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Brits & U.S. Unite: The Race to Defeat Germany (w/ Stephen Ambrose)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
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August 29, 2023 3:01 am

Brits & U.S. Unite: The Race to Defeat Germany (w/ Stephen Ambrose)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 29, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, when the Brits and the U.S. decided to form the first allied command in history in order to defeat Nazi Germany, why was their first ground battle (Operation Torch) against France in North Africa? Here’s the great Stephen Ambrose with the story. 

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Use invite code GETDROP777. Hi everybody, it's Savannah Guthrie from the Today Show. As we head back to work, back to school, back to everything, we want to help you turn your to-do list into your today list. Your morning routine, healthy meals and workout plans. We've got you covered so you can take it all on with simple solutions to help you through the day.

Everything you need to know before heading out the door. So join us every morning on NBC because every day needs today. And we continue with our American stories. Stephen Ambrose was one of America's leading biographers and historians. Ambrose passed in 2002, but his epic storytelling accounts can now be heard here at Our American Stories. Thanks to those who run his estate. Our next story is about the first allied command in history.

Here's Stephen Ambrose with the story. First thing that stands out about 1942 is that although America is now fully into the war on two fronts in the Pacific and in the Atlantic, except in Guadalcanal after August of 1942, no American ground troops were in contact with the enemy until almost the end of the year. The first attack that the Americans made on German forces was done on the 4th of July, obviously only for symbolic importance, using British bombers and American crews to bomb French targets.

That is to say, ports in France that held German submarines. Other than that, the United States was at war with Germany, was helping to supply Russia and the United Kingdom, was committed to an all-out war against Germany, but wasn't making war against Germany. Nor, as I've said, were we fighting the Japanese on the ground. The naval forces and the air forces, of course, were very much involved at Coral Sea and at Midway in tremendously big battles. But on the ground, we weren't doing anything.

So that's the first thing that stands out. The United States basically was not at war in 1942 because we just didn't have an army yet. That army had to be built, and of course it took time. It took time to get the men into the army, to get them drafted. It took time to build barracks for them. It took time to train them. It took time to equip them. It took time to get them over to Europe.

It took time to add to their training there. And so it was a very long time before the United States was able to make its might felt in the European theater. But from the beginning, the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by General George C. Marshall, the chief of staff of the United States Army, had no doubt that Europe was the theater. They expressed this view in the first wartime meetings with the British, which took place in Canada in late December of 1941 and early January of 1942 in the Arcadia Conference, where the two sides agreed to concentrate on defeating Germany first, the most basic strategic decision of the war. It seems to us an obvious choice today, but it wasn't quite so obvious in late 1941 and the very beginning of 1942, in the first place, for the American people. The enemy they wanted to get at was the Japanese. One of the Germans that had hit us at Pearl Harbor was the Japanese. There were still a lot of Americans who felt, look, Hitler's fighting our war. He's fighting Stalin.

Leave him alone. People who didn't want to be associated in a war with the Soviet Union as a partner. And of course, in the Pacific, we were unsullied. There were people also who didn't want to be part of a war in which the British Empire was our partner. Again, in the Pacific, it was more or less our own war. It was a lot easier to hate the Japanese than it was to hate the Germans. So there were powerful psychological draws toward making Japan the chief enemy.

But the military situation was such that the choice of who to concentrate on and defeat first was really obvious, at least after you've thought about it for a little while. Some of the factors. Roughly, the Pacific is 2,000 miles wide. The Atlantic is 1,000 miles wide. That meant it took two ships in the Pacific to do what one could do in the European theater. And shipping was always in short supply until the very end of the war.

You just couldn't make your muscle felt in Japan as effectively as you could in Europe. Also, in the Pacific, we were, generally speaking, fighting without allies. The Aussies were there, but most of the Australian troops were in North Africa. The British were there, but they were humbled and humiliated after the fall of Malay and the fall of Singapore, and they didn't have much, if any, force out in the Pacific.

It was our show. In Europe, we had two allies. We had the United Kingdom and we had the Soviet Union. We had the Soviet Union absorbing the bulk of the German army and Britain as an unsinkable aircraft carrier and as a magnificent training base and concentration point for an offensive against the Germans. Most of all, however, the argument for Germany first turned on the simple and obvious fact that Germany was by far the more dangerous of the two great enemies. If the Germans were able to win on the Eastern Front, if they were able to absorb Ukraine and Belarus into their system, if they had all those natural resources available to them, if they had all of Europe under their thumb, it was quite possible that we could never be able to enter the continent again. In other words, although we could bring enough pressure to bear on the Japanese and enough firepower to defeat Japan, we might well win the war in the Pacific but still lose the war in Europe, and that would mean losing the war.

