3-669 Editorial Note on the Third Washington Conference (TRIDENT), May 1943

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Date: May 12, 1943

Subject: World War II

Editorial Note on the Third Washington Conference (TRIDENT)

May 12-25, 1943

President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff met in Washington, D.C., May 1225, 1943, for the Third Washington Conference, code-named TRIDENT. At the opening meeting of the conference on May 12, Churchill emphasized that the first objective in the Mediterranean after the HUSKY operation was to get Italy out of the war, as this would “cause a chill of loneliness over the German people” and relieve Axis pressure on the Russian front by diverting German troops to the Balkans. Churchill reported that the British government earnestly desired undertaking a full-scale invasion of the Continent from the United Kingdom “as soon as possible,” provided “a plan offering reasonable prospects of success could be made.” (Foreign Relations, Conferences at Washington and Quebec, 1943, pp. 25-27.) At the meeting President Roosevelt raised the question of how the Allies might most profitably employ their forces then in the Mediterranean. However desirable it would be to knock Italy out of the war after HUSKY, the president said that he “had always shrunk from the thought of putting large armies in Italy.” The president also spoke in favor of a cross-Channel operation in the spring of 1944. (Ibid., pp. 29-30.)

The British planning staff sought to make the major Allied effort for the remainder of 1943 in the Mediterranean theater with the objective of eliminating Italy from the war—a prelude to a cross-Channel operation. The American planning staff did not wish to see ground operations in the Mediterranean after HUSKY at the expense of a cross-Channel invasion of France. Their position was that if the British insisted on an essentially Mediterranean strategy that impaired the buildup for a cross-Channel attack, neglected Burma, and failed to support the Chinese war effort, then the United States intended to shift its attention to a more offensive posture in the Pacific. (Matloff, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1943-1944, pp. 126-30; Morton, Strategy and Command: The First Two Years, pp. 454-57.)

General Marshall called for careful consideration of effective use of Allied air capabilities in planning future operations, particularly in the Mediterranean where “it should be possible to use air power rather than additional ground forces.” He feared that the proposed Mediterranean operations would exceed initial estimates and constitute a drain on available resources. Marshall warned that “operations invariably created a vacuum in which it was essential to pour in more and more means.” He expressed concern that “the landing of ground forces in Italy would establish a vacuum in the Mediterranean which would preclude the assembly of sufficient forces in the United Kingdom to execute a successful cross-Channel operation.” Further Mediterranean ground operations would commit the United States and Great Britain, except for air attacks on Germany, to that theater in 1943 and virtually all of 1944. “It would mean a prolongation of the war in Europe, and thus a delay in the ultimate defeat of Japan,” Marshall warned, “which the people of the U.S. would not tolerate.” (Foreign Relations, Conferences at Washington and Quebec, 1943, pp. 34-48; quotes on pp. 39, 44.) General Sir Alan Brooke replied that it was the British Chiefs of Staff’s “firm intention to carry out ROUNDUP at the first moment when the conditions were such that the operations would contribute decisively to the defeat of Germany.” These conditions depended upon the success of the Red Army; the Mediterranean operations would help to draw off German forces from the Russian front. (Ibid., pp. 52-53.)

According to Brooke, General Marshall suggested that the Combined Chiefs of Staff alone, with staff officers out of the room, meet for an off-the-record discussion. “We then had a heart to heart talk,” wrote Brooke, “and as a result of it at last formed a bridge across which we could meet.” (Bryant, Turn of the Tide, pp. 508-9; Brooke discusses the conference on pp. 502-16. For Lieutenant General Sir Hastings Ismay’s account of the conference, see Ismay, Memoirs, pp. 293-300.) A week after the conference began, Secretary of War Stimson commented: “It is taking all Marshall’s tact and adroitness to steer the conference through to a result which will not be a surrender but which will not be an open clash. The President seems to be helping us.” (May 19, 1943, Yale/H. L. Stimson Papers [Diary, 43: 55].) Likewise, Albert C. Wedemeyer wrote regarding the TRIDENT Conference: “The arguments . . . narrowed down very quickly to the problem of post-HUSKY operations in the Mediterranean vs. more emphasis on BOLERO. The American position remained firm, with General Marshall playing the leading role.” (Wedemeyer, Wedemeyer Reports! pp. 215-19; quote on p. 217.)

