Aboard HMS Duke of York · December 12, 1941

On this date in 1941 British Prime Minister Winston Chur­chill, fearing that the im­medi­ate im­pact of Japan’s attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii would be a re­treat into an “Amer­ica-comes-first” pos­ture, boarded the battle­ship HMS Duke of York for an Atlantic cross­ing to con­fer with Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt about co­or­di­nating stra­tegies in their joint war against Japan (since Decem­ber 8), Ger­many, and Italy. The latter two nations had been at war with Great Brit­ain for many months, but with the U.S. only since December 11, 1941.

Chur­chill arrived in the nation’s capi­tal on Decem­ber 22 in great secrecy—even the presi­dent’s wife, Elea­nor, was one of the last to be told of the White House’s new guest, much to her ire. While the two Roose­velts and Chur­chill’s party sat down to a Christ­mas din­ner of oysters, tur­key, chest­nut dressing with giblet gravy, beans, cauli­flower, and sweet-potato cas­se­role, the two nations’ chiefs of staff con­vened and em­braced Roose­velt’s em­pha­sis that Amer­i­can troops had to be seen “in active fighting across the Atlan­tic.” Driving their thinking was the need to relieve pres­sure on the besieged Soviets, whose anni­hi­la­tion Adolf Hitler sought in his now fal­tering Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa, by forcing the Ger­man Wehr­macht (armed forces) to with­draw pre­cious divi­sions on their East­ern Front and move them to the West, to occupied France and the Low Coun­tries. This would, it was hoped, dis­suade Soviet dic­ta­tor Joseph Stalin from pur­sing a sep­a­rate peace with Germany—a peace that could mark the Soviet Union’s exit from the war and divert mil­lions of the enemy to the West just as a simi­lar peace between Russia and Ger­many in March 1918 had done. (That sep­a­rate peace with Russia nearly resulted in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Ger­many winning World War I.) Hence, the origins and the ur­gency of Opera­tion Torch, begun Novem­ber 8, 1942, the first Anglo-American assault on Axis forces since the European war’s outbreak.

The Torch landings in North­west Africa finally stopped the swings of for­tune, un­matched in any other theater of war, where first one side then the other had the upper hand. Over­whelming Allied resources whittled down, squeezed, and finally cap­tured the last Ital­ian and Ger­man forces in Tuni­sia in May 1943, setting the stage for Opera­tion Husky, the initial Anglo-American assault on Fascist Italy.

First Washington Conference (Arcadia Conference), December 22, 1941, to January 14, 1942

Churchill and Roosevelt, White House, December 22, 1941First Washington (Arcadia) Conference, late 1941 to mid-January 1942

Left: Prime Minister Winston Churchill, left, and Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt face each other at a con­fer­ence table in the White House, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Decem­ber 22, 1941. Roose­velt had ini­tially resisted Chur­chill’s urgent request for face-to-face dis­cus­sions, coming as it did one day after both nations had declared war on Japan—Roose­velt wanting more time to come up to speed on the drama­tic un­folding events. The presi­dent changed his mind when he learned that the Japa­nese had sunk the Brit­ish battle­ship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle crui­ser HMS Repulse off the east coast of Brit­ish Malaya. Chur­chill’s three-week stay as the Roose­velts’ White House guest helped forge a close working friendship between the two world leaders that lasted until Roosevelt’s death in April 1945.

Right: Roosevelt (center rear) flanked by Churchill (on the Presi­dent’s right) and Cana­dian Prime Minis­ter Mac­kenzie King (on Presi­dent’s left) at the First Wash­ing­ton Con­fer­ence (Arca­dia Con­fer­ence), Decem­ber 22, 1941, to Janu­ary 14, 1942. The second of nine face-to-face con­fer­ences between Roose­velt and Chur­chill had its start aboard the HMS Duke of York in Ches­a­peake Bay, Mary­land, on the day of Chur­chill’s arri­val. (Their first meeting had been the Pla­cen­tia Bay Con­fer­ence the pre­vious August aboard the cruiser USS Augusta off the Canadian coast of New­found­land.) The First Wash­ing­ton Con­fer­ence estab­lished the Com­bined (Amer­i­can and Brit­ish) Chiefs of Staff, to be head­quartered in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.; estab­lished a com­bined Amer­i­can-British-Dutch-Austra­lian (ABDA) com­mand for the South­east Asia Theater; and framed the United Nations Declaration, announced to the world on January 1, 1942.

Winston Churchill Speaking Before the British House of Commons, December 8, 1941, Announcing War Against Japan