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Why did the Allies find it hard to agree about a Second Front in the Second World War?

Source 1

Extracts from a telegram from Winston Churchill to President Roosevelt, 8th July 1942


CHAR 20/77/87-90

We've highlighted the parts of the document which appear in the transcription below.

Simplified Transcript

1 No British commanders support Operation Sledgehammer (a British–US invasion of France in 1942).
4 I’m sure that ‘Gymnast’ (invading North Africa) is a better way to relieve the pressure on the USSR. This is the true Second Front of 1942. My fellow ministers agree with me and you’ve favoured this plan all along.
5 We can help with this operation in many ways, mainly by providing landing craft and troops. The main force can come from Britain or across the Atlantic.

Original Transcript

No.107 8.VII.42

1. No responsible British General, Admiral or Air Marshal is prepared to recommend SLEDGEHAMMER as a practicable operation in 1942. The Chiefs of the Staff have reported (quote)The conditions which would make SLEDGEHAMMER a sound sensible enterprise are very unlikely to occur. (unquote) They are now sending their paper to your Chiefs of Staff ...

4. I am sure myself that GYMNAST is by far the best chance for effecting relief to the Russian Front in 1942. This has all along been in harmony with your ideas. In fact it is your commanding idea. Here is the true Second Front of 1942. I have consulted Cabinet and Defence Committee and we all agree. Here is the safest and most fruitful stroke that can be delivered this autumn.
5. We of course can aid in every way, either by transfer of American or British landing forces from the United Kingdom to GYMNAST and with landing craft, shipping, etc. You can if you choose put the punch in partly from here and the rest direct across the Atlantic ...

What is this source?

This is a telegram from Winston Churchill to the US President, Roosevelt, although it was also sent to the main figures in the British government at the time (as well as the King), which suggests just how important the issue of the Second Front was. This telegram is part of the ongoing discussions on Allied strategy for the war against Germany. There was disagreement between British and US commanders about where and when the Allies should strike against the Germans.

Background to this source

Some Americans were demanding military action against German-occupied France in 1942 (Operation Sledgehammer) either as a full-scale invasion or as the opportunity to set up a base to then follow up with a bigger invasion in 1943 (Operation Roundup). The British were counter-proposing Operation Gymnast – an invasion of North Africa. This later became Operation Torch and is the operation which eventually went ahead. These discussions were partly driven by American eagerness to bring US troops into the war in Europe and fight the Germans directly and partly at the prompting of Stalin to relieve the pressure on Russia.

Operation Bolero was the codename for the build-up of American forces and supplies in Britain from 1942 onwards in preparation for the invasion of Europe. The argument between Britain and the US was how to use these forces most effectively in order to hasten the end of the war.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember, we’re hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating why Winston Churchill was so worried about the Second Front. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level

  1. Why were the British so opposed to Operation Sledgehammer in 1942?
  2. Why were British imports reduced by 250,000 tons?
  3. Why was the Second Front so urgent?
  4. What position did Mountbatten hold in 1942?
  5. Why does Churchill think 1942 is too soon?

Deeper level

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?

On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference? Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?
Churchill is opposed to a Second Front.

Churchill is opposed to a Second Front in 1942.

Churchill thinks ‘Gymnast’ will be easier than ‘Sledgehammer’ or ‘Roundup’.

‘Gymnast’ would be a good use of American troops based and training in Britain.

Churchill and Roosevelt have very different ideas on how to continue the war against Germany.

Churchill is only interested in a Second Front when he’s convinced Germany is already beaten.

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • Why do you think the Second Front was so important to the Russians?
  • Why do you think the Second Front was so important to the Americans?
  • How does Churchill try to persuade Roosevelt to change policy? Who does he suggest thought of ‘Gymnast’ in the first place?
  • Do you think Churchill is being honest about British views?
  • Who has the reservations about ‘Sledgehammer’ – Churchill or the British Staff?
  • Does this source help us decide Churchill’s views about Operation Overlord?

Explore the guide to interpreting telegrams

Source 2

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