Stephen Walton
Wednesday 28 November 2018

The Big Three

© IWM A20752 Soviet Embassy, Tehran; Scene of the Churchill, Stalin Roosevelt Conference. 30 November 1943
(© IWM A20752) Soviet Embassy, Tehran; Scene of the Churchill, Stalin Roosevelt Conference. 30 November 1943

The Big Three

By the time the first full session of the Tehran Conference between US President Franklin D Roosevelt, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill opened on 28th November 1943, the Allied 'Big Three' had good reason to be optimistic about the progress of the war against the Axis powers led by Germany, Italy and Japan.

(© IWM AUS 2037) The Campaign in New Guinea, December 1942 - 1943: Australian soldiers advance along the coast toward Salamaua.
(© IWM AUS 2037) The Campaign in New Guinea, December 1942 - 1943: Australian soldiers advance along the coast toward Salamaua.

Roosevelt and Churchill had just come hot-foot from the first Cairo Conference, at which the future strategy to be pursued against Japan was set out at the end of a year of sustained American, British and Australian successes in South East Asia, including major offensives in Burma and numerous landings on Japanese-occupied territories across the theatre of operations.

On the Eastern Front, Hitler’s army had suffered a series of major reverses in 1943, starting with the destruction of General Friedrich von Paulus’ Sixth Army at Stalingrad and the loss of an estimated 250,000 German soldiers by the time of the final capitulation there in February.

(© IWM MH9701) A line of Romanian prisoners captured during the Battle of Stalingrad in late 1942 or early 1943
(© IWM MH9701) A line of Romanian prisoners captured during the Battle of Stalingrad in late 1942 or early 1943

During July and August, German forces were subjected to another body-blow in the battles around the Kursk, Orel and Kharkov salients, which the Soviet forces succeeded in eliminating and after which they never again lost the main initiative.

The Fall of Italy

In the Mediterranean theatre, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s vainglorious dreams of a modern Roman Empire had been shattered by the Allied assaults on Sicily in July and on the Italian mainland in September, leading to the collapse of the Fascist regime and desperate German attempts to salvage her southern defenses by an occupation of northern Italy.

(© IWM NYF9892) A badly defaced portrait of Mussolini, pierced by a bayonet, hangs from a tree along the road from Messina to the Sicilian ferry crossing to the Italian mainland following the liberation of Sicily on 17 August 1943.
(© IWM NYF9892) A badly defaced portrait of Mussolini, pierced by a bayonet, hangs from a tree along the road from Messina to the Sicilian ferry crossing to the Italian mainland following the liberation of Sicily on 17 August 1943.

(© IWM HU3061) Decline 1943 - 1945: Mussolini in conversation with Field Marshal Rommel at the Italian Government Headquarters. Both men were by this time out of favour with Hitler.
(© IWM HU3061) Decline 1943 - 1945: Mussolini in conversation with Field Marshal Rommel at the Italian Government Headquarters. Both men were by this time out of favour with Hitler.

Hitler’s last foothold in North Africa had already been lost in May with the occupation of Tunisia by Anglo-American forces, who were thus enabled to concentrate their efforts on Churchill’s much-quoted “soft underbelly” of the Axis in Europe.

Against this backdrop of a decisive turn of the tide of war in the Allies’ favour, the 'Big Three' leaders, together with their senior military and diplomatic advisers, convened in the Persian capital to draw up the road-map for the drive to ultimate victory.

The men behind the Tehran Conference

The Tehran Conference, code-named 'Eureka' by the official planners, was significant not least for the fact that Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill were meeting together for the first time. They were very different personalities and came from very different backgrounds. Stalin, the son of a small-town cobbler with a liking for domestic violence, spent a colourful youth as a street urchin, trainee priest, dandy, poet, bandit and revolutionary terrorist before rising to the top of the Soviet regime and becoming one of the most ruthless and murderous despots in history.

(© IWM A20723) Mr Churchill wearing his Persian lamb hat. Mr Churchill was presented the hat on his 69th birthday
(© IWM A20723) Mr Churchill wearing his Persian lamb hat. Mr Churchill was presented the hat on his 69th birthday

Roosevelt was born into a wealthy and well-connected Dutch-American family in New York, qualified as a lawyer, and as a staunch Democrat steadily rose to claim the highest office in American political life in 1933, overcoming severe physical disability caused by an attack of polio in his late 30s.

(© IWM A20709) Left to right: Marshal Stalin, President Roosevelt, Mr Churchill
(© IWM A20709) Left to right: Marshal Stalin, President Roosevelt, Mr Churchill

Churchill had been born into the English aristocracy in Blenheim Palace and became a Member of Parliament in 1900 at the age of 26, blazing his (sometimes eccentric but always forceful) way across the political sky of Westminster to become Conservative Prime Minister in May 1940, in his country’s hour of greatest need. 

