On this day in 1943 the leaders of Britain, America and Free France got together in Casablanca, Morocco, to decide how the rest of World War Two would be fought. Despite Soviet leader Josef Stalin not attending, the conference ranks as one of the most important of the war, as it launched its second phase.
From Casablanca onwards the Allies would finally be on the offensive in Europe. By the first days of 1943 the most dangerous part of the war was over. The British in particular had enjoyed a wretched start to 1942, a year where the Third Reich reached its greatest and most threatening extent.
The arrival of American troops and aid, however, combined with an important British-led Allied victory at El Alamein in October, had started to shift momentum slowly in favour of the Allies. By the end of the year in war in Africa had been won and the Germans and French collaborators ejected from that continent.
In the east, Stalin’s forces were just beginning to push back their invaders and after an important victory at Midway US forces were gaining the upper hand over Japan. In short, after years of being stunned by the aggression and audacity of Axis forces, the Allies were finally in a position to bite back.
Casablanca would decide how this would be achieved. Under pressure from Stalin, who had withstood the overwhelming majority of the fighting so far, the western Allies had to take German and Italian forces away from the east, and establish their own foothold in Europe, which was still a block of Nazi red on any military map.
First, however, the Allied war aims had to be decided. Would a surrender be accepted, as in World War One, or would they press on into Germany until Hitler’s regime was utterly destroyed?
The game plan
Roosevelt, the US President, who was less experienced and worn down by war than his British counterpart Churchill, was all for what he called the doctrine of unconditional surrender. The Reich would fall and what happened to it would be entirely on the Allies’ terms. Whatever attempts Hitler might make to negotiate were to be ignored until he had been utterly vanquished.
Churchill, however, remembering German bitterness after World War One, was in favour of accepting more moderate terms. A fervent anti-communist, he saw a possible Soviet takeover of eastern Europe long before his ally.
Rather than destroying the enemy, he argued, it was better to accept a possible surrender as a means of encouraging Germans to overthrow Hitler once the Allied armies drew near. In addition, the remains of the formidable German army would be a good barrier against further Soviet aggression.
A show of unity had to be maintained at all costs, however, and when Roosevelt announced unconditional surrender Churchill simply had to grit his teeth and go along with the policy. In the end, the Englishman’s stance was to some extent vindicated.
Knowing that surrender was not really an option, Germans fought to the death for their homes in 1945, leaving an utterly ruined nation and many more casualties on both sides. Furthermore, the gloomy prophecy of a Russian Empire in eastern Europe would turn out to be disturbingly accurate.
The ‘soft underbelly’
Deciding what to do in the event of near-victory was all very well, however, but the Allies had to reach the borders of Germany first, which was not an easy proposition in early 1943. Again, there was a rift between the American and British views on how the war could be taken to Hitler.
Roosevelt and his Chief of Staff George Marshall were eager to make Stalin happy and embark on a massive cross-channel invasion of northern France that year, while Churchill – more cautious – was once again opposed to this more gung-ho approach.
In his view, the invasion would prove a disaster before adequate and extensive preparations could be made, and such a move would not work until more German troops had been diverted elsewhere.
At one point during these heated discussions, the Prime Minister drew a picture of a crocodile, labelled it Europe, and pointed to its soft underbelly, telling the bemused Roosevelt that it was better to attack there than in the north – the beast’s hard and scaly back.
In more technical military terms, the attack would exploit poor infrastructure in Italy by tying down German troops away from the future invasion in the north, and might knock Italy out of the war, leading to a quicker Axis surrender.
This time, in return for promises of more support in the fight against Japan, Churchill got his way, and the Italian campaign went ahead later that year. It was a mixed success, for it was very slow and casualty-heavy, but it did lead to the overthrowing of Mussolini, and kept thousands of Germans away from Normandy in 1944.
The beginning of the end
On 24 January, the leaders left Casablanca and returned to their respective countries. Despite conceding the Italian campaign to Churchill, Roosevelt was the happier of the two men.
It was already becoming clear that fresh, huge and rich America would become the dominant partner in the war, and Churchill’s exhausted nation would have to play second fiddle. After the announcement of unconditional surrender, the Prime Minister described himself, with a degree of bitterness, as Roosevelt’s “ardent lieutenant”.
The conference, therefore, was the beginning of a new phase in a number of ways. The beginning of Allied offensives in Europe, American dominance, and the first step along the road to D-Day.