Operation Symbol

This was the Allied conference at Casablanca (14/23 January 1943).

The conference was deemed necessary, following the successful launch of ‘Torch’ in November 1942, in order to assess the needs and objectives of the Western Allies’ strategy (without the intrusion of diplomatic matters) for 1943 and later, and more specifically whether or not ‘Round-up’ should follow as had been arranged in July 1942.

On the US side the chief persons at the ‘Symbol’ Conference were President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins (the president’s personal adviser), Admiral William D. Leahy (the president’s chief-of-staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff, but much incapacitated by illness during the ‘Symbol’ conference), Admiral Ernest J. King (commander-in-chief of the US Fleet), General George C. Marshall (US Army chief-of-staff) and Lieutenant General Henry H. Arnold (commander of the USAAF). On the British side the main protagonists were Prime Minister Winston Churchill, General Sir Alan Brooke (Chief of the Imperial General Staff and chairman of the British Chiefs-of-Staff Committee), Admiral Sir Dudley Pound (the First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff), Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal (Chief of the Air Staff), Vice Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten (head of Combined Operations) and Field Marshal Sir John Dill (head of the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington).

Later arrivals at the ‘Symbol’ conference were General Dwight D. Eisenhower (Commander-in-Chief, North African Theater), General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander (Commander-in-Chief, Middle East) and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder (Air Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean), and also the two main contenders for leadership of the Free French movement, namely Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle and Général d’Armée Henri Giraud.

Premier Iosif Stalin declined to attend on the grounds that the later stages of the Battle of Stalingrad required him to remain in the USSR.

The conference agenda addressed specific matters of tactical procedure, the allocation of resources and the broader issues of diplomatic policy, and the results of the debate and negotiations were formulated as the 'Casablanca Declaration', and more problematically the statement that the Allies would accept from the Axis power nothing short of 'unconditional surrender'. This last came to represent the unified voice of the Allies' implacable determination that the Axis powers would be fought to their ultimate and total defeat.

Despite the apparent unanimity of the Casablanca Declaration, however, the USA and UK were not united in their commitment to see the war through to Germany’s capitulation. While the official reports indicated total accord between Churchill and Roosevelt, there are indications that the Churchill did not fully subscribe to the doctrine of unconditional surrender, and indeed that he had been startled by the public announcement of the demand for unconditional surrender, which seems to have emanated from Roosevelt, whose primary aim was in all probability to ensure that the Soviet forces remained completely engaged with the Germans on the Eastern Front, thereby depleting German munitions and troop strengths, and also preventing Stalin from negotiating a separate peace with the Germans.

That the war would be fought by the Allies until the Axis forces had been completely destroyed was not welcomed by all. Diplomats were critical that such a stance was too unequivocal and inflexible, in the process preventing any opportunity for political manoeuvre and morally weakening French and German resistance groups.

The British felt that an accommodation with Germany would make it possible for the German forces to be re-formed on the Allied side in order to help fight off any Soviet attempt to take over of Eastern Europe. To Churchill and the other Allied leaders, the real obstacle to a realisation of this strategy was Adolf Hitler. Allen Dulles, the chief of Office of Strategic Services' intelligence in Switzerland, maintained that the Casablanca Declaration was just a scrap of paper which could have been destroyed without a second thought had Germany sued for peace. All that the Allies really wished was the departure of Hitler.

There is some evidence that German resistance forces, in the form of highly placed government officials, were working with M.I.6, the British secret intelligence service, to encompass the removal of Hitler and negotiate a peace with the Allies. One such man was Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr intelligence service, and his persistent overtures for US support was ignored by Roosevelt.

With the advice of Marshall, Roosevelt pressed for a cross-Channel invasion of Europe. Advised by the British Chiefs-of-Staff, headed by General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Churchill was sure that the time was not yet ripe for an undertaking of this magnitude and instead urged the advantages of of an Allied descent on the Italian island of Sicily followed by an invasion of the Italian mainland. The British argument centred on the desirability of compelling the Germans to despatch reserves from northern Europe to Italy where, as a result of that country’s indifferent north/south lines of communication, they could not then be easily extracted to defend against a later invasion of North-West Europe. The British also believed that by delaying the cross-Channel assault, the Allied invasion would then be faced by German forces which had been further weakened by many more months of dire fighting on the Eastern Front.

Right through the conference, Roosevelt’s attention was also strongly focused on the campaigns in the Pacific, and he complained that the British were not fully committed against Japan’s current policy of entrenching its positions along advantageous lines.

The Italian strategy was agreed as a compromise between the two leaders, Roosevelt acceding to Churchill’s approach for Europe. In his turn, Churchill agreed to commit larger numbers of troops and greater resources to the Pacific and Burma for the strengthening of the positions of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese forces against the Japanese. The USA was to provide assistance to the UK in this capacity through the provision of escort vessels and landing craft.

So far as the further prosecution of the war was concerned, the various logistical issues which arose and were discussed included the next phase of the war in Europe, the provision of all possible aid for Soviet offensives on the Eastern Front, the current situation of the U-boat danger in the Atlantic, the allocation of ships, aircraft and troops in the various theatres of the war, and the need to keep Stalin and Chiang fully apprised of the conference agenda and resulting accords.

The conference called for the official recognition of a joint leadership of the Free French forces by Generals Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud. There was a distinct tension between the two rival leaders during the talks, but Roosevelt managed to effect at least the public appearance of cordiality between them, encouraging them to shake hands, but during the conference the two French leaders limited their interaction with one and other to formalities, each pledging their mutual support.

As had been the case with comparable conferences in the preceding 14 months, the ‘Symbol’ conference ended with a series of compromises that fully satisfied neither party, though in this conference it was generally the British who got their way. The outcomes of the conference in more tangible form were the ‘Pointblank’ directive for the prosecution of the Allied bomber offensive against Germany, the development of US operations in the Pacific (further advances along New Guinea’s northern coast and the capture of the Caroline and Marshall island groups) to capitalise on the success of US Army and US Navy forces in New Guinea and the Solomon islands group respectively, the postponement of any cross-Channel attack on France until 1944, the development of further Allied offensives in the Mediterranean with the launch of ‘Husky’ (i), the allocation of the highest priority to the building of anti-submarine capability (corvettes, sloops, frigates, escort destroyers and escort carriers) as the U-boat threat in the Atlantic was reaching a peak unsupportable by the Allies, and the adoption of an ‘unconditional surrender’ policy for the prosecution of the war with Germany and Japan.