mood mattered too: Britons looked forward to moving on from wartime austerity and regulation, but worried, after years of full employment, about the economic depression that everyone assumed would follow the onset of peace.
Special delivery: The first Lend-Lease food shipment from the US to Britain in 1941. But aid was less forthcoming as the war progressed into Stage II. (Photo by Bridgeman)
Promises of a better life were an important way to try to motivate service personnel and factory workers to keep doing their bit in a war that was already won. Real progress, however, was limited. In practice, many ministers could agree on the basics of a postwar settlement: greater state intervention, particularly during the period of transition; improved social welfare; better education. But the principles at stake – public v private ownership, individualism v universalism – aggravated party-political divides. Churchill told his Labour colleagues that “if we hold together, we shall be more masters of our fate”. But he failed to lead on reconstruction: in fact he thought such problems best put off until after the war.
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All of these factors came to a head during the first nine months of 1944, driven on by the approach of the final offensives. While the Anglo-American armies gathered for the Normandy invasion, Churchill and the British chiefs of staff argued bitterly over strategy in the far east. Should the Royal Navy join the Americans in their thrust against Japan across the Pacific, as the chiefs preferred, and take part in the decisive campaign? Should resources be concentrated, as Churchill fantasised, on an expedition across the Indian Ocean to seize the northern tip of Sumatra, and from there to reconquer the imperial prize of Singapore? In Europe, the rapid advance of the Red Army and the success of communist resistance movements throughout occupied Europe threatened a Soviet domination of the continent that spelled new dangers to British imperial security. Churchill talked of a ‘showdown’, but he was haunted by visions of another war.
Beyond the pressure of the impending invasion of France and the subsequent fighting, therefore, ranged fears that would not be alleviated even by military victory. Simultaneously, pressure from Labour ministers forced the government to focus on reconstruction planning, with the publication of a series of white papers on a national health service, employment policy and social insurance, and the passing of acts to reform education, and town and country planning. Touching on property rights, the latter sparked testy exchanges between Labour and Conservative MPs and threatened ministerial resignations. Both parties were looking forward to a return to business as usual: fighting one another at a general election.
Simultaneously, the emotional tempo of the war escalated. On the British home front, higher military losses after the Normandy invasion and German V-weapon attacks led to growing fury at Germans, who would not give up even though the war was lost. “Feeling v much ‘let them have it’,” observed one woman – evacuated with her young daughter from London during the V1 offensive – of the forthcoming Allied advance into Germany. “We have had to stand a lot on account of bad leaders + why should they escape for the same mistake.”
Victory plans unravel
Reconstruction would depend on a swift reorientation of the British economy. To maximise US aid, in 1941 London had pledged that no Lend-Lease material would be used to manufacture British exports. Now, the British hoped to persuade the Americans to keep up supplies during ‘Stage II’, and allow them to be used in civilian export manufacturing. They saw it as fair recompense for the sacrifices made before the US’s entry into the war. But such appeals to fairness had little influence in Washington. Rather, it was Britain’s future usefulness that swayed Roosevelt.
With his presidential re-election campaign gathering pace, Roosevelt was balancing his desire to establish the international mechanisms to underpin an American global order with his determination to avoid any entanglement in the mess of postwar Europe. Two conferences in the summer of 1944 were meant to lay the groundwork. At Bretton Woods in July, the British accepted US plans for a new dollar-based system to stabilise the global economy. At Dumbarton Oaks from August, the Americans, helped by the British, tried to set up the postwar United Nations. The Soviets, wary of a stitch-up, blocked them. Alongside Soviet moves to install a communist government in postwar Poland, this did not discourage Roosevelt, but it did sensitise him to Britain’s role as a counterbalance in Europe.
When the president and prime minister met in Quebec in September 1944, Roosevelt therefore addressed Britain’s postwar problems. Churchill offered British participation in the onslaught against Japan and accepted the secret plan drawn up by Roosevelt’s Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr, to deindustrialise defeated Germany. Morgenthau, who had returned from a visit to the UK convinced that “England really is broke”, hoped to pacify the Germans, placate the Soviets and assist the British to revive exports by picking up their former enemy’s iron and steel markets. Morgenthau’s plan was economically illiterate. Churchill suspected it was too harsh to be popular. But after Morgenthau asked him how he’d “prevent Britain starving when her exports had fallen so low that she would be unable to pay for her imports”, he went along with the plan.
