SYMBOL to Victory: The Casablanca Conference

Seventy-five years ago this week Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and their staffs met in Casablanca, French Morocco. This conference, codenamed SYMBOL, would decide the course the Second World War would take in 1943.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill seated in the garden of the villa where the conference was held. Grouped behind them are British and American Chiefs of Staff.

The British had been fighting Nazi Germany for over three years, having declared war in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Their goal at Casablanca was to focus Allied military efforts against Germany and Italy. The well-crafted British argument was for Allied troops to finish operations in North Africa. Then these resources should continue operations to remove Italy from the war.

The Americans were relatively new to the war, at least officially. While the US Navy had been fighting the Battle of the Atlantic alongside the Royal Navy since mid-1941, America was not formally at war until the Japanese offensive of December 1941. Their vision was foggier. The US Navy desired an increased focus on the Pacific War against Japan while the US Army envisioned an invasion of France in 1943.

Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin declined an invitation to attend. His country had suffered heavily since the German invasion in June 1941. The Battle of Stalingrad had his full attention as the titanic struggle between dictators continued in the east.

© IWM (A 14085)
The Anfa Hotel. Headquarters of the Conference. © IWM (A 14085)

The Allies chose Casablanca as the site for the conference mainly out of convenience. American troops under Major General George S. Patton had taken the city from Vichy French forces in November 1942. Since there were American troops nearby, Roosevelt could visit them. Incidentally, the Anfa Hotel, located in a well-to-do Casablanca suburb, would be relatively easy to secure with a tight perimeter. It became Patton’s task to organize the conference.

Over 11 days, the Allied warlords met to discuss the war’s hot topics. The British argument for exploiting gains in the Mediterranean won out easily against the relatively unprepared American delegation. Sicily was to be the next Allied objective; the target of an invasion codenamed Operation HUSKY.

Even more critically, the Western Allies agreed on their overarching priorities when it came to the Combined Bomber Offensive. Anglo-American bomber formations – RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force – would focus on supporting the Battle of the Atlantic. This would occur through the heavy bombardment of submarine construction facilities. A second priority was the destruction of the German aircraft industry. This order of priorities became known as the Casablanca Directive.

French propaganda poster published in Algeria, World War II, 1943

Another goal of Churchill and Roosevelt’s was to bring together the leaders of France’s liberation. Generals Henri Giraud and Charles de Gaulle failed to come to an agreement to unify Free French forces. Instead, they managed to share an awkward handshake for photographers. It was an important propaganda image to have Free France unified against the Axis.

Giraud and de Gaulle left, leaving Roosevelt and Churchill with a gathering of war correspondents and reporters. Then Roosevelt dropped a bombshell. He announced that the Allies would accept nothing less than “unconditional surrender” from the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Known as the Casablanca Declaration, historians have argued over the effects of this announcement ever since the war ended.

Did the declaration prolong the war with Germany? Ian Kershaw’s study of the final months of the Third Reich indicates that it did not. The same cannot be said for Italy, however:

“As the Allied generals at Casablanca constructed a strategy aimed at removing Italy from the war in 1943, the American president set a policy that made that removal more difficult.”

– Excerpt from Eagles over Husky

Yet the Allied military strategy was sound. Remove Italy from the war and the Germans would have to compensate for the loss of some 54 divisions, 2,000 aircraft, and the Italian fleet. Operation HUSKY would make this possible. Defending Festung Europa’s southern shore would become a lonely task.


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