Commander in Chief: FDR's Battle with Churchill, 1943

Commander in Chief: FDR's Battle with Churchill, 1943

by Nigel Hamilton


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In the next installment of the "splendid memoir Roosevelt didn't get to write" (New York Times),  Nigel Hamilton tells the astonishing story of FDR's year-long, defining battle with Churchill, as the war raged in Africa and Italy.

Nigel Hamilton's Mantle of Command, long-listed for the National Book Award, drew on years of archival research and interviews to portray FDR in a tight close up, as he determined Allied strategy in the crucial initial phases of World War II. Commander in Chief reveals the astonishing sequel — suppressed by Winston Churchill in his memoirs — of Roosevelt's battles with Churchill to maintain that strategy.  Roosevelt knew that the Allies should take Sicily but avoid a wider battle in southern Europe, building experience but saving strength to invade France in early 1944. Churchill seemed to agree at Casablanca — only to undermine his own generals and the Allied command, testing Roosevelt’s patience to the limit. Churchill was afraid of the invasion planned for Normandy, and pushed instead for disastrous fighting in Italy, thereby almost losing the war for the Allies. In a dramatic showdown, FDR finally set the ultimate course for victory by making the ultimate threat. Commander in Chief shows FDR in top form at a crucial time in the modern history of the West.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544944466
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/16/2017
Series: FDR at War Series , #2
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 48,729
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

NIGEL HAMILTON is a best-selling and award-winning biographer of President John F. Kennedy, General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery, and President Bill Clinton, among other subjects. His most recent book, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941–1942, was long-listed for the National Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts, Boston, and splits his time between Boston, Massachusetts, and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Read an Excerpt

A Crazy Idea
It was late in the evening of Saturday, January 9, 1943, when a locomotive pulling the Ferdinand Magellan and four further carriages1 departed from a special siding beneath the Bureau of Engraving in Washington, D.C.​ — ​the federal government’s massive printing house for paper money, and thus a sort of Fort Knox of the capital.
    Aboard was the President of the United States, his secretary, his White House chief of staff, his naval aide, his White House counselor, and his doctor, all traveling to Hyde Park for the weekend, as usual. Or so it seemed.
    The Secret Service had insisted the President use for the first time the massive new railway carriage reconstructed for him​ — ​the first such railcar to be made for the nation’s chief executive since Lincoln’s presidency. Boasting fifteen-millimeter armored steel plate on the sides, roof, and underside, the carriage had three-inch-thick bulletproof glass in all its windows. Best of all, it had a special elevator to raise the President, in his wheelchair, onto the platform of the car​ — ​which weighed 142 tons, the heaviest passenger carriage ever used on U.S. rail track.
    The car was “arranged with a sitting room, a dining room for ten or twelve persons, a small but well arranged kitchen, and five state rooms,” Admiral William Leahy, the President’s military chief of staff, recorded in his diary. “Dr. McIntire, Harry Hopkins, Miss Tully, and I occupied the state rooms, and Captain McCrea joined us in the dining room. Other cars accommodated the Secret Service men, the apothecary, the communications personnel, and the President’s valet,” Chief Petty Officer Arthur Prettyman.2
    Their luggage had been taken to the baggage car separately, an hour earlier. But was the President really going to Hyde Park? If so, why the thousand pounds of bottled water? Why clothes for two weeks away? Why the four Filipino members of the crew of the USS Potomac, the presidential yacht, replacing the normal Pullman staff? Why Eleanor, the First Lady, and Louise Macy, the new wife of Harry Hopkins, bidding them goodbye at the underground siding?
    Something was up​ — ​something unique. Even historic.
Among the few who did know of the President’s real destination, most had counseled against it. Even the President’s naval aide, Captain John McCrea, opposed the idea when the President tricked McCrea into supplying information on the geography, history, and significant towns of the region of North Africa. Following the successful Torch landings in Algeria and Morocco on November 8, 1942, the President had explained to McCrea​ — ​whose knowledge of the sea exceeded his knowledge of land​ — ​U.S. troops would be fighting in battle, and he’d found himself, as U.S. commander in chief, sadly ignorant of the terrain. “See if you can help me correct that deficiency,” he’d instructed McCrea, “by means of travel folders, etcetera, put out by travel agencies.”
    Travel agencies? As the President had quickly assured McCrea, “in the planning and preparatory stages” of Operation Torch, he hadn’t wanted to draw attention to “that area.” “But now that the troops are there,” he’d added, “that restraint is removed.”
    Innocent of any ulterior motive, McCrea had assembled a raft of informative material. “The President was pleased with it and confided: ‘Just the sort of information I want.’ ”
    Some weeks later, though, “late one afternoon, early in December the President sent for me, sat me down at the corner of his desk and this is about the way it went.
    “The Pres: ‘John, I want to talk to you in great confidence and the matter about which I am talking is to be known to no one except those who need to know.’ Since this was the first time the Pres. had ever spoken to me thus, naturally I was greatly curious,” McCrea later narrated in his somewhat stilted literary style. The President had then confided, “ ‘Since the landing of our troops in No[rth] Africa, I have been in touch with Winston by letter. I feel we should meet soon and resolve some things and that that meeting should take place in Africa. Winston has suggested Khartoum​ — ​I’m not keen on that suggestion. Marrakech and Rabat have been suggested. I’m inclined to rule out those areas, and settle for Casablanca.’ And then to my amazement the President said: ‘What do you think of the whole idea?’ ”
    McCrea had been stunned.
    “As quickly as I could,” McCrea recalled, “I gathered my wits and proceeded about as follows. ‘Right off the top of my head Mr. Pres. I do not think well of the idea. I think there is too much risk involved for you.’ ”
    The President had been unmoved. “Our men in that area are taking risks, why shouldn’t their Commander in Chief share that risk?”
    McCrea was a seasoned sailor​ — ​an aspect he thought might be a more effective counter. “ ‘The Atlantic can be greatly boisterous in the winter months,’ ” he had pointed out, “ ‘and a most uncomfortable passage is a good possibility​ — ​’
    “ ‘Oh​ — ​we wouldn’t go by ship. We would fly,’ said he.”
    McCrea was shocked. No U.S. president had flown while in office​ — ​ever. “This was a great surprise to me because I knew he did not regard flying with any degree of enthusiasm,” McCrea recounted. Mr. Roosevelt had not flown in a decade, in fact, since traveling to Chicago from New York before the 1932 election. In terms of the President’s safety, waging a world war, it seemed a grave and unnecessary risk​ — ​especially in terms of distance, and flight into an active war zone. But the President was the president.
    McCrea had therefore softened his objection. “I quickly saw that I was being stymied and I tried to withdraw a bit.
    “ ‘Mr. Pres.,’ said I, ‘you have taken me quite by surprise with this proposal. I would like to give it further thought. Right off the top of my head I wouldn’t recommend it.’ ”
When, the next morning, Captain McCrea went upstairs to the President’s Oval Study, carrying with him some of the latest reports, secret signals, decoded enemy signals, and top-secret cables from the Map Room​ — ​of which he was the director​ — ​he’d recognized the futility of opposing the idea. It was a colossal risk, he still thought, but he knew the President well enough to know that, if Mr. Roosevelt had raised the matter, it was because his mind was probably already made up, and he was simply looking for the sort of reaction he would be likely to meet from others.
    “He laughed lightly,” McCrea recalled​ — ​informing him that Prime Minister Churchill had already responded positively to the suggestion, in fact was gung ho for such a meeting​ — ​“ ‘Winston is all for it.’ ”
    McCrea had remained concerned, though. Security would present a problem not only during the broad Atlantic crossing, he warned, but in North Africa itself. “I still think the risk is great and if you are determined to go I will do all possible to manage that risk,” he’d assured the President. But the risks were real. “From what I have read in the despatches and the press,” he’d said, for example, “affairs in No[rth] Africa are in a state of much confusion.” Casablanca itself was a notorious gathering place for spies and expatriates. And worse. “I would suppose that No[rth] Africa is full of people who would take you on for $10​ —”
    “Why I said that I’ll never know,” McCrea later reflected. It was almost rude, “​ — ​but I did and at the moment, of course, I felt it. He laughed heartily.”
McCrea was not being timorous. Several weeks later his concern was validated​ — ​Admiral François Darlan, the new French high commissioner under the Allied commander in chief in the Mediterranean, General Eisenhower, was murdered in broad daylight in Algiers.
    By then, however, the trip had been prepared in great detail, and the President would hear no more attempts to dissuade him.