So the basic decision, we're going to concentrate on Germany first. The British were naturally delighted at this decision because their life was at stake, and they absolutely had to defeat Hitler before anything else could be done. And if the Americans were not committing their potentially very great resources to the task of defeating Hitler, it was music to British ears. The decision to defeat Germany first brought with it a question, when and how. And at this point, the Americans and the British, Churchill and Roosevelt, and their respective military leaders, who had been in complete agreement up until now, began to split. While the Brits were very happy to have the Americans coming over to Britain and coming into the European war, they were not at all happy with the way the United States wanted to fight the war.

The chief planner for the United States was a recently promoted to one-star general, Dwight David Eisenhower, who was in command of the operations division of the War Department for General Marshall. Marshall put him to work on coming up with a plan for the defeat of Germany, so we got to get involved somewhere in Europe. Now the problem there became that that ran up against the British, who were by no means ready to go back onto the continent in November of 1942. They had just gotten kicked off the continent by the Wehrmacht in June of 1940 at Dunkirk. And they knew that their army was by no means ready to go fight the Wehrmacht again. And they couldn't believe for an instant that the Americans were ready.

And they were absolutely right about the Americans. We didn't have the forces to go into an all-out battle with the Wehrmacht in France in 1942. We didn't have the experienced commanders, we didn't have the trained troops, and we didn't have the equipment, and we didn't have the numbers. What we had a lot of was potential. So the British were in this position of saying, the United States, we welcome your decision to go for Germany first, but we ain't ready to attack Germany this year.

And neither are you. Well then, what are you willing to do? It was an obvious question from the Americans to the British. And here Churchill and Allen Brook, his chief of staff, had an answer. What we're willing to do is to go into North Africa, to attack French North Africa, which included Morocco and Algeria. Now these were French colonies in 1942, run by the government in Vichy, the collaborationist government of Marshal Pétain, that governed the southern half of France, and then also the colonies of the North African colonies of Morocco and Algeria, where a French army was stationed. What Churchill proposed, and the code name for this operation was Torch, Churchill proposed an invasion in Casablanca and Oran and Algiers, Morocco and Algeria, in the fall of 1942, before the congressional elections, which appealed to Roosevelt. And the idea of getting going with something appealed to Roosevelt.

And the idea was appealing also because that would mean that in their first encounter in the Second World War, American troops would not have to fight against the battle-hardened and marvelously equipped Wehrmacht, who would be fighting the French colonial army in Morocco and Algiers. And you're listening to the great Stephen Ambrose lay down the world as it was in 1942. When we come back, more of Stephen Ambrose's great storytelling here on Our American Stories. . For each person living with myasthenia gravis, or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis. From early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care, every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real-life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition, and let those living with it know that they are not alone. Listen to Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Hi, everybody.

It's Savannah Guthrie from The Today Show. As we head back to work, back to school, back to everything, we want to help you turn your to-do list into your today list. Your morning routine, healthy meals, and workout plans. We've got you covered so you can take it all on with simple solutions to help you through the day.

Everything you need to know before heading out the door. So join us every morning on NBC because every day needs today. And we continue with our American stories and with the great Stephen Ambrose putting us back in the time and place when America and Great Britain were conspiring to at least do something together. And the choice they made was an easy choice for them and the one where there would be the least resistance, and that would be North Africa.

Let's return with more of Stephen Ambrose. Eisenhower and Marshall were strongly opposed to Tork. They thought that it made no sense whatsoever if you made a decision we're going to fight Germany first and knock her out of the war first to invade North Africa. Why go 800 or 900 miles from London to fight in North Africa when the Germans were 20 miles away in France across the channel?

Beyond that, why fight the French in North Africa when it's the Germans who are your enemies? Roosevelt finally agreed with Churchill that Tork would be the operation for 1942. That agreement was reached by telegram between the two of them on the 22nd day of July of 1942. Eisenhower wrote in his diary, this could well go down as the blackest day in history.