How did these three giants on the world stage get on with each other at Tehran? Although Roosevelt was in the chair at all of the plenary sessions of the conference, it was undoubtedly the wily Stalin who dominated proceedings from the start, and who effectively played Roosevelt and Churchill off against each other to push through his own agenda. The American President was at a disadvantage almost immediately, by being accommodated in the Soviet Embassy (ostensibly for logistical and security reasons) where Stalin’s secret policemen could have their eyes and ears on him.

(© IWM (MOI) FLM 1117) The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin share a joke in the Kremlin, Moscow, in 1942
(© IWM (MOI) FLM 1117) The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin share a joke in the Kremlin, Moscow, in 1942

Problems between the Big Three

Although Churchill had initially agreed to this rather unusual arrangement, he soon came to regret it as British suspicions that Stalin was using the situation to win Roosevelt over to his own way of thinking grew. The British Prime Minister recalled, in his own memoirs, how he felt obliged to seek a private interview with Stalin to complain that Roosevelt now seemed to be avoiding him, and to counteract what he saw as the Soviet leader’s attempts to split the Anglo-US alliance by exploiting Roosevelt’s goodwill and what many regarded as a naïve idealism in his approach to world affairs.

(© IWM A20716) Marshal Stalin in the grounds of the Soviet Legation with (on his left) Marshal Voroshilov, second right from M Stalin is Mr Harry Hopkins
(© IWM A20716) Marshal Stalin in the grounds of the Soviet Legation with (on his left) Marshal Voroshilov, second right from M Stalin is Mr Harry Hopkins

Thus Churchill found himself drawn into Stalin’s game of backstage manipulation in his concern to salvage the 'special relationship' he felt he had with Roosevelt, and which he saw as being endangered by Roosevelt’s susceptibility to Stalin’s combination of private charm offensive and public brow-beating.

These tensions were manifested in the most important subject discussed by the Big Three at Tehran – the nature and timing of the launch of a 'second front' in North West Europe, code-named 'Overlord', the initial planning for which had been initiated at the Casablanca conference in January 1943.

Churchill proposed that the British and American-led invasion of northern France, to be timed for late spring or early summer of 1944, should be complemented by a continuation of the Allied upward thrust through Italy, to be followed if necessary by an invasion of southern France or an advance to the Danube. He argued that it would also be desirable to bring Turkey into the war to strengthen the Mediterranean theatre and facilitate the recapture of the Dodecanese islands (which had just been lost to German forces with considerable British casualties).

(© IWM A 14124) President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill at the Villa in Casablanca where the conference were held
(© IWM A 14124) President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill at the Villa in Casablanca where the conference were held

Stalin immediately subjected Churchill to a cross-examination over these plans, which he argued would potentially detract from and weaken the invasion of France, which he insisted must be the principal war-winning campaign in the West. He envisaged substantial invasion forces landing in both northern and southern France, the southern force having been freed up from the Italian campaign after taking Rome.

(© IWM Art.IWM ART LD 4685) The Gateway to Europe
(© IWM Art.IWM ART LD 4685) The Gateway to Europe

Roosevelt sided with Stalin in this proposal, but Churchill was adamant in his unwillingness to put the Turkey – Mediterranean plan on the back burner, arguing that it complemented 'Overlord' rather than detracted from it.

Stalin was having none of it – his only concern was to fix the May 1944 date for 'Overlord', appoint a Commander-in-Chief to execute it, and secure a commitment to a supporting landing in the south of France. After intensive staff discussions and debates, the first and last points were agreed upon, leaving the appointment of a C-in-C to be decided the following month in Cairo (Roosevelt, on this occasion, successfully promoting his favoured candidate for the job, General Dwight D Eisenhower).

Stalin

(© Art.IWM ARTLD 7213) A half-length portrait of Stalin sitting at a desk and signing papers. There is a bookcase behind him
(© Art.IWM ARTLD 7213) A half-length portrait of Stalin sitting at a desk and signing papers. There is a bookcase behind him

Stalin

In the field of military strategy, Stalin had in this case very much cemented his reputation as a 'master of the battlefield'. General Sir Alan Brooke, attending the conference as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, later gave it as his opinion that Stalin “had a military brain of the highest calibre” and outshone both Roosevelt and Churchill in this regard (elsewhere he also commented that the Soviet leader had an “unpleasantly cold, crafty, dead face, and whenever I look at him I can imagine him sending off people to their doom without ever turning a hair”).

This was reinforced by the theatrical highlight of the Tehran conference, the presentation to Stalin by Churchill of the Sword of Stalingrad on the second day of proceedings. This magnificent ceremonial longsword, specially made by command of the British monarch, was inscribed 'To the steel-hearted citizens of Stalingrad, the gift of King George VI, in token of the homage of the British people'.