Table of Contents

Maps ix

Prologue xi

Part 1 A Secret Journey

1 A Crazy Idea 3

2 Aboard the Magic Carpet 10

Part 2 Total War

3 The United Nations 19

4 What Next? 33

5 Stalin's Nyet 39

6 Addressing Congress 41

7 A Fool's Paradise 48

8 Facing the Joint Chiefs of Staff 55

Part 3 Casablanca

9 The House of Happiness 63

10 Hot Water 73

11 A Wonderful Picture 77

12 In the President's Boudoir 82

Part 4 Unconditional Surrender

13 Stimson Is Aghast 97

14 De Gaulle 105

15 An Acerbic Interview 112

16 The Unconditional Surrender Meeting 124

Part 5 Kasserine

17 Kasserine 139

18 Arch-Admirals and Arch-Generals 143

19 Between Two Forces of Evil 149

20 Health Issues 164

Part 6 Get Yamamoto!

21 Inspection Tour Two 175

22 Get Yamamoto! 179

23 "He's Dead?" 187

Part 7 Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts

24 Saga of the Nibelungs 195

25 A Scene from The Arabian Nights 198

26 The God Neptune 201

27 A Battle Royal 204

28 No Major Operations Until 1945 or 1946 211

Part 8 The Riot Act

29 The Davies Mission 227

30 A Dozen Dieppes in a Day 235

31 The Future of the World at Stake 243

32 The President Loses Patience 250

Part 9 The First Crack in the Axis

33 Sicily-and Kursk 261

34 The Führer Flies to Italy 265

35 Countercrisis 271

36 A Fishing Expedition in Ontario 277

37 The President's Judgment 282

Part 10 Conundrum

38 Stalin Lies 289

39 War on Two Western Fronts 292

40 The Führer Is Very Optimistic 300

41 A Cardinal Moment 308

42 Churchill Is Stunned 313

Part 11 Quebec 1943

43 The German Will to Fight 319

44 Near-Homicidal Negotiations 326

45 A Longing in the Air 332

46 The President Is Upset -with the Russians 341

Part 12 The Endgame

47 Close to Disaster 353

48 A Darwinian Struggle 355

49 A Talk with Archbishop Spellman 358

50 The Empires of the Future 367

51 A Tragicomedy of Errors 373

52 Meeting Reality 379

53 A Message to Congress 391

54 Achieving Wonders 395

Acknowledgments 400

Photo Credits 403

Notes 404

Index 438

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Commander in Chief: FDR's Battle with Churchill, 1943 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought I knew a lot about WW2. Wrong! I was particularly impressed with how much FDR did in strategizing the winning of the war in Europe and despite his writings, how Churchill needed to be dragged along. This is a great read