Not coincidentally, Roosevelt then agreed that Britain could have the $7bn dollars of Lend-Lease aid it wanted to allow economic reconstruction during Stage II. At a subsequent meeting at Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, New York, he and Churchill agreed that the atomic bomb, then in development, would remain exclusively Anglo-American rather than subjected to international control. Informed that the bomb would be ready in a year, they agreed it might be used against Japan. Both still thought of it as a very large explosive device, not a weapon so powerful that it would change the world.
Yielding so much was humiliating for Churchill (he asked Roosevelt if he would have to beg like Fala, the president’s dog). Since Roosevelt made it plain he intended US forces to leave for home as quickly as possible, Churchill went next to Moscow, where he settled a spheres of influence agreement with Stalin that would safeguard British interests in western and southern Europe.
All the while, the plans for a quick victory in Europe were beginning to unravel. Even while the Quebec meeting went on, the long Allied pursuits out of the Normandy beachhead and into Poland ran out of steam. It would take another round of bombing and battles before they could crack open the Reich. Meanwhile Morgenthau’s plan leaked, outrage ensued, and Roosevelt backed away from the agreements made at Quebec.
British interventions against communist insurgents in Belgium and Greece scandalised opinion in the US and infuriated Labour party members. The German counteroffensive in the Ardennes exacerbated Anglo-American differences, to the joy of increasingly nationalist newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic.
After the western Allies crossed the Rhine in March 1945, the British found themselves sidelined as the Americans drove to cut off the Nazis they mistakenly thought would be escaping for a last-ditch defence in the mountains to the south. The unintentional side effect of this was to leave British forces, under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, to take the surrender of those German troops still in the field on 4 May 1945.
At his last conference, at Yalta in February 1945, Roosevelt had secured Soviet participation in the United Nations but demands for democracy for Soviet-occupied Poland were never realised. Only when Stalin threatened the sanctity of the UN did Roosevelt oppose the Soviet leader. But not for long. The president’s health had been worsening for a year. On 12 April 1945, he died.
The new president, Harry Truman, was more forthright with the Soviets but even less likely than the slippery Roosevelt to offer succour to the UK. The aid promised for Stage II – still expected to go on until the end of 1946 – was steadily reduced as Lend-Lease administrators treated British requests more stringently, releasing only militarily essential supplies. With Stage II begun, Stage III – the period after Japan’s defeat – loomed ominously. Lend-Lease would then stop and the British, reliant on overseas supplies, would be left with a balance of payments deficit of $8bn. This was plainly a major problem, but no serious work was done on it for months after May 1945, because no sooner was Germany defeated than ministers drove each other into a general election.
While the votes were being counted, the final tripartite conference of the war took place at Potsdam in Germany. In the midst of discussions, news reached Truman and Churchill of the Alamogordo test, which revealed the tremendous power of the atomic bomb. Shortly afterwards, Churchill returned to London for the announcement of the election result. Much to everyone’s surprise, Labour had won a landslide and would form its first majority government. Clement Attlee, the new Labour prime minister, returned to Potsdam in Churchill’s place. Truman swiftly wrapped things up – he wanted to be in Washington when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.
The destruction wreaked by the bombs, together with the damage already done by the US bombing and blockade, and the declaration of hostilities by the Soviet Union, forced Japan out of the war on 15 August 1945. Stage II was over, and five days later Truman announced the end of Lend-Lease.
The new British government was not well prepared for the crises that would follow, including the negotiation of an American loan and the rapid expenditure on overseas military effort as dollar prices soared and Britain grappled with garrisoning defeated Germany and a collapse of imperial control. In the summer of 1947, a run on the newly convertible pound would catch London just as much by surprise as the sudden ending of Lend-Lease.
The reactiveness of policy-making in the face of these crises, however, was rooted not in the failure of any individual or political party, but in the uncertainties of timing that had made it so hard to prepare for the end of the war. Rather than thinking of the post-1945 settlement in terms of a welfare state delivered as a reward for wartime sacrifice, we should see it as a product of these years of confusion.
Daniel Todman is professor of modern history at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest book, Britain’s War: A New World, 1942–1947, was published by Allen Lane in March
This article was first published in the May 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine