The North African Campaign and the Western Front
These reports delivered by Bill Downs from London in 1942 and Moscow in 1943 discuss the Allies' strategic goals in the wake of several big victories in North Africa. The Soviets still looked to the Western Allies to open up a new European front following the Battle of Stalingrad.
The parentheses indicate portions that did not pass Soviet censors for military or propaganda reasons.
(For more, see the complete 1943 Moscow reports)
IN LONDON, 1942
October 11, 1942
There is little fresh news in London today. Britain's morning newspapers, after reporting the Battle of Stalingrad for the past six weeks, seem to have run out of superlatives to praise the Russian stand. Stalingrad is still the best story of the day in British newspapers. The American Flying Fortresses have given the air experts something to think about—particularly those who said Europe could not be bombed in daylight. British aviation writers have not yet analyzed the reasons behind the success of the American planes that bagged 105 German planes Friday, but their comments should be interesting when they get it figured out.
The leading military experts who hold forth in the Sunday morning papers also found little on which to comment. Some of them took up the old cry for the appointment of a supreme commander of the United Nations forces. This move was intensely discussed in the press about six weeks ago but nothing came of it. Now the Sunday Observer's strategist who writes under the name "Liberator" said the time has come to appoint a Supreme Command including the United States, Russia, China, and Great Britain to "agree on joint grand strategy for global war." The Sunday Express military writer, J.L. Garvin, takes a similar stand, saying that time has become an enemy of the United Nations. He says that Britain and the United States have not yet even come into agreement over the question of what American supplies are supposed to go where—let alone grand strategy. He added that Anglo-American liaison with Russia on strategy was even more widely separated.
In a discussion I had yesterday with high Russian officials over this same question of grand strategy, they agreed that there was a need for closer cooperation between the high commands of the United Nations—particularly Russia. "Everybody knows that," the Russians said. "But the question of a supreme commander and global warfare and all the rest of those high sounding phrases does not interest Russia. The only thing we are interested in is a Second Front while there is still time for it to do some good. We don't care who directs it—the important thing is to get it started—and now." That presumably is the official Russian attitude toward the problem of the supreme command which Britain and America have been discussing for the past month.
But I believe the ordinary British Tommy has given the best reason for establishment of a Second Front in Europe—a better reason than all the armchair strategists put together. A former British newspaperman who is in town on leave told my British friend's story last night. He's now in the tank corps.
"The way our boys in the tank corps figure it out," he said, "we figure that it takes six months to get to India to fight there, four months to get to Syria, and probably three months to get to Egypt to join British forces in those countries. Consequently, there's no home leave. So we figure, why go so far to fight when there's Germans just across the channel? Then we'll be able to lick Hitler, and whether it takes a year or ten years we'll still be able to get home leave maybe once every six months.
October 13, 1942
President Roosevelt's fireside chat made good reading over British breakfast tables this morning. It wasn't because he promised that the United Nations have new offensives in the making. The British have been told that many times before—perhaps too many times.
But the people of Britain like the tone of Mr. Roosevelt's speech. They like what it implied more than what the speech actually said. On the eve of what promises to be one of the bloodiest winters in the history of this greatest of all wars, President Roosevelt's confidence in what he saw during his tour of the United States reacts on this country like a tonic. The British welcome a change from the dire warnings of "blood, toil sweat, and tears."
Mr. Roosevelt told the American people to expect more hardships—hardships which the British have been enduring for many months. Tommy Atkinses know what the President is talking about when he says women will have to be put in munitions factories, that jobs and wages and prices will have to be strictly controlled, that youngsters of 18 or 20 will be liable for military service. They have been and are going through exactly that right now.
The porter at my apartment house, who is the building's chief fire warden, put the British reaction to Mr. Roosevelt's speech better than I can. The porter, who wears a brace of ribbons from the last war, grinned when he saw me this morning. "Blimey," he said, "I guess you Yanks really are in this war from the bottom up, aren't you?"
There is increasing evidence that the Axis is worried about what America and Britain are planning for the Western Front. The BBC early this morning broadcast a warning to the French people from the British High Command. The warning told Frenchmen that now "as never before" it is important for them to be prepared for Allied air, sea, and land activity. The warning again emphasized that Frenchmen were to keep away from areas where German headquarters and barracks are located. They also were told to keep away from railway centers, repair yards, and from the defended coastal zone.
The Nazi controlled Paris radio again revived reports of imminent Allied action in North Africa. The Paris radio spokesman demanded that the Vichy government take some steps to defend Dakar. The Axis commentator claimed that American contingents are arriving daily on the Gold Coast in Liberia and in the Belgian Congo as well as South Africa.
Meanwhile, Goebbels issued a statement in Berlin saying that British forces will soon launch an offensive in Egypt, where strong Allied motorized columns are being held in readiness.
Allied military officials are quite satisfied to let the Axis propaganda machines go on guessing. There has been and will be no comment or confirmation of what Goebbels and company claim is going on, at least not until that time is ripe.
IN MOSCOW, 1943
January 22, 1943
The Red Army is rolling up the Southern and Trans-Caucasian fronts like a rug. Tonight's special communiqué announcing the capture of Salsk across the Manych Canal represents a twenty mile advance in one day. (And this advance was made over the ravined, swamped steppe land which bogs the Manych River valley.)
The Soviet command now has two choices. It can wheel its forces to the northwest and attack up the Manych Valley railroad one hundred miles to Rostov, or it can continue along the railroad southwest and join the Trans-Caucasian army fighting its way toward the Maykop oil fields. Undoubtedly this decision will be governed by the direction of the retreat of the main body of German troops. Where they go, you can be certain the Red Army will be on their heels.
(It may develop that, from Salsk, the Soviet command will decide to advance both west and south.)
January 23, 1943
(The one man in all of Russia who I think is more worried about the recent string of Red Army successes than anyone else is) the (wine) waiter at my hotel here in Moscow(. He) was overjoyed when the German troops at Stalingrad were cut off—then came Kotelnikovo, Velikiye-Luki, Millerovo, and Leningrad. (With each successive victory his face got longer and longer).
I told him about the imminent fall of Tripoli this morning, and he only shook his head. Then I asked him was wrong. ("It's the vodka,") he said. ("We have soldiers and sailors and) airmen who are on leave who like to celebrate these victories. (The trouble is that the Red Army is winning victories faster than my vodka comes in. And now you Americans and British have to start. I tell you if it keeps up at this rate, vodka will be kaput.")
(However, my worried wine waiter isn't half as worried about the Allied winter successes as the German high command must be.) The Russian press is devoting most of its foreign page to the North African campaign. A break in the lull in North Africa and a substantial advance against the Germans will be greeted here with the same enthusiasm as with a major Russian victory. People with whom I have talked have been puzzled why the United States Army, Russia's most powerful ally, has been virtually stopped before Tunis.
They are watching the developments in North Africa with interest, and with hope.
On the Russian front, two sectors make the news this morning. Soviet forces have reached a point less than twenty miles from Voroshilovgrad, the industrial and railroad center of eastern Ukraine. The city already has been partially flanked from the north along the northern bank of the Donets. Voroshilovgrad's railroad communications to the east have already been cut. And in connection with this fighting on the southwestern front, a major military mystery has developed. For the past several days there has been no mention of the Red Army column which crossed the Donets southward along the Millerovo-Likhayas railroad and took Kamensk. But whatever has been the disposition of this mystery column, it would appear that the Battle of Voroshilovgrad is imminent.
On the southern front, the Red Army is still advancing. The capture of Salsk announced last night allows the Soviet command to fuse three columns which have been rolling up Hitler's abortive drive for Stalingrad and the Caucasus. The Russian column from Katolenikovo and the column which drove westward from Elista and the Northern Caucasus forces soon will form a solid front stretching southward from the Manych River to the Rostov-Baku railroad. The combined striking power will be tremendous when this fusion is complete.
April 1, 1943
The Russians don't celebrate any sort of April Fool's Day. I tried to explain this particular bit of American wackiness to one sober citizen of the Soviet Union today. She replied "Yes, but who can you find in the world these days that's fooling?"
She had me there.
This morning's communiqué gives no further details of the renewed Red Army drive in the Kuban, which yesterday resulted in the capture of an important junction of German resistance on the lower reaches of the Kuban River. The communiqué mentioned only local fighting in the Smolensk region, along the Donets River and west of Rostov.
The newspaper Izvestia, the Soviet Union's official government publication, printed lengthy analyses of the North African campaign. They are the first analytic articles published about the Allied campaign (in Tunisia) giving a Russian view of what's happening down there.
The Izvestia military writer praised the simultaneous movements of the American, British, and French forces which, he said, should soon have Rommel in serious trouble. Then Izvestia said "Rommel knows how to retreat and retreat fast—but from Tunisia there is no place to retreat. Perhaps Rommel will try to evacuate across to Sicily. However Allied aircraft and the Allied navies dominate the sea and the air. It is only slightly possible that Rommel could carry out such an evacuation successfully and according to plan."
Then both the Red Star and Izvestia pointed out "These movements of the American, French, and British forces will smash Rommel's plans and accelerate the development of events."
In the Russian view there is only one event that needs developing. That, as you know, is the Second Front. As the Soviet Union sees the situation, Hitler is now all stooped facing eastward over collecting men and material for further attacks on Russia. The Russians think this is a good time to give him a hard boot in the rear that will throw him flat on his face.
With all the publicity the North African campaign is getting here in Russia, it is not hard to connect those Second Front hopes with the Allied successes in Tunisia. That's why the Soviet Union is so interested in the fighting in North Africa.
An echo of the unprecedented Nazi chaining of the Canadians captured at Dieppe last year turned up today under the melting snows of the Leningrad front. Red Army men of one artillery unit near Volkhov found the body of a Russian soldier who had been tortured to death. His hands were chained behind him. Several other bodies of tortured men are now being revealed as the snow melts.
