Did Eisenhower Offer to Quit Over WW2 Bombing Policy?

Did Eisenhower Offer to Quit Over WW2 Bombing Policy?

Excerpt­ed from “Did Eisen­how­er Threat­en Res­ig­na­tion Over Bomb­ing Pol­i­cy?” writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project using my pen name Max E. Her­twig. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with end­notes and more images, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and enter your email in the box “Stay in touch with us.” We nev­er dis­close or sell your email address. It remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Q: Did Ike offer to go? 

This ques­tion involves the weeks before Oper­a­tion Over­lord, the inva­sion of France in 1944. The pro­duc­er of a forth­com­ing doc­u­men­tary asks if Gen­er­al Eisen­how­er, the Allied Supreme Com­man­der, threat­ened to resign over bomb­ing pol­i­cy. The spe­cif­ic ques­tion: “Was Churchill so fix­at­ed on bomb­ing Ger­man cities that he resist­ed sup­ply­ing bombers for D-Day?” 

A: Neither truth nor heresy 

The answer is twofold. Yes, Eisen­how­er threat­ened to resign over bomb­ing pol­i­cy. No, it was not because Churchill want­ed with­hold bombers in order to main­tain bomb­ing of Ger­man cities. Con­trary to pop­u­lar cant, Churchill was nev­er an enthu­si­ast of bomb­ing cities; he was the only Allied leader ever to ques­tion the prac­tice. (See “The Myth of Dres­den and Revenge Fire­bomb­ing.” 

Eisenhower’s threat to resign was not made to Churchill, but to his col­leagues, Gen­er­al Carl Spaatz and Air Chief Mar­shal Sir Arthur Har­ris.

A relat­ed sub­ject is Churchill’s pre-D-Day con­cern for French civil­ian casualties—another expres­sion of his sense of moral­i­ty ver­sus the exi­gen­cies of total war. That is also a reminder of cur­rent pro­por­tion­al con­cerns for Gaza.

The vital role of air power 

Dwight Eisen­how­er appre­ci­at­ed the impor­tance of air supe­ri­or­i­ty. The Feb­ru­ary 1943 first encounter of U.S. and Axis forces in Africa was at the Kasser­ine Pass. Ger­man Gen­er­al Irwin Rom­mel inflict­ed a dis­as­trous defeat, thanks in part to U.S. air pow­er being assigned to local com­man­ders. In his book Cru­sade in Europe, Eisen­how­er explained that the inva­sion of Europe could not hap­pen “until we had estab­lished our­selves so firm­ly that dan­ger of defeat was eliminated—all air forces in Britain, except­ing only the Coastal Com­mand, should come under my control.” 

Defeat at Nor­mandy, Eisen­how­er wrote, would have meant rede­ploy­ing all U.S. forces accu­mu­lat­ed in Britain. “The set­back to Allied morale and deter­mi­na­tion would be so pro­found that it was beyond calculation.” 

In that event, Rus­sia might con­sid­er her Allies “com­plete­ly futile and help­less,” even make a sep­a­rate peace with Hitler. “[W]hen a bat­tle needs the last ounce of avail­able force,” Eisen­how­er wrote, “the com­man­der must not be in the posi­tion of depend­ing upon request and negotiation….”

Eisenhower’s ultimatum 

The crunch came on Sat­ur­day, 25 March 1944. The his­to­ri­an Rebec­ca Grant wrote:Eisen­how­er con­vened a meet­ing to set­tle the issues. On the Wednes­day pri­or, he grim­ly thought through the idea that if he did not get the deci­sion he want­ed, ‘I am going to take dras­tic action and inform the com­bined chiefs of staff that unless the mat­ter is set­tled at once I will request relief from this command.'”*

Lieu­tenant-Gen­er­al Carl Spaatz, com­mand­ing U.S. Strate­gic Air Forces, believed that air supe­ri­or­i­ty would best be achieved by “sus­tained strate­gic bomb­ing of syn­thet­ic fuel plants and air­craft fac­to­ries.” Roy­al Air Force Mar­shal Arthur Har­ris also dis­sent­ed. He opposed divert­ing his night­time bomb­ing of Ger­man cities.