He felt that a terrible, god-awful mistake was being made, a mistake of historic proportions. One reason he felt that way was, here we were, we've been at war now for seven months, and we were undertaking or planning our first offensive, and it was going to be an offensive against a nation that was neutral in the war and wasn't doing anything to the United States. Vichy France was collaborating with the Germans, had no choice, Germany occupied Paris and northern France, but Vichy France was not a belligerent. Pétain had not declared war on the United States, and the French in North Africa weren't threatening anybody. There's another aspect of this Operation Torch that Americans don't comment on or don't recognize often enough, and that is this was a sneak attack. The proposal was, and in the event it turned out that way, that we attacked French in North Africa without declaring war.

And with no cause of war, cause of belli, as you say in Latin, and not any different from what the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor. Well, these Torch round-up sledgehammer arguments occupied the spring and the summer of 1942, finally came to an end when Roosevelt agreed on July 22 to mount Operation Torch and committed the United States to its first offensive. Although the British would be putting the majority of the forces into Operation Torch, Churchill recognized it had to be an American commander of the whole operation. At Arcadia, they had agreed that whenever joint offenses were undertaken, there would be a supreme allied commander who would command the forces of all the participants, Canadian, British, and American, and Polish, and whoever else was involved in the operation.

This was a case in which a valuable lesson from history had been learned. The allies never did that in the First World War. The British fought their own war on the Western Front. The French fought their own war. The Russians fought their own war on the Eastern Front. There never was a coordinated command at the top until the final crisis of the Ludendorff Offenses of 1918 when Marshal Foch was made supreme commander, but was not, in fact, given the powers to carry it out.

And the British continued to go their own way. Realizing that this had been a big mistake in the First World War, the first conference between the British and Americans in the Second World War started off by agreeing we will have a unified command. And in this case, Churchill recognized that the Americans had been dragged into this North African operation very much against their wishes, that Marshal wanted to get after the Germans, not after the French, that Marshal wanted to liberate France, not Algeria, that Marshal wanted to go for the heart of German power, not to hit the Germans on the periphery of their empire, and that the Americans had to be placated somehow. And one way to do it was to give them supreme command of the operation, even though there would be more British air, much more British sea, and more British troops involved in this tri-phibious operation.

Roosevelt then turned to Marshal to select the commander of the operation, and Marshal picked the man who had impressed him most in the first six months of the war, and that was Dwight Eisenhower. So Eisenhower, who had fought as hard as he could against Torch, ended up being the supreme commander for Torch. In North Africa, as the Torch decision was being made, the Germans had another foothold. They had come down in 1940, and in much greater strength in 1941, to rescue the Italians, whose colony in Libya had served as a base for an attempt on the part of the Italians to invade Egypt, which had been thrown back by the British. To save their Italian partners, the Germans had sent the Afrika Korps, two armored divisions to North Africa, under the command of a man whose name was soon to become synonymous with German war-making ability, General Erwin Rommel, who had moved up from a reconnaissance battalion commander in the Polish campaign to a division commander in the French campaign, and on to be a corps commander in the campaign against the Soviet Union until he was called out of the Soviet Union and sent down to North Africa to take command of the Afrika Korps.

Which he did, and he formed it into an outstanding morale, brilliantly led, all elite outfit that swept on into Egypt in 1942, and by the time of the Torch decision had reached almost as far as Cairo, had gotten to the line of El Alamein, just short of Alexandria, threatening Egypt and thereby threatening the Suez Canal, and thus threatening to cut the British off from their supply line to India up through the Suez Canal. And leading to fears that the successful Germans in North Africa would be able to then come up through Palestine and meet up with their Arab admirers, not allies, but their admirers in Syria, which was a French colony that was rife with discontent on the part of the Arabs, who very much admired Adolf Hitler because their anti-Semitism almost matched his. And that then these forces under Rommel could swing on up through Syria and on through Turkey to meet with Guderian's forces coming down through the Caucasus.

And then this entire map would be one great, vast German empire. In North Africa, the British had lost battle after battle. Their army had performed consistently poorly, inexcusably bad. A new commander came in in the summer of 1942, Bernard Law Montgomery, sent by Churchill to save the situation if it could be saved. Monty took up his command and prepared a counterstroke against Rommel in the Afrika Korps. The Russians holding on just barely at Stalingrad, every day it looked like Stalingrad would fall. And the fall of Stalingrad, had it happened, would have cut the Red Army north of Stalingrad off from the Caucasus oil supply. And thus, probably would have been the decisive blow of the war. The war was very much up in the air at the time of the Torch decision. And when you say that, you then have to go back to Marshall's and Eisenhower's original objection, my God, the whole, everything is at stake here and we're going to go fight the French in North Africa. But that was the political decision and they were good soldiers and they did as they were ordered. And so Torch was put on under Eisenhower's leadership.

