A British battleship and an American cruiser converged secretly in a remote bay on the Newfoundland coast early in August 1941.
There, during a few days, one of the most momentous meetings of the 20th century would bring forth a historic resolution that would guide the Allies to victory in World War II and would seek to pave the way for eventual global unity.
On Saturday, August 2, President Franklin D. Roosevelt jauntily informed hovering reporters that he was going on a fishing trip. He boarded the presidential train at Union Station in Washington, D.C., and rode northward. The following day, at the Navy Submarine Base in New London, Conn., Roosevelt was lifted aboard the 165-foot presidential yacht, Potomac. His guests for the “fishing trip” included one of his most admired friends, the beautiful Princess Martha of Norway, and Prince Karl of Sweden, but no reporters.
The yacht sailed down the River Thames and into an Atlantic sunset. The president described his objective as “serious fishing.” The Potomac was later spotted cruising off Martha’s Vineyard, and then FDR’s visitors were put ashore. The yacht then headed out for the open sea and disappeared from sight.
In Washington, veteran reporters suspected that something unusual was afoot because Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles; General George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff; and Admiral Harold R. “Betty” Stark, chief of naval operations, had all abruptly disappeared on vacations or undisclosed official business. No one in the capital outside the highest levels of the administration knew where the president was or what he was up to. “Franklin loved little mysteries of this kind,” his wife, Eleanor, said later.
At first light on Tuesday, August 5, 1941, the Potomac eased close to the heavy cruiser USS Augusta off Martha’s Vineyard, and Roosevelt was hoisted aboard. He joined Welles, Marshall, Stark, and other leading advisers for a top secret mission. The Augusta was the flagship of crusty Admiral Ernest J. King, commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.
The cruiser and four escorting destroyers steamed northeastward, speeding recklessly through fog-shrouded fishing banks. The flotilla dropped anchor on Thursday, August 7, in Placentia Bay, a desolate cove on Newfoundland’s southeastern coast, near the fishing village of Argentia. Sleet began to fall, and two days of miserable weather followed.
Meanwhile, HMSPrince of Wales, the Royal Navy’s newest battleship, was churning westward through the heaving waters of the North Atlantic. The battleship, which had recently been refitted after her dramatic role in the pursuit of the German Navy’s dreaded battleship Bismarck, was carrying an important passenger—a chubby, pink, baby-faced man wearing a blue Royal Navy uniform and a peaked cap. British Prime Minister Winston Spencer Churchill was looking forward to his first meeting with the American president, an encounter they had postponed from the spring partly because of FDR’s legislative burdens and partly as a result of Churchill’s preoccupation with ill-fated military campaigns in Dakar, Greece, and Crete.
This would be the two leaders’ first face-to-face meeting, although they had corresponded congenially for two years. Both men believed that the disturbing chain of events in Europe and the Far East demanded personal discussions. The doughty prime minister was “as excited as a schoolboy on the last day of the term,” according to his private secretary.
The British battlewagon maintained absolute radio silence during the trip across the Atlantic Ocean to avoid alerting German U-boats, and this gave Churchill a rare chance to relax. For 14 months since taking office, he had been burdened with problems: Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the bombing of cities and industrial centers, military setbacks in North Africa and the Mediterranean, and the hardships borne by his people.
Churchill reported later that during the voyage he experienced “a strange sense of leisure which I had not known since the war began.” He was able to read a copy of C.S. Forester’s novel, Captain Hornblower R.N., which Oliver Lyttelton, minister of state in Cairo, had given him. The former First Lord of the Admiralty found the book “vastly entertaining.”
Churchill also played backgammon with Harry Hopkins, FDR’s frail special envoy, who was returning home after conferring with Soviet Marshal Josef Stalin. Hopkins won $32 from the prime minister. And Churchill watched films in the evenings. On the last night out, he saw Alexander Korda’s Lady Hamilton, starring Laurence Olivier as Lord Horatio Nelson, victor of Trafalgar, and Vivien Leigh as his mistress. It was Churchill’s favorite film, and it moved him to tears although he had already seen it four times.
