The Devils Will Get No Rest: FDR, Churchill, and the Plan That Won the War
- By James B. Conroy
- Simon & Schuster
- 432 pp.
- Reviewed by Elizabeth J. Moore
- August 11, 2023
A valuable, overly dense account of the pivotal Casablanca Conference.
Accounts of the Allied victory in World War II often gloss over the fact that Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union were initially woefully unprepared for all-out war against their ruthless Axis foes Germany and Japan. Nor did life-and-death struggles preclude constant internecine disagreements over the conduct of the war.
The Allies somehow managed to emerge victorious in spite of this unpromising start. Richard Overy’s 1995 classic, Why the Allies Won, offers many reasons for this, but most germane here, wrote Overy, is that “Germany was defeated during the…period when all three Allies, assisted by the exiled forces of the conquered European lands, put the main weight of their military effort together for the first time.”
In James B. Conroy’s telling in The Devils Will Get No Rest, it was the Casablanca Conference of January 1943 that catalyzed this collaboration. Casablanca was not only the first of several conclaves of Allied leaders during the war but also the one that produced a winning strategy against the Axis. The conference has received relatively little examination, but Conroy has pieced together new or previously overlooked sources to produce the most comprehensive account to date. The result is an enlightening, if somewhat overstuffed, read.
By late 1942, the Allies were starting to go on the offensive, winning pivotal battles in Stalingrad and on Guadalcanal, and driving Italian and German forces from the bulk of North Africa. It was time to plot out next steps. U.S.-British planning talks had stalled out in Washington, DC, and London. But British prime minister Winston Churchill and U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt (Soviet leader Joseph Stalin would not participate) agreed to lead delegations of key military leaders to Morocco to determine how to hit the enemy “on the largest possible scale and at the earliest possible moment.”
Discussions would include how many forces should remain in North Africa; next objectives in the Mediterranean; how to balance resources between Europe and the Pacific; when conditions would be right for an invasion of northern France; and arrangements for the relentless bombing of Germany (which, per Churchill, would “give the devils no rest”).
This required accord between two countries that were viewing the war through very different lenses. The British, in the conflict from the outset, were literally fighting for their lives against Nazi Germany, which occupied territory just across the English Channel, had beaten British forces in almost every military encounter, and regularly launched deadly air raids against British territory. To the Brits, therefore, Germany had to be the primary target.
For their part, the Americans, as relative newcomers to the war and sitting safely between two oceans, accorded less importance to the Nazis. They were, however, engaged in battle against Japan, which had attacked Pearl Harbor and decimated U.S. forces in other parts of the Pacific. Thus, the United States tended to see the expenditure of resources against Nazi Germany as a distraction from the more important fight against Japan.
In addition to such thorny debates, the U.S. and Britain also had to come up with ways of placating Stalin — who demanded the opening of a second European front, whether conditions were right or not — and convincing the Free French (particularly the egomaniacal Charles de Gaulle) to actively work with them.
Conroy devotes much of his book to the 10 days of long, intensive negotiations in Casablanca. It seems to have been an inspired choice of setting. “Mutual respect and understanding ripen in such surroundings,” he writes, “especially when the weather is lovely, the accommodation is good, and food and drink and smokes are unlimited and free.”
Just as importantly, the talks benefited from the presence of British participant Air Marshall Sir John Slessor. Roughly midway through the conference, Slessor discerned that much disagreement was about semantics rather than substance, wrote a draft strategy that was acceptable to both sides, and quietly got the key players on board. In so doing, he seems to have played an uncredited role in winning the war:
“The course the Allies set…wobbled on the way to victory, but never lost its fix on true north — a British-conceived Mediterranean campaign to knock Italy out of the war, drain German strength from Russia and northwestern Europe, and enable the American push to invade France, and relentless American pressure on Japan…specific long-range plans are impossible in war, but in six ensuing conferences, the Allies kept their…plan on the beam.”
Conroy’s book provides a “you are there” window into a vanished world where no one yet knew how the war would turn out. The almost minute-by-minute details that provide such immediacy, unfortunately, can also be a slog. Such arcana as what the weather was like, how rooms were decorated, who ate and drank what, who opened the window, and who saluted whom clutter the narrative rather than enhance readers’ understanding of what was at stake. The same goes for participants’ endless back-and-forth on what would turn out to be historical dead-ends, such as aborted proposals to invade Sardinia or the Balkans.
This underbrush also crowds out broader context. A discussion of how to distract German attention away from a Sicily invasion begs for at least a footnote on Operation Mincemeat. Similarly, FDR’s mention of American research into “tube alloys” is a reference to the Manhattan Project but is never identified as such.
These criticisms aside, Conroy’s book fosters a fresh appreciation for the Casablanca Conference, its participants, and its results — especially important now that World War II is passing out of living memory. While it may take a hardy reader to stick with the book in its entirety, Conroy has done a service in ensuring that such a history is now available.
Elizabeth J. Moore is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area. She was a longtime senior analyst and instructor who worked in the Defense, State, and Treasury departments, on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s President’s Daily Brief Staff, and at the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency. She holds a master’s degree in international politics from American University.