Churchill first sup­port­ed Spaatz and Har­ris, but in Wash­ing­ton, Gen­er­als George Mar­shall and “Hap” Arnold backed Eisen­how­er. Churchill then deferred to Roo­sevelt, who would not coun­ter­mand his supreme com­man­der. By ear­ly April, Har­ris had come around, and Eisen­how­er had over­ruled Spaatz. 

*Rebec­ca Grant, “Eisen­how­er, Mas­ter of Air Pow­er,” Air & Space Forces, 1 Jan­u­ary 2000.

Bombing France 

An adjunct to this ques­tion is a con­tro­ver­sy often involv­ing Churchill: civil­ian bomb­ing casu­al­ties. Pre-Nor­mandy bomb­ing tar­get­ed Ger­man rail­road mar­shal­ing yards and air­fields in France. Esti­mates were cir­cu­lat­ing of French civil­ian loss­es as high as 80,000.

Churchill act­ed with his sense of moral­i­ty and con­cern for French allies. On 3 May 1944, he impor­tuned the War Cab­i­net. What he feared, he told them, was “pro­pa­gan­da to the effect that, while the Russ­ian and Ger­man armies advanced brave­ly despite the lack of air supe­ri­or­i­ty, the British and Amer­i­cans relied on the ruth­less employ­ment of air pow­er regard­less of the cost in civil­ian casualties.”

For­eign Sec­re­tary Antho­ny Eden said French reac­tion to these nec­es­sary bomb­ings had so far been good. But Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Clement Attlee voiced alarm. The “polit­i­cal dis­ad­van­tages of the plan,” Attlee said, “out­weighed its mil­i­tary advantages.” 

Churchill asked Air Mar­shal Ted­der whether he could accept a lim­it of 10,000 French civil­ian deaths up to D-Day. Ted­der said yes. In fact, only 3000-4000 had been killed to date. 

“Piling up an awful load of hatred” 

The “Trans­porta­tion Plan,” as it was known, went ahead in the weeks pre­ced­ing D-Day. Churchill fol­lowed it with mount­ing con­cern. “Ter­ri­ble things are being done,” he wrote Eden. “The thing is get­ting much worse.”

To Ted­der he wrote they should have attacked the Ger­man armies, which “involve no French casu­al­ties. You are pil­ing up an awful load of hatred. I do not agree that the best tar­gets were cho­sen. Have you exceed­ed the 10,000 limit?”

June 6th came and the troops swarmed ashore at Nor­mandy. Churchill’s alarm proved unfound­ed. French civil­ian loss­es in pre-D-Day bomb­ings remained under the lim­it he had set. 

Some care, some don’t

As sup­port­ers of Israel argue over the cur­rent civil­ian casu­al­ties in Gaza, this his­to­ry is rel­e­vant. It seems that civil­ian casu­al­ties only occur to lead­ers of civ­i­lized gov­ern­ments. Hitler, Stal­in, Sad­dam Hus­sein, and cer­tain­ly Hamas, nev­er wor­ried about deaths of innocents.

In 1944, the argu­ments, heart search­ings and con­stant changes of tar­gets con­tin­ued almost up to D-Day. The 1945 Bat­tle of Mani­la (which had half Gaza’s pop­u­la­tion) result­ed in 250,000 civil­ian casu­al­ties includ­ing 100,000 deaths. When told that sta­tis­tic, Prime Min­is­ter Netanyahu was aston­ished: “100,000…well, we have incurred con­sid­er­ably few­er.” (The pro­por­tion is on the order of 15 to 1.)

Dres­den after the air attacks of Feb­ru­ary 1945. (Bun­de­sarachiv)

Civilian casualties: further reading

“The Myth of Dres­den and ‘Revenge Fire­bomb­ing,'” 2023.

“Win­ston Churchill’s Revul­sion Over Napalm Bomb­ing,” 2023.

“Bomb­ing Auschwitz: ‘Get Every­thing Out of the Air Force You Can,'” 2020.

“Bomb­ing Japan: Churchill’s View,” 2016.

“Churchill and the Bomb­ing of Coven­try,” 2012.

“Win­ston Churchill and the Use of Chem­i­cal War­fare,” 2015.

John Spencer – Ben­jamin Netanyahu Inter­view, 27 Feb­ru­ary 2024.

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