Overlord, Over-Ruled and over There: In the Month in Which We Commemorate the Death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, David Nicholas Suggests That America's Involvement in Northern Europe Was Unwittingly Shaped by a British War Office Official, against the Wishes of the President

By Nicholas, David | History Today, April 2005 | Go to article overview
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Overlord, Over-Ruled and over There: In the Month in Which We Commemorate the Death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, David Nicholas Suggests That America's Involvement in Northern Europe Was Unwittingly Shaped by a British War Office Official, against the Wishes of the President


Nicholas, David, History Today


I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN fascinated by seemingly minor decisions, thought not to be particularly significant at the time, which then turn out to have massive consequences. Such an event occurred in January 1942. A decision, probably made by a comparatively minor official in the then British War Office (forerunner of the present Ministry of Defence) may well have altered a whole strategy for Europe in a manner never intended by the Allied leaders at the time. It heralded a political pattern for Northern Europe, contrary to President Roosevelt's wishes--a pattern which lasted for half a century.

On December 7th, 1941, 'a date,' as Roosevelt said, 'that will live in infamy,' the Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbor without warning, killing 2,400 Americans. Japan and America were at war.

Four days later, Hitler and Mussolini declared war on America. World War was truly engaged. On January 26th, 1942, the first GIs set foot in Britain and in the next two years millions more US soldiers, sailors and airmen were to flood into these islands in readiness for the invasion of the Continent.

The British newspapers gave prominent coverage to the first doughboys coming ashore in Belfast. They marched through the streets to their billets just outside the city receiving a warm Irish welcome. The band of the Royal Ulster Rifles struck up the 'Star Spangled Banner'. There was a VIP reception committee led by the Duke of Abercorn, Governor of Northern Ireland, and Sir Archibald Sinclair, Air Minister.

The first GI off the ship was Pfc Melburn Henke, from Hutchinson, Minnesota, a twenty-three-year-old ex-waiter. It turned out later that the PR people had arranged for Henke to be the first to set foot on UK soil because he had a German father, who had told him: 'Give them hell'.

The choice of Ulster as the first landfall for US troops' arrival in Britain was to be of monumental significance. During May 1940, when the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated from the Dunkirk beaches, the next big threat to the realm was a German seaborne invasion. As a result British and Canadian troops, falling back to the British Isles after the fall of France, mostly occupied the south and east and north-east coasts of England ready to repel invaders.

Then, when hundreds of thousands of American soldiers arrived in Britain, they were quartered on the mainland closest to the first arrivals in the United Kingdom and near their Atlantic ports of entry. Thus American Army bases, storage depots and headquarters spread along the western side of the mainland, from Lancashire, through the Midlands and Wales, down to the south-west of England.

Facing towards the Continent, therefore, in broad terms the British Army was on the left-hand side of Britain and the American Army on the right-hand side.

In March 1943, the job of planning the Allied invasion of the Continent was given to Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick E. Morgan, who was named as 'Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander, designate'. His team became known as COSSAC. Much is owed to General Morgan for his unsung contribution to the success of the invasion. He was a top staff officer and consummate military planner.

The Supreme Commander at this stage was expected to be British. It turned out eventually to be General Dwight Eisenhower, who was not appointed until January 1944, ten months later. The decision to have an American commander, with Churchill's acquiescence and to the disappointment of Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of Imperial General Staff, was because the United States provided most of the manpower. 'Well, there it is. It won't work but you must bloody well make it', Brooke told General Morgan.

What comes across from the vital incubating months of COSSAC is Morgan's contribution to blending together the staffs of Britain and America, for which he has not been given due credit.

Morgan had served with the Canadians in the First World War.

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Overlord, Over-Ruled and over There: In the Month in Which We Commemorate the Death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, David Nicholas Suggests That America's Involvement in Northern Europe Was Unwittingly Shaped by a British War Office Official, against the Wishes of the President
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