- James Houser
January 14, 1943 - The Casablanca Conference
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
January 14, 1943. A disabled American and an alcoholic Englishman meet in a big Muslim city to decide the fate of the world.
Or, more accurately but less pejoratively, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill meet in Casablanca with their combined military commanders to decide on the strategy to defeat Nazi Germany. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. The Casablanca Conference had begun.
In November 1942, the Allied forces had landed in what had been French North Africa to preempt a German occupation and outflank Rommel's forces in Libya. They overran Morocco and Algeria, but Hitler sent sufficient forces to Tunisia that the Allies were unable to clear the North African coast completely. As Churchill and Roosevelt met in Casablanca, Allied forces were penning the Axis up around Tunis. French, British, American and Commonwealth forces would finally clear the Axis out by May.
Roosevelt, Churchill, and their combined military chiefs had bigger fish to fry. How to defeat Germany?
Churchill and most of his commanders wanted to strike at what they called the "soft underbelly" of Europe - the Mediterranean front in Italy and Greece. Roosevelt's men, especially Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, wanted to land in northwest Europe (France or Belgium) to engage and destroy the main German forces. They thought it was the quickest route to defeating Germany and the quickest way to take pressure off Stalin - who was still in a dangerous position and might lose the war in the East.
These major strategic questions were not as simple as they might seem. Both options could not be pursued at once with full force; resources, ships, and troops needed for Italy would be unavailable for France, and vice versa. Landing craft in particular were at a premium; amphibious operations are very, very hard, and the slow production of beach-landing equipment was limiting Allied options. It would remain a bottleneck until the end of the war. Even as late as 1945, Churchill was grousing about American diversion of landing ships to the Pacific instead of Europe.
Political considerations also came to the fore. While the United States' strategists wanted to confront Germany as soon as possible and destroy the Nazi regime so they could turn their resources against Japan, Churchill always had his eye on Soviet communism. Churchill wanted to preempt Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and the Balkans through landings there that would give the Western Allies a decisive advantage in the postwar negotiations.
These problems, and many other smaller ones, were the main points of contention. Neither side impressed the other. British Field Marshal Alan Brooke disparaged both Churchill and his American counterpart Marshall, sourly commenting that he had "no understanding of strategy." Marshall felt the British were too scarred by the experience of World War I to commit to a new large-scale commitment in France.
When the generals split, it took the politicians to seal the deal. Churchill and Roosevelt's close friendship was the cornerstone of a compromise deal: the Allies would follow victory in Africa with, at minimum, with an invasion of Sicily to secure the Mediterranean. In exchange, the British had to commit to an attack across the English Channel no later than 1944. Churchill hemmed and hawed - he pitched projects as diverse as an invasion of Norway, or a landing in Greece - but finally was forced to agree.
The seeds for D-Day were sown at Casablanca. The British, preferring their strategy of striking at the periphery, presented a steep bill. Due to the compromise Churchill and Roosevelt struck, Allied troops would be committed first to Sicily, then Italy, then Greece until the end of the war. If nothing else, they saved Italy and Greece from Communism. That was probably the maximum they could accomplish but it was better than nothing.
The Casablanca Conference would be the first of three big meetings between the Allied leaders. At Tehran later that year, and in Yalta in 1945, Stalin would be present - and that would change everything.
The single best book on the high command relationship between the Americans and British in World War II is Andrew Roberts' Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945 (New York: Harper, 2009). It's full of the spiky, often friendly, often contentious relationships between FDR and Churchill at one level and their top Army generals, George C. Marshall and Alan Brooke, on the other. Good reading.