He formed in London, then the Allied force headquarters, the first genuinely fully integrated Allied command in history. And you're listening to Stephen Ambrose talking about Operation Torch. When we come back, more of Stephen Ambrose and the story of World War II and the first Allied command in history, here on Our American Stories. For each person living with myasthenia gravis or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis, from early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care. Every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition, and let those living with it know that they are not alone.

Listen to Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Because every day needs today. And we continue with our American stories, and with Stephen Ambrose telling the story of the first Allied command in world history. Let's continue with the story. A wonderful teamwork was developed at AFQ. Now, there were a lot of differences. Obviously, the inter-service there was very hard to get the Army to get along with the Navy under any circumstances in any country at any point in history.

Always hard. And now you had a third mix-in with the Air Force. So you had the inter-service rivalry to deal with.

And then the national rivalries. For all that Britain is the mother country, and we're the American cousins, the truth of the matter is that most Brits don't like Americans. And the other truth is that most Americans don't like Brits.

And there are good reasons on both sides for that feeling. And these were exacerbated by the conditions of war. The American troops were starting to come into Britain.

The 29th Division coming in first of all. And the American Air Force coming in, building barracks, building airfields, preparing for the great bomber offensive against Germany that would begin in 1943. All these Americans coming in by the thousands, by the tens of thousands, ultimately two million of them on an island about the size of Colorado, caused a lot of tension. More tension was caused by some of the differences between the British and the Yanks. I should say between the GIs and the Tommys. The GIs were paid three times as much as the Tommys. They had much better uniforms. They had better rations. They were billeted usually in villages, so they were living in a more or less ordinary civilian kind of a setting, whereas the British Army was in barracks. The American GIs could go to the pub just down the street every night, have a home-cooked meal at a home.

The British troops never had any of that. The American uniforms were a lot better looking. And the Americans were getting a lot more passes to go to London. And London in 1942 was the capital of the world. And all the world was there. Uniforms from 25 different nations could be seen on the streets of London. And there was a wartime atmosphere to life in London. The plays were going. The bars were jammed. There was a blackout. You couldn't find anything. You couldn't see your way. Absolutely no lights on the street, but you'd get through the blackout curtains and into the pub or into the theater or into the dance hall.

That sense of let's party tonight because tomorrow we don't know. We could very well be dead just permeated everything in London and made it the most exciting place in the world to be, especially if you were an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old GI with a smart-looking uniform and a wallet bulging with pounds. And so the GIs got the girls, and the Tommies didn't. And that was very much resented. To get at the Germans, we had to go through the French. We didn't want to fight the French, and so Eisenhower had to make a deal with one of the French leaders.

Which one? Well, Pétain was obviously out of the question. And de Gaulle, although there were many things to be said for him, he really didn't command any forces. He had a ragtag of people that he had gathered together in London, but he didn't have any divisions, much less equipment for trained divisions. Whereas there was an army in North Africa, a fairly considerable army. The equipment wasn't the best in the world, but it was better than the Italians had.

It had a good discipline to it. And it was thought that that army would obey General Henri Giraud if he were brought out of France and put in command of it. So Eisenhower struck a deal with Giraud under the terms of which Eisenhower would put Giraud in command in North Africa. Giraud would tell the French in North Africa to lay down their arms and then pick them up again and become co-belligerents with the Americans after the Americans had taken control.

The Americans and British operating together had taken control of Algeria and Morocco. There were a lot of difficulties with Giraud. There's always a lot of difficulties with French generals. But that was the basic deal that was struck, and on 8 November the attack began with George Patton mounting his assault on Morocco from Norfolk, Virginia.