FDR had Harbored a Some Envy for Churchill’s Reputation and Eloquence
Also aboard thePrince of Wales were Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound; General Sir John Dill, chief of the Imperial General Staff; Sir Alexander Cadogan, permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office; Lord Cherwell, the prime minister’s scientific adviser; and other staff members.
On the morning of Saturday, August 9, 1941, thick mist rose off the water and the sun broke through. HMSPrince of Wales slid majestically into Placentia Bay with her band playing and a Royal Marine detachment presenting arms. On the anchored American ships, seamen waved their caps and cheered. A whaleboat sped from the USS Augusta to the British battleship and returned with Hopkins. Shortly afterward, Churchill and his entourage set off in the admiral’s barge for the American cruiser. They climbed aboard.
The ship’s band struck up “God Save the King,” and the U.S. Marine detachment presented arms as Churchill walked across the main deck toward the waiting Roosevelt. Standing beneath an awning and leaning on the arm of his son, Elliott, the president extended his hand and said with a smile, “At last we’ve gotten together.”
The two leaders had approached their first encounter with mixed feelings. Both had looked forward to it, but were understandably nervous. Churchill had asked, “I wonder if he will like me,” and FDR had harbored a little envy for the prime minister’s reputation and eloquence. But, during their four days in Placentia Bay, the two men sealed a friendship and frank working relationship that opened a new phase in the historic Anglo-American alliance. There were divisions between them. Churchill was eight years older than Roosevelt and had more experience in war and world affairs. On the other hand, FDR was a head of state while Churchill was a minister.
Roosevelt was a bit peeved when he found that Churchill did not remember meeting him during World War I, when the American was assistant secretary of the Navy and the Briton was Prime Minister Lloyd George’s munitions minister. Nevertheless, FDR would tell members of his cabinet how much he liked the British leader, while Churchill formed a strong affection for “this formidable politician who had imposed his will for nearly 10 years upon the American scene, and whose heart seemed to respond to many of the impulses that stirred my own.” Eventually, as Cadogan observed, “the cigarette-in-holder and the long cigar were at last being lit from the same match.”
During their Argentia conference, the two leaders and their advisers met and talked continuously—in the mornings, afternoons, evenings, and over meals. Dill talked with Marshall, Pound with Stark, and Cadogan with Welles.
The most dramatic event of the talks came on the second day when a Sunday morning church parade service was conducted on the quarterdeck of HMSPrince of Wales. Flanked by their advisers and British and American sailors, Churchill and Roosevelt said prayers and sang familiar Anglican hymns. It was a stirring moment that affected all who were there.
The prime minister reported that no one who attended would forget “that sunlit morning on the crowded quarterdeck—the symbol of the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes draped side by side on the pulpit,” and “the close-packed ranks of British and American sailors, completely intermingled, sharing the same books and joining fervently in the prayers and hymns familiar to both.” Churchill had chosen the hymns—“For Those In Peril On the Sea;” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” He said later, “Every word seemed to stir the heart. It was a great hour to live. Nearly half of those who sang were soon to die.” HMSPrince of Wales was sunk by Japanese aircraft off Malaya on December 10, 1941.
The conference would prove to be chiefly symbolic. Churchill and Roosevelt began to understand each other, and the chiefs of staff got to know each other. While the two leaders discussed their possible reactions to a feared German invasion of Spain and Portugal and to the threat of Japanese expansion in the Far East, the military leaders wrestled with other strategic concerns. They reached general agreement on the allocation of American defense production, agreed to send strong warnings to Tokyo against attacking British or Dutch possessions in the East Indies and Malaya, proposed a meeting in Moscow to arrange for the funneling of supplies to Russia, and accepted the proposition that the Atlantic theater was more critical to Allied security interests than the Pacific.