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 and air bases at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii would be a retreat into an “Amer­ica-comes-first” pos­ture, boarded the British battle­ship HMS Duke of York, sister ship to the HMS Prince of Wales now resting in 223 ft of water in the South China Sea, for a 10‑day Atlantic cross­ing to con­fer with Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt about co­or­di­nating stra­tegies in their joint war against their common enemies, 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. “You should have told me. Why didn’t you tell me?” Mrs. Roosevelt fumed, anxious to find the missing house­keeper imme­di­ately just hours before their guest’s arrival. Churchill was accom­panied by a troika of British military brass and 80 staff members.

While Franklin and Eleanor Roose­velt and Chur­chill’s party of high-level officials 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 the East­ern Front and move them to the West, to occupied France and the Low Coun­tries. This would dis­suade, it was hoped, Soviet dic­ta­tor Joseph Stalin from pur­sing a sep­a­rate peace with Hitler—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 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.

Momentary “Wartime Capital of the World”: First Washington Conference, December 22, 1941, to January 14, 1942

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

Left: Prime Minister Winston Churchill, dressed in a dark blue Royal Navy coat with two rows of brass buttons, 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 Germany and Italy—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 com­mand (ABDACOM) for the South­east Asia Theater (effec­tively dis­solved when the Dutch surren­dered their East Indies holdings to the Japa­nese on March 9, 1942); 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