Planning World War II – Part 1

The Allied war conferences

Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at the Tehran Conference in 1943 (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

You can’t win a war without proper planning, but planning can be hard. Getting three world powers, each with their own needs and agendas, on the same page to fight a common enemy can be like herding cats, but that’s exactly what the Allies had to do in World War II. You’ve probably heard of the Big Three, the Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam conferences where the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union met in person. This two-part article will tell you more about the planning of the war by concentrating on the numerous smaller Allied meetings that shaped the conflict.

Cecilienhof in Potsdam, the site of the last Allied war conference (Photo: Wikipedia)
Cecilienhof in Potsdam, the site of the last Allied war conference
(Photo: Wikipedia,
Richard C. Schonberg)

America’s close historical ties with Britain got the nation involved in war planning even before Pearl Harbor. A series of secret discussions took place between American and British military staff members over February and March 1941, discussing the U.S.A.’s possible participation in the war. The conclusions of the U.S.­–British Staff Conference were detailed in a document titled ABC-1 (“America, Britain, Canada”), and were tacitly approved by President Roosevelt two days later. ABC-1 declared that the U.S.’s territorial interests were in the Western Hemisphere, that the British Empire’s position in the Far East had to be preserved, and that sea communication (in military terms, meaning not just messages but also the transportation of personnel, vehicles and supplies) between the nations was essential for success. Additionally, staff officers also agreed that Italy had to be knocked out of the war early, neutral nations and resistance groups had to be supported, air offensives had to be used to weaken the Axis, a build-up of troops had to carried out before an eventual attack on Germany, and that the Atlantic and European theaters were the most important in the war. It was also decided that if Japan entered the war, the Allies would fight defensively in the Pacific until Germany was dealt with, and only then go on the offensive. As you can see, this first meeting already outlined the war’s broad strokes rather accurately.
 
The first public Allied declaration came two and a half months later, on June 12, 1941. Britain was the only European country still free and actively fighting the Axis at the time, so it’s no surprise that London was a bustling center of diplomacy involving the various governments-in-exile of Nazi-occupied Europe. The First Inter-Allied Meeting involved the United Kingdom and four of its Commonwealth Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), eight governments-in-exile (Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Yugoslavia), as well as General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French. The meeting’s result, the Declaration of St. James’s Palace, stated that the parties would fully assist each other against Germany and Italy. They also pledged not to enter into a separate peace with the enemy, and that eventual peace will be based on the “willing cooperation of free peoples.” The declaration was the first Allied statement to address the new world order after the war.

St. James Palace, where the declaration of the same name was issued (Photo: Buckingham Palace Press Office)
St. James Palace, where the declaration of the same name was issued (Photo: Buckingham Palace Press Office)

America did not participate at the Inter-Allied Meeting, but became involved at the highest levels at the Atlantic Conference the next month, in August 9-12, 1941. Roosevelt ostensibly went on a fishing trip, but really traveled to a U.S. naval base in Newfoundland, where he met Winston Churchill, who arrived onboard the battleship HMS Prince of Wales. This was the second time the two leaders have met in person, the first having been at a dinner in 1918. The secret meeting led to a declaration, the most important points of which were these: I – Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. was seeking territorial gains in the war. II – Territorial changes after the war must be in accordance with the self-determination of the peoples concerned. III – International trade would be made easier after the war, both for the victors and the defeated.

Churchill joining Roosevelt aboard the USS Augusta in August 1941 (Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Navy)
Churchill joining Roosevelt aboard the USS Augusta in August 1941
(Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Navy)

The point about self-determination was intended to convince Nazi-occupied countries that they would become independent, rather than just America’s or Britain’s puppets, but it also had another effect: the colonies of the British Empire interpreted it as meaning that they too have a right to freedom, and experienced a boost to anti-British independence movements. The declaration about easier trade for all was a repudiation of the punitive trade rules that have been levied against the losing nations after World War I, and its goal was to prevent the same sort of indignation that was partially the cause of World War II.
 
The declaration became known as the Atlantic Charter, and is sometimes considered the seed of the United Nations. Interestingly, the charter was not an actual written document at the time, just a set of notes. Therefore, the often-repeated claim that it was “signed” by Roosevelt and Churchill is false, as there was nothing to sign.