This spring in Russia is not going to be a joyous season of birds and bees and flowers. It is going to be a season of bodies, burials, and bereavement.
April 26, 1943
There were no developments of any importance anywhere along the twelve-hundred mile Russian front last night. The Germans tried another attack at the Balakeysa river crossing but were repulsed after losing 100 men. On the other sectors of the front there were only local scouting operations and minor artillery duels.
This morning's Pravda prints a hands-across-the-seas editorial which represents a new high in Soviet optimism and praise for the American-Russian-British alliance against the Axis. (The editorial is the first Russian newspaper comment on the new slogans chosen for the May 1st celebration).
Pravda says "the unity of the anti-Hitlerian coalition is strengthening. As a result of the resistance of the Soviet people and the big defeats inflicted on the German-Fascist troops, our allies had time for the mobilization of their reserves. They were able to accumulate forces and prepare their troops for telling blows on the enemy."
The statement is the first explanation printed in the Soviet press rationalizing the position of Britain and America during the strained periods when Germany was pushing the Red Army eastward, and later when the Red Army advanced this winter and the pressure for a Second Front was revived...
May 13, 1943
The American and British and French troops in North Africa don't know it, but their heroism and sacrifices and courage have achieved something here in Russia that a thousand diplomats and a million words could never have done.
This victory in Tunisia is being heralded on the Soviet press and radio with all the fanfare and praise which usually is reserved for the heroes of the Red Army.
The United States doughboys who took Bizerts are not only soldiers, they are diplomats in arms. And today these doughboys and their comrades have won a hundred and eighty million friends in the Soviet Union—friends who are ready to lay down their lives here on the Eastern Front with the same willingness that the men of America and Britain and France gave theirs in the long fight along the southern shores of the Mediterranean.
The Allied victory in Tunisia concludes the first phase of the first combined operation between Russia and Britain and America. You remember it started last November when the British Eighth Army broke the Alamein line. Then the American troops landed in Africa. And then the Red Army started its winter offensive, beginning with the victory of Stalingrad and the march eastward to the Donets.
All these achievements came within two weeks of each other. It's a thing to remember when we consider the impending battles this summer. Perhaps it will be May, or June, or July that will go down in history as the key month in the second phase of the United Nations' strategy.
That's a question that must be worrying Hitler and Mussolini right now. At any rate, it's the question which is the subject of almost every discussion here in Moscow.
Meanwhile, the Russian people are keeping one eye on their own front as they celebrate the victories of their Allies. The Red Army is still gnawing away at the German defenses in the Kuban—the Soviet air force is delivering its bombs with the regularity of enthusiastic milkmen.
May 13, 1943
American prestige in Russia has never been higher than it is tonight. The complete and utter defeat of the Germans and Italians in North Africa has boosted Allied stock sky-high. The American and British and French troops have achieved a victory big enough for all the United Nations to share—and Soviet Russia definitely is having some.
I talked to a number of Russians today to get their reactions to the great victory in Tunisia. The reactions are virtually all the same—the Russians say "It's a great victory for us," and they emphasize "us."
The waiter at my hotel here in Moscow said he was not surprised by the victory. "We in the kitchen," he said, "knew all the time that you Americans and British would win. We are now calculating for next move on the continent. (Most of us think it will be through Italy or the Balkans.")
(And then I ran into a friend of mine who is a captain in the Red Army. He congratulated me on the Allied victory and then said: "You know, I am a little disappointed. At Stalingrad we only took 93,000 prisoners out of 330,000. Already you fellows have captured over 150,000 of them. It's too bad you couldn't have killed a few more.)
(That's the natural reaction to all men in the army who have fought through one ruined city and village after another that had been held by the Germans.)
There is no longer a question about a Second Front. People here don't even ask about it any longer. The attitude now is that the Second Front is something for Hitler to worry about. From now on the Russian people are going to be too busy fighting their own war on this front to do much worrying. They also hope that in the meantime the Allied troops will give them more opportunities to cheer the America, British, and French troops.
This Allied victory in North Africa is the second big setback that the Axis forces have suffered since Hitler came to power. The first was Stalingrad.
No one over here is taking the time or trouble to argue whether Stalingrad is a bigger victory than Tunisia or vice versa.
From the number of casualties inflicted, Stalingrad undoubtedly was a much bloodier battle. But from the standpoint of overall strategy, the North African victory probably is a greater achievement.
It is a cheering sign that there are no such foolish arguments or discussions going on in Moscow tonight such as those which arose in America after the last war—you know the old argument that "we won the war for the Allies."
Russians simply don't think that way. After what the Soviet Union has suffered, the people of Russia don't care to waste time talking about who won what. It has become pretty clear over here that unless everyone puts every ounce of fight and energy into this war, no one is going to be able to talk about winning anything for a long, long time.