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The Longest Reach

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ing the Japanese in the Pacific from December 7, 1941, but ground troops had not engaged in a single exchange of shots with Hitler’s armies.

Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, had long favored attacking the Germans through Europe’s “soft under- belly” instead of confronting them directly by crossing the Channel. He had, in fact, favored such an approach in World War I, when he served as chief lord of the admiralty.

While the British and American Combined Chiefs of Staff engaged in a transatlantic debate over the best way to pursue the war, Roosevelt and Churchill simply made up their minds. Historians have pinpointed the period of July 25 to 30, 1942, as the one when a firm decision was made to land in North Africa and, unavoidably, delay an attack across the Channel until 1944. The decision seems to have come as a surprise to at least some of the American Joint Chiefs, who thought the possibility of an early cross-Channel attack was still on the table.

Even a quick glance at the map of the world as it stood in mid-1942 is enough to demonstrate why the military leaders were able to keep their enthusiasm for a landing in North Africa so well under control.

In 1940, within months after World War II began, France fell and a French government under German domination was set up in the spa town of Vichy in southern France. The French colonies in North Africa—French Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—remained under the control of the Vichy gov- ernment. Another large chunk of North Africa—Spanish Morocco—was controlled by Spain. And Spain was governed by Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who was friendly toward the Axis.

Aside from their uncertain position in Egypt, the only bits of dry land anywhere near North Africa controlled by the Allies were Gibraltar, at the entrance to the Mediterra- nean, and the island of Malta, in the middle of the Mediter- ranean between Italy and Africa. But Gibraltar was too small to serve as a staging area for a major invasion, and besides, it was under both observation and potential attack from Spain, just across the border. Malta, under constant aerial bombardment, was barely able to survive the war, supported

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