A printed version of the Atlantic Charter, but one that was created after the announcement (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
A printed version of the Atlantic Charter, but one that was created after the announcement (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

The Second Inter-Allied Meeting took place in London on September 24, 1941, again only involving Britain and the European governments-in-exile. At the meeting, the exiled governments declared their adherence to the Atlantic Charter.
 
One important player was still no onboard: the Soviet Union. Germany invaded the Soviets in June 1941, and Stalin was struggling to withstand the Nazi onslaught. Getting Russia involved with the joint planning was already floated as an idea between Roosevelt and Churchill at the Atlantic Conference, and it happened at the First Moscow Conference on September 29 – October 1, 1941. Stalin had already met Harry Hopkins, Director of the Lend-Lease program, in late July. British and American delegates met Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov and Stalin himself. The subsequent meetings hammered out the details of Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union, promising 500 aircraft, 500 tanks and 1,000 trucks a month until June 1942.

Seated, left to right: British delegate Lord Beaverbrook, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov and U.S. delegate Averell Harriman at the First Moscow Conference (Photo: public domain)
Seated, left to right: British delegate Lord Beaverbrook, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov and U.S. delegate Averell Harriman at the First Moscow Conference (Photo: public domain)

Interestingly, the conference’s codename was Caviar, and the topic of caviar did come up afterward. Some rumors claimed that Churchill had his delegation buy a large amount of Russian caviar for him, for a total sum that was inappropriate at a time of wartime rationing. It later turned out that while Churchill did have his men bring some caviar back home, the rumors exaggerated the quantity.
 
The next diplomatic meeting was precipitated by an event just as momentous as Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. With America actively in the war, Roosevelt and Churchill, accompanied by top military leaders, met again over the holidays of 1941 and the first half of January 1942. The First Washington Conference resulted in a secret agreement, rather than a public declaration. America and Britain agreed on the strategy of “Europe First”: they would concentrate on defeating Germany, and only go after Japan with full force once Europe was pacified. They also agreed to have the forces of both nations operate in Europe under a single unified command. The conference also established the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDA), a short-lived and failed attempt to contain Japanese expansion in the Pacific.

Eisenhower with other officers at the First Washington Conference (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
Eisenhower with other officers at the First Washington Conference (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

On January 14, the last day of the Washington Conference, another meeting also took place in London: the Inter-Allied Conference at St. James Palace. Like previous Inter-Allied conferences, this too involved the British and the various governments-in-exile, and resulted in a declaration about punishing those Nazis who were responsible for atrocities against civilians.
 
The Second Washington Conference took place half a year after the first, in June 1942. Roosevelt and Churchill discussed how to best aid the Soviet Union. Roosevelt was keen on landing in France and opening a new European front to take the heat off the Soviets, but Churchill insisted that they did not have the numbers and materiel to do so. Instead, he proposed to first weaken the Axis by focusing on the Mediterranean and invading the North African colonies of Vichy France.

Roosevelt and Churchill arriving at the White House during the Second Washington Conference (Photo: Getty Images)
Roosevelt and Churchill arriving at the White House during the Second Washington Conference (Photo: Getty Images)

Roosevelt held preparatory talks with Churchill in his private house in Hyde Park, New York in the first two days of the conference. While walking along the Hudson River, Churchill saw old World War I ships tied up along the shore, and had a sudden idea. He proposed that these and similarly useless ships could be sunk off the French shore to act as artificial sea barriers and protect the landing of troops. The idea was pitched to the military, and the two Mulberry Harbors deployed in Normandy after D-Day were eventually born from the idea.
 
The Second Moscow Conference was the first personal meeting between Churchill and Stalin (Roosevelt had sent an aide in his stead). Stalin refused to leave Moscow, claiming he was needed at home during the intense struggle against the German invasion. (It should be noted he was also afraid of flying.) Churchill, always the avid traveler, undertook a long and exhausting trip to Moscow via Cairo. The negotiations began tensely. Stalin was really hoping that the Western Allies would open a second front in 1942 to divide German forces and reduce their strength in the east. When Churchill explained that they won’t be able to do it that year, “Stalin's face crumpled into a frown” according to the official minutes of the meeting. The Soviet leader eventually cheered up when Churchill explained how they were planning to bomb German cities and open a new front in Africa, instead. In exchange, Stalin assured Churchill that he would not make a separate peace with the Germans, which was a possibility the Western Allies were concerned about.

