The Soft Underbelly

This advance of Russia into the heart of central Europe
will be one of the most terrible events in history.
Don’t believe they will willingly go back,
at least in this generation.
Winston Churchill, Cabinet Meeting, June 1945.

The more one reads about Churchill, new and unexpected hints appear that tell of his unique personality and genius. Though overbearing at details, he was at least as savvy as Stalin on war and strategy, and both were light years ahead of Roosevelt. One of the most important discussions during World War Two, pregnant with repercussions, was the second-front strategy against Germany between Roosevelt, Stalin, Churchill, and their military chiefs. Out of the disharmony of conflicting interests and different levels of power, understanding, and wisdom, the defeat of Churchill —the weakest member of the alliance— in this discussion resulted in the gravest political consequences of the second half of the 20th century: the Soviet expansion into Europe, the erection of the Iron Curtain, and the 44-year-long Cold War.

The German military strategist and theorist Carl von Clausewitz was right at the center of this discussion:

“War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means. Consequently, the main lines of every major strategic plan are largely political in nature, and their political character increases the more the plan applies to the entire campaign and to the whole state … According to this point of view, there can be no question of a purely military evaluation of a great strategic issue, nor of a purely military scheme to solve it.” (Carl von Clausewitz, letter to C. von Roeder, December 22, 1827)

Clausewitz, however, was not well regarded in Britain and America between the World Wars, mostly due to the judgment of British military historian and theorist B. H. Liddell Hart:

“The final picture Liddell Hart painted of Clausewitz’s teaching was distorted, inaccurate, and unfair. And since Liddell Hart was in his time probably the most widely read military writer in the English-speaking world, this picture was by the Second World War very generally accepted as true” (Michael Howard).

It wasn’t until the Korean War in 1950-1953, when the study of Clausewitz was renewed, that the relationship between the civil and the military power and the primacy of the political aim in the conduct of war were accepted in American strategic thinking.

There was an urgent need in 1942 to open a second front in Europe against Germany, to help the Soviets in the Eastern Front by forcing the Germans to fight a two-front war. The Americans kept insisting that Overlord, the invasion of France, should be the main operation, but that was 2 years in the future. General George Marshall argued in favor of France because it was the direct route into Germany and because “armies fight directly against armies.” This was not only a purely military evaluation of the problem, it was also a strange decision because the Allies wouldn’t have any forces at the ready in England for two full years, an enormous time span in war, in a war they weren’t winning.

A second front could not wait two years when Germany appeared to be on the verge of defeating the Soviet Union, and when already the Soviets were planning to talk with the Germans looking for a separate peace. Churchill and his Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CGIS) Field Marshall Alan Brooke argued for a different approach through North Africa and Italy that could be implemented in 1942, because the only substantial Allied military presence in Europe was the British forces in North Africa and the Western Desert, also the theater where German forces were the weakest. Churchill’s Clausewitzian argument proposed an unexpected invasion of North Africa and Italy, the shortest route to Europe’s heart —a year and a half before the invasion of Normandy— to force Italy out of the war and then proceed to Vienna or the Balkans to check Stalin’s plans to conquer Eastern Europe. This concept of the “soft underbelly” was Alan Brooke’s idea and Churchill presented it to Stalin during their first meeting in Moscow on August 1942, telling him that “it was easier to attack the crocodile’s underbelly than its snout.” Stalin appeared interested in the plan but later rejected it, surely because he saw the consequences. See The Churchill Project, Hillsdale College.

Finally, at the Teheran Conference in November of 1943, Roosevelt and Stalin overruled Churchill and the date for Overlord was set: May 1944. Instead of the main theater, Italy became a sideshow with insufficient forces that anyway conquered Rome and drove Italy out of the war. Stalin, who insisted on Overlord and also on a secondary invasion of southern France, Operation Dragoon, was trying to keep the Western allies as far as possible from Eastern and Central Europe, and looking ahead at the peace he would impose on most of the continent. In this, he was helped enormously by Roosevelt’s deference to his generals and by the military mind of General George Marshall.

General Mark Clark, Commander of the Allied Forces in Italy and who was opposed to the invasion of southern France from the beginning, confirmed the correctness of Churchill’s argument: “I might say that we soon were persuaded that was the best thing to do,” and said it again in his memoirs:

“A campaign that might have changed the whole history of relations between the Western world and the Soviet Union was permitted to fade away … The weakening of the campaign in Italy in order to invade southern France, instead of pushing on into the Balkans, was one of the outstanding mistakes of the war … Stalin knew exactly what he wanted … and the thing he wanted most was to keep us out of the Balkans … It is easy to see therefore why Stalin favored Anvil [the original name of the landing in southern France] at Teheran.” (Diana West)

So did Eisenhower, three days before the Teheran conference:

“Italy was the correct place in which to deploy our main forces and the objective should be the Valley of the Po. In no other area could we so well threaten the whole German structure, including France, the Balkans, and the Reich itself. Here also our air force would be closer to the vital objectives in Germany.” (idem)

And Walter Schellenberg, head of Hitler’s Foreign Intelligence Service:

“Had Churchill been able to carry through his plan for an invasion of the Balkans at the end of 1943, then, according to my calculations at the time, the war would have been over in the spring of 1944. The Balkans were like an overripe plum, ready to fall at the slightest touch, and this would have torn open the German South-eastern flank.” (ibidem)

Whether the Allies could penetrate the various German defensive lines in a hilly terrain like Italy and the Balkans is something we will never know, but on the other hand Operation Overlord was “a close run thing” that only succeeded by unexpected, fortunate occurrences: the complete deceit of the Germans by Operation Fortitude (invasion of Norway or Pas-de-Calais) with the result that the 15th German Army stayed in the Pas-de-Calais for over eight weeks; the division in the German High Command on where to attack the invasion forces; Hitler’s decision to keep personal control of the Panzer reserves; and on top of all that, the German confusion on the ground at Normandy:

The Germans thought the parachute landings of June 6 were a diversionary attack on the Cotentin Peninsula (away from Normandy) with the probable objective being the port of Cherbourg, and they didn’t notice the invasion of Normandy until late afternoon, something their intelligence report confirmed: “the possibility of an advance action [on Cotentin, to secure the port of Cherbourg], which should draw away our forces [from Calais], is obvious.” On top of that, the Germans got a confirmation bias by way of Churchill’s and Eisenhower’s speeches, which identified the landings, on purpose, as “part of a series of operations.” More details here, here, and here.

Vladimir Dorta, 07/10/2019