The combat loaded in Norfolk and closed and crossed the Atlantic. Giraud did his part. He issued a proclamation to the French Army in North Africa to don't fight. But Petain issued contradictory orders. Petain's orders coming from Vichy were, we resist all aggressors, we're going to fight for our own territory, resist. And the Army obeyed Petain, not Giraud. All the supposition about how the Army was going to rally to Giraud failed to take note that the senior officers in the French Colonial Army were all dependent on Petain for their pensions, for their promotions, for their positions, and they weren't about to buck them. The enlisted men might have been ready to join up with the Americans, but the officers sure weren't. And they ordered their men to fire, and their men did fire, and there were casualties. This was not one of the bloodier battles of the Second World War, but nevertheless it was Frenchmen killing Americans, and Americans killing Frenchmen. That ought not to happen.

We've been friends since the days of Lafayette. But it was happening. And Americans were not getting east fast enough. Eisenhower hoped to get into Algiers very quickly and move right on to Tunisia in order to come up on Rommel's rear before Rommel would have a chance to build any defensive positions in Tunisia. He was being held up in North Africa by the French, by these frogs, as he called them, who didn't know which way to jump and didn't know where their bread was buttered and who were more worried about their pensions than they were about the honor of France. Well, that was his point of view.

They, of course, had their own point of view. In the midst of this situation, here came Admiral Darlan into Algiers, where Eisenhower came on the third day to set up his headquarters after most of the city was secured, but the fighting was still going on. Admiral Darlan was a pretty awful character. He was an anti-Semite, he was a fascist, he was a brutal man, but he was Commander-in-Chief of the French Armed Forces. He spoke in the name of Marshal Pétain. And if he could be persuaded to double-cross Pétain, he could get the French Army to do what Girot had not been able to get them to do, lay down their arms so the Americans and the British could get on with heading east to fight the Germans. Darlan made an offer along these lines to Eisenhower. Make me the Governor General of North Africa and I'll tell the Army to lay down its arms and I'll tell the Navy to come into the war on your side. Eisenhower cut the deal. And he learned his first big political lesson in the aftermath, because people screamed about this. How can you deal with this fascist son of a bitch? I mean, the guy's practically a Nazi.

What the hell is going on? Edward R. Murrow asked in his broadcast from London. We thought we were in this war to fight for freedom and democracy. And the first time the Americans go into action in the war, they cut a deal with a fascist son of a bitch and put him in command in North Africa. And people were saying, geez, that Ike must be dumb to make a deal like this with this man who represents everything we say we're fighting against in this war. Eisenhower's point of view on all this was, I just want to get the French Army to lay down their arms and if he's the man who can do it, I'd kiss the devils if I had to to get the French to lay down their arms so that I can get out and fight the Germans. And so the liberal newspapers and the liberal politicians, the ones who had elected Roosevelt, were coming after Roosevelt hard. Get rid of this general.

Dump him. Roosevelt was very tempted. He could wash his hands of the whole thing.

Eisenhower had no constituency. But if it were not up at Churchill, because Churchill was very eager to back out of it, too. Churchill's people wanted to know, why didn't we support de Gaulle?

Why did they bring this fool Giro into it? In this situation, Eisenhower felt, Darlan's the man who can deliver the goods. Let's keep our eyes on the main thing, and that is getting after the Germans. You've got to uphold me on the Darlan deal. And very reluctantly, Churchill and Roosevelt were persuaded by Eisenhower's arguments to give him a little bit more time to prove that he could get something done in North Africa Darlan's collaboration would be important to this.

This whole problem of the Darlan deal, so called, was to have an enormous impact on politics, world politics and war policy because it led directly to Franklin Roosevelt's call for an unconditional surrender of the Germans. And a great job as always by Greg Hengler on the storytelling and a special thanks to the folks who run the estate of the great Stephen Ambrose who tells the story of American history like few others that have ever written about this country. He's in a league of his own with a few other legends and greats and we're so honored and grateful to be able to share his stories with all of you.

Stephen Ambrose telling the story of the first Allied command in history here on Our American Stories. Hey, this is Terrace. I downloaded all my favorite things into my new Roblox experience. It's called Slivingland.

It's got everything I love. Discovering. Shopping. Collecting. Partying with my friends. Slay. Live. Slive. And now celebrating her new podcast series, The History of the World's Greatest Nightclubs on iHeartRadio. Come slive it up and jump through the portal to iHeartland for a quest to unlock a limited edition UGC item. It's going to be epic. Now you're studying. Slivingland on Roblox. For each person living with myasthenia gravis or MG, I'm Stephen Ambrose, and I'll see you next time. Thank you.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-08-29 04:17:09 / 2023-08-29 04:29:52 / 13

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