Foreground, left to right: Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, U.S. representative Averrell Harriman and Winston Churchill at the Second Moscow Conference (Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Navy)

On the second day of the meeting, Churchill rose in an attempt to convince Stalin of the Western Allies’ eagerness to help Russia, and launched into what the American delegate later described as the most brilliant of his wartime speeches. Unfortunately, the translator was so enthralled by the speech that he forgot to write it down. Churchill, in turn, forgot to pause for the interpreter, so Stalin missed most of the speech. At the end, he laughed and said “Your words are not important, what is vital is the spirit.” On the last day of their meeting, Stalin invited Churchill to his apartment in the Kremlin for what was described as “drinks” but turned out to be a twelve-hour dinner with enough alcohol to give Churchill a splitting headache – a rare condition for the Prime Minister.
 
Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa, was launched in November 1942, and was preceded by an unusual conference. The Cherchell Conference, held in Algeria, was held between enemies rather than allies. American Major General Mark Clark arrived by submarine and met with Vichy France commander Charles Mast, who promised that French troops will not fight American forces when the latter make landfall.
 
The next conference, the Casablanca Conference, was held in Morocco, recently liberated from Vichy France. It was attended by Roosevelt, Churchill, Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco, and Generals Charles de Gaul and Henri Giraud of the Free French Forces. Much of the conference revolved around technical details of tactical procedure, resource allocation and the German U-boat threat in the Atlantic. It is, however, most notable for the Casablanca Declaration, which stated that the Allies would accept nothing less than “unconditional surrender” from the Axis nations. The phrase was introduced by Roosevelt, who borrowed it from Civil War Union General Ulysses S. Grant. The declaration was designed to nudge Stalin, whom Roosevelt had not fully trusted, away from making a separate peace with Germany. The British had some reservations; they felt that a relatively early peace with Germany might turn the former enemy into an ally against the Soviet Union after the war.

Muhammad V, Roosevelt and Churchill with several other participants and guests, including General George S. Patton (left) (Photo: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)

Another fault line also emerged: Churchill felt that Roosevelt was too eager to launch a premature landing in France, while Roosevelt accused the British of not committing enough effort to fighting the Japanese. All was not well with the Free French, either. American and British leadership wanted Generals de Gaulle and Giraud to lead French forces jointly, but the two men wanted nothing to do with each other. They were pressured into making a mutual pledge of support, but it was a mere formality: the French Resistance only accepted de Gaulle, and Giraud was later pushed out of relevance.

Giraud and de Gaulle making a reluctant handshake while Roosevelt and Churchill looks on (Photo: U.S. War Department)
Giraud and de Gaulle making a reluctant handshake while Roosevelt and Churchill looks on (Photo: U.S. War Department)

Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill went directly home after the conference. Roosevelt made a detour to Brazil to meet President Getúlio Vargas at the Potenji River Conference. Meeting on the seaplane tender USS Humboldt, they discussed Brazil’s support of the Allied war effort and the creation of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force that later fought in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Churchill met Turkish President İsmet İnönü in a railway car at Yenice, Turkey. Turkey was a neutral nation in a strategically important location. Churchill tried to convince İnönü to join the Allies, but the latter was reluctant. The Adana Conference was largely ineffective, as Turkey was too afraid that the Germans would invade as retribution.

The station where the Adana Conference was held in a railway car, with a poster commemorating the event (Photo: Nedim Ardoğa / Wikipedia)

The war came to a turning point by the spring of 1943. German and Italian aggression in North Africa was stopped and pushed back, and the Afrika Korps was on the verge of surrender. The liberation of Sicily and mainland Italy became a very real possibility. German forces have lost the bitter battle for Stalingrad, and the Battle of Kursk, which would shatter Hitler’s hopes of regaining momentum, was on the horizon. Meanwhile, in the east, Japan had lost the initiative in the Pacific after its defeat at Midway. Opening the Western Front in Normandy was still only a plan for the future, but the Allies were getting ready to seize the initiative, which would require more planning and diplomacy.
 
Read the second part of our article on the Allied war conferences in our next newsletter!

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Soldiers of the 463rd Combat Engineers near the German border observe Christmas in 1944; note K-ration cans as ornaments (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

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