It was handed to Stalin, the 'Man of Steel', who received it with studied modesty and passed it to Roosevelt for inspection; it was the latter who supplied the drama by holding it aloft with the words “Truly they had hearts of steel!”. Stalin could have been forgiven for seeing in this episode an act of homage by his fellow leaders to his ascendancy as the man who had had Hitler on the run since early 1943.

(© IWM A20721) The Stalingrad Sword carried by a member of the Russian Guard in the Soviet Legation
(© IWM A20721) The Stalingrad Sword carried by a member of the Russian Guard in the Soviet Legation

Some commentators on the proceedings at Tehran have seen in Stalin’s insistence on the primacy of 'Overlord' in Allied strategy a foreshadowing (intentional or not) of Soviet policy after 1945. By fixing the Western Allies’ attention on North West Europe as the focus of operations, he was diverting it away from areas at the opposite end of the continent, and more specifically from the Balkans, the Soviet Union’s own backyard in which she had expansionist ambitions. The Soviet leader’s pronouncements on other items on the agenda at Tehran seemed to underpin this view.

Stalin declared a special interest in “good relations” with Poland, who should be reconstructed and expanded at the expense of Germany – but without the help of the current Polish government-in-exile, tainted by “slanderous propaganda against Russia” and by the very fact that it was based in the West. Poland too was to become a Soviet 'client state'. Important discussions took place about the future of Germany after the war.

Post-War Germany

(© IWM BU 8604) Scene of destruction in a Berlin street just off the Unter den Linden.
(© IWM BU 8604) Scene of destruction in a Berlin street just off the Unter den Linden.

Post-War Germany

Roosevelt produced a plan to divide the country into several self-governing regions, with the major industrial and commercial centres under international control. Churchill considered this to be impractical, favouring instead some kind of north – south division that weakened 'Prussianism' at the expense of what he thought of as the less militaristic and aggressive southern German areas. Stalin saw things differently again, stating that all Germans were by inclination warlike and not to be trusted, and that their country should be permanently fragmented with no possibility of being reunited.

Alongside his more light-handed approach to a post-war Germany, Roosevelt hoped for his fellow-leaders’ support with regard to his proposal to extend into the post-war period the formal alliance of the main signatories to the 'United Nations Declaration’ of January 1942 (the USA, Soviet Union, Great Britain and China), as a global peacekeeping organisation. Stalin was less than enthusiastic about the plan, voicing his doubts as to China’s importance in a post-war order, but all three leaders eventually put their names to it.

The Tehran Conference closed on 1st December 1943, with outward displays of the mutual friendship and unity of purpose of the Big Three in the common undertaking to deliver the final fatal blows to the Nazi regime and then to Japan.

(© IWM H37362) Preparations for Operation Overlord (The Normandy landings)
(© IWM H37362) Preparations for Operation Overlord (The Normandy landings)

In the following year, 'Overlord’ was duly delivered, more or less on time and to plan. The American President lived to see this major outcome of Tehran realised, but Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 took from him the opportunity to witness and help shape the creation of the United Nations he had done much to bring into being.

It also spared him the spectacle of a war-ravaged central Europe divided into Soviet and Western Allied zones of occupation, the consequent displacement of millions of civilian victims of war, and the political and ideological confrontations that soon made of the peace achieved in 1945 the 'Cold War' that defined the post-war world. This was essentially Stalin’s world, not that of Roosevelt or Churchill. There had been signs of its coming at Tehran, but it seemed a very far cry from those heady days of impending victory over the forces of darkness.                 

Find Out More

Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference on 23 July 1945
Second World War
How The Potsdam Conference Shaped The Future Of Post-War Europe
The Potsdam Conference was the last meeting of the ‘Big Three’ Allied leaders during the Second World War. At Yalta in February 1945, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American President Franklin D Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin had agreed to meet again following the defeat of Germany, principally to determine the borders of post-war Europe.
Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Jospeh Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta ('Big Three') Conference in February 1945.
Second World War
How Churchill, Roosevelt And Stalin Planned To End The Second World War
Yalta, a seaside resort on Russia's Black Sea Crimean coast, was the scene of the second and last wartime conference between the 'Big Three' Allied war leaders, Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin between 4 and 11 February 1945.
Churchill waving to crowds in Whitehall, London, as they celebrate VE Day, 8 May 1945.
© IWM (H 41849)
Second World War
How Churchill Led Britain To Victory In The Second World War
Winston Churchill became Britain's prime minister on 10 May 1940. As he was later to write: 'I felt...that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial'. On the very day that Churchill fulfilled his life's ambition, Germany had, that morning, invaded France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.