The Combined Chiefs of Staff reached a compromise on the cross-Channel and Mediterranean operations. They agreed to May 1, 1944, as the target date for a cross-Channel operation on the basis of twenty-nine divisions in the United Kingdom by that date. The Americans agreed to operations following the conquest of Sicily “as are best calculated to eliminate Italy from the war and to contain the maximum number of German forces.” General Eisenhower was to plan the operations, subject to the approval of the Combined Chiefs of Staff. He could use those forces available in the Mediterranean, although four American and three British divisions were to be ready for transfer to the United Kingdom from November 1 onward. The British approved an American proposal for a four-phase Combined Bomber Offensive from the United Kingdom to be completed by April 1944. (Foreign Relations, Conferences at Washington and Quebec, 1943, pp. 281-82, 367; Craven and Cate, eds., Europe: TORCH to POINTBLANK, pp. 372-74.)

The final report of the Combined Chiefs of Staff to the president and prime minister, issued on May 25, listed additional conclusions reached during the conference. The conferees agreed that the occupation of the Azores was essential to the conduct of the anti-U-boat campaign, extending Allied air cover for convoys and increasing harassing activities against U-boats. They agreed to supply arms to Turkey and to reequip the French forces in North Africa after American-British requirements had been met. They also agreed to undertake measures to aid the war effort in Russia. (Foreign Relations, Conferences at Washington and Quebec, 1943, pp. 364-73; see Matloff, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1943-1944, pp. 133-45.)

Regarding Pacific operations, the agreed objectives were to increase the flow of supplies to China, to drive the Japanese from the Aleutians, and to conclude the campaign in New Guinea. Objectives included occupying strategic positions on the Marshall, Caroline, Solomon, and Bismarck island groups. Marshall successfully argued that surplus air forces beyond the maximum needed in the United Kingdom should be sent to the Southwest Pacific, which was “operating on a shoestring and where great results could be achieved by relatively small additions.” (Foreign Relations, Conferences at Washington and Quebec, 1943, pp. 184-85, 369-70.)

The Combined Chiefs of Staff’s final report called for the unconditional surrender of the Axis in Europe at the earliest possible date. “Simultaneously, in cooperation with other Pacific Powers concerned to maintain and extend unremitting pressure against Japan . . . to bring about at the earliest possible date the unconditional surrender of Japan.” The Americans accepted the British additional sentence: “The effect of any such extension on the overall objective to be given consideration by the Combined Chiefs of Staff before action is taken.” (Ibid., pp. 184-85, 365. For Admiral Leahy’s account of the conference, see William D. Leahy, I Was There: The Personal Story of the Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman Based on His Notes and Diaries Made at the Time [London: Victor Gollancz, 1950], pp. 189-96. For Admiral King’s discussion of the conference, see Ernest J. King and Walter Muir Whitehill, Fleet Admiral King: A Naval Record [New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1952], pp. 43443.) The Combined Chiefs of Staff agreed to meet in the summer to review decisions reached at this conference.

As the conference neared its conclusion, Prime Minister Churchill “was extremely concerned that no definite recommendations had been made by the Combined Staffs to follow up the conquest of Sicily by the invasion of Italy.” Consequently he announced on May 25 that he intended to visit Eisenhower’s Allied Force Headquarters in Algiers in order to discuss post-HUSKY policy with the commanders in North Africa. He convinced President Roosevelt to send Marshall with him so that, should decisions be made, the Americans would not think that he “had exerted an undue influence.” (Winston S. Churchill, The Hinge of Fate, a volume in The Second World War [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950], pp. 81011; Churchill discusses the conference on pp. 782-802, 808-9.)

Secretary of War Stimson noted that Marshall had planned to get away for a much needed rest for three or four days before taking an inspection trip to the Pacific. In his diary, the secretary accused Churchill of taking “Marshall along with him in order to work on him to yield on some of the points that Marshall has held out on in regard to the Prime Minister’s desired excursions in the eastern Mediterannean; but to think of picking out the strongest man there is in America, and Marshall is surely that today, the one on whom the fate of the war depends, and then to deprive him in a gamble of a much needed opportunity to recoup his strength by about three days’ rest and send him off on a difficult and rather dangerous trip across the Atlantic Ocean where he is not needed except for Churchill’s purposes is I think going pretty far.” (May 25, 1943, Yale/H. L. Stimson Papers [Diary, 43: 68].)

En route by plane between Washington, D.C., and Botwood, Newfoundland, where they stopped to refuel, Marshall worked on a communiqu

Digital Downloads




Holding Rights: Public Information
Holding ID: 3-669

Rights: Public Information